Shirley Manson On ‘Strange Little Birds,’ Solo Demos & That Night At The Greek: Interview
Garbage takes it back to their analog roots on sixth LP Strange Little Birds (due June 10). The iconic rockers made the bold move (by 2016 standards) to forgo digital technology and simply focus on performance instead. As a result, the band delivers its most primal and engaging record since their seminal debut. However, while the sound is purposely rough around the edges, the lyrics are introspective and vulnerable.
I caught up with Shirley Manson earlier this year to discuss the record over cucumber spritzers in a local cafe. Like most Scots, she loves a good chat and happily mused about Garbage unintentionally coming full circle on Strange Little Birds. The enduring rock chick also gave an hilarious account of the band’s disastrous 20th anniversary gig at The Greek and reflected on her unreleased solo demos. Get reacquainted with one of music’s true originals by reading our Q&A below.
You have described Strange Little Birds as less fussed-over than the band’s last couple of albums. Can you elaborate on that?
Historically, we’ve been known for these really perfectly-crafted records. As proud of that as I am, I also feel that sometimes changing things up in the way that you approach things is really good and really healthy and necessary when you get to our age. I mean, you can’t just keep repeating over and over your life experience from when you’re twenty years old.
This time around when we got into the studio we were all trying to make the performance as good as we could so that we didn’t have to go back and use Pro Tools to redo it and cheat, basically. There’s something that gets captured when you go in for your first couple takes. There’s some energy and we really wanted to do that. I think we managed it. It caused a bit of tension sometimes amongst band members but we got there in then end.
You also referred to the album as a throwback to your debut.
It was a little more rough around the edges, which I think is due to the fact that it was an analog record, the first record. There was no ability for anyone in the band to really overly fuss over something and takes were done and then they were spliced together and that was the end of it. With Pro Tools, especially on our second record, we were fascinated by the endless possibilities. It was brand new technology.
That afforded a lot of curiosity and we were like kids in a candy store. They all got to do take after take. A million, billion takes if we wanted. Yeah, I think we’ve noticed now that the gloss of all the new technology has worn off. We really understand that a lot of the magic that lots of people can’t necessarily do is deliver a really good performance in the studio.
Some of the art of playing has been lost because so many people can make records now in their bedrooms with very little technical prowess whatsoever. I think you get lazy sometimes. We have all been definitely lazy with our performances in the past because we know we can cheat it. This time we were all committed to making it as good as possible in the moment.
How did you come up with the title?
It’s really pretty much to do with how human beings communicate with everybody. I think everybody thinks everybody else in the world is strange. Every individual believes that everyone else is strange. They are strange to everyone. It’s okay and weird is universal.
I read somewhere that it was a reference to your curious fans!
No, it had nothing to do with fans [laughs] other than I think all of our fans feel a little weird and that’s why, a lot of time, they gravitate towards us. I think they feel an understanding and acceptance in the same way we do with the people that follow us and fall in love with our music. There’s an understanding and, I think, that’s what you’re on the world to do — connect with people.
What’s it like releasing music independently as opposed to having a huge machine behind you?
Make no mistake, a major distribution machine at your finger tips is what you want, but it comes with all of the baggage that you don’t want. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum. When we first started out… I was on an independent label with my first band and then we got signed by EMI Records. Then we got spat out of that. I’ve been through so many labels in my time, and I’ve done the independent route.
We’re currently doing the independent route now and there’s a lot of fantastic things about it, but make no mistake, you can’t compete with major label distribution. You just can’t do it. For us, as a band, I feel we can accept that. We’ve accepted that our personalities are such that we do better and flourish better being happier as people with a lesser profile.
Do you have to recalibrate your expectations, knowing you might not get played on the radio?
Are you insinuating that there’s payola involved? [Laughs]. Of course there is. Yeah, I mean it’s just an acceptance of our role. I think we feel comfortable in that role because none of us ever wanted to be famous. I mean we really, genuinely do not have that desire.
You failed miserably then.
We failed miserably at it, but my point is we never sought it out. It was never something we aspired to. All the bands that we have always loved have generally been under the radar. We feel comfortable where we’re at. We are happy that we don’t have to make the kind of compromises that we were forced into making when we were on a major label.
I just can’t begin to tell you how demoralizing, and de-spiriting it is doing some of the TV shows that we were asked to do. Literally, we would be standing there. I’d be maybe in my mid-thirties, we’d be surrounded by ten-year-olds, maybe the oldest would be an eighteen-year-old. They had no interest in us, and we certainly had no interest in them. It was just this alien experience and something that our record company insisted on us doing, even though we knew it would get us nowhere and it’d be really unrewarding.
We would still have to do it anyways because the record companies were obsessed with getting teens and tweens to buy your records. It was really uncomfortable and unpleasant and it doesn’t sound that big a deal, but trust me when you’re in the middle of a world tour and you’re exhausted and you’re having to get up at four in the morning to go and stand in front of a bunch of ten-year-olds, you want to kill your fucking self.
You also started as a band later than most.
We were cynical as fuck. Right from the start. Yeah, we definitely were. When our first record came out, I think I was in my late twenties, soon to be thirty. I wasn’t a child. I’d been in a band for ten years. We’d done everything, seen everything, traveled the world. This was not my first rodeo. A lot of what we were asked to do just made me cringe. My toes were curling in my shoes. Whenever paparazzi were involved I was so embarrassed.
When you look at it and you see if from the outside and you think, “Oh, that must be really fun to walk outside the nail salon and have people screaming your name and taking your picture.” From the outside perspective, it looks kind of fun, but when that happens over and over again, or you’re having a bad day, or you’re in the middle of an argument with your boyfriend. Trust me it’s not fun. It’s really awful, and it upsets all the people around you and your families.
Quick detour question.
I mean this with the utmost love and respect…
I went to the 20th anniversary concert at The Greek…
Oh, Jesus fucking Christ.
And it was complete debacle. In the most entertaining way.
Oh my fucking god.
You have no idea what that was like. Let me put it this way, I managed to keep my shit together and hold it together during the show. I went home and I cried my fucking eyes out. I really did. I felt so stressed out the whole show. At any given moment I felt something else was going to go wrong because so much did go wrong.
It was crazy.
I don’t know. You know, we were under-rehearsed, if the truth be told. We could only play the Greek one particular day. When we went to book the tour there was only one day left that the Greek had available that would fit into our schedule. It was two days after we started touring, which isn’t enough to have practiced for a show that size. We foolishly took the show and boy did we pay for it. We paid for that.
What’s going through your head? At one point something dropped from the ceiling.
It was unbelievable. I mean it literally was like a scene out of Spinal Tap. There was one side of me that was like, “This is fucking hilarious.” I looked over at Steve, my guitarist, and he was covered in a piece of cloth. A huge, big drape that had fallen down on top of him and he couldn’t get out from under it and he’s still trying to play the song. He was like a little frantic, like a turtle trying to get out from underneath there.
I thought it was funny, but then, I’ve got two dual conversations going on. On one hand it was like, “This is the biggest show you’ve ever played in LA, headlining and it’s going down the fucking toilet.” Then, on the other hand, I was genuinely amused because it’s not the end of the world. It’s just a show. I knew 99.9 percent of the audience would be with us, and they were with us and they carried us through it. I mean, the crowd carried us through that. They were laughing their asses off.
It was doubly amazing because you’re usually so tight live.
Yeah, we’re a tight machine. At first, I was like, “Okay. One thing’s gone wrong. That’s okay. That’s okay, shit happens.” Second thing… when all the equipment dropped down, I thought I was going to lose my shit. Then, at one point, I turned around and Duke had fallen on the floor. I had never seen him fall in twenty years of playing with him. He was flat on the ground face first. Unbelievable. It was just unbelievable.
Does that rank as your worst concert experience?
It was definitely one of the shows where the most had gone wrong, but I feel like because we have played together a lot and because actually everybody can put things in perspective, we managed to get through it. The amount of people who have come up to me, I’m not kidding, almost every day I’ll bump into somebody. There was a girl two days ago. I was in Griffith Park walking my dog and she came up and kissed me on my cheek. She went, “I just had to do that.” She goes, “You were such a hero at that show. It was so hilarious.” We got such a great reaction, but yeah it was a fucking disaster.
Did it momentarily take the wind out of your sails?
As I said, on the way home I had a huge argument with my husband. He was like, “Don’t worry about it. You really carried off. You were really funny and fun.” I burst into tears. I would be lying if I didn’t say it didn’t effect me. The next day morning I was over it. Whereas when I was younger, I would hold that with me for months and worry about it over and over and over again.
I thought it was brilliant. I loved every second.
That’s rad. I’m glad my humiliation worked for you, Mike! [Laughs].
I’m sorry! Getting back to the album, is there less pressure to come up with a hit now?
Oh god, yeah. We let go of that a long time ago. We knew by our third record that we were out of step with radio. You get on radio if you’re making the sound of the moment. That’s how you get on radio, or it’s super pop and catchy. We’ve made our peace with that a long time ago.
Are there any songs on the album with radio potential?
I think so, but when you’ve been in a band for a long time you’re like an old pair of slippers. Nobody’s too excited about putting you on the radio. They want the new shiny sneakers from the hippest store and cost the most money. That’s just how people are. That’s just how human nature is.
I feel like Garbage is one of the few legacy acts that will always be cool.
I like to think so, but I think there’s a million people who would disagree with that.
Yeah, fuck them. I can’t afford to think about people who want me to give up, because I’m not going to give up. I’ve got news for those fuckers, I’m still here. I’m still here, fuckers.
Are you going to do a video for “Empty”?
We are hoping that we get to make a video with Sam Bayer who made our first three videos. As a good luck talisman, we feel we want to go back to him because he was the first video director we ever worked with. He seems amenable to it. We’ll see if we can pull it off.
I read that you recorded in Butch Vig’s basement. There’s a weird time-warp happening on this album.
I guess there is, actually. I mean, we only really recognized that once when we were done, but yeah we started it exactly the same way this time around. Not deliberately, just by default. It’s so difficult to articulate the psychological journey we have all gone on. When we came back a couple years ago having had a massively long hiatus, we were just so excited to be together again and make music and go on tour.
Beyond that we really had nothing else that we were thinking about. This time around, because we were now making a record that we knew people would be interested in hearing, our approach has been slightly different. I think the last record, which was Not Your Kind of People. I think we all felt finally completely free of our first career. Make no mistake, a successful record, as wonderful as that is, does become a cage that you are locked in for all eternity. I think we finally realized, wow. We actually found the key and we opened the cage and we managed to step out. We’re doing things in our own terms.
We feel free of all the expectations that our success brought. It’s almost like starting again. We’re going right back to the very beginning. A very good place to start, as Julie Andrews would say.
What do you think your twenty-something-year-old self would make of the band still releasing music all these years later?
I think all of us would be amazed. I don’t think any of us thought we’d have the tenacity or the courage to keep going and have a long career because it does take tenacity. Anyone, even if it’s a massive pop star who makes the most glam music you can possibly think of, they’ve still got guts and they’re still taking a smash in the face on a regular basis. For anyone who continues to have success, particularly for a woman, it takes a lot of courage.
You’ve said the new album is your most romantic, but the song titles are largely depressing.
They are depressing.
Did you fib?
No. I mean, it’s genuine. I feel it’s a really vulnerable record. To me, when I am vulnerable is when I’m in love. I won’t allow myself to be vulnerable with people that I don’t know and trust a hundred percent. To me, all the songs on this record, from a lyrical standpoint, come from hot spots in my romantic history.
What’s the most personal song on the record?
The last song on the record, “Amends.” I can’t begin to tell you how good it felt to write that and sing it and get it off, send it off on its Viking ship to be burned at sea.
How does “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” rate on the romantic scale?
You know, everyone in Garbage is an incredible fatalist. Even when you have something beautiful and perfect you know sooner or later, one way or another it’s going to come to an end. At best it will come to an end where one or the other party dies. I think we all feel a little sickened by how empty pop music is right now. All it talks about is having fun and loving the sunshine. It feels really crazy to me after a while. I can’t imagine I’m the only one who thinks, “Jesus fucking Christ, why am I here? What am I doing and what am I going to die of?”
I feel scared sometimes and I want somebody to make me feel less scared. I think when you talk about something that is vague and dark it immediately illuminates it. I find sad music comforting. I find it uplifting. Happy music makes me want to slit my throat most of the time. I kid you not. It makes me want to slit my throat.
You mean you don’t identify with all those songs about looking sexy in the club?
I don’t give a shit if you look good at the club. [Laughs] You know what? When I was twenty-one I fucking looked killer in the club. You know what? That’s a beautiful naked arse you’ve got. Well, I had a fucking beautiful naked arse when I was fucking thirty-four. Who gives a flying fuck? You’ve got a pair of nipples and an anus. Big fucking wow.
Another song title that I absolutely love is “Teaching Little Fingers To Play.”
That is the title of Duke Erikson’s, our guitarist’s, first piano book. Again, that song is about getting back into a beginner’s mindset. It was sort of inspired by Jay-Z’s “My First Song.” That idea of just how can you get there to that moment where you’re not sullied by your past? How can your eyes be wide opened and move forward without any of the shackles on your ankles? It’s difficult, but it’s so good when it happens.
How does this album rank in your larger discography?
The new one is always your favorite because that’s where you are in the present. That’s what you’ve just done. My favorite record is always the one we’re just about to write. I don’t want to ever get tied to any of our records. I think that’s a dangerous place to be.
Is there one that holds up better?
No, because I think there are elements of all of them that I love. Our first record, I think it’s a great record. It means a lot to me. To me Version 2.0, that was a gem. That was when I felt comfortable in my skin as a lead singer and I felt like I deserved to be there. To me, Version 2.0 means so much to me and I think it’s a better record, actually, than our first record. You can play Version 2.0 now and it sounds as current now as it did then. Then again, I thought Beautiful Garbage, which was our least well-received record, was our most rebellious record. I think it’s incredibly eclectic and brave.
I love “Cherry Lips”!
I always say that’s our pop song. It’s a really great pop song. It’s a transgender pop anthem. Transgender pride anthem. We were way ahead of our time.
I’ve got to ask you about Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Do you get the lingering fascination with that show?
I do. I understand that, though, because I’m obsessed with these sci-fi franchises and with all the history and terminology and all the ideas behind these shows and these movies. I’m a big fan of it.
What are you watching?
What am I watching right now? I watch a lot of British TV. I’m currently just finishing off Happy Valley, which I’m obsessed by. Right now there’s a lot of American shows that I love. American Crime. I can’t tear my eyes away. Sarah Paulson is so good. I hope she gets an Emmy. It’s fucking incredible. House of Cards I just ripped through. Transparent, I am way behind on. It’s beautiful and gorgeous writing and just super, super cool.
Do you have the itch to get back into acting?
I do. I do. My love, my primary love is still making records. If the right thing came along, I would love to do it. It has to be the right thing.
I’ve always been fascinated by the solo record you never released. What happened?
I just made demos for that record. I never got to fulfill my vision for that record. Yeah, to me that’s dead and gone. It was an incredible lesson though for me about how ludicrous the record industry is.
What went wrong?
You tell me what went wrong. I had Greg Kurstin. Myself. An incredible band that Greg put together. We were going to go in and record it in ten days, for the cost of fifteen thousand dollars. Then the man in charge — we’ll name no names just to protect his dignity — said, “That Greg Kurstin, no, I’m just not feeling it. He’s not a hit writer.” I kid you not, when he said that to me I said, “Okay.” Then I just packed my bags and literally left the studio, went home and decided I was done making music. These people are idiots.
Then I went and got a job on that TV show and that was that. Greg Kurstin then two weeks later went on to have hit after hit after hit after hit. He has done nothing but have hits since. That clown at the record label offered to him a deal a couple years later. I mean, it just shows you how stupid it all is. These people are idiots. They don’t even care about music. Anyone who walks into a room and hears Greg Kurstin play… I mean he’s a genius.
Do you ever wonder what could have been?
No, I feel the love of my life has been Garbage. That’s my life’s work, really. Anything else that I’ve done is a sideshow to that. That’s my baby. That’s what I put all my youth and all my energy into. That is my thing that I love.
What are you listening to right now?
A band called The Pearl Harts hit me up on Instagram one day. There was just something about the way they hit me up. Usually I try not to get involved in all that because it can just end in heartbreak for everyone. Usually I just ignore that kind of stuff, but there was something about the way they approached me that caught my imagination. Two bad ass girls. They’re unsigned. It’s just guitar and drums and this girl’s got a killer voice. They’re killer.
Anyway, just I’ve been listening to that, but I’m obsessed with Rihanna. I’m obsessed with Lana Del Rey. I’m obsessed with Savages, MIA, St. Vincent. I mainly listen, I have to admit, to women just because it’s easier for me to relate. That’s not to say I don’t love music made by men, but I always want to promote women.