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Garbage crouching

Shirley Manson's Personal Best

28 October 2022, 11:00

To celebrate their career-spanning Anthology, out today, the inimitable Shirley Manson talks Alan Pedder through five of her favourite Garbage songs of the past decade.

When their label approached Garbage about putting out a new career retrospective, the band’s first reaction was to ask why.

In their minds, they had already done that. It took the label to point out to them that, yes, Absolute Garbage was great, but it was also 15 years ago. “We were like, ‘Oh, well, yeah, you raise a good point!’” says Shirley Manson over the phone from her home in LA.

“I mean, we weren't going to say no, because any celebration of our work at this point is greatly appreciated. And we're really chuffed with the package. I think it’s fucking wild that this is almost 30 years of my life. It’s like having a party. It feels frivolous and fun. Nice, but also quite heavy in its own way.”

The truth is, Absolute Garbage wasn’t great. I’m not talking musically – the importance of Garbage as hitmakers and as a cultural force is not up for debate – but for the fact that it marked perhaps the lowest point in the band’s existence. “If the truth be told, it was a very, very dark time for us,” says Manson. “We were all barely talking. We knew we were about to be dropped by all our record labels, all over the world, and we felt that was the end of that.”

It turns out the band had very little involvement in putting Absolute Garbage together. Manson describes receiving the artwork for approval and barely even wanting to look at it. “It was a very heartless experience, to be brutally frank,” she says. “I just felt really hopeless and sad.”

She describes putting Anthology together as “the polar opposite of that experience.” The band were fresh off the success of their 2021 album, No Gods No Masters, and wanted to continue the creative partnership they’d formed with Chilean artist and director Javi M Amor. “She shares a certain kind of visual language that we really enjoy and that we feel really speaks to our kind of aesthetic,” says Manson. “So putting the artwork together felt fun and fresh. It was just an exciting endeavour.”

Garbage standing

What’s fascinating – and necessary – about Anthology is that it not only reminds of the band’s towering achievements during their decade-long imperial phase, but that it also tells the story of how they came back from the brink. “When we were universally dropped in 2005, it was devastating and I can’t pretend that it wasn’t,” says Manson. “It was really a dark, awful, hopeless period. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s it. The thing I loved so much is gone now. I’m 40 years old and women in the music industry don’t get second chances. I really, truly believed it.”

After some years had passed, in which Manson started and abandoned a solo album and starred as a tech CEO-slash-Terminator in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, she says she began to feel more and more restless. “I saw what people were doing in alternative rock and I felt, yeah, they are good, but we are just as good if not better. I thought, ‘Why am I sitting at home twiddling my thumbs when I’m fucking good at this? I was born to do this. And that was when I realised that I had to do it. I think it was the first time I really accepted that I was a musician and that I was an artist. It had taken me that long to accept that I was good enough.”

Garbage reformed in 2011, ending a six-year hiatus, and their three albums since have seen them fully embrace their artistry and unique chemistry in ways that Manson says have brought the joy back into their process. “Getting back together reignited what it felt like to be creative and be passionate and really give a shit about our work,” she says. “We had become very frustrated by the constant number crunching and penny-pinching habits of record companies, so when we got back together we just decided to do things that are beautiful and make us happy. And it saved our career.”


When Manson sends through her list of songs for this piece, it comes with a note saying, “Tell Alan that these are my five favourites of our lesser-known songs. I’ve talked about so many of the others until I’m blue in the face!”

These favourites include “The Men Who Rule The World”, the pivotal single from No Gods No Masters, and “No Horses”, a standalone epic from 2017. They also include three tracks taken from the band’s series of Record Store Day singles which saw them collaborate with friends and legends including John Doe and Exene Cervenka of American punks X, Brody Dalle of The Distillers, Brian Aubert of Silversun Pickups, and the then up-and-coming Screaming Females, whose duet version of Patti Smith’s “Because The Night” we’ll dive into later.

“I’ll be brutally frank with you, because I always am,” says Manson. “If it wasn’t for my fellow artists I’m not entirely sure I would have survived this long. It’s the sustenance and support of fellow artists that helped me believe in myself when, culturally, we were being either completely ignored and/or severely criticisd and kind of laughed at, in a funny way. It was private messages from musicians I really admire that really helped keep me afloat when I was wracked with self-doubt.”

“Because I know how much my musical inspirations have helped me through, if I’ve been able to help anyone – and I do mean anyone – survive, or just to push through to try and achieve something, then I can feel, wow, I’ve done my job. Like, I can go to my grave happy.”

"On Fire" by Garbage (2015)

SHIRLEY MANSON: We needed a B-side to partner with “The Chemicals” and when we went into the studio, Steve [Marker] brought this beautiful instrumental with him and played it for us. Sometimes you get gifted ideas and it literally feels like somebody opens up a little slot in your head and just dumps it inside. I went in front of a mic and basically just sang what you hear on the record. I think I only sang it once or twice.

There’s something about this song that I love so much. I play it quite a lot for some reason, I don’t know why. I just feel a sort of rising in my soul when I listen to it. We don’t do romantic songs very often. It’s just not really something we’re that interested in exploring. But this song sounds romantic to me, even though the lyrics are not particularly romantic.

I just can’t believe someone hasn’t grabbed this song for a soundtrack yet. Literally, that’s how arrogant I am about it. I’m just like, ‘How can somebody not put this in a movie? It’s fucking great!'

BEST FIT: I’ve always loved the more melancholy, softer side of Garbage too.

It's funny, because “On Fire” reminds me of “Milk”, which finishes out the debut record and is the first sort of romantic song we ever recorded. We’re good at it, I don't know why we don't do it more often!

This song was a regular feature of your 2019 tour. How does it translate live? What was the reaction?

Everybody went crazy for it! That’s been the interesting thing about Garbage in the past decade. We kind of got left out in the cold after being dropped by all our labels. We found ourselves with zero interest from anybody, except obviously from our fans. Nobody gave a fuck, nobody wrote about us. It was like we didn’t exist. We didn’t even make it into lists of the best bands of the ‘90s, which was fascinating. It was almost as though we had been scrubbed from the history books.

So we relied solely on ourselves to know whether something was good, and whether we thought it would connect with an audience. It’s always such a thrill when you go out and play a song that most people have never heard. It’s a bit of an acrobatic act, in that you don’t really know what’s going to happen. But it went down like a storm every night so we were like, ‘Yeah, this is a good one.’

Cover of the 2015 Garbage single "The Chemicals" b/w "On Fire"

"Time Will Destroy Everything" by Garbage (2014)

SHIRLEY MANSON: This one came out as the B-side to a track we recorded with Brody Dalle of The Distillers. Brody and I are good mates. I love her dearly and it was wonderful to work together. She’s one of the great rock ‘n’ roll voices of the last 20 years or so, and we wanted a B-side that could sit proudly next to her extraordinary vocals. We wanted to make sure that the whole package was strong.

Steve came in with this instrumental that I found utterly thrilling. To me, it sounded like the future, as if from a sci-fi movie like Blade Runner or something. I was almost shaking with excitement. I just couldn’t believe how brilliant it was. Every time I heard it, I would have this sort of apocalyptic vision of the future. As a person who ruminates on death and destruction on a daily basis, this is my soul song. I find it absolutely exhilarating to listen to. I feel like it’s really contemporary sounding and exciting.

It gives me a kind of comfort, funnily enough, even though it sounds so dark and despondent. It’s actually a kind of anthem about how we shouldn’t sweat all the stupid shit in life. It’s so immaterial, so inconsequential. Your lifespan is ticking out on you as you speak. Because it’s a truism that time will destroy everything, right? It’s just basic logic.

BEST FIT: Was it as you described with “On Fire”, that you just came up with the lyrics on the spot?

I can’t really remember now how it all came together. But it was certainly not a song we agonised over. We put it together really quickly, as we do all our B-sides.

That’s something I really love about B-sides, because I work very differently from my band. They’re much more ponderous than I am. They don’t trust themselves the way I do. I feel like if I’m excited in the studio, someone else is going to be excited listening to it. Maybe not masses of people, but someone will find it exciting. I just trust my gut, whereas the band are much more studious and thoughtful.

I find working in the studio kind of fascinating because if I hear something and it doesn’t give me that funny feeling in my gut then I’m always like, ‘Well, nobody else is going to feel excited listening to this. We have to change this part. This part is boring.’ And I think that’s why I’ve worked so well with the band for almost 30 years now, because I’m literally the polar opposite of them.

I think if everybody in Garbage was like me, we would have self-destructed years ago. Similarly, I think without me they’d be dead. So it’s a necessary partnership, the perfect sort of partnership. We all benefit from one another’s strange quirks.

Artwork for the Garbage single "Girls Talk" b/w "Time Will Destroy Everything"

"Because The Night" by Garbage & Screaming Females (2013)

BEST FIT: As far as I understand it, you first performed this Patti Smith cover live with Marissa Paternoster in 2013, before you made a studio version. Is that right?

SHIRLEY MANSON: We did, that is absolutely correct. It was actually Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! who had emailed me about Marissa, saying ‘You’re gonna flip over this girl. You need to listen to her records,” and she was right, I fell in love with her.

We invited Screaming Females out to tour with us and we all went crazy for them. Marissa is a fucking incredible guitar player, and they’re all such great kids – well, they’re not kids anymore, but back then they were just young ’uns. They were trucking around in a little fucking transit van and they were so punk rock.

In 2013, it seemed to me that there was no real taste for alternative music. Not quite so much in the UK, but certainly in America there was little support for it. Screaming Females were this incredible little band buzzing around the US and nobody really gave a fuck. We were like, ‘Wow, if they’d come out in the ‘90s people would have flipped for them. They would be household names by now.’ So we felt really protective of them.

Marissa wanted us to do a duet together on stage and I was like, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’ and she said, ‘Duh, you’re a massive Patti Smith fan and I’m from New Jersey, so let’s do “Because The Night”,’ so we did. There was an amazing chemistry between us because we’re so different, so we ended up recording it. We went into a studio in Los Angeles and flew them in for a couple of days to record this version, which I just think is a really great cover. I know I’m sounding like an asshole, but I do think it’s really great and I would be proud to play it for Patti Smith. That’s when you know you’ve done some good work, when you feel like you can take it to the originator. I think we can hold our heads up.

Kudos to Butch Vig, who worked with Marissa on her guitar solo, which is blistering. Just magnificent, coming out of this tiny fuckin’ beast. And, of course, she’s such a great singer too. She’s got this really idiosyncratic sounding voice, and I think our voices go really well together.

We had the great video director Sophie Muller come in – she was a really good friend of mine at the time – and make this beautiful accompanying video. I just have really lovely feelings attached to it. We as a band haven’t worked that often with other artists, but it’s always so inspiring when we do. It really pulls you out of old habits and mindsets, and sort of sets you on a new course. So, yeah, I’m very proud of what we did together.

You should be, it’s really fantastic. Do you know if Patti’s heard it?

I don't know. I dare not ask. I'm so terrified of Patti Smith. I've actually had the opportunity to speak to her since and I probably should have brought it up. I just didn't have the balls.

Artwork for the Garbage & Screaming Females cover of Patti Smith's "Because The Night"

"No Horses" by Garbage (2017)

SHIRLEY MANSON: I love this song. I love it so much that I was determined to open all our shows with it when we went out on tour with Blondie in 2017. The band all thought it was a really bad idea, because it’s a sprawling, obtuse, esoteric song that nobody had ever heard before. But I was like, ‘We’re opening with it. Just trust me on this one!’

So we did, we opened with “No Horses” and it got a rapturous applause every single night. Everybody in the band was shocked, but it makes sense because it’s the most dramatic and theatrical song we’ve ever recorded. And in some ways it was also prophetic because it really laid out where we saw culture kind of sprawl over the ensuing five years, bringing us right to this very moment.

The idea behind the song was basically an awful, horrible realisation that came upon me one day. My dad was driving me through the Scottish countryside and I was looking at horses in a field and thinking back to the days when horses were of primary importance. If you owned a horse, that was your lifeline. It was your primary means of transportation. It was your working beast. People needed horses so badly. And I suddenly got this rush of real anxiety about them, like ‘Oh my god, what’s going to happen to the horses?’

It was exactly like that scene in Sex, Lies & Videotape when Andie McDowell is like, ‘What’s going to happen with all the garbage?’. It was full-on concern because I realised that horses are not a capitalist instrument, they’re an inconvenience. We’re living at a time in our society where everything is valued by how much money it can make, human beings in particular, and I just think it’s obscene. So the song is vaguely anti-capitalist, although of course I understand and believe that we need money to live. I’m not completely naïve. But capitalism has reached these obscene levels that I believe are damaging to our societies and to our happiness as individuals.

The song is also an apocalyptic kind of warning about what happens when all you do is value things according to their financial worth, and where we will end up if we continue along this route. There’s a warning of climate change, a warning of what happens when human beings turn their backs on reality because they just want make money. That's what the song is about. And it's powerful, it's heartbreaking, and I'm immensely proud of it.

BEST FIT: In what ways was the song prophetic of the current shitshow we are in?

It’s more in the incredible video that we made in 2017, which is sort of showing many of the things that then ensued. The Black Lives Matter marches, the violence in the streets, shoppers going nuts and cities burning. It’s powerful. It felt good to be able to say something about all that stuff and to have it in the context of a song. We have so many things to concern ourselves with currently, so to put that into something beautiful… I felt relief, in a funny way.

Artwork for the Garbage single "No Horses"

"The Men Who Rule The World" by Garbage (2021)

BEST FIT: Did you also feel a kind of relief to get this song out of your system?

SHIRLEY MANSON: Fuck yeah, I did. I mean, that is my fuckin’ jam right there. And again, it was mildly prophetic. Well, not really, because obviously hatred towards women has been going on since time immemorial and I'm not entirely sure why. But to be able to write about the patriarchy, and about climate destruction and climate carelessness and denial felt empowering.

I’m just a normal person feeling bemused as to why the leaders of the world refuse point blank to tackle climate change. We all know it’s a real thing, but they know it’s going to be a costly endeavour and they don’t want to be the adults in charge. They’re just sucking their thumbs expecting kiddies like Greta Thunberg to deal with their fucking bullshit. It's an outrage.

And the way men are treating women around the world... There’s an apathy among the male population that I find perplexing. The lack of support we’ve had from men who aren’t necessarily anti-female but they’re not standing up and fucking protecting women. They’re not fighting alongside us, but boy do they still want to have sex and they still want to have abortions. They don’t want their freedoms curtailed, and yet they want to sort of stand aside and watch us have our bodies policed and our freedoms squashed. It's fucking mind-boggling to me and it makes me really angry. Not so much for myself but for all the generations of young women who are following in my footsteps.

To be able to put all that into words in this song felt like revenge. We performed this song all year out on tour and every time it gets to the line “Make it a crime to tell a lie again / And watch those haters bleed” there was a huge cheer of support. It made me feel good. It made me feel less lonely, less angry and less frightened. So I have so much love for this song.

You know, we wrote No Gods No Masters a couple of years ago, and then to watch what's happened with the reversal of Roe vs. Wade and to watch the continuing climate denial is really astounding. I'm proud that we put that on a record. It’s like we've made our testament. I wouldn’t want to go to my grave knowing I didn't speak up.

That’s one beautiful thing about being a musician, that you get the luxury of being able to put your pole in the sand and say ‘This is where we stand. This is what we’re against. And this is what we love.’ It really is the greatest part of my job.

You mentioned Greta Thunberg. Has she been an inspiration to you?

Yeah, she's a real hero of mine. I think of her as a little like a modern-day Joan of Arc in that she’s been laughed and sneered at for her sacrifices. God bless her. She's like a canary in a coalmine, sacrificing her own schooling and her childhood to try and serve humanity. I’m just so grateful to her and in awe of her. It brings me to tears to think about what she’s doing. I think it’s profoundly moving and incredibly powerful.

Artwork for the Garbage single "The Men Who Rule The World"

Anthology is out now via BMG/Stunvolume.

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