"You can love us or loathe us but I don’t think you can really sound like us"
As Garbage release the 20th anniversary reissue of their seminal second album ‘Version 2.0’, frontwoman Shirley Manson has looked back on her struggles with fame, a health scare, and how she came to enjoy their success.
Read below as this year’s NME Icon winner talks about the legacy of the band, changing attitudes of politics within music, and what to expect from their ‘Roxy Music-inspired’ new album.
“When ‘Version 2.0’ came out it was such a mad, whirlwind, hurricane of excitement, success, travel and adventure that I just really had no idea what was happening to me,” Manson told NME. “I didn’t really have any perspective at all. So it’s a very different experience this time around. So yeah, it’s navel-gazing now, basically.”
Speaking of the difficulties she faced when Garbage were reaching the peak of their fame around the time of the album’s release, Manson said: “On the first day of the ‘Version 2.0′ tour, we were due to play in Ireland. It was all very fantastic. U2 were there. It felt like a real rock n’ roll fantasy, you know? And then I went back to my hotel room. I woke up in the morning and I was stretching. I ran my hand down my breast, as you do, and I found a lump. I fucking freaked out.
“This was like day one, you know. And it turned out that I needed a biopsy and then they couldn’t get the fucking needle in the lump. This hung over me for weeks. Then I eventually got to the States and I had it removed. It was a really botched surgery and I was in a lot of pain. I had to perform in a sling and I thought I had cancer. You can imagine it’s a sort of heightened hysteria of being away from home and having to deal with something that has serious implications, but as it turned out everything was fine.”
She added: “It was just a lot of madness, and so it’s only now that I can look back and enjoy the success that we experienced. We had so much success with the first record and we never in our wildest dreams imagined that we could repeat that, and yet we did. This time it felt legitimate.
“I certainly had no clue that I would go on and have a long career. I just assumed that this would be my ride. With ‘Version 2.0’ we really stamped our presence. My life changed in that moment. Up until that point I just thought ‘well, I’m going to be back in Edinburgh before I know it. I’m going to be working back in Miss Selfridge and selling clothes to teenagers’ but mercifully, thank God, I didn’t have to go back.”
There aren’t very many bands that can actually be able to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a record. What do you think it is about the character, the message and the legacy of ‘Version 2.0’ that makes people want to revisit it in a light like this?
Shirley: “We are a unique band, for better or for worse. You can love us or loathe us, but I don’t think you can really sound like us. We definitely have our own sound and we’ve always had our own aesthetic. We’ve always done things pretty much our own way. Now that has caused us problems, but it’s also served us well. When you are unique and you know you are, you attract a unique fan base. They have been outrageously loyal and supportive and keep surprising us now, even 20 years later.
“I’m sure we felt like raising the whole thing to the fucking ground at times, but we have never said anything that we can’t walk away from. None of us has ever been that destructive, and that allows a band to grow. A lot of bands that we grew up with weren’t so lucky. They weren’t able to figure it out. Democracy is a fucking hard balance to strike, as we can see from the fucking global mess we’re in. So often we can’t afford to think like that.”
Is there anything about the message of the record that you think still resonates today?
S: “Well we’ve never been one for big, over-reaching messages, to be honest. But I do think – and this is probably retroactively that I realise this – we were speaking about things that were considered taboos, really. I did speak a lot about sex, I spoke a lot about religion. These were issues that were just not really talked about in pop culture. Back then, as an alternative figure in rock music, that was considered quite unusual. We really spoke to people that had been forgotten about, and forgotten people never forget when a hand has been stretched out to connect with them in their moments of darkness.”
I remember when we announced that you were going to receive the NME Icon Award and Lauren Mayberry from Chvrches sent you a message basically saying “thank you for giving me the courage to be and say what I want’…
S: “When your peers acknowledge your work to talk about the effect that our band’s had on them, it brings a a shiver of pleasure. It’s amazing that you’re allowed to help unlock this creativity in someone else, who then went on to touch other peoples’ lives. In moments of very commonplace darkness, in any musician’s career, the support from some of my peers has been valuable because sometimes the press just turned on us. It felt almost inexplicable because we were doing the same thing we always did, but all of a sudden it just wasn’t resonating with people for one reason or another. I endured a lot of negativity in the press for a while and it was painful, I can’t lie. It was painful and bewildering and enraging, but when a peer, whether it’s Billy Corgan, whether it’s Courtney [Love], whether it’s Bono or Lauren [Mayberry], when they say kind things and say to you ‘You’re meant to be doing this’, it’s really encouraging in a way that just has a different weight.
“Lauren’s been so generous in the press and I’m so touched that there’s this beautiful, delicious, spicy little spitfire, you know? That she went on to do what she is doing; it’s gorgeous.”
It always seems like there’s a ‘reason’ for Garbage to exist. How would you describe that in 2018?
S: “I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m a really good self-motivator. I can fuel myself and it’s taken me a long time in my career to get to that point where I’m not looking to the press, or to my family, or to my friends, or to anyone for that matter to say, ‘You’re great’ or ‘You matter’.
“When you shrink down your intentions to something that small, everything becomes handleable, less stressful, more enjoyable and your intentions become much clearer. I can tell you exactly where I went to do that – it was when I went to an acting class during the height of Garbage. I had an amazing teacher and she basically taught her students how to constantly refuel and how to always inject what you’re doing as an artist with a kind of starter mentality. Every time you come to a piece of work, every time you go to a show, every time you say words, you have to refuel them as if you’re saying them for the first time. It sounds like such a hokey trick but it really has worked in my career since then.”
So, to the future! How did work for the new album go on your sessions in Palm Springs?
S: “It was really interesting. We were actually intending on doing one more week next week – but Butch [Vig, drummer and producer] is off working with a band I can’t tell you about. We won’t be doing any more writing now really until after the tour because we’ve all got shit going on. It went well and it was a great start, and I think everybody was pretty excited. [The new songs] just have that sort of darkness that Roxy Music did so well… I’ve always been obsessed with Roxy Music – it’s all I listen to actually. I don’t know why they’ve always been a favourite.
“Of course Butch was once the president of the Roxy Music fan club in Maddison, Wisconsin – so he’s also got this love and understanding of that kind of mood. It’s really the mood I’m after. We’ll see. I always thought they were a very sort of modern-sounding band. Even now, you listen to these records and they’re really interesting sounds, there’s a sort of dangerous darkness about the sound that I really, really am aching for.”
Lyrically, what’s inspiring you right now?
S: “I don’t know, because when you’re writing you just kind of let any old gobbledygook come out. And then sometimes I have these… like you’re sitting on an aeroplane and you’re like, ‘I need to write about that and I’m gonna sandwich that into this song and change it completely’. So the lyrics are never done until the fat lady sings, so to speak. So I couldn’t really say. I’m trying to be less controlling about the way I write words because I always feel like with every record you should try something different, so you’re not just in your comfort zone all the time. I try and write from different perspectives and jump into different characters and see what happens.”
Do you ever feel the need to confound expectations in your work? For instance, that people might be expecting Garbage to write a ‘Me Too’ song?
S: “I feel like you can’t control every body else, so I’m always trying to push myself because then I will have a point of view. If I just sit back and I’m lazy and I just don’t open my mouth and let anything dribble out, then I think that’s when you’ve got nothing to talk about. If you are pushing yourself, that intention alone takes you into territory that you’ve never really experienced before or explored. Then when you’re eventually confronted with questions about your work, you’re going to have something to say because it’s come from a legitimate place. I mean, I don’t know – I’ve no fucking answers about anything! I’m just fucking trying to shamble on by the best I can!”
Garbage’s 20th anniversary reissue of ‘Version 2.0’ is out now. Their full upcoming UK and Ireland tour dates are below. Tickets are available here.
Tuesday September 4 – EDINBURGH Festival Theatre
Wednesday September 5 – GLASGOW Barrowlands
Friday September 7 – BRISTOL St Phillips Gate Arena
Saturday September 8 – BIRMINGHAM Digbeth Arena
Sunday September 9 – MANCHESTER Academy
Tuesday September 11 – NOTTINGHAM Rock City
Wednesday September 12 – NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE Northumbria SU Institute
Friday September 14 – LONDON Brixton Academy
Saturday September 15 – LONDON Brixton Academy