I could've lied and tried to give you the impression that I'm not much bothered by Garbage or Shirley Manson, but, as is often the case if you have the opportunity to speak with an artist you've admired for a long time, whether that be after a show or through social media, it's difficult to conceal your true colours as a fully-fledged fan boy/girl.
I tried. I really did try.
It's the 20th anniversary of the band's landmark, self-titled debut. To celebrate, Garbage are embarking on a world tour in which they are performing the album in full, which includes a plethora of hit singles like 'Stupid Girl', 'Only Happy When It Rains', 'Queer', the list goes on.
As Shirley explains during our call, for her, it's an exercise in gratitude to fans who have sustained their career for so long, rather than a cynical money-making ploy of a band that has run out of of ideas. A new album is expected next spring.
As ever, Shirley is uncompromisingly open in her opinions about everything from ageism, plastic surgery, music industry greed, nostalgia, cyclical cultural patterns, Lana Del Rey and Sam Smith's Bond theme, and more. Just don't ask her to DJ at your party.
DiS: Hey Shirley, how are you?
Shirley: Hey Woodrow, I'm great, thank you. You're the first Woodrow I have ever spoken to in my life.
DiS: No way, really?
S: I've never spoken to a Woodrow in all the years of my entire life.
DiS: Well most people call me Woody but I don't mind Shirley Manson calling me Woodrow. I'm totally fine with that. So where about are you now, Shirley?
S: I'm in Boston, Massachusetts.
DiS: And is Boston, Massachusetts nice? Do you like it there?
S: Yeah, I do. It's a beautiful city. I love it.
DiS: I want to start with the 90s. The 20th anniversary of Garbage is very well-time as it seems we are in the midst of a 90s aesthetic revival, particularly in music and fashion. Was everything better in the 90s? Do you ever make that comparison?
S: No, I mean, of course not. There were some dreadful things in the 90s just like there is in every decade. I think though that because of the dominance of pop music for the last decade or so, we're all aching to hear some alternative music in the mainstream. I think that's all that's happening here. It's really simple. You turn on the radio and there is a handful of songs that all sound the same, the singers sound the same, and I think we're all just aching for something different. It's the cyclical nature of culture. I think we're yearning to hear some different attitudes and different standpoints instead of just the glossy pop that we've been submerged under for a decade.
DiS: You mentioned in an interview recently that you thought there wasn't enough room in the mainstream for challenging music. Why do you think that is?
S: Well I think with the advent of social media and everything, we're now under a deluge of information, of all sorts, and music is just one arm of all that information. So the biggest voice is heard above the fray, and the biggest voice tends to be the most popular voice, and the most popular voice tends to be the voice that appeals to the masses, and to appeal to the masses you must in general not-offend, you can't really take too much of a stand because you'll turn a certain sub-set of people off. But I think there is a yearning in our culture for a standpoint and points of view. We've never needed debate more than we need it now. This hamster wheel of the same acts getting covered by the same people, the same publications, and these acts get bigger and bigger and bigger until they drown out and suffocate the smaller voices. I don't think that's good for all of us in the long term.
DiS: I agree, and you've also made me think about that pressure you see with some pop acts to be shocking, but when you really analyse what's happening, it's not really that shocking at all. People have been doing that shit for years and years...
S: Yeah! (laughs)
DiS: Let's take a classic example of this: Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs. Is that really that shocking after what Madonna did 25 years before?
S: No, not at all.
DiS: But on the flip side, you have artists like Lana Del Rey, who I really love because she seems to go against the grain of young popstars. She's very much her own individual. You're a big fan, right?
S: Oh I absolutely adore her! Everything about her. The second I heard her up to her latest record Honeymoon, I love everything that comes out of her.
DiS: I like that it's kind of unhappy as well. Pop music can be so relentlessly happy. I feel like she fills a void where there should be a bit of misery.
S: Well see, everyone describes her as miserable only because she's not sing happy, shiny pop songs and she's not dancing as fast as she can, and she's not playing that showbiz game which is so predominant right now. I don't think she is “miserable”, she's just talking about darker themes that exist in everybody's life. There isn't one person who is not touched by sadness. There isn't one person who isn't touched by heartbreak and to pretend that doesn't exist in our life I think is very peculiar. I think that's one of the reasons why Lana Del Rey is doing so well is because she is one of the few voices out there that willing to examine the dark corner of the room. And that's powerful.
DiS: Yeah. I mean, I don't think I have anything to add to that. Well said.
S: (Hearty laugh) Oh, Woody! We're on the same page. Love it.
DiS: It's always good to be on the same page. Let's go back to Garbage because we should definitely talk about that era more. When you've been doing these interviews and, obviously, talking to the band too about this first big success for you, were there any things you had forgotten about that have came back to you through those conversations?
S: Oh god, yeah. Literally the whole experience has been like that famous Proust (Marcel) passage from Swann's Way when he talks about eating the Madeleine, and when the taste of the Madeleine hits his lips he remembers absolutely everything about a specific moment in the past. That has been what playing these songs this time around has felt like, in a way. I can remember textures of clothes I was wearing in 1995 just by re-examining these songs again for the first time in a collection. It's remarkable. It's been really peculiar and surreal.
DiS: Is that a nice experience? It's always nice to look back, I suppose.
S: Yeah, I'm not a particularly nostalgic person in general. I like to forge forward. I like to march forward every day. I don't ever really look back but this felt like a really important occasion to honour. Not necessarily out of nostalgia but out of gratitude, which I think is a very different driver, at least for me it is. I've felt like it's been an incredible experience for us as a band and for our fans, who've enjoyed this 20 year long relationship, whilst also garnering new people along the way. It just felt right to celebrate moments in your life you know will never come round again. It's important to be grateful. If you're not grateful for you life, I think you're missing out on so much.
DiS: Yes and one of the really nice things I learnt from reading your interviews is that you speak so positively of the debut record. As you would hope, of course, but that's not always the case. Some artists are a little embarrassed by their first attempt. I'm thinking Radiohead but also your friend Brody Dalle. I interviewed her last year and we were talking about her first record and she just straight up said: 'I fucking hate it'
DiS: So what is it that you really love about that first record?
S: I've have just grown to accept who we were then. We did the best we could, y'know? I think it was an incredible vehicle for us. It changed my entire life, for the better. How could I not have positive connections to that? Do I hear things that if I got to change them now, would I? Of course. It is what it is. It gave me wings, so I love that record and I love those songs as a result. We've enjoyed so much contact with fans that have told us stories from their own personal lives about how these songs effected them, comforted them, guided them, I don't know, all these crazy things and that is such an incredible role to play in somebody's life. To be give them comfort at times of great stress, or trauma, that's a fucking amazing thing, so I feel really good about that record.
DiS: Going out each night to perform then must be great too. Do you have a favourite song from that era? Is there one that stands out for you?
S: Erm, I don't know. Every night on this tour I've stood out and looked out into the audience and people are crying. They're holding on to each other and dancing and laughing. It's really amazing, a really crazy experience. There isn't really one song stands out because each song has stood out to different people individually. I have to confess there is a cover version we did of The Jam's 'Butterfly Collector' and I do relish singing that every night because Paul Weller is such an incredible writer. To sing his material is such a fucking pleasure.
DiS: When you released Garbage, you were 29, is that right?
S: I think I was 28? I honestly couldn't tell you but it was in that certain era.
DiS: Well the reason I ask is that a lot of people now, and probably back then too, are so young when they break. They're 18, sometimes younger. Do you think being older helped you in some ways? I can imagine being more mature would help you making decisions to the benefit of your career in the long run.
S: I think it allowed us to endure because we were not destroyed by the...atomic bomb of success. We were able to endure that shock and the ensuing after shocks, yes. So I would say I was very grateful I was a lot older that your average musician enjoying there first taste of success.
DiS: Do you think you were prepared for the success?
S: Fuck yeah, I was! I was ready (laughs). I had been in a band for a decade, and sailed for a decade, and so I was ready by the time it came along. I was able to ride that horse.
DiS: I think it takes some real guts to keep doing it for that long. I think that's what separates the weak the strong...
S: (laughs) That's right. That relentlessness.
DiS: Was it getting to the point where you were like 'fuck, is this ever going to happen?' It must of crossed your mind.
S: Of course! But I was really lucky because two of my musical touchstones were Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde. Both of whom enjoyed success at a later age, so they were always people I looked to and thought, 'It's okay, Debbie Harry didn't really break until she was 31' and the same for Chrissie Hynde. I would always salve my panic with these incredible women. And look at my boys. They were in the forties when it happened to them! It's never too late, kids, it's never too late.
DiS: It's true but there is so much ageism in the industry, it's fucking disgusting.
S:...but that's not the music industry, that's the media full stop. Across the board. That's the culture we live in right now. We're living in this culture right now where everyone is desperate to remain a child. I find it amazing that they don't want to take adult power, they don't want to take an adult stance. They want to suck their thumbs and, meanwhile, it's all the young kids sort of acting like 50 year old divorcees. It's fascinating to me.
I've always loved that idea of being an elder, it's such a fucking great position to be in. Where you are no longer scared, you are not cowed, you've developed into a fully formed human being. That's powerful. I think there is a deliberate attempt to infantilize people because infantilized people are powerless. They're not dangerous, they don't have a voice. So to me, it's like, why are women dumping their forehead with botox, trying to pretend to be sometime they are not? It's like, be your fully-fucking-realised, bad-ass self. Fucking go take over the world instead of wanting to be a baby. This is endlessly fascinating to me.
DiS: It's crazy, isn't it?
S: It is crazy.
DiS: And the scale of it, it's so pervasive. I can totally understand why a person would do those things. In this society, there is a pressure to do so. But I understand what you are saying because you're only going to lose, eventually, aren't you?
S: You're set up to lose. Exactly. It's a game you cannot win. I could go on about that subject forever because it really is so fascinating, pervasive and alarming. I see a lot of women sitting opposite me with their plastic faces and I don't see them looking young. I see them looking their age, attempting to look young and in the process, looking desperate and sad and disempowered. It's not good. Anyway...moving on (laughs).
DiS: Ha! Yes, moving on. I was hoping to ask you about the industry and how it's changed in the twenty years since Garbage. From your perspective, what have been the most important changes that have benefited artists in the long run?
S: Nothing. I don't think anything has changed.
S: Yeah I feel like we're back to the studio system of the 50s and 60s. I think artists are in real trouble. It's not a good situation for the large percentage of working musicians. It's a bad scene, and a worrisome scene.
DiS: What is it then about the industry now that has put this extra strain on artists?
S: The music industry is solely interested in money. There is absolutely no fostering of talent, fostering of creative vision. It's just all about: how much money can you make and how fast can you do it. And if you can't make us money...? It's businessmen who understand that musicians have to make music, like fish need to be in water, and they have figured out that they can use these talents to make themselves phenomenal amounts of money. It's an incredibly archaic, corrupt system that is worse now than it was in the 90s.
It's sort of breaks my heart a lot of the time because there are so many young artists who are just starting out, at the cusp of their career and they've maybe got one hit single under their belts, and they look like young kids being sent over the trenches in the first world war, y'know? They have no idea of the barrage they're about to meet. Particularly if they are alternative artists to begin with because, of course, record companies fall over themselves to sign artists that are making waves. And then, of course, maybe they'll get lucky and they get a single or maybe they're even more lucky and they manage to have an entire first record that is a success. And then they step into the game, for real, and it's just heartbreaking.
DiS: I've always been interested in that phenomena of a second albums and how often artists seem to hit a wall. Did you experience that with Garbage?
S: Yes and no. We were very lucky that our second record was as big as the first record. It's not the perception of the public but that is a fact. It was immensely successful globally. We were basically left to our own devices for most part probably because of Butch's reputation as a producer. We didn't have an outside producer, it was always kept inside the band. We had pretty much free reign and we were also lucky that we made a great record and it sold. And so, we didn't experience any real pressure until the third record and that's when music had shifted slightly. The culture had shifted slightly and we encountered a lot of problems but up until that point we were left to our devices, which is probably why the second record was successful. We didn't have any interference.
Nowadays you get A&R people, producers, record company execs, everyone in there with their opinions and it waters everything down and dilutes it. The label is not content with repeating the success of the first record, they need to better it. That's all they want to see. And so, that's when you see pressure on artists to conform and to make the music that is played on the radio at any given time. And, of course, that's a recipe for disaster. Chasing a trend is insanity.
DiS: Again, you'll never win.
S: You'll never win.
DiS: Life lessons from Shirley; you'll never win.
S: (very hearty laugh) The voice of Doom, that's what it's like.
DiS: The other thing, that I had nearly forgotten actually, was the James Bond theme you guys did (The World Is Not Enough). It seems kinda crazy to think of that now. Tell me a bit about that because that seems like a very strange thing in the Garbage back catalogue.
S: It really is peculiar but it's one moment that I'm incredibly grateful for. It was a wild ride. Who would have ever thought we would in a month of Sundays get invited to do a Bond theme? And actually, the composer David Arnold, had contacted management and said 'I want to meet Shirley for coffee, would she be open to that idea?' I thought he might have a project in mind. I really had no idea what it was about, so I went and met him in the local Starbucks round the corner from our hotel. I sat down opposite him and we introduced one another and he said, 'So I have a crazy question to ask you.' And I'm like, 'Uh huh?' And he's like, 'Do you want to do a Bond theme?' (laughs) And I'm like, excuse me? Excuse me? Are you out of your fucking mind? So it was really unbelievably exciting. It's still something that sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that we got to add our voice to the lexicon of artists that have made themes for that franchise and I actually think we did a pretty good job, too. I'm not embarrassed by it, I'm proud of it, so yeah, it's magical.
DiS: I was looking through a list of 'Best Bond' themes and yours does score fairly highly. What did you think of Sam Smith's theme?
S: Well it's funny actually because when we released the Bond theme it got an unbelievable torrent of abuse at the time. And when Sam Smith released his track, he also endured some criticism like all artists who bring out Bond themes. But I loved his. I still love his. I think it's really beautiful.
DiS: It's very romantic.
S: Yeah, it's romantic but I love that it's also not at all bombastic. It's kinda quiet and restrained, and I think that was a really smart move.
DiS: Well I'm not a big fan of his voice but I thought the strings were nice. I'm curious to see the film to see if it has gone down a romantic route. Did you see the The World Is Not Enough before you wrote for it?
S: Hell no, we didn't! We saw the film for the first time on tour, by which point the theme had been released. We went and watched it in some really obscure place and it was crazy. It was a crazy year.
DiS: I've only got one questions for you left, although I feel like we could talking for a few more hours.
S: I know, I feel like we're about to just go to the bar and talk all night.
DiS: Well you're not the only one celebrating a birthday. It was DiS's birthday last month. And so I was wondering, if you came to our party, what party banger you would drop?
S: Oh, I don't know. I don't know what you guys like. For me, right now, I like dark shit. So I would make it really dark. I wouldn't probably suggest too many uplifting bangers (laughs). I guess the most uplifting artist I'm into right now, and he's not particularly uplifting, but I do find it more uplifting than most music I listen to would be The Weeknd, 'The Hills'.
DiS: Yeah, he's got that drug addict, womanising, fucked-up character thing, but if that's your kind of party music, then I'm not going to judge you, Shirley.
S: You're just not going to invite me to the party, are you?
DiS: Ha! Yeah, 'don't let Shirley in, she'll only bring the party down!'
S: You know what? That's fair enough. I don't want to come to your stupid party anyway.