Shirley Manson Looks Back On 20 Years of Garbage's 'Sci-Fi Pop' Odyssey, 'Version 2.0'

Maryanne Bilham Photography/Redferns

Garbage photographed circa 1998.

“The sonic equivalent of how 'Blade Runner' looks is what we were chasing.”

This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, we talk to Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson about Version 2.0, the band's Grammy-nominated '98 sophomore LP, and how the set proved how ahead of their time Garbage was.

Shirley Manson is feeling reflective these days about Garbage’s 1998 sophomore LP, Version 2.0. Packed with disruptive radio hits like “Push It” and “I Think I’m Paranoid,” the groundbreaking album’s importance in securing Garbage’s status as fierce contenders in the late-1990s alt rock arena is not lost on the band’s front woman.

“To me, that was the moment when everything became solidified,” Manson tells Billboard on a Friday afternoon in early May, just one week shy of Version 2.0’s 20th anniversary. “We became, in my mind, a real band, whatever that means. It meant something to me to be recognized as a band that wasn’t just a flash in the pan. I questioned whether we would be able to repeat the success of the first record.”

On the surface, the quartet’s self-titled debut arrived like some alien from a strange corner of the music universe in 1995. However, the band had pedigree that made them at least partly familiar to ‘90s rock audiences. Drummer Butch Vig and guitarist Steve Marker had co-founded Madison, Wisconsin-based Smart Studios in 1983, where they produced local bands, and Vig’s technical knack later found him seated behind the boards for three LPs that became pillars of early-’90s alternative: Nirvana’s Nevermind and Smashing PumpkinsGish and Siamese Dream. Meanwhile, bassist Duke Erikson had previously played in Spooner, a Madison band, alongside Vig.

While forming Garbage in 1993, all three men had a desire to avoid the grunge sound, and felt a female singer would be better suited to front their still-developing act. That’s when Marker caught the video for “Suffocate Me” by Scottish band Angelfish on MTV’s 120 Minutes. The vocalist on the song was Shirley Manson, who Vig invited Manson to Smart Studios to try out for the open vocalist slot in Garbage in 1994. The first audition didn’t go so hot, but once Angelfish eventually disbanded, Manson reached out to Vig once more and they four musicians ultimately found their groove.

By 1995, their self-titled debut album had set its sights on alternative radio, with hits like “Vow” and “Queer.” The top 40 crossover hit “Stupid Girl” then helped Garbage reach Platinum sales and MTV dominance in 1996.  An extensive tour followed, as did “#1 Crush,” a soundtrack contribution for Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet adaptation which became the group’s first No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart in early ‘97. Still, Manson remained cautious. “I’m familiar with rock and roll history, and the statistics are not in a band’s favor when they follow up their ridiculously successful debut,” she notes.

She needn’t have worried: Version 2.0 quickly followed the debut to Platinum status in the U.S., with four million copies of the LP sold worldwide. Aiding the sophomore set’s success was the emergence of Pro Tools technology, which Garbage was one of the first major bands to really take advantage of. The quartet was also influenced by the trip-hop sound emerging from Bristol they had fallen for on their prior U.K. tour.  “We kept using this phrase: sci-fi pop. We wanted to make a sci-fi pop record, whatever that means,” Manson explains.

Version 2.0 matched the self-titled’s radio supremacy, with both “Push It” and “Paranoid” becoming top ten alternative hits, and the Pretenders-referencing third single “Special” just missing the top tier with its No. 11 peak. The LP was also heavily recognized at the 1999 Grammys, where Garbage found themselves up for both best rock album and album of the year. “Nobody knew where this was going,” Manson admits. “[The album] is sort of this bridge between analog and digital, and old school and new school as we know it today.”

On June 22, PIAS and Garbage’s own label, Stunvolume, will jointly reissue Version 2.0 in a special edition that includes 10 B-sides from the album’s late-’90s era, with a stateside tour to follow in the fall. Ahead of that, Shirley happily pulls the curtain back a bit on the making of the band’s seminal 1998 LP for Billboard, and gives some insight on when to expect brand new music from Garbage.

Before this reissue of Version 2.0 came about, had you listened to the album in recent years?

SM: No, I hadn’t, to be honest. I hadn’t listened in 20 years. So it was quite a revelation.

You’ll obviously be diving back in with both feet soon, with the tour coming up.

SM: We won’t get into rehearsal until August, I think. But we had the record remastered and we gave it a listen. I re-familiarised myself with the songs. We had such a great time when we stepped out for the 20th anniversary of our first album that it seemed somewhat inappropriate not to also mark the 20th anniversary of Version 2.0.

After the success of Garbage’s debut LP, did you take a break before work started on Version 2.0?

I was keen to get going, because I knew that you have to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak. It’s such a highly competitive game. The music business is not for the faint of heart. It’s tough and it’s ruthless, and if you step out of your seat for ten seconds, somebody’s gonna sit down in it. I’d been in [another] band for 10 years, and I knew enough to know the position we were in with Garbage. I wanted to capitalize on that.

My memory is that I was very pushy. I think my bandmates were a wee bit reluctant; they’re a lot more laid back than I am. But the record company was on my side. I think we took something like six weeks off, maybe eight. We took a Christmas vacation and then we went into the writing of Version 2.0.

Did you go into that writing process with lyric ideas ready, or did the music inform the lyrics you wrote for the album?

We jammed all these songs. We went up to the San Juan Islands [off the coast of Washington state] and we recorded in the home of Jerry Moss, who was at the time the head of our label. He had a home in Friday Harbor. So we went up and wrote for three or four weeks.

Everything was done in a jam situation. Nothing was premeditated. Nothing had been worked on previous to that. We’d come off an 18-month tour, and we were pretty confident since we were playing together as a band. There was a certain kind of confidence that came from the success, and also a real curiosity about the new technology that was really coming to the fore.

People forget just how momentous the mid ’90s were in terms of technology in general, but specifically focusing on music technology. We were beta-testing a lot of the software that everybody uses today. The world had never discovered Digidesign or Pro Tools. Version 2.0 is interesting because it’s coming from an analog mindset, but it utilizes this new technology. Nobody had a clue, including the designers, who were on the phone to Butch [Vig] and our engineer. Nobody knew where this was going. [The album] is sort of this bridge between analog and digital, and old school and new school as we know it today.

Was there a theme or sound you four were aiming to achieve when you went into these jam sessions?

It’s funny, because we never have a plan, ever. Everybody at the time was very suspicious of us as a band, because they thought that because there were three, in inverted commas, "producers" in the band, somehow we had some blueprint for success. That wasn’t the case at all.

And in fact, Butch is the only producer in Garbage who has done anything outside of the band. In the case of our band, we all muddle in. It’s not like Butch sits there and makes every decision. There’s a very strange, sort of chaotic situation in Garbage that I don’t think anybody fully understood because of Butch’s reputation -- a well-earned reputation.

I can’t stress this new technology enough. We didn’t really have a plan, but we were all well aware that we could make something that nobody had really done before, because we had all this technology at our disposal.

When all was said and done, what was it that you feel you finally made with the album?

The only way I can describe it is that we wanted to make a record that sort of sounded like Blade Runner. The sonic equivalent of how Blade Runner looks is what we were chasing. Whether we got there or not is open to argument.

I’d argue that you hit that goal. It’s been noted you lived in a hotel in Wisconsin during the recording of Version 2.0. Where did you technically call home at that point?

I was living in a hotel on the edge of a lake in Madison, Wisconsin, but home was Scotland, for sure. It remains that way, even though I don’t spend a lot of time there.

I did live a very peculiar life. I was a shut-in at the time, in a strange hotel where there were very few other guests. It was very much like The Shining. It sounds like an exaggeration, but it really, really was. The hotel I stayed in has since been refurbished, but back then it hadn’t been touched, I think, since the 1940s. It was a very old, decrepit hotel where they had photographs of Elvis up in the lobby, because Elvis had stayed there once.

It was manned by one lonely person at the reception desk, and then me shuffling between hotel room and vending machine. I would eat food out of a vending machine, because that’s all that I could afford, and then I would shuffle back to my room. It was really unglamorous! At the time I was one of the most successful female rock stars, you know, and I was living this very strange, almost Grey Gardens-like existence. Although, I must emphasize that I did not eat the cat food. If you’ve ever seen Grey Gardens, you’ll understand what that means!

What were you personally listening to at the points when you were recording this album and when it was released?

We were very influenced as a band by the Bristol sound we had encountered when we toured the U.K. with the first record. We’d become very interested in the electronic scene, whether it was The Prodigy or Chemical Brothers or Tricky or Portishead. I was also listening to PJ Harvey and Fiona Apple and Hole -- all my peers, basically, because I found it really exciting. We also got very into Timbaland and Missy Elliott and Lil Kim. Missy Elliott, in particular, made this sonic impression on us.

That list of artists really brings back a time and a place.

What was great about the ’90s was that it was so eclectic. There was no one genre that dominated over the other, and there just didn’t seem such an obsession with money and success as there is now. It seems everyone’s really impressed by an artist now if they’re selling a lot and they have a lot of money at their disposal.

Whereas in the ’90s, what was beautiful is you’d have all these incredible artists, whether it was Eminem or the Beastie Boys or Missy Elliott, who were all selling like hotcakes, but they were viewed in the same way that smaller artists were, whether it was PJ or it was Nick Cave or Alanis [Morissette] or No Doubt or Garbage. Every artist was treated the same way.

Listening to Version 2.0 two decades later, what songs jump out at you as favorites?

I mean, if I had a gun to my head I would make a choice. I just don’t really think along those lines, you know? I feel like what’s so great about Version 2.0 is that there are so many songs on there that have stood the test of time, whether it is “Push It,” which has become a massive Garbage anthem, or “The Trick Is To Keep Breathing,” which is a little classic. It’s a song that fans keep referring to over and over the years. It’s also a song that new fans gravitate towards. I’m just proud of the record as a whole. I feel like it goes on this strange little journey. I love “Hammering In My Head.” It’s so fantastic and exciting, and I love playing it live.

So, yeah -- it’s difficult to choose between your babies. One must try never to play favorites.

It truly is a record best taken in as a whole. And two decades later it still plays like a perfect album, from beginning to end.

Thank you. I really appreciate you saying that. You know, it doesn’t sound this way now, but back then, nobody had heard music that sounded like that before. There was a handful of artists at that time using Digidesign and what turned into Pro Tools. We were all using the same gadgets for the first time, so we were able to do things on record that people had really struggled to do in the past. All of a sudden, you found it was easy to accomplish certain things and sounds and atmosphere. So it was a sort of genre-breaking album, in its own way. I think it had an influence the shaping of contemporary music.

Just as iconic as the singles themselves from this album are the music videos, particularly “Push It,” “I Think I’m Paranoid” and “Special.”

I love making videos. It was a very expensive endeavor which impacted our lives in massive ways. But we really invested in our videos, because we believed in not only the power of them, but the beauty of them. We basically approached making videos like we were making little movies. We always strived to makes something visually arresting. We took the picking of our directors very seriously. We put as much energy into making videos, in some regard, as we did making the record.

One of the many things that’s different in 2018 compared to 1998 is that Version 2.0 is getting a vinyl release with this new package. Do you play vinyl at home?

I had an amazing record collection that I built from when I was very young and I was very proud of. I had a huge flood in my Scottish home a few years ago, and it destroyed it almost completely. I think I managed to salvage about a hundred records, but everything else got completely destroyed. It still stings me to this day whenever I go over and look at my paltry collection.

But I do love vinyl, and I think that it’s enjoying this incredible resurgence in popularity is due to the fact that it’s something very special to those of us who take music very seriously, and who enjoy the whole ritual of music-listening. You know, listening is something we culturally have forgotten about. We’re all broadcasting, but we’re not necessarily listening. What’s beautiful about vinyl is that it forces not only putting the record on the turntable, but the people in the room, it forces you to listen. I think we’re getting to reassess the value of that in recent years, which is something lovely. Thank god, and long may it continue.

If you’re lazy like me, you’ll hit play seven times on Side A, so it really lets the music sink in before you move on to side B.

It’s almost like the way we currently ingest music [digitally] is the way we have sex when we’re young. There’s no investment. There’s no emotion whatsoever. It’s like you jump under the cover, you pull your pants down -- boom! Within about 30 seconds, somebody’s fucking cum. Whereas when you listen to a [vinyl] record, it makes me think you’re investing in the art of sex! Actually investing in it, and discovering great, extraordinary feelings.

That should be the perfect note to end on, but there is just once more question: Is there any movement on a seventh Garbage studio album?

We’re aiming to finish the record for release next year. I’m always a little skeptical to say stuff like that because you never fucking know what’s gonna happen. But we’ve started writing, and we have an idea for a direction. Everyone’s pretty excited and we’re all on the same page. My problem is that your intentions never really get realized when you’re in a band, because you’ve got four people pulling the cart and the cart gets pulled in a billion and one different directions. What you end up with is entirely different from what you imagined before you started.

But I’m excited, and I also feel gratitude to know that we’re one of the very few that have survived our generation, basically. There are very few of us left standing. We get to tour and share the stage with incredible artists and live as musicians. To me that is just an extraordinary privilege, so I’m amazed. I can’t believe my fucking luck!

Garbage’s Version 2.0 will be re-released on June 22.


The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to

To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.