Garbage: Catching Up With Shirley Manson

Music Features
Garbage: Catching Up With Shirley Manson

One thing you can say about Shirley Manson: The scrappy Scottish firebrand certainly never minces any words. When the Inch Community Center in her native Edinburgh—where she once practiced music as a kid, long before she began fronting a succession of groups that included Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie, Angelfish and her breakthrough outfit Garbage—was facing a recent shuttering in a sale to private developers, she penned a heartfelt plea to save it. Annually, over 20,000 pass through the doors of said edifice, which dates back to the 1600s, and—even though repair costs would total roughly $1.5 million—she pointed out the bottom line in the cold, clinical transaction: Humanity itself was getting lost in the corporate shuffle.

“I am no politician—I am sure running a city is more complicated than I can possibly imagine,” she wrote. “However, sometimes the value of things must not be— cannot be—judged in monetary terms alone.” And that, in a nutshell, is what propels Strange Little Birds, the latest epistle from Garbage, its sixth. The theme surfaces on the opening explosion “Sometimes” (“I learn more when I am bleeding/ You knock me down but I get up,” Manson snarls); the juggernaut “Empty” (“I’ve been feeling so frustrated/ I’ll never be as great as I want to be”); a bass-heavy, Joy Division-ish “Blackout” (with the modern reality-show mantra “Fake it ‘til you make it”); a buzzing, synth-driven “Magnetized” (“There will be no future tense for us”); and the sinister “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed,” in which the singer states unequivocally that she’s “Getting desperate, desperate for a revolution in these dangerous days/ I need to understand why we kill the things we love the most.”

It’s an updating from Manson and her cohorts—Steve Marker, Duke Erikson and producer Butch Vig, who first spied their future vocalist two decades ago on MTV’s 120 Minutes, in Angelfish’s “Suffocate Me” video, then invited her to Vig’s Smart Studios to experiment—a rephrasing of the dire prophecy coursing through Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael, the theories of British physicist James Lovelock, Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, Naomi Klein’s stark tome This Changes Everything, the brutally frank new documentary Time To Choose, even the eerily prescient Mike Judge comedy Idiocracy: In its arrogance in thinking it’s the end product of evolution, mankind has systematically—and accelerated by the industrial revolution—doomed itself to extinction. And we’re an Inch Community Center away from a 12 Monkeys future. So be afraid, Manson warns. Be very afraid.

Paste: What dark mindset were you in for Strange Little Birds?
Shirley Manson: Well, it’s just a weird time in our culture, and I think we wanted to try to bring that to a record. Just this idea of what it feels like to be a human being, trying to make sense of the world that we’re living in, you know? And all the differences that we seem to spot in each other, which causes so much intolerance or misunderstanding, and all of these weird aspects of other people that we all find so difficult to come to terms with, I guess. There’s so much conflict in the world between people, and yet I think human beings are all basically the same, and we all want the same things. But how have we gotten to the point where we can’t live on the same planet together?

Paste: Just look at the revelations of the Panama Papers. Is there such a thing as an honest human being these days? Someone not driven by greed on any scale?
Manson: It’s getting harder and harder to find. And I think that we’re really aware in Garbage that—when we look at social media—everyone’s portraying themselves in a way that they wish to be seen, but that has very little bearing on who they may actually be. I’m seeing less and less willingness of people to admit to their flaws or their weaknesses, or their tempers or their insecurities. And we’re living at a time when everyone’s so obsessed with being liked and approved of, so it really does seem less and less trustworthy—all the images and all the appearances that people are presenting are becoming less and less dependable, less and less…well, relatable.

Paste: It’s all dollar-driven and disposable, like your Inch Community Center—there was a time when we would happily repair things, like household appliances, get them working again. Now you throw away last year’s iPhone because there’s a new one being released.
Manson: Yeah. That’s the way we look at the world. We’re all spending way too much, we’re all needing way too much, there are all these feelings of entitlement. We may not have the economic resources, but that shouldn’t mean that we can’t go out with a credit card and buy all this shit that we don’t need, with money that we don’t really have. We’re living in an era where people are living fantastical lives that may have no bearing on reality. It’s all of the moment, and people are completely disinterested in viewing anything of any value that isn’t easy to measure with likes and shares and dollar signs. And as a band, we really don’t relate to how things are being measured now, and how the value of things is accounted for—that’s not how we view the world. So we decided that we want to be the change that we want to see in the world. We were fed up of hearing a billion pop songs that all sound the same, written by the same people, that could be totally interchanged in between individual artists. There’s no real voice talking about the human experience that way, in any authentic sense. So we just wanted to make a record that really spoke to the world that we’re living in, that was authentic to our times and authentic to who we are as people. And that seems quite rare these days.

Paste: Another aspect of the Inch property grab—corporate greed will kill us all.
Manson: Absolutely. It’s killing us all, as we speak. We really need to reassess how we’re all moving forward as a global community. Things have changed so much since we’ve all been connected via the Internet, and I don’t think the old order can really maintain itself anymore. And there’s such a disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and the middle class is being totally eradicated. I don’t know. I have no idea where we’re going. All I know is, I don’t agree with how greedy people have to get. Like, how much money do you really need to sleep at night? And how can you sleep at night when you have millions in the bank, but you’re driving past a woman living in a cardboard box with her young baby? I just don’t get it. I don’t know how that is right, you know? I don’t understand how people have gotten to the point where they just want more and more, and all of our society seems to be lauding those who boast about having a lot of money, or are seen on social media wearing fur coats and pushing their wealth in people’s faces. These have become the heroes, the figures that everybody is following in the millions. I seriously don’t understand it. But when money is considered God, of course people have no voice, no power. So it really is up to us as people to start reaching out as people, to start galvanizing and forcing governments to change the way they are measuring things. Because we cannot continue in this vein—it’s insanity. And with regard to the Inch Community Center, you’re right—somebody’s going to buy that land, demolish a 16th-century building, and build yet another shitty, badly-made prefab in its place. And then that will get hauled down in 20 years’ time, so we will have lost an absolute architectural gem, just for short-sighted greed. Just to make money.

Paste: Well, you quoted Oscar Wilde with “We kill the things we love.” And it’s all too true.
Manson: Heh heh. Yeah. Again, I feel like the record speaks to the times that we find ourselves living in. And everyone in the band is horrified by the direction the world seems to be headed in, and all of those things that we feel at odds with seem to be the things that are culturally valued. And vice-versa, the things that we treasure the most seem to have no value in this current climate. And it’s alarming. And depressing. And heartbreaking, actually. When I see somebody like Donald Trump, who has the audacity to put himself up and run for public office, and yet is not mature enough to treat the procedure with enough respect…If you step into politics, you’re representing your people, your country, and it’s a very, very serious game. It’s not a reality show, and it’s not a personality contest. When he’s talking about the size of his dick in a political discussion, I feel like that is a middle finger to everyone in this country who’s unemployed, everyone in this country who’s homeless, and everyone who has economic hardships in their day-to-day living. What arrogance and infantile immaturity is represented in his platform! It’s just beyond me.

Paste: Well, so far this year, presidential debates have been advertised like wrestling matches. Or monster truck rallies, where everything in the future is settled in Idiocracy.
Manson: I’m always saying that. We’re living in an Idiocracy—it’s actually coming to pass, and it’s really depressing. But I think it’s the infantilization of our entire culture. And women, in general, across the board, are encouraged to be little infantile versions of themselves. The idea that you’re a woman who’s mature and experienced is a filthy word, and women are being encouraged by the media to hide their age and Botox themselves and pass themselves off as 10 years younger than they are. And it’s just crazy, why human beings are encouraged to think of themselves as children. I think it’s just a way of disempowering adults, and it’s really worrisome. Everyone’s scared to be an adult, nobody wants to take responsibility, everybody just wants to stick a thumb in their mouth and start sucking.

Paste: As humanity hurtles toward extinction, theoretically the last bastion of hope should be creativity, the arts. Or a great song, for instance, can at least provide some catharsis.
Manson: I think so. And we’re really aware that the carts are polluted with the same writers, and the songs are completely interchangeable, so there’s no real unique or honest perspective. So it’s akin in some ways to streetwalking. You’ve got all these artists out there who have no relation to what they’re actually singing—they’re just out there entertaining and making everything all shiny and bright, while peddling for these fat cats who write song after song after song. Much like a sausage factory. And every now and again, they make an incredible sausage—make no mistake. There is still some artistry in the sausage-making business. But ultimately, what it makes for is an incredibly uninteresting culture, where everything becomes full homogenized. But for us, you just get to a certain point where your perspective has been honed by years and years of observation. And I think we got lucky on this record, in that that perspective came out both in the music and the words, in context of the culture that we’re living in. So I really do feel that it’s a record of our times.

Paste: Is there any hope?
Manson: I always feel like there is hope. It’s not all over until you’re six feet under, so every storyline is still open to change, right? Even the darkest storyline can change at the very last second, and that’s how I choose to view life. Otherwise, I would have committed suicide when I was a teenager. I feel very much that a story arc is long, and even though you may be in the midst of chaos one minute, that can change in a heartbeat. And in the same way, your joy can be destroyed, too. Life is fragile, and therefore unpredictable. So where there is unpredictability? There is hope.

Paste: What would you like Strange Little Birds to do, audience-wise?
Manson: To connect. To comfort. Or even just to contact anyone in the world that feels the way we do. If we can do that, then I think we will have done our job. And that’s all you can ask for as an artist—to make that connection with another human being. Because I think that’s what music is there to do—provide some kind of solace for like-minded people.

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