Garbage Mouth

By Samantha Clode

Shirley Manson is the most dynamic woman in modern rock and refuses to watch what she says.
Prone to spouting such statements as "I want a man who will let me pee in his belly button,"  Shirley Manson makes an ideal frontwoman.  The rock babe (her description) is fiery and opinionated and her pop quartet, Garbage, is heavily tipped to be major.  Relaxing between gigs in a Holiday Inn outside Washington D.C, Manson is suprisingly short, her red hair and heavily made-up eyes sparkle with vivacious laughter.  The 29-year-old Scottish singer is not publicity shy - after all, she's still trying to live down her "hideous mistake" of confessing to an English reporter that she once crapped on her boyfriend's CornFlakes.

"Do you think some journalists are frightened of me?" she laughs.  "I'm fairly forthright and I'm candid and at times people mistake that for agression.  I'm certainly no walkover, I'll stand up for what I believe in.  Sex is eating to me.  I don't see why it is such a sin to talk about those kind of things."

Manson is well aware of her role in Garbage's success as a singer and spokesperson.  But does she feel pressure from the media to present herself in a certain way?  "Far from it," she replies.  "I don't pretend to be anything I'm not on-stage, I am absolutely who I am.  Obviously I am not the person that I am when I'm walking through the supermarket picking a can of beans, but it's almost an exaggeration of who you are.  The music and the fact that you're standing under lights and in front of people fills you with adrenalin and pushes you to extremes that you may not normally reach in everyday life."

"In some respects I feel that women sometimes think that they have to deny their sexuality so that their music is taken more seriously.  That's a sin, it's really sad.  I don't think you should ever deny your sexuality.  I am proud of the great things that I enjoy for being female.  I am not going to hide that for anybody, not because it is politically incorrect."

Sex is clearly important to Shirley: her opinions on men and the act itself have been widely discussed in public.  In the US magazine Details, Manson recently provided readers with the Ten Commandments of Love, including "Thou shalt honour my body fluids and "Thou shalt embrace cunnilingus fully."

Manson's overt sexuality and fresh attitude have established her in a PC, post-feminist world.  Garbage was formed in 1993 by producer Butch Vig - whose work with Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth had made him the producer of choice for your next grunge record - together with his Smart Studios co-owner Steve Marker and former bandmate Duke Erikson.  The idea behind Garbage was simple: pop tunes with a darker side and layers of sampling, the monolithic production for which Vig was renown, and melodies that would form the core of accessible songs.  All they needed was a singer.

A former member of Scottish outfit Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, Manson was starting to make inroads into the USA with her band Angelfish.  Garbage saw an Angelfish video on MTV, and tracked her down.  "I didn't know who they were," she says.  "I told my record company 'this guy Butch Vig called' and they just about dropped the phone."

Then, when Angelfish toured the US, Manson had preliminary meetings with the trio.  The results were disastrous.  "Everyone was nervous, I didn't know them at all, it was a bit confusing." she laughs.  However, once all four were in the studio together the sound clicked.

Although drafted as a full member, Manson's initial suggestions were ignored by all the more experienced male musicians.  "It was really difficult," she explains.  "It's a little akin to when you start school and you don't feel that you belong in the gang.  I felt like an outsider, and they knew I was feeling uncomfortable.  It took us a while to find our equilibrium."

While the basics of the first album were already written, it wasn't until Manson joined that that final lyrics were cemented and the band found itself.  Utilising old analogue equipment and a plethora of "weird sounds," the songs slowly evolved, with the self-titled LP being recorded in Wisconsin from spring '94 to early '95.  They started touring in October '95 and are still going.

While most bands spend years (or at least months) playing gigs, Garbage were actively courted by major labels from the off before signing with the Mushroom affiliate, Infectous, for Europe and Australia.  "In all fairness, each indiviual member of the band had done that already, touring and playing music, for a lot longer than most so-called real bands," says Manson.  "We've done a lot of our work previous to becoming this particular incarnation.  But yeah, you're right.  The chicken came before the egg.  It was a strange way of going about it.  I wouldn't recommend it."

While initial media attention may have focused on all-star producer Vig, the spotlight has settled firmly on Manson.  So do band relationships ever get strained, considering her public face and the other members' status as founders of Garbage?  "No, not at all.  We enjoy a certain dynamic in the band because we're all a bit more mature than your average 16-year-old adolescent.  We're all very aware of our roles," she says.  "I get a lot of attention because I am the lead singer and in some bands I think that causes tension. But in this particular instance they're all wise enough to know that this comes with the territory, there's no jealousy in that respect.  But they're my brothers, that's how I feel about them.  We're very close now."

The secret behind Garbage lies in the combination of a catchy pop aesthetic and lyrics which reflect a melancholy and bitter romanticism tinged with humour.  You can bop along to singles like "Vow" and "Only Happy When It Rains" while listening to tales of revenge and depression.  "A lot of people have mistaken this album as being very black and I don't think that at all," says Manson.  "I was determined to end each song in a positive fashion.  A lot of songs are ambiguous in their endings, but if you want it, the positivity is there for the taking."

Having written most of the lyrics after deciding the guys' words were "mostly crap," Manson is excited about writing the second record together, now that they have some real experience behind them.  "It'll be interesting," she admits.  "I don't know what we're going to do.  I know we definitely won't be making the mistake of trying to completely change our image and our sound, to come from a come from a completely different angle.  We've worked hard to create an identity for this band and it's taken a long time to convince people that we're the real McCoy.  We're not going to change too much.  Hopefully we'll be broadening our horizons and getting out there.

"Some of the songs have been rearranged as we've played them on tour, some have been stripped down, others have slightly changed speed," she adds.  "We have a very sophisticated set-up on stage; the two guitarists are triggering a lot of samples and loops off their pedals and they can also switch between their guitar and keyboards.  Butch is tripping a lot of loops and samples of his drums too, so we still have some of the layered nuances of the record but it's a lot more aggressive."

Having recently completed a headlining tour of the US, where the album has gone gold, Garbage also landed the support slot on the Pumpkins' ill-fated tour.  "Billy's a great songwriter and, contrary to popular belief, they've been sweethearts.  We're on-stage for 40 minutes and it's a lot easier than headlining your own shows.  We just drink beer and dance."

With an Australian tour scheduled for October, takin in all major cities and Brisbane's Livid Festival, what can fans expect when Garbage take the stage?  "I don't think they know what they want," says Manson finally.  "They want to feel good, they want to leave the concert feeling good.  There's a million ways to fuck your lover, and there's no rule in how to entertain people, but I do think they're looking for a connection.  That's what both the peformer and the audience are looking for, but even if they don't get the connection then sometimes the search is as good.  And that's where Garbage fits in."