Garbage: “If you’re as successful as we were in the ‘90s, that is a burden”
As the alt-rock pioneers release seventh album ‘No Gods No Masters’, their inimitable singer, NME Icon Award winner Shirley Manson, tells Andrew Trendell why it’s their most ambitious to date
“I’m feeling lucky, punk,” snarls Shirley Manson. This, she says, is because Garbage‘s upcoming album ‘No Gods No Masters’ is lucky number seven. That’s no mean feat by any measure, especially for what many would dub ‘a ‘90s band’, many of whom are either extinct, past it or milking the nostalgia circuit. Garbage, though, have remained on form throughout the 21st Century, and are about to drop what might be their most vital record yet.
“I like the numerology of the number seven, and that it represents rebirth,” Manson tells NME. “It feels poetic and beautiful”.
It’s more than fitting for a band who seem to have found a new purpose nearly 30 years into their career. From the huge-selling, boundary-pushing self-titled 1995 debut, Garbage have always thrived on confrontation. With ‘No Gods No Masters’ dealing in racism, sexism, misogyny, climate change and the general shitstorm that surrounds us – with a lot of religious motifs thrown in for good measure – this could perhaps be their first explicitly political record. Manson, however, sees it as more of a universal “reckoning”, for the world and for herself.
“I’m a woman in middle age figuring out where I go from here,” the 54-year-old says. “You can’t do that until you figure out where you actually are. Lyrically, this album is me taking pause to investigate the bigger scheme I find myself in, how it works and whether it’s working.
“I don’t think having an opinion about something makes it political. You’re not being political by having an opinion about how badly you think human beings are being treated by those in power; that’s just common sense. We didn’t set out with an agenda or anything like that.”
Take opening track ‘The Men Who Rule The World’, a glam, almost cyber-punk retelling of Noah’s Arc that depicts “the women who crowd the courtrooms are all accused of being whores” and “the people are fleeced, all the fucking time”. “I’m astounded that the same old ideas are wheeled out day in, day out, by governments all over the planet, based on a world that existed 150-200 years ago,” says Manson.
“For God’s sake, if you call yourself a politician then actually come up with some ideas that actually fit into this world that we live in. They’ve run out of ideas, so let’s get all of the marginalised voices together, the most brilliant minds that we can muster and employ some new thinking. It’s of vital importance, especially around climate change and capitalism.”
Edinburgh-born Manson, now officially a US citizen having lived there for many years, has praise for new President Joe Biden for actually having a “sense of governance” as well as a successful COVID vaccine rollout (for which she has been a “grateful” recipient), but notes that a lot still needs to give for significant and meaningful change to sweep the nation. “America is so vast that you can’t turn that around in a nano-second,”she says. “It’s like that bloody boat that got stuck in the Suez canal; it’s going to take a while to turn it around. It would be naive to think otherwise.”
The songs were almost entirely finished before lockdown put a hold on the recording process. Yet she argues that “they don’t pre-date the horror we’re seeing; the horror has been going on for centuries – let’s not forget that.”
The album’s centrepiece, ‘Waiting For God’, is a dose of cinematic noir and a “protest of ongoing, unchecked racism” that introduces us to a mother “choking on sadness with no hope for justice” after her son was killed with “no one blinking an eye”. However, it was penned long before the murder of George Floyd and was the result of Manson “trying to articulate my feelings on the killing of Trayvon Martin, the young 17-year-old boy who was murdered walking home at night from a grocery store with a bag of Skittles in his pocket.
“We all have our hands in this muck and it’s down to all of us to figure this out”
“I was aghast,” she says. “I was in my own white privileged bubble and shaken by the whole story. Then I started really paying attention to what was happening to Black citizens in America at the hands of the police. Once you start paying attention, you see it happening almost every bloody day. I remember Philando Castile getting shot in his car and that awful footage of a man getting mowed down in his car for nothing.
“This is really crazy stuff and it was happening all the time. It started to make me insane. The lyrics for ‘Waiting For God’ started with that, and then I got more and more outraged. That’s probably the song that means the most to me on this record, because I was able to explain something so large and truly abhorrent so simply.”
Manson has been encouraged with the rise in activism along with people “educating themselves about systemic racism and colonialism,” but admits that “the well is so deep that you can’t see the bottom of it… We’ve all been conditioned by society. I think a lot of Black people are really bemused, confused and angry – and rightly so – at white people’s inability to see racism. If you’re taught by a system not to see, then you will not see… We all have our hands in this muck and it’s down to all of us to figure this out.”
That’s probably the subtle manifesto of this album. Manson’s bandmates (guitarists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker along with drummer Butch Vig) were certainly feeling a similar mood, with the music they brought to the table leading her down this dark, dark path. ‘No Gods No Masters’ fittingly comes with a slick horror soundtrack to back the nightmare it portrays. In 2018, Manson told NME that the band were at work on songs with “that sort of darkness that Roxy Music did so well.”
She says today: “Roxy Music continued to be a muse throughout the making of the record, but so too did Gary Numan, Siouxsie & The Banshees and all the bands we were in love with while growing up. It’s kind of old-school meets new school, sending love notes to those who shaped us as musicians.”
Indeed, beyond that silky noir Roxy mood of a disco ball slowly crashing to the ground (‘Uncomfortably Me’), there’s also a gothic glam mood (‘The Creeps’, ‘A Woman Destroyed’), Human League pulsing synths (the title track), a touch of Talking Heads post-punk-funk (see ‘Anonymous (XXX)’), New Order summer melancholia (‘Flipping The Bird’) and an overall industrial menace (‘Wolves’, ‘Godhead’). Yet it’s all delivered with a modern shimmer and future-leaning compulsion. In short, it still feels like Garbage – but a layered and evolved version that defies the ‘‘90s rockers’ label.
“If you’re as successful as we were in the ‘90s, that is a burden that you carry with you for the rest of your life,” Manson admits. “It’s a double-edged sword, because you become synonymous with a decade. Is it frustrating sometimes? Yes, but I’m also really grateful to be synonymous with one of the greatest periods of music of all time. Nothing in life comes for free.”
Garbage have sold over 17 million albums worldwide. “Our success has caused us innumerable problems,” their singer says, “being that we are essentially an alternative band – and a fucking good alternative band at that – but we sold millions and millions and millions upon millions of records, which excludes us from the cool alternative club. We’re not embraced by the indie-alt scene, but then we’re rejected from the pop scene because we’re not pop enough and make loud guitar-driven music.
“We don’t belong anywhere… That used to frustrate me a lot, but now as I’ve got older I’ve realised what a gift that is; to be not dependent on how everyone else is doing things… People forget, but I also was the ‘it girl’ for a long time. I don’t know if other bands got the same kind of adoration that we did. We were so lucky, it was insane.”
Being the ‘it girl’ across countless magazine covers gave Manson the chance to amplify Garbage’s message of equality, as well as kicking off a lifelong campaign towards “the demise of pathetic, white, patriarchal nonsense”. She became a spokesperson, but only out of necessity: “I don’t feel any burden to be honest, and I never did in that respect. I’m not someone who worries too much about what other people think. I’m not overly concerned when I talk about things that matter to me.
“I never felt like I owed anybody anything. I never felt like I was speaking out for anyone other than myself or those who were being unjustly treated – whether that was women in rock or people in the LGBTQ+ community. I always have a litany of complaints, but I’m not doing it in service of anything other than how I see the world.”
Debbie Harry was one of Manson’s own role models, and Garbage will join Blondie on their UK tour later this winter – after hitting the road in the US with Alanis Morissette and Liz Phair. “We’ve got quite a year ahead of us of touring with iconic women,” smiles Manson.
“Debbie Harry has mentored me and been so generous in many ways,” she says. “She’s invited us on tour multiple times… She introduced me to Joey Ramone. I just don’t know where to start with her. She’s someone who is just so very important to me – not just as an idol and a musician, but as a woman. She has taught me so much. I don’t use the word ‘honoured’ very much, but I’m deeply, deeply honoured that Garbage have been invited to open up for Blondie in my homeland.”
So many of today’s female artists look up to Manson in the same way. When Manson received the NME Icon Award at the NME awards in 2018, fellow Scottish agitator Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry messaged her to say: “Thank you for giving me the courage to be and say what I want”. Presenting her with the award on the night, Savages provocateur Jehnny Beth said: “When I think of Shirley Manson, I know there is grace and strength for a woman through every stage of her life and career.”
Florence Welch once called Manson “my heroine”, The Distillers‘ Brody Dalle has hailed her as “a big sister and mentor” and even Katy Perry hailed her as “a fabulous inspiration”. 2021’s breakout star Olivia Rodrigo has cited her as an influence on her debut album ‘Sour’, and genre-defying wunderkind Rina Sawayama recently told NME that the band were inspiring her upcoming second album.
“How do these girls even know about us?” chuckles Manson. “It’s a mystery, but to have someone like Rina or any generation of women namecheck us is always really gratifying.”
“For so long, it seemed like the rebellious girls were being suffocated”
Asked about the current crop of talent on her radar, Manson notes how now marks “a very exciting time for a wave of new alternative,” noting Jehnny Beth, Little Simz, Arlo Parks and Billy NoMates among her favourites.
“For so long, it seemed like the rebellious girls were being suffocated,” she says. “They weren’t being given any space or attention. I think we have Billie Eilish to thank for the sudden interest once again for the sad girls, the dark girls and the girls who are out of step with the pop culture landscape. That, to me, is exciting because that’s the music I love. I’m uninterested in love songs. They bore the shit out of me. I love it when Billy Nomates is taking it to the wire; I love it when Little Simz is in everybody’s faces. I love it when these artists are pushing, questioning and presenting a powerful facet of self to the public.”
With this groundswell around them, it feels all the more just that Garbage should come back so strong in 2021 with something to prove – fearless, fighting, and demanding better. “‘No Gods No Masters’ is like a public testimony of where I stand,” Manson says, “how I feel and who I am for the record. I just felt a relief when it was done. I was like, ‘Ah, here she is, my little avenging angel’.”
– Garbage release ‘No Gods No Masters’ on June 11