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Garbage’s Shirley Manson on Ending the Hiatus, Hating Record Labels, and Dressing As Bette Davis

Shirley Manson cracks herself up, with a Scottish cackle that comes out of nowhere and knocks you on your ass. These days, Manson’s laughter comes easy, as she explains why it was time for her band, Garbage — which first found success in the post-Nirvana alt-rock boom of the mid-nineties — to get back to work following a seven-year hiatus. She spoke with Vulture about Garbage’s new album, Not Your Kind of People, going indie, why the nineties were better, and her penchant for dressing up as Bette Davis.

Who initiated getting the band back together?
Of course it's me, because I’m vocal and I'm so in touch with my desires and my wants. That's the way the dynamic has always been. [Laughs.] I called Butch [Vig] up first and said, “I want to make another record. Do you?” He said, “Yep!” I called Steve [Marker], he called Duke [Erikson], and we had an answer in about two seconds flat. We all felt like we were ready.

At any point did you think Garbage was over?
No. I'm a mercurial sort, being a redhead and all, and in my darkest hours, I'd get a little scared. Particularly in the first year, it felt scary to be without the band, without the boys. They felt safe — safety in numbers and all. But then I just reached a point of grace with it. I thought, If this is meant to be, this will come together again when it's meant to come together. We understood that we had something precious and we didn't want to destroy it. But nobody was really in the mood for working on it after the last record [2005’s Bleed Like Me].

If you had made another record right after Bleed Like Me instead of taking a break, what do you think the results would have been?
I think we would have made an exhausted-sounding record, and I think we would have ended up being really cruel to each other. We would have said things to each other that we wouldn't have been able to walk away from standing up.

Tell me about the album’s first single, “Blood for Poppies.”
I was trying to make sense of insanity for myself, feeling lost and bewildered. I used an article I had read on the Opium Wars in Afghanistan, and also the documentary Restrepo about an Italian soldier living in insanity to speak for my own sort of confusion.

You're releasing your new album on your own label. How does it feel? Terrifying? Exhilarating?
What an amazing privilege, first of all, to have our own label. But I think it is sort of terrifying. It's a lot of responsibility, not just financially, but emotionally and physically. We wanted to do it on our own terms, though. I was sick of being treated so poorly [by major labels], like a sloppy plate of mashed potatoes and peas. We're done with that. I think record companies treat artists in a very careless fashion, and as a result, the public feels careless toward artists now.

When a major label works at its absolute best, there's no other system like it to push a career into the stratosphere. But that system is not for everybody. There's a whole slew of artists that are making incredible music that just don't enjoy that kind of support because they just can’t tolerate the beast on a moral, political ready. We lose out on what I call the “fragile artists.” It's all the strong, genetically well-bred people who rise to the top, even in music. All the freaks and the geeks get thrown into the streets and forgotten about. I look back at all the great artists that I fell in love with, people like Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Patti Smith — all of these people would never have had careers in this kind of climate.

Hearing you talk about being pushed around by the major labels is sort of surprising, because your persona is this strong, badass front woman.
I know that I have the fortitude to fight back. I can stand in my own corner, and I can definitely take criticism and opinions that are totally opposite from my own. Sometimes I thought, If I'm getting pushed around like this, how the fuck are 99.9 percent of artists holding up? I have a real belligerent streak in me and I absolutely hate being told what to do, which is one of the reasons I joined a band in the first place. I have a problem with authority and always have.

When we were on a major label, I felt like I was back in school. It wasn't the environment I would have imagined in a million years that a band would be forced to inhabit. I thought, Are we not artists? Are we not supposed to take risks? Fuck that. Why are we all expected to make pop music? Why is pop music more valuable than our feelings and our memories and our fears and our hopes? I feel like we're living in a climate that is so conservative and so obsessed with being perfect and pretending. Nobody wants to be real and speak the truth because they're all scared of imaginary repercussions. They're scared they'll make less money if they speak the truth. I read magazine after magazine, and every article is the same — all the artists speak in carefully edited, polite platitudes.

Was there less of that in the nineties?
I know for a fact that it was much more of a free, eclectic mix in the mainstream. Yes, you'd have huge pop stars like Britney getting played on the radio, but then you'd have Nirvana, Blink-182, Alanis, Fiona Apple, Missy Elliott on the radio. Now it's all pop music. If you don't have a hook, if you don't have words, three chords, and chorus, you won't get near the radio.

Do you see the mainstream becoming less pop-focused?
I think it will happen again, and I'm dying to see what it's going to be. I'm sure the underground is almost at boiling point. I think it'll be a new mix, like where Odd Future and Die Antwoord are going — something that takes influences from all over the world and shows us things we've never seen before. Five years ago, you never would've gotten Odd Future seeping into the mainstream. But now, I think people really are fed up with pop music — they've had their fill. It's like tons and tons and tons of cupcakes — more cupcakes! more cupcakes! — and at the end of the binge, you're just sitting your on your sofa, feeling sick and overserved, and in dire need of some therapy and green veggies! [Laughs.]

The name of Garbage’s new record is Not Your Kind of People. So, who aren’t your kind of people?
The people I avoid are people who scare me, and the people who tend to scare me are unable to be honest with themselves. People who are so deluded that they literally scare me. It feels like craziness to me, and crazy is to be avoided at all costs.

What’s one thing you did on Garbage’s hiatus that may surprise people?
Well, I learned to drive at age 40, which was astoundingly fun, but the other thing I did that was slightly odd was that I dressed up as Bette Davis at various stages of her career. Sophie Muller, the video director, would film me performing as Bette Davis. Just for whatever reason, we would do these films in various locations — one was in the desert, one was in her London garden. We would just laugh ourselves sick making them. But they aren’t for public consumption.

Is it terrible of me to say that I hope they leak?
They are to be seen to be believed! Maybe someday I’ll release them, once I’ve relinquished all my pride and all my vanity.

Photo: FilmMagic