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Garbage: techno and rock, seduction and psychosis, Nirvana's production muscle, a collaboration with Tricky. All this and a girl called Manson...Wild luck, cynical suspicion, deep fraternal love and dodgy Scottish accents; in the true life story of a musical group called Garbage, all things play a part. Right now, however, as the band ticks through the hours preceding their sold-out gig in New York's vast Roseland ballroom, the over-riding theme is tiredness. Not just ordinary, mortal, hit-the-pillow-and-shake-some-zzs tiredness but the sore-boned, mushy-brained, couldn't-sleep-if-I-had-time-to variety; true exhaustion, the kind that kills you.

"I've never felt so tired in my life,' signs a fluffy- headed Shirley Manson, fixing herself an instant coffee in Ellen Von Unwerth's downtown loft after an hour or two of fashion-shoot-intensive hair and makeup. "My whole body aches," she groans. "The only time you're free of pain is when you're onstage."

Tomorrow is a day off. This is perhaps best described not as a day of rest, but of freedom. The action will be no less vigorous, but at least it won't have anything to do with being the latest poptastic international rock sensation. Instead, what's planned is a whirlwind of shopping, followed in the evening by a visit to a members-only sado-masochistic sex club courtesy of a friend who is, shall we say, a 'well disciplined' A&R executive. "He's totally into the dungeon thing, and we said 'Oh, you have to take us." Shirley explains. "We've never been anywhere like that." A smile peeks out as she sips her coffee.

"I'm a little apprehensive in case I get thrown against a wall and whipped before I can say anything," she cringes. "Or if someone starts peeing on my leg."

The question floats around the room for a while, but eventually has to be asked. Shirley: S or M?

"Both, of course, " she squeals. "S and M -- Shirley Manson." Garbage is an amalgam of three calm boys and a red-haired girl. The guys- who have all the laid-back contentment of ancient blues musicians-are from Madison, Wisconsin ( a couple of hundred miles round the corner from Chicago): the girl-who has all the laid back contentment of an electrified toddler- is a tough Supervixen from Edinburgh who looks deceptively delicate in her photographs.

Like the song says, Shirley will feed your obsessions. "I can take you out with just a flick of my wrist," she sings, forging her on-record persona of vengeful bitch. She's clearly good at authority, something she'll need if she wants to be a real pop star; an unobtainable object of lust, special friend, a chronicler of those secret teenage feelings.

Needless to say, Shirley gets all the attention, and when you talk to the lads they almost fall over themselves to thank you for the interest. There's Charlie Brown-faced guitarist/bassist Steve Marker, with the just-bought sunglasses that he can't see without his glasses; pensive guitarist Duke Erikson, a great listener, occasionally a carpenter; and drummer Butch Vig , the Rembrandt-portrait-looking one with the pointy beard. Together they are that rare thing: an interesting American rock band.

Garbage are unashamedly melodic enough to be proudly pop, with a hunger for freshness that sucks in hip hop breakbeats and techno drum patterns and spits out killer songs like Queer and Only Happy When It Rains. In terms of the size of their impending success, the band might be the new Sonic Youth, the new Smashing Pumpkins or, perhaps, the new Nirvana. Garbage slip neatly into the list. Especially since Butch Vig , as you probably know, is the producer behind those three other bands' finest hours. And despite having shaped Nevermind from the hands and hearts of Kurt and chums, Butch says that Garbage is the coolest thing he's ever done. Five years ago, a young Edinburgh lassie was enjoying the fruits of small-time pop success, nudging into the Top 40 as part of Scottish goth-rockers Goodbye Mr Mackenzie. "I thought rock and roll was the only thing that mattered, and we werethe most important thing in the world." Says Shirley , "I was very young when we first entered the charts. It was fabulous. I was young and I was having fun."

But then, having run the course of limited fame, the band's fortunes plummeted. "It was devastating. To be on the dole queue and meeting your fans, who are totally unaware that your whole band's fucked and are asking for your autograph..in the dole queue, you quickly get to grips with how the world works." Shirley got a job at Miss Selfridge, confident that it was all over.

Meanwhile, in a recording studio in Madison , Wisconsin, three musical hoboes were watching a succession of punk bands trooping in to record their two-minute shouts for glory. The three had known each other since meeting after college. They'd been in bands together for more than a decade, making songs, helping other bands make songs, and drinking beer. Occasionally one of them went off to be Butch Vig,, Legendary Producer coming back to the small-town scene with the production credit for a Very Important Rock Album under his belt. The rest of the time they ran the place with a very hometown feeling, even when it grew to fame as grunge labels like Sub Pop and bands like Nirvana and the Pumpkins boosted its reputation.

In the downtime, the three played games with their studio. They formed one-night bands like Doll Burper or Nurble Kernurble, or Secrets of Terror Castle, or Rectal Drip, and set themselves some conceptual recording task to go with each name, "We'd be like, 'OK, tonight we have to do a punk techno thing." Recalls Butch. "Or maybe it was, "Let's do an acid folk song." These studio experiments, together with a series of anything-goes rock remixes (House of Pain, Nine Inch Nails, U2, Depeche Mode), formed the inspiration for something that was shaped more like a longterm band project. "The whole sensibility for us starting Garbage came from us doing the remixes," says Butch. "We'd be screwing around with what was on tape, manipulating everything, sampling and processing and adding stuff."

"It grew out of the studio work, definitely," confirms Steve . "Then we began talking about doing this album together, and it would have been kind of dull without vocals, so we needed a singer. And we wanted a woman. We were pretty set on that."

Roseland is a huge place. Garbage don't seem completely comfortable onstage. They don't have the casual arrogance you'd normally see in bands big enough to play here. Shirley looks away from the crowd at the end of each song, offering a polite thank you and turning to her band for the next move. There's an almost-innocence to her, as if she's not cocky enough-not quite yet-to accept that the great throbbing teen-beast at her feet is there for her.

But when she's caught in the music, her body rolls and sways like a reed. For Stupid Girl she's bathed alone in blue light, the band steps back and she adopts a gunslinger position. Magnetised to the mic, her head holds still while her body moves beneath it like it was suspended by her neck. She begins these very tribal movements, hypnotized, pumping gently to and fro.

When Shirley's away from them, the three grown men in Garbage become "my boys" or even "my babies". In turn they talk about her like she was their little sister: "Is Shirley OK?" asks Duke, gently curious about how the photos went and concerned about how well she's doing on less than three hours sleep.

Duke is one of those people whose calm, considerate demeanor lets him say things which might sound a little corny from someone else. Remembering how he felt meeting Shirley for the very first time, he can quietly say "I felt like I had known her in another life", and you not only believe him but you find yourself treasuring his sincerity. Steve and Butch felt the same way, but they get round the problem of sounding sentimental by talking music. "We fell in love with her voice," says Butch. "It was a voice you could remember," adds Steve. "It felt like there was a connection with the kind of music that we were doing."

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They first saw Shirley late one night, "It was really murky and kind of dark," recalls Steve. "So it was mainly the voice. It just came through." The guys were watching MTV when all this happened, and for their first encounter Shirley was actually just a stranger in a video: a really murky and kind of dark video, of a song called Suffocate Me by a band she had joined called Angel Fish. Butch, Duke and Steve, thousands of miles away, were three musicians in search of a vocalist, and though she didn't know it yet, Shirley had entered their lives and been chosen. They decided she would be the perfect singer to bring together the experiments they'd been doing. Cinderella, you shall go to the ball.

Shirley remembers the magical phone call: "I was doing the dishes or something at home. They just asked me if I'd be interested in singing a track or two with them." Though she had the records he'd produced-Dirty, Siamese Dream, Nevermind-she didn't make the connection with the towering studio reputation of Butch Vig. "I know his work, I just didn't know his name. I don't go around memorising the small print on records. I phoned up my record company. I said, "Have you heard of this American producer called Butch Vig?" There was this huge pause. "Yes, why?" "Because he is interested in working with me." They said, "He's only the most influential alternative rock producer in America today", and I went," Oh, so what did he do?" and they said, "Well, why don't you go and look at the credits for Nevermind?" and I went "Ah!"

She was flattered at first and then, she says, felt an impending sense of doom. "I was convinced they'd loathe me when we met." But this wouldn't be a fairy tale if the ending wasn't a happy one, and after an initially frosty encounter, their contact intensified and the scope of the collaboration deepened considerably. "I went into it thinking ,oh well, if nothing else I can sing a track or so with them and have a laugh. But we all got along so well that we ended up recording a whole album together. It happened by default. It wasn't something that could be predetermined." Shirley's Scottish purr rises in pitch a little as she surveys the ridiculous extent of her good fortune. "I used to read stories about people in bands or movie actresses or models: people who had fallen into lucky, fantastic jobs. And it would piss me off because I'd think that doesn't happen, things like that do not happen. And now I realise something like that happened to me."

Cynical Suspicion is fine-no one in Garbage was surprised that the standard reaction to their too-cute tale was a big 'Oh Yeah"-but that sharp block of icy mistrust softens when you hear them talk about each other. Duke is emphatic about their closeness: "I think the first thing that struck all four of us, the minute we sat down at that table together, was we knew we could all be friends. Just like that." Shirley just says things like "I met them and fell in love with them."

Your doubts start looking really mushy by the time Duke, Steve and Butch have finished praising Shirley's voice and the vitally-distinct musical tastes her British background brings to their work. And after she tells the story about taking "her boys" to a techno club, on Ecstasy, for the first time in their lives, you'll find that any lingering doubts about the reality of these people's friendship have completely melted.

So Garbage are the real thing. Admittedly, the band's roots are in the studio and not on the road, and if you don't believe in fairy tales, perhaps the recruitment of Ms Shirley Manson happened in a manner a little less than organic. However, it's clear that anything sinister about what brought these four people together has quickly evolved into the same natural camaraderie and affection enjoyed by bands with more homespun biographies.

"People can just feel, can see when something's genuine," insists Shirley. "We touring harder than a lot of so-called 'real' bands, so-called 'live' bands. We've worked like fucking maniacs. People are not stupid, particularly where music's concerned. People are quick to smell a rat." She casts a mischievous glance. "But we've only got spiders." In the centre of the Roseland stage, the mike stand has the pink feather boa from the album cover wrapped round it. By the end of the show, this has slipped down until the patch of pink fluff is at crotch level. Whenever Shirley returns to it, it looks like her pubes have been dyed dayglo pink.

The bouncers in the moat are having a field day, smiling broadly as they enjoy catching the well-mannered crowd-surfers. When each bare-chested boy-teen falls into their arms they offer him a grin and a wink for this unplanned teamwork.

Again, though, the group seem a little restrained for the scene around them. Perhaps it's their inexperience onstage as a big headlining band, or just the burn-out from too many days of stretching it out on the road. The songs are great-big tinselly incarnations of the album tracks the crowd knows and loves-it's just those tell-tale actions in between. A sigh, a stare, a walk in place of a run. Shirley and her boys are weary and the energy reserves are running low. Garbage is set for the big time and they're going to have to keep up. They're tired, and there's no rest in sight.

So, for the time being, Shirley continues her rather exaggerated commute. She's a firm believer in the power of adrenaline, but touring is a rather draining existence nonetheless. And right now, Garbage are caught in that limo between extremely successful, so there are all of the pressures of being big-time rock stars-the ever-increasing amount of time demanded by the press, for one-with few of the compensations. That's why they rarely get more than four hours sleep a night, as their transport bounces its way from city to city, and that's why they're all knackered.

Shirley just ploughs through the exhaustion because it's not her real life. "I still consider myself living in Edinburgh and I'm just on hire at the moment." She says, describing Garbage as a kind of holiday where you're sufficiently removed from your everyday surroundings to feel licensed to do the unusual. "America's definitely like the fantasy life," she beams. "When we played in the UK I was so stressed. Suddenly, it was like your fantasy life is merging with your real life. I was so relieved to get back to America. I was just sort of 'Oh, we can have a riot again. Wheee, we can have a party."

So its got legs? "It's got a lot more than legs," she bellows proudly, outlining the strategy for the coming months. Plans are underway for a collaboration with Tricky for the next single, probably a reworking of Milk, and while they watch their album cruise aloft the world's sales charts, there are a lot of gigs to play. They'll tour solidly-both headlining, and as support for the Smashing Pumpkins-until 1997, when it'll be time to make another album. "The plan is to make the next record in January," says Shirley. She rolls her eyes. "Hopefully." Then sighs. "If we're still alive." Then, "Either that or we'll be taking a spell in the nursing home."