Shirley Manson :: 'Garbage' Lead Singer on Touring, Politics and 'Queer' Fans

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Saturday September 17, 2016
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Twenty years ago, the band whose single about "the queerest of the queer" hit the airwaves, and fans have raved over the unique alt-rock-pop style of Garbage, particularly for the strong, evocative vocals of lead singer Shirley Manson. In an interview from Mexico City along the band's world tour, Manson discussed the band's new work, politics and their devoted LGBT fan base.

"I love being on the road," said Manson of Garbage's ambitious world tour, which includes gigs in the U.S., Europe, South America and even Russia.

"This is our sixth studio record, and we're really proud of it," Manson said of Strange Little Birds, their new studio album. At their September 24 concert at Masonic Hall, fans can expect new songs from that album, along with favorites like "Only Happy When It Rains," "Paranoid" and "Queer," from their first album, which the UK Guardian dubbed one of the 100 greatest albums of all time.

Known for partially forming as a studio session group in Madison, Wisconsin in 1993, the band's name comes from their catchy remixes composed for other bands. One offhand comment called the sound "like garbage."

Undaunted, American musicians Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and Butch Vig decided to seek out a strong female lead singer, and teamed up a year later with Scottish vocalist-musician in London, who was then with the band Angelfish.

Her first audition did not go well. Also, producer and drummer Vig, who had just produced Nirvana's smash hit album "Nevermind," was dealing the death of Kurt Cobain. A few later meetings and sessions went better. The band took their time, avoiding the grunge sound of the era, with experiments that resulted in a unique collaboration. Their first album premiered in August 1995 to great acclaim.

A combination of slick and catchy grooves, lyrics full of contrasting emotions - doubt, joy, fear, resolve and a hint of kink - Garbage won fans worldwide. Last year, the band's "20 Years Queer" tour included concert performances timed with a remastered version of the album.

Now, with 12 million records sold, a new album and an ambitious tour schedule, Manson talked about the expanded focus of their music.

"The records that we always love are the ones that are really grounded, so that you're getting an entire picture of the human experience," said Manson. "I don't think there's one person in the world who's entirely one thing. When we hear records that are one-note, we get bored pretty quickly. We want to have a record that's full of contradictions and contrasts, because that's how we feel human beings are.

"As artists, we want to call on the human experience," she continued. "Our job is to chronicle, to witness and also to reflect. I think that's always what we attempt to do when we go into the studio. With "Strange Little Birds," we've managed to do that well. With some of our records, we've tried and failed. But with the new one, we've managed to bring a lot of complexity to the record, a lot of shades."

'Queer' and Present

Harkening back to their debut, Manson discussed the surprise and acclaim for their first album, and its unusual single, "Queer."

Although not gay-identified (Manson, 50, is married to the band's sound engineer Billy Bush), she discussed her gay fans, in particular the male couple who got engaged onstage at one of the band's concerts.

"It was gorgeous," said Manson of Scott Sauter's proposal to his boyfriend Domenick Vivano at a 2013 Garbage concert in Detroit.

"It has since become very de rigeur for artists to do that. But back then, we were playing in Detroit, and that morning I had been going through some of our social media, and received a message from a lovely boy, a very elegant note, asking if we would mind if he proposed to his partner on stage that night.

"It was something about the way he wrote that was very sincere," she said. "He wasn't just wanting to be on stage. The things he said about his partner were incredibly beautiful. It turned out we've since met these two men, and I had a good sense of people; they're really beautiful.

"It turned out to be very emotional for us," Manson added. "We've been long-term supporters of the LGBT community, so it felt like a very special moment in all our lives. We were all crying!"

The couple reportedly later joked that they knew they were meant for each other because they both had Garbage CDs in their collection.

"I can't really explain why we have always felt an affiliation with our LGBT fans, but we have had a longstanding relationship and a sincere investment in their happiness, as we continue to fight for that civil rights battle," said Manson. "Whenever we see small steps taken in advancing the rights of the community, we feel joyful and happy that we took a little part in it. We took a step with that community, and we'll always have their backs."

Asked if part of their gay fandom has as much to do with the band's music, and its use of the term 'queer,' as with Manson being a strong woman and a rock icon, she said, "Quite recently I read an article that made total sense, sort of an epiphany. It said that LGBT people are a strong female's best friend. They want to see strong female figures do well. They're not threatened by women in a way that perhaps heterosexual communities can be."

The band's song and music video "Androgyny" even foreshadowed the transgender rest room controversy with lyrics and accompanying shots of "boys in the girls' room, girls in the men's room."

"I feel that we've gravitated towards the LGBT community for numerous reasons," said Manson. "We all identify in Garbage as being on the outside. We've never been in the middle of the culture, never the most successful, or the most popular. We've always been sort of this strange little community of our own outside of the mainstream music scene. We've remained outside of that."

This is despite the band's critical and sales success, which Manson said still keeps her a bit wary. "I am obsessed with the idea of oppressive aspects of mainstream culture, partly because I am a strong female, since I was young."

When I Grow Up

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Manson's father was a university lecturer and Sunday School teacher; her mother was a big band singer. From an early age, Manson rebelled against organized religion. She studied several musical instruments, and performed in local dramatic and musical shows through university and afterward. One notable role was playing a prophet in an award-winning Edinburgh Fringe Festival production of "Maurice the Minotaur."

But through her school years, she was bullied until joining a group of rebellious students. "I know what it feels like to be oppressed by the status quo," Manson said. "I want to fight that, so I think of you as my community, my allies, my people."

Asked if her Scottish heritage, and Great Britain's centuries of occupation of Scotland, have to do with her sense of defiance, Manson said, "I think there's a a small part of that in all Scottish people, because we were overrun by our own government. I grew up in a Scotland under [then-Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher, and Thatcher fucked the Scots; willfully fucked them. So I definitely have a chip on my shoulder about that.

"But I think it's more personal," she added. "From when I was 11, I had a young gay friend, the only gay kid in school. And then I met club kids, so I met a whole community of freaks and geeks; I loved them. When I left school, they were my people."

The fact that Manson and the band are simply great to listen to and watch in concert are part of their strong fan base. Her contralto vocals range from sultry to soaring, to intimate whispers with a consistently dramatic edge.

Manson was asked if her early training in theatre aides her performing style in music, which varies between brooding to - in their latest tour - surprisingly cheerful and buoyant.

"I think the way I perform now is very different," she said. "I credit that with having studied with an acting teacher, who really broke down for me what a performance was. She taught me that you have to find the essence of who you really are, not anybody else, not any of the rock stars you grew up emulating, but who you are. She taught me how to really listen to the music and put that into my body. This is what I do now, but not when I was younger. I used to put on weaponry, to protect myself, and I wanted to remain apart; now I want to be part of it. That's a difference psychology."

Push It

Manson discussed the band's playlist of new and favorite songs.

"We just play what we believe will make a cool journey in a live show, and arrange them to fill out the set," she said. "We want to make people feel things; at least, that's my intention."

Despite much success, the band took a break in 2005. During that time, Manson created some solo and collaborative work, and even acted in the TV show "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles." During the band's music hiatus, Manson almost quit when her mother, suffering from dementia, died. In an Elle Magazine interview, Manson said that a friend's request to sing David Bowie's "Life on Mars" at their son's funeral revived her musical creativity.

"It meant so much to them that I could sing that song and so much to me that I was able to do something. It made me realize how much music sustains people."

Their renewed energy is notable in her new work with Garbage.

"We definitely know we can put on a good show," said Manson. "We never used to feel like that. But now we know that you may not know us, or like us or respect us, but we know we can put on a show that's as good as anybody out there. There is a confidence that comes from playing for twenty-one years."

Manson noted how touring, while exhausting for some musicians, is also an opportunity and a privilege.

"To meet different people from different places gives you a perspective that I don't think you'd enjoy if you were unable to travel," she said. "It's the greatest joy. It changes the way you look at politics. You realize, we all just want to live well. Somehow we all get lost in the attempt to find that. Everywhere, from Russia to China to Pakistan to Syria; all these countries want safety, to put bread on the table for their families, and to experience joy. So it kills me that we as a world have reached a point where we're killing each other randomly, and creating chaos for really no reason whatsoever, aside from strange arguments over soil."

Known for being outspoken in interviews and with onstage comments, Manson even took Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to task in Mexico City concerts last week, calling him a "madman."

Asked about specific politics of the U.S., Manson sees a larger picture.

"Things are getting strange, and not just in America," said Manson. "Part of that is a result of an infantilized approach to problems. People are starting to get comfortable with black and white choices. 'You're either for or against us.' It's either right or wrong. We have to stop thinking in those terms. The issues we have to face in the world are incredibly complex. They require complex thinking, but people don't want to spend time thinking about it. They just want to point fingers and blame and judge people, and feel comfortable in their own sense of right."

Somehow these issues blend into the complex, ambiguous nature of Garbage's continually fascinating music. Said Manson, "Isn't that how we all are as human beings?"

Garbage performs Sept 22 at The Foundry in Las Vegas, Sept. 23 at Jack FM's in Irvine, and Sept. 24 at the Masonic Hall in San Francisco ($39-$55. 8:30pm, Cigarettes After Sex open, 1111 California St.)

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