“I can be a complete dick sometimes so to trying and right any wrongs in the press would be a little inaccurate," cackles a wild-eyed Shirley Manson in an explosion of infectious laughter. "I can be a she-devil at times and I don’t make any apologies for that. That has protected me and been very advantageous to me in my career."
We meet again, and she's as loud and candid as ever. As we learned from our epic takeover with Garbage last year, we wouldn't want her any other way.
"I’m not going to make any apologies for that, but I do feel like I was misrepresented by some Jack The Lad journalists at the time in the ‘90s who took great glee in trying to diminish a relatively powerful, outspoken female artist. I saw it for exactly what it was and it didn’t overly concern me. I was amused and bemused by it because I couldn’t quite understand why everyone kept saying how crazy I was, because I’m actually pretty sane."
She is. I rarely meet such a collected and considerate interviewee. The crazed, she-devil, wild woman of rock persona that the press built for the Garbage icon in '90s has indeed stood her in good stead, but only because it came off to fearlessly making her voice heard. For over 20 years now, Manson and Garbage have blazed their own trail, lighting a path for their dedicated following of the disenchanted. Speaking a language that only they can, they've provided a haven for those with a similarly sideways view of the world.
But now, telling it like it is has led Shirley Manson to here. Their sixth studio album Strange Little Birds has that almighty, layered Garbage wall of rock sound that you've come to love - but there's a grander sense of atmosphere. Not just sonically, but there's a relief of tension caused by Manson being more exposed than ever before. That 'angry dick' you've come to fear, is allowing herself to be vulnerable for the first time. But why?
"This record is a sort of ‘bringing down of defences’ and a ‘relinquishing of arms’," she admits. "I’m only ever vulnerable when I’m in love, and I never allow myself to be vulnerable. This record is incredibly open, honest and I find that difficult with regards to my own personal love affairs.”
But Garbage have always been one of the most honest bands you could hope to hear, with no qualms in tackling sex, gender, love, hate, death and everything in between to the world. The only difference now, is that the raw-nerved reality of Manson's more private and intimate sides are all on record.
“I’m always fairly forthright, so being honest doesn’t scare me – but being vulnerable does," nods Manson. "Going into making this record, I really wanted to challenge myself as a writer. I was really aware that I was overtly avoiding certain things in my life with my music. I was determined to try and delve into ‘hotspots’ in my life.
“After our previous studio record, I came to be aware of how aggressive I am, and why I was aggressive. I guess I’m a lot more fearless than I’ve ever been before in my entire life, which is why I was able to go into these areas of my life that I was previously too scared to touch. It felt really empowering to be able to do that. For a lot of artists, they write love songs all the time and it’s no big deal – and they find it harder to talk about the things that I find easy. I’m really very candid about sex, gender and everything else we’ve touched on."
She pauses, before that tittering cackle returns to her smile: "I’ve never made a ‘feelings record’ before."
It should go without saying then, that as effervescent and bold a record as Strange Little Birds is, it is not a Taylor Swift album. Loaded with intent, it will possess you, but if you're after an album of pop bangerz and summer jamz, you'd best go elsewhere.
"The record is really dark," she nods with a wry smile, "it’s not a laugh a minute pop record that’s going to make you feel good. This is a dark and brooding record that will make you feel good, if you’re into that kind of thing. This has stuck with us throughout our entire career – dark and sad music comforts us, we’re drawn to it. Happy music makes me feel very anxious.”
She continues: "I know how much work my boys did on this record, but we all wanted to get away from shiny pop music which we’re all completely sick of. We want something with substance rather than just ‘hey, I’m in the club having some fun – put me on the radio and let me show you my bum’. We’re all utterly done with it.
"We wanted to make a record that meant something, was coming from an authentic place and wasn’t coming from a place to make money or get played on the radio. It was coming from a desire to communicate and connect.”
Photo: Thanira Rates
This comes off the back of a pretty monumental 2015 for Garbage. After waiting for drummer and producer Butch Vig to finish his work with Foo Fighters, the band reunited, got in a room to get the chemistry going, wrote the album, then set about celebrating the 20th anniversary of their seminal debut album.
While Strange Little Birds had already been written by the time the band hit the road, one can't help but wonder if revisiting their debut in such depth helped to shape the new album in any way. Manson nods, to admit that it instilled the spirit of the band that they always intended to be - and need to restart to become again, on each and every record.
"As a band, despite our years and despite our experience, we wanted to make the new record from what I call a beginner’s headspace," she says. "With a lot of artists who’ve had a long career, they get into a lot of bad habits of forgetting why they wanted to make music in the first place, forgetting why you wanted to be in a band in the first place and forgetting what your job and role is. All of us really understood what our goal was with this record. We just got rid of everybody else’s expectations and just really hunkered down to create something that pushed us into areas that we’d not previously investigated.
"As a result, I feel that this record has a lot in common with our first because they both have this ‘thrust’ about them that I’m proud of. It feels good to be able to say that.”
Placebo are about to head out on a similar tour to celebrate their 20th anniversary, with frontman Brian Molko stating that "there will be songs in the set that I've sworn never to play again - I think it's time that we purposefully acknowledged what a lot of Placebo fans really want to hear."
But for Garbage, was this a celebration of their past, an act of clearing the decks, or a gift to the fans?
“It was a motherfucking gift to us!" she blurts. "No, we loved every single fucking minute of it. It was so joyous and there was nothing painful about it at all. I relished every single minute of it, it was a pretty profound experience. None of us ever thought we’d still be here making a record 21 years later. We still identify with all our songs. I don’t get sick of playing them.
"Whether that means I’m mentally subnormal or have a low intellect, I don’t know! I can refuel every single time. I’m genuine when I say that. I never think ‘oh Jesus fucking Christ, I never want to sing ‘Stupid Girl’ again. I’m like ‘what shall we play next? ‘Stupid Girl’ is alright!’ It’s really, really frightening. I’m like a hamster in a hamster wheel."
It was indeed a pretty incredible tour - full of everything you'd want from Garbage: classics, energy, a very human sense of community and a deliciously barbed wit. Hell, Shirley even split her pants on stage.
“I didn’t split my pants, Andy," she calmly smiles to interrupt. "I left them in the dressing room! I was distracted because my niece was in the dressing room and a four-year-old plays havoc in the backstage area. I got on stage and realised I had a fan in front of me blowing my skirt up and had a sudden, horrible realisation that I had not put my pants on. It was embarrassing but, hey ho.”
You handled it very well, I must say…
“Well, back in the day, photographers used to take great glee in photographing up my skirt and printing them all over the place. I’ve learned over the years that I must always be covered. I don’t want my vagina being displayed on Idolator or Gigwise!”
We wouldn't dream of it. Shirley has her hands full enough when it comes to the internet, as anyone who follows her on Facebook would know. As well as largely gushing over photos of her dogs, niece and nephew, she also uses it as a platform to voice her views on current affairs, politics, culture and equality (and, we all remember the Kanye incident, right?).
She's never suffered fools, and naturally that doesn't land well with everyone. She often faces backlash, to the extent where earlier this year when she was pushed to simply and eloquently reply: "Tell you what, let you be you and let me be me". Does this shock her, and how is it to tread the balance for those confused by separating her music from her personality?
“I don’t think about it too much, it’s an irrelevance," she shrugs. "If we write a song that really resonates with someone, they will love it forever. If a few people choose to be offended by my politics and unfollow me on Facebook, I don’t think that feeds through to how they feel about the music privately. I’m just going to live my life and if you enjoy the music, that’s great, if you don’t that’s fine. Nothing really effects my life.”
She goes on: “I think they want to oppress you, I guess. By saying ‘I am going to remove yourself from your reach because I am valuable – you will have lost something’. I personally feel that if you are so intolerant of other people’s views that you will unfollow an artist, then fuck you – go fuck off. I don’t want you any way. I don’t expect you to agree, but I expect tolerance. There are many times I’ve shared how I feel and I’ve had many responses that have taught me a lot about many situations. I welcome criticism and I welcome diverse opinions and perspectives.
"As a culture, we’ve become so easily offended by an opposing opinion that I think it’s really dangerous. Disagreement and debate are essential and it’s important to know that there are other perspectives out there other than your own.”
Too many rockstars today all fade into the same dull and watery pool of beige, slowly trickly its way down the middle of the road. It's always a pleasure to meet Shirley, and on each and every occasion find her so full of vim and sprite. With a personality so strong that it's an intrinsic part of the shape of not only Garbage but of the history of modern rock, I ask her if she would ever considering venturing out alone to make a solo record.
“I have learned to never rule anything out," she replies, "but as long as I get along with my bandmates and we still feel that we are fulfilled, I would prefer to stick with my band. I have always had a very romantic view of bands since I was a kid. I still very much believe that if a good band is functioning well, it operates like a tiny little microcosm of democracy. I believe in that principle and I think as a culture, we’re all sliding way too far towards individual glory and interests. That’s what’s so beautiful about bands: when they really operate at their best, they are a little microcosm of democracy and I love that idea.”
She continues: “We are a unit, for better or for worse. Which is so strange because we’re such a diverse and weird straggly band of gypsies. On paper, we don’t make any sense, but when we’re together we are tight and have rolled forwards for 21 years and no of us have ever hurt each other irrevocably.”
Each time though, they come back stronger. Maintaining their essence at their core while never doing the same thing twice. From their genre-defying debut in the 90s, to the statesman-like poise they hold today, their evolution has been resplendent - but we can't help but wonder where they could possibly go from here?
“We have this idea for a record that we do want to make, which we’ve been talking about for years, and years, and years," nods Shirley. "Butch refers to it as his ‘bummer record’, which is to get as dark as we can possibly get. That’s something we all hope to achieve before we get hit by a bus, but generally I’d say that we don’t have a masterplan. If you have expectations or plans that are too rigid, the world comes and it knocks you off course – irrevocably. You have to learn to adapt and flex and just take what comes your way.
"We’ve lived long enough to know that terrible, mental things happen in life and they set everybody’s world completely off axis. We just hope that we get to make another record.”
We know that they will. Not only are they on the finest of forms, but they've too much love left to give, have been through so much that they must be untouchable by now, and they're just too stubborn to quit. Better the devil you know...
- Garbage release Strange Little Birds on Friday 10 June
Their remaining UK and EU tour dates are below. Tickets are available here.
Garbage will play:
June 10 – Nova Rock Festival - Nickelsdorf, Austria
June 13 – Troxy – London, UK
June 14 - Rock City – Nottingham, UK
August 8 - Lokerse Festival - Lokeren, Belgium
August 10 - A Summer's Tale - Luhmühlen, German
See more of Garbage's 20 Years Queer Gigwise takeover below