Shirley Manson

Playing with Garbage

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Before he launched Garbage, drummer Butch Vig was already the well-known producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish. Smart Studios, the recording complex in Madison, Wisconsin he ran with guitarist Steve Marker, was ground zero for the alternative rock scene when Vig, Marker and multi-instrumentalist Duke Erickson decided to start a band that would turn the conventions of indie rock inside out and upside down. As their sound developed, they mashed up techno, grunge, trip hop, avant-garde guitar noise, pop music, show tunes and samples of random sounds, into something that sounded, at first, like garbage. Hence the band’s self-deprecating name. When Marker saw a video of Scottish singer Shirley Manson and her band, Angelfish, they invited her to Wisconsin for an audition. Her understated presence was a perfect counterpoint to the band’s loud, pop impulses and a groundbreaking band was born. Manson spoke to SOMA about the twentieth anniversary of the band’s eponymous debut album and her thoughts on being an iconic stage presence.

Butch Vig, Duke Erickson and Steve Marker had been playing together for ten years when they asked you to join the band. Was that intimidating?

It was, as it would be for any musician that was unproven and inexperienced. I’d been in a band for a decade or more, so as time wore on, my experience allowed me to hold my own with these three men I found myself working with, but it was unbelievably overwhelming. When they called me, I was stumbling from one opportunity to the next, hoping for the best, so who knows what would have happened without that phone call.

You’d never written a song before joining the band. Can you describe the songwriting process?

I sang in the other bands I was in. When [the guys] asked me point blank, “Do you write?” I knew I had to wing it and said, “Yeah.” They took me to Steve’s house. They had everything set up in the basement and ran a cable upstairs to the living room of the house. It was just long enough to put my mike at the bottom of the stairs so they could shut the door to the basement. I had headphones to hear my vocals, but they had to come to the top of the stairs and shout down to me to give instructions. I had to make up lyrics to the songs on the spot. As an audition, it was a bit of a washout. I wished them well and went back to Scotland. Their manager called a few weeks later and asked how it had gone. I told him it was a disaster. He said the band felt the same way, but they felt a connection to me. They wanted to know if I’d come back and have another shot. I did, and the rest is history.

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Combining so many styles was a risk when Garbage started. Did you have any hesitation when you heard the direction they were going in?

When I first became involved, they hadn’t started the sonic experimentation yet. The songs were straightforward chord progressions, with no hint of where the music was going to end up. It was exciting to see all the parts come together as they brought in the loops and samples. It’s only in retrospect we realize that the first Garbage album was an archetype for where contemporary music was going.

Did you have a conscious sense of style when you started playing with Garbage? How did your stage
persona develop?

I’m always mystified as to why anyone thinks I’m a stylish person. If you look back at the old footage of the band and me, you’ll see there was no style to be had at all. [Laughter.] Most musicians at the time wore plaid shirts and ripped jeans. I was in lipstick and makeup and singing about the abuse by the priests in the Catholic Church. The clothing I bought on the cheap at thrift stores. I couldn’t afford to buy the clothes I wanted. Everybody flipped over the dress I wore in the “Stupid Girl” video, which I got at Rampage, a teen clothing store, for $21.99. I believe it was the full thrust of my personality that infiltrated the clothing, but that’s all in retrospect. I think it was what I was saying and how I was carrying myself that defined my style, not what I was wearing.

Will you play the first album from beginning to end on this upcoming tour? Have you ever done it before?

The short answer is, “Yes and no.” When we start rehearsals, we’ll have to learn songs like “Alien Sex Fiend” and “Stroke of Luck” that we never played live.

How is work on the new album going? Will you be playing any new songs on the tour?

The tour and celebration is focused one-hundred-percent on the first record. It’s a nod to our history. It’s very selfish. There will be no new songs. The new album is written, produced and recorded. We have yet to finish the mixing, but the bulk of it is done. The intention is to release it early in 2016.


Text by J. Poet
Photograph by Joseph Cultice