Garbage It didn't sound promising: a singer from a failed Scottish rock band, fronting a band put together by a producer. But with a four-million-selling debut behind them, Garbage are set to become one of the biggest bands of the year. Bill Bruce explains how they did it.

One Sunday afternoon in Edinburgh, Shirley Manson is doing the dishes and feeling pissed off. Shirley, you see, used to be in a band called Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie, who had been signed and then been dropped by just about every label on the planet. When the MacKenzies finally split up, some of the surviving members resurrected themselves as Angelfish, and much to everyone's surprise had a college radio hit Suffocate Me in the USA. But just as it looked like everything was coming together, Angelfish also fell apart.

So Shirley's elbow deep in Fairy Liquid mulling this over when the bloody phone starts ringing. Typical. The man on the phone introduces himself as Butch Vig. This is supposed to mean something to Shirley. It doesn't. "I'm a record producer," he hazards, "maybe you've heard of me?" Nope, she says, still drawing a blank. He explains that he has formed a band with two of his friends and they are looking for a singer. They've seen a video of Angelfish and think Shirley would be the perfect front-woman. Is she interested?

"Dunno. I'll have to think about it," replies Shirley. She'll call him back.

She calls a friend at her record label Radioactive, and tells them that some guy called Butch Vig has just called and asked her to be on one of his records. Have they heard of him?

"Oh my God!" gasps the Radioactive person. "He's just like to hottest producer on Earth!" They tell Shirley to go and look through her records. Sure enough: there he is. On Nirvana's Nevermind. And on the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream.

"I'd better call him back then," thinks Shirley. But she finishes the dishes first.

The first time I interviewed Shirley Manson I asked her out. Not intentionally, or anything. By accident. Well, sort of.

You see, I was one of the ten people in the world who actually liked Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie. But I didn't know anything about Garbage - how they met or who they were - when a friend gave me a promo copy of Only Happy When It Rains. It came in an anonymous jewel case with only the song title on the front of the CD. I didn't know who it was, all I knew was that I wanted to play it constantly. Just one track over and over again. I drove everyone around me nuts.

So, as you can see, I fell in love with their music first. Only Happy When It Rains turned out to be Garbage's debut single. Garbage turned out to be fronted by THAT girl from Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie. And I turned out to be a lovesick puppy dog, obsessed by their every move. (Don't get me wrong. I'm not a mad stalker or anything, it's just a crush. Kinda like when you fancied Miss Irvine, your Geography teacher.) So the first time I meet Shirley in the flesh, I understandably get all coy and ever so slightly flirty.

"You're not asking me out on a date, are you Bill?" Shirley teased at one point. Shit! "Well, I, er," I huff and puff. "You know where I am if you..."

"I know where you are," she laughs. "Thanks for asking."

So now me and Shirley are sort of an item. But it's a secret. Even she doesn't know. I've been cheering them on since their first hit single, celebrating a top selling debut album, watching as they conquer America and Europe, and am on the verge of bursting at the thought of their new album, provisionally titled Version 2.0. That's the power of pop music, you see.

Butch Vig set up his own studio Smart Studios with a $3,000 loan from his parents. They couldn't have envisioned how well things would work out when Butch moved to Madison, Wisconsin with the intention of going to film school. As a student, Vig hooked up with a couple of other musicians, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson. Together they played in various garage punk band for years before moving behind the mixing desk.

Collectively they remixed tracks for the likes of Depeche Mode, House of Pain and U2. Vig himself worked with a Seattle band called Nirvana who did rather well for themselves. Soon everyone wanted him to produce their work. The Smashing Pumpkins, L7, Hole. He became the Godfather of Grunge. Tell that to Butch Vig, however, and he'll get very sheepish and squirm in his chair. At first no one wanted to talk to him about Garbage, they just wanted to know what Kurt was really like. He seems to accept it in much the same way John Peel accepts that everyone he meets will inevitably give him a demo tape.

As a sideline to his production and remixing work, the three friends would goof around with a musical project which someone rather unkindly described as "garbage". Ah-ha! thought Vig, now we have a name! Yet all their potential songs were just snippets of screwy ideas, studio fiddling about and no lyrics. They needed a focus and a voice to match. Then Angelfish popped up on MTV and they knew they'd found the girl for the job. However Shirley didn't arrive on the scene in the role of the vapid bimbo to "ooh" and "ahh" whilst someone else did all the work. Frankly, id she didn't like something then, Butch Vig or nor Butch Vig, they were told in no uncertain terms to "fuck right off".

In fact, she feels total freedom in working with Garbage. "I don't know why I decided to go with Garbage," she muses. "I just had a gut feeling. Garbage gives me the opportunity to get involved with the writing and that was something I was obstructed from before. It wasn't an evil obstruction. Bands get locked in a system of writing that can be difficult to break. In Garbage, my fellow band members allow me to make my contribution and they also respect my judgement. That's very liberating and yeah, I enjoy it. I'm not very reticent with coming forward with what I think anyway! It's always been the same... Because I just can't keep my mouth shut!"

Initially, the band got together through a couple of abortive auditions. Neither side could tell if it was going to work out or not. Then something clicked.

"A lot of the songs come from jamming," Vig explains. "Stupid Girl happened that way. With the songs on the first album we hadn't really finished anything until Shirley came along."

Racked with nerves, at her initial meeting with the guys Shirley nevertheless began singing, "Bow down to me" again and again over a track the boys played to her. It became the tag-line to Supervixen. The guys were impressed. The girl had cracked it.

The band's first proper single, Only Happy When It Rains when into the British Top 20 on Garbage appeared on Top of the Pops for the first time.

"I was unsettled initially because I missed the little musical cue I was given to pitch off because the crowd were cheering too loudly," Shirley explains, "so I came in on the wrong chord and it threw me for the whole thing. I though, 'I've messed up and my Mum and Dad are watching and all my best friends are watching. I've made an utter fool of myself on Top of the Pops!'"

Missed cues didn't stop the album making the Top 10 in the UK, before vaulting itself into the American Top 30. All this had been achieved in a remarkably low-key way. Their first few singles, amongst them Vow and Subhuman, were only released in batches of 1,000, in packaging alternating between metal, fur and rubber. Even the band's initial demo tapes had carried only the band's name and no information about the personnel, lest success should be garnered from nothing more than Vig's presence in the group. But Vig's presence soon had an effect, as Steve Marker admitted later. "A lot of companies weren't interested when we said we wouldn't play live. Later we got some ridiculous offers when it became known that Butch was in the band."

After the success of the follow-up single Queer, touring became inevitable, and a solo European mini-tour and a support slot to the Smashing Pumpkins in the US assured their success. Along the way they managed to slot in a cover of The Jam's Butterfly Collector for a tribute album, as well as a cover of Vic Chestnutt's Kick My Ass. Meanwhile, their own trip-hop ballad Milk was intensely remixed by Tricky and proved to be another of five world-wide hit singles. "We expected a moody introvert but he's funny, wise and absolutely bonkers," Shirley told Q at the time.

At the same time a less welcome bit of coverage, or rather lack of coverage, came during a live performance at the VH1 fashion show, when a stray but of Shirley's cleavage dislodged itself. As Shirley's nipple still found its way everywhere from the News of the World to Q and countless websites, it was clear that Shirley Manson had become a sex symbol. Shirley commented at the time, "I laughed my head off. But my breasts didn't fall out, I think that's people's wishful thinking. I think people might have very, very briefly seen a nipple. But, you know, when did a nipple do anyone any harm?"

It failed to overshadow their MTV award for Best Breakthrough Artist and three Grammy nominations, and didn't faze a woman who once told a reporter that she loved her new orange Stratocaster guitar because it "just happens to be the colour of my fanny."

It's 1996, and it's Garbage's first UK tour on the back of their second big hit single Stupid Girl. I've been waiting to interview the band all night, quite fascinated by their ceaseless work ethic. Tonight Shirley will do a live link up with Radio One, have a chat with me, play a blinding gig and then go out and do the whole thing somewhere else the next night. We have to grab some time backstage. If we were doing this interview down the pub I'd probably get a bit more out of you, wouldn't I?

"Oh yeah, you would definitely get a lot more out of me," and Shirley Manson roars a laugh that's half girly snort and half Sid James guffaw. These says her husband sees her only in passing, as she spends much of her time shuttling between Edinburgh and America, to write rehearse and record. I wonder if she would live out there permanently?

Shirley almost gasps, "No, I still have to go home. All I really miss are my friends and family. I can live without places, but I couldn't live without my family and friends."

When the debut album started to shift the first of its four million copies to date, the band suddenly found themselves touring. They weren't ready for it, they hadn't planned for it, they weren't even sure they wanted to do it. Except Shirley who was mad for it. She's a tour monster!

Shirley sniggers: "That's me. Guilty as charged! I really love it. I'm used to it, I've been doing it for a long time. I love travelling and seeing all these things that you can only dream about. Touring America with Angelfish we saw so many lovely things like coming across Salt Lake City at night, going up the West coast and seeing the Redwoods with to ocean crashing down the other side. I'm a lucky girl."

How does it feel when people are singing along with your words?

"Weird," she says, "actually sometimes it helps. I don't always remember the words." She does that Sid James laugh, the adds: "Gigs are about a celebration. Some bands get uptight about the fans moshing or singing along and not paying attention but not us."

Live, Butch Vig is perched behind a drum kit and surrounded by trigger pads for samples and drum loops, driving a band that fuses elements of rock, techno, hip-hop and noise to awesome effect. Reproducing the sounds of their records has been something they've had to work hard at, but which has also become easier through time.

"I think," Duke Erikson explains, "we've had to adapt to playing larger and larger crowds, and there is more of a vibe in the air... Coming from Miss Shirley Manson."

Duke scratches his chin and I notice the natty multi-coloured nail varnish they all wear. More of Miss Manson's input, you see."

"It's utterly fabulous isn't it?" she gushes. "It's quite spangly." The band all hold out their hands so I can examine their glittering cuticles. It's rather surreal.

Like her heroine Chrissie Hynde, Shirley Manson has become the rock chick to aspire to. As Craig McLean recently observed in The Face: "To the faithless, she is Ginger Spice backed by the Stock, Aitken & Waterman of Grunge... To the faithful, a sassy mix of UK clubcool and US rockheat... To American rock orthodoxy, a paradox who deigns to wear designer fashion and yet be 'alternative'. To gender bender pop psychologists, the anti-Alanis."

Maybe all those years in film school helped, but Garbage are a band who not only sound good but look good as well. No mean feat when the combined age of the three blokes alone is about 120 years. Yet they have more pep, more enthusiasm, and more verve than say the, er, Verve. Or Fiona Apple. Or Radiohead. Or the other assorted angst-mongers who have struck a premillenial nerve in us all. They puncture accusations of being New Grave or Goth or miserabilist with their sheer jior de vivre. As Shirley herself pointed out, "I want people to feel good. I don't want people to feel bad and that life is shit and not worth living."

Backstage at the Glasgow Barrowlands, I point out to Shirley the effect she has on people, the star quality that has males fancying her and females idolising her. I suppose you're used to it, I say. I mean, let's face it, you're a bit of babe, aren't you?

She bursts into raucous laughter: "According to my mum I've always been a sex symbol, even when I was an ugly ten-year-old, so I can't take it too seriously. I think if you took the ugliest person in the world and put them in a bin-liner, someone would find them attractive."

She sighs, "I don't think you can take these things too much to heart. Some people will find me appealing and an equal number will find me... appalling!"

Do you like what you see in the mirror these days?

I still have a hard time, but then I think most people do when it comes to self-image. Nobody feels good all the time. It's a daily struggle, but I'm in control of it now. In that I'm not completely hating what I'm see."

Garbage are doing so well isn't it about time you stood up and took the applause? "Well, y'know, I was in a band for eight years hitting our heads off a brick wall. All of a sudden things are made... easy. And it is wonderful, I'd like to be a cynical swine about it but it really is gratifying," she answers gleefully.

So what's kept you going through all of this, Shirley? The highs and the lows?

"I'm tough," she insists. "I'm tough."