As they celebrate their debut’s album’s 20th anniversary, Shirley Manson tells us: “It’s been a mental ride.”
In December 1994, both John Peel and Steve Lamacq began playing a pulsating and vaguely gothic-sounding song titled Vow on their respective Radio 1 shows. Sleek and somewhat sinister, it progressed via a biting guitar line to a propulsive chorus laced with a dose of menace as its female singer threatened to tear an errant lover’s world apart. The work of a mysterious band called Garbage, it staked out a new musical genre: futuristic grunge-pop.
Vow prompted an initial buzz of interest that turned to a clamour when it became known that Garbage’s drummer was Butch Vig. As producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind and also Gish by the Smashing Pumpkins, Vig had set the template for the dominant alt-rock sound of the 90s. Much less was known about his other two American bandmates and fellow producers – Steve Marker and Duke Erikson – and next to nothing about the band’s Scottish singer, Shirley Manson.
That all changed with the release of Garbage’s self-titled debut album the next summer. Well-crafted but with a dark beating heart, it went on to sell more than four million copies, transforming the band, and especially Manson, into stars.
Urbane, introverted and frankly middle-aged, Erikson, Marker and also Vig soon took a back seat to their striking, potty-mouthed vocalist. The impulsive, extrovert Manson delighted journalists with such diverting tales as the one in which she settled an argument with her boyfriend by taking a dump on his Cornflakes. She also looked great, and progressed to being a sex symbol, role model and ‘it’ girl, all bundled up into one feisty, flame-haired package.
A second hit album, Version 2.0, followed in 1998, and for a while Garbage appeared to be blessed. They were feted in the media, headlined the Reading Festival and were invited to record a James Bond film theme. However, their relentless schedule was driving them into the ground, at a point when the music business was going through one of its periodic shifts.
In short order, Garbage were undone by internal tensions, record company politics, divorce, depression, the White Stripes and a catastrophic attack on mainland USA. The combined effects split the band apart and left deep wounds that took years to heal.
Garbage regrouped in 2010, and right now they are preparing to mark the 20th anniversary of their first album with a deluxe reissue, and an impending tour on which they will play it in its original running order. Vig describes the intervening period as having passed in the blink of an eye; Manson settles for just one word: “Tumultuous”.
Phoning from various ports in the US and Europe, the Garbage men have retained their relaxed, genial air. Sitting in a poky London office on a hot summer’s afternoon, Shirley Manson is also unchanged, save for the fact that her red hair is now dyed electric pink. This is to say she’s sharp, funny, unguarded, saucer-eyed and dressed in various shades of black. She also swears like a docker, and when she laughs, which is often, it arrives as a resounding eruption that sounds delighted and also filthy. “It’s such a cliché,” she allows of Garbage’s story, “but it’s been a mental ride.”
It began in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1970s. Madison, the state capital, is a compact, picturesque city built on the confluence of the Yahara River and encompassing four lakes. Madison’s thriving music scene was centred on a club called Merlyn’s, which hosted the passing American and British punk and new wave bands of the period. It was also a regular haunt of local new-wave heroes Spooner, formed in 1974 by singer/guitarist Erikson, who had moved to Madison intending to teach art. In summer 1978, Erikson talked Vig out of relocating to Colorado to work as a ski instructor, and into being Spooner’s new drummer. Vig was completing a film studies degree, and brought with him another student on his course, Marker, to be the band’s roadie.
Spooner went on to make a brace of albums and opened up regional gigs for The Police, Cheap Trick and Pat Benatar, among others, but their fame never extended out from their corner of the Midwest.
On the side, Marker invested in a four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, and together with Vig, began producing other bands. This led to the pair of them establishing Smart Studios in 1983, in a two-storey red-brick building in downtown Madison.
From the mid-80s onwards, a procession of off-kilter American underground bands trooped through Smart, among them Urge Overkill, Tad, Killdozer and, in 1991, both Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins. Vig was at the same time making a name for himself remixing U2, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. More accurately, he was reinventing their songs, erasing all but the vocal tracks and adding entirely new music with the help of Marker and Erikson. It was this process of fashioning songs out of loops and samples, as well as organic instruments, that gave rise to Garbage.
“The original idea was for it to be a studio band,” says Vig. “We were thinking of something like [US experimentalists] the Golden Palominos, where each song would have a different singer and stylistic approach.”
In the first instance, and based on their shared love of Blondie (see Debbie Harry pictured below with Manson) and Patti Smith, they wanted to have a female singer. Vig and Marker saw Manson on MTV one night in 1994, performing a brooding song called Suffocate Me with her (short-lived) band Angelfish, kohl-eyed and alluring. It was the one time the video was screened on the channel.
Shirley Ann Manson was born in the well-heeled Stockbridge area of Edinburgh on August 26, 1966. She grew up rebelling against her conventional upbringing, bunking off school. Her mother had sung in big bands and Shirley inherited her passion for music, latching on to such strong, indomitable characters as Siouxsie Sioux and Chrissie Hynde.
She left school at 16 and worked as a shop assistant for five years. In ’84 she became a backing singer with Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie, a band emerging from the city’s post-punk scene. The crippling self-image that afflicted Manson was not helped by her falling into a ruinous relationship with their frontman, Martin Metcalfe.
“I felt so plain and normal, and like such an incredible fraud for not really doing much in the band,” she says. “I was also involved with a man who lived a pretty wild and extreme existence, so there was a lot of madness and excess. I just longed for a bohemian lifestyle. I would go out to clubs every night and dance myself stupid. That felt like a freedom.”
Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie peaked with their single The Rattler, which charted at No.37 in the UK for one week in March 1989. Manson, who had split from Metcalfe by then, moved on to Angelfish, who endured for one album and tour.
She was kicking her heels in Edinburgh when Vig and Marker tracked her down and invited her to a meeting with them and Erikson. It took place over afternoon tea at a smart London hotel. The three Americans struggled to comprehend Manson’s accent. She was surprised at how much older than her they were. But plans were laid to fly her out to Madison for an audition. It proved to be a disaster.
“We couldn’t get into Smart because it was full, so we had to set up a makeshift studio in the basement of Steve’s house,” Erikson recalls. “We ran a mic cable upstairs to the lounge, where Shirl sat all by herself. It was a bleak couple of days in winter. I’d go up and check on her now and again and she would just be staring out the window.”
“It was a fiasco,” says Manson. “They would shout up things like: ‘Okay, we’re going to run a track. Put your headphones on and just make up something.’ I had no idea what to do and acted like a complete freak.”
Manson returned home crestfallen, but took with her a tape of the rough sketches of songs that Vig, Marker and Erikson had worked up. By the time they got back in touch and asked her to try out again, she had begun writing lyrics for Vow and a luminous pop track, Only Happy When It Rains. According to Erikson, Manson had “defined those songs, and all of a sudden we felt like there was a direction”.
The notion of using a revolving cast of singers was gradually abandoned as their debut album took shape through 1994 with Manson. Her voice, which ranged from seductive to strident, was a perfect fit for the album’s oozing melodies, shadowy corners and jagged edges. Vig, Marker and Erikson each pinpoint the creation of its centrepiece ballad, Milk, as the moment when Manson truly stamped herself on the band. A woozy, spooked lament, it was the first song she had written, based on the only two chords she had figured out on guitar, and recorded by candlelight in a single late-night session.
“I went back to my hotel room and listened to it over and again on a cassette all the rest of that night,” Manson says. “I couldn’t believe that something I had written sounded so beautiful.”
The album, Garbage, was released in August 1995. To begin with it scraped into the UK Top 20 and entered the US chart at 193. But as the band toured for the next 18 months it picked up momentum, propelled by its intoxicating singles – Stupid Girl and Only Happy When It Rains – and the flowering of Manson into their glammed‑up focal point.
Version 2.0 added gloss, more pop and robotic noises to the mix, and bagged a brace of Grammy nominations. At the end of 1999, Garbage recorded the title track to the new James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. By then they had been swept up and carried off in a whirlwind.
“We didn’t realise how crazy it all was,” says Marker. “Mad shit like us flying into Europe from America on a private plane for one night to play at the MTV Awards, and having Mick Jagger walk into our dressing room to say hi. It was all going so fast. And that, mixed with our bizarre self-esteem issues, always thinking we had fucked everything up, didn’t allow us to see the big picture.”
“I was thrilled by our success but embarrassed about it too,” Manson admits. “It was as if it meant that in some way we must suck. I also felt like I had to be something I wasn’t. I would freak out if I hadn’t had a manicure, like I wasn’t being a good pop star. I felt as though everybody was disappointed when they met me in real life, because I was aware I was working with incredible image makers and that I didn’t look like that. Mad, twisted, sick thinking. And it made me ill in the end.”
Their third album, Beautiful Garbage, was meant to be released on September 17, 2001. Six days before that, two hijacked planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The record was postponed for two weeks. And when it did come out it was into a black hole. It was lush, euphoric and had a veneer of artifice, entirely at odds with the new mood of fear and uncertainty. The prevailing winds of the music business were also starting to blow in a different direction, occasioned by two breaking bands stripping rock back to its core elements: the White Stripes and The Strokes. As her own band was falling out of step, Shirley Manson’s eight-year marriage to Scottish sculptor Eddie Farrell was also disintegrating.
“At that point I was a basket case,” she says. “It was an incredibly painful divorce and it sent me off the rails. I just felt very scared and panicked in the world, not able to trust anyone. So nobody, not even the band, knew what I was going through. Plus we got sold on to Interscope Records in America and they inherited a band that was struggling on radio. It was a fucking nightmare.”
For their next album, 2005’s Bleed Like Me, Manson hacked off her hair and went peroxide blonde. It was meant as a protest at Interscope’s expectation of moulding her into a homogenised pop pin-up. The record sounded disengaged and sank. Relations between the band members had also soured, and Garbage prematurely cancelled their tour that October, announcing they were taking an indefinite hiatus.
“I remember feeling an unbelievable sense of exhilaration when we finally decided to quit the tour,” says Vig. “It had been ten years and we were worn out and sick of each other.”
“We were barely even speaking,” Manson adds. “We didn’t want to talk to anyone outside of the band about the problems we were having with our career, so of course it turned into this whole passive-aggressive thing between us. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there and go home.”
During the next five years the four of them had just fleeting contact. Vig returned to producing full-time and worked with Foo Fighters, Green Day and Muse. Marker and Erikson also recorded other artists, but operated under the radar. Manson moved to LA and began to develop a solo album, co-writing with Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and Paul Buchanan of stately Scots band the Blue Nile. The resulting songs were downbeat and reflective, and her record label rejected them.
A chance meeting with a Hollywood television executive led to her being offered a role as a ruthless cyborg in the US network TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which ran for two seasons up to 2008. She based her character on Margaret Thatcher and revelled in the experience, but adds that it was “not a good time in my life”.
Ultimately it was a succession of personal devastations that brought Garbage back together. In May 2008, Manson lost her mum to dementia. The following year the six-year-old son of mutual friends of Manson and Vig was struck down with cancer and died. Days after attending his funeral, the pair of them got on the phone to Marker and Erikson and arranged an impromptu recording session in LA, Manson having resolved that time was being wasted and they were meant to be together.
They finally reconvened in February 2010 over two bottles of wine in the studio, and proceeded at a leisurely pace to make the Not Your Kind Of People album, Manson breaking off to marry Billy Bush, their long-serving sound engineer. The record was self-released in 2012. It was more abrasive-sounding than its predecessors but it settled them back into their own niche. A new album will follow the anniversary celebrations early next year.
“It’s been glorious,” Manson says of their comeback. “My mum dying was the most sobering moment of my life, obviously, but I feel like her final gift to me was that she took me and shook me up. My equilibrium was restored and I became sane again.
“I feel really grateful. I’ve come from a position of lack my entire life. That’s just how it’s been – I was the middle child. To suddenly believe in your forties that you got the long straw, it changes the way you look at the world and your whole story. Does that mean I’m at peace? Fuck no.”
Six more albums celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2015.
Foo Fighters – Foo Fighters (Roswell/Capitol)
Butch Vig learned of Kurt Cobain’s suicide while he was in London meeting Shirley Manson for the first time. Dave Grohl dug out songs he had been squirrelling away for years and made this roaring benediction.
Green Day – Insomniac (Reprise)
Responding to the multi-platinum breakthrough success of their third album, Dookie, Green Day unleashed this twitchy, serrated follow-up and promptly shed 80 per cent of their new audience.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – One Hot Minute (Warner Bros)
Marking the arrival of ex-Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro in the band, One Hot Minute found the Chili Peppers also adopting a heavier sound. Its relative failure and Navarro’s narcotic habits abruptly ended the union.
Rancid – …And Out Come The Wolves (Epitaph)
Mainlining on the influence of The Clash and pogoing out from the Bay Area as if it were jacked up on speed, Rancid’s third album stood alongside Dookie as the key punk-pop record of the era. Certainly, Rancid have never bettered it.
Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (Virgin)
The good ship grunge had gone down, but mad, bald Billy Corgan rose again with this spectacularly overblown double. It was indulgent for sure, but also brilliant on the coruscating Bullet With Butterfly Wings and other tracks.
Kyuss – …And The Circus Leaves Town (Elektra)
The fourth and last album from the Palm Springs stoners. Like its predecessors, this cemented Josh Homme’s dinosaur riffs to John Garcia’s possessed howl, sounded as if it had come from its own unhinged world and sold nothing. Homme went on to bigger if not better things with Queens Of The Stone Age.