Butch Vig sits in the Aeron-chair command post of the downstairs audio workshop in his Los Angeles home, a self-employed 56-year-old dad. He’s dressed in a thermal top and stocking feet, with chin-length silver hair, black eyeglasses and a Milwaukee-mechanic mustache. Like most American basements, this one has cushy sofas and a mounted flatscreen, but it also has a Grammy and a VMA statue. “I never used to put stuff up in my house,” says Vig, nodding sheepishly at a wall full of plaques awarded for his production work with the likes of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day, among many others. “I started putting these up for my daughter, ’cause I want her to know about rock & roll.”
Vig loves producing big-time rock bands – he took home his most recent Grammy for the Foo Fighters‘ Wasting Light – but in February 2011, his schedule was suddenly interrupted. “She called out of the blue,” he says.
It had been six years since Vig worked with Shirley Manson, his 45-year-old longtime bandmate in Garbage, one of the most exciting groups in Nineties rock. They brought a brash sophistication and smart femininity to the primitivism that had become rock’s default in the aftermath of grunge. The hit singles “Stupid Girl” and “Only Happy When It Rains” set Manson’s sultry female-trouble vocals against a hybrid of rock distortion, hip-hop beats and pop exultation, forged by Vig, along with his long-term Midwest pals Duke Erikson and Steve Marker. Manson, whose emotions were as red as her hair, built brooding hooks out of bad feelings, and in concert she regularly led 10,000 fans to joyfully yell, “Pour your misery down on me.”
After Garbage split up, mostly out of distaste for the pressure to record hit singles, they drifted into adult responsibilities: marriage, children, ailing parents. When Manson called Vig after the long silence and proposed that the members of Garbage meet up again, he was intrigued. Gathering in L.A., they told stories about the old days, laughed, drank wine and forgot the cranky way the band had dispersed in 2005, when digital-downloading chaos proved poisonous to huge rock bands. Amid the laughs and the wine, Vig says, “We set up all our equipment and started fucking around.”
When they were done making Not Your Kind of People, Garbage’s fifth record, they realized how much the music business had changed since they’d conquered it in the mid-Nineties. They paid for the album with their own money, and they’re releasing it on their own label, Stunvolume. One day, while Vig was talking to his pal Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters singer and former Nirvana drummer offered a piece of frank advice: “Dave told me, ‘You’re gonna have to tweet, Butch Vig.'”
In a group composed of 75 percent Midwestern dudes, Manson – a lithe, leggy woman with a Scot’s native command of obscene language – is the Garbage member least like anybody you know. Unless you were also raised by a mother who was left on the steps of an orphanage.
“It’s a crazy story,” Manson says in the kitchen of her home in the Los Feliz area of L.A. “My mom was conceived on the Highlands by a butler and a governess.” Manson carries two cups of Nescafé instant coffee (“It’s a bit of 1970s Britain you’ll probably find utterly repulsive”), continuing a backstory some Brontë-reading goth chick might invent. “My mom was an orphan, and she wasn’t adopted until age five. And because of this, she always felt like she was a zero. She tried hard to be a part of things, to make everyone feel good. And I grew up doing the same, ’cause I wanted to be like my mom.”
Today, Manson doesn’t look very mom-ish. With her copper hair bunched under a baggy charcoal cap, skintight jeans tucked into olive knee-high boots and a light cardigan over a yellow tee for the grunge group Screaming Trees, she’s more like a sexy comp-lit prof. Her brogue, though thick, has softened since the days when her bandmates could barely understand what she was saying.
Manson curls into a living-room divan, near two towering floor-to-ceiling stacks of books (William Blake, John Currin, Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids, James Ellroy). A recent interest in surrealism, as well as sculptor Louise Bourgeois, called to mind an old dream of Manson’s: to make “a tiny art-school record that isn’t ever going to get played on the radio.” Around 2008, she recorded a few demos, then went to see “a very well-known and successful record-company head.” The meeting left her shattered.
“I wish I’d filmed it, because I can’t believe it actually happened,” she says, releasing an uproarious throaty laugh. “We played him a song, and he stopped it 30 seconds in. Then he began telling me he was ‘in the business of excellence’ and ‘I feel like you could have a huge international pop career, and that’s what we’re interested in getting from you.'” At that point, Manson recalls, she stopped paying attention. “Then I went home. And burst into tears.”
Manson soon found a prominent second career, playing Catherine Weaver, a T-1001 assassin who doubles as a tech CEO in Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and she didn’t want to make the kind of music necessary for a huge international pop career.
Besides, Garbage’s slow commercial decline in the early 2000s had given her a prep course in music-biz misery; 2001’s diffusely eclectic, underpromoted Beautiful Garbage sold 400,000 copies, a huge drop-off for a band that once moved millions, and the bandmates even reportedly split for a time while struggling to make 2005’s Bleed Like Me, whose sales fell even farther.
As their popularity trailed off, they were annoyed by their label’s pushy approach. Manson complains about record-company pressure to write hit songs: “More, more, more, bigger, bigger, bigger,” she says. (Adds guitarist Steve Marker, “All of a sudden, it wasn’t fun anymore. It was business. It was anti-fun.”) But if Manson had soured on record labels, she wasn’t done making music.
In typical Garbage fashion, the burst of creativity that led her to call Vig was inspired by a bout of misery. In 2009, her mother abruptly fell ill and died. “It was utterly devastating,” says Manson. “My mum was a huge part of my life. I’m worried my dad’s going to misinterpret what I say, but when she died, I was empowered, in a way. I took ownership of my life. Everything came into focus.” The loss made one of rock’s powerful women a real-life terminator.
“She’s a monster”: That’s how Marker describes Manson, whom he credits with rebooting Garbage, and being its prime mover from the start, after he saw a video of her short-lived early-Nineties band Angelfish, and thought she’d spark the music he was recording with Vig and Erikson.
“I’m not calling Scots uncouth, but they are brash and upfront, at least to us, as Midwesterners,” Marker says. “We tend to overthink before we say something. Shirley’s got an opinion instantly. I hope I didn’t just diss Scotland,” he adds worriedly, exhibiting the Midwestern caution he’s just described.
Manson displays that shoot-from-the-kilt bluntness when she says it took a “herculean effort for us to make a record we could present to the world.” Why a herculean effort? “Because we’re old.” (Marker is 53; Erikson, 61, is older than Vladimir Putin and Mickey Rourke.) “When you’re not young, you know all the walls you have to climb, and that awareness is difficult to face.”
The obvious questions – does Garbage have any fans left, who are they and do they have time to care about a record by a band they might’ve put on the shelf like a box set of My So-Called Life DVDs – don’t bother her much.
“We’ve always felt like outsiders,” Manson says with a shrug. “We were never electronic enough for electronica fans, never alternative-rock enough for alternative-rock people. We never fit into any scene, and we often felt a little apologetic about who we were.” But after several difficult years, Manson no longer has mixed feelings: “This is our sound, our world. Be part of it, or not. That is how it is. Fuck everybody else.”
This story is from the Big Issue of Rolling Stone.