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News came last week that Alanis Morissette is marking the 25th anniversary of her decade-defining album, Jagged Little Pill – and her new album - with a tour boasting two other giants of the alterna-‘90s, Garbage and Liz Phair.

That means it’s a perfect time to be reminded just how sharp, powerful, impressive and on-it was – is - the face, voice and soul of Garbage, Shirley Manson.

In this profile from 1998, a hotel room isn’t big enough to contain her energy and ideas, in a decade not big enough to contain her drive and inspiration.


IT IS not exaggerating to credit the first Garbage album in 1995 and the tour of Australia a year later with significantly breaking down the hegemony of local rock and rock radio. Apart from resurrecting the fortunes of Mushroom Records - home to Kylie Minogue, Leonardo's Bride and Nick Cave - they proved to a conservative mainstream industry that technology-infiltrated pop could mix it with the still dominant strains of grunge.

They proved that you could dance, sing along and crank up the guitars and other noises at the same time. And just as importantly, they proved that this mix could sell.

Their very creation had been enough to raise some eyebrows. Three American studio supremos in their late 30s/early 40s, led by Butch Vig who produced Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, decide they want to make some records of their own.

Short of a singer, they happen to see a video for Angelfish, an obscure Scottish group fronted by Shirley Manson, a hitherto unknown, late-20s singer, and think to themselves, `Hmm, she looks like she has the right attitude, let's ask her to join.' She auditions in their studio in Madison, Wisconsin, they sign her up and the self-titled album is completed.

Does the word Svengali come to mind? If it does, it lasts as long as it takes to meet Shirley Manson.

She opens the door suddenly, pulling it back with a small heave. You adjust your gaze upwards and you are met with an even straighter gaze. Shirley Manson, 30, long and lean, a flurry of red hair and skin hovering just above pale, walks ahead of you and folds herself onto the bed.

She sits, one leg bent under, the other stretched out in its army-disposal pants along the rumpled bed in this Sydney hotel room whose impersonality is heightened by its role as a mere staging post for Manson, a holding pen for journalists while she sleeps elsewhere.

She is confident, at ease. Not for her the cradling, the defensive deployment of the teacups before her as a tiny but symbolic barrier.

And why should there be? Manson is talking up the new album from Garbage and it's an easy sell. Her problem, if anything, is to slow down the express train riding the expectations.

After all, her effusive label boss, Michael Gudinski, late last year predicted the new Garbage album, Version 2.0, would be "the Sergeant Pepper's of the '90s"; the first album sold more than 4 million copies on the back of grabby singles such as Queer, Vow and Only Happy When It Rains - along the way making Manson and friends wealthy; the group's mix of pop and electronica sparked a trend for cross-genre success ridden by such unlikely bedfellows as Spiderbait and Kylie Minogue; and Manson became a symbol of lippy girls with more to say than "you hurt me" or "I'm a bitch" or "isn't it ironic?"

At the time we speak she's already thinking of their New York shows in a few weeks, and I mention that my memory of the first time Garbage played in Sydney was that there was a sense of separation between band and music, band and audience.

She leaps immediately, agreeing that that Hordern Pavilion show had not quite worked but drawing on a little bit of history for explanation.

"Australia was the only place where we were asked to defend our use of technology," she says in a Scottish accent untouched by several years of living on and off in a hotel room in Wisconsin. Recently married, Manson lives in Edinburgh.

"I remember that gig being really uncomfortable; we weren't happy with it. We don't play well if the audience isn't into it and that night there was a group down the front really into it but then there was this clear gap and then a lot of people like this [she folds her arms] waiting for us to prove ourselves. There was still this pub rock mentality of sequencers, sampling, loops were wrong."

Some of the blame for the short-of-perfect gig could be blamed on the band not really having existed for long despite having recorded an album, but the New York shows in May suggest that while Garbage have the sound down pat, they have yet to work out how to translate the relative warmth of their records to the stage. When Manson is projecting nothing else matters; when she steps back nothing else happens.

Manson, however, is right about the blinkered attitude of Australia in general in the early '90s. For a country that had never really taken dance music seriously - at first too black, then too wimpy and finally too druggy - the mix of dance and pop and rock favoured by Garbage was suspiciously like manufactured music.

After all, some of those sounds up there were not coming from an obvious instrument. "Who were the fakers?" you could hear the cynics ask.

The strange thing about the band's creation, though, is not only did the quartet emerge from the deep nothingness of Wisconsin with something special, but the subsequent touring actually gelled the mix 'n' match collection of individuals as a band. A band that pulled off their brazen appropriation of multiple musical personalities.

It was a "band", not a project therefore, that went back to Madison a year ago to record album number two.

As befitting a title such as Version 2.0, the result is both more of the same and yet more. Once again the beats, loops, samples and rhythms rocket along, once again Manson's vocal melodies are the sugar helping the sometimes-sharp, sometimes-twisted lyrical medicine go down.

But this time it's as if everything is more pronounced. Though no song sticks its neck out completely, almost every one of them is a little dirtier underneath (some vicious guitar sounds, some punishing samples) and prettier on top, with some undeniably sweet melodies.

The thing is, of course, that it's not enough in the '90s to be refining your sound, you have to be different, to be new all the time for a legion of critics and easily bored fans. Just ask Portishead or Massive Attack (whose new album Manson plays almost obsessively), who have faced criticism this year for not breaking new ground with their recent releases.

Manson hates the notion, hates it with the sort of vehemence that propels her off the bedhead and upright, scrunching some paper in her hand.

"I think our society is becoming obsessed with wanting something new every single minute of the day and I find it terrifying," she spits out. "I actually find these people obsessed with the future, and about change and not knowing the past. And Garbage deliberately remain true to our past; we pull our past with us and that's deliberate.

"We find the whole consumer ideology really innately disturbing. But for me, and us, we always fell in love with bands and personalities in bands who remained like tanks, throughout time. They passed through regardless of what was happening in the fashion world, and people's tastes and people desires, they just drove forward and came out of your TV screens solid and strong."

But wait, there's more, for this is one topic for which Manson has been readying herself.

"We were determined to hang on to our identity as a band because God knows in today's climate, where there are millions of bands all vying for one TV show, one radio slot, it's imperative that you have an identity . . . [so] that when people switch on the radio they can say `That's Garbage, that's the new song from Garbage'. And we're obsessed with that; we want to keep that because we think it's precious."

So what then is their sound? The question prompts a grab at the tea, a long slurp, and then the deep breath before the answer.

"I don't think anyone's found a way of hitting on us yet. We're a pop hybrid, we're a rock band trying to make pop music using electronica. We're that strange mixture. We laugh our heads off with this nonsense that since the resurgence of electronic music people have said the guitar is dead. Bullshit. We love guitars, there's nothing in the world which sounds like guitar; you can't fake it because it's all to do with physicality, physically striking strings.

"We went to a Radiohead show in Chicago which was incredible; they're an amazing band; it was the first time in years I completely lost myself in the music. I was just in some other stratosphere. And at the end of the show we went back to the bar and I met this character who was famous for hanging around rock bands six months previous to this show.

"I went up to him and I said, `What did you think of the show?' and he said, `It was all right but I only listen to electronica these days' and I thought, `You know what, you are an asshole, you know nothing about music, you can't let music just envelop you regardless of what it is. You are unable to hear music, you are an idiot, you are using music as an accessory.' "

This eloquence, this fire, not to mention a lyrical persona of attitude and a stage presence that even in the barn of the Hordern pulled every eye to her and no-one else but her, has drawn comparisons.

First, with Blondie's Deborah Harry - and certainly a song such as Version 2.0's lead-off, Temptation Waits, plays this to the hilt with mumbled, almost disdainful delivery and a melody circa Blondie's seminal late-'70s album, Parallel Lines. But a more appropriate role model would appear to be Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders.

Not since Hynde had a woman really managed to give plenty of lip without sounding forced or as if she were trying to out-testosterone the bullyboys. “You can look but you can't touch, I don't think I like you much,” Manson sings in I Think I'm Paranoid, but it's not done with post-Alanis bile; instead there's the faintest curl of the lip and the sense that the line is being delivered over her shoulder as she moves on to more important matters.

In fact, Manson does a spot-on Hynde towards the end of Special, with an interpolation of the Pretenders' Talk Of The Town and the kiss-off "I thought you were special", with its unspoken subtext, but you're not.

Just as Hynde survived the new wave crest and crash, you suspect the intelligent and fearless Manson will survive this or next year's trends. So the thought occurs: this is Shirley Manson at 30, but was Shirley Manson at 15, standing at the school dance, this lippy? Was she the dancing queen or the wallflower?

"I was a funny mixture. I was always lippy; I was also internally a wallflower. I was never asked to dance. Men didn't really like me at school at all.

"Since then I am actually very good friends with males from our school and they say, `We loved you, we were just scared of you' but I, of course, in my teenage angst, thought they hated me. The bastards." And she cranks up the volume, a shit-eating grin spreading across her face as she goes into mock distress: "Why didn't they tell me . . . the bastards."

The throaty laugh stays with you as the door closes behind. You remember her comment, almost an afterthought, when you asked her if things were different now: "They don't ask me now, they're still afraid."

Silly boys.

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