Shirley Manson: "When people say rock is dead, I want to laugh in their face"

Shirley Manson from Garbage performs at Festival Solidays at Hippodrome de Longchamp on June 24, 2012 in Paris, France
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Shirley Manson has spent three decades kicking down the doors of rock’n’roll’s boys’ club. She joined her first band, Scottish alt.poppers Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, in the 80s, but it was with Garbage that she made her name. In the macho bull pen that was mid-90s alt.rock, Manson stood apart – funny, combustible, allergic to bullshit, she was one of the era’s most charismatic stars. Today she’s older and wiser but no less opinionated.

Garbage co-headlined a tour with Blondie last summer. What was that like?

It was fantastic. It was sort of like the best summer camp you can imagine – to get to go on tour with someone I very much respect and admire, and is something of a beacon for any woman, let alone a woman like me. It was really inspiring.

What do the two bands have in common?

I think it’s an attitude more than anything. A ‘fuck you’ attitude.

Garbage released a new song, No Horses, last year, which was inspired by you driving past a field and wondering what the world would be like if there were no more horses. It painted an apocalyptic view of the future.

Obviously it’s an allegory – it’s not specifically about the eradication of all horses [laughs]. But there is a world order currently that focuses purely on making money and profit and corporate interests – it’s more important than the comfort of people and the well‑being of human beings, and I really object to that. I wanted to say something about it. When I looked at these horses I did feel a legitimate panic; if we continue to go down this road, and only value things that make a lot of money, we’re gonna lose everything that’s of any importance to our culture whatsoever.

Are people capable of thinking differently?

Oh God, of course. Human beings are capable of anything, good and bad. And I do believe that human beings will figure out how to survive. Because they have to.

How much of the blame do you put on the rise of social media?

I’m talking more about political attitudes and the men in power – and I use the word ‘men’ deliberately. Power is always going to exist, but let’s at least make it multicultural or multi-gender. It’s all old white men, at least in America right now. There’s a smattering of colour and women, but that’s about it. I don’t think we can blame the internet for all our ills. Great things have come with the internet and horrific things have come with the internet. We have to learn how to negotiate it.

When Garbage started in the nineties it was the freaks and outcasts leading things. Is that how you remember it?

I can’t answer that. When you’ve lived through an era, it’s impossible to look back and know for sure whether you’re being objective. But the last couple of decades have all felt so conservative. I’ve had the honour of reading an advance copy of [former Hole drummer] Patty Schemel’s autobiography, and reading all these incredible stories from that period, I thought: “God, when did it all get so vanilla and safe and uninteresting?” Cos that’s what it feels like, at least in mainstream culture.

Why do you think that is?

I’ve been bleating on about this. I think everybody’s quite self‑conscious because of social media, and self‑consciousness has never been great for good art.

What about you? Were you self-conscious when you started out?

I wasn’t remotely confident. I just powered through, because that’s how I was raised. I grew up in Scotland in the seventies, and there was no place for self-doubt or self‑examination in that place.

Are you still self-conscious?

Generally speaking, I’ve stopped giving a fuck. But I’d be a monster if I didn’t have a streak of self-doubt. I think it’s important that human beings question their actions. It’s good to question yourself as long as it’s not paralysing you. And I think I was paralysed back then. I’m not paralysed now.

Well you put on a good act.

That’s the whole artifice of humanity, right? Nothing is ever what it seems.

Did the music industry try to turn you into something you weren’t?

Oh yes.

How did you resist it?

I’m very lucky. My father is an intellectual, an academic. He was – and still is – a really dominant character. Wonderful, but dominant. And I grew up railing against that. I was the middle child, I was the rebel in the family. I honed all my skills across the dinner table, conversing with my father when I was young. So I’m used to navigating record companies and lawyers.

Garbage went on hiatus in the mid-00s, and you started working on a solo album. Why was it never released?

The band got dropped, but the label held on to me because they wanted to keep me. They thought I could be – quote unquote – an international pop star. They said I could be the Annie Lennox of my generation. No disrespect to Annie at all, but I’m myself. That offended me deeply.

You worked with Greg Kurstin, who has since become a hugely successful producer.

He put this incredible band together, and we were going to record an album in five days for, like, ten thousand dollars. But the label refused point blank to do it. They didn’t want me going in with a producer they didn’t feel was famous. It’s so stupid. They don’t have a clue. They only value what makes money. And that shifts and changes and morphs.

It’s ridiculous that they thought they could mould you into something you’re not.

I think it’s because they thought: “Aha, we have her on the ropes, her band are struggling, now she will do our bidding.” They picked the wrong huckleberry, because I was even more adamant that I wouldn’t be shaped by them.

Were you on the ropes?

Of course. It was heartbreaking. I think I was maybe thirty-nine, forty, and I was thinking: “I’m fucked. I’m a woman in the music industry, I can’t fix this.” I was very negative about it. As it turns out, I was really wrong. I allowed conventional ideas about women and their age to affect my thinking – it was really destructive and damaging. Luckily enough I’m a truculent enough asshole to eventually go: “Fuck this, I’m going to do it at whatever level I can, and I don’t care if I’m not famous.”

I genuinely meant it. I didn’t care. But of course, when you’ve been really successful and that success starts to slide, it is painful. Yes, it’s frightening. But you adjust.

Garbage reconvened in 2010. How have the past few years been different from the way it was before?

It’s complicated. You’re talking about four people with four egos who have grown at different rates, in different directions, have gone to different places, literally. It’s very different, and yet not. And also I feel like I’ve changed enormously since I began working with Garbage. I was a kid when they met me.

How have you changed?

I’ve definitely become a more dedicated creative. I had very little self-belief, and I gave away all my power to the older men I worked with who were famous and had been given the crown by the culture. I have more of that self-belief.

Has the music industry changed?

It depends on how you look at it. Of course, the main focus is on making money, and I get that. But what makes money always changes. Over the last two decades we’ve been inundated with mass-marketed mainstream pop. But I feel it’s changing. Everyone’s a little bored with all the pop stars that look the same and dress the same and sound the same and say the same things. I see a rise again in the subculture of alternative rock and pop – the ‘alt’ world seems to be rising again. It’s probably the only upside to having Donald Trump in power – it means the subcultures have work to do. And that’s great for art.

Have things changed for women in the music industry?

It depends on what day you and I speak. If I’m feeling optimistic, I’d say: “Yes, things have vastly changed.” I’ve just come off a tour where we were co-headlining with a seventy-two-year-old woman who’s playing in a band with loud guitars and is still coming from a rock’n’roll perspective. Is that new? I’d say so. At the same time, if you and I spoke on a day where I was feeling a little down, I would probably say nothing has changed and nothing will change until we change the way we fundamentally look at our culture. Nothing will change until we start truly fighting for equality – racial equality, gender equality. Music is ultimately a reflection of culture.

Do you think music still has the power to change things?

I think music still has the power to affect people, and therefore will always have an influence, no matter what. Certainly alternative rock doesn’t wield the power it once did, but that’s not to say it won’t change again. When people say to me: “Rock is dead,” I just want to laugh in their face. Fuck you, you ignorant arsehole. Fuck off. You’re boring the shit out of me.

Garbage play two dates at Brixton Academy in September.

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Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.