California Screaming
From Melody Maker, June 1996

By David Bennun:

Garbage, now bona fide pop stars in Britain, are in the ascendant in America. Melody Maker caught up with them in California at the end of a three-month world tour to find out how they're dealing with impending stardom, life on the road, and the unfamiliar smell of success.

The Road To Hell

"Super lo-fi."

You have a choice, see. You can tour. Or you can leave your record to sell itself. Sure it will. Rattling around the streets in its little CD box, tugging at the hems of passers-by. "Buy me! Please. I'm real good. Buy me." That ought to do the trick.

But just in case it doesn't, you can tour. You can spend 14 weeks on the same bus with the same people, eating what and where you can, sleeping when you can, playing every teeny-tiny town across America plus all of the cities until you are - fried. Deep-fried. Crispy. And everything is beginning to look very, very lo-fi. Super lo-fi, on bad days.

"Garbage" by Garbage is currently selling around 25,000 copies a week in the USA. In Britain, this would have sent it platinum long since (a status it attained last month, as it happens). In the States, that's around the high 40s in the album chart, which is why Garbage, 10 days after they finish this headlining tour, are setting out to support Smashing Pumpkins in America's arenas - the big push, the consolidation.

Garbage already command a devoted following in America, for whom they are more than another good band. These fans adore Garbage. You can see it in their faces when they approach Shirley Manson on the street or hail Butch Vig from behind the wire fence near the stage entrance where they've been waiting all afternoon. Now Garbage want to take it to the next level and they're doing it by the book. Tour, tour and tour some more.

Super lo-fi.

Coming To Blows

Still, as Shirley is the first to point out, "it's better than going back to cleaning toilets for a living. One of my many ghastly jobs."

"Certain days we avoid each other," admits drummer Butch.

"Serious irritability," guitarist Duke Erikson confirms.

"We haven't had a big fight yet, though," says second guitarist Steve Marker. "I think we could at this point."

How long before you try to throttle each other?

"We did that in the first week," replies Shirley blithely. "Not of the tour. Of the band."

"Shirley used to hit us more than she does now," Steve remembers. "You've kinda stopped."

"She's given up," announces Duke, more in hope than in confidence.

"That," promises Shirley, "will resume during the recording of the next album. We get on pretty well," she adds. "I think we're lucky. We've been in bands before and believe you me, it gets a lot f***ing worse than this band has ever been. Even in our worst moments, it's nothing compared to what I've experienced in the past. There's been violence, people leaving mid-tour. It gets ugly. Verbal abuse. Verbal abuse. People being ostracised. Huffs. Brooding silences."

Butch casts a sardonic eye into the future.

"That'll all happen to Garbage when we make the next record."

Grope Me

Three days in the life of Garbage is enough to exhaust anyone.

Pat Pope and I tag along for a trio of Californian gigs. One in Pomona, a highway intersection outlying Los Angeles which has somehow been mistaken for a town; one in San Diego, by the Mexican border; one in LA itself, a tour-concluding showcase and schmoozefest.

It sounds fun. It generally isn't. Without the spur of your own fame and fortune to prick you, I imagine it would swiftly become unendurable. We follow Garbage to radio interviews, meet'n'greets, photo shoots, all the usual stuff that rising stars have to endure on the road. F*** it, we're part of all the usual stuff that rising stars have to endure on the road. That Garbage still have it in them to receive us with courtesy and good humour at the end of three months of this is remarkable. That, unlike many of the people they meet, we're not complete f***ing idiots probably helps.

One radio interview is conducted next to a San Bernadino crackhouse by a DJ who loves the album and one day may even listen to it. He asks Edinburgh girl Shirley to tell him about Scotland, as if she has annual fisheries statistics or descriptions of moorland at her fingertips. Later, in San Diego, another jockey - who has at least heard the record - quotes Shirley on the size of her breasts (small, she has stated, as a fact rather than a complaint) and reassures her that she is "a fabulous package". Then it's on to a live broadcast from a sports bar near the beach, where cavalier bystanders press her flesh a little too close in the photo ops.

"One of these days," she seethes, "I'm just going to crack, tell them to f*** off."

We all wander out onto a small wooden pier above the nearby beach. For five sublime minutes, the world stops.

Butch drives me and Pat back to the hotel in our hire car. The radio dispenses track after track of grunge, still the mainstream in American rock. The eerie bass intro of "Come As You Are" fades in. Butch shuts it off.

Madison, Avenue To Fame

Steve, Duke and Butch all live in Madison, Wisconsin, where they are co-owners of a recording studio. They were playing in bands together long before Butch defined the sound of the new Yank rock elite. Most bands fill vacancies from word of mouth, local clubs, music shops, small ads. Shirley, famously, was spotted by the trio on MTV. There's something wonderfully modern about that.

Garbage insist they are just like any other band. In every way that matters, this is true. Of course, it's much easier to recruit the singer you saw on television if you number Nirvana's producer among your ranks - or, at least, to get her to return your call. And it's less of a problem getting the attention of record companies and music papers, for the same reason. Plus you're likely to find yourself in a better position to call the shots.

Still. Three musos and a hired-gun singer with a history of unsuccessful bands. The very idea is enough to make you wince.

"If I was looking at it from the outside," Steve concedes, "I would probably be thinking the same thing."

"We all understand why people see it that way," says Shirley. "We were ready to be crucified. And we were pleasantly surprised. People can hear if something isn't real. They smell a rat. And people were shocked because they wanted to but they couldn't. Maybe that's what's protected us from that kind of bigotry."

"We originally did interviews as the four of us so people wouldn't think of us as just Butch's band," Duke explains. "Now it's to stop them thinking it's Shirley's band."

But you must know that Shirley will be the focus.

"Any band's singer is going to get more attention," points out Butch. "We know we're a band. We've played over 200 shows now and spent the last three years in each other's faces."

"We gladly allow the queen to rule," proclaims Duke. Duke is very deadpan.

Inspecting The Gift Horse's Teeth

There's no such thing as a real band. Garbage are neither more nor less real than Northern Uproar or Army Of Lovers - although the fact that they made their album before they'd ever played to an audience means that it's taken those 200 shows for them to reach the exuberant melodrama of their current live performances.

Every band is a contrivance, Garbage more openly than most. Every band worries about being real in a milieu where patently nothing and nobody is so. When Garbage are compared to Curve - and there are undoubted similarities - it is largely because, like Curve, they arrived fully formed; Aphrodite on her seashell, or Athena springing from the brow of Zeus, depending on which view you take. It can't have allayed suspicions that their first album turned out flawless - which is not the same thing as perfect, although the more I hear it, the closer it seems.

"People think I've created this image to sell records," protests Shirley. "It's me. I'm not weaving a myth, because to me the music is the fantasy. A boy shouted out to me in a concert the other day, 'I love you! I love your media-created image!' I found it really bizarre. I began to think, 'Am I pretending to be something I'm not?' But I'm not. It's just the way I am."

Not that it matters - although there ought to be a rule barring heckling cod-intellectual poseurs from the stagefront.

Duke puts it most simply. "We just don't care. We're not trying to get away with anything."

Meet The Beetles

Shirley prepares for the Pomona gig by trying not to faint. She lies on her back in the dressing room, breathing deeply.

"I can see up your skirt," she tells her manager. "I can see up yours," comes a voice from the sofa.

Shirley, a veteran of many touring outfits, has been through far worse than this. All the same, the strain is beginning to tell on her. Hallucinations. Imaginary insects in her bed. Necessitating a rescue operation from Duke who, summoned to Shirley's assistance, discovered the true culprit: a metal zippertag on a pillow.

"In my defence," Shirley insists, "I had taken a lot of….pills. I was on cold medication and I drank on top of it. And it has happened to me before, cockroaches in pillowcases."

"She didn't see it," Steve elucidates, "she heard it. A giant bug tapping on her bedpost."

"When you start seeing them moshing in the audience," advises Butch, "you know it's time to get offstage."

Steve makes a plausible attempt at a high-pitched Scots accent: "'Could security please get the bugs off the stage."'

"What we haven't touched on yet," remarks Duke, "is why you were listening to your pillowcase in the first place."

"I actually do it every night. I'm frightened to touch the corners of my pillows now, because the whole way I found the bug in the first place was…" She tails off in exasperation as Steve performs a pantomime of Shirley fluffing her pillow with a mallet.

"When we get big enough," she vows, "I'm going to have my own personal bug killer on the road crew."

After the gig, a fellow redhead shyly presents Shirley with her photo. Pat and I lead the way back to the hotel, where reception mendaciously inform us that the bar is closed.

The Primrose Path

When Garbage get big enough…what do we have to look forward to?

More records, obviously. But how about the way they'll cope with stardom. Will they be boringly sensible about it? Or will they go off the rails in some horribly fascinating way?

"We haven't decided yet," Steve prevaricates. "We'll probably think of some horrible way to go off the rails," reckons Duke. "We just haven't chose one. You could be a drug addict, religious addict."

"Sex addict", volunteers Shirley.

"…Sex addict. Now there's an idea. Total prick. Alcoholic. Sex addict, I guess, would be the best."

"I've already got four out of those five," confesses Steve. "I haven't found religion yet. But it's either that or death."

(Note: While I can't verify or disprove Steve's other claims, the man is certainly not a prick of any degree. Both he and Duke have a certain engaging openness. Butch, while never less than polite, often displays a slightly aloof reserve, maybe due to prolonged contact with the sharp end of the music business. Fun as she is, Shirley appears discreetly tough and cagey - perhaps the result of years spent pushing against the flow in other bands - then again, perhaps more simply ascribed to an Edinburgh upbringing.)

"I think," says Butch, dryly, "I'll go for the broody self-destructive, self-loathing, alcoholic drug addict."

"I've heard a lot of good things about heroin," Steve offers.

"Seems to be popular again."

"I don't think that heroin really helps you get into that self-loathing depression that alcohol does with downers," Butch tells him. "Heroin makes you feel good."

"What about smart drugs?" suggests Duke.

That wouldn't cut it. Too happy and healthy and perky.

Shirley gets serious. "I think to fully enjoy the great things that come with being in a band and selling records and being a 'pop star', you have to be at least halfway in control of yourself. Because the minute you slide into the whole stereotype of rock star, you're losing half the fun. We get to live out a fantasy and we're smart enough to keep ourselves from being victims of the whole mythology. Abso-f***ing-lutely I've been hardened by my experience."

"And we've all seen so many other people make the mistakes," adds Duke.

"I've seen myself do it," Shirley affirms. "None of us are saints. We've all made a lot of unbelievable faux-pas in the past, and we're getting a second run at it at an age when we're wise enough not to become victims of it I've seen people in bands I've beer in totally lose their minds and everything that was joyous to them through drugs and through drink. Lost all their friends, lost everything they possessed, everyone they loved. Lost their creative spark. I've watched that happen and it's sad and ugly."

What I'm counting on is you trying to recreate the crucifixion at the Brit Awards. I won't settle for anything less.

Shirley howls with laughter.

"I don't know. You never know your luck. Su-per lo-fi."

Please Please Me

On the day of the San Diego show, Shirley shows us the photograph given to her by the demure girl in Pomona.

"I only looked at the back this morning," she says. Written there is a name, an address, a phone number and a message: 'You can make me come."

Shirley You Can't Be Serious

"Girl Don't Come", ritually dedicated to a writer from an American paper and his wife, is a highlight from a set that has very few lowlights. Such an ecstatic reception is a novelty to all the members of Garbage. Steve has never been in a band "that got more than 10 miles out of Madison." Butch and Duke, in a classic mis-booking, got as far as supporting Iron Maiden before a crowd whom they might conceivably have entertained by perishing in some spectacular and grisly fashion there and then. Certainly, nothing else was going to do it. "F*** off, you punk assholes!" screamed the Maiden fans, lobbing bottles, cans, loose change and Christ knows what else at the stage. The only respite came when the headliners crossed the back of the hall on a foraging expedition, diverting the attention of the enraged audience, while the set was brought to a halt on the orders of the police, for fear of public safety.

Shirley has played in venues where the band outnumbered the audience, gone to in-store autograph signings where not a single person turned up, although even she is hard pressed to match Duke's tale of the time all four of the audience got into a fight with each other.

But match it she can.

"This was one of the most singularly degrading moments of my life. Our drummer quit the band in the middle of the tour. He said, 'I'll play to the end of the week and then I'm off.' I was traumatised by the whole thing. Then we got offered to play this radio show in Astbury park. And because our record wasn't doing very well, our record company insisted that we do it. We got up at 7am, drove three hours to this so-called radio show, and it was by a shopping mall, outside a fashion store called Ladybug. The PA was two home speakers on either side of the pavement. There was no mic stand for me, so they got a clothes rail out of the shop and gaffa-taped my microphone to it. I was close to tears.

"We got up and started to play. There was, like, two grannies eating burgers and three kids sitting cross-legged in front of us. We had to go through the whole set, an excruciating half-hour. My microphone kept coming in and going out, it was totally f***ed.

"At the end of it the three teenagers who were sitting on the ground came up and asked me if I'd play one of their sister's birthday party for 50 bucks."

"The day your drummer quit that was the day we met you," Duke realises. "The day we came to see you in Chicago."

Do you believe in fate, Shirley?

Fate For Breakfast

"Yes, I do."

Do you think that's what brought you here?

Shirley looks around at the interior of San Diego's Holiday Inn. As interiors go, it fails to rank with the halls of Montezuma, or Versailles in the reign of The Sun King.

I don't mean brought you to the Holiday Inn.

"I was just looking at that salad bar wilting and steaming in the sun. Yeah, I would have to say I do."

"The weird good fortune we're having with this band has to prove there's something going on," Duke asserts.

Shirley reconsiders: "I would use the word luck rather than fate. This whole episode of my life has been like a fairy tale."

"Maybe we were a band in a past life," says Duke.

"Which band?"

"Probably a medieval string quartet dressed in jester's costumes."

I can picture you traversing Europe during the Black Death, with hooded cowls.

"Trying to cheer everyone up," grins Steve. "'It's not so bad! Bring out your dead!'"

Bring 'em to the gig.

"We need more bodies."

Which, in a roundabout way, makes me wonder how Garbage's all but inevitable rise to arenas and beyond will suit their claustrophobic pop.

"How do you mean claustrophobic?" Duke wants to know.

The way the music bears in on you. For example, a band like Oasis work well on that scale because their music is so expansive. The bigger they get, the more it makes sense.

"So we should start playing to smaller audiences?" Steve pictures future interviews. "'Last night we were playing for 12 people, tonight'" - triumphantly "'there's only 11.'"

"'Well, you guys,' imagines Duke, "'we finally made it. There's no one here. And man, we sound good.'"

F***ing up For Fun And Profit

Garbage make darkness into entertainment, and don't pretend not to. They take the stuff which everyone else has turned into grunge, death metal, goth, industrial, country Д all those impossibly solemn kinds of pop music Д and from it they extract Pop. Not pop, which covers every kind of genre, but Pop. Good, noisy, bothersome, straight-into-the-vein Pop. They understand that perversion, obsession, fury and alienation aren't just the most intriguing aspects of life, they're the most entertaining subjects for art. Good rock'n'roll is almost always about unhealthy things.

"Absolutely," agrees Shirley. "Because people don't want to talk about it very much. It's not really allowed in society."

If you watch daytime television, you hear people talking about nothing else.

"I think that's a phenomenon in itself. That's cathartic art for the masses. I don't think those same people would sit down with their best friends or sit in the office and discuss those things. You're unableto do it in normal society."

"They also get paid to do it," mutters Butch.

It strikes me as a form of perversion to talk in public about things that you would never mention in private.

"It is," says Shirley. "That's what so glorious about those shows. And what's so obvious about them, too."

There is a fascination to this kind of emotional S&M. And there certainly seem to be a lot of references to it in your songs, as well as in more overt fetishistic gestures such as the packaging of your singles in the UK.

"There must be 50 ways to f*** your lover," Butch summarises. "In a psychological way."

The images and words you use are redolent of kinky sex, domination and subjugation, feelings stretched to the point of fanaticism. That must be a conscious thing.

"There isn't a whole lot that's real conscious about it," Steve objects. "You're almost implying, did we sit down and decide to use these types of descriptions... ?"

I'm not saying it was as conniving as that. I'm saying that it's on the album and therefore you must have put it there. Do you think any fans who met you would be disappointed by the contrast between you and your music?

"Lyrically," says Shirley, "we were very careful not to be too literal, because that excludes so many people. But people are always going to project shit onto you, and I don't think you can feel a responsibility towards that. People have said to me about the boys, 'Ooh, they're so nice, who would have thought they would make this kind of record?' But I know them. I know that I personally battle with unbelievable things inside my body that I'll never display to the world. And I don't need anybody else to see it and prove it to me."

"I've found," Duke says, "that people actually like the fact that we don't wear executioners' masks all the time."

"I think it's a misconception in 'alternative' rock," grimaces Shirley, "that you're not alternative if you're not f***ed-up, miserable and cutting yourself with razors every six minutes. To me it's absolute bullshit. It doesn't make you any more rock'n'roll if you hurt yourself or drink yourself to death than someone who deals with these things privately."

Pretty On The Outside

The LA gig ends in a massive aftershow piss-up during which somebody puts Pat Pope through the drunk machine in record time and takes him on a long, wavering ride - destination party someplace - during which he becomes convinced that he has been kidnapped by heinous snuff-movie fiends and moans so much that they almost dump him on the freeway. That kind of lig. I run into Shirley.

"The trouble with these things," she frets, "is that you have to spend all your time talking to the people you don't want to talk to, and you never have time to see the people you do want to talk to."

I leave her be and head back to the hotel.

The show in LA was rapturously received by all the scenesters, Shirley-a-likes, exhibitionists and biz-types who gathered there, but the image that sticks in my mind comes from the previous night in San Diego. Between songs, Shirley suddenly takes on the look of one who, trapped in a dream, finds herself on a stage, unrehearsed, uncomprehending, with no idea of what she's expected to do.

Butch taps the count into "Not My Idea" and the moment is gone. She's in command.

It's just a look. I could have it all wrong. But it seems to me that, inverting the formula of most other bands, Garbage build a smooth, lustrous surface over a churning interior. I can't think of a better thing for a pop group to do.