Shirley Manson on Garbage's fierce new protest album: 'If they ever kill me for anything that I ever say, just know I lived in truth'

Garbage's Steve Marker, Butch Vig, Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson (Photo: Sacks & Co.)
Garbage's Steve Marker, Butch Vig, Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson (Photo: Sacks & Co.)

“The men who rule the world have made a f***king mess,” Shirley Manson forebodingly intones in the very first line of the very first track of No Gods No Masters, the long-awaited seventh album by alt-rock icons Garbage. “I mean, it is literal,” Manson says flatly, when asked about the decision to open the record with the explosive manifesto “The Men Who Rule the World,” which also includes the ferocious chant “The violator, hate the violator/The violator, destroy the violator.”

“I do think the men that have controlled the world have made a mess,” Manson tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. “I would really love to see the implementation of some brand-new ideas, instead of the age-old ideas that have been trotted out for over a century now. I just want to see representation of other people, other colors, other creeds, other genders. I'm really sick of the old ways. … I believe that nobody has the right to tell anybody how to live, as long as they're not hurting someone else, and I feel like everyone's worthy of respect and kindness. I know that sounds Pollyanna, but I have to reach for that, because I feel like things have gotten pretty dark in the world.”

A press release for No Gods No Masters describes the record in quite un-Pollyanna-esque terms, as “a critique of the rise of capitalist short-sightedness, racism, sexism, and misogyny across the world.” And much of the album taps into the same vitriol as Garbage’s one-off single “No Horses” and its Handsmaid’s Tale-evoking music video, which were released in 2017 shortly after Donald Trump took office. However, while Manson says, “I think ‘No Horses’ kicked my brain off,” and she rather understatedly describes No Gods No Masters as “a bit of a protest record,” she stresses, “I don’t think of [the album] as political. It’s been described as political, simply because I'm voicing opinions that are not necessarily very popular. But I am not affiliated with any political party. I am no fan of any politician, really. There's maybe two that I have some respect for — grudging respect — but in general, I feel like they all drink the Kool-Aid and they all take the big check and sell out the people. I'm on the side of the people. That is all I care about. I want things to be better for the majority of people — and the minority of people. I want it sorted. That's what we pay you [politicians] for. Get it done.”

Manson also clarifies that, despite the album’s title, she’s “not anti-faith. If you have a faith, full respect to you. My problem is people that claim to have faith, act like they have faith, and call it ‘faith,’ but they're not practicing the basic tenets of any organized religion that I've ever known.” The album's title track was actually inspired by Manson’s 2019 working trip to Santiago, Chile, when she witnessed the protests against corruption and inequality in that country.

“That experience was crazy,” Manson recalls. “I mean, I just got invited down there. I was helping film a documentary about the Pinochet [disappearances]. If you know anything about the Pinochet regime, they abused the people of Chile — violently kidnapped them and tortured them and killed them. To this day, there are women who are still searching for their beloveds, even to just have it acknowledged that they existed. And so we were down there making that documentary, and just by sheer chance, I arrived to film and there was an explosion of social unrest. It was arguably a revolution by the people of Chile against the abuses by the government. … The people went off, and I had never seen anything like in my life. And I was driving one of the streets of Santiago and there was graffiti all over the city, like over a lot of these really beautiful old buildings, and I said to the people I was with, ‘Wow, this is terrible! They've just absolutely ruined the city!’ And they very gently schooled me and said, ‘How can you have compassion for buildings, but none for the people?’ And in that moment, it shifted my whole perspective. I will never again feel more sympathy for a graffiti’d building than I will for human beings trying to fight for the rights. And then I saw that play out again, a few months later, with the Black Lives Matter protests here in Los Angeles: Once again, there was a whole glut of people going, ‘They're being really destructive!’ And it's like, why don't you care about the destruction of their beautiful Black bodies? How about that? Let's start there, and then we'll worry about the buildings.”

Manson is just as outspoken about her beliefs (whether she’d describe them as “political” or not) on Garbage’s social media, which she controls on behalf of the band. And while she sometimes catches flak for that, she is, unsurprisingly, unbothered — as are her more low-key bandmates of more than 25 years. “Shirley is the MVP of Garbage, and she is the frontperson for us, and we as a band pretty much all believe in the same philosophy,” states admittedly social media-averse Garbage drummer/super-producer Butch Vig. “So she speaks for all of us. I mean, sometimes she will say things that I wouldn't necessarily say — in fact, quite often! — but I respect her so much for that. Because especially for a woman, just to see how many fans react and listen to what she's saying, it's important. She's being honest, calling it as she sees it. She'll be the first one to say that she's not always right, or even if she’s wrong, but as a band, we support her 100 percent.”

“I've had a lot of kickback over the years, and I just push back against it,” Manson says. “I'm not having somebody silence me or bully me, or think that somehow their opinion is more important than mine. You don't have to agree with me, but this is what I believe. And this is what I want to put on the record. So am I quite, um, opinionated? Sure. I’ve always been opinionated, since I stepped out in ‘95 or whatever year it was, and I haven't changed. And I don't think I ever will. You know, I said to my husband one day, ‘If they ever kill me for anything that I ever say, just know I lived in truth.’ I'd rather say something than not say it. I'd rather stick up for people than not stick up for them just because I'm fearful for myself. That's just how I was brought up, and how I will go to the grave.”

No Gods No Masters is no doubt Garbage’s darkest album to date, but it’s also one of their best — and it’s certainly not dour or humorless, as any fan familiar with Manson’s quick wit or onstage charisma would expect. Vig proudly says the album is “sonically fractured-sounding, in a good way, really schizophrenia and kind of all over the place and jarring, but also beautiful,” and he describes some tracks as Roxy Music-inspired or “sort of if Talking Heads took LSD.” There’s a lot of joy in the album’s raucous bonus-disc collaborations with the Distillers’ Brody Dalle, X’s Exene Cervenka and John Doe, Screaming Females, and Silversun Pickups’ Brian Aubert. And other guests who’ve appeared on Manson’s wonderful songwriting-centric podcast The Jump also provide inspiration. In fact, a lighter verse from the above-mentioned “The Men Who Rule the World” — “Now let's save all of the animals/Let's save all the squid/Let's load them onto the mothership/With the elders and the kids” — was inspired by the Prime Minister of Funk himself.

“I had the immense honor of sitting down with the most incredible George Clinton and spending a couple of hours in his presence,” Manson marvels. “And after speaking with him, I was so on fire. I felt like my veins were on fire, like I was full of fire. And I got to the studio and the band were working on what would eventually become ‘The Men Who Rule the World.’ I just heard this stomping and I had this vision come to me, which I'm sure George Clinton sent to me through the ethernet, of a futuristic retelling of Noah's Ark. Instead of the Noah's Ark, George's mothership came down to Earth, and everything beautiful and innocent and divine was squired onto his mothership, and George took them away to safety. And everything vile was left behind. And that’s what that song’s about.”

Animal references seem to be a recurring theme on No Gods No Masters. Along with “No Horses” and Manson’s reimagined Noah’s Ark fable, there’s “Wolves,” which was inspired by an Eastern European fairytale and is about “wrestling with violence and aggression and animalistic tendencies within ourselves.” More loosely, there’s also “Flipping the Bird,” which was influenced by another The Jump guest and Manson’s fellow ‘90s alt-rock heroine, Liz Phair. “I interviewed Liz for my podcast, came to the studio, and the band were working on a track. I was like, ‘I'm going to try and channel Liz,’” Manson recalls with a chuckle. “And I really pitched my voice low like she does and sang a sort of a sassy, anti-patriarchal, anti-mansplaining, anti-manspreading song that I felt was in the vein of Liz. I mean, she'll probably be appalled and go, ‘That doesn't sound anything like me!’ But I was holding her in myself, because I'd just been with her and her whole aura was still resonating inside me. So, I’d like to think there’s a wee bit of Liz Phair in there.”

Garbage will be touring with Phair and another trailblazing peer, Alanis Morissette, starting in August this year. When asked if she has any reentry anxiety triggered by the prospect performing concerts for big crowds again, after more than a year of being off the road due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Manson quips without missing a beat: “Oh, I have no anxiety about playing for anyone. I've been doing it since I was 15.” As for how she’s stayed so stayed fierce after all these years, Manson, now age 54, laughs, “I mean, I don't know. I'm a Scottish redhead. I'm a Viking.” However, she adds, “People assume it's an easy thing to do, but it's not an easy thing to do, to remain fierce as you get older — to remain uncompromising, to remain unwilling to sell yourself cheap. It takes a lot of determination and courage.”

During her slate of press interviews for No Gods No Masters, a recurring ageist/sexist question was regarding when Manson intends to retire — and of course, an annoyed Manson was quick to go on Twitter and put those insensitive journalists on blast. She clearly has no immediate retirement plans, as she creates some of the fiercest and most relevant music of her career, but she muses: “I think there's something as you get older, as a woman, [the idea] that your time's running out. Like, I'm not going to be able to do this forever. ... I'm a lot more physical than [many other lead singers] are onstage, and I think, ‘Oh man, what happens when my knees actually explode?’ But it’s tough, because let’s face it, there is more of a tolerance for older men in the music industry than there is for women. And that's just a fact. We could argue about this, but it's a fact. There's just a handful of women who get to do it beyond being, you know, 30 and f***able. As you get older, it's not easy, and it's not for the faint of heart. I believe in my ability to do it for a long time from here, but whether I'll be able to, I don’t know.

“So I'm greedy. I don't have much patience. And I want my time.”

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This above interview has been edited for length and clarity and is taken from Shirley Manson and Butch Vig's appearances on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of those conversations are available via the SiriusXM app.