Modern Life is Rubbish

By Steven Daly

In the beginning, MTV answered Garbage's prayers. The nascent band was languishing in Wisconsin sans singer when they happened upon a video by obscure Brit act Angelfish. The band's frontwoman seemed to have the exact mix of pulchritude and attitude that Garbage was looking for. It turned out this divine diva was from Edinburgh and she was somewhat available. Her name? Shirley Manson. Perfect.

Now Garbage are the answer to MTV's prayers, Manson's menacing glamour relieving a daily parade of hyperthyroid boys in shorts, in an alternative rock climate still dominated by the plaid-shirted anti-star posturing of grunge, the sub-Gothic glam of Manson and her man has brought some spiritual and visual relief which has seen them receive highly healthy press and TV time in the US this year. Armed with a best-selling album and counterbalancing the image with the solid rock foundations you (and, more importantly here, Middle America) would expect from a band with superproducer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Sonic Youth) on drums, Gabrbage are taking small but sure steps towards capturing the heart of the Ultimate Market.

A classic Garbage moment came during this year's MTV Movie Awards, where young Hollywood star-power rubbed shoulders with buzz bands du jour (Fugees, Fishburne, Silverstone et al). Shirley Manson outshone them all, growling the anthemic "Only Happy When It Rains" with husky hauteur, prowling the stage in black boots and white mini-skirt; suddenly it was abundantly clear that the night, and America, belonged to Garbage.

Keen to prove they are no studio-muso confection, Garbage lately have been earning their road-warrior stripes with a daunting series of trans-global jaunts. Most recently they supported sometime Vig clients the Smashing Pumpkins on the tour that was halted by the heroin-related death of the Pumpkins' session keyboardist and the subsequent firing of their drummer, Jimmy Chamberlain, over heroin use.

Did you know the Smashing Pumpkins musician who died while you were touring?
No, but the death is obviously tragic for everybody involved.

In the light of what happened, has heroin reached crisis proportions in rock?
I'm probably in the minority here in that I don't think the actual use within the music community has accelerated. I think it's always been the case, it's just that all of a sudden the media's fixating on it, and unfortunately you've had some terrible deaths that have been highlighted in the press. People have continued in every straturn of society to die from heroin overdoses. It's affecting everybody and it's not just something that's singular to the music industry; it's a problem we all face and a problem that really should be dealt with. And not in a hysterical fashion, but in a sensible, safe way. Even if you look at where I come from, which is Edinburgh, it has one of the highest rates of heroin use in Europe, and it's not big rock stars that are living in the schemes on the outskirts of the city, it's normal working-class people that are using.

When you played at the MTV Movie Awards, your performance really stood out against what seemed like very sexless American bands. I think with the whole riot grrrl movement, a lot of women thought they had to take a very strong stance in order to break down the door. And I think the riot grrrls paved the way for a lot of other artists. a lot of individuals who weren't part of any movement. A lot of women still feel like they can't play up their feminine side and be taken seriously as an artists, but I still see that as suffering at the hands of a male-dominated industry. I've always felt, I am female and I'm not gonna hide that for anybody. I love to wear beautiful clothes and I love wearing make-up and Ilove for people to make me look as good as I possibly can. And I don't want to downplay my breasts or my bum or my legs. I mean, fuck it, it's there to be enjoyed -- being a woman is to be enjoyed just the same as being a man is to be enjoyed. In the music business at the moment it seems acceptable for men to take off their tops on stage and lay up their sex god status or whatever, but it's not cool for women to do something like that.

You recently talked about your sexual proclivities in an American magazine. To quote an example: "I love it when I pull a boy's [trousers] down and he's got no knickers on." What sort of reaction did that provoke? Men avoid me and women come up and tell me that they absolutely loved it. I get a lot of girls, women, saying I loved that piece, it was funny, and a lot of men are kind of looking at me out the corner of their eye and shuffling to the other side of the room. "I think she wants to pee in my belly button. I'm off." Men like women to glamorise and romanticise sex and turn it into something unearthy. But it is earthy. Men want it to be fantasy, but this is reality. Sex is just another part of life, like eating food.

Who are your favorite male sex gods then?
Well, I'm not into the whole muscular all-American boy thing. I've always gone for the fucked-up type. I find flaws sexy: I love Beck, and I think Tricky's sexy...

A friend of mine says your songs make depression seem sexy.
(Laughs) Well that's a lovely thing to say.

Are you really the depressive type?
Yes, definitely. I think most people are, to be honest. I don't think there are very many people who go around thinking things are great.

Your latest single is the spectral "Milk", produced by the "flawed, sexy" Tricky, in fact...
We're huge fans of Tricky. We hung out together in New York and he turned out to be the total opposite of what we expected: he's very gregarious and funny, and relly wise. We had a day off in Chicago and he flew in and met us to rerecord "Milk". In the studio he works in a completely different fashion from us -- he's hilarious, he's a hoot! The guy is so enchanting and he has so much energy. Very illuminating.

A lot of people in America seem to look down on Garbage for being a pop band.
I think we shocked some people here by coming out with a pop record which was not trying to be all attitude and no content. We worked hard on crafting songs and for a while that was an unfashionable thing to do. I think grunge people were a bit ashamed to have singalong choruses and actual melodies.

And other people have advised you not to do fashion shoots because they will mean that you "won't be taken seriously" as a musician.
To me, being a musician was always the antithesis of a boring nine-to-five job; it was always about escapism, fantasy, freedom. I might not be lucky enough to enjoy this for a long time, so I'm gonna enjoy it while I can. I don't really get the whole angst-ridden artist thing within the context of a working band. Maybe those people haven't had the luxury that I've had of having failed miserably and having worked in a million horrible jobs when they're 25 years old thinking, "This is it, this is gonna be it for the rest of my life." I enjoy what I do, and I love going and working with amazing artists in the photographic world or the fashion world or the video world and creating a fantasy. At the same time I also find it easy to draw the line between my normal life and the life that I'm able to enjoy right now.

Who are your favourite designers?
I like stuff you can wear and not look like a trussed-up bird. It sounds like a cliche, but I think Calvin Klein makes wonderful clothes for ordinary folk; anybody can wear them regardless of their figure. I have had the odd Prada piece and the odd bit of Paul Smith. I love a lot of Anna Sui and Dolce & Gabbana and Anna Molinari. Helmut Lang, too. I have some sick, expensive tastes, stuff that I'll find myself eyeing up in magazines and then have to turn over the page really quickly before I get tempted by it.

What's it like constantly touring the "heartland" of the US?
I'd love to sit here and be all cool about it: "It's a drag, man." But I've been doing this for a long, long time and it's a fucking blast. To work for this long and then to go and play in some town you've never even heard of -- places like Saginaw and Moline -- and have people come to your show and sing along to your songs is a great feeling.

From your description of going out to meet your new bandmates in Wisconsin, the place sounds a bit like the movie Fargo?
Well yes, they do speak like that out there. I like it. There's something really endearing about the Midwest, and something really weird about it, too. They've got a really high rate of strange crimes and strange goings on. It's a weird place. Like Scotland. Scotland's steeped in love and tragedy and lust and murder...

...and that's just the national football team. So what's the biggest difference between you and "the boys" in the band: age, sex, or nationality?
I've never found any of that stuff a barrier to getting on with people. I think everybody puts far too much credence in that type of thing. Without wanting to sound too pretentious, it's a visceral thing: when you meet people you can physically feel whether you like them, whether you connect with them or not. In the case of Garbage, it wasn't anything to do with what they were offering me or what they wanted from me. We all got on really well and liked the same kinds of music, everything from The Velvet Underground to Patti Smith to Echo and the Bunnymen and The Pretenders. And they just wanted to do a record without worrying about what particular style of band we'd be. Which I find quite liberating.

Are you really going to stay on the road for a year?
We've been on the road for more than a year already.

What does your boyfriend think of that?
I think it's harder on him than it is on me. But again, when you've worked for so long and you finally begin to see the fruits of your labours, when the band doesn't outnumber the audience -- that's incredible. You might feel a bit fed up during the day, but when you get on stage and there's 20,000 kids going crazy that lifts you, it's incredibly exciting.

How have your friends back in Edinburgh reacted to your sudden success with Garbage?
My real friends are really happy for me because they know I've worked like a dog for years. I mean, obviously they find it funny: they say things like "I'm really sorry, I don't mean to laugh but it's just so ludicrous." And I absolutely share the sentiment. I think those people who've turned out not to be my real friends are just mean. They start thinking that you think you're something. They treat you horribly, not like a normal person. I'm glad I found that out earlier in life rather than later.

Do your fans really bow down during "Supervixen" when you sing "Bow down to me"?
Yeah, they know the lyrics to it and tongue-in-cheek and it's hilarious. The song's all about saying "idolise me, I'm going to give you everything you want, but you have to do something in return." It's a bargaining song about a relationhip. I'm not saying "I'm a wee Scottish lass fae Edinburgh and I'm great" -- It's actually about this supervixen, this Russ Meyer-type woman.

Your very own tribute to the Master of MammaryVision.
I do enjoy Russ Meyer's stuff, it has a certain charm. I like the idea that there's all these really powerful women, really beautiful, perfect Barbie dolls. I like the cartoon, fantasy element in those films. And I like the fact that they're not the least bit misogynistic, they're glorifying women.

Can you describe the typical crowd for a Garbage show in America?
So far the audience at our shows has been amazing. We've been really, really lucky: we don't really get the jock audience at all, we've been getting the art school kids, I don't know, the cool people. You don't have the men shouting out stuff like "Get your tits out!" Because I would jolly well tell them where to go!