Garbage White Trash

By Jim Greer

In which Garbage lyricist and chanteuse Shirley Manson reveals that deviance and perversion are about to emerge from their music. Beginning with her tequila-inspired teasing of Jim Greer

Shirley Manson is depressed. She's standing in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, hopping from foot to foot in a gesture I come to realize is habitual, expressive of a range of emotions from boredom to impatience to restlessness to fatigue. Buy right now she's depressed. Her band, Garbage, has come to the end of a long and particularly trying photo shoot for Ray Gun. ll photo shoots are trying to some degree, but this one has been made more so by the tactics employed by the photographers, two wily British brothers whose gimmick is to play good photog/bad photog, one brother snapping away paparazzi-style while the other clowns aggressively, mugging, telling bad jokes, gimmick works brilliantly, but over the course of a two-hour shoot up and down Hollywood Boulevard, in coffee shops, restaurants, hotel rooms, elevators, and an abandoned theater, it can prove a trifle wearing.

Which explains Shirley's boredom, impatience, restlessness and fatigue, but not her depression. This last is the result of the Roosevelt lobby bar's piano player, who's chosen unwittingly to crown Shirley's weariness with a rendition of that old chestnut, "Let Me Entertain You." She stops hopping and listens intently. Her eyes, noon-sky blue with unsettling flecks of amber and brown, glint with sudden interest. "I used to do this song in ballet class as a girl," she exclaims in a lyrical Scottish brogue, pirouetting prettily and singing along with the piano player. Her bemused bandmates applaud ironically. "And now I'm thoroughly depressed," she sighs.

It's a performance, of course - the depression as well as the snippet of ballet - but a fairly pointed one. The Garbage singer is a savvy performer, and when presented with and audience, however familiar, she tends to act out stylized version of her emotions rather than display the messy actuality. Which is something you need to keep in mind when listening to her band's new album, Version 2.0. Her abrupt mood shifts, from and almost predatory sexuality to a kind of introverted melancholy to a fuck-everything anger alternating with hard-won optimism and black despair, seem to represent aspects of Shirley's personality without revealing the whole. You don't ger a sense, after listening to the record, that you know anything about the person who wrote and sings the lyrics.

"Oh, thank God," says Shirley some days later, when I make this observation. She's taking a break from yet another photo shoot on Madison, Wisconsin, the band's home base. This shoot has been made more bearable, she tells me, by the consumption of a fair amount of tequila, so that she feels compelled to apologize for the impenetrability of her accent. ("The minute I drink tequila I start to get very broad.")

So is it fair to say that the person singing "Hammering in My Head" or "Sleep Together" isn't the "real" Shirley Manson?

"I don't know, it's kind of two things coupled at once," she replies. "I'm probably mildly schizophrenic. Sometimes I feel really positive about life, and other times I feel incredibly destructive, and I think that probably comes across on the record. But I mean, yeah, I take on characters to a certain degree. I think a lot of music is about escapism and extremism. So I take elements of myself and make them more extreme. Or I take elements of myself to dilute them because they are too extreme."

Without getting too philosophical about it, what's the point for you of singing a song, of presenting a song or set of lyrics to the public?

"I think you become, or at least I become, a musician because you want to escape your reality and you look to you music as a way of pretending that you don't exist. To me, singing a song is like throwing out radar to see if you ger a response. It's about recognition of other people. And if someone says, "I recognize what you were saying," then it's almost like you find a communicator. You find an ally. Of course, it's different for everybody. But I think for me, that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a reflection, for an ally."

Isn't it also true that when you throw out radar, you're trying to locate yourself?

"Oh, totally. Totally, of course it is."

It's a way of placing yourself in the context of other people. I mean, if you're having trouble making a connection with people...

"It makes it so much easier."

But does it seem sometimes that connection can grow superficial as you get more successful, and you deal with larger audiences?

"No, not really. I think that, if anything, it makes it seem more real because it's not just one person, it's en masse. People are saying, "We feel the same, " And I think it stops you momentarily from feeling lonely."


"That's what keeps you wanting to go back for more, of course."

Music comes burbling out of the speakers: a truly transformative blend of pop, electronica, and alternative rock, pointing the way towards a fusion of the disparate elements of rock's fractious post-modernity. A wide-eyed, deliberate crossover, blurring boundaries, remarkable as much for its ambition as it's achievements, the whole held together by the singular voice of the woman who sings its lyrics: confident, vibrant, sexual, complex.

But enough about the new Madonna record. At Yujean Kang's, a high-end Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hill, I'm having dinner with the Garbage quartet, whose sophomore record updates the poptonica successes of its jillion-selling debut without throwing any radical stylistic curves. An acknowledgment of which, I suggest, is implicit in the tile of the followup, Version 2.0.

"No, not really," disagrees drummer/studio rat Butch Vig. You may remember Butch, a handsome, late 30-something fellow, dressed for the evening in a shiny red shirt, from pre-Garbage production glories as Nirvana's Nevermind or the Smashing Pumpkin's Siamese Dream.

"The title's supposed to be kind of cheeky."

"Ironic. Whatever," adds Shirley, poking at her picturesque food. Yujean Kang's menu offers items with quaint titles like "Picture in the Snow" (duck-and-mushroom soup), "Tea Smoked Duck," and "Shrimpcake Mountain with Ham." "But it's also a little nod to the obsession America has with electronica," she continues. "It's tongue-in-cheek. But no, [the new record's] not a dramatic departure by any stretch of the imagination."

"I think the songs are much developed; we sound much more like a band," says Butch. "But we didn't want to go, 'Okay, now let's do a know..." "Hip-hop..." adds Shirley.

"Whatever..." completes Butch.

"It's much more diverse record," offers guitarist/studio rat Steve Marker. You may remember Steve, a quiet, bespectacled late 30-something fellow...well, you may not remember Steve. Which is the way he seems to prefer it. He contributes more to the discussion, at least, than guitarist/bassist/studio rat Duke Erickson, a witty, rail-thin, 40-something fellow who keeps to himself and retreats from the table at every opportunity to cadge a smoke on the sidewalk, presumably.

"We've gone more towards the pop end of things," continues Steve, "and more towards the, uh, electronica side of things, as well. Expanded that as well."

While Steve's characterization may be more or less true. It's also true that Garbage didn't have for to go to get there. It's always been tempting to dismiss Garbage's output as voicemail pop ("We have no messages at this time"), but that dismissal is as unfair to the makeup of their music as to its aims and to the point in general of pop music. A pop record is successful to the degree to which it creates and sustains over the course of the album and alternate reality, and by this measure Garbage has succeeded wildly both on its debut and perhaps more emphatically with Version 2.0. From its pumping, exhortatory first single, "Push It," complete with Brian Wilson cop (of "Don't Worry Baby," cleared by the legendary Beach Boy himself, who asked if her could keep the tape), to the skewed pure-pop giddiness of "When I Grow Up," with its sly reference to "golden showers" ("It's our Trojan horse," affirms Shirley), to the Pretenders homage, "Special" (Chrissie Hynde, when approached by the band, kindly tendered her permission for Garbage to "sample my very ass, if they feel like it"), Version 2.0 is a multi-layered, highly-textured, relentlessly inventive melange of beats, hooks, and melodies, anchored by Shirley's nuanced and compelling delivery of her own often darkly imagistic, if sometimes content-free, lyrics. In sum: it's a really good record, a complex, crafty work, whose complexity stems in part from the process of its creation - you put more or less standard pop songs in the hands of a group of avowed studio obsessives, and wait for the magic. And wait, and wait...

"Right before Shirley left for Christmas last year, she sat Steve and Duke and I down and said, "You guys have ti start making these songs sound finished - quit noodling around," says Butch. "And then you kind of panic and go, 'Oh fuck, we have to make a decision.' We had to set ourselves a limit.

"Cause otherwise we'd just keep going eternally," adds Shirley. "We're not the type of band that's ever gonna sit down and say, "Its finished. We've made a good record.' It's never gonna happen. So we have to impose a set of rules."

"I still can't really can't let it go," declares Butch. "I got up this morning and listened to it. Beth [Butch's girlfriend] is going, "It sounds fucking great, leave it alone,' and I've got sweaty palms and heart palpations." "I actually can't listen to a lot of it," agrees Shirley. "I'm just dying to get some distance between myself and the record."

"Exactly a year," replies Shirley. "But not all of that was spent recording. We went away and did some... What I ca; pre-production , but really we hung out in a friend's house in Washington State, on San Juan Island, and we did some writing there, and jamming, and just months in the bar. Pondering. Talking. 'What we should do is this...,' or, 'Let's do this..."

"Well, we would try," adds Butch, "and it was usually abysmal, so we'd just go, 'Fuck it, let's go back to the bar.' Before we started, I went through six 90-minute tapes of us jamming on the road, at soundchecks, and like singing in the dressing room or whatever. And it was painful, trying to find little bits. But I did that, and put some stuff down onto DAT. Then when we went in March to San Juan Island to try to start writing songs together, some of the stuff right away was cool and some of it was -"

"Horrendous," Shirley interjects.

"Horrendous," he agrees "We spent a lot of time musically just like fucking around and getting noises going and jamming, and drinking wine in front of a fire, and Shirley would just ad lib lyrics and melodies. And then we would go through that and cut-and-paste. Probably half the record came from stuff that we spontaneously made up there, although it sounds totally different now."

"Literally during the mixing, we'll be 'songwriting' - in inverted commas," says Shirley. "Even though we're not a plug-in-our-guitars-and-thrash type band, the actual process that we go through is kind of like that, its like making it up on the spot on the day of mixing, which is great, really exciting."

"The songs sound the way they do only in the last week and a half, when the whole process winds up..." Steve! Good to see you!

"And it's really intense and exhilirating and draining during the last two weeks," finishes Butch, stabbing at a spring roll, his eyes staring straight ahead. In the dimly lit restaurant I imagine I can see him shudder: tonight is Wednesday. Version 2.0 was finished, or at least pried out of the band's clutches, on Sunday.

You're probably pretty much familiar with the origins of Garbage: how three producer types from archetypically midwestern Madison, Wisconsin decided in 1994 to form a band, and set about finding a lead singer. They spotted Edinburgh, Scotland native Shirley Manson on MTV, fronting Scottish hopefuls Angelfish, liked what they heard, and gave her a call. The rest is alt-rock-history, unless, like me, you're curious about how, exactly, Shirley initially auditioned for Garbage.

"Do you really want to know?" Shirley asks me with some hesitation.

Yeah, I really want to know.

"It actually consisted of tequila - lots of booze. It didn't really consist of too much, to be honest." Well, they'd seen you sing.

"They came to see me sing live and I think they liked my personality. And then we hung out together and we drank so much tequila and sort of talked about music and talked about movies and talked about sex and I think that's when they thought, "We have a lot in common."

Music, movies, sex. That about covers it.

"There was very little singing. If anything, to be honest, the singing was a disaster. And I was so nervous and so intimidated and so scared and I think they were hoping for someone to come in and just sing like Chrissie Hynde off the bat or be this amazing vocalist and strong persona. I think first of all they fell in love with my persona and then they grew to love me as a singer. That's my suspicion. I felt that they connected with me as a person. And I think that even though they didn't know it, I knew that they liked me as a person. And that's why they wanted to make it work. 'Cause my singing... I'm not a great singer."

For a whole, at the beginning, a few critics expressed suspicion of the seemingly contrived nature of Garbage's formation - three aging unhunky producers seek sex goddess for travel, riches and the occasional album - leading to silly sniping of which "Ginger Spice" is probably the most typical example. With the completion of Version 2.0, however, all that should be behind the boys and girl. Undeniably the product of a band, the new record merely confirms what originally constituted, these four operate more like a "real rock group," whatever that means, than most "real rock groups." Whatever that means.

"Every band is contrived," agrees Shirley. "If you put an ad in the NME, is that cooler, is that okay? Whatever. To be honest, it never really bothered us, because as cheesy as it sounds, we knew in our hearts we'd done it for the right reasons. It'd come together the right way. And so that didn't frighten us. And also I think that very quickly we were - and I use the term lightly - let off the hook. The were very good to us. We were very well received. And I think people responded to the songs on the radio - and again, as cheesy as that sounds, they liked it, they bought the record, and that kind of saved our bacon."

You're right, cheesy or not, no amount of contrivance or marketing is going to make people buy a record they don't like.

"And people can taste insincerity or phoniness," she adds. "It's palpable. They literally can taste it. They just won't buy it."

"I think that people sensed that it wasn't some sort of evil plot... we were lucky that somehow that go across." Steve! Good to see you!

As a sort of palate cleanser, and by way of revealing both Shirley Manson's playful side and my own ineptitude as an interviewer, I offer the following unedited transcript of a portion of a phone conversation with Shirley. Please keep in mind that what follows is representative rather than exceptional.

Shirley Manson: (possibly with heavy sarcasm) I love you, Jim Greer.
Ray Gun: Oh, shut up.
Shirley: No, you shut up!
RG: No, you shut up!
Shirley: You fucking come over her and tell me to shut up!
RG: If I could... Don't threaten me.
Shirley: (laughs) It's a long way from Los Angeles to fucking Madison, Wisconsin, baby.

Switching gears (this is a highly technical, professional rock critic move, and there simply isn't enough space to describe it fully here), I ask Shirley about "The Trick is To Keep Breathing." The title is derived from a Janice Galloway book, and I want to know if the rest of the song applies to the book, or vice versa, too. But I don't want to actually have to go and read the book.

"Well not really," answers Shirley. "To be honest, we wrote the song before I injected it with that tile. Although, looking back, the book absolutely fits in. I mean, the book deals with the mental disintegration of a female protagonist, and it really fits in with the character of the song, or... it just fits in with the feel, the emotions of the song. So it was sort of perfect in that way." Do you recommend the book?

"I think it's an amazing book. I've had a lot of dealings with the author since then, and she's psyched to be remotely involved in a rock album and we are so psyched to be remotely involved with a piece of literature. It's a completely disgusting love thing."

Those are the best kind, aren't they?

"Well, particularly, I mean, not that you know my national history, but there was a huge explosion of the male literary..."

Right, the whole Robert Burns thing...

"Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Duncan Mclean, there's sort of a huge sort of Scottish scene and it became very hip when Irvine brought out Trainspotting, basically. And I think there's a lot of - I mean, I know this is tedious - but female brilliance in Scotland that has been completely ignored, and I think this is an amazing piece of literature that should be read."

Do you know if there's a books-on-tape version?

"And again, I think the way she wrote the book is similar to what we do musically, that she has a text, and then she has a subtext. Like ib the text there is column in which she has a schizophrenic part of her nature that parallels along the main stream at the same time. And I have not really seen that in a book before. I love that." Yeah, that's interesting. Well, since you brought it up, is there a way to talk about the subtext of your music in a general way? I mean it's obviously a big subject to boil down into one sentence, but is there a way to do that? "I don't think in general," she offers, "because I think the subtext differs from song to song. So I would probably do myself a disservice if I said that there was on general subtext. I think we hope that the album works on many different levels; I mean, you can listen to it as a pop album or you can listen to it as a positive record or as a negative record. You can pretty much take it in whatever way you will. And I think that's what we try to do, make a full-blooded record, and that's what we did, or what we tried to do."

We return now to the unedited transcript.
Ray Gun: Oh shut up.
Shirley Manson: No, you shut up! You're a cynical fucking Ray Gun writer!
RG: What's that? What did you just call me?
Shirley: A cynical Ray Gun writer!
RG: You called me a cynical Ray Gun writer!
Shirley: You shut up!

Was the relative isolation of Madison, Wisconsin beneficial to the recording process? As opposed to the more usual procedure of recording in LA or New York, I mean.

"We'd all be in jail if we lived in Los Angeles full time. Or crushed beneath the wheels of a taxi in New York or something."

Steve! Good to see you!
"I nearly got knocked over by a bicycle today."
interjects Shirley. "Now how undignified would that be?" You lived by yourself in a hotel room for a year in Madison, Shirley. That seems kind of...
"Really sad and pathetic? she offers. "Absolutely." I was thinking strong and independent...
"Yeah, I'm really strong and independent and horny as hell."
Is that partly reflected in the aggression and darkness of your lyrics? Or is that just how you are?
"You know, I honestly don't know," she admits. "I think this record probably is more a shedding of skin, because I've had time to truly reflect on things that have happened in my life that have not been particularly good for me, and I really feel at this point that I have finally come of age and have been able to throw [those things] off. And I think the perversion and deviance that have occurred in the course of making this record will come out on the next one. Stay tuned."