ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAY 2, 1996
By Steve Newton
Usually when a band is on the lookout for a singer, its members will put the word out by advertising in a music paper, requesting demo tapes or offering appointments for auditions.
The three founders of Garbage—Duke Erickson, Steve Marker, and Butch Vig—didn’t bother with any of that time-consuming stuff, though. They just watched some MTV and happened to see a video called “Suffocate Me” by a band named Angelfish. They liked the style and voice of the singer, one Shirley Manson from Edinburgh, Scotland, and tracked her down.
“It’s absolutely nuts,” says Manson of the atypical route that led her into Garbage, “but we are in the ’90s, after all. Steve approached me on the basis of me perhaps singing a track or two, so I went up and met them in Wisconsin and we ended up recording a whole album together.
“One of the reasons it worked out for us is that immediately upon meeting, we got on as people,” she adds, calling from a “ghastly” Howard Johnson hotel in Boston. “So we were very lucky. And we shared a sort of general approach, if you like, in that we were keen to try things that none of us had really tried before in our previous bands.”
The original trio’s adventurous outlook led to an artistic melding of the minds when Manson—who was touring the States with Angelfish at the time—visited them at their Madison, Wisconsin, home base. The very first tune Manson “ad-libbed on” with her new cohorts, “Vow”, became the striking first single from the band’s self-titled debut CD.
“That was kind of the first song where everybody went, ‘This is gonna work,’ ” she says.
One of the strongest tracks on the debut, “Vow” is a pissed-off rant wherein a defiant Manson sings, “You burned me out but I’m back at your door/Like Joan of Arc coming back for more/I came around to tear your little world apart/And break your soul apart.” She claims that the vitriol isn’t aimed at anyone in particular. “We all know a lot of assholes.”
Like most Garbage songs, it benefits from the waiflike singer’s melancholic approach, which also colours the current video single, “Only Happy When It Rains”. Although originally attracted by her vocal and visual virtues, the Garbage-men soon came to realize that Manson’s dark lyrics would also aid their skewed musical vision.
“Lyrically, I just wasn’t that happy with some of the stuff that the boys had,” she says, “so some of the songs were rewritten. I mean, everybody contributes the lyrics, for sure—everyone brings in ideas—but I kinda get to riffle through them and use what I feel is appropriate.”
Although drummer Vig is noted for his groundbreaking production work with such influential groups as Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, and Nine Inch Nails—not to mention his crowning achievement as Nirvana’s sonic architect on the Nevermind album—he’s not the sole conjurer of strange sounds in the Garbage camp.
“Steve is kind of a real noise geek too,” says Manson, “and everybody kind of has their hands on the sampler now and again. It just depends who’s foolin’ around that day and who’s feelin’ up to the task.”
Technically proficient when it comes to layering weird effects and experimenting with loops and samples, Garbage has now left the controlled atmosphere of the studio for the untested waters of the live stage. The band will be bringing its provocative blend of techno-tinged garage rock and catchy noise-pop to town with a show at the Vogue Theatre on Saturday (May 4).
“We’ve got a pretty sophisticated setup,” says Manson, who’s been playing in bands for 13 of her 29 years. “The boys are triggering a lot of loops and samples off their guitar pedals, and they have MIDI switches so they can switch between guitar and keyboard.
“And the same with Butch—he’s triggering a whole load of samples and loops from his drum pads. So God forbid the day that our pedals crash, that’s all I can say. We’ll be wishin’ we’d used a DAT, but there you have it. We’re tryin’ to be as brave as possible.”
Touring is a daunting task in itself, but Garbage has a further problem: being such a new band, it has only a dozen songs that it can draw on to fill its set.
“That’s one disadvantage of having your debut album doing so well,” says Manson, whose recording career includes five CDs with Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie. “But we just keep ticking along. We’re dying to make the next record so we can make our set bigger and not have to play the same songs every night.”
With touring scheduled to run through ’96, that crucial follow-up disc won’t see daylight any time soon, but in the meantime, Manson and her mates are more than happy with how things are going. They don’t even mind being in a band with a less-than-flattering moniker.
“I’m past caring now,” says Manson of the junky name. “I think at first I was like, ‘Oh, no, no, please; that’s a bad idea.’ And, of course, telling my mom and dad that I was gonna be in a band called Garbage didn’t go down too well. They went, ‘Oh, no, you’ve finally reached rock bottom. You’ve got to know when to stop.’ But now it’s become like wallpaper: the name ceases to be of any relevance whatsoever to me.”
Manson’s folks might wish their daughter were in a more respectable-sounding group, but they certainly had no complaints when she showed up back in Edinburgh carrying a copy of last October’s Elle magazine, which featured a multipage spread of her modelling dresses from the trendy Moschino fashion house.
“Taking the Elle home to my parents in Scotland was one of the greatest, most glorious moments of my life,” says the crooner. “I mean, it was so funny. And modelling is fun; I like wearing gorgeous clothes. I think life is to be enjoyed, so perhaps I’ll do it again.”
At this point, the band’s career takes precedence over any of Manson’s supermodel ambitions; she says the band is “absolutely overwhelmed” by the critical and commercial success of Garbage. But how much of that popularity is due to the attention Vig’s name demands in alternative-music circles?
“Forgive my arrogance,” she says, “but I don’t think the punter—the average person in the street—knows or gives a fuck who Butch Vig is. Yes, you can get critical acclaim, and yes, you can get your record played on the video maybe because somebody somewhere knows who Butch Vig is, but I don’t think you can convince the public to like your record just because somebody’s name’s involved. People are buying it because of the music.”