Garbage – An Interview with Shirley Manson

Since their breakthrough back in ’95 with ultimate grunge anthem “Only Happy When It Rains”, Garbage – lead by frontwoman Shirley Manson, alongside producer-instrumentalists Steve Marker, Duke Erikson and legendary Butch Vig – gave hope to a bored and restless generation. The generation that would buy just one CD and listen to it till they knew every single lyric back to front. It was Shirley Manson who gave voice to these agitated youths – a way out of a world that seemed entirely alien to them. At a time when a barrage of iconic female-fronted bands such as The Distillers, No Doubt, The Cardigans and Hole were making their mark on the world. The outspoken Glaswegian was, and still is 21 years later, one of rock’s loudest and brutally honest musicians. My inner fangirl had to try hard to keep her cool as Shirley and I discussed Garbage’s new work, changes in the music industry and asked ourselves – where are the rebellious youths today?

KALTBLUT: Version 2.0 was the soundtrack to my youth, along with anything by No Doubt and The Distillers, I think really it helped pave my way towards alternative music. How do you think that the new album will be received by hardcore fans of Garbage?
You know, it honestly doesn’t concern me. I feel like I can’t really afford to think like that, otherwise all of us in Garbage would just lose our minds. You just have to pursue what you find interesting, and hope that you pull everyone along with you. But you never do, that’s the thing. Every record we have ever released someone has said, “I used to love you! Now I don’t!”. It’s just like, okay, fallout always occurs, but you also gain new people too so, we’ll just have to wait and see. I do suspect however, that they’ll like it.

KALTBLUT: How do you feel the music industry has changed since those early records?
Shirley: I thought our videos were really good back then, unfortunately now though economically we run our own label so we don’t have the kind of resources that we once did. You know, back in the 90s we made a video for £750,000. People got paid hand over foot, like, a makeup artist would get £5,000 for doing your fucking makeup for an hour! But that doesn’t exist anymore, that’s all changed. The whole business around musicians has had to change. We were making a lot of dollar, and now that doesn’t happen. People take music for free so the musicians are no longer generating money and now all these music industries are taking a tumble. I’ve decided that I have to make peace with the business because I will make myself sick. So I want to just make music and have fun. But yeah, the economics of the music industry are under a lot of strain at the moment and being that we are an independent record label it’s even more difficult.

KALTBLUT: Back in the 90s it wasn’t unusual to have a selection of CDs and listen to them over and over again, do you feel like that’s something that has been lost in the digital age?
Shirley: It’s unsustainable that’s the problem. Every second there’s somebody new. It’s funny you should say that because I was talking recently about when you discover a band, you’re thinking “Oh, my new favourite band!”, then by tomorrow it’s moved through you. I love YouTube, but apparently they’re shafting everybody involved in music. YouTube is a glorious playground to get lost on though. Back in the day if you discovered someone new it would be months before someone else came along that you liked as much, so you’d really forge a connection with that band. There’s the vinyl revival too, that’s really special still. It’s a special experience. We’ve recently starting doing, a load of my pals too, these listening parties where everyone just comes over to sit in a little room and put some records on. It’s a lovely experience.

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KALTBLUT: Are you finding yourself listening to more new music for inspiration or going back to the archives?
Shirley: I do everything. I try to listen to a lot of new music too because I don’t want to be that person who just says, “Well, it wasn’t as good in my day.” I find new music inspiring, you know. Not always, some of it is shit, in the same way that some old music is shit. But the thing is when you get older you have so much more on your plate, you don’t have hours to sit and listen to band after band, radio show after radio show. I have to discipline myself and it’s normally really late at night when I should be sleeping and I start flipping through new bands. I always end up finding something good, always. But people always ask, “Do you feel music is as good anymore?” I feel musicians are more talented now than we were, they make equally, if not better, records than we did, they make their own artwork, their own videos, everything is on there! They’re quite brilliant. The problem is, in the 90s you could become a voice of an era, and it was powerful and it was enduring, and now unfortunately it’s like, literally, cards being dealt out. You’re getting drowned under the next one that gets flipped out two seconds later. I do it myself, I keep flicking through new music late at night, telling my husband, “This is good… I mean yeah, this is good.” I mean, everything seems “good”, but nothing necessarily sticks out. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m just so thankful we came out of the 90s! We would’ve drowned if we came out now, even someone like Bowie I think would’ve drowned. Everyone’s obsessed with the newest thing. Bore off.

KALTBLUT: Do you have the same message as you did when Garbage first began?
Shirley: Yeah, I think maybe it speaks of a low IQ, but I am still obsessed with the same things as I always was, even as a child. I mean I can literally remember sitting at the dinner table when I was very young, maybe 8 or 9, and my parents had a friend over for dinner, and I was thinking to myself, “You’re really phony. Just really fucking phony.” And I was so young! But those streaks in me have remained from when I was really young, they’re still in there. I don’t think the message has got any real relation to songs on say the first record, but the sort of, mood of it, is the same. It’s very dark and cinematic, sort of brooding. I think that people who love our band tend to love that darkness in us.

KALTBLUT: Lyrically this darkness does come through on the new album, almost like a destructive bipolar relationship, maybe even verging on something that’s obsessive
Shirley: Well actually I think it’s more of a broader record than that, it’s using relationships to illuminate the struggle of just being a human being in this life. Which I think at the moment in particular for all of us is difficult. I think we’re living at a very strange time that’s chaotic and bewildering for us all. Nobody seems to have gotten their head around how much the world has changed over the last 20 years, and so I think it’s a record about that. It’s about this human condition in these some what dark days. I mean, this is the darkest that I can remember you know. I’m going to be 50 in August and I can’t remember a time like this. To me, it feels like we’re in a war, a world war, with an invisible enemy. It’s like a sci-fi movie. You don’t know where the enemy is, or what the enemy even is, but it’s still there. It’s like an alien movie, you know? It’s always there, that threat of destruction and for me personally I find it fucking terrifying!

KALTBLUT: It’s true, it is terrifying – and especially how much propaganda we’re getting shown every single day without even realising.
Shirley: I also think that we’re living at a time where the press has been bought and even the media outlets want to survive. So how do they survive? They have to be popular. How are you popular? You appeal to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately we need the press to be our sentinels of culture, and I feel, particularly in America, the press are shedding their responsibilities because they don’t want to lose force. So without checks and balances in our culture people like Donald Trump can exist and flourish, you know? Because I keep shouting around to my American friends, “If Donald Trump was president Prime Minister, the British press would have him for breakfast!” (Laughs)

KALTBLUT: I know! There was that petition to ban him from entering the country wasn’t there?
Shirley: Oh yes, that was the Scots actually! They even stripped him of his ambassador title. But we are all accountable. We allow these characters, these larger than life characters, to get richer and richer and more successful, and tune in to Keeping Up with the Kardashians, really worshipping the dollar. We’re all guilty of it! All of our hands are dirty, but these people have so much power and influence now. It’s really depressing.

KALTBLUT: Compared to the sweat-soaked live gigs of my youth the clinical online world seems so empty now. There was always kind of, this rebellious side of youth and music at the time. I feel that something’s been lost , there’s a disconnection. Do you still see any of that alive at your shows today?
Shirley: I don’t see any type of youth rebellion today anywhere, do you? Sure, the hashtag is really fucking rebellious. Not. I mean, the hashtag, Jesus fucking Christ! By its very nature, it’s trying to accumulate, you know, homogenisation (Laughs). They never lost it, because they never had it. They’re too young to have ever had it, so it’s not really their fault. But they are living at a time where it seems too frightening to stick their head above the parapet. Like you said, when I was growing up, youth was anonymous, 100%. We didn’t take pictures of ourselves, we didn’t even really know what we looked like aside from our own perception of self by looking in the mirror. Even then we weren’t really encouraged to look in the mirror because, looking in the mirror certainly in my family, was considered narcissistic and vain. Now you’ve got a tired couple of generations growing up, terribly obsessed with how they look. But everyone pulls the same faces on photographs, they’re all wearing the same thing, and the narcissism to me is a terrible bore. Yes, it’s good to believe in yourself, and the one thing I do love about the new generation of young women in particular is a lot of them seem to take more ownership and have better feelings towards their bodies than my generation did. But, ultimately the worshiping of yourself is incredibly boring. No great ideas, nothing was ever achieved by looking at yourself.

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KALTBLUT: Unless you want to gain more followers on social media of course – that’s what happens when social media takes over lives today  – especially for young people
Shirley: Well there’s that, but ultimately what does it mean? Everybody goes on about Kim Kardashian having 60 million followers, well that may well be, but what does that mean? It doesn’t really mean anything. Obama doesn’t have many followers on Instagram, he’s still the leader of the free world, you know! He’s still the president of America. He’s achieved something tangible, and yet he has way less followers than Kim Kardashian. So what does it fucking mean? It doesn’t mean anything in the end. I don’t know, it has its uses I think, but the worshipping of it is a little alarming and I think it’s beginning to infantilize an entire generation of human beings. It’s all about approval. You can witter onto me about how it’s self-empowerment and self-love, but ultimately you can be empowered and love yourself in private. That is truly when you are able to say, “I am enough”. That is self-love. When you’re flaunting yourself on social media, you are begging for validation and approval, and I don’t care what women’s magazines tell me, I don’t buy into it. I think it’s a load of fucking bullshit. What it is for the most part is showing off, or, seeking validation. It’s one of those two things.

KALTBLUT: That said you also mentioned how it’s empowering young women in certain ways, can you expand on that?
Shirley: It does allow a certain flow of information which I think is important, you know, governments can’t get away with what they could once get away with. We can galvanise movements really fast and all these things are really wonderful thanks to social media. I think Twitter is actually really handy. There’s a lot of great stuff that comes from it, but we’re all still figuring out how to use it. It’s still early days. It’s only been like 20 years really since it all became common place, you know?

KALTBLUT: How do you think opportunities have changed for women in the music industry?
Shirley: I think it’s complicated because if you look at the pop world for example, women are dominating, and they’re incredible characters. I mean, who doesn’t love Rihanna? To me she’s almost bordering on perfect, but, you’re right, we’re not hearing an alternative perspective like we did in the 90s. Back then there were so many women with really different perspectives, none of them playing the traditional roles of the pretty girl wearing the nice little touch of mascara, and some tasteful lip gloss. None of us were pouty, none of us were men-pleasing, a lot of us wore boots and trousers and you know, we were aggressive! Rather than trying to attract men we were sort of putting on this warrior stance. A kind of, “Don’t fuck with me”. And now, if you behave like that, you don’t get all of the attention that we enjoyed. Nobody seems to be interested in hearing from the weirdos, or the broken, or the fucked up, or the girls who are very quietly spoken and you have to lean in close to hear what they have to say. Nobody’s interested in that. They want the broad strokes, they want the Beyoncé, looking phenomenally beautiful, like a perfect supermodel, who will dance and make it look so easy. You know, if I ever go into a room I’m always like, “Okay, who’s not speaking?”, because they’re often the most interesting person in the room. They’re always listening and they’re observing, they’re usually the ones who have the most to say. I’m always the loud one in the room and I’m thinking that I’d love to be the one that’s sitting and observing, learning, you know?

KALTBLUT: What’s most unfortunate is that as soon as you say you’re a modern feminist today, it’ll instantly be twisted into you being some sort of man-hater – which is frustrating.
Shirley: I know, it’s so tiresome, but again I think that that’s the patriarchal media trying to squash feminism, because it’s powerful! God help everyone when women actually understand how much power they have. If you look up the word feminism in the fucking dictionary people, all it means is “seeking equality”! It’s nothing to do with your relationships with other women, or how you choose to view men, nothing to do with that at all. It’s just expecting to be treated as an equal, and I don’t see what’s complicated about that. There’s so much debate in women’s magazines, it’s like, it’s really simple girls! It’s really fucking simple. Just expect to be paid the same as your male counterpart for the same job. How about we start there. It makes me crazy! Men don’t understand though, and you can’t blame them for not understanding. I mean, there’s times with my husband, who is such an equalist, he really is, but there’s times where I have to point out, “Did you see what happened there?”, and he’d be like “Yes! I saw what happened there!”. And I say, “Yeah but, did you really see what happened?”. Then I have to break it down for him and all of a sudden he realises that it’s never crossed his mind. But you can’t blame everyone else, that’s what I mean when women have to be accountable as well, for their own engagement with the world.

KALTBLUT: Have you softened your image as time has gone by?
Shirley: No (Laughs). I actually feel more rebellious now than I ever have done in my whole life. I feel that I’m more empowered and more clear and I feel as a performer I have gotten to the point where I step onto the stage and I am not self-conscious because I’m not thinking about how I’m viewed as a woman. I feel that I’m a wild animal on stage. My spirit animal is a cheetah. Live on stage though I’m just going to be myself. I’m not going to do anything over the top. I’m not interested in trying to be punk-rock, I’m not trying to impress anybody, I’m not trying to make people think something about me that I’m not, I’m just going to be myself. I just feel really free when I’m playing. My focus is purely on singing. Hit the fucking notes in tune, let’s start there.

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KALTBLUT: Looking at musicians, like Iggy Pop for example, who recently posed nude for a life drawing session at 69, do you ever think that there’s a certain restraint on women and how they should act in the music industry as they get older?
Shirley: It’s nothing to do with the aging of pop stars, or aging with men and women, it’s to do with all humans. Women are held to a standard that men are not, but I feel like women are also playing right into the hands of those roles. Of course we all like to be told we’re beautiful, it’s a nice feeling, but it doesn’t really mean that much at the end of the day. You have nothing to do with it. Your parents can take the compliment since they produced you, but don’t really have anything to do with how beautiful you are, you just happen to be born like that. So for people to compliment women on something they really had no input in, or have no ownership over, is really distracting to women I think. Ultimately what we should all be concerning ourselves with is, who are we? What are we capable of? What are we going to do? And how do we become the best and most solid version of ourself? Instead I feel that in society there’s so many distractions for women, with makeup and style and body images that I see a lot of women on these hamster wheels, spending all their brilliant, creative energy on worrying about things that they have absolutely no control over.

KALTBLUT: Is that the kind of message that you’d like to give out to young women today?
Shirley: It’s weird because something strange has happened to me since my sister had children, especially the youngest who is a girl. Ever since she’s been born, something has snapped in me and I have become really serious about feminism and I want to protect women. I want to fight for them, I want to make things better for all women, particularly young women who I feel I can teach and help encourage them to understand how powerful they are. When you’re young you think you’re powerless, especially when you’re a young woman. I want young women to know that they are not powerless. You have incredible resources and power and your sexuality is incredibly potent and powerful, more so than you will probably ever understand until you’re my age. And that if you take all the brilliance that’s inside of you, forget what’s outside, take everything that’s inside of you and spend that energy and your economic power, going outwards instead of inwards, you will achieve incredible things in your life. You will change the landscape for everybody. I think that’s great for men too. I love men, I don’t think men are holding me down, society has just gone completely out of whack and we need each other to move forward and make change across the board.


‘Strange Little Birds’ is out now via STUNVOLUME
garbage album

Photographs taken on Impossible instant film