Music & clubs

“How come I haven’t grown up?” Shirley Manson

INTERVIEW! Alt-rock icons Garbage return to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their sophomore record, playing Version 2.0 in its entirety. Before they take the stage at Huxley's Neue Welt on Sep 18, we spoke to frontwoman Shirley Manson.

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Photo by Joseph Cultice

In 1998, Garbage took the world by storm with their sophomore album Version 2.0, an amalgam of old-school alternative rock and the latest electronic production tools and a natural extension of their airwave snatching, trip-hop touched remix of “#1 Crush” off Baz Luhrmann’s almost-made-for-MTV Romeo and Juliet. With Version 2.0 Garbage solidified themselves in the 1990s pop-rock canon and although they didn’t pack it in afterward and disappear into the dustbin of 1990s nostalgia, Version 2.0 has remained hugely influential. In September, they return to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their record, playing Version 2.0 in its entirety from “Temptation Waits” to “You Look So Fine”. Before Garbage takes the stage at Huxley’s Neue Welt on September 18, we spoke to frontwoman Shirley Manson about her view on the record, #metoo and the trouble with major labels.

How was it listening to Version 2.0 again?

It was a funny experience to revisit a record that had lain basically unlistened to for 20 years. It was very profound, strange and wonderful. I was quite shocked at how good the record is, which sort of sounds arrogant, but I was really struck by how it remains contemporary sounding. Particularly now, 20 years later, where there’s been a plethora of artists that we’ve been exposed to. To hear a record that we made that still sounds very unique, I think is pretty exciting. Of that, I’m really proud.

Which songs do you feel most connected to or disconnected with?

“The Trick Is to Keep Breathing”, to pick a random example, is a minor classic in our discography. We have enjoyed incredible feedback from people over the years saying that song has literally pulled them out of suicide, out of self-harm, a bad marriage, all kinds of things. Sonically and lyrically, I’m excited by “Hammering In My Head”. It’s a song about lust, and I feel like you can hear that on the track, and it was a beautiful expression of an experience in my life that I perfectly articulated. This was our second record by which time I was in my early 30s. So, the lyrical content is more adult, and a lot of the themes remain pertinent to me as a human being. I can’t say I ever get to the point where I’m like, “I can’t fucking sing this.” Even the song “When I Grow Up” feels even more poignant now that I’m 51; as an expression of “Well, here I am, I am an adult, and how come I haven’t grown up?” [Laughs] I feel exactly the same.

In 1998, when Version 2.0 came out, alternative music was booming with albums by Massive Attack, Smashing Pumpkins, Placebo and others.

It was the advent and reexamination of electronic music as a result of new technology. That’s a huge part of the sound of the late 1990s whether it was The Prodigy, Tricky or Missy Elliott. Everybody was really intrigued with the studio. We were also the last generation of kids who grew up passing goths, punks, mods and rockabillies in the streets. There was just this post-war remanence of a young generation fighting old-school thought. We were the children of that. So, there was a very provocative, rebellious spirit still that was revered by the music press. It was an interesting time, and a lot more progressive than the atmosphere we currently find ourselves in.

Do you see a difference in how women take the forefront in music back then and today?

The disheartening thing to me currently is how in the 1990s when me and my peers burst out, all the women who were pretty rebellious, they really pushed their shoulder up against the mainstream. The problem is, now there are plenty of women dominating mainstream culture, but in general, and this is a sweeping statement, they tend to be the conformist version of the female perspective. They are all dancing, all singing, all sexual, all pleasing to the male gaze. There are a few exceptions, but not many. And that is kind of what breaks my heart because that is a step backwards. There is a place, of course, for conformist female perspectives, but there must also be a place for non-conforming. And that, I find really dismaying and disappointing, and unexpected actually.

Did the music industry miss its #metoo moment?

The music industry is a patriarchal system through and through. One could say the same about the movie industry, however, actresses have so much more gravitas and have a bigger platform because a) they have a strong union, and b) they’re independently wealthy, and they are economically viable and valuable. In the music industry, currently, it is very difficult for women to survive unless they are conforming and selling millions of records. If you’re in that lower class of the music industry, you have no voice, you have no platform, you have no money, you are completely at the mercy of the system. And then finally, the music industry is a permissive environment. You’re at gigs at 4 o’clock in the morning, everyone’s tired, everyone’s wasted. It’s difficult to get witnesses, it’s difficult to have anyone that’s got your back. It’s really complicated.

Are major labels still as relevant as they were in the 1990s?

I know everybody keeps going on about how great the internet is, and how it’s afforded people the opportunity to be exposed. The problem is to have a career in music. It’s not about being ‘exposed’. It’s about a long sustained effort to be heard. That takes a lot of tenacity, and those rock stars or pop stars we hear from habitually are on major labels, because it’s only the major labels that can afford to promote the artist over time over and over again. A young indie band on their own label on the internet doesn’t have a chance in hell to compete with that. It’s just an impossibility. So, when you ask me if major record labels are still necessary, then I would say it depends on what kind of career you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a career that the mainstream views as successful, then yes, you’d do well to sign to a major label.

How about crowdfunding?

The problem with crowdfunding is you have a small tool that isn’t able to grow any bigger. You’re coming to your fans, and you’re asking them to support you, and they’re happy to do that, and that’s beautiful, it’s incredible. And it’s allowed a lot of bands to continue doing what they love to do. But it’s difficult for their business to grow. Of course, there’s always these beautiful isolated moments where somebody emerges out of the swamp of internet uploads, and that’s an exciting thing to see. It happens, but it doesn’t happen very often. And that’s the sadness of it all. There’s literally millions of bands all over the world who are able to sort of squeak by, but what we want for them is glorious careers. I don’t want them living hand to mouth and really having to suffer in order to be a musician. That breaks my heart, and I see it all the time.

You left your major label Geffen after Bleed Like Me to found your own label. It seemed you were fed up with compromising.

Even on our own independent label, there are compromises. We have to accept that we cannot compete at the level we want to. We can’t make the videos we want to because we can’t afford them. We can’t work with the creatives we want to because we can’t afford them. There’s compromise in every direction. To me, it’s about survival. How do we adapt our thinking, so we can survive and make music for a living and travel the world? That’s my dream, and I will do my best and try to ensure that it continues. That involves being smart and making interesting decisions and often making decisions you don’t necessarily want to take, but you know you have to. And that’s just being a grown-up in the world.

Garbage, Huxley’s Neue Welt, Sep 18, 20:00