The World According to Garbage

The World According to Garbage

Written by Nick Levine
Photography by Paul Scala
Styling by Victoria Higgs

Nearly 18 years after they formed and over 17 million album sales under their belt, Garbage are back from a seven-year break with their fifth studio album and new tour dates around the world. As their new album 'Not Your Kind Of People' launches,  the band ruminates with Ponystep on reclaiming their careers, rekindling the connection with their fans and the downside of being a woman in the music industry…

Seven years ago, Garbage seemed like goners. The band exited stage in Perth, Australia and went on what pop groups – well, frustrated and thoroughly fucked off pop groups – are wont to call “indefinite hiatus”. A Greatest Hits album came out in 2007, finally collecting together all the band’s onyx-like electro-rock hits: ‘Stupid Girl’, ‘Only Happy When It Rains’, ‘Push It’, ‘Cherry Lip’s and of course their underrated Bond theme, ‘The World Is Not Enough’. But the group members spoke only sporadically. They kept house, but had no intention of adding another wing to the Garbage mansion.

It’s a cliché, but time is a hell of a healer. When they congregate today in a Hoxton photographic studio, the four pillars of Garbage – they’re much too dapper to be called sacks – exude a kind of calm confidence. They’re about to play their first British gig since their return, having already nailed a handful of comeback shows in the States. They also have a cracking new album, Not Your Kind of People, to promote. What changed?

“A couple of years ago, we were offered the chance to perform at the Hollywood Bowl with a symphony orchestra,” explains Butch Vig, the band’s drummer. “We couldn’t make it happen because of individual time commitments, but it got us thinking. It made us realise we could play pretty much anywhere in the world and people would come and see us. It made us realise that we’d had something pretty special together.”

Multi-instrumentalist Steve Marker chips in: “It made us realise we could try again, but approaching things differently this time. We could do Garbage the way we wanted to – instead of jumping on that same music industry treadmill.”

So they did. When Vig, Marker, guitarist Duke Erikson and singer Shirley Manson first reconvened as a four-piece, they instantly burst into laughter. Four bottles of wine later, they began writing songs. “We came up with four or five really good ideas just like that. The old spark fired up straight away,” recalls Erikson.

But Garbage wouldn’t get too swept away on a wave of renewed creativity. They stayed shrewd. Instead of re-signing to the major label that “didn’t even know who we were towards the end”, they formed their own record company. Having paid for their new album themselves, Garbage are masters of their own destiny. “We get to choose what we want to do and where we want to play. We’re not being shuffled around all the time and nobody’s telling us to do stuff that doesn’t interest us,” says Marker.

That explains the calm. The confidence comes from the tremendous warmth with which they’ve been welcomed back. The Garbage boys are under no illusion as to why so many people still care so very deeply about their band. “A lot of it is Shirley and what she’s gone through in her life – the way she’s overcome things,” says Erikson. “What she represents to people is really meaningful. People relate to her, because everything she does comes from a really honest place and she really means what she says.”

I’m a very flawed individual, but I’m very forthright and I don’t play games with people

He’s not wrong. Just before we sit down to chat, Manson picks up the new issue of Ponystep and dubs one of its cover stars a “cunt” – I’ll leave you to guess which one, but suffice it to say she’ll be less snippy next time Shirley says hi at a party. Anyway, with the still-magnificent singer already shooting from the hip, I begin.

Nick Levine: Are you enjoying being free of record company shackles this time around?
Shirley Manson: Yes, especially one that didn’t give a shit! To be fair, we played a part in developing a very unhealthy relationship with our old record label, but I am so relieved to be free of all that bullshit. We started out on an independent label; then we got sold to a major label, which then in turn sold us to another major label. We ended up with a bunch of people who didn’t believe in us or speak our language. They weren’t interested in us and we didn’t do anything to nurture a relationship with them because we were furious that we got sold. That doesn’t sound like much on paper, but psychologically it was incredibly demoralising.

What was being in Garbage actually like right at the end?
We hadn’t fallen out or anything, but there was just this malaise and melancholy that had seeped into all of us. We’d stopped being kind to each other. We were never nasty, but we’d stopped being thoughtful. We’d stopped thinking about how each other was feeling, which is terrible, because we do all love each other, you know?

When you decided to take a break, did you think it could become permanent?
It was such an extreme time that I really can’t remember everything going on in my head. But I do remember being onstage in Australia, looking out at the audience and thinking ‘If I never ever do this again, which is a possibility, then I’m OK with that’. And then I just stepped away from it. I was so relieved to get off the road and get home that I didn’t really think about the band for at least six months.

When you pulled yourself up from this low, did you miss the band?
Yeah, I missed the camaraderie and I missed the boys because they know and understand me better than anyone. At first I didn’t really miss anything about Garbage except for the guys as people, but then eventually I began to yearn to make music. I missed writing and I missed singing, but I didn’t miss any of what I call the carnival of being in a band. That’s why it’s so important that we’re in control this time. We’re determined to stop it from feeling that way again.

Isn’t it a massive risk doing it all yourselves?
It’s a risk, I cannot lie, but everybody believes in what we’re doing. When we parted ways seven years ago, we had some ‘band money’ set aside and nobody touched it during the hiatus. We’ve spent every single penny of that money making the record, manufacturing the record and paying for the videos. Every single penny!

How are you making sure Garbage doesn’t become dysfunctional again?
Well, even aside from the record company bullshit, we’d gotten into some pretty bad habits as a band. As soon as I recognise them now, I’m so determined to stamp them out straight away. What sort of habits? Well, some of those things will probably remain private for evermore. But for example, in the past we got into a really bad habit of leaving individual band members on their own in the studio. If Duke was laying down a guitar part, say, the rest of us would just drift out the room one by one. I look back and think ‘This is a band, what the fuck were we doing?’

There’s a ridiculous pressure on women to sexify and sell, but how does that lead to a long-term career? You’ll get a good quick fuck, but not a long meaningful relationship.

How did you do things differently while recording the new album?
This time around, we were all in the same room playing for each other and it created a competitive atmosphere. I mean that as a positive thing. I wanted to come up with great ideas, because I wanted to see the excitement on the guys’ faces! That kind of atmosphere really creates an excitement amongst the band members and I think that translates onto the record.

Did you know you’d had a great idea when you thought of the song title ‘I Hate Love’?
It’s an absolutely fucking amazing title! I can’t believe nobody’s ever used it before. I was sitting on Butch’s couch with a mike in my hand and he played me an instrumental he was working on. It reminded me of a feeling I’d had: the utter torment of loving someone who didn’t love me back. This guy was fucking around on me but wouldn’t admit to it. It was like being in purgatory. Being told you’re crazy, when in fact you know exactly what’s going on but the other person refuses to admit it, that’s hell. I never want to feel like that again. Never ever. But at the same time, I know it’s something we all experience. It’s the valley of death we all walk through.

When I listen to the lyrics, it makes me think of my ex, and then it makes me think ‘What a cunt’.
Yes, what a fucking cunt! I knew I’d stumbled on something good with ‘I Hate Love’. I just sang the chorus straight off and knew people would relate to it.
Is the song Automatic Systematic Habit inspired by a specific “fucking cunt”?
Actually, it was more general. I’m a very flawed individual, but I’m very forthright and I don’t play games with people. At the same time, I know people aren’t always so straight with me. That’s been a been a real frustration for me my whole life. I find it exhausting trying to figure out what people are trying to say – or sometimes, what they’re trying not to say. It’s driving me bananas now just thinking about it, but anyway, that’s what inspired the song!

It’s already become a bit of a favourite in your live set. What was your very first comeback gig like?
The fans sang every single fucking word – we couldn’t believe it! We were like, ‘This has never happened to us before’. After that there was almost a feeling of relaxation. We knew people were just glad to have us back, so it didn’t matter if we made a few mistakes. I mean, at our shows people have been crying in the front row, it’s been fucking insane!

Why do you think you have such an intense connection with your fans?
I think it’s because we go about things differently from other bands. We seem to speak to people who aren’t spoken to by anyone else. Somehow we articulate something for them that hasn’t been articulated before and that makes for a really strong connection. You know those friends that you connect with in a really unique way? I’m talking about the ones you almost share a special language with, the ones you go to when you don’t want to explain what’s wrong because they just “get” you. I think people feel something like that with us.

It sounds cheesy, but Garbage have always written sort of “outsiders’ anthems”. The songs ‘Beloved Freak’ and ‘Not Your Kind of People’ on the new album seem to fall into that tradition.
Yes, that is cheesy, but it’s also how we feel. I think we’ve accepted that we are who we are, and we do feel like outsiders. Even now, I don’t fit in with my peer group. I don’t have children. I front a rock band. I’m a freak. Sometimes I’m sitting round a table with a group of people and I say something that I think they’re going to relate to, but it’s like I’ve thrown a bomb down on the table! So I end up sitting there feeling isolated and uncomfortable. Honestly, it happens all the time.

Lots of us can relate to that feeling though.
I think it’s how we all operate in the world sometimes. We all feel judged. We all feel excluded. We can all feel isolated and we can all feel vulnerable, which is why we’re driven to create cliques or groups or, in my case, bands!

Are there any other artists in the music industry that you particularly relate to? It feels exciting that Garbage and No Doubt – two very different bands, but both successful groups from the 1990s fronted by strong, distinctive women – are both returning this year.
Oh, you know I love Gwen! Gwen and I are peers, we grew up together in this industry and we’ve shared a stage together more times than I’d care to mention. I respect her tremendously and I think she’s navigated her career with unbelievable grace and skill. I’m also madly in love with Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. She’s a phenomenal rock star, an incredible singer and a wonderful girl on a personal level. I adore Brody Dalle too -  she’s a fantastic artist and a great friend of mine. I mean, there are always young girls coming up that I admire and respect.

Do you feel protective towards them?
Yes, because I want them to be able to sustain a career and I know how really fucking hard that is. It’s really fucking hard to avoid the perils and pressures of commercialism. Commercialism is like a virus that gets into an artist and destroys them from the inside out. Ultimately, it destroys their careers.

Why do you think you’ve managed to last?
First of all, I’m lucky enough to be in a band that shares my vision and that happens to be really fucking good. That helps! As does the fact that I’m fucking obstinate. I have a well-defined concept of what I am and am not willing to do. And finally, I don’t value commercialism and mainstream success in the way that so many artists do today.

Do you think the industry’s tougher now than when Garbage first came out?
I think it’s different. There’s a ridiculous pressure on women to sexify and sell, but how does that lead to a long-term career? You’ll get a good quick fuck, but not a long meaningful relationship. Sexifying and selling – there’s the headline of your article!

Shirley wears dress by Victoria Beckham

Hair Alex Price

Make up Mary Jane Frost

Photographic Assistance Craig Teunissen

Fashion Assistance Sandra Leko and Ian Luka

Special thanks to ProVision Studios, ProLighting and Adi at ProVision