Shirley Manson has outlived the haters: "The business got very fat and lazy and was full of people who didn’t even care about music"

Salon talks to Shirley Manson about the state of rock, the new album, JT LeRoy and why her new pink hair is so punk

Published June 11, 2016 10:30AM (EDT)

Garbage   (BB Gun Press/Joseph Cultice)
Garbage (BB Gun Press/Joseph Cultice)

The band Garbage, one of the quintessential ’90s outfits, enters its third decade with “Strange Little Birds,” their sixth album, which came out yesterday on the quartet’s own Stunvolume label. Lead singer Shirley Manson has emerged as one of the most enduring and outspoken musical and cultural icons of her generation — beloved by rockers, the fashion world and the demimonde of artistes.

Here, via phone from Vienna, where Garbage has kicked off their summer world tour, she speaks her mind in classic fashion — and even explains that new pink ’do.

Garbage turned 20 since the last time we spoke, and I couldn’t believe it. Does time seem to go faster as we get older?

I don’t know. In some ways it feels like an awful long time ago since we released a new record. “Not Your Kind of People” came out in 2012, so four years down the line it feels like a long time in the making for me.

Is it bad for for your psyche when you’re not active creatively? Do you try to stay busy all the time?

I have a really normal life. One side of it’s occupied by the band, and then the other side of it’s occupied by real life. I become more focused and I’m more capable of doing other things when I am making a record, because when I’m not making music I just sit like a lump and I can’t really do much. Doesn’t sound very glamorous, does it?

Did it take you a while to get to that point where you could have a life? I find when I’m not working on something, unless there’s a sporting event on, I will not know where to put my brain.

Yeah, that’s kind of how I feel a bit too.

So do you have to learn how to have a life outside rock and roll?

I don’t know if you have to. I think it’s different for everyone. I certainly know many, many musicians who all they do is eat, sleep, and make music, and that’s pretty much all they do in their desire to pursue their muse. But that just doesn’t work for me for whatever reason. I want a balanced life.

Is that just an antiquated idea? Is there even “rock and roll life” anymore?

Yeah, I mean there definitely is. I certainly witnessed it on many occasions, as recently as yesterday.

What happened yesterday?

What goes on on the road stays on the road. I think ‘creatives’ are funny human beings. They don’t operate well under structure and they like to live freely, and I still think that compulsion exists very much among musicians, at least the ones I know.

In “The Last Waltz” I think it’s Robbie Robertson says something to the effect of “Whatever happens on the road stays on the road.” Do you care what people say or think about you? Everyone has something to say about a public figure these days. Do you let that affect you?

Not really. It used to affect me, and I think it affected me because I bought into all the negative criticism and then rejected all the positives and all the praise. And now that I’m 21 years down the line, I realize that pretty much I’ve outlived most of the reviewers that ever wrote a nasty review. Most of them are no longer working in the music industry. Same goes for the people that ran a lot of the labels, they’re gone.

Are you glad that they’re gone? I’m like “good riddance.”

I feel the same way. I felt like the business got very fat and lazy and was full of people who didn’t even care about music. The one thing I do notice now is that most of the people we come up against now are pretty fucking good at their jobs, and they love music, and they’re very well educated. That’s different from how it was 20 years ago, when you’d meet people who just wanted to do cocaine and fuck girls up the ass in the backstage area.

Yeah. That’s why I got into rock and roll. (Laughs.)

Good move. You know what I mean. There was plenty of people who just didn’t even give a shit really or had no real point of view. I don’t have to endure any such buffoonery anymore.

So, I want to ask you, you wrote a song called “Cherry Lips (Go Baby, Go),” which was inspired by JT LeRoy. I knew “him” as well and I just got a Facebook message that there’s a film about him that’s coming out, and there’s apparently footage of me in it. To what extent did you know what was going on with “him?”   

I was completely hoodwinked. But I think I’m one of the few people who didn’t feel angry when the truth came out. To me, it felt like a difficult example of when a woman has to pass herself off in literary circles as a man in order to be taken seriously as an artist. So when I think about it now I don’t feel remotely outraged or upset that I was hoodwinked in any way whatsoever. I was just grateful, actually, to be along for the ride. It’s a fantastic story and not that unusual in literary circles at all.

And you got a great song out of it.

Yeah. I find the whole experience really inspiring. I’ve got a lot of email correspondence still from Laura that at the time I thought was coming from JT, but she provided a lot of solace to me at a time I was very lonely.

I was in the Chateau Marmont along writing about a band for Spin and I read “Sarah” and it’s a great book. That’s the thing. Whoever wrote it wrote a really good book.

Who cares if a monkey wrote it, right? The fact is, it’s still endured as a pretty interesting piece of literature. A great story, and really unique.

In a recent interview with Billboard, you talked about a traumatic sexual experience you had when you were much younger. Was that a recent discussion or did it just get picked up recently?

It was neither. I’ve spoken about it before, it just never really got picked up on before. I have told that story, I’m sure, to numerous publications back in the mid-’90s. It’s never been a secret, you know.

Somehow it became news in the past few weeks.

It became news, I think, just by the means by which the journalists are seeking to frame it.

Has anyone contacted you to thank you for going public?

To be honest, not a week goes by where we don’t receive letters from fans expressing some of their private moments. When I have, in the past, expressed some of my own candid thoughts or shared experiences, yeah, I think people are grateful. I think these are subjects that needs to be talked about, and the more that people talk about them, the less confusing it becomes and the less wickedness can hide in corners. The more we speak up, we shed light on all kinds of things. I think that’s important and I think it helps people.

Let’s talk about “Strange Birds.” Garbage was famous for spending a lot of time on very meticulous, thick, Wall of Sound-type records, and there are songs on this record that sound like classic Garbage, but then there are songs that sound a little more spare…. Did you want to make an eclectic record or did it just come out that way?

Everything we do tends to just come out they way it does. We’ve got four very strong personalities who are all remarkably different. There is nothing about me that is studied and pristine. Absolutely zero. But I work with people who are pristine and very pragmatic and careful, and so what we end up making in the studio tends to be the clash of those personalities always, the four of us. I feel like in this particular record things moved a little more at my pace than the other way around.

As far as the writing or the production?

Both. Everything was just a little less precious. Ideas got tossed away and utilized quickly without much preamble, and that’s a difficult practice, I think, for some members of Garbage.

Does everyone write the lyrics or is that just your realm?

That is almost exclusively my realm, but again there are always exceptions to the rule.

I never know if you’re writing about a relationship or your relationship to the world. I guess that’s a good thing.

I think it’s both a lot of the time.

I tend to overanalyze lyrics, but there was one that stood out to me: “Sometimes I’d rather take a beating/Sometimes I’d rather take a punch/I learn more when I’m bleeding.” Can you talk about that? It was a stunning literary sensibility. Do you find your writing more philosophical in that way lately?

I feel like I’m definitely trying to be a student of music, still, in my life. I want to push myself always to try and be better.

“I learn more when I’m bleeding,” though. That is like Hemingway via Iggy or something.

[Laughs] Well, you know, me and Hemingway go way back. It’s brutal imagery for sure, but it’s really basically pretty simple. I would often prefer a smack in the teeth than some of the psychological sufferings I’ve endured during my life.

I’m averse to physical pain. I go out of my way to avoid it.

Well you say that, but you know it’s been proven by the military that people are able to endure physical pain but unable to endure psychological torture. There’s a reason for it, you know?

Yeah, psychological torture I can deal with.

Well you say that, but I can guarantee you if the military got ahold of you and took you into a dark cell they would be able to attack you psychologically in ways that they probably couldn’t physically.

Well that could happen in our country fairly soon, the way things are going. They’ll weed out people like me. Are you following the primaries here?

Yeah, we’ve kept an eye on it, of course.

Do you find it too personal a question to talk about the fact that we have our first female major party nominee? Does Garbage have a political stance?

Well everybody in Garbage definitely has their own political stance. We don’t always agree — mostly we do, but not always. But I have become more and more disappointed in the many candidates I have supported over the years, publicly or otherwise. Now I’ve just gotten to the point where I just believe that I will keep my feeling to myself as to who I will vote for, because ultimately I believe the system is so corrupt to the point that it corrupts the candidate. So I don’t want to attach my name to the shit sandwiches that sooner or later they’re gonna have to eat. (Laughs)

So… I noticed in photos that you’ve dyed your hair pink.


I thought we’d end on something light.

A light and superficial note.

I think it looks really fetching on you.


It reminds me of Angelyne, the famous L.A. billboard queen. She has a poodle that’s bright pink named Buddha. It reminds me of Angelyne’s poodle, but in a good way. Were you just feeling punk rock at the time or did someone suggest it to you? Maybe it’s not a light question, because any act that’s personal is political in the punk rock context. When I used to dye my hair as a kid I felt like it was an act of rebellion.

For me I think it was an act of escape. And always the color pink to me is symbolic of punk rock. I don’t know why, and I’m sure it has something to do with the Sex Pistols as I was growing up, but pink, to me, is punk. I wanted to escape myself. I woke up one day and looked at myself in the mirror and couldn’t go one day more as a redhead. I felt really trapped by the way people saw me, in a way, and I just wanted to rid myself of that.

The other weird thing that occurred when I did dye my hair pink was it was the first time that I ever looked at myself in a mirror in public and gasped and said, “Oh my God, I look so beautiful.” And I’d never, ever felt that way about myself in my life before that. So it was a really, really fantastically enjoyable experience, and I haven’t gotten sick of it yet, even though everybody goes, “Oh you must be bored with pink by now.” I’m like, “Nope, still not bored with pink.” [Laughs]

I think you should keep it for a while, it looks good.

Maybe I’ll keep it forever and ever.

People will forget that you were ever a redhead.

Exactly, I can eradicate my former self.

By Marc Spitz

Marc Spitz is the author of "Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the '90s" (Da Capo Press). His new book on rock and roll cinema, "Loud Pictures," will be released by Dey Street Books/Harper Collins in 2017 Follow Marc Spitz at @marcspitz

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