Shirley Manson and Butch Vig on 20 Years of ‘Garbage’ Queering Up the Mainstream
Reflections on sexuality, subversiveness, and selfishness as Garbage prepare for an intimate anniversary tour of their debut album.
All photos by Joseph Cultice
The year was 1993, and prolific producer Butch Vig was tits-deep in punk rock bands requesting his services. Hell, he was inundated even before he produced Nirvana’s Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish—two undisputed landmark alternative albums—in 1991. By now, he was bored with the same ol’ song and slamdance.
Seeking creative rejuvenation, Vig and fellow multi-instrumentalists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker took a new route. Holed up in Smart Studios (co-owned by Vig and Marker) in Madison, WI, the trio started experimenting with samplers, which led them to remixing songs by House of Pain, U2, Depeche Mode, Beck, and Nine Inch Nails. Those remixes acted as templates for their new band, Garbage. The line-up was complete when serendipity led them to Shirley Manson, a little-known singer from the U.K. who boasted formidable sexuality and a candid aversion to bullshit. Together, Garbage’s mission was to upend—or queer, if you will—alternative rock. In 1995 their debut, Garbage, did exactly that, with a tightly orchestrated technicolor riot of electronica, rock, hip-hop, dance, and pop. And amid all the abrasive, howling vocal styles of the era, Manson’s arresting timbre was like dry ice—so viciously cool, it burned. Thanks in part to hit singles “Vow,” “Only Happy When It Rains,” “Queer,” and “Stupid Girl,” Garbage spent a staggering 81 weeks on the Billboard 200, sold more than 4 million copies worldwide, and was certified double-platinum in five countries.
The band is now a few weeks away from heading into the studio to begin full-time rehearsals for the 20th anniversary tour of their self-titled debut. Called “20 Years Queer,” the tour sees the quartet playing the entire album, plus all its B-sides, a handful of which have never been performed live. In addition, the band is reissuing a remastered version of Garbage, complete with B-sides and remixes.
Noisey spoke with Manson and Vig about the upcoming tour and the album’s lasting resonance. From Manson’s covert titty-flashing during business meetings, to Vig’s panicked insomnia, to the endurance of assholes, “queer” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Noisey: With this album, Garbage created more than songs—you created a sound. You used samples to sort of remix rock'n'roll. Tell us about the genesis of that sound.
Butch Vig: By the time we started Garbage, I’d probably produced 10,000 bands with guitar, bass, and drums. Sometimes I’d do a whole record in a day [laughs]. I think I just started to get burned out on that kind of recording. But Steve brought in a copy of Public Enemy’s album in 1990 or ’91, and it just blew my mind how crazy and wild and scary it sounded. To me, that sounded like rock n roll. I started trying to figure out how they did it. They were using samplers like Akai and Kurzweil, so we bought some. We used samplers to manipulate and process the sound and loop things. We would record all sorts of ideas and throw them on the tape, and then literally, in the mix, we’d make an arrangement out of all the ideas and turn it into a song. It’s funny because now people use computers, and it’s so easy to do. Back then, we were recording on analog tape and trying to sync up the samplers. We’d record something then try to get it to lock back up with the tape—it was just a technical nightmare.
While you were making the album, were you concerned about the expectations people had regarding Butch Vig the musician versus Butch Vig the producer?
Yeah, I felt immense pressure when we were working on the first Garbage record, especially when “Vow” got released on a CD sampler from the U.K. called Volume, then [radio stations] KROQ in L.A. and The End in Seattle started playing it. All of a sudden we started getting calls, “You gotta finish the record! This track is blowing up!” We were like, “Huh?” We were not ready at all for that. When we signed with Mushroom/Infectious, before we signed with Almo, we made a point of trying to downplay that I was involved with the band. We didn’t take a very big advance; we didn’t want to make it into a big signing deal. Then the success snowballed. I remember when we finished the record, the label asked us if we could go out and play six weeks of shows to promote it—I couldn’t even sleep at night, I was freaking out. Like, how are we going to play these songs live? We never even played the songs live together as a band in the studio when we made the record! I knew if the record flopped, it was going to be my name that was attached to it. Nobody would really necessarily remember Shirley or Duke or Steve. So I felt immense pressure, but I kept thinking I just had to keep putting up a brave face and feeling confident that we all thought the songs were good, and hopefully people would get into that. But god, I remember the couple weeks leading up to those first gigs—I was a nervous wreck [laughs]. And then we rode down from Madison to Chicago to do a promo trip, and we heard “Vow” on the radio. We were all looking at each other like, “Holy shit, this is really happening.” And it sounded awesome.
The tour is called “20 Years Queer,” and without a doubt, Garbage has become a favorite band for outcasts and marginalized communities. Despite your success, you still identify with all things queer and unorthodox—your most recent album was called Not Your Kind of People (2012). Back in ’95, ’96, did it surprise you just how strongly this album endeared you to those outcasts?
Shirley Manson: I don’t think any musician really assumes—well I suppose there are a few crazies out there—but in general I think your average musician doesn’t really think for one minute that something’s gonna catch the public’s imagination and all of a sudden you’re in the position that you have always dreamt of being in. With our first record, it was a zeitgeist, in a way, culturally. We just got incredibly lucky. We were shocked from start to finish. I can’t actually believe that happened to me, that it continues to happen to me, that I continue to get to make music, talk to journalists like you, get to play shows. It still seems nuts to me.
Vig: I think a lot of that [endearment] is the fans’ responding to Shirley’s lyrics. We’ve always felt like outsiders, just being from the Midwest—I’m from a small town called Viroqua, Wisconsin—and I think Shirley always felt like bit of a second-class citizen being from Scotland. A lot of it was channeled through Shirley’s vocals, the tone of her voice, just the way she sings. She speaks her mind; she’s always been that way from the get-go. To a certain extent, she’s been a role model for a lot of our fans.
There’s been a lot of 90s nostalgia the past handful of years. When you decided to do this tour, were you at all sentimental?
Manson: We’re not particularly sentimental as people, to be honest. It doesn’t feel sentimental...it feels selfish and it feels exciting.
Manson: Yeah, you know, it’s unlikely that we’ll celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary, so I think we realized this is a unique moment in our lives and that it serves us an opportunity to play a completely different setlist. Some of the songs, like “Stroke of Luck,” we’ve never performed live. If we have played them, it’s been a debacle and we stumbled through it once. We certainly haven’t ever rehearsed the record, and the B-sides have never ever been played, so it feels exciting and selfish. Nostalgia isn’t really part of my makeup, truth be told. The one thing I do tend to ache for is the beautiful freedom of the 90s. Musically, it was so eclectic and exciting. And it was the first time in history that alternative music, i.e. not pop music, really infiltrated and dominated the mainstream. That had never happened, and it’s never happened since. Yeah we still have amazing alternative artists, but they’re not dominating, they’re not on the cover of magazines, they’re not on our TV, they’re not getting played on the radio. In the ’90s, that’s what was exciting for me because I love alternative music. I love provocative ideas, I like people who are argumentative and rebellious. I guess in that regard, I do have a longing for that moment in musical time to come again.
Hindsight is 20/20, so 20 years later, how did Garbage ultimately help inform your identity?
Manson: Oooh. I don’t know if I can honestly answer that question, because I can’t look at my life and cut it into little pieces and divorce myself from the entire fabric of my life. Unlike a lot of bands, when we came together as Garbage, we weren’t kids. I was in my late 20s; the rest of the band was in their 30s. We were considered really old. The great thing about success happening to us later in our lives was we were already formed, in some regards. Our lives had already been informed by the lives we had been living up to that point. I’d been in a band for a decade at this point; Butch had been producing successful records. The one thing that really did strike me was when the Supreme Court granted the right of gay men and women to get married a few weeks ago. I realized that had been a journey that we as a band had been on for 20 years in support of the LGBT community. “Queer” was our anthem, in a way. It made me realize our first record is still very pertinent to who we are as people. It’s not like we’re going out and having to sing “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” Garbage is a broad-themed record. In “As Heaven Is Wide,” we’re challenging the Catholic church. They’re adult themes because we were adults. So we’re very lucky that we can look back 20 years and it’s still relevant to who we are as human beings.
Vig: Looking back, for me personally, Garbage is not just a band—it’s a lifestyle choice. There’s a camaraderie the four of us have that I really love and appreciate. Garbage has been a creative outlet for the four of us not just on an artistic level but also on a humanistic level. I’ve learned a lot from Shirley, just in terms of her view of the world both as a woman and as someone from the U.K. That’s been informative to Duke, Steve, and me. And Garbage has allowed me to have a bunch of different roles. If I was just a drummer in a band, I would ultimately get extremely bored with that. In Garbage, I wear a lot of hats, and that has allowed the band to be extremely interesting to me for 20 years. I can write songs; I can be a producer; I can be a guitar player; I can program keyboards. We all have these shared multiple roles. For the four of us, that’s been very healthy.
Shirley, this album made you both a rock star and a sex symbol—a very powerful one—and I think it was crucial that men and women were exposed to that. With the exception of PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love and maybe Elastica’s debut, rock albums in 1995 weren’t big on addressing sexual hunger. We had plenty of anger, but not as much bold desire. But you reintroduced the idea that women can find tremendous power in asserting their sexuality.
Manson: [clears throat] I have been forced to reflect on some of that while watching Miley Cyrus’s rise in this age. Hearing some of the things she’s had to say about her sexuality and her gender, I really identified with it. She’s been much more articulate that I have in expressing some of her behavior, why she behaves a certain way, why she makes the choices she did. It was only after reading an interview with Miley Cyrus that I was like, “Wow, that’s what I was doing.” If you look back on press from that first record, I was doing the same thing as Miley is now—flashing my boobs, I was always grabbing my crotch, I was sticking my tongue out, you know, it made me joyous to take my top off in the middle of business meetings behind people’s backs. I was definitely playing with the power of female sexuality. I understood how powerful it was then, and I didn’t like the way female sexuality was being used in the years preceding our debut. It had gotten very clichéd and very kitten-esque and very submissive. The one thing I really have come to understand as an adult is that female sexuality is so powerful. And a lot of young women don’t realize how powerful they are. I think they think their sexuality makes them weak, and therefore they have to use their sexuality in weak, kitten-esque ways. In fact, the opposite is true. I think that had not been to the fore in the years preceding our debut.
There’s a darkness to Garbage that is unlike the darkness of, say, Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson or even Portishead—dark bands of that era that were hugely popular. On songs like “Stupid Girl,” “Only Happy When It Rains,” and “Stroke of Luck,” the music is danceable, with great pop sensibilities, but there’s this lurching, cunning feeling beneath it all. The darkness you put forth felt very subversive. Was that apparent to you at the time, or were you just playing with sounds?Vig: I don’t know that it was really apparent until the record was done and we started getting feedback from fans. I think there’s a bit of melancholy that the four of us share. Some of those other bands you mentioned, you know, Shirley is not really someone who gets confrontational and screams anger in your face. It’s a different kind of darkness. I don’t know that I can articulate exactly what that is. It’s something that the four of us share. We like the juxtaposition of a pop melody with a dark lyric, or the opposite.
Manson: We understood the power of mixed messages. We, as a band, often feel like when we look to other bands or other artists, we’re like, “Wow, that’s amazing, but it’s so one-dimensional.” Human beings are not one-dimensional; it doesn’t matter who you are. No matter how gothic or angry or punk rock you are, there will still be moments, maybe when you go and visit your granny in the hospital, or you sit down and you eat a sandwich or have a glass of milk... To reflect the human experience, there has to be a broad picture and different strokes within that picture. We were really hell-bent with that. We wanted to make pop music, but we wanted to make pop music that had teeth. We wanted to have beautiful melodies, but have pretty brutal messages. We just wanted to mess with people’s perceptions. In one regard, that is to me the greatest strength of our band, but it also created a lot of problems for us. I think people who receive music want to attach themselves to it because it speaks to their identity. With us, because we were complex, I think people were very suspicious of us, like, “Well, maybe they’re not cool because they make pop music,” or, “Well, maybe they’re not alternative because people are playing them in clubs.” We were often accused of being fake and being evil Machiavellian types who sat and really theorized about our strategies in the world. We just had a vision, musically, that we wanted to carry out. And we carried it out, in retrospect, with great aplomb. When I look back now, I can see why people flipped for us—we did a good job [laughs].
A handful of these songs sound like they have a specific vendetta against someone or something that dared to wrong you, Shirley. How does that fire sit now, 20 years later?
Manson: [laughs] I know this is going to come as a big shock to everybody, but it still sits very well and very easily on my shoulders [laughs]. I am honest to a fault. It’s probably my greatest strength and my most crippling weakness. I want to get the truth out, and I want the truth back. I’m not really interested in all the other bullshit; I’ve got no time for it. That was in me back then too, which was a merciful godsend because I made really smart decisions about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. It was very authentic, even then. Those drivers remain with me today. That’s a relief because I know a lot of artists go, “Well we don’t want to play our first record because we don’t even relate to it anymore.” The great thing is that I still relate to all these songs. They continue to resound in my life today with some of the assholes I have to deal with [laughs].
They’re never gonna go away!
Manson: Lord have mercy. That’s the good news: Assholes are never going away.
You’ll always have something to sing about.
Manson: That is a given! The world is always changing, but assholes remain the same. They’re here to stay [laughs].
What are you anticipating the vibe of the anniversary shows to be like?
Vig: After having done over 1,000 shows over the past 20 years, we have a lot more confidence when we walk out on the stage now. And I think we feel kind of liberated because we don’t have anything to prove at this point. On the first tour, we were definitely trying to not suck (laughs). But now, it’s going to be quite celebratory, and we’re going to have a lot of fun. We’re still working on some of the arrangements to the songs. We’ve never played some songs live. “Alien Sex Fiend” [laughs]—not really sure what we’re going to do onstage with that yet!
Garbage “20 Years of Queer” U.S. Dates:
October 6, 2015 - San Diego, CA - Humphrey’s Concerts By the Bay
October 7, 2015 - Oakland, CA - Fox Theater
October 8, 2015 - Los Angeles, CA - Greek Theatre
October 10, 2015 - Las Vegas, NV - Blvd Pool @ Cosmopolitan Hotel
October 13, 2015 - Houston, TX - Bayou Music Center
October 14, 2015 - Austin, TX - Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater
October 15, 2015 - Dallas, TX - South Side Ballroom
October 17, 2015 - Chicago, IL - The Riviera Theatre
October 18, 2015 - Madison, WI - Orpheum
October 19, 2015 - Royal Oak, MI - Royal Oak Theater
October 21, 2015 - Boston, MA - Orpheum
October 23, 2015 - Westbury, NY - The Space @ Westbury
October 24, 2015 - Brooklyn, NY - Kings Theater
October 26, 2015 - Toronto, ON - Phoenix Concert Theatre
October 28, 2015 - Washington, DC - 9:30 Club
October 29, 2015 - Washington, DC - 9:30 Club
October 31, 2015 - Cologne, Germany - Palladium
November 2, 2015 - Copenhagen, Denmark - Store Vega
November 4, 2015 - Tillburg, Holland - 013
November 5, 2015 - Brussels, Belgium - Forest National
November 7, 2015 - Paris, France - Zenith
November 8, 2015 - London, UK - Brixton Academy
November 9, 2015 - London, UK - Brixton Academy
November 11, 2015 - Moscow, Russia - Crocus City Hall
November 13, 2015 - Manchester, UK - Academy
November 14, 2015 - Edinburgh, UK - Usher Hall
Jeanne Fury is unabashedly sentimental for the 90s. Follow her on Twitter - @jeannefury