Nothing But a “G” Thing: 20 Years of Garbage

On the eve of its deluxe edition re-release, Shirley Manson looks back on her band’s seminal debut

In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that the April 5th, 1994 death of Kurt Cobain would also signify the finale of the entire grunge music movement. Sure, there were other factors that led to the demise of the Seattle sound, but this was ultimately when it reached its end. It begs the question, how long would grunge have lasted if he lived? What would Nirvana’s ninth album have sounded like?

In the early 1990s, Madison, Wisconsin producer Butch Vig had his hand in everything from Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish to House of Pain’s Shamrocks and Shenanigans. But most notably he produced Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind. Eventually he wanted to create his own band — what we now know as Garbage — but knew that he had to do something drastically different than what had come before.

Garbage, 1995

“Part of the reason why I started Garbage was that by the time I’d done ‘Nevermind,’ I’d recorded — I swear to God — 1,000 bands that were just guitar-bass-drums,” he told Billboard in 2011. “I was reading about all these other records that I was getting excited about — like Public Enemy using a sampler in the studio — and I just decided I wanted to do a bit of a U-turn.”

After seeing a video called “Suffocate Me,” from a band called Angelfish on MTV’s 120 Minutes, the band approached its lead singer, Shirley Manson, to see if she wanted to be involved with this new project, which didn’t quite know what it wanted to be yet.

“They were looking for a singer. They had an idea for a project where they would use a lot of different voices to make a very eclectic record. I was one of the voices that they stumbled upon one night — (guitarist) Steve Marker and the band — after seeing the Angelfish video on 120 minutes,” Shirley Manson told Cuepoint. “The luckiest thing for me was the fact that Angelfish was sort of breaking up at the time and the timing was perfect. It was kismet, I didn’t have to hurt anybody’s feelings.”

The idea of employing several different vocalists was eventually discarded in favor of Shirley solely taking up singing duties for the new project. In fact, the night that Shirley serendipitously met with the other members of Garbage for the first time, would mark a shift in the sound of alternative rock in more ways than one.

“I went down to London — I was living in Scotland — and they had asked to meet with me at the Landmark Hotel. We had a meeting and we really liked each other, but there was nothing really concrete discussed,” says Shirley. “We parted ways outside the hotel. I was going to visit a friend who I was staying with that night, so we shook hands and said, ‘Well, good luck with what happens with your project. Goodbye. Have a nice life,’ kind of thing. I never thought for a minute thought that I’d see them again. When I arrived at my friends house, the news of Kurt Cobain’s death was all over the 5 O’clock news.”

Fast-forwarding to almost a year-and-a-half later, by August 15th, 1995 Garbage would have its act polished and ready to present to the world with its self-titled debut album. Made up of Shirley Manson, Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson, the quartet took a unique approach to alternative rock by throwing everything into the kitchen sink — in the “Garbage” disposal, if you will — pulling influences from many different musical genres. But not before a long process of perfecting their sound.

Garbage’s self-titled debut album

“I was listening to some of the demos the other day and they were incredibly simple and traditional. I can’t really remember how we got the songs from where they started to where they ended up. Especially since that record was recorded entirely on analog tape, which complicated our lives — especially Butch’s — to no end. It was a painstaking process,” says Manson. “By the time I came aboard, it was at least a year and a half before we finished the record. Every day we would just add in another layer or sound. When we listened to the masters when we were putting the anniversary deluxe edition together, we were listening to ‘Stupid Girl,’ and almost every single bar has a new, tiny little sound that comes in throughout the course of the entire song. It was a really carefully put together record, but far from perfect. There was no way to get too crazy, because it was analog.”

Yet ultimately it paid off, as the band’s risky bet was incredibly well received, earning perfect or at least positive reviews from each Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, NME, The Guardian, and many others. The Garbage album has sold over 4 million copies worldwide, was nominated for two GRAMMY awards and produced a series of charting hit singles.

“It’s funny, because of this anniversary, I’ve been forced to really sort of analyze what has happened with us as a band, and why we captured people’s imaginations. I have to say that I don’t think it was any accident on Butch’s part that he sort of created a sonic template for where contemporary music was headed,” says Shirley. “That sounds very grandiose, but I actually do think that it was a reaction to the fact that he was involved with all of these incredibly iconic rock bands. I think he understood — because he’s very smart — that he couldn’t start his own band and set up competition with all of these titans that he had been lucky enough to work with. So he realized that he had to create his own game so to speak. As a result, he did create this kind of template, almost. He has an incredibly forward thinking, forward reaching imagination. People have done it since, arguably in a much grander way, but that first record I think was a real game changer in some respects.”

Catapulted by their first single, “Vow,” Garbage began its ascent five months before the album was released with a buzzy three song EP on Mushroom Records’ UK imprint Discordant and stateside through Almo Sounds. They quickly became critical darlings with the release of the single. However the two B-side tracks “Subhuman” and “#1 Crush” were not included on the final album.

“I just don’t feel that everyone felt it was strong enough to put on the record. In retrospect it’s a bit silly, because it’s fantastic,” Manson says of “Subhuman.” “You make strange choices and you have to live by them. You can’t see the wood for the trees. By the time you finish the record, you haven’t got a fucking clue. You just have to make due and do you best. Sometimes it’s fatigue, sometimes you’ve been hearing a song for so long you're just over it and you don’t want to put it on the record. Or maybe there’s been a bad experience during the recording of it, or you don’t have as good feelings towards it as you do for another song. People get strangely invested in certain songs and forget about others. It’s just a complicated method of working sometimes.”

“Only Happy When It Rains” followed, acting as the band’s lead single, a song that blended in with the sound of alternative rock of the era, yet poked fun at it at the same time. The look of the video spoke very loudly, as it presented the band in clean cut, big collar suits, with Shirley rocking a cocktail dress — a far cry from flannel shirts and long hair — as they literally destroy the old guard by power-drilling guitars and trampling two-inch tape.

“It was definitely a little tongue-in-cheek and definitely ironic. I think we all felt as a band that alt-rock had gotten incredibly serious. A lot of the bands that were copying the greats were becoming almost pompous in the seriousness in which they approached music making. I think we all felt that it had gotten so dark and so bleak that it was almost funny. So I guess ‘Only Happy When it Rains’ is a bit of a twist on our feelings towards where things were headed,” says Manson.

The song would later be covered by Metallica in 2007 at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit.

“I love Metallica and am mildly obsessed with James [Hetfield] and in another world I’m convinced we would have been man and wife,” laughs Shirley. “So it was so flattering to hear him sing that song. It was such an extraordinarily strange choice for him and it was a real honor for us. I love him, he’s delicious!”

The harder edged “Vow” and “Only Happy When It Rains” set the stage, paving the way for the more chilled “Queer,” where the casual fan might have begun to see the chameleon-like properties of the group.

“When I first joined the band there was a really rough sketch of ‘Queer’ that they played for me when I first arrived in Madison. It had Butch singing on it and he had some scratch lyrics with words kind of like ‘pinkest of the pink’ and ‘bluest of the blue’ kind of thing,” recalls Manson. “It was just something that when I took it into the vocal booth, I remember singing it very differently from how the demo had sounded, which was very aggressive. I sort of felt that it would be much more intriguing if it was sung from a gentle, almost sort of trip-hop perspective. Quieting it all down made it much more sinister and gave it a lot more weight.”

If the drums on “Queer” sound familiar, it’s because at least one layer of them are performed by the funky drummer himself, Clyde Stubblefield, whose work with James Brown has been among the most sampled drum breaks of all time. “You don’t use a sample when the genius who played the sample lives down the street from you,” Vig once said.

“[Clyde] lives in Madison and was friends with the band. They were smart enough to pull him in and play on our record. It was a huge honor for everyone involved. He was such a sweetheart and an incredible talent. It was exciting for us to have him there and still feels very special to have him on our record. He’s so modest and brilliant,” says Manson. “I’m sure Butch being a drummer, he is well tuned to certain styles that he is madly in love with.”

The band’s biggest hit would be six months into the album’s release, with their fourth single “Stupid Girl,” released on February 5th, 1996. It’s infectiously smooth sound helped push the album into higher chart territories and the track was nominated for two GRAMMY awards. Yet just as the single was serviced to radio, Garbage were embarking on a tour with the Smashing Pumpkins, which was cut short by the death of travelling keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin, who toured and performed with the Pumpkins. He died of a heroin overdose.

“We were incredibly excited to be on what was essentially our first serious rock & roll tour. It was a big tour and it was exciting. We were all huge fans of the Smashing Pumpkins and we were looking forward to playing Madison Square Garden. And we woke up in the morning and learned that Jonathan had died during the night. It was incredibly shocking and heartbreaking moment for everyone concerned,” reflects Manson. “I just remember us selfishly being brokenhearted that we weren’t going to get to play Madison Square Garden, but we were also kind of freaked out because this was our first brush with sort of reality on the road. When you are on tour, you are in this bubble of joy and adventure and discovery. It was such a crazy ride for us, and then all of a sudden we just got smacked in the face with reality. It was a pretty good lesson for us, because obviously the excesses of it all were so easy to indulge in. I think Jonathan’s death was certainly in the back of my mind from then on out.”

The final single from the album was “Milk,” which would capitalize on the success the band had seen from their preceding trip-hop tinged tracks, commissioning remixes from Massive Attack and Tricky. The history behind Tricky’s remix is both cloudy and convoluted to both fans and the band, despite its greatness.

“We were all huge fans of Tricky and we’d met him a couple of times. He had come to one of our shows in New York and we had talked about working together. We did a duet of ‘Milk’ together, we just thought it would be a cool thing to do, because we all liked each other and each other’s music. By the time ‘Milk’ was released, that was our fifth single, so of course the record company is like ‘We need a new story.’ We had been invited to the MTV Awards in the UK and MTV wanted us to collaborate with someone and we picked Tricky — I think that’s how it went,” says Manson, scarcely recalling the details. “Anyway, we recorded a duet together in New York. He had a very different approach to recording, which makes for incredible records, but I think totally freaked the band out, because he just worked in a totally different way than we were used to working. It wasn’t perhaps as successful as we would have liked it to be, so in the end we just had him remix the track. I think the original idea was that we do the duet together, and in retrospect it sounds phenomenal, but at the time it was contrary to how we worked, so it threw us off a little. But I love him dearly and think he’s a phenomenal talent.”

Each of the singles were treated with the utmost care. In an era when physical goods ruled, the band took the release of the singles very seriously, commissioning high end art direction and unique packaging for each one, such as metal or rubber encasement. All emblazoned with the iconic “G” logo, the releases were blessed with exclusive, previously unreleased b-side tracks and remixes. They were treated with value and it said to the consumer, “what’s underneath this packaging is as beautiful as its exterior.”

Uniquely packaged Garbage singles “Vow,” “Subhuman,” “Only Happy When it Rains,” “Queer,” “Stupid Girl,” and “Milk” in various incarnations.

That same level of care has been taken with the band’s 20th anniversary re-release of Garbage, which is being offered in several different versions on October 2nd, 2015, coinciding with the 20 Years Queer tour. Aside from the double CD, the swanky pink 180g vinyl and the luscious triple LP box set, the content inside is pretty amazing in itself. Aside from the digitally remastered album, the physical versions will include nine “G-Sides,” which include all of the b-side tracks from the aforementioned singles, such as “Subhuman,” “Girl Don’t Come,” and “Alien Sex Fiend,” among others.

But perhaps the most eyebrow-raising of the set is the digital only “Super Deluxe Edition,” which includes all of the above, as well as 29 remixes and 12 unreleased alternate / demo versions of tracks from the album. That adds up to 62 songs and roughly four hours of music.

20th anniversary deluxe editions of Garbage

Two decades on, looking back at Garbage’s debut, it’s incredible that Butch Vig, who helped usher in Nirvana and the grunge rock movement, was able see that the tide was turning, as a shift in pop culture was happening. He took control of the helm and carved out a direct response to it with Garbage and saw massive success in the process. Yet it was something that none of them could have ever predicted.

“I had no idea that we’d ever be capable of having the kind of success that we did… Even by nature that we were making alternative music, I felt at the very best we might have a college radio hit. It was beyond my imagination that we would make an alternative record and suddenly be thrust into the mainstream, and be played on mainstream radio, TV and magazines all over the world. It was just beyond our comprehension,” says Manson. “I feel incredibly privileged to be even having this conversation with you. I feel ridiculously privileged. The fact that anybody anywhere at all remembers us is big, it’s not something I take lightly. I’m proud of the small, tiny little torch bearing that we did and to be a part of that phenomenal lineage of musicians.”

Garbage, 2015

Despite Garbage’s runaway success, Manson confesses that back then she could not see it, even though it was happening right before her eyes.

“At the time, I was riddled with self-doubt and self-hatred, actually. I never felt anything I was ever involved with was good enough. The wonderful thing about this anniversary is that I’ve been able to look back at what we achieved with that record and really enjoy it for the first time ever in my life. ‘Wow, we did that, and we did it well.’ What an incredible experience. I’m really proud of it and the subject matter we touched upon on the record, which I think are enduring themes. I felt it was a creative record and definitely it changed the game for so many musicians in some regards.”

She continues, “It made it cool for people to take what they needed from every genre. It made it cool to use production as another instrument. It broke down the barrier between producer and band member, in a way that we now take completely for granted. Now there are so many great producers, like Jack White, like Kanye, like Grimes, like Pharrell. They are all fantastic producers, but they are mainly musicians. Back when our first record came out, we were treated with great suspicion and a lot of division because they felt that we should be dismissed because we were coming primarily from a producer’s standpoint. But that is now part of the game.”

With a new Garbage album completed for release next year (“We’ll probably finish the mixing in January,”) Shirley Manson comes off as an incredibly humble and gracious person during my conversation with her.

“I feel in general I can’t take any credit for the first record, truth be told. I put my stamp on it — and it would have turned out very different if I had not been involved — but I feel like I have no right to take credit for the first record. It was a gift that I was given; it was bestowed upon me, really, out of the blue. I was so lucky that I had the right voice and the right personality to be the one they picked.”