The alternative rock band Garbage has sold millions of records, notched multiple Grammy nods, and recorded a decent Bond theme (“The World Is Not Enough”). By the end of the 90s, lead singer Shirley Manson was a big enough icon to be stunt cast in a Terminator TV spinoff. But just a few years earlier, there were those who dismissed the four piece as a novelty act: a bunch of aging producers (including the guy who made Nevermind) and their hand-picked, sexy Scottish alterna-pinup front woman. In the near decade since their last release (2005’s Bleed Like Me), their mix of electronic music, dance beats, and studio noise is now credited (along with longtime critical darlings like Nine Inch Nails) with co-rescuing modern rock from its post-grunge torpor. In that new context, it’s a good time for them to be back with their new album, Not Your Kind of People. (It’s out May 14 from their own label STUNVOLUME.) Here, Manson and co-founder/drummer Butch Vig discuss the years away, the new album, Manson’s lost solo effort, and how she was the Lana Del Rey of her day.
VF Daily: Listening to the new album, then going back to the older songs (“Only Happy When It Rains,” “When I Grow Up,” “I Think I’m Paranoid”) and videos, I realized how rock stars don’t sing about how screwed up they are anymore. Maybe if they’re really young and it’s in the context of teen confusion. But there was a time when real rock stars bared themselves that way and brought that candor to their songwriting. What happened?
Shirley Manson: I have endless theories. We’re living in a time when people are struggling to appear perfect.
And when they don’t anymore, like Britney Spears, it’s suddenly a scandal.
SM: Either a scandal or a display of weakness. It’s a post-September 11 thing, where we have been living essentially in wartime. People are fearful and are unable to articulate their fear, so it’s buried under the carpet. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve had a proliferation of happy pop music, to buoy one’s sprits and make everyone feel safe.
In the 90s, when there was relative peace and prosperity, everyone was like, “I’m so fucked up.”
SM: I think people felt safe enough back then that when they were fucked up, they said so. In the 90s there were a lot of mouthy, gobby women who were in disagreement with the mainstream, and it felt to me very much like we burst through a certain glass ceiling. Now everything has fallen back down a little, and it’s almost like the Mad Men era, where women are supposed to be perfect. They can do their job, but they have to have children and they have to be good moms and they have to look pretty at all times and they have to be always smiling and it must be fucking exhausting.
Have you detected a reconsideration of what Garbage is? The Garbage sound seems to be everywhere, whether it’s the pop melody with the dance beats and aggro guitars like Sleigh Bells or the dark, atmospheric ballads like Exit Music. Your singles were inescapable when these bands were growing up, and now Garbage is, I think, a real influence on some of them.
Butch Vig: I love Sleigh Bells. Lots of band I hear embrace that concept of mixing a lot of different styles of music—pop melody and fuzzy guitar and electronica, or cinematic sounds. We were one of the first bands that fully embraced that, so I guess if anything, I take that as a compliment.
SM: I’m taken back a little by the realization that we created, in some way, a modern template for where a rock band could go in terms of not having to stay inside a little box. It could stray out and mix with hip-hop beats or techno beats. Looking back, we did achieve that. As a result, people have a lot of affection for us, which really surprises us.
And this was not necessarily the case back then?
SM: I’m looking at what’s happened with Lana Del Ray, and I feel sympathy for her. That kind of venom is what I attracted when we first came out. Everyone called me a fake even though I’d been in bands for a decade—everybody was really on our back. We weren’t “real,” whatever that fucking meant.
What’s the driving force behind the Lana backlash? Is it just because she’s good looking?
SM: She’s beautiful. She’s really talented. She’s the real deal, and I think that’s threatening to people. She clearly has an aesthetic and clearly has worked hard before she got to this point in her career. She has a past? God forbid, they lambasted her for having a musical past. It’s good she’s failed and she had the wherewithal to try again. Shouldn’t we be applauding her for that?
What do you think about Lady Gaga?
SM: I love her and have a lot of respect for her. She came around at a time when we all needed something like her. She was fun but she brought a little bit of much-needed art-school pretension to what had become a little like watching auditions for Broadway.
Garbage stopped touring and recording rather abruptly in 2005 with no clear explanation why. Many thought the band was over. It was a bit of a surprise to hear that you were coming back. How did it happen?
BV: It started really from Shirley. I think she felt a sense of frustration because she worked on a solo record and her label rejected it. They said it was way too dark, or too left field. They wanted something much more pop. They wanted a Katy Perry record—they kept trying to get her to write with all these pop songwriters, and I think she realized the people she really likes to write with are [band members] Duke [Erikson] and Steve [Marker] and me.
SM: I had a collection of songs that I thought were really strong. I took them in [and] played them for the record company. They weren’t interested. They told me they were too dark. They wanted me to have international radio hits and “be the Annie Lennox of my generation.” I kid you not; I am quoting directly. I just thought, Fuck this.
So are you happy to be back?
SM: I feel privileged, to be honest. We’ve been gone a long time. To have the opportunity to release a record after seven years off the road and being at the age we’re at? We weren’t even young when we first came out.
Listen to Garbage’s new single “Blood for Poppies,” from their forthcoming album Not Your Kind of People.