Come close, 'cos we're gonna talk dirty. That's right, we're talking Garbage. So keep quiet as we whisper about crapping in cornflakes! Underage sex! With socks on! A love of Liam Gallagher's, er, larynx?! Ice-frozen pee incidents! And loads more things of a truly vile nature!

“When I first came here," burrs Shirley Manson in her nonsense-free Edinburgh lilt, "I thought I'd made the biggest mistake of my life. Nothing to do, I didn't know the boys, I thought they'd made the wrong decision, too. I used to go into my hotel room at nights and just scream my head off."

No wonder, 'hen'. Never mind the loneliness and the creative paranoia, it's BLOODY FREEZING. In February, Madison, Wisconsin, America's Midwest (i.e., it's in the middle of the Eastern half and nearly in Canada), is a Siberian wilderness. Last week, the wind-chill factor was minus 60. Today it's a balmy minus 20 and Garbage, forced to walk the Earth in the name of photographic 'art', are confronted with a frozen lake the size of London.

They're also confronted with persons wearing scarves wrapped around their heads pretending to be Freddy Krueger which, in America's official serial-killer heartland, you could do without, frankly. There's a waterfall in the city centre which has frozen mid-fall. Very beautiful, of course, or, as Shirley would have it, "a massive cascade of sperm", in front of which she will be photographed, inspiring the NME to pen comments such as "the ice queen! Manson, the bastard ice-queen bitch!"

Manson, the bastard ice-queen bitch, leaps from hypothermic death back into the car muttering, "I'm no' so green but I'm cabbage-lookin'," and sings along to The Smiths on the car stereo. “'Reel Around The Fountain' is my favourite," she swoons. "Er, 'The Fountain', I mean! How Freudian is that?"

Then she tells you the first of many disastrous boyfriend incidents from a beleaguered youth, ending it with a shriek of, "Don't you dare print any of that!" Last year she made the "hideous mistake" of confessing to a reporter of the time she, er, `went to the bathroom' on her boyfriend's cornflakes.

"Yes, I crapped on his cornflakes," she cringes, "and from now on I'm buttonin' mah lip." Shirley Manson, 29, lead singer with spectacularly creative wonderpop pervsters Garbage, is the least icy queen of larynxian splendour you ever could meet and her lip, thankfully, remains in its natural state: unfurled.

"We've got the Buzzbin! That's incredible..."

On the day Take That officially split on one Continent, Garbage's like-heavy-rotation-guaranteed-man MTV slot for 'Happy When It Rains' is announced on another. It's hard to tell which event has shocked them more. Today, Shirley isn't screaming alone in her hotel room, she's screaming in the studio with her proper pals at their genuinely unpredicted video success.

Well, they're allowing themselves a collective grin of, ooh, three seconds before discussing the "zillion things" they haven't done in preparation for the world-wide tour which begins in nine days. Little things such as work out what they're actually going to do/play onstage. Then rehearse it. Then meet their new crew for the first time. Then find support acts. And remember what their own names are, and so on.

"There's a possibility that a big success could happen," concurs Butch Vig, the most over-qualified drummer in the world, "but we've all been through this enough to know that everything could turn on you like that."

"We're natural pessimists," nods Duke Erickson, guitar, bass, keyboards, the most genial man in the world.

"I don't think any of us are ever content,” agrees Steve Marker, guitar, the shyest man in the world.

"It's beyond our control," decides Shirley, guitar. vocals, least self-conscious rock'n'roll vixen in the world, "but that's the way the whole world is. A lottery."

Truly, this lot couldn't blow their own comb'n'paper never mind trumpet, although they could rightfully parple out a brass band's convention-worth if they saw fit. Butch Vig has a Laughing Cavalier facial hair arrangement, is a strikingly handsome 38-year-old and projects zero evidence of his position as the most in-demand producer of the current global glitterati. Then you peruse the evidence on the walls of his compact Smart Studios complex, see what he's personally 'been through' and remember: the discs for Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth. Duke and Steve, his long-time studio chums and collaborators, are even worse, having worked with Nine Inch Nails, U2 and L7. Confessed "obsessives", they are all "thrilled" to have been nominated for two Brit Awards, although they couldn't appear, due to the rehearsal schedule.

"We're sick about it, actually," says Shirley, "it'd be our first, and probably only, awards ceremony."

There's no telling them, y'know... Shirley: "We wanted to wear tuxedos and bow ties and flowing taffeta gowns and cavort with prostitutes and reams and reams of cocaine...

Steve: "But we thought it was more important to rehearse...

Shirley: "So instead we've got a cup of water, some cold soup, a really loud rehearsal room with nae soundproofing and nae toilet. Truly! When it was minus 60 wind-chill factor last week we still had to piss in the car park. And, as you know, it's much harder for girls. And then Daniel (bass), poor soul, slipped on our frozen pee. Bass player in horrific black ice-frozen pee accident!"

Garbage's suspicion-rousing position as three producers and a feisty 'chick' gleaned from MTV (Shirley's performance with her post-Goodbye Mr Mackenzie combo, Angel Fish) is now long obliterated. And, as Shirley says, "how we came together is no more odd than advertising for a bass player in NME."

Garbage's eponymous debut album, released last year, confirmed them as, quite simply, a fantastic pop group: luscious guitar layering, meddling with samples and loops. and studio boffinry 'FX' as conjured by, literally, some of the finest minds of a musical generation, resulting in melodious avant-garde electra-pop-rock mastery featuring a vocal sound of delicious perversion. And lyrics about sex and tolerance and depravity and compromise and obsession and longing.

It's packaged in lovingly contemplated limited-edition sleeves made from metal, rubber, holograms and cloth bags, i.e., textures for feeling, because Garbage, as all the best people do, live in the sensual world. With feather boas wrapped around their microphone. Wearing dark-blue nail varnish (and that's just the blokes). Perfect. As is the new UK single, 'Stupid Girl', a superb, soaring, electronic glimmer of, pandimensional, well, goth.

"It's our version of Madonna's 'Express Yourself," grins Shirley, "about people who squander their potential. In everything. It could easily have been called 'Stupid Boy'."

Be warned, faint-hearted brothers and sisters of the kids: Garbage can see right through you.

"Git oot ma hoose!"

It's Butch, of course, in the pub, their favoured drinkerie, Cafe Montmartre, and at 7.30pm he has already taken on the effervescent gleam of the roundly refreshed. He's practising his Scottish and has thus far mastered the art of the unpronounced 't' as “gi' oo' ma hoose!" A man who once used to smoke "a ton of pot", he's taken up the demon tab for the first time "since I met Shirley" and is now pretending to smoke like a Frenchman; cigarette at 45 degrees, eyebrows aloof, "excusey-moi?".

Garbage are drinking whisky-based cocktails and enthusing about NME's newly purchased Laser-Light, a multi-colourific, revolving disco-ball which they demand is plugged in for immediate public display. Simultaneously, Barry White's 'Hang On In There Baby' booms from the jukebox to huge cheers. The men are discussing how "embarrassing" it is to be American because of, as Butch says, "the f---ing loud-mouthed, arrogant, stupid, rude f---ing tourists". Garbage, then: one of us. It's in their tunes as much as their deftly arched eyebrows.

"Yeah," nods Butch, "we're cross-pollinated and that's a very British thing. 'Happy When It Rains' was about what happened with grunge and the angst-filled thing which has dominated the American alternative rock scene. With us there's self-deprecation, we have to poke fun at ourselves because we're so incredibly obsessive about the songs and the lyrics, which makes us filled with self-loathing, hurhur."

Lifelong lovers of British music (Butch was president of the Madison Roxy Music Fan Club), the men of Garbage are as frothed at the gills at our unfeasibly still-burgeoning good times-ago-go as anyone on Earth.

Talk turns to Oasis and no-one shuts up for 20 minutes. Especially Butch.

Butch: "'Wonderwall' is just a brilliant, universal pop song, period. That's what's done it for Oasis here, taken them to a new level. It's so fascinating with the brothers, seeing how f---ed up they are, their relationship, seeing them onstage, how weird it is. Noel's a brilliant songwriter but Liam has this incredible charisma in his voice, this distortion thing with the microphone, it's just phenomenal. Duke and I were drunk in here once and were trying to top each other as to who could be more like Liam (begins singing in voice more like Bonehead's than Liam's, probably), 'Ah don' beliieeeve that ainnee baadhy feels the way ah doa, aboat choo naaahow!' I mean, what is it? How does he do that? And Shirley wants to shag Liam!"

Shirley: "F--- off! I do not! (Belts your correspondent's arm) Don't you dare print that! I don't fancy him anyway. I don't! I just fancy his larynx. 'Cos you can see it when he sings."

Garbage's debut touring experience last year was "exhausting, hilarious, wonderful" and Shirley pronounces their fans "pretty normal, as it goes".

Steve: "Or, y'know that guy at the bar yesterday who was going to kill us if we didn't let him buy us a drink (bonkers, suicidally-drunken bearded character in a stetson)? They're all like that. Sixty-five-year-old men. Very sad."

Haranguing you about production techniques, I dare say.

Duke: "And we just say, 'We can't remember how we did that! It was divine inspiration!'

No longer are Garbage preoccupied with the illustrious past achievements of their men.

"We used to be," says Shirley, "a lot. But now we don't give a toss. We just get on with getting on really badly."

Butch: "Shurrup, you f---ing bitch, God dammit! I'm going to do a solo record! Can I have the biggest ego today?"

Shirley: "My ego is like my little heart - it puffs up and then it puffs down again on a regular basis."

Butch: "Every six seconds. It's a rollercoaster-ride vibe we're talking about here. So... piss off ye weak shite! It's like when we bring new people in to work with... (adopts lofty intellectual's voice) the men in Garbage are pragmatic and prone to analyse all the situations and then deciding which tactical course should be implemented..."

Shirley: "And I walk in and say, 'Mmm... I love him, I hate her, I love her and I hate him!'"

What is notable about the achievements of the men of Garbage is that these multi-talented, twin-careered wizards could, conceivably, go back to The Day Job at any time. Painfully insecure for Shirley, one would imagine.

Butch: "Well. I'd have to say that's not a true statement. We have this studio which we run, but Garbage is the coolest thing I've ever done. Definitely. Everyone's told me I'm crazy, I've put my production career on hold and I could be making a ton more money but this is what excites me, creating music with these people. Any of us can walk away for whatever reason, and that would shake up the entire band, because Garbage is the four of us sitting in a room arguing with each other constantly. Making records is all about chemistry and psychology, nothing else."

Duke: "I could always go back to working at the pizza-parlour. (Rest of the band stare at him in stunned silence) I thought that was funny!"

Butch: "There's that dry sense of humour there from the Dukester! (Shouting) A pepperoni double-cheese, a coupla fries and onions please! (Regaining composure) I think we made a really cool pop record. In the end it all comes down to the music we make and that's it, period. (Becoming alarmingly intense) And you are looking at my personal life right here, around this table. For the last two years, these have been my family, we've become a band. Even when people don't play that well. And I have to say that we don't all play really well."

Duke: "Speak for yourself!"

Steve: "Thank you."

Shirley (who has been watching this 'debate' unfold with increasing mirth): "It's the same with any band - you can predict nothing."

Butch: "Anyway, Take That just broke up, for Christ's sake! Let's talk about Take That..."

Shirley: "Gary Barlow going solo? Christ, talk about a charisma bypass!"

"Aren't they the sweetest guys in the world?” wibbles Shirley, deciding to take the hotel stretch-limo ("hilarious!") next morning to her favourite shop in Madison, Joys And Trifles, the greatest second-hand everything shop in the known galaxy.

"Aren't they, though? Or maybe it's just, like, because I love them. And they ended up working with a bitch like me!"

Shirley Manson laughs with what can only be described as a flip-top head, throwing her head right back in a dastardly filthy swine of an intentional guffaw. The kind of guffaw that can wake a soul from near-death at 7am. From a room two floors below.

"Och, that's not true!" she blithers.

It is true. Take it from a soul who was two floors up.

She lives in Madison - "shit-hole!" -for anything up to three months and in Edinburgh the rest of the time. Or, as it is now, on-ver-road. She has a boyfriend of six years, Eddie, who this week is visiting Madison on his first trip to America; a man of profound warmth and twinkling bonhomie from rural Gleneagles, Scotland, who wears a tartan scarf - "It froze to my face the other day" - and endeavours to tell Daniel, the Los Angeles-born bass-player, all about the joys of the annual Celtic 'tattie holiday' (i.e., children are booted out of school for a week in October to pick potatoes at 6am to earn money for clothes, Tennent's Extra, etc.).

Naturally, Daniel remains bamboozled. Eddie and Shirley giggle and guffaw like nine-year-olds at all times. That'll be love, then. Bastards. She has clothes-poles for eyelashes - "my mascara darling!" - wears an expression of amusement at all times and has nil truck with her position as beloved sexual siren to millions, alluding to her desire to get up onstage in the first place as "an unbelievably weird and sad and disgusting personality flaw".

Nonetheless she is a Proper Pop Star; an inspirational pioneer for a Jarvis-esque realism, individuality, glamour and the zest of the honest world. Famously, she was the victim of the school bully, threatened with physical violence until she was really ill. The kids thought she was posh and called her Bloodhound and Froggy 'cos "my eyes stick out". She was born without ambition, sabotaged her academic education by giving it all up, in effect, for rock'n'roll: punk pa's and booze and fags and sniffing lighters. She joined a drama group outside school "and that's when the serious drinking began because we were with adults".

She was a goth.

"Yep," she grins, "well, never a proper goth 'cos I couldn't dye my hair black 'cos black hair on a redhead is frightful. It broke my heart that I couldn't have fabulous black hair like Siouxsie Sioux. And I had no money. My parents refused to give me any pocket money because they knew I was smoking so I never even had money for hair dye. Or cool clothes. I had to wear Dad's. Unbelievable."

She was encouraged by her chums mothers, one of whom was a prostitute; they'd crimp the girls' hair and give them dope. Shirley's mum was just glad I wasn't hanging out with total headcases". Dad wasn't convinced. He'd hide in cupboards waiting for Shirley to come home.

"He'd wait up for me at 3am," blinks Shirley, "wait for me to pass, and leap out of the cupboard going, 'What-are-you doing-coming-in-at-this-time-of-the-night?' He was trying to terrorise me to make me stop, but I got tired of empty rebellion very quickly, anyway. And then all I wanted to do was have a boyfriend. Sex took over."

Shirley insists she was an "ugly-pugly girl, no boys liked me" and her heart was broken by her childhood sweetheart.

"I was madly in love with one boy all throughout my schooldays, from primary school right through," she blubs. "We went to school camp and we were on this trek, got to the top of this hill and everyone took their cagoules off and I was all excited because this boy was standing beside me. I tried to get out of this cagoule and got stuck in the elasticated threads. Eventually, I struggled out, and turned around only to find him in a clinch with Karen Barnes, the school beauty. I was devastated, ran all the way down the hill, greeting, (Scottish for blubbing), got into my tent and, as I headed in, my elasticated trousers got caught in the zip of the tent opening, pulled them down, and everyone saw my bare arse as I fell in. And pissed themselves laughing. So I just sat in there. Greeting!"

At 15 'it' finally happened.

"My very first boyfriend ever was... an older man," says Shirley, coyly, "he was... 25. A music teacher."

Your music teacher?

"Not exactly, no," she squirms, "well. he was involved in the drama group. I was crazy about him... I lost my virginity. officially. He was breaking the law, hargargh! The actual event was ghastly. We did it in his grotty bachelor friend's house while the friend was asleep on the couch down below. There were porno mags all over the bedroom and - oh God, I don't want to think about it! Socks were on. Vests were on. 'Cos we were desperate to get it on!

"I remember hearing the words loud and clearly in my cranium, 'Is that it?', but then after that we were at it like rabbits for months. The relationship lasted about three weeks but the sexual relationship carried on. Heheheh! Oh God! (Appalled, begins shrieking) I wish I'd had an interesting, exciting life and could be really outrageous, but it's all small-town-fry nothing!"

Shirley worked in Miss Selfridge for five years, where she loved her "comrades", hated the "pettiness. bitchiness and vanity" of the customers and admired her criminally talented chum who'd flummox the staff bag search policy by tying bras and knickers and jewellery round her thighs under a huge skirt. Shirley handed in her notice on the same day as her two best mates but was saved from a wilderness on the dole by the singer of Goodbye Mr Mackenzie.

"I knew I could hold a tune," she chirps about her backing singing career launch, "and if he was stupid enough to ask me, then I would do it. For a laugh."

She's been buffeted by the winds of other people's fate ever since, and, she notes, "I'm in the privileged position of knowing about failure. There is no more profound a lesson."

What, incidentally, did that boy whose cornflakes you, er, 'went to the bathroom' on, do to 'deserve' it?

"Oh, it wasn't a punishment," she howls, "I did it for a laugh. I dunno, just to freak him out -there were a few times where I'd terrorise him with body fluids."

Were tampons involved? "There were a few tampon stories. I've never felt shy about my bodily functions and people's squeamishness about it makes me laugh. (Appalled once more) Oh God! I've had enough of telling people things like this! Let's talk about Goethe! My mother keeps saying, 'Shirley, people are going to think you're a moron.' And I'm going, 'Och no, Mum', but inside I'm thinking, 'Am I a moron? Do I behave like a moron?' I lust want to be as honest as I can. The thing that is weird is, people have this idea that I'm constantly up and energetic and I'm actually a slothful depressive."

You will have noticed by now that Shirley's pronounced inability to blow her own bugle has reached crisis level. Her thoughts, for example, on her voice which is so revered for it's swampian sensual timbre?

"I don't think that my voice is the least bit sensual," she balks, "I sing like that because I'm asthmatic..."

And Garbage's elegantly moodsome Top of The Pops appearance with 'Queer'?

"We were like, 'They're all going to point to us and say, 'Fakes! Phoneys! You're not fabulous pop stars from outer space, you're from Madison, Wisconsin and Edinburgh, Scotland. Impostors!"' And we think that way ourselves."

Always feeling herself to be somehow 'special'?

"Quite the opposite. I was completely resigned to the fact that I would have, in inverted commas, a normal mediocre life. It's because I'm a Scot. It's true! I've never felt, and would never ever think, that I'm any more special than anyone else."

Her blessed good fortune? "I've had bizarre things come in at moments when I really haven't had a clue what I'm doing. The onus has been removed from me, I'm ashamed to say. So that makes me think, 'So when's the payback? I live a fairytale life - a wonderful family, the best friends ever, a great job', so I think, 'Something's going to take away someone that I love, something's going to come along and punish me for my good luck.' I think that literally every day of my life. Horrible, eh? And each day things get better and better, and so the worse it gets. I think that's also a very Scottish attitude. No bloody wonder we drink!"

It was on a family holiday on a farm in rural France that Shirley thought her father was dying. The genetics scientist, not the kind of man to complain, was in massive abdominal pain, spitting up blood. Shirley's mum woke her in the night to find a phone, find an ambulance. Panicking, Shirley ran so fast on the way back from the public phone, she fell over a wall. She didn't know how it happened, one minute she was running, next she was standing right up to her neck in water. She started screaming and heard a voice behind her say, 'What are you doing down there?' She turned round and Eddie was standing on top of the wall looking down.

"And the light from the cottage," says Shirley, "was shining behind his head and there was literally a halo shining above his head, a full circle, an absolute halo. I stretched my hands up and he stretched down and our fingers just touched, just enough, and I think it was because I had so much adrenaline in my body that I propelled myself, literally, out of the water. Straight up, honestly, just whoosh! So I felt that Eddie had saved me. One of the most incredible experiences of my life. It turned out my dad was having a gall bladder attack, but I had never experienced the feeling that one of my parents could die before. I really faced it then."

Bonkers Tim Charlatan once said he thought of his girlfriend as a Christ-like figure and to that Shirley says, "Well, that's how I feel about Edward." Then she nearly throws up on herself. "I can't talk about that! I feel all funny... There's people about!"

She's a natural pessimist who feels emotions supernaturally deeply: "I do feel deeply, yeah. It's one of my strengths and one of my greatest weaknesses."

She is every inch the whisky slewin', cornflake abominatin', flip-top head laughing genial spectre of The Direct Approach, but she's also a death-obsessin', super-sensitive, "weird-vibe" detecting, dark debater of the inner psyche. She gave up smoking, for example, not because, being asthmatic, she'd die if she didn't, but out of respect for her boyfriend's niece who died of cancer at seven.

"I think of her as this angel," she states, "sent down to teach everyone who was touched by her some kind of lesson about their own life and their own values. So I won't abuse or gamble with what I have."

Such is her fascination with The Big Picture, she once considered studying Theology at university after the Mackenzie broke up. Tampon-abusin' Shirley Manson in cassock-totin' gainful priestdom employment shocker!

"I was not going to become a priest!" she guffaws. "I'm just interested. I'm a ridiculous fantasist at times. I do think beyond what I'm seeing and I just sit and think a lot, out of boredom, because I don't do much a lot of the time. I'm obsessed with death. Obsessed. It absolutely terrifies me, losing people that I love. I'm such a negative person that I always try and find something good in it, a peaceful resolution, otherwise I would go mad. If I thought life was meaningless and hopeless then I'd just want to die. Peace of mind is happiness and happiness is... The Truth. Oh God, what's that supposed to mean? Will you promise me I won't sound like a completely daft idiot?"

Shirley leaps from her poleaxed position on the studio sofa and pronounces herself "starvin". Rehearsals are in half an hour. The clock is beginning to "birl", as they say in Arbroath, towards tour-time and Garbage's inevitable foothold on the plinth to proper fame; fame being a notion Shirley finds "incredibly dangerous". Already, she gets "freaked out"; things like make-up artists telling her her eyes would look better in videos if they tied her ears up with string.

'I always feel like, well, what happens when the string comes off?" she howls. "You can see how you really look and hate yourself! So you turn down the string and you look at yourself in the video and your eyes look hellish or your tits are sagging or your arse is doon at your knees, and you have to deal with that. It's really strange and unhealthy.

“Even all this talking about ourselves is unhealthy. It's ludicrous! All because we want people to hear our record. Imagine selling trillions and trillions of records? Och, my God, I mean... it's insanity..."

And with that, she's off to captivate the globe with the gift of her sensual... asthma. Shirley Manson and The Boys Of Garbage: off their rocking chair in a mental home near you any second now. No strings attached.

by Sylvia Patterson