Top of the Heap
Can Garbage collect a pair of MTV awards this week?
AS DUSK FELL ON MUDDY FIELDS at last month’s Reading Festival, a three-day British Woodstock of alternative rock held on the banks of the Thames 36 miles west of London, some 40,000 blissfully rowdy fans—tie-dyed, body-pierced and drenched by an afternoon thunderstorm—began warming themselves over impromptu bonfires of fish-and-chips wrappers, paper cups and other rubbish.
Appropriate fuel. By nightfall the sodden masses were head-banging happily to the raw rhythms of Garbage—the band. As Shirley Man-son, the stylish, 30-year-old Scottish leading lady of the otherwise male, Madison, Wis.-based techno-rock group, belted out “Only Happy When It Rains,” fans moshed in the mud in front, of the stage, and drummer Butch Vig watched in wonder. “I think the guys come because they’re fascinated by Shirley, and the girls come because they want to be Shirley,” says Vig, 40, still known as the producer of Nirvana’s breakthrough 1991 album Nevermind.
Indeed, it’s Manson’s charisma, as much as her voice, that Vig and band-mates Steve Marker, 37, and Duke Erikson, 45, credit with propelling Garbage to the top of the alternative-music heap. Heralded by a four-star review in Rolling Stone last September, the group’s platinum debut, Garbage, has slowly made its way into the Top 20 of Billboard’s pop chart and has spun off three hit singles. At the Sept. 4 MTV video awards in New York City, the band is up for both the Breakthrough award and the Best New Artist award for “Stupid Girl,” a tune that Manson insists puts down only stupidity, not girls. “We could have called it ‘Stupid Guy,’ ” Manson says in her mellifluous burr, “but we thought another song about a strident female dissing a guy would be tedious.”
Manson knows from dissing. Taken to task by alt-rock purists for an inventive fashion sense (fluorescent miniskirts and braless T-shirts) and her girlish fashion spread for Elle magazine last October, she refuses to apologize. “There’s an attitude in contemporary music that makes women negate their feminine side [in order] to be taken seriously as artists,” she says. “I think that’s pandering to the male hierarchy.”
So how did a Scottish glam queen hook up with a scruffy American group like Garbage? It’s a long story dating back to 1994, when Vig and Erikson, University of Wisconsin pals, and Marker were running a Madison recording studio, where Vig had produced disks for Sonic Youth and Smashing Pumpkins as well as Nirvana. Now they decided to form their own band. At first the name was a joke. “All our friends would tell us we sounded like garbage,” says Marker. Maybe because they didn’t have a vocalist. That oversight was remedied after the guys heard Manson singing with the soon-to-be-defunct Scottish group Angelfish on MTV in early ’95. “It was the way she sang,” Vig recalls, “low and dark and really cool.” Within 24 hours he had tracked her down to her Edinburgh home, and she agreed to a meeting in London.
By the end of the year, Manson found herself in Madison, where the foursome spent the next six months recording Garbage. “The only reason I was ever in a band was because it was the antithesis of humdrum, 9-to-5 reality,” says Man-son, whose father is a professor of animal genetics and whose mother is a homemaker. Manson learned to play violin, clarinet and piano as a child, then, at 16, went on to pursue her un-humdrum career. Now, thanks to the Garbage men, she’s a rock goddess. “There are nights when I look out, and there are 10,000 people all watching Shirley,” says Vig. “She’s the emotional lightning rod. She’s the voice. Garbage flows through her.” And, yes, if you are wondering, that is a compliment.
KIMBERLY CHRISMAN in reading