Garbage's Shirley Manson on getting the band back together and kissing major labels goodbye
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It’s been seven years—in present pop-cultural terms, an eternity—since Garbage last graced the airwaves with its slick, sultry pop songs. Given the long break and the reported estrangement between the band members, it seemed like the group had checked out permanently. But after singer Shirley Manson had to scrap plans for a solo album due to disagreements with her record label, and the cancellation of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles cut her fledgling acting career short, she ended up back in touch with the band’s other members—grunge producer and drummer Butch Vig, and studio pals Duke Erikson and Steve Marker—and working on what emerged as their fifth studio album, Not Your Kind Of People. Having separated in significant part because of pressure from its former record label, the band decided to release the album on its own Stunvolume imprint, and the results sound energized and liberated by the freedom that comes with self-employment. During a break from rehearsing for the band’s upcoming tour, Manson called The A.V. Club to talk about getting the band back together, how the collapse of her solo album was a blessing in disguise, and why Garbage still hasn’t made its “bummer record.”
The A.V. Club: In 2008, when you were having trouble getting your label to release your dark, moody solo songs, you wrote on your MySpace page, “I’m 41. I’m a woman, not a kid. I have no interest in making silly pop music.” And yet here you are, four years later, releasing another pop album. What happened? Did your mind change?
Shirley Manson: I think everything changed. When we took our hiatus, for lack of a better word, I had just gotten so fed up by all the expectations that were heaped on us by outside influences, like our record label. They wanted things from us that we didn’t even value. We didn’t care if we weren’t No. 1 on the charts. We didn’t care if we weren’t the most-added, you know, all the lingo they use to quantify a band’s worth or success. It was almost like a parent-child relationship that we had with our record label, where we just constantly, perpetually felt we were disappointing them. After a while, that really robs you of your joy. It is great to have a successful record, let me make that perfectly clear, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of your life as a working musician, whether you’re played on the radio or you get on TV. There are plenty of musicians all over the world who live very happy, fulfilled lives without ever having to step on that kind of stage.
After a while, we really got beaten down by corporate expectations, and as a result, I think we all just wanted to buck against that. It was like a creative straitjacket. Because when you’re signed to a record label, you have to run all your music through them, and they decide whether they will release it or not. After a while, you just want to scream, and hand them some really obscure, weird, obtuse, unmarketable music, but then of course they’d never release it. I think taking a hiatus was our reaction against that. We wanted to free ourselves of that straitjacket. Then, of course, years passed, and you start to feel creative again, and get excited about the notion of getting into a room with people you love, and making music. That’s basically what happened. I think we were all surprised by the record that we made. It wasn’t the record we thought we’d make. I think we thought we would make the kind of record we’ve talked about doing for years, what we call our bummer record—it’s all bummer songs. But we were excited to be together, and you can’t control what comes out. This is the record that came out.
AVC: Garbage started out as three studio rats in search of a female singer. When you go into the studio with them, how much is set in advance, and how much changes in the process?
SM: None of it really was set, to be honest. Occasionally somebody will bring in an idea, like Duke brought in the beginnings of “Sugar,” but a lot of the record was born from us jamming together. For the most part, everything was done together. We all realized that all four of us had to be equally enthused about each idea that went on the record. The best way of guaranteeing that enthusiasm is to make sure everybody’s involved right from the start and that there are no rigid parameters in place.
AVC: Did it take a while to get back into the groove? It had been seven years since you’d recorded together.
SM: It came together ridiculously quickly. They walked in the door, and I walked in and met them, and it was immediate. We were grinning from ear to ear, actually. Within an hour, we were playing together, and it felt scarily familiar and everyone was excited to be there. You could feel it in the room. I know the band really, really well, and they know me really, really well. I think everybody could tell that everybody was excited, and that’s a really thrilling place to start making music, when you can feel everybody’s excitement in the room.
AVC: It’s been a turbulent period for music, in terms of sound and the business itself. You’re on your own label now, which is no longer just the province of bands who can’t manage to get signed. And styles have changed. Do you feel any desire to fit in, or to respond to what’s happened while you’ve been away?
SM: I think we’ve all come to the point in our lives where we have surrendered to the fact that we will never fit in. We’ve accepted that, and we’re just moving forward. The rest, we’ve accepted, is completely out of our control. We have no idea whether people even want to hear a Garbage record. We’ve been somewhat taken aback by the fact that we’ve had an incredible welcome, and that has been wonderful. To get a song immediately played on radio is a huge privilege, and one we don’t take lightly. To have journalists all over the world want to talk to us, that is also a ridiculous privilege, so we’re well aware that we’re in a ridiculous position that we’re very grateful for. But at the same time, we have no idea whether an audience will connect with what we’re saying, because things have changed so much, and we’re not the hot new kids on the block by any stretch of the imagination. So I think we’re just going to go out there and play. We feel we’ve made a really great record, a modern record, but it’s really up to people to decide our position, what our role is now in the music culture.
AVC: You’ve been cited as an influence on a slew of younger artists like Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry. Have you seen that over the years, turning on the radio or the TV and thinking, “They’re interested in the same things I was”?
SM: No, I didn’t, but I have read that we have influenced these people, and I’m very flattered. I think the one great thing maybe my band ever did do was, we did sort of come from an outsider’s status. I think people that got turned on by us were probably excited themselves. So these artists, like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, have gone on to realize their own desires, probably, arguably from also an outsider’s status. Both Katy Perry and Lady Gaga come from interesting angles, in a way. Maybe they felt like outsiders too, so our influence has maybe been encouraging them to press on and do what they want with their lives, which clearly they have, to an unbelievable extent. It feels good for me to watch young women dominate the charts, having been influenced by something they heard by us when they were young. That’s fucking amazing. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve been vocal on your Facebook page and elsewhere about standing up for women you feel don’t get a fair shake, including defending Kristen Stewart’s performance in Twilight. Is that something you think about a lot, or feel a responsibility to comment on?
SM: I can’t help myself. I just am fascinated by other female artists, probably because I feel a kinship with them, no matter who they are and what they do. And I’m 45 now. I’m not a kid. I feel like I’m a grown-up, and I know exactly what they’re going through. I have lived it myself. It’s a minefield to navigate. People seem to think this is really simple. It’s really difficult to navigate attention and stardom and celebrity status, and still try to maintain yourself and hold onto your intelligence and integrity. It’s really challenging. I watch these young women try to navigate our culture, and I watch them struggle, or I watch the unbelievable hostility they have to bear. So I guess, yeah, I feel protective.
It’s a political thing for me, too; I feel women have to have other women’s backs. They still do. Until we command the exact same salary as every male counterpart, I feel a political desire to stand by other women. If we don’t stand together, that equality will never be fully realized, and that bothers me. I see very little in our culture, actually, of women necessarily standing up for one another. I think there’s still an underlying fear if one woman has the light shone upon her, it takes away from your light, which of course is not the case at all. But I think when you’re young, you maybe fear that.
AVC: Does that awareness factor into the songs as well? Do you try to put something across to young women who might be listening?
SM: I don’t know. I don’t really think that way. When somebody asks me a question, I try to be as straightforward about it as possible. I try not to overthink what I’m going to say in an interview. I don’t want to get into that mindset that it really matters what I have to say. It doesn’t, so I may as well be as honest as possible and talk about my experiences, and just leave it at that.
AVC: “Man On A Wire” has an element of vengeance, as a kiss-off to a doubter who was “hoping to watch me fail.”
SM: I’ve never necessarily really believed in the concept of revenge, but I think the songs are defiant and passionate. I think that does come across in the record. There’s nothing like being told you’re not good enough, and you’re lacking in every department. There’s nothing like being able to really sit with yourself, and question, “Am I not good enough? Am I able enough?” And realizing, “You know what? I do have enough fortitude to stand back up against this.” That’s an emboldening feeling. So I think that is definitely there on the record. We had no real interest from anybody over [the hiatus]. Seven years is a long time; people forget about you. The only real reason we had to make this record was how much we wanted to. That’s a powerful driver, when you realize, “I want to do this, even though I may be crazy for thinking I should do this. I really want to do it, so I’m going to do it.” And that’s an amazing energy to pull from. [Laughs.] Do I sound crazy?
AVC: Is someone saying you can’t do something a strong motivator for you to try it? It seemed like that was part of the dynamic with your solo album, which you and your label never saw eye-to-eye on.
SM: No, we did not see eye-to-eye. Looking back, it’s the best thing they could have ever done for me. It really was a record that forced me to think of who I was, what I wanted, what I was and was not willing to do. It was a really great, polarizing moment for me, in a way. Which I’m grateful for, because I railed against it. They basically told me, “We don’t want anything but what we want from you, and we want it in the shape of every other girl that’s out there right now.” Everything sort of dropped into clear focus for me. It was great. [Laughs.] But it didn’t feel great at the time.
AVC: In a sense, you chose to release no album rather than to release their idea of what it should be.
SM: Yeah, and that’s a lot to learn about yourself. It’s like, “Wow! Okay.”
AVC: It would have been the first thing to be released purely under your own name, and it seems like you took a stand: “This will be what I want it to be, or it won’t be at all.”
SM: It has to be, right? It has to be, yeah. Anyway, so here we are.