Shirley Manson On The 20th Anniversary Of Garbage’s Self-Titled Debut LP: Idolator Interview
Garbage’s self-title debut LP turned 20 on August 15. To celebrate the milestone, the band is hitting the road with their 20 Years Queer Tour — a five-week trek that kicks off in San Diego, California on October 6 and winds up in Edinburgh, Scotland on November 14. (Get your tickets here). The veteran rockers will play the album in full, so you’ll hear all the hits (“Vow,” “Stupid Girl,” “Only Happy When it Rains” and “Queer”) as well as the B-Sides.
I recently spoke with Shirley Manson about the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut LP and their upcoming tour. She reminisced about auditioning for Garbage (it went terribly) and admitted that she didn’t think they would get very far! The fiery frontwoman also talked about the nostalgia-soaked rehearsal process and revealed that they already have album number six in the can. Find out more below.
You described your audition for Garbage as terrible, which I always thought was funny given the success that followed. I didn’t think it was so funny, Mike. [Laughs]. I felt really overwhelmed, because when the band first approached me, they had asked me if I was a writer. In a split second decision, I panicked, and thought that I wouldn’t get the chance to work with them if I said that I didn’t write. So, I said, “yeah, I write,” having never written a note of music or words in my entire life. Of course, when I got to the audition process, they said, “Okay, here’s some music, make something up over the top of it.”
I was frozen to the spot, literally. I was frozen in terror. I think they sensed my discomfort. We managed to stumble through that first meeting, but I think that the connection between us as people was so strong that they invited me back a second time. They had clearly clicked that putting me on the spot like that wasn’t really going to show my voice off in the best light, so they had come up with some sketches of songs.
I basically sang those sketches, and that’s when they fell in love with my voice. Then, over the course of working on the record with them, I began to feel more and more comfortable, so when they asked me to start writing, I was able to write. I literally, by the skin of my teeth must have survived. I’m so grateful to them, because had I not been forced into that kind of position, I don’t think I would have ever been a creative person. I was too scared of failure when I was young.
I also read that Butch Vig consciously set out to make a pop record — to stand out from the other grunge rockers. Is that correct? To be perfectly fair, I had no grand plan in my mind. I can’t speak for the rest of the band. I would imagine, knowing Butch as I do, knowing that he’s an incredibly humble person, in terms of being very generous to everyone in the band over our career. I’m sure he had an idea of what he wanted to do musically, he’s really smart.
He had already worked with the titans of alternative rock, and I think he probably is smart enough to understand that, if you can’t beat somebody at their own game — you can’t beat a titan — then you have to create a new lane. I think that’s probably what was at work. That’s a question I’ve yet to hear Butch answer, but I suspect that he had a big plan of how he wanted to approach making music.
When they asked you to join the band, did you feel like the stars had finally aligned after a couple of false starts? No. There was no special feeling at all. If the truth be told, it’s only really in the last few years that I’ve realized actually, we do have something really special. I have spent my entire career internally denigrating anything that we achieved and anything that we did. It’s only very recently that I’ve been able to look back at what we did, and how we did it, and the fact that we stayed together, and we’ve been kind to one another. That’s an incredible achievement.
Absolutely. Then, looking back musically at what we did, I think I’m proud of what we did as a band, and how we continued to evolve. When we first started out, I couldn’t imagine anyone really buying me as a front person. I thought they were going to look at us and say, “that girl doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s a terrible singer!” I’m not saying that to be funny, I am being absolutely genuine when I tell you that. Of course, the band was so much older as well. Before we even released a track, I was like, “We’re dead in the water,” because there’s so much bigotry towards people who are older. “We’re fucked.” That was my outlook at the time, and how wrong I was.
I listened to Garbage the other day and I was amazed by how well it holds up. How do you feel about it 20 years on? I feel the same way, actually. You could hear it on alternative radio today and it wouldn’t sound out of place. I think a lot of the themes of that record were as a result of us being older. The themes are grown up. I don’t feel bad singing these songs today, because they’re dealing with things that are as vital and urgent now as they were 20 years ago to me, and to the band. I’m proud of that record.
Are there any tracks that stand out in particular? Well, “Queer” just because I feel like, as a band, long before it was considered hip, we really believed in civil rights for everybody and we were really aware that the LGBT community did not enjoy equal rights. It was something that was important to us. We were outraged by it, so I have a great affinity for “Queer” to this day. I think it speaks to anyone who doesn’t fit in, everyone who’s not being treated fairly. “Queer” is an anthem for that, and I love that song as a result.
“As Heaven Is Wide” too. It deals with a lot of the abuse that went on within the Catholic church. I’m proud that we had a song that was tackling that, in a time when really nobody wanted to talk about it.
“Queer” was quite shocking at the time. It’s funny now, because things have changed musically so much. So much has changed with how the mainstream behaves now towards that community, but you’re right. At that time it was a bold move.
On the flip side, are there any songs on the album that haven’t aged as well? Not really, I guess we’re approaching all the songs as a kind of curated experience for our live show at this point. As a whole, they all work together in a funny symbiotic way. I don’t know whether it speaks to my lack of intelligence, but I still feel excited anytime I sing any song. I don’t relate to a lot of artists who go, “If I ever sing that song again, I’ll kill myself.” I never feel like that. I feel like every song has some kind of meaning for an individual.
We’ve received so many letters and messages over the years and every song has been mentioned at some point by someone, and you sort of fall in love with those connections that you make with other people, through these songs, they’re conduits. Each one is as valued as the others for me.
So, you’re playing the album in full on the tour? We have yet to decide the exact set order, but yes, we are playing every track of the record and all the accompanying B-Sides that were released, mostly in the UK. That’s the idea, we want to really concentrate on 1995 and 1996, and celebrate that whole passage of time, just because it makes things really special for us. To play new material that we haven’t played, and some of these songs we’ve never played live — it’s exciting for us.
What is it like rehearsing those songs again after 20 years? It’s fucking nuts. It really does feel like we’ve turned into weird time travelers. Before we started rehearsal, all our crew, the whole band, they were like, “Manson, you’re going to have to get yourself an autocue, that’s a lot of songs to remember in three weeks.” We’ve got three weeks rehearsal, and I was thinking, “Yeah, you know what, you’re right, do I need autocue, have I reached that point in my life?”
We’ve now been rehearsing for a week now, and the songs have come back. Some strange sort of lyric sheet for them has popped up in front of my eyes. I can remember the songs. I guess muscle memory kicks in, in some weird way. It’s not been as difficult as I thought. It does feel very strange, like we have gone and traveled through time.
Does it bring back any of the emotions you were going through when you wrote the songs? It does a little, actually. It’s funny that you say that. I started feeling that yesterday at rehearsal. The immediate taxing of the brain to remember all the parts, and when you come in and when you don’t come in, all that as my past, and I remember the songs as they were. Yesterday at rehearsal my mind started to wander, and go, “Oh yeah, this was what was going on then,” and, “Oh, yeah, that’s how I was feeling.” I can remember all the stuff I was thinking about.
The corduroy of the skirt I was wearing on tour in 1995, and I remember the feeling of pulling the zip up on the back of the skirt. Crazy shit like that. Food that we ate, and cocktails that we were drinking back then, it’s really fucking nutty.
One last question. When are we getting new music? Yeah, we have a new record in the bag actually, that we’re going to be mixing in the new year, and it’s slated for Spring of next year. God willing, of course.
I can’t wait to hear it. Thank you. I can’t wait to see the show. I really appreciate that. Thank you and take care.