As Garbage members reflect on their career and the 20th-anniversary deluxe reissue of their sophomore album Version 2.0, one highlight that quickly comes to mind is the 1999 Grammy Awards, when Version 2.0 was up for Album of the Year. Frontwoman and fashion icon Shirley Manson commemorated the occasion by wearing a bold dress emblazoned with the album’s artwork, but realized too late that the cover art didn’t totally cover up her body.
“This sounds like a lie, but this is the God’s honest truth: I had zero idea it was see-through,” Manson says now of the infamous outfit. “I look at photos now and go, ‘I turned up for the Grammys in that?’ It’s just like, Jesus Christ, what was I thinking? I was just fixated on the fact that I thought it was really smart to advertise our record on the Grammy red carpet, because I think we knew that we were never going to end up on the red carpet again with Album of the Year. I had no idea.”
“It was a striking dress,” chuckles Garbage drummer-producer Butch Vig, sitting with Manson at Yahoo Entertainment for their career-spanning Backspin interview. “I remember [bassist] Duke [Erikson] and [guitarist] Steve [Marker] and I, we didn’t want to question your choice, your fashion choices. It’s like, ‘She’s wearing that dress. Yeah.’”
“But nobody mentioned it to me!” Manson exclaims. “Not one person said, ‘Shirl, you might want to put on a flesh-colored bra…’”
Garbage has always defied the odds. Manson’s first audition for the supergroup (in Vig’s Manson-described “man cave” in Madison, Wis., far away from the Scotswoman’s native land) was by all accounts a disaster, but she still landed the job — and then took a major risk by relocating to the States to join a group with virtual strangers and stay in a Shining-esque hotel. (“I wouldn’t recommend the way our band came together to any other young woman traveling from Scotland to Madison with no money in her pocket, no way of really getting home, no way of touching base. I wouldn’t recommend that for anyone, but I was very lucky that they weren’t creeps. They could’ve easily been creeps, at least one of them could have been a weirdo, but they were really great,” Manson says.)
Even when Vig, fresh off his historic production work on Nirvana’s Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, was assembling Garbage, he says, “a lot of people started telling me, ‘Man, you made a big mistake doing a record with a band. You’ve just became a very successful producer, and if the record flops, it could be the end of your career.” And when Vig and company opted to experiment with electronic sounds instead of the expected guitar-based grunge, there was a fan backlash at first.
So after all that, it’s understandable that Manson was astounded that Garbage had been nominated for Album of the Year against heavy hitters like Madonna, Shania Twain, Sheryl Crow, and eventual winner Lauryn Hill. “Just to have gotten to that point in our career, so quickly, was really an extraordinary, bizarre moment — where the underdogs suddenly found themselves sniffing around the studs,” Manson marvels.
This was a “phenomenally happy” time for Garbage; as Vig says, “It was a hell of a party!” Following the surprise double-platinum success of their 1995 self-titled debut, while making Version 2.0 the band spent $200,000 in their local watering hotel (actually more than they spent on the album recording itself), and spent a whopping $750,000 on their VMA-nominated “Push It” video. (“Oh, God bless the ’90s!” Manson laughs now.) But the party couldn’t last; and eventually, struggles with Garbage’s record label, within the band, and in the members’ personal lives took a toll.
The first sign of trouble came when Garbage were asked to record the James Bond theme for The World Is Not Enough — a massive honor for any artist — but then everything went wrong when the band’s flight to the L.A. film premiere was canceled, forcing them to catch a public screening that night in their layover city of Pittsburgh. Then, to make matters worse, they watched in horror as the opening credits rolled and they realized the song had been radically tweaked in postproduction. “We went to a commercial cinema to watch it on our own, and we got our hopes and joys squashed,” says Manson. “Because the theme comes on and we’re really excited and we’re sitting on the edge of our seats — like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve just done a Bond theme!’ — and they had completely screwed with all the stems of mix and it sounded completely different. We were like deflated balloons, sitting in our seats. We’d gone from primed and awake to slumped and depressed.” Manson says this was Garbage’s “first taste of getting rogered” by the showbiz machine.
What followed was Garbage’s “annus horribilis,” 2001–02. Manson was going through a divorce from her first husband, Scottish sculptor Eddie Farrell, and was constantly squabbling in the studio with Erikson. Then, the group’s third album, Beautiful Garbage, came out right around the time of 9/11 and got lost in the shuffle. When the band finally hit the road, Vig came down with Hepatitis A, followed by Bell’s palsy, and he had to quit the tour.
“Our record sales were diving into the toilet. That causes a lot of tension in a band. You just can’t help it. Nobody feels good. Everybody feels like a loser. Everybody’s worried,” says Manson. “So it was a very, very taxing, sad time for everyone, and we were unable, really, to talk about it because we were so busy. It took us a long time, through into our next record cycle, to even start addressing the problems that had arisen from, basically, our career collapse.”
Those tensions bled into the making of Bleed Like Me, as the band felt pressure from their label to re-create the success of their first two albums. The result was Garbage’s “darkest hour.” Vig, usually the “peacemaker” of the band, finally got so fed up with Manson and Erikson’s ongoing drama that he temporarily bailed on the Bleed Like Me recording sessions and flew to Los Angeles. (“I was like, ‘I’m free!’ I just felt like this gigantic monkey on my back had just fallen off. We didn’t even talk to each other for, I don’t know, a couple months or so,” Vig recalls.) Eventually, Garbage finished the difficult fourth album and resumed touring, but while in Australia, “we just pulled the plug,” says Manson. “Then we didn’t see each other for seven years.”
Ironically, it was more tragedy and strife that eventually brought the band back together. Manson had pretty much retired from music after her mother’s terminal 18-month battle with dementia (“To watch my mother basically slip away was excruciating”), but another series of horrible events — including the sudden death of her best friend’s young husband and the cancer death of another friend’s 6-year-old son — “knocked some sense into me,” Manson explains. “I just continued to grow up, I think, and any sort of bad feelings toward the band just evaporated. I yearned, actually, to be with them, because I really missed them.”
It was the death of 6-year-old Pablo Castelaz (son of music-business veteran Jeff Castelaz, who later co-founded the Pablove Foundation) that inspired Manson to sing again and ultimately reunite the band. “[Pablo’s] favorite song was ‘Life on Mars?’ by David Bowie, and I was asked to sing that song at the memorial,” Manson says solemnly. “I went to the memorial, and Butch was there. I don’t know if any of you have ever been witness to your friends losing a child, but there is nothing in this life worse than watching people lose a child. It is, bar none, just the most horrific experience. It was a very tense time and a very sad event. In the middle of all this, I get to sing this beautiful song by an incredible artist, and it brought great pleasure to Pablo’s parents, and it brought me and Butch together at a very emotional time. We saw each other, and Butch was like, ‘Oh, it’s so good to hear you sing.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I miss singing. Why are we not making music?’ Butch was like, ‘I don’t know. Let’s make a record. Let’s see each other. Let’s hang out.’ It sort of started there.”
“We just felt like, life is short, and we have music to make,” Vig adds.
When the four band members reconvened for the first time in seven years, they immediately jelled. (“We were laughing hysterically, like 12-year-olds drunk on cider,” recalls Manson). They went on to found their own record label, Stunvolume, and release two critically heralded comeback albums (2012’s Not Your Kind of People and last year’s Strange Little Birds) and coffee table book This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake. Their future looks bright again. However, Garbage’s most recent single, “No Horses,” still traffics in depressing matter: It is, as Manson describes it, “an imagining into a dark, dystopian future… It’s about this is the road we’re going down [as a society], and how if we continue down this road, this is what we see possibly could happen — and it’s not pretty.”
Manson may joke, when looking back at her daring 1999 Grammy dress, that fans are welcome “to have a look at my beautiful, lovely, young tits,” but now, as a 51-year-old veteran artist reflecting on her long career, she wants to tackle more adult subject matter in her lyrics — as she does on “No Horses.”
“As I get older and older, I feel like the stakes are getting higher and higher,” Manson explains. “Every time I go to write, I want to write something that I’ve never written before, and that nobody else has said before. … I don’t just want to write a pop song anymore. I’m going to leave the pop songs to the kids; that’s what they’re good at. I’m 50. What can I do with my 50-year-old self that hasn’t been done before? That’s what I want to write about. I think that’s interesting.
“I, unlike so much of the world, welcome growing up. I welcome being older and welcome experience. I’m not ashamed of the fact that I’m 50 years old. I’m not trying to sell myself off as some 35-year-old,” Manson elaborates. “I want to say, ‘Yeah, I am an aging woman. This experience is real, and it’s going to happen to everybody.’ … I don’t want to run away from the truth of my life. I know that I’m going to die, so I want to bear witness. I want to put a mark in the sand and say, ‘This is what it was like to be a Scottish woman who was a young ingénue, who grew up, who then aged.’
“When I hear female artists, I feel that a lot of them are trying to run away from their age and trying to still pretend they’re still hot in their leotards,” Manson continues, getting intense. “Of course I understand why women are scared to admit what age they are, but my feeling is that will never change until women change it… It breaks my heart when I see older women make apologies about their age. It breaks my heart. I’m like, ‘Why are you apologizing? You should feel victorious. You’ve survived and you’re still here. You know more than me and you know more than them. You should own that!’ So many women just feel that they’re written off the board because they’re no longer sexy, or they’re no longer the woman that every man in the world’s head is turning to watch walk out the door. All I want women to know is, there’s a lot more out there for you, that will mean more for you in your life, than a man’s head turning to watch you walk out the door.”
In the end, as Manson, Vig, Erikson, and Marker achieve elder-statesmen/stateswoman status, they are at peace with the career they’ve had, with all of its ups and downs. “We didn’t compromise; I think that’s what I’m so grateful for,” asserts Manson. “We didn’t get corrupted by record company pressure and the record company corporate obsession with making money. We actually fought that, and it was difficult, but we’ve come out the other side and we feel unsullied. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, it wasn’t great, and yeah, we got rejected by the mainstream, but I can sleep at night and I feel pure.’ That feels so good. To know that you’re not easily corrupted is really an incredible realization.”