Shirley Manson
Photos: Joseph Cultice

Alt-Rock Queen Garbage’s Shirley Manson

More than 20 years have passed since Garbage’s first album hit airwaves, gifting the 90s with their revolutionary sound that wraps alt-rock, grunge, trip-hop and even some pop sensibilities into one badass package. It seems only fitting that one of the most influential rock bands of the past two decades, revered by Gen Xers and adored by tuned-in millennials, is about to embark on tour with punk and new wave pioneers Blondie.

The two bands’  Rage and Rapture tour kicks off in early July, and makes its way to the DC area on August 3 with a performance at Wolf Trap. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Garbage’s iconic frontwoman, the fierce and talented Shirley Manson. We covered a lot of ground, from the homogenization of pop music and why she strives for originality to changing hair colors and why DC feels like her band’s East Coast home. Read on to learn more about this charming, thoughtful and humble alt-rock queen, and my  “#1 (girl) Crush.”

On Tap: I just have to start by saying that I am so honored to speak with you. You are totally making my week, so thank you so much for the opportunity.
Shirley Manson: Well thank you. That’s a really sweet thing to say.

OT: Well I mean it, I really do. I wanted to start by asking a little bit about how the Rage and Rapture tour came about. Had you always wanted to go on tour with Blondie?
SM: We go way, way, way back to the 1980s. [Laughs] I was in another band called Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie, and we opened for Debbie on her solo tour of the United Kingdom [circa 1986].

Debbie is somebody who I’ve looked up to and who has been a mentor. We shared the same record label for awhile, and her manager was the one who basically gave me a start in the music industry on my own terms. I had the pleasure of inducting Blondie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I’ve had the pleasure of Debbie coming to many of my shows.

There was an infamous night at the Academy New York when I was opening for the Ramones and I stepped onstage and I was shaking like a leaf and I looked down, and there was Debbie in the mosh pit with a crowd of college kids and I just thought, “You are the coolest, most unaffected, most unpretentious goddess I have ever met in my life.”

We got called up and asked if we were interested in going out in North America this summer, and it was a no-brainer. Everybody in the band is a huge Blondie fan. And of course, I have this incredible history with Debbie.

OT: Will you perform any songs with her while you’re on tour?
SM: Let’s just say I’m sure if I was asked, I wouldn’t turn it down. [Laughs]

OT: I read that you recently recorded a disco track for the season finale of American Gods [based on Neil Gaiman’s novel and debuting April 30 on Starz] with Debbie.
SM: I was asked if I wanted to come in and sing with her, and of course, who turns that opportunity down? It was an incredible honor for me and phenomenal to be on a disco track with her, queen of that scene. Even though we think of Blondie as sort of post-punk, they were also one of the first to start to incorporate disco into that post-punk sound. They’re real pioneers.

OT: And you provided the vocals for the show’s title music.
SM: I did. It’s all been such a crazy ride. The show is phenomenal. It’s kind of
mind-blowing and something very new, and so to get landed that opportunity to come and sing on the main title sequence for something that feels very exciting was most unexpected. I’m so proud to be working with Brian Reitzell, the composer, and [executive producer] Bryan Fuller, who is just an incredible mind.

OT: I’m jumping around a lot because I have so many questions. I apologize for the lack of transition.
SM: I like it; I think it’s cool. [Laughs]

OT: Thank you. Do you have plans for a new album, or are you staying focused on the tour and still enjoying the success of 2016’s Strange Little Birds? (Which came out on my birthday, by the way!)
SM: It did? Oh, happy memories. Happy anniversary to us both. We had a week session about a month ago where we came up with a nucleus of about five new songs, and our hope is that we get to release one of those songs to come out in tandem with the Rage and Rapture tour because we feel it would be just great to have a new piece of music out at the same time as this momentous occasion.

OT: Can you tell me a little bit about the song you plan to release?
SM: It’s actually a vision into the future. [Laughs] It’s a dystopian tragedy. [Laughs harder] It has all the elements that you would expect from us, but it’s more of a piece rather than a pop song. It’s an imagining into a dystopian future and what that would mean for us all. [Laughs] It’s dark. Let’s leave it at that.

OT: I actually have a question about dark things, but I’ll come back to it in a bit. Your last two albums were recorded at Red Razor Sounds in L.A. Did you record your new songs there?
SM: We did. We’re actually trying out some crazy brand new technology. We recorded in Red Razor just to start everything off, and get a sort of framework for the song, and then everybody has been working remotely from Colorado, from Wisconsin, from London, from L.A. We’re attempting to see how far we can push the new technology to work for us. Two of the men in the band have kids that are still at school, and so we’re trying to get around the practicalities of them raising their children and getting deadlines met.

OT: Do you think you’ll stay in L.A. for awhile? It sounds like you really love it there.
SM: I do love it in L.A. actually, much to my surprise. I really didn’t think that I would warm up to it at all. I think it’s a very interesting city right now. It’s really developing fast and the creative world seems to be exploding around us. It’s wonderful; it’s magical, I think. For all its faults, it’s magical still.

OT: The fact that you vouch for it makes me want to go back and explore it more.
SM: Well it’s a tale of two cities, because clearly if you go to the west [side] of the city you knock into this rather sort of terrifying edifice of in-authenticity, you know? There’s definitely that part of the city. But like anything where you have extremes, we also have this incredible sort of east side cultural hub, with great music. Everybody seems to want to help everyone out, which is NOT the experience I have had throughout my life anywhere else in the world.

OT: I’m ready to jump back to my dark question.
SM: Go for it.

OT: You’ve described Strange Little Birds as dark and brooding, and reminiscent of your first album. Why do you think you tapped into a darker place for your last album?
SM: I think there was definitely an awareness of where the world was going. I think we basically foresaw the trends of populism, for want of a better word. I think we understood that it wasn’t the world that we had been inhabiting; something was changing.

As I’m getting older and older, I’m feeling more and more an urgency to raise the stakes every time I write because you know, we’ve watched all my heroes start to die off and it makes you think about your own lifespan and, “What have I achieved?” and “What have I said?” and “What have I not said?” and “Where have I failed myself?” I just want to start filling in all of these little blanks that I imagine are in my arsenal.

OT: Absolutely. I read this great quote you gave about some young performers being like “mini-robots,” producing a sound that is basically interchangeable. What do you do to make sure Garbage’s sound stays original and true to who you are as a band?
SM: You’re absolutely right. I’m well-aware of the generic nature of today’s pop landscape. I love pop music as much as anybody does. It’s always fun to switch on and zone out, and just enjoy a great melody with incredible beats. I’m not trying to knock anybody or the genre itself, because I prize pop and I think it’s an important part of our culture.

But at the same time, I don’t like the fact that pop, popularity and populism have become so encompassing that there isn’t room for anything else. And that’s what I want to reel against – that kind of uniformity and homogenization of the music industry. It’s really, really frightening. It becomes a money venture rather than a creative venture. Musicians are meant to make mistakes. They’re meant to fail. They’re meant to be curious. They’re meant to take risks. They’re not meant to just [focus on a sound] that they know will be successful because they’re scared of not being the current, biggest thing. I think that’s a very, very dangerous space for ALL humans, let alone artists, to get into.

OT: You toured with Kristin Kontrol (Dee Dee From Dum Dum Girls) last year. I feel like Dum Dum Girls is a band that’s definitely creating their own sound. Are there any bands on your radar right now for their originality?
SM: There’s a billion and one, I could go on for hours. [Laughs] I do try and find things that excite me, and I think it’s important at the same time to listen to DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar and some of the [other] big artists out there. I still try and seek out the little voices, because often they have the most to say.

OT: I interviewed Michael Holstein about Live at 9:30 last year, and he raved about having you perform on the show and interviewing you for it. What was that experience like for you? Do you feel a special connection with 9:30 Club, or DC?
SM: We were SO flattered to be asked to be on the first cut of Live at 9:30. This is a club that’s known for live music for as long as I can remember. We have deep connections. I think we’ve played at the 9:30 every single tour we’ve ever played, so we know it well and we know ALL the characters involved pretty well. We’ve watched some of them rear their children and see them off to university – that’s how long we’ve been going to the 9:30. DC is special for us. Our guitarist has family there, so it always feels like we’re coming home a little when we come to the East Coast. DC is our East Coast home.

OT: Well I’m glad to hear that. Okay, fangirl moment. I don’t know how to say it other than you are literally an icon not only of female empowerment but of just general badassery.
SM: [Laughs]

OT: And so many people in my life, especially women, really look up to you. How do you feel about being someone in the music industry that so many people look up to? Big question, sorry.
SM: Yeah, big question. I mean first of all, thank you so much. It’s a beautiful thing to hear. But I also know what a little twat I am so I can’t take on board [laughs] any of those sorts of massive words. I feel like the word “icon” is so overused. I feel like I don’t relate to any of that.

What I do know though is I think every individual on this planet has the ability to inspire or comfort somebody. We have that power as human beings, and I think I’ve used that ability sometimes to comfort. Mostly, I see myself as a caretaker at this point in the band. I never imagined I would have such a long career. I never imagined I’d still be doing what I do at the age of 50. I feel very maternal toward other artists and young kids that come to the show, and then I feel protective toward those who’ve grown up with me because I know how difficult it is to grow up in the world. It’s difficult for every single person, and they never talk about it.

So if I can help articulate some things for people that they are unable to articulate in their life, and they feel some relief from reading something I’ve said or something I’ve done, then I feel like I have lived a good life and I’ve done something with my time here, even though it may be small.

OT: I have to ask: pink hair for life? Or will you change colors again?
SM: Well, I’m red right now. I’m back to red and I feel like, as my goddaughter put it so beautifully when she saw me, she went, “[Gasps] Auntie Shirley,” she goes. “I love your red hair. It’s the color of resistance.” [Laughs] I feel like even from a political standpoint, the red is good for me right now. It seems the right place to be. Even though I never ever thought I would enjoy going back to red, I really have enjoyed it. [Laughs]

Catch Garbage with Blondie at Wolf Trap on August 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35-$85.

Wolf Trap: 1551 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; 703-255-1800; www.wolftrap.org