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20 Years, 20 Questions

Shirley Manson and Butch Vig Answer 20 Questions for the 20th Anniversary of ‘Garbage’

Shirley Manson refers to herself a “truth-seeker.” “I’ve been taught that when people ask, ‘How are you,’ they’re not looking to hear how you actually are,” she explains over the phone. Total honesty is a societal rule she admits to breaking most of the time. On the plus side, her urge to be frank is part of what’s kept Garbage — which also comprises bassist/guitarist Duke Erikson, guitarist Steve Marker, and drummer/renowned producer Butch Vig — relevant for two decades.

Imbuing their material with an experimental smattering of ’90s trend genres (trip-hop, techno, and grunge), the alterna-pop pioneers’ 1995 self-titled debut comes packed with Manson’s self-prostrating verses: “I’m only happy when it rains,” “Stupid girl / All you had you wasted,” “This is not my idea of a good time.”

In the beginning, though, it was the Scotland native’s startling visual presentation — crimson hair, heavy-lidded gaze, vaguely apathetic demeanor — in U.K. goth-rock outfit Angelfish that inspired Erikson, Steve Marker, and Vig to invite Manson to audition for Garbage, which in 1994 was essentially a small-time studio project in Madison, Wisconsin. Then, with a push from MTV and Top 40 radio, the group went on to sell more than four million copies of Garbage worldwide, and today the quartet are due to release the album’s 20th anniversary re-mastered edition this fall, which will feature remixes and previously unreleased demos of songs.

In celebration of this and their forthcoming 20 Years Queer tour, we called up Manson and Vig separately to talk memories of their breakthrough album and why Manson has always felt like an “outsider” in the band.

Shirley, what was it like for you when Duke, Steve, and Butch invited you to audition for Garbage in 1994? 

Shirley Manson:
I remember getting a phone call. I was literally doing dishes. I had on rubber gloves, and it was 7:00 p.m. at night. The call was from my A&R guy, [Phil Schuster]. He said there’s a producer in America who’s been inquiring about you. His name is Butch Vig. I was like, “Uh-huh. And what do you mean ‘inquiring?'” He said, “Well, he wants to work with you. He’s interested in recording a song with you.” I was like, “OK, well, who is this guy?” Phil said, “Well, you should go back and listen to your Nirvana record, or Sonic Youth, or Smashing Pumpkins. You’ll see his name on those records.” [They were] records Phil knew I loved.

What was your reaction once you realized that it was the Butch Vig asking after you?

SM: I was squealing, I couldn’t believe it. I was just like, “How could this possibly happening to me?” [Butch] had this incredible, cool, eclectic discography, and I was really flattered. I still am, actually, truth be told.

Butch, what was it about Shirley that struck you in the beginning?

Butch Vig: We felt like we had met a kindred spirit. Her sensibility, her wanting to fight for the underdog. We liked similar kinds of music and film. She had never really had the chance to be a full contributor as a songwriter [in earlier bands Angelfish and Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie]. We kind of threw her in the hot seat. We had a lot of songs that were basically music jams with fragmented lyric ideas that Duke, Steve, and I had come up with, and we kind of forced Shirley to go in the studio and finish them.

Was she nervous? 

The very first [session], she had a rough go of it. We weren’t really sure if it was going to work. She went back to Scotland, but she called Duke two weeks later saying, “I think I know what to do on some of these songs.”

What was the recording set up like then? 

BV: We were set up at Steve’s house recording in his basement. Duke, Steve, and I sat downstairs and we would roll these tracks — “Vow” or “Queer,” whatever they were — they weren’t finished but they were pretty far along, so she had an idea of what the song sounded like. We were like, “OK, well, just make something up, Shirley.”

What did Shirley eventually add to the mix that you felt was missing? 

BV: The demo versions that we had, we tended to distort our vocals and sing them really aggressively. Shirley was kind of doing the opposite — [she sang them] kind of understated. On “Queer” and “Stupid Girl,” there’s sort of this languid undercurrent in there. There’s a tension in it. When she started singing, it was really understated. In fact, sometimes the more understated she sang, the more tense the track sounded. That’s one of the things we really loved that she brought to those early versions of the songs.

Shirley, what was the Garbage tryout process like? 

SM: I went down to London and I met them. We had a meeting there in a hotel, which, ironically — it’s a story that that’s been told a million times, but it bears retelling — it was the night that Kurt Cobain killed himself. [Ed. note: This would have been the night Cobain’s body was discovered in his Seattle home.] That was the night I met the boys. When I got to the house I was staying with that night, it was all over the news. Of course I immediately thought, “Wow, this is going to devastate Butch.”

From that point on, they came and saw me play on tour with my band Angelfish. I was touring in the States with Vic Chesnutt. They came and saw me play in Chicago, we hung out that night, and we really liked each other. Then finally, they asked me to record with them in Madison for one day. It was a bit of a fiasco — it didn’t go very well. So then they asked if I would be interested in coming back one more time and making the recording happen.

BV: [Laughs.] Did Shirley tell you this story? She was pushing Vic in his wheelchair down Clark Street in Chicago. It was January. We’d had a few cocktails. She hit a curb and he flew out of his wheelchair into the street. She was mortified, but Vic was totally laughing at the time.

Butch, why’d you bring Shirley back after the first failed attempt at recording? 

BV: To be honest, the very first session that she did, Duke and Steve and I were not very organized. We probably could have sat down to play her some songs and describe them a little bit, but we literally would cue up a track and say, “OK, try something.”

We couldn’t even see her. We set up a microphone in Steve’s living room and ran some cables down through the stairs into the basement, and so we would finish it, and she’d sing in starts and stops and there’d be silence, and Duke, Steve and I would look at each other, terrified. We’d say, “Shirley, do you want to try that again?” She’d go [imitates Scottish accent], “I don’t know what you want me to do.” We couldn’t understand her Scottish accent. So there was a little bit of a language barrier on that first day.

Personally, I remember I felt discouraged. I thought in the back of my head it would all go really easily, that she would come up with these great lyrics and great melodies, and we’d go into the studio and in a week or so finish a lot of the songs. But it didn’t happen that way. It was a slow courting process.

Shirley, did you feel a lot of pressure to impress, especially singing for a producer who had worked with Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins? 

SM: It was horrifically intimidating. I don’t know if the band ever really understood that. I’ve always been an outsider. I am still an outsider in Garbage. I’m the odd one out by default. I’m the only girl, I’m younger than they are, they’ve all known each other for 40 years, or something crazy like that. So I always felt, like, off the center of things. I felt incredibly lucky and incredibly grateful, which is appropriate, but also incredibly destructive in my own already small amount of self-belief. I didn’t believe deep down that I had any talent. I had never written a song at this point, so I was shaking in my shoes, literally. It took arguably 20 years for me to actually feel like I deserved to be sitting in that seat.

What were you listening to at the time of recording Garbage?

BV: We loved punk and new wave. I know Shirley’s a big fan of Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde and Siouxsie Sioux. Kate Bush, also. Steve brought in a Public Enemy record right before we started Garbage, and I just got fascinated with the sound of those records. I realized they were using samplers, and yet they sounded more scary and more rock’n’roll to me than a lot of the rock’n’roll records I was listening to. We loved Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead. I still love My Bloody Valentine. That was one of the influences on the guitar playing that Duke and Steve brought in.

We would also listen to Frank Sinatra records. Shirley grew up listening to musicals, as did I. My mom was a music teacher, so every night we’d have dinner and there’d be some musical on in our house: West Side Story, or Oklahoma or whatever.

Shirley, given your insecurities at the time, did you find it strange how girls idolized you as a fashion icon the ’90s?

SM: We should never listen to our feelings. They lead us astray. I’m looking at old archival footage that we shot on the first tour, and I know how I felt then. And yet I’m looking at myself on these videos, and I seem really self-assured and confident. It was at odds with how I was feeling inside. The good news was, somehow or another, my mother taught me to push through my fear, always. Feel the fear and do it anyway. So I’m grateful for that sort of streak that I had. I spent the entire first decade with Garbage incredibly uncomfortable and always riddled with self-doubt.

Did you ever have journalists coming up to you asking, “Shirley, are you OK?”

SM: All the time.

How’d you respond?

I’d say, “Yeah, I’m OK, thank you for asking.” If you’re a truth-seeker, which I am — and you clearly are too — all your life, you’re fighting to hear the truth. Then you see all the masks that everybody wears — whether they want you to see them or not. It’s almost like a weird sixth sense. Like, I can meet people and within seconds get an idea of what’s going on with them, even if they’re saying nice things and laughing and acting happy as clowns. I haven’t always understood that not everybody’s like me, and they don’t think like I do. They only want to see a pretty picture. Whereas I like pretty things, but I also want to peel away the beautiful picture and see the substance beneath it.

How does that affect your relationships?

SM: I was always looking at my relationships with other people with regards to what I wanted, and what I wasn’t getting from them, without understanding that some people don’t want that deep connection. They’re not interested in it. It scares them or it repulses them, or they’re bored by it. And that took me a long time to understand. I was always thinking, “Well, why don’t people want me to study them and adore them and obsess over them? Why would they want me to treat them cheaply and superficially?” It’s how they operate. It’s no better or worse than I operate, it’s just very different. You get your heart broken all the time. I don’t mean romantically. But in terms of when I meet people and I see the walls go up, it’s painful.

How did you deal with the superficial aspects of the music industry when Garbage came out? 

SM: It was challenging, but on the other hand, it was really exciting. The first record has very little drawback. You’re so distracted by the adventure that you’re not really aware of the sideshow. It’s only when you start going through your career and the shine… not wears off, but it becomes second to your growth as a human being.

And we were incredibly lucky. We had an incredibly blessed run. Nobody got ill, there were no tragedies, there were no accidents, it was like magic. The second record was like magic too, although the strings began to show. Our primary relationships began to suffer.

Then you start focusing in on your life. [You think], well, I haven’t had a proper relationship for years, I get panic attacks when I go into the supermarket because I haven’t been anywhere by myself for three years — stuff like that. Then you start to realize that people treat you differently because they’ve seen your face on magazines and seen you interviewed on TV. The awareness slowly seeps in over two to three records.

Butch, did you have a preference at the time between producing and playing in a band? How did you balance?

BV: I look at it as two different hats that I wear. When I’m producing the Foo Fighters or Green Day or the Pumpkins or whoever, I have to remember that it’s their music. It’s their vision. It’s my job to help them achieve that vision. In Garbage, the one thing that I found liberating is that I got to wear a lot of different hats. I could be a drummer, I could play guitar, keyboard, I could be a sound experimenter, I could be a songwriter, an arranger, a producer, a lyricist. I think that’s one of the things that’s kept the band fresh for us. Because we are able to enjoy multiple ways to find creativity. If I was just a drummer, I know for a fact I would’ve gotten bored with Garbage. Personally, I put drumming pretty low on my totem pole. I should practice more [laughs].

How do the four of you balance each other out over a period of 20 years? 

BV: It takes the three of us gentlemen to balance out Shirley [laughs]. Duke and Steve and I, we’re fairly pragmatic, and Shirley can be very emotional and very outspoken. I think it’s a good balance. Somehow we’re able to keep her calm at times. And she’s able to set a fire under our butts. She’s a very, very passionate person. It’s been a good chemistry between the four of us. We’re like a family, really. We still get along really well. Shirley lives about a five-minute drive from my house here in Los Angeles. I see her walking around the Silver Lake Reservoir. We get along because of the shared self-deprecation and humor that we have. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. We’re really nerds who like to make fun of each other, too. I think having a sense of humor about things has been really healthy for us, over the last 20 years.

MTV played a major part in your initial success. Since MTV doesn’t have the same influence over music consumption that it did 20 years back, is there anyone or anything an aspiring pop musician can turn to to achieve the same level of exposure today? 

SM: Here’s the tragedy of the modern record business: It’s radio. If you’re not on radio, nobody really is going to hear you or see you or care about you. It’s so complicated. The reason we are engulfed by pop acts is because pop acts are played on radio. Why are they played on radio? Because they’re the most popular. They attract the biggest audiences. Everybody’s trying to be the biggest, because if you’re not the biggest, you don’t survive.

We got played like crazy on MTV and on the radio, and therefore we had a successful record. The same goes for today. If you’re not being played like crazy, you will not have a successful record, in general. Record companies sign only what they think will get onto radio, and of course these are the songs that appeal to the masses. Sometimes we get lucky and we get artists like the Weeknd who make incredible pop music that’s dark and twisted and exciting, or we get ten-a-penny songs where you can’t tell who’s singing.

So how can a band sustain a long-term career?

SM: I really don’t know, it’s so difficult right now. Record companies aren’t even wanting to sign bands because it’s too expensive. The economics of the music industry is destroying the idea and the possibility of survival for bands, and that’s so sad.

BV: Music culture has changed so much. There’s a couple of different ways a younger artist can get their music out there. If you want to be a pop star like Taylor Swift or Katy Perry, you still need that big machine — the major label clout to saturate the airwaves, to spend money on advertising, to get on the best TV show. But if you’re an indie artist, you have all the tools at your fingertips to do it yourself, through social networking, digital distribution.

The only way to really make an impact is to write a great song. Because if it’s really good, people are gonna want to hear it more than once. They’re gonna come back, they’re gonna want to discover who the artist is that made it. I get a lot of young musicians coming to me asking, should we sign to a label or should we try to do it ourselves? I say, I think you have the power to do everything yourselves these days, but the most important thing is to write a song that’s going to connect with an audience on some sort of emotional level.

I’ve been hearing news about a sixth Garbage album. Is there anything you can share on that front?

BV: It’s about 90 percent done. Our engineer Billy Bush has a studio five minutes from my house on Glendale Boulevard, and that’s where we recorded most of Not Your Kind of People, and that’s where we recorded most of the new album too. There’s three or four songs that sound very much like classic Garbage, whatever that means — just the sensibility in how we play and record. Then there are seven or eight songs that are different sounding, but they still sound like us.  I’m sitting in my home studio here in Silver Lake staring at the console with one of the tracks we’re working on trying to finesse. I’m lab ratting out.