Photo: Joseph Cultice

20 Years of Garbage: Shirley Manson Reflects on Career Longevity, Donald Trump, and Debbie Harry

Two decades after their landmark debut album, Garbage's Shirley Manson reflects on spacey remixes, the influence of Debbie Harry, and why she'll never affiliate herself with any politician.
Garbage 20th Anniversary Edition
Almo Sounds

Alternative/electro-rock touchstone Garbage’s self-titled debut album turns 20 in style this year, with a reissue in several formats full of early demos of their biggest singles, rare club remixes, and the previously unreleased track “Subhuman“. From the beginning, the band was beloved both for its history and for its surprises. Butch Vig’s production of Nirvana’s Nevermind album was a defining moment for grunge music. Alongside Spooner bandmate Duke Erikson and Smart Studios partner Steve Marker, Garbage began to take shape as a band that was heavy on the chops but somehow not gelling with enough attitude — until Marker spotted Angelfish frontwoman Shirley Manson on MTV.

The foursome hunkered down in Madison, Wisconsin, to co-write and co-produce the debut album that would sell over four million copies worldwide thanks to four huge hit singles. The album went double platinum in the U.S. and the UK after spending more than a year on the charts, and the band was nominated for two Grammys. The band’s deeply layered and at times strikingly pop sensibility still feel fresh today, as they prepare to head out on the road for the 20 Years Queer Tour where they will play the album in its entirely for the first time.

PopMatters caught up with lovely loudmouth Shirley Manson, still both as hot and as cool as she was in 1995, for her two cents on what it takes to survive 20 years in the music business. Then we talked about presidential politics and puppies.

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Is it exciting to think about performing the debut album start to finish?

It is exciting, yeah! It’s like something new, you know? After 20 years in a band, it’s difficult to change things up for yourself. So this has been a great opportunity for us to start curating things in a very different way from how we normally approach a setlist. So it’s been exciting and fun, and it’s like going into a time machine, like we’re time traveling — it’s incredible! [laughs]

Do you have a favorite b-side from the debut that you’re looking forward to foregrounding a little bit?

I’m actually very fond of most of the b-sides. I mean, we did a cover version of The Jam’s “The Butterfly Collector”, and I think we did a really beautiful job on it. So, I’m excited to play that probably the most just because we didn’t write it. So it’s always fun to play other people’s material; you always think it’s so much better than your own.

Do you have a preference between keyboards and guitar?

Probably not. I mean I’ve always loved guitars and I always will. That’s just what I’ve found that I’m really attracted to, but you know it’s hard not to be in love with the keys as well. I learned piano when I was a child, so I also have a real affinity for keyboards. So I like them both equally.

When you’re songwriting, do you start with keyboards or with guitar?

Well, if I’m by myself, I would write on a guitar. That would be my chosen vehicle, I guess, to noodle on. But most of the time, I’m in the band and I write with the rest of the band, so I write a lot to guitars. I love that, that sound that comes from the guitar: a certain aggression that I have always identified with, and I find exciting. You can capture something on a guitar that you can’t capture on any other instrument, I think.

Production-wise, you must’ve learned a lot over the years from Butch Vig and Steve Marker and the work that they’ve done. What is the most valuable lesson that you’ve learned about production as you increasingly work on all aspects of an album?

Wow, that’s a really good question. Um …

If you’re going to do a reissue, the production part is the main thing, right?

Not necessarily, but I mean the production is a large part of our band. I don’t know, all the boys have taught me just to listen more. To really listen. And yes, they’ve taught me some technical stuff, but the thing they’ve taught me the most is to concentrate and to listen. And then when you concentrate and you listen, you have more ideas, your imagination is set free. So, just to really listen to what you’re hearing.

When you all sit down to listen together, does it please you more when you all hear the same thing, or is it really fruitful when you all hear different things?

Nobody hears the same thing; that’s the beauty of music. It’s like how none of us see the same colors, you know? Everybody hears something slightly differently, and generally speaking, when the group gets the same feeling all at once, then you know something’s right.

On Garbage’s reissues and greatest hits, you tend to include a lot of remixes. What is it about your music that’s so conducive to remixing in the first place? Or do you have any DJs or specific remixes of your work that you just adore?

Well, I think the music we make is incredibly layered, so that gets us a lot of different tools to use. So we’re probably very remix friendly for that very reason. With regards to our remixes, we’ve had so many by so many different artists, but two of the ones that really stick out in my mind who are the less well known remixes that we worked with were Boom Boom Satellites, a Japanese electronic duo that did an incredible remix for us, and a Florida DJ who went under the moniker Rabbit in the Moon did an incredible remix for us, too. I

t’s exciting to hear your music revisited and realized in a total different way than you initially heard it. It’s funny with a reissue, because a lot of remixes that we rejected at the time were just so far removed from where we heard the songs, we couldn’t get our heads around it. But now when you listen back to them, you’re like, wow, that’s actually super cool!

That layering is one of the reasons it’s very difficult to categorize Garbage as a grunge band, and also a reason why so few grunge bands survived the ’90s, whereas you totally survived the ’90s, because there is less of a flat quality to your music. Layers aside, why do you think so few grunge bands survived the ’90s?

When Kurt Cobain died, the purest, brilliant form of that music went with him. And I think nobody else was able to match his brilliance, so that could be one of the reasons. I also think Garbage was never known as a grunge band; we were sort of known as the band that killed grunge. But Butch’s name was still sort of synonymous with the grunge movement, and when Garbage came out, everyone was really surprised because they expected to hear a grunge record, when in fact what they got was a very eclectic pop record, in a way.

Is it your Scottish sense of humor that prevents your lyrics from becoming the more depressing side of grunge? Or is it your feminism at work, that you’d rather get mad and you just don’t like giving up? Because you do have a more fierce attitude than most grunge bands were able to muster.

Again, we weren’t a grunge band and that’s why we don’t sound like any of these bands that maybe you’re referring to. [laughs] I grew up listening to post-punk and David Bowie and the Banshees. I grew up listening to a lot of post-punk and new wave records, you know, that was always what I was attracted to. But also, the band, we just loved pop music. You know, we’ve never shied away or pretended that we don’t love pop music and we don’t love pop melodies. We used a lot of backing vocals and we used a lot of electronica, and there are a lot of elements in our music.

A lot of current pop stars, people like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift are getting a lot of credit for being brave for referring to themselves as feminist in public. But you’ve been doing this for 20 years, speaking up on behalf of causes that are important to women. Does it kind of annoy you that 20 years later this is still a thing requiring an intense amount of discussion?

I wouldn’t say it annoys me; it surprises me that a lot of young women that came up after my generation really deliberately divorced themselves from feminism. So I’m very grateful, actually, to the spate of young women right now, and artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift who are affiliating themselves with female equality. I’m grateful to them because more young women are going to be listening to them than they are to me.

I just believe in equality for women, and I want that for them. Sometimes with young people, they don’t know necessarily what feminism even really means. The word has been so obfuscated and distorted, in some cases deliberately by the media. So I feel like the more we can educate, the better. The more we can encourage young women to expect to be treated equally, that’s a good thing.

Beyoncé has come out and endorsed Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. Earlier this month on Twitter, you took sort of the opposite tactic, criticizing Donald Trump for the way he talks to women and about women. You called it “unspeakably hateful.” Are there any politicians that you think are getting it right?

I’m very loathe to ever affiliate myself with any politician. I don’t necessarily believe that the political system is a very fair or healthy one, and so I deliberately distance myself from politicians for the most part. We’re living in very complicated times, and I feel like there’s a very old school mentality in politics right now. I really think things need to be shaken up a great deal before I will ever feel comfortable really believing in a politician. It’s really hard to take any of them at face value at this point, you know? We’ve all been sort of disappointed by the system; it’s not necessarily the politicians themselves. The system is corrupt and unfair, and out of balance. So I just like playing my cards close to my chest, with regards to my politics.

And yet, you love giving your two cents.

[laughs] Now, I will say this with regards to someone like Donald Trump: if America votes for somebody who’s already shown his true colors into the presidential office, then this country will be in great jeopardy — I truly believe that. When a man doesn’t take the role of president seriously enough, then we have established a system with severe problems, I believe.

So many of the women in rock music that you identify with, people like Kim Gordon or Siouxsie Sioux or Chrissie Hynde, all have books now. You’re a big reader; have you read any of these memoirs, and is there maybe a memoir in your future?

[laughs] I have read all of them, because I love hearing their stories. Because the one thing about being a woman, even today, particularly in rock music and alternative music, is that there are so few of us to this day who have had any career or any longevity. So I’m always the first to go out and read their stories. I find them endlessly fascinating.

And I don’t know, with regards to my memoirs. I don’t remember very much. And if I can’t write a book that’s as great as Just Kids, I’d feel that somehow perhaps I would have failed. So I don’t even know if I’m capable of writing a memoir, per se. I’d love to write a book at some point, but God knows when that’ll be.

You shared a manager with a couple of other important ladies: with Tina Weymouth from the Talking Heads and also Debbie Harry. What is it that you think Gary Kurfirst understood about women in rock music, that made him catch on to you all?

Oh, wow … you’ve really caught me off guard with that question, because Gary has since passed away. I miss him dearly. I think Gary loved women and he loved rebellion, and he loved women who rebelled against the norms that had been set up at that time. So he took us all under his wing. You know, beyond that, I couldn’t really say. I’m just very grateful that he picked me. [laughs] Because he kickstarted my entire career. I would not have a career without him. You know, a lot of people attribute my career to Garbage, but it had been set on course by Gary Kurfirst a long, long time before that.

When you delivered Blondie’s Rock Hall induction speech, you could hear a lot of respect for the way that Blondie had been managed and the way that Debbie Harry made decisions about her own management. You’ll be eligible yourself for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in just five years. Do you ever think about it at all?

[laughs] Oh, no! I never think about any of that stuff. I mean, just the fact that we have survived 20 years, to me has been just an incredible surprise and reward. I don’t put myself in the same category as people like Debbie Harry or any other one who has made their way into the Hall of Fame.

I was so honored though, to induct Debbie Harry, who I have the most immense respect for and love for — for so many different reasons, but most of all because she’s an incredible person and an amazing woman. She’s incredibly generous to all other young artist who have followed in her wake, and there have been so many of us. She has never treated anyone with jealousy or with any kind of superiority. She’s just a gorgeous creature, who deserves to be remembered.

You’re on the same mission though, to raise up other young female artists who need a helping hand. Are there bands or female songwriters that you feel very invested or interested in?

This sounds like such a silly cop-out, but I want them all to succeed. I see so much talent and they’re way more talented than I could ever dream of being, and I see all that talent and I want them to get what I got, you know? That opportunity and to be able to enjoy some luck, to allow people to hear their music. I feel like right now there’s just an insane amount of talent. Not only are they able to make great music, but they’re also making their own artwork, they’re making their own videos, making little news things like writing blogs. And I just want them all, you know? It’s a heartbreak. I feel such a connection with every female musician out there. I know that sounds so silly, but it’s so true!

Once upon a time, you and David Geffen got in a big argument because he said he wanted you to be the Annie Lennox of your generation and you were disinclined to go in that direction at that time. That’s probably not about any thoughts you have on Annie Lennox, but what does your body of work mean to your generation?

Well, I would have no objectivity to be able to project into the future to be able to answer that question. I mean, that’s not really for me to conjure. I feel like I just have to be myself, and that’s all I can offer. I spent a long time in my youth wanting to be Siouxsie from Siouxsie and the Banshees. I wanted to be Debbie Harry. I wanted to be Patti Smith so desperately. I wanted to be Marianne Faithfull. I wanted to be anything but myself.

And then I realized that actually all I’ve got is my story, and I feel like every artist has their own story to tell. It’s as unique and lovely as anybody else’s, it’s just whether you have the opportunity to do that, you know? And unfortunately, life is not fair. Great artists often fall by the wayside and never get the chances that I’ve had. And unfortunately, that’s just life. It’s unfair, but you can only be yourself. That’s all you can be.

One area where you’re measuring up is, you know, Chrissie Hynde does a lot of work with animal rights, Patti Smith’s love of her cats is extremely well known, and you regularly post photos of your dog doing all kinds of adorable things. That seems intensely normal and human, compared to the badass image that a lot of people maintain of you from the ’90s. How did you and Veela find each other? Tell us about your dog.

[laughs] I have no idea how I managed to find such an incredible creature. We saw her picture on a rescue site. We went to pick one and there she was with her little puppies. And our original intention was to adopt one of the puppies, but I didn’t connect with any of the puppies. My husband at the time was devastated. He was like, “Really, you don’t want any of those any of those sweet puppies?” And I was like, “I’m just not feeling a connection.”

Then the lady that ran the rescue service said, “Would you interested in an older dog?” And by older dog, she meant, you know, nine months. I was like, “Sure,” and she goes, “Because the mom’s really special.” And she plopped Veela into my arms, and in that second when I felt her weight in my arms, I was like, “This is my dog!” [laughs]

You’ll be 50 next year, which is a milestone all on its own. Do you have any special plans?

I do! I’m beginning to plot it already, actually. I just want to be with my sisters and my dad and with my family, actually. We’re going to go somewhere special and be on vacation for about a week, and I can hang out with my niece and nephew. I just want the people I love to be around me when I hit the end of my first half century. [laughs] I mean, it’s looking at me! It’s fucking mad; I just can’t get over it. 50. I feel so lucky.