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GarbageCourtesy of Akashic Books / Official Garbage Archive

Shirley Manson looks back on two decades of Garbage

We talk to the iconic rock frontwoman as she releases a book chronicling her band’s 20-year journey

Shirley Manson never wanted to be a singer. When she’d fall asleep at night, she’d dream she was a ballerina – but she was too tall, she couldn’t master the intricate movements, and when she was 11 years old she suffered an ankle injury that put paid to the idea for good. She admits that she practically fell into becoming a frontwoman, never anticipating the success that would greet her work with Garbage

When she was first pulled into Garbage, the group was still known as a side-project from Nirvana producer Butch Vig. Over 20 years later, Manson has become one of alternative rock’s most iconic frontwomen, a feminist figurehead, and an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. The international best-selling band has been defined by Manson’s stage presence, her charisma, and her melodic vocals. And now, as the band creeps toward their 25-year-anniversary, they’ve released an autobiography that celebrates their career.

This Is The Noise That Keeps Me Awake is a full colour coffee table book that chronicles Garbage’s musical journey through personal photos, keepsakes, and notes from the band’s lengthy career. With input from all four of the band’s members, the book looks at Garbage’s musical process and how they’ve coexisted as a band for over two decades. Dazed spoke with Manson by phone to find out whose idea it was to put together a band autobiography, what it was like looking back on the band’s history, and what she wants fans to take away from the book. Here’s what she had to say.

Whose idea was it to do a band autobiography? What part did you play in putting the book together?

Shirley Manson: It was pretty much a group decision, but it has macabre origins in that we had been talking a lot about our heroes dying. I think it was shortly after Bowie died and we were like, ‘It’s going to be our generation next.’ We really wanted to put together a book for all the children in our lives – everyone in the band, besides myself, has children. We don’t really talk about it much in front of the kids. We wanted to leave something behind for when we’re dead that they could sort of immerse themselves in and understand what it was that we did for a living. I insisted that everyone in the band bring in boxes from their attics or their basements. I started going through all the stuff and sorted for our designer. He was the person that went through everything and selected what you now see in the book.

“A lead singer is called a lead singer for a reason. I think bands that don’t have strong figureheads tend to falter in the end” – Shirley Manson, Garbage

What was it like looking back and documenting the band’s history for your fans? And why the coffee table format?

Shirley Manson: It’s sort of like looking at old school photographs for days on end. It’s really peculiar. It’s both wonderful and magical – and also strange, because you don’t necessarily recognise yourself. The weirdest realisation I came to was just how much love we received. I’m not very good at receiving love in general, and to look back and realise how many amazing artists and journalists and fans have said such incredible things about our records was really overwhelming for me. Because at the time – particularly in the beginning – I was so hellbent on just trying to survive, trying to be good at what I did and making my family and my band proud. I was affected very much by some of the negative, (but) looking back, I realised the negative stuff was really tiny in comparison to all the lovely sort of joy we received. I was kind of taken aback by how little I had absorbed that over the years.

We had the coffee table format in mind from the beginning because we wanted it to hang around. We knew it had to be substantial. We had to make sure that it would endure, so that it’s around by the time they get older. We had to make sure they want to hold on to it and don’t want to chuck it in the garbage. We definitely wanted to put something together that we’d be proud of, that was beautiful, that our families would want to have in their living rooms or their libraries. We wanted to make sure it was a beautiful object.

At first Garbage was seen as Butch’s side project, but now everyone associates the band with you. How long do you think it took for this transition to take place? 

Shirley Manson: I couldn’t really say. I’m probably the worst person to ask, because it took me a long time to feel like I had a share in the band. I had a very strange mental attitude towards it, because I hadn’t been a founding member. Butch and Duke (Erikson) and Steve (Marker) were what I considered a boy band – it was their thing, and I always felt a bit like a big fat cuckoo who came in and sort of ended up taking up far too much attention. I always felt a little uncomfortable and a bit guilty in a funny way, but then I came to realise if people were seeing the band from my sort of perspective then I was doing my job. I earned my spot on the team. A lead singer is called a lead singer for a reason. I think bands that don’t have strong figureheads tend to falter in the end.

“We get unbelievable messages from fans telling us that certain songs helped them through these incredible transitions in their lives, whether they’re literally changing gender, realising they’re gay for the first time, or met their first boyfriend or girlfriend at one of our shows” – Shirley Manson, Garbage

Did you have any idea that you were embarking on this monumental and career defining journey when you traveled from your home in Scotland to Wisconsin in 1994? What were your thoughts back then? 

Shirley Manson: I was on unemployment in Scotland at the time when I got the call. I had been in a band, and we’d been dropped by our record label and we had difficulties with the British government regarding taxes. It was an absolute horrendous situation that we were all finding ourselves in. I was doing the dishes one day and I got a call from my A&R rep in the US. He said there’s this music producer Butch Vig and he wants to speak to you. He’s interested in working with you.

I had nothing better going on. When I flew over and eventually got chosen to work with the band, I thought it would last six months. I didn’t imagine in a million years that we would have a long career together, because the band was a lot older than me. They didn’t seem interested in touring. It seemed more of sort of an intellectual pursuit, rather than an emotional one. I just didn’t foresee us having a future together, I just didn’t see how it could work. How wrong was I? I’ve never turned back. I flew over to Wisconsin and that pretty much was it. I was set on a course for the rest of my life.

What do you want fans to take away from the book? 

Shirley Manson: The weird thing I’ve come to realise is that we’ve been around for a long time. I’m 50 years old, and it’s a profound realisation to look back and realise we’ve been doing this now for nearly 23 years. It’s been an extraordinary journey that we’ve gone on with other people. We’ve accumulated young fans along the way, but we’ve still pulled our fans from 1995 along with us. They’ve shared a lot in our lives with us, and vice versa. I know that we’ve provided a soundtrack for a lot of our fans – we get unbelievable messages from fans telling us that certain songs helped them through these incredible transitions in their lives, whether they’re literally changing gender, realising they’re gay for the first time, or met their first boyfriend or girlfriend at one of our shows. These are powerful moments in people’s lives and we’re bound together in a funny way for life.

I guess our hope is that we delight our fans and remind them of what happened in their own life just through osmosis by looking at old pictures of our band and reading about what happened to us. We hope that will also cause a reflection in our fans.

Akashic Books released This Is The Noise That Keeps Me Awake on July 4