When I got on the phone to Shirley Manson a few weeks ago to talk about Garbage’s fantastic new record and upcoming tour dates, I should have been ecstatic; I’m a lifelong ultra-fan, and if you added up the collective total of minutes I’ve spent listening to the band’s discography, I’d have been able to spacewalk to the moon and back by now. But this summer has been an especially heavy one in terms of societal madness, and on the morning of the interview (in addition to more updates about the tragic deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police), news was breaking about the officers who were killed in Dallas. From an emotional standpoint, it was not an ideal time to be gabbing it up to one of my heroes, but the show still had to go on. And so when we were connected and had exchanged opening pleasantries, I decided to take her “How’s it going?” at face value and tell her straight up that they were not so great. (Not so great for me, and not so great for anybody, really.)
And then do you know what happened? Shirley Manson proceeded to brighten my goddamn day, that’s what. Was the world still on fire? Yeah, and even as I’m typing this it still is, but for just over fifteen magical minutes I was suspended in a Shirley Manson bubble of posi-vibes; we talked about heavy shit like the aforementioned global implosion, but we also talked about so many good things, like how music and genuine human connections are always a source of light in the dark. (We also talked about her dog, Veela, who is both a national treasure and the embodiment of kawaii.) It was the best. I wish we were still talking now. But instead I will settle for repeated rotations of Strange Little Birds (out now // buy it) until Garbage hits Central Park on Monday and DC’s Lincoln Theatre on Wednesday. I’d advise you to do the same, and also to internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below:
Hey Megan, how’s it going?
…well, I mean…the world is kind of imploding, so that’s not ideal. It’s been an insane month.
It’s a fucking insane world. I just can’t…I don’t understand it. It’s breaking our hearts, you know?
Absolutely. And it’s not even just the stuff that’s happening here, it’s the entire planet! And I’m sure you had some feelings about Brexit…
Yeah, that broke my heart, too! [Laughs] The world just keeps breaking my heart!
I read something from 2013 before that initial independence referendum in Scotland, and you’d said that you believed Scotland should remain as part of the UK. Has your opinion changed at all now that the UK has left the EU?
You know, I always feel that people have to unite; that’s just the way I look at things. But I understand that I’m in a very privileged position where I travel the world, and as a musician, you feel very much part of a global community. You don’t belong to one tiny little spot in which you grew up; you spread yourself all over the world, and no matter where you are, it feels like you belong to a community. And that’s a gift that’s given to musicians, so in that regard, I understand that it’s a lot more complex than perhaps I see it. But I feel that since the technological revolution our world has changed, and I’m not entirely sure that humanity has caught up with the changes that have occurred, and the consequences of us all being joined together via the internet. I think we’ve been slow to catch up to the fact that now we’re not in isolation like we once were in our nations; we’re now all breathing the same air, we’re living on the same land mass, and you know, we haven’t yet managed to comprehend fully what that really means.
For me, I just feel less and less that nationalism will have a place in a modern world, you know? I know that the migrations of people have caused Brexit, and people have freaked out about immigration, and I understand it. When you’re in a country and you don’t have necessarily economic security, and you see floods and floods of people entering your country, I would imagine that you would experience nothing but panic, you know? But our schooling systems and our world leaders are failing us, and not educating people about what immigration really means, and how, historically, since the beginning of time, people have migrated to find safety and find food and find a future. And the idea that we think somehow that that evolution will stop during our lifetime is peculiar. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy at all, and I have no answers, and luckily I’m not a politician, so what the hell do I know, but that’s just my feeling about where we’re at right now. Sorry, I really went off on one! I’m so sorry!
No, it’s good to talk about it! A lot of this has obviously been happening for some years now, but just the amount of insanity that’s transpired in the last month or so has been absolutely bonkers. Honestly, one of the most helpful things for me to sort of not get bogged down in all of it has been listening to music and looking at art and like, watching NASA’s live stream of Earth from space, things like that. Anyway, I guess on that note, let’s move into happier territory and talk about your new record! [Laughs] (I’ve honestly listened to it more times than I can count.)
[Laughs] It just seems so trite, doesn’t it!
No, no! And I mean, that’s why I said that I’ve really been delving into things that kind of go outside the realm of the societal madness, with music being a major pillar for staying positive and sane. (And I really have listened to the record an embarrassing number of times, with “We Never Tell” on especially heavy rotation.) But tell me a little bit about the LP; how did the eleven tracks emerge, and were there any that didn’t make it onto the final lineup?
In every case we just tend to write and write and write, and sooner or later, certain ideas start to emerge that are stronger than others, you know? We wrote maybe around thirty songs, and I think we culled it to maybe sixteen songs, and then we culled that sixteen to eleven. We really didn’t have a plan in that regard, but we did have sort of an intention about the kind of record we wanted to make, and the sound of it. We were very determined from the beginning that we wanted to focus on more of a cinematic and brooding atmosphere. We really wanted to concentrate on atmospheres; we wanted to make people feel things rather than, you know, I think a lot of production lately has gotten very clever, really cool and clever, but sort of cold? And we wanted to somehow capture some kind of pulse, and a real sense that it’s human beings making this music together, which is somewhat ironic, I know, but that’s kind of the feeling we were going for. And so we focused on that more, and as a result, we ended up with this somewhat different-sounding record for us. It was exciting, because we felt like we’d sort of struck a new landscape for our band. (Which, after so many years together, feels exciting.)
It does sound different, but it’s still so distinctly “you”, you know? I feel like every record you guys have put out has managed to maintain that very iconic, distinct sound. Now, specifically, tell me a little bit about “Teaching Little Fingers To Play”, because that seems like (in the past couple of years, anyway) very much your anthem, at least from a lyrical perspective, in terms of accepting that you just want to make art and not buy into this bullshit of the music industry trying to determine the age, the look, and all that sort of thing.
Yeah, I mean, definitely that song does sort of encapsulate my thinking about myself and the world, I guess, better than most. Mostly it’s a song about reaching a point where you suddenly are aware that you have to be the driver of your own life. You know, I have been very guilty throughout my life of relying on other people to fix my life, to fulfill my life, to lead me through my life. And I’ve gotten now to a point where I realize that nobody’s going to fix my life for me, and I have to do it. If I want to have a good life, it’s down to me, because everybody else is too busy trying to fix their life, you know? I was always looking to other people for comfort, and getting dismayed when the comfort wasn’t there. And so now I guess it’s about self-soothing. [Laughs] And taking ownership over your life by trying to remain as open as possible to new ideas, new experiences as you move through your life and you become more chiseled and more sculpted by your experiences. And you lose a limb and you lose half your heart, but somehow if you’re able to stay open, you can move through your life and it can still be as exciting as it was when you were young, you know? It’s embracing adulthood and embracing maturity, I guess, which, “maturity” and “age” are two words I notice nobody wants to use anymore. I’ve even noticed that when I say sometimes the word “age” or “aging”, I hear people get really uncomfortable, like *gasp!* “Oh my god, did she just say the word ‘age’?!” [Laughs] “Oh my god, did she just use the word ‘mature’?!” And I don’t know, I guess I’m bringing aging back! [Laughs]
Well it’s funny you say that, because I saw that Facebook post where you wrote that your niece had asked your sister, “Is Aunt Shirley a teenager or a grown-up?” Which is amazing! Are your niece and nephew Garbage fans? Do they have any favorite tracks or NOT favorite tracks?
[Laughs] To be honest, we don’t really talk about the band too much with the kids. They know what I do for a living and they’re beginning to put two and two together, but they’re not that into it. They’re not that interested or impressed by it, but neither do they reject it. They just sort of accept that “Auntie Shirley is a musician, and she goes sometimes on tour and comes to visit us and we get to go see her play.” And it’s great to have that, you know? It’s a great reminder sometimes; there are certainly moments in our career as a band where we get too drawn into the minutiae of it, and get wrapped up in sort of inconsequential details, so it’s nice to be reminded. But when my niece said that to my sister, “Is Auntie Shirley a teenager or a grown-up,” I took it as SUCH a huge compliment, because basically she’s confused by my spirit, you know? She’s confused by that, and I thought that was the most beautiful compliment I could ever be given in my life. [Laughs]
Oh, totally! I wish my niece had said that to me instead of drawing a picture of us holding hands outside of a dollar store…I think she’s probably similarly confused by my age, but she’s definitely got the financial status nailed down. Like, “Yes, Aunt Megan is perpetually poor!”
Amazing! Yeah, “You get me! You hear me!” [Laughs]
Exactly. [Laughs] Now, going back for a second to when you mentioned relying on other people for validation and support, I think it’s interesting that you should say that, because SO many people have really looked to you and the band over the years for those kinds of things! I talked to Duke about a year ago and brought up how many people have cited Garbage as being formative to their own creative work, and he was kind of just like, “Really? I don’t know!” Is there anyone that’s come up to you to express gratitude that had a significant impact on you?
Yeah, I mean, god, we’ve had some beautiful compliments over the years from artists, which is always exciting; when another artist says, “I stepped on stage because I loved what you do, or did,” it’s such an extraordinary privilege, and a tiny role to play in somebody’s life, you know? It always makes me want to hug them and burst into tears; I feel like they’re my children, my babies! [Laughs] But the most profound thing of course is when we meet some of our fans. And in fact, as regularly as last night we met this divine creature called Reeva who’s been a fan of ours now for twenty-one years, and she told this extraordinary story of which she was in a lot of trouble when she was thirteen, and I have a vague memory actually of this happening, but she reiterated this story that when she was thirteen she received a happy birthday card from us. I vaguely remember writing it in the studio, and I think her parole officer or something had written to me. It was somebody in authority who’d written to me who said, you know, “We have this kid and she’s really troubled; would you send her a birthday card?” And we sent this birthday card to this kid, and here she was yesterday (I think she’s now thirty, or thirty-five, even) and she’s partially blind and she’s had a really tough life, and we’ve been her comforters for almost her entire adult life. And we were all crying at the gig last night because to play that role in somebody’s life and have no idea you’re doing it is just…and I don’t use the word carelessly, but it’s really beautiful. I feel like if I go to my grave tonight, I will have done something good, and that’s enough.
Absolutely. It’s just so fantastic that you guys have been able to create and fulfill your vision for as long as you have as a band, but the fact that so many people have connected with it on such major levels is really incredible.
It is incredible. And weird, you know? We were sitting at home a couple of weekends ago and my phone was going off the hook! I couldn’t really understand it, so I went over and it was a ton of emails and tweets and messages from a lot of my friends and fans saying, “Adele just gave you this huge shout-out at Glastonbury!” And it was funny to see how excited everybody was getting; it was really sweet, you know? So it’s good to spread joy. Joy is a good thing. We need it more. [Laughs]
100%. Well, as much as I wish I could talk to you forever, I know I have to wrap it up now or else I’m going to get in trouble, SO, I want to quickly talk about your dog. Because I love talking about dogs.
[Laughs] You’re my kinda girl, Megan!
I wanted to ask whether or not you make people hold the phone up to her ear when you’re out on tour.
No, I know my dog’s a dog. She’s a dog and I treat her as one, so no, I don’t do anything like that, I’m afraid. I don’t dress her up in clothes, and I don’t imagine her as a person. I don’t anthropomorphize her, you know? But she is, without doubt, the greatest creature. The greatest thing in my life that, you know, when I see her I just melt.
She’s SO CUTE.
She’s so cute! [Laughs] You know what, Megan? Now you’ve become my best friend, because “love my dog, love me”; it goes hand in hand. Anyone who loves my dog is a friend of mine! [Laughs]
Alright, well I better let you go, but a huge thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, and we’ll see you in Central Park soon!
Thanks, Megan, and remember: don’t let the world get you down.