Two years back, when Shirley Manson found herself being nudged toward a Madison, Wisconsin recording studio to "try out" for some unnamed mystery project, she decided, why not? The Scottish singer had heard that a guy named Butch Vig really wanted to give a listen to what she could do. Apparently, he owned the studio and had produced a lot of bands. Manson figured she had nothing to lose. If it didn't work out, no big deal: she already had her own band, Angelfish, and a swell video that was being played on MTV's 120 Minutes. Then Manson's label filled her in on Vig's resume, dropping a few familiar names: Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana.
Oh, that Butch Vig.
Much in demand after his work on Nirvana's Nevermind, Vig had seen Angelfish's video for the single "Suffocate Me" and was impressed by the woman belting out the song's lyrics. A singer like that, he figured, might be capable of bringing a more human perspective to his own studio noodlings.
Moments after Manson rolled into Vig's studio, any aura of mystery that might have surrounded the tryout was quickly transformed into sheer tension. Obviously unconcerned with making a good initial impression on Vig and his partners -- Duke Erikson (guitars, bass, keyboards) and Steve Marker (guitars, samples, noise) -- Manson cursed a blue streak throughout that first day, describing the trio's lyrics as "bloody crap" and scowling as the needle on her male chauvinism meter ran into the red. If Vig and his pals made a suggestion, Manson wasn't interested. On the same token, if Manson had an idea, the others shot it down. But what others might have found unworkable, Manson, Vig, Erikson and Marker found, well, creatively tense. In other words, they felt they got along famously. As a result, what might have been a studio nightmare became instead a band called Garbage. (The name, says Vig, came after a visitor listened to some playbacks and remarked, "This sounds like garbage." "Exactly," Vig responded, "and we're going to turn this garbage into a song.") And while the four still bicker, they've got the interplay down to an exact science, one that guarantees nobody goes away pissed off.
"Friction can be a good thing -- if you're in a situation where you're stuck with each other and you're going to make a go of it," Manson says now. "It's not like we're all holding hands skipping down the road all day long, but I think it's weird when people view confrontation as being wrong."
At first, it looked to some observers like Vig had gone shopping for a little vocal dressing to pour over his and his friends' musical meanderings -- in the way he might have labored for hours trying to find just the right guitar sound. "There's this perception that I'm just more of Vig's musical meat," Manson says. "But what people don't know is how much everything was discussed way before I got involved. When I came in, it was on the idea that I was a fourth member of a band; I was writing the songs, taking advice, giving criticism, the lot."
Manson is speaking over the phone from Wisconsin during a break from rehearsals; nearby, earlier, Garbage had been finishing up preparations for the second leg of its national tour and readying to record B-sides for singles scheduled for British release in support of the band's mechanized, though highly pop-friendly, eponymous debut. It's a particularly numbing winter day in America's Dairyland, but Manson, who confesses to being totally neurotic, has decided to leave her trunkload of vitamins and health supplements unopened. "It's so fucking cold, I think I've reached this certain state of inner peace, figuring there's no way germs can breed under these conditions," she muses. "It's only when the weather's warm that germs breed with evil intent, and make their way effortlessly into my body."
More than once, Manson describes herself as a "confrontational" female, but not in the angst-ridden, chip-on-the-shoulder sense. Neither has she adopted the revenge-on-all-men stance of Alanis Morissette or the trash-talking, party-girl image of Courtney Love. Indeed, contrary to reports, Manson is confrontational only in matters of self-defense. And in a twisted sort of a way, she says, she's even become a den mother to "her boys" in Garbage.
"I've always encouraged the boys to talk. It's kind of a clich, and don't get the wrong idea, but you know men have this tendency to suppress feelings a lot of the time," she says. "Communication is the key to get from A to B without getting all destructive about it."
Manson says she was quite willing to console Vig when his beloved Green Bay Packers lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL playoffs, even though she had no idea who the teams were. To her astonishment, Vig was so shaken by the loss that he became physically ill for a few days after the game. It was only during the first few weeks together that things were a bit rocky between her and the other members of the band, recalls Manson, in part because "I really didn't know them."
Manson's route toward Garbage began in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she grew up and, at age 14, found she had a liking for punk rock. At the time, her idol was Siouxie Sioux, and when a boyfriend asked her to front his band, she jumped at the opportunity. Much to her father's dismay, Manson flunked out of school at 16 and moved into music for good, eventually latching on as backing vocalist and keyboard player for Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie. Next came Angelfish, which drew critical raves, a high-profile opening gig with the Ramones in 1993 and, perhaps most important, that phone call from Butch Vig.
By the time Vig picked up the phone, the idea for Garbage had been hatched. He and longtime friends Marker and Erikson had been working on remixes for U2, Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode, among others, and the time spent making noise and uncovering odd sounds led to the notion of forming their own group. True to the band's name, the debut CD Garbage is loosely based on the mishmash of ideas that arose from those various sessions -- a compendium, you could say, of what might be found on Vig's studio floor. The resulting collection of bits and scraps -- held together with some formal pop structuring -- allows the group to work around the edges of various sounds, from techno, raunchy guitars and tape loops to funk, hip-hop and just plain noise. The whole inspired mess makes Garbage sound like it hails from the exotic cityscapes of New York or London, rather than the Wisconsin plains.
Listening to Garbage, it's hard to predict what will be coming out of the speakers next, which is likely how the group wanted it. One of the CD's more radio-ready tunes, "Stupid Girl," leads off with a sample from the Clash's "Train in Vain"; another, "I'm Only Happy When It Rains," pokes fun at the grunge scene that Vig had a hand in creating; and in "Vow," Manson lets loose in full-fledged Patti Smith mode. Some of Garbage sounds like the skewed result of a group of serious-minded techno-wizards coming together with a singer that, on paper, doesn't quite fit. Still, Manson is the emotional conduit through which everything flows.
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On the current leg of their tour, Garbage is working to get more of the CD's samples and noisy bits into the live show. "We're big fans of technology, so we're not so fixated with the idea that everything has to be live, organic and simple," says Manson. "I mean, we have live vocals, guitars and drums. But there was this issue of retaining the flavor of the record." Still, Manson promises that the group won't be so caught up in the technology that it won't be able to get loose. For Manson, though, dives into the mosh pit are definitely out.
"You won't find me tossed on a pile of strange boys all trying to stick their finger up your ass," she says. "That's the Scot in me. We move very slowly in getting to know people, allowing them to get close to you. In America, everyone's so forthcoming."
American radio, however, hasn't been particularly forthcoming in granting airplay to Garbage, which, considering the splashy pop sound that undercuts the band's noise, puzzles Manson. "We really would like people to hear this stuff," she says. "I don't think we're a bedroom cult band at all."
Garbage performs Tuesday, February 27, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Tickets are $12. Doors open at 8 p.m. For info, call 526-6551.