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Shirley Manson on Garbage’s ‘Adult’ New LP, Why Music Industry Scares Her

Singer previews ‘Strange Little Birds’ and explains what tore the group apart more than a decade ago.

Singer previews 'Strange Little Birds' and explains what tore the group apart more than a decade ago.

When Garbage reunited in 2012 following a seven-year hiatus, the band returned with new outlook on how to make music together. They released Not Your Kind of People only to return home and immediately begin working on its follow-up. After a slight delay due to drummer Butch Vig’s work with the Foo Fighters and a tour that celebrated the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut album, Garbage is finally readying Strange Little Birds, out June 10th via their own imprint Stunvolume. Singer Shirley Manson spoke with Rolling Stone about the band’s preparation for their sixth LP, what pulled them apart after Bleed Like Me in 2005 and how they mended the tension.

Since this album comes right after a retrospective tour celebrating your debut, did that tour and going back to where Garbage began affect the creation of Strange Little Birds?
Actually, the entire record was written before we went out on tour for the retrospective, so it didn’t really have much bearing on the new record, if the truth be told. We just came home to mix it and master it [after the tour]. It’s terribly unromantic of me to say so, but I don’t think it really played a role in what we were doing now, which I think is probably for the best. I believe that as a creative person, or a creative group, you really shouldn’t spend much time looking back and trying to chase a zeitgeist. I think that’s a really dangerous mindset to have.

When did you actually start writing these songs?
We’d been touring our last studio record, Not Your Kind of People, and we were really surprised by the response that we had when we came out with a new record after seven years away [following Bleed Like Me]. We really didn’t expect the reception that we enjoyed at all. It buoyed us up, if the truth be told. It gave us a lot of confidence, and we were excited to go straight back into the studio once we got back off tour. But Butch [Vig], our drummer, had a record to complete with the Foo Fighters, so we had to wait longer than we would have liked until he was ready. We basically started writing almost immediately coming off tour.

We have a funny way of working now because one of the reasons why we took a hiatus was we’d really gotten to a point where we weren’t getting along that well. I think one of the reasons for that was we had these historically intense, ridiculously long studio sessions, for want of a better word, that just went on and on and on, basically for years [laughs]. It drove me fucking out of my mind.

So now we have really short, concise two-week breaks where we go in, we work in the studio, and then we take two weeks to a month off, and then we go back at it. That seems to work really well for everybody. We’ve developed a really harmonious working relationship again, which is really lovely to have, because we always got along really well as people. So it was great to be able to readjust that balance in the studio.

How else have you seen that tension ease up in your relationships with one another?
It sounds such a cliché, but the fact that we now have our own label and we have no outside interference has sort of unruffled everybody’s feathers. I think it was a lot of imagined pressures from the outside that caused us to sort of bite at each other internally. When you feel under threat, as human beings, you tend to take it out on those closest to you. And of course, as a band, we’re really close. We’re tight. And we didn’t want the outside world to feel the pressures that we were under, so we sort of took it out on one another, and it got really destructive.

Once that pressure of having a record label breathe down our throat and interfere in what we felt was the natural trajectory of our band was removed, things got back to normal and we started having fun again. We stopped feeling like we had to focus on expectations or results or award shows or any of that fucking nonsense that really did eat into our joy of being musicians, of being creative and of being in a band. We sort of operate in our own sort of microcosm outside of the mainstream record business, which really has grown into some sort of monster, in a funny way — a corporate monster that I look at and don’t recognise and genuinely really don’t want any part of. I find it scary. It scares me a little. When I was 15 years old and I wanted to be in a band in the first place, it was because I was rejecting those values that the record business at the moment seems to embody. It surprises me a little.

How has that independence played into the writing and recording of this new album?
The music always felt like it belonged to us. That was one of the reasons why we clashed so terribly with our record label. We fought to preserve that at all costs, and that frustrated the record label, who wanted us to make a hybrid record that was more in keeping with what was getting played on the radio at the time. We refused to do that. As a result, that’s basically what caused a lot of the tension between us, our label, and then, as a result, within the band. The music has always remained free, in a way.

I think this record does sound different from the previous records, just in so much as it’s a much more ambiguous record and cinematic, I think, in some regards. The intent of it is different. I just feel like a different person. I don’t feel like how I used to feel, so the record feels different to me as a result of the things I want to write about and how I see our career and how I identify as a musician. I can only speak for my own experience though.

It’s an adult record. It’s not a pop, frilly, fun, frivolous, frothy thing [laughs]. It’s not like that at all. I can’t hear it being played on the radio any time soon – let’s put it that way.

In what way do you see it being more adult?
Adult is maybe the wrong word, per se, but it’s definitely not a pop record. It struck me the last time we were on the road that I’ve never really written much about love or fragility or vulnerability. I wasn’t sure why this was the case, but I wanted to address that because I feel like every time you make a record you feel like, this might be the last record I make. I might die tomorrow. I may as well try and speak about the things I want to speak about now. The record — at least from a lyrical standpoint — is a romantic record. What I mean by romantic is just that it is vulnerable, and it is fragile. That’s very different for me because I’m pretty aggressive [laughs]. That’s probably the best way of putting it. I have a lot of aggressive traits and my natural fallback position is to be on the defensive. That’s just my natural position. I was a middle child; I struggled to be identified my whole life. So that’s just how I am as a person. I try to find a way of talking about that side of myself, which of course exists in every person whether they’re aggressive or not, feisty or not or confident or not. There’s always a yin to your yang. I feel like that really changed the nature of the record in a way.

You had mentioned the importance of staying out of the zeitgeist and keeping things new. How do you and your bandmates manage to do that?
I feel like we’ve always done things differently in a way. Particularly on the first couple of records, it was because the skill set of our band was far and above most musicians back then because we had a “producer” in our midst. We could make records that didn’t sound like anybody else.

But a lot has changed over 20 years since we came out. Kids sit in their home and in their bedrooms after school and can make things sound pretty hi-fi pretty easily with the help of all the apps and software at their fingertips. That has made us try and distance ourselves slightly from the technology because the technology became so much a part of our sound, but I think we identified very quickly that if we fully focused on the tech and on the production, we would find ourselves in a position where we couldn’t keep up, because tech changes so fast and the sound of the moment changes so fast. As musicians, we didn’t want to get into that situation where you’re just chasing the cool sound. We felt that would be inauthentic, so we then started to focus on other things: on songwriting, on what it meant to be a band.

It’s so difficult now for bands to operate, and we’re in a spectacularly lucky position that so many bands don’t find themselves in. To survive as a band economically in the climate right now is almost impossible. For a brand-new band with that brand-new start-up engine behind them, they can get heard and they can enjoy a real wave of success. But to endure, to continue as a band, once you’ve gone past the gate of being a brand-new thing, is so difficult, economically speaking, to say nothing of holding people’s attention. The bands that endure are becoming fewer and fewer. We see a culture in which all solo artists or pop artists are getting supported by the systems; all these bands, they come up on a wave and they bob around on the surface for a little, and then they get drowned. It’s sad. I’ve always loved bands. It’s always been a sound I’ve been excited by. And it’s getting harder and harder to watch the adventures of a band over a course of time.