The band Garbage capped off the 1990s alternative rock revolution with the release of their classic eponymous debut album, which features such memorable hits as "Only Happy When It Rains" and "Stupid Girl." The band is currently on tour supporting the release of the 20th Anniversary Edition of their debut, with a stop at the gorgeous, and recently renovated Kings Theater in Brooklyn on Saturday, October 24th. We recently spoke with frontwoman, Shirley Manson—below, she discusses her band's influence, Kanye West, Demi Lovato, and how even she can't afford to live in NYC anymore.
You’re on tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of your debut album, and what is really remarkable to me about that record is how Garbage had such a clear and complete vision both sonically and lyrically right from the get-go. And yet the band met under really awkward circumstances, where you were spotted on MTV and brought into multiple auditions, and things didn’t really click at first. So how did you move so quickly from such an awkward beginning to sounding like you’d been a band together for years? I have absolutely no answer for that question. [laughs]. Looking back, we got incredibly lucky. I really don’t have an explanation for it other than that when they did finally make a decision about who they wanted to have sing on a track, we enjoyed this incredible chemistry, and we really did connect as people, which is rare. You don’t necessarily really click with everyone you meet, and I think that’s maybe one of the reasons I got the job in the first place. Originally they just wanted me to sing one song, but then it became an entire record and a band and this incredible career in the end, and that I think was just really the sum parts of all of us as individuals just somehow connecting on a particular plane of some sort.
You also had been a member of the band Angelfish for about 10 years at that point, and obviously Butch Vig had been producing bands for a long time. Do you think the experience of being in and around bands for a while might have helped? Definitely. It wasn’t our first ride at the rodeo by any stretch of the imagination. I had been in a band, and we’d had record label deals that fell through, and so did Butch, so we had a lot of experience under our belt by the time we met, and that definitely helped us to form a sort of idea of what we needed to do.
After being in Angelfish for so long, you became hugely successful seemingly overnight with Garbage, and for some people like Kurt Cobain, success can be a nightmare. Were you able to enjoy the sudden success that you had, or was it overwhelming, or maybe even a bit of a nightmare? It was all of the above. It was fantastical and enjoyable and incredibly gratifying. To be in a band for a decade and to travel Europe literally in the back of a transit van with six other players in a band was not easy, and often we’d arrive at shows and there’d be nobody really there to see it. So to finally be in a band that people were eager to see and people were wanting to hear the music was an incredible experience, but I found dealing with the press taxing and stressful, and the whole experience was incredibly fatiguing and exhausting. We hardly slept. Sometimes we were playing two shows a day, and we had to go to radio and do all sorts of record store appearances and so on and so forth. You just never stopped, and we were physically, totally fucked by the end of that first tour.
I think all of the effort you made then might have contributed towards your having such a long career. I thought your last album, Not Your Kind of People, was great. Generally if a band makes an album 18 years into their career, 99.9% of the time it’s awful. How are you able to keep making good music almost 20 years into your career? Well, that is being incredibly kind. I think we try to be honest, and when you’re being honest, that’s truth, and truth is universal, and it resonates with people. I think that is the most important tool that we have at our disposal. How do you be yourself? How do you tell the truth about who you are as a person in the world and where you’re at. We’re not trying to pretend we’re 15 years old. I think a lot of older bands fall into that trap of feeling embarrassed by their age and feeling that they have to pretend they’re something that they’re not and that they’re hipper than they are, and we have never, ever been like that. By modern standards, we were old when our debut came out. I think it’s just important as an artist, in all genres of music and art, to be truthful.
This idea of not being truthful in music reminds me of comments you’ve made about how the pop world now is reverting back to a 1950s-like era where songs are written by people behind the scenes, and the audience has no idea that the performers had nothing to do with their composition. But lately I have been seeing a lot of expose-style articles about these Wizard of Oz-type figures like Dr. Luke and Max Martin, even though they - Max in particular - deliberately try to remain anonymous. Do you think there could be a backlash brewing against the deceptiveness of today’s pop world? I don’t think people care for the most part. People particularly who love pop music, I don’t think they care too much about who wrote the song and how was it produced and under what circumstances. I think they just enjoy a great pop song, and god forbid that ever end because there’s something incredibly beautiful about that. I love pop music and I don’t knock someone like Max Martin, who’s a fucking genius at writing incredible pop songs. When we talk about backlash, I don’t think it’s a backlash necessarily. I just think it’s a cyclical sort of change in the weather in terms of what people are looking for. Everyone’s always looking for something that’s different, and we’ve now had a decade of pop domination, and I think people are just a little tired of hearing one particular genre of music, and they’re wanting to look for something else. I think when there are turns in fashion, it’s always the extreme, the opposite of what’s currently in vogue. That’s what I think we’re currently seeing now. People are just like, what’s the new trend? It’s the opposite of the pop manufacturing that we’ve enjoyed for ten years, so I think they’re now looking for a little more authenticity, and some honesty, and perhaps not the shiny pop that we’ve become accustomed to lately.
I hope that’s true. I think it’s one of the reasons why Garbage’s music holds up well. But also, we don’t sound like anybody else. That’s also a good thing too. There are a plethora of bands now, and we do sound different. Whether you love us or hate us, to actually sound different is really difficult now, because everybody sounds the same. They really do. It's a million people that sound like Demi Lovato. Sometimes I can’t even differentiate between some of the artists on the radio.
That’s also because Max Martin is writing all of their songs! There’s always that as well. But even vocally, even the voices are the same.
That’s true. But you’re so right, the same songwriters are dominating the charts, and it’s almost like a recipe and a criteria that you have to adhere to to get your record played on the radio.
That said, I feel like at times I can hear the influence of Garbage on music I hear on the radio. Like Lorde, for example. Her music is trippy, dark, sardonic, romantic…to me it sounds like an interesting update of Garbage. Do you hear an influence that your band has had on music today? Of course! Of course I do. Ever since we came out, I’ve heard bands and artists that have clearly been influenced by our records. It’s always just a great sign that you’ve infiltrated the culture. That’s the biggest compliment you could possibly get. And every time a new band comes out that really enjoys a zeitgeist moment, it changes the musical framework permanently, and so each artist, each generation builds upon the last. It’s evolution. And so, yeah, I think that’s a huge compliment.
So this interview is for Gothamist, which is a website about New York. What are your thoughts on our fair city? I love New York. It is my favorite American city by far. I would have moved there had I been able to afford it, but I didn’t want to live in a tiny little apartment. I thought I’d go mad.
You live in LA if I recall? I settled in Los Angeles. I live in Los Angeles.
You have no idea how many musicians and artists I know that have been priced out of New York and moved to Los Angeles, and it’s crazy that someone of your stature can’t even afford New York. It’s kind of a sad tale how artists are getting pushed out of the city and being replaced by millionaires from Europe. That’s what always happens to New York! Come on, that’s an age-old situation that will never change. It’s never the artists who take over cities in the end. They take them over when they’re crumbling and falling apart, they build them up, and then the rich people come in and take over, and that’s how it goes. But yeah, I love New York. I love the thrust of it. It’s exciting, and it’s beautiful and historical. I couldn’t wax poetic enough about it, truth be told.
One more question. There was that Kanye West kerfuffle earlier this year when you posted on Facebook that you thought that his rushing the stage when Beck won the Best Album Grammy was incredibly disrespectful. I totally agree, but later on at the VMAs I thought he made an interesting point, which was that there’s a certain cruelty to awards shows, because you’re sending four artists who probably made great records home feeling like they’re losers. Taylor Swift said that after she lost the Best Album Grammy to Daft Punk, she took it so hard that the very next day she began work on a new album, which became 1989. Do you think there’s a twistedness to the very idea of an awards show? I think there’s a twistedness to the world, and we all get hurt, and that’s just too bad. That’s part of living, and that’s part of being a human being. You get disappointed, and yeah, they’re unfair, but that’s just how it goes. There’s a lot of unfairness in this life, and if we all sit and weep over every time we fail, we would just sit in a puddle of tears. So you brush yourself off and you put on a fucking stiff upper lip and you get on with it. Particularly, if you’re at an awards show, you’re already fucking 99.9% more privileged than 99.9% of the world, you know? Go to fucking India and see people living on a traffic island, or living on a garbage dump, and then come crying to me and I might have some sympathy. But let's wake up people to actually what’s important in the world. Losing an award or two is not one of them. Sorry...it makes me crazy!
I suspect that being able to brush off disappointment is another reason why you’re still doing this after 20 years. You know the thing that drives me nuts about our culture right now? It’s this whole thing that goes on in schools where nobody’s a winner. Everyone that takes part in the egg and spoon race gets a prize. It’s just so infantile, you know? It’s just crazy. I’m sorry, but we all have to learn to live with disappointment. It’s good for you. Because failure is when you grow, you know?