Trash Therapy

By Simon Wooldridge

Garbage ultra-vixen Shirley Manson explains why she thinks she's paranoid. Simon Wooldridge collects the waste.

Smart Studios in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin, has a proud place in the history of Garbage. It was here in 1991 that producer-come-drummer-loopmeister Butch Vig recorded "Polly" amidst a collection of demos for Nirvana's Nevermind album. While production work on early '90s classics like Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream and Sonic Youth's Dirty all stand Vig in good stead, it's his work with Nirvana which put his name on the map, and which consequently inspired cynicism when he appeared with Garbage-a musical collective based around producers Vig, Steve Marker (whose credits include House of Pain, L7 and Terrorvision) and Duke Erikson (who'd worked with everyone from U2 through Nine Inch Nails) - and apparent ring-in vocalist Shirley Manson. A Scottish singer who was headhunted from her band Angelfish to front what looked like something of an alternative rock supergroup, Manson completed a package based evenly in pop and studio smarts (through "the boys") and superstar potential (in Manson). The self-titled debut album, released in 1995, went on to sell four million copies worldwide, dominating the lives of its members for the next two years' promotion and touring through 16 countries on four continents.

Then in April 1997, Garbage returned to Smart Studios, which was founded by Vig and Marker in 1984 as a recording space for the hardcore sounds that were the fashion at the time. The year-long recording session produced something far from the anti-pop punk ethic of Smart's earliest clients. Through Vig, Garbage are a part of a reactive trinity of post-Nirvana bands turned lightweight and pop (see the multi-million selling success of Foo Fighters, Garbage and Veruca Salt for evidence of the ideal's subversion). And true to its name, Version 2.0 is no change of tack. It's Garbage squared-a finely produced, larger than life modern pop record with commercial potential leavened by Manson's gruelling stream-of-conscious vocal. Amidst this pop sound there is painstaking record detail. A song called "Hammering in My Head" features 100 loops of cleaning noise, while the tech emphasis is balanced elsewhere by the band's first use of live strings on "Medication" and references to pop's history (through a Beach Boys' quote on "Push It"). The work took its toll. Having holed up there for the best part of a year-and staring down the barrel of her final trip to her home and waiting puppeteer husband in Scotland-Manson regards Smart Studios with a less than reverent tone. She laughs often, a bawdy outburst coloured by her Scottish accent. An adept interviewee, she's now at the end of a six-interview roll, and she realises she's unfocused. "Put in your own fancy-schmancy words," she allows. "Just make me sound articulate, damn it!"

How sick are you of the sight of Smart Studios?
I am so fucking sick of it, you can't begin to imagine. We've just finished two crazy weeks of press and tying up B-sides and remixes and doing some photo shoots, and a video. This is our last day, and tomorrow we party. Tomorrow I'm out of here and flying back home.

How is it being away for so long?
It's kind of difficult, it is a bit weird I have to say. I certainly don't live a normal life, put it that way. But you know, you have to make sacrifices for things that you love some of the time. It's not like I'm gonna be in a rock and roll band forever, is it? [Laughs] Make hay while the sun shines. You do see this as finite&hellip To not realise that, you'd have to be incredibly dim. [Laughs]

So if you're charting your own apex, where would you hope to be now? Are you expecting to be at your biggest now or in five albums?
I don't think we have expectations of any sort. All we can hope for is to keep making music, and to be afforded the luxury of travelling the world and playing in front of audiences all over the place. Beyond that I don't think we have any elaborate plans for the future. We can take each day as it goes, because we're way too wise and way too long in the tooth to actually think that we have any control over our future. Of course we don't. The nature of the music industry is such that you can get dropped like a hot potato. One month you're happening, you're at the top of the charts, the next minute nobody will take your phone calls. We try to keep that in the back of our minds so we don't forget how lucky we are, and what a privileged position we're in.

So you don't thin that you are the band to reinvent longevity? Why have you accepted that?
We sold so many records with the last album because we made a record full of pop songs. And that's been our preoccupation this time. We weren't just a one single, one hit band, we grew very slowly, and built the success of the band on steady touring and single after single after single. We had five hit singles in America on the last record. And that's a lot. That's ultimately what saw us through, and why we've been so successful. We got lucky. Luck always plays a major part in any kind of success, because there are so many talented bands, and so many great songwriters, it's just pot luck whether you make it or break it. It makes me laugh with embarrassment when I read these bands saying, 'we're on top of the world because we're the best in the world.' Well as far as I'm concerned, where music is in question there's no such thing as best. You can't talk in those terms. It's ludicrous.

I was meaning that fandom for one group doesn't seem to last for that long any more. Do you think it's a different age you're working in?
Absolutely. It's twofold. The media has become so omnipresent in people's lives, that the bands they fall in love with are rammed down their throats 24 hours a day, in some cases, with some of the cable channel shows. That can destroy a lot of the mystique of a band. And I also think that the music industry is crippled with fear, and they no longer invest long-term in a band's future. They want a quick kill, now. And so they sign bands on the basis of one hit single, hoping that they're going to get that breakthrough. And they just sign and sign and sign and sign bands, hoping that mud will stick. It's absolutely despicable. It's a disease that's hit the record industry, and the record industry is suffering because of it. Their sales are dropping year by year.

When you're talking about fear, what do you mean?
Record companies are frightened of not having an immediate hit. They want immediate gratification. They know that there's so many other bands ready to fill the shoes, if they don't have hit with one band, they'll drop them and pick somebody else up. They want a hit on the radio because then it looks good for their company.

There's also that fear of not being on the mark.
A&R people aren't driven, they're not leaders any more. In the past, A&R men really scouted for bands they thought could last a long time, really great bands that could write songs and play live and had star potential. That's not a preoccupation with A&R men anymore, they just want to sign anything that might fly, or they sign something so that other record companies in competition with them won't sign them.

Where are these lyrics coming from? With phrases like, 'When I grow up I'll be stable' and words like co-dependant it sounds like shrink talk. Have you been reading some self-help books?
[Laughs] I don't think you can read about the concept of growing up in a book? [Keeps laughing]

I'm talking more about the language you're using.
No. The co-dependant term came from Alcoholics Anonymous. Which is the same thing, actually, but there you have it. I hear what you're saying, I'm just being flippant. Lyrically on the first record I had just joined the band and I wasn't very sure of my role. I didn't know the boys or trust the boys very much, and they felt the same way about me. The very beginnings of that record were us pacing around each other a little suspiciously, and trying to come to some sort of communal agreement as to what Garbage would be. On this record we'd become so bound together and so close it was intuitive, and we didn't really question each other. We just went in and made the record without thinking too hard about it. The words are a little more direct, a little more simple, and a little more honest, and therefore I think a little more human. The human touch was needed because we used so much electronics on this album, and we wanted to create parodies and dichotomies and contrasts. Like you say, the sound of the record is very up and very pop and so we wanted to inject a vein of depth, make it multi-faceted as a whole, and not just so one-dimensional. It's good to challenge people like that, not to make it too easy. It shouldn't be, here's a happy song, la la la. It's like here's a pop song, but it's got some darkness to it.

Pop's also assisted by lyrics that have a spark that people cab relate to. Do you think there's a lot more of the energy that's reflected there getting around these days? You're bouncing off things that aren't really discussed that much in pop music, but that people are going to relate to, because people just seem to be going that much more nuts these days.
[Laughs] Simon, you're not gonna have a breakdown now are you?

I'm not quite there, but I've had three coffees, so I feel a bit funny.
I'm not quite there either. Give me another six months. [Laughs]

Do you feel that there's an edge to what you're singing about that's particularly relevant to the time?
We haven't had a lot of time to reflect on what we've done. It's not like I have much perspective on what I was doing lyrically. I didn't give it much thought. I just tried to be open, and when we made this record, a lot of the songwriting was done on a little island off the northwest coast of America. We holed up in a friend's house near the ocean and played together for three weeks, just freestyling. A lot of the lyrics came from a flood of consciousness. It wasn't like I wrote them down on a piece of paper and then sang them. They just came out of my mouth as we were jamming. I haven't enough distance yet.

Well, maybe we could look at something specific. In "Medication", you're singing, 'Point of balance/ Keep my temperature from rising/ Somebody get me out of here/ I'm tearing at myself'. Where were you when you were writing that?
I'd gotten really sick when I arrived in Madison, and I was really frightened because I was all by myself in a foreign country and I had no idea about how the medical system works here. I was feeling very isolated and very paranoid. I was terrified [Laughs]. I remember I was sitting in the studio waiting on some of the boys arriving, and I was freaked out so I wrote these words out really quickly in two minutes. When the boys came in I said, "I've got a song and we have to record it now!" It's a reflection on past ills in a way.

The angst that's there is something you're looking back on rather than living through at the time.
Oh, yeah. The whole record is about travelling. It's about survival, jumping across a crevasse and then looking back at what you've just leapt over and thinking, my God, did I jump that? I just had that kind of feeling. Looking back and thinking, how did I get here?

When was all this happening?
Hopefully everybody keeps moving. That's what's exciting for me. If you think you've arrived, there's something far wrong. The constant travelling is part of the thrill of living. And I don't mean travelling in the sense of going to another country or another city. I just mean mentally moving and drinking up excitement and experience and sadness and everything. Being like a sponge. I'm really sorry, you've caught me at the end of the day and I'm just warbling a load of nonsense. I'm totally inarticulate.

So what's the subtext for "Medication"? Is it really that practical?
The song "Medication" is about taking blame on yourself for things that you had no control of at the time, and finally pushing off and realising that this was not my fault. It wasn't all my fault. There's a huge relief and release that comes from that, when you can suddenly look back at something that happened to you and devastated you in your life, and say, this wasn't just me. That's a great feeling when you finally get to that place instead of pulling another piece of baggage with you through your life. The whole album is about liberation, even though it seems really dark. It's really about survival and overcoming negative circumstances. It's about triumph, Simon!

Do you feel you're furnishing people with tools that will help them towards triumph when you're metering out your experience for people? You're going to go back and say, "It's just pop music", now, aren't you?
I would never be arrogant enough to think that anything that we said directly influenced somebody, or my words made somebody something. But music in general is powerful, and it can drive people to do things and fill them with an energy and a power that perhaps they didn't have before they listened to it. Therefore yes, I think music can change people.

In "When I Grow Up" you're claiming that, "I'll be stable". Do you think instability is a part of creativity?
"Grow Up" is about that feeling of never growing up, never feeling, "Yes, I'm now mature" and "Yes, I'm now in control" and "Yes, I'm now a good person". It's laughing at that whole notion of being grown-up.

Have you met anyone you think is grown up yet?
Totally. I'm constantly patronised by people who think they're really mature and have their life in order and are totally together. That's so small-minded. I wold hate to think I got to a certain age and decided, "OK, that's it, I've now grown completely". You can't think of it in terms of physical growth, or physical decline. Growing up never ends. That's what's so fucking amazing. Do you ever want to be sitting with nothing to do? I don't.

Why the references to the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby"? You seem to be quoting a few pop songs on Version 2.0.
We wanted to put nods and references to all these '50s and '60s classic pop songs, where pop was born. We've got to this point where people are obsessed with electronica, and obsessed with drum'n'bass and it's like well, we didn't understand why people think electronica is this brand new thing, when really it's just rehashed tribal music. I mean, I love it, don't get me wrong, but it really isn't anything new. It's very tribal, very basic and as old as the hills. Rather than go the full electronica, we tried to pull threads from our past and pull them into the future. Culturally, we're recycling and merging old things with the new world. We're living in this timeless world now. There's no such thing as science fiction anymore, because as readers of science fiction, we've now arrived in the science fiction. So where do we go now?

You have a reputation for being an energetic personality. Can people keep up with you?
Yeah. I'm kind of an up and down type of person [Laughs]. I'm not full-on all the time. I slump and that's when people catch up with me. When I'm on a roll, nobody can really catch me. But when I'm down, that's when I get people running back into time with me.

So what's a practical example of being on a roll? Are you on tour and out every night for three weeks in a row?
Oh, you're joking. There's no way I could ever do that. I would die. Singing an hour and a half every night is exhausting. I just can't drink every night and exhaust myself like that. I live pretty cleanly when I'm on the road, I don't really drink. I don't know, I have my moments, put it that way.

You've talked about a need to ingest everything and take it all in. Where do you get that when you're on the road?
Oh, God, everywhere. One of the best things about being in a band is that you get to go places that you couldn't even dream of. When we went to Japan, it was so shocking to me, like landing on Mars. Nobody in my circle of friends has ever been to Japan. It's inconceivable, they can't afford it for one, and it's so far away. I've just had this amazing opportunity. It's incomparable, really. I've been around the whole world twice at least.

You name Susie Sioux as a primary influence. What attracted you to her?
I thought she was incredibly articulate and smart, and looked really powerful and different from everybody at a time when I was a teenager and I felt like I had no voice and was totally inarticulate and was totally powerless and unattractive. And desperately trying to be different from everybody else. She was this alien from outer space who had carved out her own life for herself. I don't know why I fell in love with her so much. I loved her voice. When she was around, she sounded so different from the other women who were singing. A lot of them were very girlie and pretty-sounding. She was embracing her ugliness and I really related to that.

Who else would you count as an influence?
Chrissie Hynde was another one. I saw her play on Top of the Pops, and the way she played guitar was like a man and I thought it was so cool and do strong and sexy. I totally fell in love with her and her voice. And Patti Smith because she was so cerebral and smart.

In the media, one of the things people appreciate about you is that you offer a lot of yourself. Have you ever looked back and regretted something you've said? Have you thought, "I've gone too far there, there was no need for that"?
[Laughs] That's not they type of person I am. I very rarely look back. I make mistakes and that's just something I'm gonna have to live with. But for the most I very much compartmentalise what I chose to keep for myself and what I put forward in the press. I've separated what I consider to be the most important aspects of my life, and they're very private. Anything that I give out to the press is waste. It's not essential to my life. I would never be so crass as to share things that I hadn't digested and dealt with already. The things that I haven't got a grip on are absolutely private and will remain so until I feel I've conquered them or care to share them.

Does it fuel you exploration to know that you have to sit down for six hours, talk about yourself and come up with ideas that look interesting on paper?
[Laughs] Oh, I've given up being interesting a long time ago. You can't think about it too much, because the minute you think about it you're going to be swallowed into the abyss. I just can't take that side of things too seriously, or I will destroy my own mental health and end up in hospital. I try not to take it too seriously, take it in my stride. You're just another person.

But special things must happen that make you giggle on the inside.
You get weird things happening all the time when you're in a band, particularly a successful band. There's some pleasurable things that happen. Meeting a lot of teenagers is always a blast because they are so innocent and fresh and untainted, and very open so there's nothing but joy when you meet them. When we were recording Version 2.0 there were two girls that used to phone us up regularly.

For some reason, I don't know why, I decided on a whim to talk to them, and they asked me to call their friend up-a young boy in Texas. They said, "Will you do us a favour, and please call our friend? He loves you and he thinks you're amazing. Just call him up." I wasn't gonna do it, but then I thought, you know, "Fuck it, I'm gonna give this kid a call". So I phoned him up out of the blue. He says, "Hi," and I say, "Travis this is Shirley Manson from Garbage". And just the amount of delight this young man got from having one of his favourite pop stars on the telephone, it just kept me smiling all day. It was so perverse. Had I been 14 years old and Susie Sioux phoned me up, I would have been tripping out! [Laughs] I loved that, it was just fun. It made me feel good.

Did it get beyond tripping out?
He was pretty together by the end of it. At first he was totally speechless and giggling. Then he chilled out and started saying, "Nobody's ever going to believe me that you called!" He was all by himself in the house. "I can't tell anybody because nobody's going to believe it." That will teach you to live for the moment, my friend.

What do the fans want to know? What did he ask you?
He just asked when the new record's coming out, and when we were next going to play in his area. That's what's so lovely about the people who listen to your music, that's really all they acre about to a degree. It's really only the voyeurs in the industry-the journalists, the critics-that take it too seriously. I don't mean that in an icky way, because we have been treated really well by the press, and I've met a lot of amazing journalists. But I sometimes wonder if we over-analyse, you know?

I've always imagined that people who make pop music would be wanting to speak to their peers. Do you ever feel you're not speaking to people who are living what you're living?
Maybe I've gone off my head, but I think people buy your record because they feel they have something in common with you. When somebody buys your record, it's because they recognise something that speaks for them. So I would say that four million people in this world recognised something in our record. That's good enough for us. To me it doesn't matter who listens to our record. I'm not that picky. I love teenagers, but I love adult minds too. We'll take whoever is coming at us. We'' welcome them with open arms.