Garbage's Shirly Manson and Butch Vig talk new book, touring, and staying relevant after two decades

  • Joseph Cultis/BB Gun
  • Joseph Cultis/BB Gun

More than two decades into their career, seven-time GRAMMY nominees Garbage are as creatively invigorated and vibrant as ever. The Shirley Manson-fronted quartet just kicked off a new tour with rock icons Blondie, they have a new socially conscious single, “No Horses,” on the way, plans to head into the studio later this year and they just released a massive coffee table book, This Is The Noise That Keeps Me Awake, celebrating their 24 years of music.

As one might expect, the book and reflecting on nearly a quarter of century together prompted a lot of memories and stories from Manson and drummer Butch Vig. GRAMMY Pro spoke with both members about the book, the tour and staying relevant after two decades together.

Was there one thing that surprised you in working on this book?

Shirley Manson: The weird thing about being with a band, you don’t really realize how much time passes and that time has passed through our communal hands. So much of our lives are interwoven together by default rather than by design. So that’s an extraordinary experience to live through and usually in our lives we have passages that we spend with certain friends and lovers and certain jobs, but in a band, if you’re lucky enough to have some success for so long, you spend the bulk of your life with the same people who have borne witness to absolutely every triumph and every horrendous failure that you’ve endured. So that’s very peculiar in life and very unusual. I think that was what struck me the most when we started putting together the book.

Was there one thing that you hoped to achieve with this book?

Butch Vig: We told Jason Cohen we want to make sure it gets into our individual personalities and that came out the longer we did the interviews cause he would start asking us a lot of sidebar information. That’s how the sidebars came to be, he was the one who said, “I think there should be a lot of sidebars in the book, it would be cool to have these little anecdotes.” And the more we did that it sort of felt like it was more intimate and personal and less like a corporate rock band. Even when it came time to choosing the photos,

How do you approach a tour like the one you are doing with Blondie?

Manson: Right now rehearsal is all about us until we can get to the point where we can play these songs and not feel intimidated Blondie are about to come on stage after us. We want to make sure we put ourselves in the best light and we know that we’re sharing a stage with real legends and greats. People talk about icons and legends a lot and they overuse these terms. The fact is Blondie is an archetype and truly iconic and true music legends, so we’re not taking this incredible opportunity we have been presented with lightly at all. We take it really seriously, that we want to make sure we present ourselves well and don’t embarrass ourselves (laughs). It’s exciting, it’s a real challenge, it’s not often that we are pushed that much cause we tend to play our own shows. So when you share a stage with legends you better have your s**t together (laughs).

I was talking about it once with Greg Dulli and he said one of the things that brought the Afghan Whigs back full time was playing to new young audiences who had never seen those songs before.

Vig: Yeah, if you can get that kind of connection with your core audience and then find a new audience that’s the best thing that can happen to you because it allows you keep playing your music and exist. If there’s no audience for an artist you’re really doing it for yourself and you’re gonna be in your basement or home studio, whatever it is, and just playing for an empty room. There are certainly a lot of people that happens to, so anybody who can retain their audience and find a new audience, that’s a blessing.

I love that, in the book, you describe Shirley’s writing as having a correlation to Raymond Carver. Is there one correlation you see between the two?

Vig: As our albums have progressed, Shirley’s lyrics have gotten more personal. And then Bleed Like Me was a very personal record. I would say Not Your Kind Of People into Strange Little Birds, Strange Little Birds is almost more sort of freeform expression, how she took her lyrics. She didn’t even second guess herself, it’s just what came out. But the Raymond Carver short story, her lyrics, that’s what fills Bleed Like Me, and that’s one of my favorite records too. One of my favorite Garbage songs, period, is the song “Bleed Like Me,” because I just love the arrangement we came up with, I really just love the way that sounds, the way we approached it. And Shirley wrote all those vignettes, each verse is about someone she knows. The first two records Shirley would write about something and starting with Beautiful Garbage and Bleed Like Me Shirley wrote much more personally and I think she just feels, as a writer, she has to express herself or talk about something she knows, just something that un-self-consciously comes out of her. That’s where she’s at with writing. I think that’s a good thing as an artist, to have no fear to do that.

What was the worst case of foodborne illness?

Vig: We played a show in Philly or Baltimore and the catering was Indian food. I think everybody except Shirley had the Dal, Steve’s wife and my wife were there cause we had the next day off in Washington, D.C. On the bus about two hours in, everybody was just like, “Whoa. I need to go number two really, really bad.” And there’s a rule, you don’t go number two on the bus. We were on the freeway and everybody’s going, “We need to use the bathroom.” We were like all frantically, “Please, put the pedal to the metal, get to the hotel.” And we all sprinted, I wouldn’t even say sprinted, you had to hold it in and run through the lobby to get to our hotel room. We all were sick as dogs that night except for Shirley. She didn’t eat the dal.

Looking back for this book what stands out to you at the beginning?

Vig: We got on this roll, and you get caught up in it, especially on our first two records we had these long recording sessions and then we would go on the tour for 18 or 20 months. And I think by the time we finished Bleed Like Me we were pretty worn down. That’s why that seven months turned into seven years. We needed that time off to look back and go, “Wow, we really do have something special here.”

Manson: I was so surprised by the kind of enthusiasm we were met with and the great reviews we enjoyed and that’s just not what I remembered at all (laughs). So that was a real peculiar realization of oh my god, when we released our first three records funny enough, even though the third record unfortunately ended up running into a bit of a brick wall it still enjoyed great reviews. So our first three records it was just a glorious ride and we never really had to stop for a second.

Were there things that were said that surprised you or that now looking back made you realize how much people did connect with what you were trying to say?

Manson: Yeah, I had never felt comfortable necessarily as an artist. I wouldn’t say even now I feel particularly comfortable as an artist. I’ve just come to the realization I am an artist, and, for me, that’s a big leap. But I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable in that role. But yeah, I think you’re right. Looking back over the course of our career and realizing we’re still in this incredible position where we get to make records, the sole reason we get to do that is because of the records and so, of course, we have been, in some ways, understood by whoever has been kind enough to buy our records, come and see us play. Those people have built us a career which we continue to fly on and that speaks of some kind of connection, whatever that connection is I’m not entirely sure. But it’s certainly a testament to a song or a melody or an idea that’s touched somebody in some kind of deep way.

Is there one thing that stands out most for you about Debbie Harry?

Manson: I’m so lucky that I picked amazing women when I was a kid and I don’t know how that happened. I really have a lot of love for Debbie, but true respect. I respect her because she is a woman who’s marched through her career with great integrity and she was born, arguably, the most beautiful woman in music, of all time, that’s open to argument of course. There are not many women who are as gifted physically as she was, and yet she hasn’t solely relied on her beauty and her sex appeal. She has managed to find another act for herself with her intelligence and her writing ability, with her voice and with her spirit. And that is what I admire most.

Coming on to the tour I know everyone will focus on Shirley and Debbie but it has to be a thrill for you as well to tour with someone like Chris Stein and the rest of Blondie, who are all such great musicians in their own right.

Vig: It’s really cool in some ways because Shirley has known Debbie for a long time and they’re kind of thick as thieves. Their career is ten years longer than ours and we’ve been around for 20 years. So to have two really strong iconic female-fronted performers going out with their bands, they have the original people, we’re still together in Garbage and a lot of Blondie is together. Chris was the musical leader of the band, but Clem Burke is one of my favorite rock drummers and he still has the same haircut after 30 years. He looks badass. You know how opinionated Shirley is on women’s rights and feminist rights and Debbie is the same, a different sort of viewpoint how she expresses it. But I think it’s great to have a lot of female power on stage in a form of rock. It’s gonna be cool.

One memory that stood out in the book was performing at MusiCares in 2003 for U2.  

Vig: We got asked to do that and a lot of people had picked songs and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” was still available. I said we should do that and Shirley said, “No, we can’t do that, it’s too iconic.” I said, “But every U2 song is iconic, or practically every U2 song. We just have to do our thing.”

You did an old interview where you said you were more aggressive when you were younger because you were afraid. Are you more confident after this experience of creating a book and sharing memories?

Manson: I do remember saying that. I think the realization I had while saving my rescue dog that we love and adore, and we had taken her to puppy classes and the dog trainer said, “There’s no such thing as an aggressive dog, only a scared dog.” My hair stood up on the back of my neck cause I thought, “Well, that’s me because I am incredibly aggressive and clearly I’ve felt I wanted to protect myself.” If you’re aggressive it keeps people at bay for the most part. And certainly over the years I have become less fearful in a lot of different ways and not just through my career, but in my personal life. I’m definitely less fearful, but I think the trick for me is I’ve actually learned to experience joy. I’ve released myself from any kind of expectations in terms of my career with the band and, as a result, I can just go into the studio and have fun and just be creative and not worry about whether or not it’s going to appeal to a record company or to an audience or the radio. I don’t have to worry about that anymore and that is really liberating.

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