Return of the Muck!

by Steven Wells

Take some scary spiders, a few mad mutts, a sound akin to the Pet Shop Boys on downers and, er, eye of Shirley Manson, and what have you got? Why the new Garbage LP obviously. Bin men: Steven Wells (words) and Stephane Sednaoui (photos).

On her 30th birthday garbage singer Shirley Manson broke down and sobbed her heart out.
"I'm old!" she wailed. "I'm ugly! I'm past it!"

But she's not as old as the other members of Garbage. Or as ugly. Take a good long look at the grey and battered faces of her male companions. Notice the crows-feet around the corners of those oh-so-tired eyes? Those balding pates? The worn and slightly yellowed teeth? The ever so slightly stooped shoulders? Doesn't the hideous stench of fresh urine mingling with stale formaldehyde make you sick to the pit of your perfectly muscled stomach? What the hell are these old people doing at our end of pop music anyway?

When top Yank alternative producers Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson recruited Shirley Manson - formerly of ho-hum gothy pop combo Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie - we sniffed suspiciously. Always on the lookout for mutton dressed as lamb, we noted the lack of naivet?, the dearth of wide-eyed wonder and the total absence of innocence - and we scribbled the word 'Curve' in our notebooks and sniggered.

These were old men. And Shirley was no spring chicken. They'd all been around the block a few times. There was something too slick, too polished too manufactured about Garbage. They deviated too strongly from the 'organic' blueprint which all truly great rock bands are supposed to adhere. They didn't smell of teen spirit - they smelt of showbiz.

We gleefully licked our stubby little pencils and scribbled 'Goldilocks and the Three Bores' and 'Ginger Rogers and the Three Fred Astaires' and, most hurtful of all (we thought), 'The Goth Monkees'. And we were oh-so-pleased with ourselves with that last little dig - because that's what they were - goth Monkees! Great tunes, sure! Brilliant tunes! Awesome tunes! But they could never be mistaken for great rock'n'roll. It was too clean, too calculated, too clever, too hard, too sharp, too distant. Garbage songs were about the emotions rather than of the emotions. Seeing them follow Radiohead on-stage at a 'new bands showcase' in Berkeley, California in 1995 was like watching a professional boxing match after witnessing a gut-wrenching street fight. Where Radiohead had the spluttering sulphate-wrecked freak out of 'Creep', Garbage had the moth-winged murmur of 'Queer'. The lyrical similarities between the to song were obvious - but the musical differences spoke volumes about the gaps between pop and rock, between the US and the UK, between dance and indie, between art and artifice...

But the kids in the crowd didn't give a shit. They heard great pop music and they went ballistic. And then as the months ticked by, Garbage's eponymous first album dropped single after single into the top end of the UK and US charts - 'Queer', 'Vow', 'Milk', 'Subhuman', 'Only Happy When It Rains' - and it began to dawn on even the sniffiest and most cynical of critics that here was a band who were massively more than the sum of their ropey, second-hand parts. That here was op music so slick and shiny and hard unwholesomely awesome and utterly un-American that it made bitchy little scribblings of the sneering worshippers of the altar of (allegedly) pristine and organic youth seem utterly redundant. Mainstream they might be but Garbage were obviously cooler, creepier and queerer than any of their allegedly alternative rivals. Pop had yet again pulled a fast one - and kicked rock's bollocks clean off.

Nowadays with a killer second album (just) safely in the can, Shirley will tell you that she's now afraid of her birthdays any more, that she now (for the first time in her life) actually relishes the prospect of getting old.

"I look at all my heroines like Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde and all of the were late starters," she says. "Debbie Harry was 29 or whatever when she had her first hit; Chrissie Hynde was 28. I really think that's in our favour. Our collective experience has allowed us a freedom that very few bands have. When you get older you can't rely on the fire in your belly anymore and you have to learn to pilot your own plane. We pilot our own plane."

Shirley make much of the vast number of corporate cocks which have been waved in the band's direction - and which have remained unsucked. She wants to make it crystal clear that Garbage are '4-real' as hell. Which is confusing. Because it's Garbage's un-4-realness that you've come to praise.

Garbage and the hack are swapping soy-spurting tasty titbits across the table of a posh Thai restaurant in Hollywood. Garbage are celebrating the fact that they've "at fucking last" finished the album they started exactly 364 days ago. The tape-recorder is off, the chat is casual. Round-faced Steve is gently teased into letting slip the inside dope on his cute pet corgie, Simon and Grommit. Goatee-bearded Butch tells me that he and thin-faced Duke have learnt that they can drive Simon and Grommit into a hysterical berserker frenzy by performing a sedentary version of the hornpipe (That's a sailor's dance, landlubbers - Ed). Butch then become horribly transfixed by a fellow diner who appears to be and animated waxwork model of himself. It's horrible. It's a very Hollywood moment.

Shirley, meanwhile, is as cocky as she wants to be. She's gleefully bashing the left NME earhole about all the money she claims to have wasted over the years on records that we said were great but she thinks are shite. By the way of actually getting some work done, NME retorts that large parts of the new and barely finished album (the newly christened 'Version 2.0') remind him of Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys. Uh-oh!

Steve furrows his brow and gives a tentative nod and Butch strokes goatee and goes "Hmmmm!" while Duke give a wry smile and says "Yes, I can see how you might hear that..." and Shirley? Shirley scowls like a ginger kitten chewing a thistle and roars, "URGH! URRRR! GAH! How can you SAY that? That's CRAP! Don't say that! PLEASE don't put that in the article! PLEEEEASE!"

Things go swiftly downhill thereafter. The good vibe withers, shrivels and dies. The interview sticks axle-deep in shit. Every question bombs. Shirley is sucking hard on a asthma inhaler and scowling. And every attempted arselickly compliment is interpreted as the bitterest insult.

The problem is this: you've come to tell Garbage that they are no longer The Goth Monkees, that this new album will establish them as The Goth Pet Shop Boys. And you mean this as the highest praise. You want to write Garbage a gushing love letter in adoration of their coldness, their slickness, their harness, their inauthenticity. You want to hold up that fact that their songs are about the emotions rather than of the emotions. You want to tell them that the bitter-sweet self-parody of 'Only Happy When It Rains' still rings in your ears and makes you laugh every single bleeding time you hear some silly little angst-obsesses rock singer start to take his own emotional inadequacies far too seriously. That lyrically Garbage have got everything Radiohead have ever done or are ever likely to do bottled up and labelled and stuck away in a tiny corner of their own vastly superior repertoire. You want to tell them that the comparison to the Pet Shop Boys is utterly sincere, that producing great pop must be awesomely hard - and that writing melancholic poetry of the bruised and battered soul must be a piece of piss by comparison...

But Shirley will have none of it. "I think good bleeding, really great bleeding is hard..." she says, shaking her head and scowling.

And do you do really good bleeding?

"No. To be great at bleeding, you have to be Thom Yorke, whose great at bleeding, a genius at bleeding. Bob Dylan is a genius at bleeding, where you touch the essence of something/ And that's really difficult to achieve..."

Uh. And now your head starts to hurt. You like Garbage because Garbage keep it in. Because Garbage don't bleed. You love Garbage because Garbage are too damn knowing, too damn sharp, too skilful, too sorted, too perfect a pop machine to write the sort of unconsciously self-obsessed songs the Shirley (you are appalled to learn) actually aspires to write.

"If your music touches people then you're doing your job," she says without a trace of irony.

You think your music 'touches' people?

"Of course! People bought our record! That's 'touching' people!"

'Touching seems to imply something spiritual or metaphysical. Surely people bought your record because it was a great pop record. Full stop. End of story.

"Well that's touching them! You're putting a negative spin on the word 'touch'." No, you're putting a negative spin on the idea of emotional distance. The best pop, like yours, is emotionally distant...

And Shirley cocks her head and looks at you like you're totally mad. Like women are from Venus and you're from Planet Wank

"I'm finding this very intimidating," she says, gripping her inhaler. "I'm finding it very difficult to talk..."

Desperately, you try to discuss the imminent new album - but whenever you close in on a specific track - like the sardonically nursery-rhymey 'When I Grow Up' ("When I grow up/I'll be stable/I'll turn the tables"), the Chrissie Hynde tribute 'Song 132', the Pet Shop Boyish 'Medication, the Amen-Corner go Hi-NRG of 'Bend Me Shape Me' the next single 'Push It' or the incredibly catchy/spooky mindfuck 'The Trick Is To Keep Breathing' - Garbage just stare at you as if you've just shat your pants in public.

"I feel as if we've just come home from work and been asked how our day was," groans Butch.


"Hey, no, look, it's not your fault!" says Duke. "Don't take it personally. It6's just that we've just walked away from this record and someone's asking us questions about it already!"

Yeah? So? Diddums? Read your job-description mate, that's why they pay you so much.

"Uh, good point."

We're going nowhere fast. Let's go back an hour.

"Now you see that," snarls Shirley, twisting a slim finger against the side of a display case in the foyer of her Hollywood hotel towards a large, costume jewellery glass spider.

"When the guys is my first band got their publishing money, they got me tow of those," says Shirley, her pale lips tripping venom.

"I put them in the jumble sale last week," she says with a tight little smile. Shirley knows that it'd be a complete waste of time to go back and kick a dead horse to death, but you get the distinct impression, reading between the lines, that inside supercool Shirley there's a little bit of her that's running around madly, punching the air and screaming, "YES! SUCK ON THAT! YOU CRAP BASTARDS!" at every single soul-sucking scumbag who's ever put her down or held her back.

"A lot of the tracks on this record are me shedding skin, she'll say later. "I mean, I'm getting to write now. I was in a band for eight years and I never got to write. So all of a sudden there's a certain catharsis, there's this increase in confidence that comes from being surrounded by people who believe in me. I've never had that in my life, ever..."

Where's home for you now?

"I don't have a home. I don't live anywhere. I mean the whole time that we've been making a record I've been staying in a hotel."

You're married?


And he's at home in Scotland?


That's a bit mental, isn't it?

"Yeah. Ha ha. I've become a complete... deviant. It's a strange, strange life I lead. Ahahahaha!"

Are you the sort of person who throws her towels around everywhere - or do you tend to keep it tidy for the cleaning lady?

"I tend to keep it neat for her. I am a psycho. I am sick! I don't clean the hair out of the plughole though. My own hair frightens me. I don't know why - it's too much like spiders!"

"Shirley actually had me come up to her room once because she actually thought there was a bug in her pillowcase," says Duke.

"HHHHHumumumum!" erupts Shirley. nervously. "Yeah, but hold on! Can I just answer that? I did in fact once find a huge cockroach in my pillowcase once - AGHUGLUGLUGLEUGH LEUOOORGLE! - I'd just snuggled into my pillow and I felt something crunchy! AAAARGH! A cockroach! I'm not kidding you - it was four inches long! So I'd started using pillows again and AAAARGH! - I found another cockroach! So I phoned Duke, "You have to come up immediately! I have an emergency! So he comes up and he opens up the pillowcase really gingerly - even he looked a wee bit frightened - and it was the zipper of my pillow."

Isn't it odd that we cross the road with fearless impunity despite the fact that cars should fill us with mortal dread and yet we fear the harmless little rustley, slithery, twitchy mouse, moth or insect beastie...

"I'm not afraid of mice," boasts Shirley.

So the hack wrinkles up his nose and imitates the evil twitch of a rodent And Shirley shrieks in terror.

"It's because they're so unlike us," says Duke. "They're like something... alien." "Sus-shus-suzzzz-pidersssssss!" spits Shirley.

"This kid I knew down the block from me could never say 'spiders'," explains Butch. "He could only say 'cider'. We'd say, 'Bill say spider' - and he'd say, 'Sp-sp-cider'."

And then you hit him?

"No. And you know what? Now he's the vice-president of a huge corporation in Wisconsin."

And he can say spider?

"Now he can, yeah."

Talking to Butch, Duke or Steve is a slightly surreal experience. They're so polite, solid and friendly - so goshdarn stereotypically Midwestern - that you feel as if you've wandered into a Coen brothers movie. Shirley, meanwhile, is Gone With The Wind's Scarlet O'Hara on tapeworm tablets. She's like a wired-up, flea-up-the-bum Scottie dog in the company of three dozy, old, lolloping, slobber-jawed basset hounds. It's as if the Tasmanian Devil had accidentally wandered onto the set of Deputy Dawg. She's like The Herb Garden's hyperactive speedfreak Dill the dog (Ask your grandmother - Ed) in the company of three laid-back and placid Parslet the Lion clones.

"I, uh, think you're, uh, in danger of exaggeration there," drawls Steve in his hypnotically sensible Jimmy Stewart monotone.

"When we're, uh, on the road then, uh, Shirley is quite often the first to, uh, go to bed."


"Really. You might find it hard to believe but, uh, the three of us can be real motherfucking party animals."



When Garbage first formed it was Butch - the weirdly bearded Laughing Cavalier lookalike who'd gotton severely famous after he'd taken the raw genius of Nirvana and turned it into the greatest rock album of the decade - who attracted all the attention. In fact, so worried were the fledgling Garbage about the pit-falls of sycophancy and celebrity-by-association, that they at first tried to hide Butch's involvement from the world at large. But word leaked. Stupid offers of silly money were tossed at the band, simply on the strength of Butch's name. The dude was a music biz face, an LA player. One review of the first Garbage album referred to the band as, "Butch Vig's pet project", another called the record, "a Butch Vig album on which a band called Garbage play."

Ha! No more! Butch Who? You know! The bloke who plays drums in Shirley Manson's band? Yeah? In 1995 Butch was fielding endless questions about Kurt Cobain. By late 1996 he was being asked if he minded being, "a Sleeperbloke". By 1997 almost everyone had forgotten who he was... er... exactly.

Shirley, meanwhile, became a strange sex-symbol, a gay icon, a role-model for skinny ginger girls everywhere and a proper cross-generational pop star. If Jethro MTV from Incest Ohio ever refers to Butch, Steve and Duke these days it's probably only to ask why Shirley chooses such pug-ugly dullards as her session musicians. It isn't fair, it's utterly insulting but it's also indicative of just how much of a proper pop monster Garbage have become.

In the early Garbage photos, straggle-haired tomboy Shirley pouts or glowers at the camera like some mythical teenage sulk-queen. Today - on a whole slew of recent front covers at the trendier end of the flick'n'fling fashion mag market - Shirley laser-beams the shelf-pursuing punter, looking like Skeletor on stilts, like $10billion's worth of sex on steroids. Not the kind of girl you'd want to take home to mother. More the kind of woman who'd serve cold rat to her crippled and imprisoned sister for a laugh.

Forties film-star Bette Davis was Shirley's first heroine - long before she fell in love with Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux and Patti Smith.

"She was ugly compared to the other Hollywood actresses - really strong and a wee bit frightening - I loved that about her. There's nobody like that now. Everybody wants to look beautiful, to look like a model. They want to look unassuming, unthreatening, vulnerable and welcoming - and that's dull!"

There's still something disturbingly hungry about Shirley Manson. She's like a workhouse kid at a feast, she's like a runt-nipper in a family of 15 - unable to get used to the idea of a guaranteed place at the trough. She's like Eddie Murphy at the beginning of Trading Places - like she doesn't really believe her luck.

She confesses to being "utterly anal" about the photographers and video directors and others who are allowed in close to reflect the band back to the outside world. And she can slump into a ferocious and sullen sulk if she suspects the band are being patronised, pissed on or badly misinterpreted. Like now. Like in this interview.

It's as if Shirley has as last found people to work with who she can actually trust and who actually respect her and encourage her - but she can't shake the suspicion that someone or something might come along at any second and take it all away. And she knows how cold it is on the outside...

"I think the majority of people are kinda lo-brow, lo-fi, lo-grade..." says Shirley, spewing doom and gloom in every direction.

"I think there are millions of people who are 'nice' - inverted commas - but as for their true morals - I don't think that people have morals and standards particularly. I see how even my own group of friend treat each other. It's abysmal!"

"It never ceases to amaze me how little it takes for the very worst in people to come out," says Duke, bleakly.

Somewhere in the far distance a small dog howls in horrible agony; tumbleweed rolls and a lone bell clangs mournfully in the chill breeze. Jesus!

"Well I've begun to think that there may be good people," says Shirley grimly. "Since I met these three. I've never had people like these in my life ever, ever. Which is why I love working with them so much. So perhaps I have had a bad experience of life. I can't tell..."

Do you ever meet people who are, like, really really happy?

"I'm frightened of people who are really happy," says Shirley. "They're chemically unbalanced."

Do you think that people who are really happy are capable of producing art?

"If they're mad enough, yeah, absolutely."

"Yeah, I've always had a problem with the idea that you have to be really miserable to create good art," muses Duke. "But maybe that's just wishful thinking. They are any number of abnormalities that..."

Are you abnormal?

"... could enable a person to create great art."

Are you abnormal?

"What? Oh, yeah."

In what way are you abnormal?

"What? No, uh, I don't think there's any formula that..."

How did you stumble across the fact that doing a sedentary version of the hornpipe would freak out the corgis, Grommit and Simon?

"H-how did you know about that?" gasps Shirley.

I just guessed.

"What? No! How did you know about that? No! Who told you? Come on!" Did you arrive at the hornpipe by a process of elimination? Or did you try the Watusi and the mashed potato first?

"No," says Duke. "We instinctively knew it would have to be something far more ancient than the mashed potato."

Because, for a corgi, having two members of Garbage doing the hornpipe AT you, is probably the canine equivalent of finding a cockroach in your pillowcase. It's a shame corgis can't write songs.

"That's the difference between them and us," says Steve, sagely.

Why don't Garbage move to Scotland?

"Oh God, they'd be miserable," keens wee Shirley. "They'd be absolutely miserable!"

Yeah? So? Would that be a problem? Artistically?

"They'd be crippled with depression. They couldn't work!"

But if all the band lived in tenements and ate nothing but fried Mars bars and had all-year round colds - you'd get some amazing songs out of that.

"No, they'd be miserable, miserable. No songs would come forth!"

"We're going to make the next album in Scotland," says Butch.

"Nah! No dice! No way! No deal!" rants Shirley, adamantly.

Butch , Steve and Duke stick out amongst the kilted figures is Shirley Manson's wedding photos. They're the only ones sporting suntans and wearing sunglasses. And as Shirley says - you just don't wear sunglasses at a British wedding - it's wrong.

The bloke who produced 'Nevermind' creating slithery 160 bpm pop music that will be directly compared to the Pet Shop Boys? WRONG! That wee ginger lassie from Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie writing lyrics that will be directly compared to the scribblings of Messrs Yorke, Ashcroft and Morrisey? WRONG! The kids of MTV Amerikka falling in love with wired, gothdisco-dancerock made by a band old enough to be their parents? WRONG!

Everything about Garbage is wrong. They've got nothing going for them except talent, quality, class and a knack for producing gloom-laden Pop music that makes you want to skip, whoop and holler like a mad March hare on E. They are rock's equivalent of a custom-built silver-plated, leather-seated, supercharged Ferrari Testarossa. A self-manufactured, autonomous-puppet band. They're a bunch of weirdos.

They are a gleaming, steaming perfect pop machine AND an emotionally unstable showbiz freak show. The contradictions, imperfections and flaws within Garbage make them queerer and creepier and cooler than Marilyn Manson with Thom Yorke on bongos, Leonard Cohen on mouth-organ and with Morrisey nailed to a cross on the backdrop. And the new Garbage album will cave your skull in. Hear it and weep.