Some “Fucking Moronic Questions” for Shirley Manson on Garbage’s New Book
The iconic frontwoman talks about taking on the music industry, why the band never wore flannel, and that one time she pissed through a photo shoot.
Photo: Barry Thompson
Midway through talking to Shirley Manson about This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake, the new book documenting the history of her long-running band, Garbage, the frontwoman asked me what other "fucking moronic questions" I had for her. And when you're Shirley Manson, you get to do that.
As the book details, Manson and Garbage have had to endure a lot of fucking moronic situations in their 24-year navigation through the music industry. But now, Manson, who once hopped a plane from Scotland to meet three strangers in Wisconsin to pursue rock and roll dreams, has seen it all, and she's earned the right to say "no" when she doesn't feel like putting up with someone's bullshit.
This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake is ultimately a tale of survival. The band fought constantly against record companies, illnesses, trends, and a million other headaches to become an international success. At times, the pressure drove Garbage apart, as it did during their seven-year hiatus from 2005 to 2012. But the four members—Manson, Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, and Steve Marker—have this strange bond that keeps them coming back to each other. Against the odds, Garbage has remained one of the only survivors of the post-grunge era, one that continues to push their own boundaries and explore what they're capable of.
Here are a few questions of varying degrees of moronicness we asked Garbage's incomparable frontwoman about the massive coffee table book, which is overflowing with full-color photos, unearthed documents, and behind-the-scenes stories about the band.
Noisey: This book is pretty bulky. You can't really take this thing around on the bus. Does that add anything to the experience of people having to sit in their home to read this?
Shirley Manson: Probably, subconsciously, a little. But to be perfectly frank—and this is a really grim way of looking at things—we got to the point where we were like, "Look, we're old. We're dying." Literally, dying. We wanted to put something together as a testament to all the work we've done together for the children in our lives. I mean, it was really that simple and somewhat macabre, I know. I'm not sure that's a reason for doing anything, but that was our reasoning behind it. So we had approached management and said, look, we want to put a book together for the kids—every band member aside from myself has kids, but I have a niece and nephew who I'm obsessed by. By the time they're grown up and give a fuck, we'll probably be dead. So we can put something together for them? And they looked at us like we have mental problems which of course we do, and he said, "OK, we'll look into it." But it wasn't meant to be hauled around on buses or in people's pockets. [Laughs]
What was the process of compiling it?
It was a fucking nightmare. It really was. It was an unpleasant experience and hopefully we'll never, ever have to do it again. Aside from the practicalities of getting all the content together, which was spread out over all our homes and attics and basements—we'd all had floods. I'd had a serious flood, Butch had had a serious flood, our studio had had a serious flood. So a lot of stuff had gotten destroyed, which is sort of heartbreaking.
We had a lot of problems with all the record companies we had been signed to over the years who refused to give us permission to use our own content. And then suddenly we were thrown into a very hard lesson about the economics of the music industry which is: You pay for everything as a band—absolutely everything, all the way down to postage stamps—and you own nothing. And that put me into a very angry, combative mindset. There were a couple of moments when I was in floods of tears over it. But we got it done in the end, and we're really proud of it, and it's beautiful.
So much of it deals with kicking against the music industry. Are there any things you look back on now and regret doing because somebody pressured you into it?
There's a couple of things we touch on in the book. There was a video we didn't want to make and we were more or less strong-armed into it. We were basically threatened, like, "If you don't do what we want you to do, we're gonna drop you." And so we were literally given an offer we couldn't refuse. My biggest regrets, really, are not understanding how the music industry worked, and being encouraged to spend all this money on videos and artwork and photography that we didn't own. We spent millions and millions and millions of dollars, and here we are 20 years later and we don't own anything. We don't own a-ny-thing.
And your personal bindings to management companies and record labels sounded like literal hell.
Well, I wouldn't say it was literal hell, but I've had some very difficult moments, for sure, and exacerbated by the fact that I'm a woman. And exacerbated by the fact that I was the youngest member of the band. So, there were some very difficult moments, but hey, if it was easy, everybody would do it, yeah? I feel kind of proud of myself that I managed to get through it and I didn't break down. I didn't miss a gig. And I feel like that's fucking badass. [Laughs] I'm proud of myself! I mean, there's a good feeling about it, that I fucking went toe to toe with these fucking fat cats at record labels. Fuck them.
I'm sure a lot of them probably don't even have jobs anymore.
It's funny you should say that because I think one of the most satisfying things about finishing the book was realizing: Oh, we're still in the game and all those cunts are not. There's something to be said for that sort of survival.
One of the hardest things I've found about writing about an entire band is that you tell the collective story of the group, but you lose the individual personalities. Were you worried about that happening?
I had already made my peace with that, because I knew that the kind of book I would make is very different from the kind of book the collective made. My band are much more private than I am, and much more pragmatic. I feel like I've got nothing to lose by being as forthright as possible. But I'm in a band where my actions and my words have repercussions on them, so I have to be careful of certain kinds of storytelling, you know what I mean?
Well, that said, would you ever write your own personal memoir?
Oh fuck yeah. One day I will. [Laughs]
And then you can dish all the dirty details.
Well, then it's just your version of events, isn't it? And I'm not saying it's any more true than Butch or Steve or Duke's version of events. But it will be mine. And you'll do it with me, Dan?
Yes, this is me auditioning.
[Puts on a fake old-timey New York accent] Ya got the gig, honey. You got it a long time ago at that restaurant in New York. [Laughs]
What were the things you felt like had to be omitted from the book to—
Dan, you're really fucking good at what you do. I'm sorry, I ignored that question, you're gonna have to ask me again, but you are really good at what you do.
This will not help win my favor.
[Laughs] No, I think you need to hear it. People who do what you do don't hear it enough. Anyway, moving on, what was your fucking moronic question?
Oh, I don't know. Should we stop here? Where do I go after someone calls my questions "fucking moronic"?
Okay, well I have a very fucking moronic question for you then.
Give it to me.
There are something like 20 years' worth of press photos in this book which are a huge focal point of it. You are extremely good at having your photo taken. Just effortless. I take photos like a child getting their eighth grade portrait taken. How can I take better photos? Give me tips.
Oh shut up, Dan. Stop fishing for compliments. I'm not even going to answer that question.
You have to.
I don't have to. I'm not going to dignify that question with a response, other than: I have been extremely lucky to get photographed by amazing wizards, truthfully. This is what people don't understand. It's nothing to do with the subject. It's all to do with the voyeur.
Well then how do you choose those right people? These photos are all beautiful in their own ways.
I was really smart, I have to say. That sounds really, really arrogant. But I was really smart about who we worked with, visually. And I just had a gut feeling about who would be right for us at specific points in our life. I took the imaging of our band really seriously. It wasn't considered that cool to do that. We were post-grunge and it was cool to look like you didn't give a fuck. And we came out looking very much like we gave a fuck. We had chosen our high fashion photographer and we used a high fashion imaging team, like makeup and hair and styling. We very much went against the grain, so as a result we looked very different from everybody back then. And we continued in that vein.
You said at one point in the book that if you'd left it up to the guys, you'd have just worn flannel shirts.
It's true, although they have good taste. They're no dummies, either. They supported my suggestions. They could have easily fought me and they have fought me many, many times on many, many issues. But they did see the wisdom in going with these people who were gonna make us look incredible, rather than average. Why look average, Dan, when you can look spectacular?
I don't know, I've never tried, but there's one photo in here that is very subtle. It was a photo that was in SPIN after being retouched, but you're very casually pissing in it. And the caption did not provide nearly enough information. Why were you pissing in this photo?
Well, because we'd been invited to be part of SPIN Magazine's calendar of the year, and I knew that there were gonna be photos of 12 bands, and we wanted ours to stand out, because that's your job. You don't want to just merge into the background. You want to be the photo that everyone's talking about. And if you think about rock and roll, in rock and roll, everybody's done everything. How many times do we have to watch a rock and roll band smash guitars? It's been done. So I was thinking that the image of a woman fully dressed but where she's wearing no panties, having a piss, casually, is… you don't see that very often. I thought that would be a really arresting image. And that's what we did.
So did they Photoshop that out before it ran?
Yeah, SPIN called us up in the end and said, "Look, our advertisers are gonna go crazy. We can't run the photo as is." And I was aghast, as you can imagine.
But that compromises your whole intention.
Indeed, but welcome to the music industry. Jesus fucking Christ.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.