Want to feel old? It’s now 20 years since the debut album by Garbage was released. In the post-grunge era, while Britpop boomed, the Transatlantic quartet did something different by rubbing glossy electronic pop up against mean alt-rock guitars, led by a new superstar in the shape of glowering, red-lipped Scot Shirley Manson. The self-titled album spent 36 weeks in the UK top 40, eventually going double platinum here as well as in the US, Australia and Canada. Yet although Manson sang that she was Only Happy When It Rains, it sounds as if she wasn’t truly happy at any stage of her band’s peak of popularity.
“I was such a baby when we made that first record. I really was a child mentally and emotionally,” she tells me today. She was 28 when the album was first released, and is 49 now. “It’s kind of strange to revisit how little I was able to enjoy all that success. Obviously just having people come to the shows was incredibly gratifying, but I didn’t feel like I deserved to be in that spot. I didn’t feel like I was as good a musician as the rest of the band. I didn’t feel as accomplished as they were. I was constantly feeling like I wasn’t as good as everyone else, like they were pulling all the weight and I was this leaden, talentless hack. That’s not a nice place to be.”
So this year she’s doing it all over again, and having fun with it for the first time. There are several different 20th anniversary reissues of the album (go for the Super Deluxe Edition, at 62 tracks for £24.99, if you fancy owning 11 different versions of Stupid Girl) and they’re currently on a tour playing only songs from their debut and its contemporaneous B-sides. “It’s complete immersion – no new songs,” says Manson. “In some regards it feels so long ago that I was almost a different person. But at times, when we’re playing the songs, it feels like it was yesterday. I can remember what the clothes I was wearing felt like; I can remember what things smelled like. It’s really intense, and for the most part incredibly joyful.”
Garbage were by no means a sure thing when they first started shopping songs around to record labels in 1994. Drummer Butch Vig, not Manson, was the semi-big name, widely known as the producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind. He and his guitarist friends Duke Erikson and Steve Marker were all middle-aged background types (they’re now 60, 64 and 56 respectively) looking for a singer and focal point. Manson was just fairly desperate, having already failed to find success with her Edinburgh bands Angelfish and Goodbye Mr Mackenzie. The latter’s high point was a week at number 26 in the albums chart for their debut in 1989.
“I had no future until I met this band. I had no next move. I was going nowhere. There was no risk for me in going to the Midwest of America with three dudes I’d never met before. I thought we’d be dead in the water and I was very wrong.”
Manson has spoken before about suffering from body dysmorphia – not a great mental state from which to step into a glaring spotlight. “I didn’t enjoy stepping off a plane and having paparazzi waiting for us. I didn’t enjoy being in a restaurant and people taking photographs of us. I hated it.”
Today she lives what she assures me is an “Incredibly modest” life in LA with her second husband, Billy Bush, who has worked for years as Garbage’s sound engineer. She’s quick to laugh, albeit mostly at her own expense. When I ask if there came a point when she thought, “I must actually be good at this or people would have stopped coming,” she explodes with an uproarious cackle. “Eventually! But a lot later than one would think. I mean literally years and years later. Up to that point I was absolutely lacking in self-confidence.” Her prickly side rears up occasionally: at one point she picks me up, quite rightly, for saying “England” when I mean “the United Kingdom”, and she’s clearly still angry about the treatment of women in the music industry and beyond.
“The pop world is dominated by women. But when a woman has the audacity, in inverted commas, to presume that shes a musician and a writer and a producer, then people start to want to squash that ambition. Deep down there’s a feeling of, ‘How dare you think that you can play in this game with us.’ I really believe that. There’s resentment, fear and disdain. As females we are still encouraged to believe that we aren’t as good as our male counterparts from a very young age. It eats into our psyche.”
Garbage did the Bond theme for The World is Not Enough in 1999, but their fortunes were fading by the mid-2000s. A brief hiatus became something bigger. “My mother got incredibly sick and died 18 months later. I didn’t want to make music when she was dying. Before we knew it six years had passed. But six years of life fully lived is good for you as a musician. It refuels you.”
Before their comeback in 2012, there was also a Manson solo album that never saw the light of day. “The record company wanted a pop record, the one I made was too dark for them, so I told them to stuff it and went home.” Her acting career took off with a regular role in the US TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I recommend seeking out the scene in which she morphs from a urinal into a knife-fingered murderer. Her label thought she was finished with music and finally dropped her.
Now Garbage run their own record company, and Manson claims a sense of freedom that she never had when the band faced much higher commercial expectations. “We’ll never be the zeitgeist again, but that’s okay. I can live with that. When we became as successful as we did I was caught in a capitalist venture that really, truly disgusted me. I would have to sit in business meetings with people who solely talked about numbers. It really made me sick and I’m so glad I’m free of all that.”
A new Garbage album is coming next year, this time made by someone with confidence in her undeniable abilities as a performer. “I have really appreciated the oportunity to go back and examine the whole journey that we took. It’s been nice to appreciate my own efforts, for once, and feel pride in it. I’ve stopped trying to worry about the trajectory of my career, I just focus on doing a good job. That’s what keeps me sane.”
Garbage (20th Anniversary Edition) is out now on Stunvolume. Nov 8-9, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 (0844 477 2000, o2academybrixton.co.uk)