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Shirley Manson Reflects on 20 Years of ‘Garbage’

As she prepares to revisit the game-changing record on tour, the singer looks back on the making of hits like “Queer” and “Stupid Girl”

Shirley Manson

NME OUT, SELECT OUT Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stephen Sweet/REX Shutterstock (131061g) SHIRLEY MANSON GARBAGE - 1996

Stephen Sweet/REX

Shirley Manson

“I’ve always been the odd one out in Garbage,” Shirley Manson says matter-of-factly, her Scottish accent slightly emphasizing the word “always.” “Even now, I’m the odd one out. I was never part of the gang. I’m much younger than the guys in the band. I had a different upbringing. They’d been friends for 20 years before I came along, so I always felt out of things in some ways.”

Now, as Garbage prepare to revisit their debut album on the upcoming “20 Years Queer” tour and put out a deluxe reissue of the LP, the singer can look back and see how that feeling of displacement and self-doubt pushed her in the group’s early days. She’d grown up in Edinburgh and joined the genre-bending alt-rockers in her late twenties, after singing in two bands (Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie and Angelfish) that never quite made it. She was eager to prove herself in the new group. “Even when we got to playing live, I felt like I was letting them down in some way,” Manson says. “You know, I wasn’t Bono. I wasn’t Whitney Houston. I just felt like every turn I was failing, which is painful but also it’s good for you. It’s good for you to always be questioning what you’re doing as an artist, I think.”

Whatever internal battles Manson had to push through at the time were indeed worth it. Garbage, the album, made it to 20 on the Billboard chart and subsequently went double-platinum. Although the narrative surrounding the group at the time focused on the pedigree of Manson’s bandmates (drummer Butch Vig notably produced some record called Nevermind), it was a combination of the Garbage’s smart fusion of alt-rock with electronica and hip-hop sampling techniques and Manson’s magnetism as a frontwoman that earned them their success. Singles like “Stupid Girl,” “Queer” and “Only Happy When It Rains” expertly doled out melancholia, confusion and hope in a way that struck a chord with disaffected Gen Xers and paved the way for another hit record when Garbage released Version 2.0 three years later.

When Rolling Stone speaks to Manson, who is at home in Los Angeles, about the significance of the record – which turns 20 this weekend – and the period of her life surrounding it, she still sounds amazed by the experience. “It’s such a weird time when your first record comes out, and you have no perspective at all,” she says. “It was so intense.”

Why do you want to celebrate this album on tour?
There’s something just quite thrilling about having a defined set list and being immersed in a certain moment. And we’ve never, ever played some songs off that first record, and certainly none of the B-sides. When you’ve had a 20-year career, it’s difficult after a while to find things that you haven’t done before.

What are your most vivid memories of the band forming?
We just discovered all these tapes that we filmed of ourselves back then that I haven’t seen since 1995. And the weird thing is the minute I saw the films I could immediately remember being there, what it felt like, what my clothes felt like it. I mean, it was crazy. It was like some weird existential experience [laughs]. It’s like that Proust paragraph [in Remembrance of Things Past] about the taste of the madeleine. A lot of the memories are fresh because I’ve just been looking at these little videos. We all seem so young and innocent and it’s just crazy [laughs].

Are you looking at these videos for the 20th anniversary edition of the album you announced?
Not necessarily. But we’ve been finding a treasure trove of Garbage-related content and I’ve just been slowly plowing my way through it. The film finally turned up last weekend. It’s of our first tour and the “Queer” and “Stupid Girl” video shoots. It’s kind of cool. I don’t know what we’ll do with it. The films

What struck you about yourself then, when you watched the videos?
My internal dialogue was one of real self-doubt and self-hatred and all the things that come along with being that young and that unproven. But when I look at myself on film, I seem very self-assured, which really surprised me. I was really quite tortured. But certainly on the outside I seemed to be handling myself quite well, which I find quite surprising [laughs]. I’m much more in control of my emotional makeup now, and it’s such a relief, since I was really a churning mess.

Why were you so nervous?
Back then, you lived and died by reviews and magazines. My impression back then was we were being criticized at every step. My perception was that I was being criticized, demeaned and laughed at.

Were you?
Now, having the opportunity to look back at all these archival reviews and things people wrote as we go into our 20th anniversary, I’m shocked. We got incredible reviews and the press were incredibly kind to us. It was just every now and again there would be a brutal annihilation. For whatever reason, my mind just held onto this brutality and that was the truth for me. The one reviewer who said I was talentless and ugly and looked like an upside-down broomstick, that stayed me without my entire career and arguably I never got really rid of that haunting until, I would say, a decade ago. It’s quite sad really, quite pathetic.

In interviews back then, it seemed you felt you had to defend yourself as an interloper working with three producers.
Yeah, well, there was that. When we emerged in 1995, it really was frowned upon. The idea that a producer was in a band, and, of course, nowadays, with the advancement of technology, everybody is a producer. Like, Grimes is an incredible producer. She also happens to be a great artist. But nobody is looking at Grimes going, “Hmm, she’s a producer. That’s uncool.” People were very suspicious of us when we came out. Looking back now, we were almost an archetype for where music went in the end.

What do you remember about hearing the songs on Garbage for the first time?
Coming from a very aggressive rock band, they felt much lighter in some ways, much more poppy than the two bands I’d been in before. It was a very peaceful experience making that record in some ways, but I was so uncomfortable the whole time because I didn’t really know the boys at all at that point.

When did you all click?
I got to know them very well really quickly. But there’s an expression in Scotland called the “shoogly hook,” which means a shaky hook. I never felt secure. And because I was so riddled with self-doubt, I was convinced they were going to get rid of me the following week. That’s how it felt. In retrospect, I think it was really good for me because it really pushed me and you do your utmost when you’re coming from a position, in your mind, of lack, but it just didn’t feel good. So, I was uncomfortable for that first record a lot of the time.

Like you said, though, that feeling makes you try harder.
Yeah, and I was hungry. I was a greedy little bastard. I wanted more gigs [laughs]. I wanted to see more of the world. It became a great engine for me. But difficult for me to fit in.

“Who wants to have words put in their mouth? Particularly when you’re an opinionated, ballsy woman?”

Legend has it the guys in the band had written a lot of the lyrics on Garbage and you changed them to fit you. What do you remember?
They had some lyrics done, but none that I recall were completely finished. But they had “Only Happy When It Rains,” “Vow” and “Stupid Girl” very well developed. And I, for sure, edited them and changed them to suit my own purposes. But the ideas of those three songs were concrete, I just augmented them. It was a strange way we came together: I took over more and more of the lyrical songwriting just because, who wants to have words put in their mouth? Particularly when you’re an opinionated, ballsy woman?

You said they had written some of “Stupid Girl.” How do you feel when presented with a song called “Stupid Girl”?
Well, I liked it. I have always defined myself as a feminist. I have never rejected that label. I’ve always welcomed it and believed in it. But I also think you have to be careful that you don’t get entrenched in clichés. I don’t think that just because you’re a feminist, that gives women carte blanche to do whatever they want and behave which way they wish. I felt strongly that when someone acts like an asshole that you should challenge that. So I loved the idea of a woman calling out another woman. I felt like it was a fresh perspective.

I’m just surprised that the guys had written it.
Oh, what a surprise it came from a man! [Laughs]

Well, I can’t say anything to that.
I’m just being very flippant and I should be careful of what I say. But I worked with three men who are what I think of as equalists. I didn’t feel that it was coming from a bad place at all.

It doesn’t sound like it. What inspired “Queer”?
It was inspired by a book Butch was reading by Peter Dexter at the time. It had something to do with a father taking his son to a prostitute. I just loved. I had come from a club scene in Edinburgh, where I went out dancing a lot. I had a lot of gay friends at the time. I latched onto “Queer” as an anthem for the LGBT community. That wasn’t Butch’s intention but that’s what it meant to me: It’s always been an anthem.

Back then, being gay, being a lesbian, being bi, being trans, that was still considered by the mainstream quite shocking. It’s hard to imagine now because the new generations don’t even blink an eye. They are still making headway. But back then it was still an issue and it was something I always felt was so wrong and that it was a civil rights issue. I loved having “Queer” in our arsenal.

What song on the album do you feel you brought the most to?
It’s not something that I really think about too much. I guess “Milk” would be the song where I brought in the melody and the lyrics as one, and I had chords. I had been reading Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid at the time and there was a great line in it – but again I would have to go back and find the fucking book to read the quote – but the term “red hot kitchen” is used towards a person. [The line is “her throat is a kitchen.” –Ed.] And I love the visual of that, so the whole mood of that book was in the back of my mind when I wrote “Milk.” I guess it’s just a song of longing, waiting for happiness.

Were you surprised recently when Metallica covered “Only Happy When it Rains”?
I heard it the second it hit the internet. I’m crazy about James Hetfield and for him to cover one of our songs was a joyful moment for me. I’m convinced he’s gonna be my future husband in some other life. Clearly, we were meant to be together [laughs]. So, I was really thrilled.

“A lot of young artists now have talent soaking off them, but they have no work ethic.”

You’re kicking off this tour on October 6th, which is almost the 20th anniversary of Garbage’s first gig. What do you remember about that show?
It was in Minneapolis and it was cold. We were nervous because we weren’t even sure anybody would turn up and, to be honest, neither did the record company. We understood that if we couldn’t solidify an audience live, we’d pretty much be fucked because we were carrying the specter of a “studio project”; if we weren’t seen as a legitimate performing entity, we’d be pretty much dead and buried within the year. So when we arrived at the venue, Seventh Street Entry, and there were lines of people around the block, we were incredibly excited. And then it turned out they were there to see Gwar, who were playing upstairs and weren’t there to see us at all. But it was an incredible visual treat to see all these Gwar fans and in some outlandish costumes. That’s pretty much all I remember about the show. I think we struggled through it but people did show up and I felt like we felt that we were on the beginning.

After that, you embraced touring.
We played all over the world. We worked our asses off and we never ever took anything that we did for granted. We understood that success has very little to do with talent. There’s so many talented people, way more talented than me and the boys could ever hope of being. And yet, we were lucky enough to harness whatever talents we did have and magnify it to the point where we could sustain our lives. We could give up our day jobs. We could go and tour the world. That happens to so few musicians. And we worked like dogs – literally. I look now at a lot of the young artists that come out, and they’ve got this incredible opportunity and the talent is soaking off them, but you can tell they have no work ethic. You have to do the work. You have to play. You have to go and connect with people because it is about connection at the end of the day.

So as you prep for this tour, when you look back, are you surprised the album was a hit?
I’m not surprised in retrospect that people love that record. I’m surprised that we managed to get to the point in our career where enough time had passed that people could look back and appreciate it again. I didn’t ever expect it to last the course of time. There’s billions and billions of records that come out every year. And it’s so easy to get drowned in the avalanche of new talent, and lord knows there’s so much of it now. So I feel really privileged that anybody anywhere would remember even one song that we ever wrote, let alone an entire record. It doesn’t surprise me that people think it’s good, just that they’ve remembered and I’m deeply appreciative of that.

In This Article: Garbage, Shirley Manson

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