A Clinton is running for president, Puff Daddy is back to being Puff Daddy, and the O.J. trial is once again playing out on TV—yup, pop culture is definitely having a ‘90s moment. Just don’t expect Garbage to take part. Even though the alt-rock veterans celebrated the 20th anniversary of their 1995 debut with a tour last year, frontwoman Shirley Manson promises that the band’s new album doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. “We were very clear about wanting to make a record that was authentic to the times we’re living in,” she says of Strange Little Birds, the band’s sixth LP, due June 10. “It feels very much like Rome is burning and nobody seems to be paying attention. We’re all literally taking photographs of our buttocks and putting it on social media.”
To cope, the band channeled its frustrations with the state of the world and the culture at large with songs like “So We Can Stay Alive” and the mammoth first single “Empty.” “We are a band that finds solace in darkness, and we always have,” she says. “I just feel we got to that point where we just want to be our own messy, flawed, f—-ed-up selves, for better or for worse.“ Below, Manson talks about getting writing inspiration from fanmail, her love of Beyoncé, and how moving Los Angeles changed her life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve said that the album recaptures the spirit of your first album. Was this the 20 Years Queer tour rubbing off you?
Shirley Manson: It’s difficult to explain properly what I mean by that. It’s more a feeling: The two records speak to one another and have a lot in common in terms of atmosphere and attitude. These songs are nothing like the songs on the first record, but there definitely is a similarity in mood. It feels like it comes from the same family. This new record is very dark. We made absolutely no concessions to the mores of the day, which tend to focus on very happy, bright and breezy pop music. This record is a very dark, brooding, dramatic record.
Did you have any particular mission you set out to accomplish with this record?
The climate in which we find ourselves as human beings helped dictate the mood of this record. We were very clear about wanting to make a record that was authentic to the times we’re living in. I think any vaguely intelligent person would say we’re living in really chaotic times. We wanted to focus on feelings and atmosphere—things we feel are being forgotten about in music. We had a compass this time. I don’t know why that’s sometimes there and sometimes not. Sometimes when you make a new record you have clear ideas about what you want to achieve. Other times you’ve been touring for 18 months and you have no idea what’s going on in the culture. It’s complicated to find your starting point.
What kind of chaotic times? Do you mean politically? Personally?
I guess I mean politically. When I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, America was at its height of global stature. It was a super power. It feels very much like Rome is burning and nobody seems to be paying attention. We’re all literally taking photographs of our buttocks putting it on social media. All these unbelievable things are happening around us, and we’re literally navel gazing. It feels really frightening to me.
Is there a song on the album that most directly deals with that fear?
“So We Can Feel Alive” touches on global concerns and the fragility of life, the fragility of our existence. We talk about human rights, and we’re unaware that once human rights have been secured, they need to be safeguarded or they will disappear. We’ve grown up with a generation that just believes they’re entitled to human rights. They don’t necessarily understand what human rights actually are and how vigilant and proactive and political you sometimes have to get so that we don’t devolve.
Did the dark sound of this album inspire you lyrically, or did your subject matter push the music in that direction?
I think it’s latter. More than anything, we are a band that finds solace in darkness. We always have. When you peer into the dark corners, lift up the carpets and explore the shadows—that’s when we feel less anxious, because we know what we’re dealing with. We look the monster in the eye and finally know what the game is. And that’s how we’ve always felt.
We keep turning on the radio, and all we hear are these very generic, homogenized songs that are sung by very young artists who are not involved in the songwriting and not offering up their experiences. They’re like mini-robots, and they’re performing and entertaining us, but they aren’t invested in the music they’re selling. Meanwhile, all the songs we’re hearing on the radio are written by the same people. It feels like a monopoly to me, where you have songs that could be sung by a variety of different artists and we wouldn’t know the difference. Everything is interchangeable.
All it seems to be about is entertainment and getting the most hits on social media and getting the most popular song on radio—which, let’s face it, to be the most popular, you have to be playing it the most safe. You have to appeal to the masses. You’re editing yourself. I just feel we got to that point where we just want to be our own messy, flawed, f—ked-up selves, for better or for worse. Our truth is better than our pristine, shiny edited version of ourselves.
How long have you been feeling this way?
A long time. I thought maybe it was sour grapes because my band hadn’t been as successful as it once was. Maybe my feelings toward the mainstream were born out of rejection. But I’ve become more entrenched in what I believe to be right, and what my mother brought me up to believe was right. I don’t believe in turning a blind eye to things. I don’t believe in staying mute when you see injustice. I don’t believe in being passive. I know how I want to live my life. I know the band feels very much the same. There are consequences to our actions, but we’re willing to live with them. It’s better to be the change in the world that you want to see than to sit back and watch the world go running down corridors that lead to destruction.
How do you deal with your frustrations with the music industry? Your band puts out music on its own record label—is it just a matter of leading by example?
You do have to be true to yourself. You have to make the music that feels vital to you, and that’s all you can really do. You can’t stop masses of people from wanting to just forget about reality and go and bang their bodies against one another in a club. And why would you want to? I don’t want to stop people from enjoying pop music. I love pop music. Some of the most exciting production right now is coming out that world. I mean, Beyoncé made a phenomenal record, talking about some really important things. To me, that’s thrilling. I’m not hating pop music by any stretch of the imagination at all. I think it’s vital. I would just like to see a variety of different perspectives in our culture instead of just one way of looking at things. That’s the only way that culture moves forward in any real, healthy way.
How do you decide when it’s time to make Garbage record? Your last record, 2012’s Not Your Kind of People, ended a seven-year gap between records.
I don’t know if I can even answer that question, it’s so haphazard. Butch [Vig], our drummer and producer, likes to go off and make records with other people. A lot of times we choose to wait for him, and that sometimes dictates our schedule. Other times it’s a natural, “Jesus Christ, I don’t want to see you f—king losers for another three months,” and we all go to opposite corners of the world. Sooner or later we all start to feel like making music together at the same time. We’re very compatible in that way, and maybe that’s one of the reasons we’ve managed to sustain a long career.
This is the second Garbage album you’ve recorded since moving to Los Angeles. How has California influenced your creative process?
Being in your car by yourself for long periods of time definitely allows a certain kind of reflection that you don’t have at any other time in your life. In no other city have I enjoyed that kind of peace. I don’t know if that’s just a natural aging process, but living in L.A. has absolutely changed my entire life. I’m genuinely less stressed. I spent 40 years of my life in a high-stress state. That vanished once I came to L.A. But there are a lot of reasons for that: I got married, I got a dog, I started to be outside in nature so much more.
When I first heard the album, there was a note about how you drew inspiration from fan letters while writing for this album.
It sounds like a joke, but I actually have! It’s for the song “Night Time Loneliness.” The idea for that song came from a letter that a 19-year-old Russian fan tossed into my hand after a show in Nizhny Novgorod a couple years ago. The letter was a beautifully written description of a drive through her city. She was attributing all the moments of sadness and pain in her life to different landmarks. We’d be looking at a bridge and she would tell the story of the role the bridge played in her life. It really inspired this idea of getting into your car and driving mindlessly and ruminating on whatever it was driving you to despair.
My favorite song on the record is “Even Though Our Love is Doomed”—is there an origin story behind that one?
I wish I could take credit for that song, but that came into my lap from Butch and was fully formed. Generally speaking, I don’t like to be told what to sing. He brought this song to me and said, “I have this idea, if you dig it, cool, if not, no hard feelings.” He played it for me, and I was blown away. It was utterly perfect. I immediately said, “I want to sing it right now.” And the vocal, it’s the first take that you hear. It was me basically learning the song. But it has a fragility that really matched the music. It’s rare that songs come to you perfect. Usually you have to spend time with them or f—k around. But even Butch, who’s incredibly modest, knew how good it was. It’s the throbbing heart of the entire record.
It’s interesting that you can pinpoint that.
The one thing I think about with this record is that every single song feels vital to me. There have been records we’ve made where I’ve definitely felt stronger about some songs than others. But on this record, I feel the entire thing hangs together by an invisible thread. I’m not really sure what that thread is, but at the same time every song on this record fits together in a way that it should be heard as a whole piece. It’s not really about perfecting it and parceling it out into little bits and pieces. The record is about imperfect, flawed people trying to make sense of the world.