From the irony of the group’s moniker to its superlative member assortment, Garbage were not like any other band that emerged before or after the ‘90s. The men in the group — visionary music minds including mega-producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins) and cohorts Duke Erikson and Steve Marker — brought together their gifts for moody melodies and seductive hooks, and outdid themselves when they choose an exemplary front-woman to sing them. The trio first saw Shirley Manson in a video for her band Angelfish on MTV’s 120 Minutes, and soon after, they pursued her and asked her to join them, not as a female figurehead but as a full-fledged collaborator.
Manson was — and still is — one of rock’s most captivating singers; punky, gorgeous and smart with a vocal quality that saunters between ominous and fiercely feminine. Effortlessly provocative both as a performer and as a cultural critic, Manson’s uncensored statements about women’s rights, the music industry and life in general have kept her, sometimes thrust her, into the spotlight and generated controversy along the way (the blogosphere’s field day with her comments about Kanye West’s Grammys behavior this year won’t soon be forgotten).
But despite what some of her detractors have alleged, Manson’s biting statements have never been about getting attention. She’s into starting conversations and getting people to think about and question the status quo, just as her band has been doing for the past 20 years since they released their self-titled debut. Marking this milestone, Garbage embarks on a new tour, “20 Years Queer” next month to play the groundbreaking album in its entirety — while prepping for the release of a forthcoming new Garbage album. But right now, the crimson-haired Scottish singer and songwriter is looking back, revealing what she’s learned and how her band’s older material feels more relevant than ever.
It’s been 20 years since Garbage’s self-titled debut came out. How did this “20th Years Queer” anniversary tour celebrating the record come about?
The percentage of bands who manage to enjoy a 20-year long career is, at this point in time, really low. We had no idea that we’d ever get this far. Last year when we realized that our 20-year anniversary was coming up, we really felt that it was important to us, just as a band, to recognize this moment. It’s not like we’re going to have a 40th anniversary.
You never know!
We’ll be dead by then. Okay, you never know, but I think we felt like, “Let’s seize the day.” And selfishly pursue a celebration that acknowledges how lucky we are, how privileged we are, and what a fucking, nutty, crazy ride it’s been.
Are you going to be playing the album track-by-track?
We decided we wanted to play the record in its entirety and all the accompanying b-sides. It’s very much a celebration of that period in our lives and that moment in all our fans’ lives too. That’s the amazing thing, you know. When you start in a band it is a very, very selfish pursuit. Then you start to accumulate people, you start to know their faces, you know their names, you know what happens in their lives… It’s a crazy journey you all go on together, and all the people who have been there from the beginning, and all the people who have joined us on the way, it all comes together in this mass, weird experience.
Will we get anything from later albums as well?
It’s a pretty strict discipline we’ve decided to put upon ourselves. It’s an exciting thing for us to have a very strict chord. It makes everything feel different and you know, we’ve played so much. Every tour we’ve gone out pretty much for 18 months. We’ve played all these songs so much, but we’ve never played a disciplined, curated set like this.
Has doing it this way and rehearsing this record made you reflective about your early days in the band? In other interviews you’ve shared what it was like being younger and the sole female working with these well-known producers, and how you had moments of self-doubt. You’ve always come across really strong and I’m just wondering if it was like a role you played early on and sort of grew into?
No, I don’t think it was a role I was playing, because I am strong. The fact that I have had this incredible tenure alone speaks to that fact. I was like a beast, you know. I never missed a show. I never got sick. I was tough but I think I’ve just come to realize that that toughness can also come from a place of fear. You know? And you develop armor, you develop methods of survival. I think that’s what was going on, because I look at the footage from 1995-96, and I seem incredibly self-assured.
You do! And confident. Maybe dangerous, too.
I guess as human beings, none of us are just one thing. We’re complex, and I am a complex human being, much like everyone else, and so, I think the world looks at us as though we are cardboard cutouts. I was tough on one hand because I had already been in a band for ten years. I pretty much knew a lot about the business. I knew a lot about music. I had toured the world with my own band but I also felt insecure because I was coming together with three highly-respected producers, who I felt knew more than I did and I guess that made me feel insecure in a funny way. And I felt that I really didn’t deserve the opportunity that I’d been given. You know, I’m good at what I do, but I’ve not been blessed with a voice like Amy Winehouse, or you know, Rihanna. I haven’t been given that gift. I’ve just made the best of all the things I have and made it work for myself.
But you have an incredibly distinctive voice.
Yeah. I’m not saying for a moment that I don’t have worthiness as an artist, I’m just saying that I didn’t at the time feel I deserved the opportunity I’d been given. I knew many of my own friends that were much more talented than I was and they didn’t get the opportunity. Opportunity is half the battle. You know, the world is swelling with talent. It’s everywhere, and talent is only half the story. It’s how you manage the talent. How you figure out the game. How you figure out how to play… It’s like The Hunger Games. Sounds like a dreadful cliche, but it’s true.
If you had feelings of insecurity, it came off as enigmatic. It was kind of dark. Just the combination of the music and your persona, it really worked…
In retrospect, I guess it did. [Laughs.]
You’ve always defined yourself as a feminist. These days many artists do. It’s not really a dirty word anymore, in part because of performers like you, who are very outspoken about issues pertaining to women. Do you think feminism has changed in context of the music business?
No, I don’t feel the word has changed at all. The word still describes the pursuit of female equality. That has never changed. That is a drive that remains pure and fair, and egalitarian. I feel that the word feminism has been obfuscated over the last couple of decades deliberately and willfully by some media and I feel like a lot of young women in particular were cowed by the obfuscation of this word. I don’t think they fully understood feminism. I think they recognized the word as a concept, but they hadn’t done their homework, they hadn’t even looked it up in a dictionary to see what the word meant. So they felt like there was some nasty connotation to it, and they distanced themselves from it. I mean, I think the issue is incredibly complex. Over the last two decades, we’ve had a generation or two of women distancing themselves from feminism, but human rights have to be safeguarded by each generation or they revert to the way they were — and whoever is in power will dictate the freedoms of others and curtail them, happily if it suits their purposes. So you know, when a generation turns its back, doesn’t pay attention…then all of a sudden these thoughts that were written in stone turn out to be written in sand. It’s a constantly moving thing.
There’s been negative connotations but among a new generation of writers and artists it’s becoming a cool thing. Something to respect.
I think people realized that nobody’s been watching the shop, and so everyone has panicked. When you don’t watch the shop your rights revert. And all of a sudden you’re not as empowered as the generation before you. That’s why we’re seeing a sudden panic amongst young women where they’re realizing, “Wow, actually, we’re not as equal as we fucking thought we were and things aren’t as dandy as we thought they were. We better stand up and start fighting because if we don’t, we’re going to end up back, you know, in chains by the kitchen sink.”
That pendulum always seems to be swinging back and forth, but I think outspoken, strong artists like yourself talking about that is a big part of why a new generation is waking up.
You can never take your freedom for granted. I think that’s actually something we’ve become so guilty of in the last 20 years: We think we’re entitled to rights. This bizarre, infantile expectation. Yeah, wouldn’t it be perfect if the world was paradise and we were all equal, and we got to run free naked through the Garden of Eden, but that’s not the world we all live in. And the more people realize that, the better. People have to get active and really plug into what’s going on in our culture. You know, I mean it really is reaching crisis point in North America and parts of Europe. People have been spoiled for so long they don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world. I mean, some women in many parts of the world are suffering unbelievable oppression. It’s shocking.
And then you get privileged little pop stars in this country going, "I’m not a feminist. I’m the best. I’m the next thing.” It’s like, “Yeah, but that’s because you’re a privileged little pop star, of course you feel that life has been good to you, but you have to think about others…” At least I do. I think about other women, other than myself, and in particular focus on the generations coming up behind me. I want to make things better for them. I want to make it a wee bit easier than it was for me.
It’s kind of interesting that you mention "pop stars.” We champion them for expressing themselves in provocative ways, but if the focus is on wearing a crazy outfit or acting audacious, the talent can get lost behind that. What do you think about “slut-shaming”? It’s almost like you can’t criticize anything because it’s "slut shaming,” even if it’s crass or tacky or just bad. Should today’s pop stars worry about how they’re coming off, or should they just do what they want no matter what?
That is a really complicated question… but I personally think the whole “slut shaming” labeling is ludicrous. Yes, we should all treat each other with respect. Always, all human beings. All living things. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t challenge, that you can’t question, that you can’t have feelings towards another human being, especially if they might impact the people that you love by their behavior. So I think it’s important as a culture that we all have dialog. In this country in particular I’ve noticed, in the last decade, is there is no dialog, per se. There’s a lot of criticism, and a lot of judgment and very little intellectual discourse of any nature whatsoever, and it’s worrisome. I feel like just because a woman shares the same sex as me does not mean she gets a free pass to do whatever the fuck she wants. That’s not how it works in my world.
Some women say it’s about sisterhood or whatever, but we’re all human beings and we have opinions that may differ. That’s okay.
Sisterhood. Feminism is not about letting people have carte blanche because they happen to have a vagina and so do you. That’s not feminism. And that’s not sisterhood either, you know?
One of your first big hits was “Stupid Girl,” a song that calls out a certain type of girl, sort a vapid attention whore.
Yeah. I think if anybody — male or female or what have you — is behaving in a ridiculous fashion than yeah, I think it’s perfectly okay to pull them over and say, “Excuse me, madam/sir, I need to pull you over. You’re not driving safely.”
You’ve never been afraid to speak your mind. You got a lot of press when you made those negative comments about Kanye West on your Facebook page: “Grow up and stop throwing your toys around; you are making yourself look like a complete twat.” When you get a huge reaction like that in the media, do you have regrets about speaking out on these kinds of topics? Or do you love that dialog even when it’s contentious?
The problem with the advent of social media is that if you do speak your mind, you wake up eight hours later and your feeds are filled with contempt, and messages of hate, and death threats.
It can be incredibly overwhelming, but ultimately I think I’m grown up enough to be able to handle it and push through it. And I do believe in free speech. I believe that you should always try and be respectful — I don’t believe in just opening your mouth and being cruel, and taking people to task just for sport. I felt very strongly about what I spoke about after the Grammy Awards. I felt like I had to say something. I was shocked that nobody else did. I felt sad that we’re living in a culture that measures brilliant work in such infantile measures and so I just felt I had to speak up.
I think you said what a lot of people felt. For the most part, public opinion on social media agreed with you. But some accused you of trying to get attention. Didn’t know about death threats. Most public figures who agreed with your take, probably didn’t want the backlash. Yeah, I think that’s the problem with social media right now. It cows people and nobody wants to really put their reputation behind their words. They’d rather keep quiet and keep careful, politically careful. And I get that, but that’s not my style. It’s not the culture I grew up in. Scotland is a very forthright culture. People don’t mess around with their words. They’ll tell you exactly what they think and you just have to deal with it.
The negative reactions you get sometimes must be difficult, though.
Of course it’s difficult, but you know, any artist has to get to that point where they can sustain a barrage of criticism. That’s part of the territory of being an artist. If you can’t handle that you won’t have a long career. You have to be able to weather that insane storm. Because it happens on a daily basis.
What do you think about female pop stars having beefs with each other and all of that?
Well, they all seem to have beefs but they’re not over anything particularly tangible [laughs]. There are a lot of so-called "beefs” but they are not beefs about much. I don’t pay too much attention to it because it doesn’t seem very heavy to me. It’s not that serious. It seems like a bunch of girls being snarky to each other.
Some people think these things might be manufactured just to get attention, which might lead to record sales. It does seem unimportant when there is so much else going on.
I can’t really tune into that. Life is too short for that shit.
Your music has always had this really cool dark edge to it but with a pop sensibility. You came from a punk rock background, right? How did that influence what you do?
We weren’t a punk band. I guess it was alt-rock. We used to get called a “goth band” in the UK. And I was described as a “goth” because I loved dark eyeliner, and a lot of our words were described as “dark,” but for me, I feel that if you’re not singing silly, lightweight pop songs, every journalist describes your music as dark. It all seems pretty silly to me, I don’t think there is anything particularly dark about Garbage. I just think we were a truthful band. I think we were talking about what we saw in the world. And sometimes truth is described as dark because the truth isn’t shiny, poppy.
Songs like “#1 Crush” (which was also on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack) and “Only Happy When It Rains” feel bleak both lyrically and sonically. The music is very hypnotic though. What’s it like playing them 20 years later? Are you seeking to channel the tension and the tempestuousness from the past or to reinterpret these songs differently?
Interestingly enough, I feel that, if anything, the meaning of the songs is more vital than they ever were when we first wrote the record. I’m more conscious of what the songs mean now. I know that sounds really bizarre. But when we all came together we were so much older than your average debut artist, you know? I was 28, I think when I first joined Garbage. So we were adults. We were mature adults when we wrote that record, and as a result I relish the idea of singing the songs from the first record now, you know? I keep thinking about “Heaven is Wide,” which is a challenge to the abuse of young people at the hands of the Catholic priests. It’s a really important, urgent song, and calling people into question for repugnant behavior. That’s a phenomenal gift to be able to sing at my age. A lot of our themes are very adult, so I don’t feel that we have to go back in time, or challenge our youthful selves because we weren’t youthful when we wrote it [laughs]. We’ve always been ancient.
Old souls maybe. Sounds like the old songs have some new layers for you.
Yeah. They’re more urgent to me than they’ve ever been.
So what about new stuff? What else are you working on?
The current tour is short, six weeks long. We really just handpicked a few cities around the world to go and celebrate with our fans. When we come home for Christmas, we’re going to mix our new record, which we’ll have in the can in January. Hopefully it will be ready for a spring release.
What kind of themes will the new record explore?
To me it’s a romance. I don’t mean romance like between a man and a woman, but it’s like an Emile Zola novel. It’s romantic in that sense. It’s like looking out into the world and seeing the romance in the world, which was never really something I’ve ever explored as a writer at all. It’s much broader.
As collaborating with your bandmates, would you say that it is sort of equal for the most part? Do you all hash things out together?
Definitely. We are a dysfunctional democracy and always have been, and that’s something which causes a lot of problems in the band because sometimes it’s so much easier when you have a dictator or a band leader. We definitely struggled together and pulled the wagon together and that, in itself, causes a lot of problems. We get there in the end, but it just takes up so much fucking time.
The best things are not always the easiest things.
Well said. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
Garbage release a special 20th Anniversary Edition of their critically acclaimed self-titled debut on Oct. 2. The “20 Years Queer Tour” kicks off Oct. 6 in San Diego.
Lina Lecaro is an LA-based music, nightlife and pop culture journalist, photographer and radio host/DJ. Best known for her regular work in LA Weekly, she also freelances for Paper, Los Angeles, LA Times, LAist, Thrillist and many more. She wrote the book, Los Angeles’ Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the City of Angels and is currently finishing her second, a rock n’ roll-themed self-help guide called Nevermind The Rules.