Shirley Manson Does Not Think Garbage is a Grunge Band

Don’t miss the grunge band’s show this week at Saratoga’s Mountain Winery.

Credit: Joseph Cultice

There are two things you should never do. Don’t call San Francisco “Frisco,” and don’t call Garbage “grunge.” The former will irritate San Franciscans, while the latter will annoy the alternative rock band’s singer, Shirley Manson.

True, Garbage grew out of Seattle, the hub of grunge music, in the early ‘90s. In fact, its co-founder and drummer Butch Vig helped develop the scene, producing seminal grunge albums for the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. Also, many of Garbage’s early hits — like “Only Happy When It Rains,” “Queer,” and “Stupid Girl” off its 1995 self-titled debut — embraced the subgenre’s amalgamation of hardcore punk, metal, and indie rock, and stayed true to its themes of pain and alienation. Manson’s tough, confrontational stage persona, reminiscent of fellow grunge rockers Kat Bjelland (of Babes in Toyland), Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill), and Courtney Love (of Hole), even earned her a spot in SF Weekly’s Top 11 Hottest Women in Grunge list back in 2011.

But, according to Manson, Garbage did everything in its power to reject the grunge moniker, incorporating new musical styles, such as Britpop, trip-hop and electronica into its music. Manson differentiated herself further from grunge’s stereotypical shrieking belters by changing her lyrical style to a low contralto.

SF Weekly caught up with Manson ahead of Garbage’s Wednesday, July 5 show — with Blondie and Exene Cervenka and John Doe from X — at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga to discuss being “anti-grunge,” her current favorite girl bands, and how she learned to embrace her rebellious spirit.

SF Weekly: Garbage came out of the grunge scene, forming just after drummer Butch Vig produced two seminal albums: Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Nirvana’s diamond-selling Nevermind. Why did the band go in an entirely different direction?
Shirley Manson: Our producer and drummer Butch Vig was absolutely enmeshed in the most glorious version of grunge that ever existed, which was Nirvana. When he came up for air after the success of Nevermind, he had been working on a bunch of remixes for other quite successful bands like Depeche Mode and U2, and he started to utilize a lot of the technology that was beginning to emerge at that time. He was exploring that technology, and that really defined our sound more than anything else and removed us from the whole world of grunge. I know I’ve been described as grunge, but we were post-grunge. We were anti-grunge, almost.

SFW: Your second-ever single was called “Queer” and your latest album was titled Strange Little Birds. In fact, Garbage’s entire identity is about going against the status quo. Where did you get your rebellious spirit from?
SM: That’s a really good question, because I’m not entirely sure, other than my father [who] is actually quite unorthodox. He seems normal on the surface but has actually proven himself, over the years, to be a real eccentric. And he always taught me to question authority. When you approach life like that, you can’t help but be a little rebellious, because the minute you ask questions, you force discomfort in a funny way. Just by default, you force other people to think or defend or challenge you. Both of my sisters are much more easygoing than I am. But I’ve realized, now that I’m 50, that to be easygoing is overrated..

SFW: How so?
SM: I realized that when you’re too laid back, you don’t get anything done. No great ideas ever came from being laid back. I think everybody wants to be around people who are laid back, and so we are encouraged to lay back. You should be kind and respectful, but I don’t think you can allow yourself to be shaped by the ideas of others. Because the desires of others are to essentially make you as small or as powerless as possible, because it’s human nature to want to take up space and be heard and be the most important person in the dynamic. Those who behave like that are applauded by society and those who challenge those ideas are criticized, so we’re taught that to be provocative or noisy or large in frame or to take up space — that’s bad. Especially if you’re a woman or gay, you’re taught to just sit in the corner and be a good girl or a good boy. Don’t ruffle feathers. Don’t change the status quo. Everything’s fine the way it is. People don’t really appreciate change very much. But I believe in constant change.

SFW: How has rock changed since Garbage dropped onto the scene?
SM: I think rock music as we knew it doesn’t really exist right now. What I mean by that is a really provocative voice and a provocative thrust. I think there’s a lot of provocation that’s come from hip-hop and rap over the last 20 years, but even that seems to be subsiding quite considerably, and nothing as yet seems to have taken up that space. Historically, it has been rock music that’s done that, but that voice has been silenced a little, mostly because it doesn’t get played on mainstream radio because it doesn’t appeal to the masses. And, of course, everything has become about how ingestible a song can be — how many people can we get to love this song? — and it’s all based on numbers and success and money. Of course, rock music has never really been about that. It’s much more about provocation and challenging the status quo, and therefore that’s not always popular. There’s huge value in it, but I think everyone’s too scared to tie themselves to that flag, because to do so would ensure that you’d never be successful in this climate.

But that’ll change. I think that people already have a hunger again for girls who are a bit dirty and a bit challenging. I miss Courtney Love so much. I want a Courtney. It was not only fun, but it was interesting. I feel like everything’s a little homogenized right now, but the revolution is upon us again.

SFW: Which new girl bands are you most enamored with?
SM: I feel like it changes everyday, and I’m always discovering new talents and women who excite me. Off the top of my head, there’s a band called Starcrawler with a young girl singer called Arrow De Wilde, who is doing something really fresh and different from her contemporaries. She’s influenced by a lot of hair metal bands from the ‘80s, and she’s not just a pop singer onstage trying to look beautiful. She’s quite the opposite, and I find her exciting. I love Cherry Glazerr. There’s a band called MUNA that I think are really talented. I love Skating Polly. There are a lot more feminist bands like War on Women and PINS. It’s exciting to see because I feel like intellectual or aggressive female voices were being drowned out, and now I can really feel culturally that there’s a sort of hunger for them again. So that makes me really excited.

SFW: Garbage’s first autobiography, This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake, is set for release on July 4th. What will readers learn about the band?
SM: What a silly little twerp I am! Haha. I don’t know. The idea behind the book originally is that we wanted to put together a little token — a sort of little scrapbook for the kids that are still pretty young in our lives, where we may well be dead and gone before they grow up to appreciate what we did in our lives, with our career. So it was pretty much just a selfish pursuit just to please the children in our lives.

But then more and more people got involved and it grew into a bigger project because there was a lot of excitement around the fact that we were doing it. We’re really, really pleased with it. It’s so exciting to have a book. It feels very professional.

SFW: The name of your co-headlining tour with Blondie is “Rapture and Rage.” Assuming that “Rapture” stands for Blondie, based on its 1981 disco-rap track of the same name, does that mean Garbage is “Rage?” And if so, what are you and the band so rageful about? 
SM: I don’t even know where to start about what I feel angry about. Whether it’s reading about a young, 17-year-old Muslim girl getting kidnapped in Virginia and murdered by some lunatic, or whether it’s about the casual attitudes toward racism in this country, or the eradication of women’s rights all over the globe, or the lack of money being put into education and more money being put into weapons. I could go on and on and on. I’m an indignant kind of person, and I feel like human beings are getting forgotten about because everyone is so focused on money. That actually breaks my heart.

SFW: Are you excited to hit the road with punk-rock legends — Blondie and Exene Cervenka and John Doe of X?
SM: Yes, of course the anticipation on our part is high. To share a stage with a truly iconic group who really set the stage for a lot of modern pop as we know it today is truly a thrill for us. And John Doe and Exene are held in the highest of regards. We don’t often get to step onto a bill of this caliber, so we don’t take it lightly.

Garbage, Blondie, and X play at 6:30 p.m., on Wednesday, July 5, at The Mountain Winery, in Saratoga. $59.50 – $139.50.

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