03.26.05 PRETTY HATE MACHINE
Words: Johnny Sharp Photos: Paul Harries
Best rockumentary, 'Garbage: Some Kind Of Monster' sadly never got made. All that was missing was the camera crew because, for the last few years of Garbage's existence, there were all the ingredients that made the celebrated Metallica trauma-thon such a timeless example of what happens When Bands Go Bad.
Communication breakdown, creative impasse, 'musical differences', simmering personal resentments, therapy, relationship breakdown and career-threatening illness immediately spring to mind. A six-month hiatus where the band thought they might have split up is another obvious similarity.
It could have got even worse when their management (Q Prime, who also manage... yes, that's right Metallica) suggested they hire a shrink, or possibly the dreaded 'relationship coach'. It was only then that the band decided it was about time they put a stop to all this silliness by themselves. So cinema's loss is our gain, because nearly four years since 'Beautiful Garbage', they've put the niggling grievances and fuming silences behind them, gone back to basics and made 'Bleed Like Me', their best out and out rock album since 'Garbage' introduced them to the world a decade ago.
"Torturous would probably be the best word to describe it," says Shirley Manson, smiling wistfully in a London hotel room as she prepares to recount the details. "Horrendous, actually. A pain in the ARSE! Ha ha haaargh!"
There's something quite comforting about that final quintessential Anglo-Saxon slang word. It seems to confirm that whatever may have gone down, the skinny Scottish gobshite we know and love isn't remotely diminished for the experience. And when she tells the story, it's with a certain amount of amused incredulity.
In truth, the problems surrounding this album actually began during the tour to promote 'Beautiful Garbage' in 2002.
"I would walk onstage," says Manson, "and 30 seconds in I'd have lost my voice. I was fucking freaking out. I didn't know what was wrong with me."
Doctors found that she had a cyst on her vocal cords. Nothing life threatening, but certainly career-threatening without a successful operation.
"I was not happy. Facing up to the possibility that I wouldn't be able to sing again - that was really scary. Luckily I had an amazing surgeon, so it all turned out fine."
At this point you may have visions of our heroine horizontal on a surgeon's table with her throat carved open. Is that an accurate picture?
"No, they went down my throat. They used this tiny scalpel, which they had to have specially flown in from Germany. But the freakiest thing was that for one week I wasn't able to say one word. That might not sound that much, but you don?'t realise how much you depend on your voice for so many things. Honestly, I thought I would fucking lose my mind! You think you can write things down and you'll communicate that way, but it takes so long and ifs so frustrating 11 would be mouthing to people what I wanted to say but they wouldn't understand, so then I would mouth things at them more and more dramatically, with my eyes bulging, as if that would help them understand what I was talking about. Then, of course, they're wondering, 'Why is she getting mad at me?'. It was absolutely infuriating."
Thankfully, by the beginning of 2003 the Manson tonsils were back in working order, and the band reconvened at their usual base in Madison, Wisconsin. And imagine their surprise when they immediately wrote 'Right Between The Eyes', which ended up on the new album, in 30 minutes flat.
"At that point" says Manson, "you kind of think, Well maybe this is going to be okay!. Then for the next few weeks it was an absolute fucking nightmare."
So what was the problem? Personality clashes? Controversial reggae influences? Love? Money? Personal hygiene?
"Mainly it was just the kind of stupid things that grow into seething resentments when you've lived together on a bus for a long time. Everyone in the band is pretty respectful of each other and - in inverted commas - 'nice' which means it becomes very bitchy and passive-aggressive after a while, which is really unhealthy. We couldn't sit in a room with each other, let alone talk. One person would walk into a room and the other would walk out the second they walked in."
Was this a case of knowing how to push each other's buttons and winding each other up that way?
"No, I wish it had been! That would have felt good actually, as it would have brought things to a head a bit more. But instead we'd come in at 1pm and not say hello, and then leave at night and not say goodbye. And we were trying to write songs together at this point. It was really horrible."
Writing songs in that environment must have been impossible. With communication stretched to breaking point were you using semaphore?
"No, I mean there would be the odd exchange, but the absolute bare minimum."
Its not hard to imagine Shirley inflicting some damage if she put her mind to it. This all sounds as though it could easily have come to blows...
"No, I really wish it had come to blows - at least it would have been a reaction. But it was just this slow, boring rot. It actually made me ill after a while. Physically ill."
The upshot of all this was that Butch Vig decided to return to LA to spend some time with the long-term girlfriend he'd married a few months before.
"My heart wasn't in it," is his succinct summation of the situation.
There's a definite sense that this was a band distinctly under the weather. Vig had, after all, contracted Hepatitis A on tour in November 2001. Then an infection of the inner ear the following summer that meant listening to music became painful. Then, no sooner had Manson's voice recovered, writers' block kicked in. She winces slightly at the memory.
"Yeah, that was wrapped up with the fact I was so tense after my surgery, and I had rehab as well, so I was out of action for six months. And then when we got back in the studio, I was really worried about the in-band relationships, and in the end I was trying to force something positive to come and the more you do that the worse it gets. When you're trying to be creative with people and you're not getting on its just not going to happen "
Well, The Beatles managed to cooble together ?'The White Album' when they hated each other's guts, but you'd hardly recommend it as a creative strategy. A total re-evaluation was required.
"I never thought the band had split up," says Shirley. "Although I think some of the others did. We took the time off to have a chance to re-examine why we were making records in the first place. It began to feel like we were just clocking in and clocking out, and that was never the reason I wanted to be in a band in the first place."
It was at this point that the spectre of shrinks and therapists loomed on the horizon.
"Our management people suggested it, but neither our pride nor our wallets would ever allow it. Anyway, I don't think the Metallica approach would have worked for us at all. That documentary is so funny, though - its exactly what being in a band is like. All these petty differences and strange hang-ups that everybody has. But in the end we all faced up to the problem by ourselves, and by the time we all got back together again it was better."
It wasn't quite the end of their problems, though. Initial sessions with the Dust Brothers at the production helm failed to bear the expected fruit.
"Eventually we realised, 'What are we doing? We can do this by ourselves! We don't need someone to come in and kick our arses!'."
And so it came to pass that Garbage went back to the format they felt most comfortable with - namely a self-produced band recreating a live sound in the studio. The result is the best out-and-out rock record Garbage have made since their eponymous debut 10 years ago.
Above all, there's evidence of that Garbage trademark - songs that take up residence in your head like the most hook-peppered pop records while punching you in the gut like the darkest, heaviest rock.
"I think we got a bit side-tracked on the last record," admits Shirley. "We did a lot of experimenting, and I think we lost the core of who we were as a band."
'Bleed Like Me' is a far more direct record, and not just in vintage heavy pop like 'Run Baby Run' and ?'Why Do You Love Me?' but in Manson's lyrical approach, which has as much to say about the state of the world as her own emotional state and the sexual politics that have always been her specialist subject.
Like any other half-sentient being who has spent much time in America recently, she's clearly alarmed about the new Puritanism that has swept America and played a large part in keeping George Dubya in the White House. 'Sex Is Not The Enemy' is her furious response, defiantly raging, ?'I won't feel dirty and buy into their misery?'. You go, girl...
"About a year ago there was this unbelievable hoo-ha about Janet Jackson's breast falling out at the Superbowl," she explains. "I mean, she's shown a part of her body, and you would have thought she'd murdered somebody! I found it really bizarre. And with the current administration clamping down on women's reproductive rights, it's really scary. You come back to the UK and, for all we piss and moan at our situation, it's really liberal by comparison."
Another target in her sights is the macho nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 'Boys Wanna Fight' suggests that the need to wage war to solve problems is a distinctly male approach to foreign policy. Is she seriously suggesting that a female administration would use diplomacy?
"Yeah, I absolutely do believe that. If it was a female administration I don't believe we would have gone to war for something that we didn't really know was a threat. In really large issues it's always men who want to use their brawn. There are occasionally girls who will fight physically, but generally it's not their way to solve a problem."
Right. But surely Thatcher deployed a few troops in her time, didn't she?
"But that wasn't a woman! HA HA HAAARGH!"
She's got a hell of a laugh, that Shirley Manson. She gets over it fast, too. Seconds later she's defining her statements, defending them against the charge that it's a bit simplistic to boil down global conflict to gender difference.
"Don't get me wrong - when I talk about fighting I do mean physical fighting. Women are aggressive, but in non-physical ways. I actually think it would be a lot healthier if women did physically fight in some instances, but instead they tend to use their mental capacities to inflict mental torture on other human beings. HA HA HAAARGH!"
TO GIVE Manson her due, she's not one of those people who just talk a good fight. Recently she has been involved in John Kerry's presidential campaign, has gone on marches and has (wo)manned phones for Planned Parenthood, a pro-choice organisation in the States. She seems almost embarrassed when she's asked about it, as if she knows what a cliche the do-gooding rock star has become.
"I just felt so dismayed that there were certain things going on in my name," she says. "Whether it made any difference or not I just wanted to register my protest."
When the commonly held view is put to her that there's not much | difference between any of the political parties anymore, she's more forthright.
"I understand that cynicism, but to me if you're a woman in America and someone is saying there's very little difference between the candidates, well try telling that to a 12 year-old girl who's been raped and is unable to get herself an abortion, or tell that to a gay couple who are unable to get married. There are a lot of differences on crucial issues. Apathy is just symbolic of being indulged, and not feeling personally threatened. If you're under threat you want to help facilitate change."
Well said. And that galvanised political conscience isn't the only way in which she seems to be looking outwards rather than inwards. A new emotional perspective is epitomised by the new album's title-track, 'Bleed Like Me', which almost seems to be mocking her own tendency towards self-obsession (remember 'I Think I'm Paranoid'?), and the 'feel my pain' school of confessional songwriting. 'You should see my scars' goes the background mantra, and you sense there's an element of sarcasm in that boast.
"That song came about because I went to see that movie ?'Thirteen'. It was so much like how my 13-year-old life was - apart from the unstable home life, which I didn't have. When I went home that night, the words of the song came out - about how everybody's got a story to tell, and they've all got their own burden to carry around. Whether it's really a dramatic issue or whether it's really private it shapes you as a person. I think we're all guilty of believing that our problems are more important than somebody else's. We're not very good at empathising with other people."
On further investigation it looks like this less insular view of the world may be a result of her own attempt to handle emotional baggage, through therapy sessions.
She giggles when the T word is mentioned, all too aware of the 'pull yourself together?' disdain with which the Brits traditionally treat such matters.
"Yes I'm ashamed to say it's all true. And it's been life changing... HA HA HAAARGH! I know everybody in the UK is horrified by it, and I'm horrified by it too, but it really has been life changing."
So what are we talking about here? Couches? Hypnotism? Tell me about your childhood'?
"No, none of that. There's no couch, it just teaches you skills to manage things like anger, anxiety, stress or fear. It just makes you better equipped to deal with the world, and a little more cognisant of other people. Other people exist, with their own problems - imagine that!"
So it's fair to say you were a little self-absorbed before...
"Oh definitely. It goes with being a lead singer. A little self-obsession is a good propeller. If you were a really balanced decent individual you wouldn't be spending your time in a studio without windows for hours and hours or days and weeks of your life writing about yourself and your view of the world. It's not exactly a job for a balanced, well-adjusted individual!"
No danger of too much balance or adjustment round these parts, though. At the age of 38, Shirley Manson shows no sign of settling into a more conventional lifestyle. She still lives out of a suitcase for the most part, no longer in a hotel in Madison but invariably at a variety of friends' houses. She's now divorced from Edinburgh-based husband Eddie (and as ever it's one subject that's off limits), but a life without commitments is just the way she likes it.
"I have to confess I actually really love not having any of the responsibilities of paying bills and a mortgage all the time. And I like the fact people can't find me!"
As for her personal life, the opening track of 'Bleed Like Me', the intriguingly titled 'Bad Boyfriend' seems to be extolling the joys of irresponsible and even healthy flings.
"Really?! Ha! Unhealthy flings, I love that. No it's really about just finding someone to play with that's your equal. I'm fed up with this idea that all men are c**ts and women are angels, I know just as many bad women. So I wanted it to be about a predatory female meeting a predatory man and it just being a balanced meeting of... motherfuckers! HA HA HAAARGH!"
Which brings us nicely onto a real meeting of motherfuckers, in the shape of Shirley's friend Brody Dalle and her bad boyfriend Josh Homme. Shirley recently spent a night in the studio recording backing vocals with Brody for the new Queens Of The Stone Age album. So what can we expect to hear from her on the record?
"Very little, I should think! I can barely even hear the vocals, but it was great to go down there and drink a lot of vodka. Josh is such an amazing musician and really charismatic, so I was honoured to be asked."
'Bad Boyfriend' featured its own guest appearance in the form of Nicest Man In Rock Dave Grohl. Now, we hear a lot of nice things about old Dave. So please tell us, just for a change, he spent his time torturing a kitten, while organising a coffee morning for the American Nazi party.
"No, it's not going to come from me. He is beloved. A marvellous man. And he sounds great on that song."
FOR ALL her upbeat demeanour, though, you have to wonder if everything is rosy in this girl's garden. Songs on the new album such as 'It's All Over Bar The Crying', 'Happy Home' and 'Why Do You Love Me?' suggest a typically Scottish pessimism about her prospects of finding any kind of domestic situation. "I've always had a tendency towards dark topics and emotions. That's just part of my cultural make-up and it's been evident in Garbage records from day one. I don't think I'll ever be the bright, sunny, happy-go-lucky little person I would like to be."
Oh well, there can't be too many Garbage fans shedding tears at that announcement. So in many ways it's back to business as usual for Shirley Manson and Garbage. She's even looking forward to getting back on a tour bus with the same people she wasn't talking to a year ago.
"There isn't any tension left now. That's all gone. I love touring, and to be honest I'm really good at it. I sleep like a baby on the tour bus, I keep really healthy, and for me it's where I feel most at peace. I've been touring since I was 15 and it feels more normal to me than some other things in my life. But then, who wants a normal life? HA HA HAAARGH!"
GARBAGE RELEASE 'BLEED LIKE ME' THROUGH WARNERS ON APRIL11