Q&A: Marilyn Manson
Our epic chat with rock's oversharing provocateur covers ex-girlfriend Evan Rachel Wood, $200K drug budgets, self-harm, and much (much!) more.
Marilyn Manson may shave his eyebrows, down Abinsthe, consume narcotics, sing about swastikas, and feign masturbation onstage, but on the phone, the man born Brian Warner is chattier than a seventh-grade girl — dude talks and talks and talks and talks and talks and talks and talks… without pause. And it’s all wildly entertaining — and, at times, revolting.
While we dialed Manson to discuss The High End of Low, his reunion album with bassist Twiggy Ramirez, which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart last month, the rocker’s always got other things on his mind — who are we to change the subject?
For nearly two hours, Manson touched on nearly every aspect of his life, from his $200,000 on-tour drug habit to being blamed for school shootings to the depression he suffered after splitting from his girlfriend, actress Evan Rachel Wood. He even crossed all lines of decency (as usual), revealing in a TMI moment that he’d been flinging semen-filled condoms at a wall right before our interview. Wholesome!
Manson moves fast and has lots to say, whether it’s intelligent, disgusting, scary, insightful, ridiculous, unbelievable, or heartfelt — so hang on tight.
Hey Marilyn. How are you doing?
It depends, are we going to make this a “shit on Manson” interview, or are we going to make it a good interview?
This is going to be the best interview ever.
Good…. I was going to email you a photograph I just took. It’s of a new piece of modern art I created. Let’s call this work my Jack-off Pollack, of sorts. I had two condoms — alien things to me, I haven’t seen them in 25 years — and I threw them on the mirror, and they stuck, and they formed this piece of modern art. And I can’t decide what to call it. I’m thinking about calling it “I Don’t Want You to be Cursed With My Retarded Child,” or “It’s Not Just Love, It’s a Lifestyle,” because they were Lifestyle condoms.
Would the name be different if they were Magnum or Trojan condoms?
I suppose. I was just curious what I could do with a condom filled with my semen, other than the obvious damage that one could do.
Well, you know, you could be sanitary and throw it away?
It was like a piñata of disease and babies and confusion. It’s literally just dripping down as we speak, two of them. I just wanted to make sure that you know that I can perform. I want to make sure that my sexual prowess is established here. I’d love this photo to be on the cover of SPIN.
What’s up with your album’s title, The High End of Low?
I went through a tough period over Christmas, during which I learned the difference between love and dependence, and the difference between weakness and desire. And it made a big difference in my life.
So I came back [to the studio] on January 2, and I saw my only friends, which at this point is the band, and everyone asked me, “How’re you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m at the high end of low.” And automatically I knew that that’s what the record was going to called.
It really defines the record, which is about falling from grace and trying to fit in and be accepted as a mortal or as a normal person when people don’t see you as that. It’s also about giving up what you are to prove that you love somebody more than you love yourself. When you get to that point you’re unlovable. And for me, halfway through the record, you can hear it. It went from despair to anger, it’s like passing through the stages of destruction and reconstruction.
What was the recording process like? It’s been over seven years since you and Twiggy worked together. Was that tough?
Well, it’s the album that Twiggy and I always wanted to make. And unfortunately, or fortunately, it took us being apart to get to that place. He went and he did things on his own, and I did things on my own, and we both did things that we’re proud of. He started with the music and I wrote the lyrics, and I was involved in production in a different sense. [Producer/ex-Nine Inch Nails drummer] Chris Vrenna played the role of the responsible person, although we tormented him plenty. I’m in a vocal booth, isolated, with my every breath and wheezing deviated septum and coughing and vomiting and ejaculating, whatever noises are coming out of me, I made [Vrenna] write down my lyrics. A lot of times, I went into songs with ideas only formed in the part of my head that I don’t know how to operate, the subconscious.
But that doesn’t mean I was improvising — I don’t even know what that means. I don’t want people to ever get confused when someone says, “Oh the record sounds really raw, really unproduced.” It was a clear choice in production style, and it doesn’t mean that it was easy to record or produce; it means that you have to do things differently. I came off of Eat Me, Drink Me with this fantasy, a Shakespearean ideal of romance, you know, this “If the world doesn’t understand us, then let’s die together” thing. Which, now, I think is cowardice. And you hear that going into the first track. The songs appear on the album in the order in which I sang them. “Devour” was the first one — and it was the hardest one to get too.
Why was that song so emotionally tough for you?
That song is about when someone said to me, “Okay, I want to be with you until I die.” And then they gave up. I was at the point in my life where I was like, “Okay, let’s die, but I tell you what, I’m going to kill you first, because I don’t trust you.” Honestly. It’s hard to look back and see myself as the same person. I’m very objective now. I started to apply this really fantastic rule that they don’t teach you in AA or AAA, or any other acronym: Do drugs and drink when you’re happy, not when you’re sad. It has a great effect. But I can’t say that I did that the whole time.
When I was making Eat Me, Drink Me, I felt like the future version of me came back and saw the old version, and instead of killing the future version, the old version of me was buried with Eat Me, Drink Me. In some anomaly, if you want to look at it in a science fiction way, the Manson that exists now is not even the same person that had anything to do with the past 39 years of my life. The record, the 15th track, was finished on my birthday — 1-5-69. The 15s are just overwhelming on the record. It’s my number. It’s the Devil card in the Tarot. I have it tattooed behind my ear. It’s probably the new number of the beast.
You and Twiggy spent nearly a decade apart. How did you guys get back together?
It was completely fateful. I went down into the lobby of the hotel I was staying at — much like right now I didn’t have a place to stay. It was the Roosevelt Hotel, which many consider to be haunted. This was during a break on the Eat Me, Drink Me tour, right before Christmas 2007. We ran into each other completely by accident, and he looked like I felt a year before that. And I suddenly realized that he’d finally grown into that stage in your life where you take the risk of commitment and fear and loss, and that never existed before for either of us because we had each other.
We both got ourselves into a lot of relationships that were probably unfair because of our lack of one another — we tried to have the girls in our lives fill a void that was missing in us as best friends. Looking back now I realize that played a big part. And him coming back into my life caused a great disruption in my past relationship, it just changed me in a way that initially was euphoric. I had no hesitation to tell Tim Skold, who had taken his place, “Look, this has to happen. I’m sorry, goodbye.” So we just toured for about a month, and we wanted to keep going, so we started writing the record. First and foremost I’m married to what I do, every artist is. And I think that was something that didn’t make sense in my past relationship. And I felt torn, like I was supposed to choose between the two. And I couldn’t, it was hard. So I ended up just burning one to the ground and just trying to salvage the other one while it was happening.
It sounds like the period after you and Evan Rachel Wood broke up was really tough. What was your lowest point?
I sing about it on “Into the Fire.” I say, “If you want to hit bottom, don’t bother trying to take me with you.” My lowest point was Christmas Day 2008, because I didn’t speak to my family. My walls were covered in scrawlings of the lyrics and cocaine bags nailed to the wall. And I did have an experience where I was struggling to deal with being alone and being forsaken and being betrayed by putting your trust in one person, and making the mistake of that being the wrong person. And that’s a mistake that everyone can relate to. I made the mistake of trying to, desperately, grasp on and save that and own it. And every time I called her that day — I called 158 times — I took a razorblade and I cut myself on my face or on my hands.
I look back and it was a really stupid thing to do. This was intentional, this was a scarification, and this was like a tattoo. I wanted to show her the pain she put me through. It was like, “I want you to physically see what you’ve done.” It sounds made up but it’s completely true and I don’t give a shit if people believe it or not. I’ve got the scars to prove it. I didn’t want people to ask me every time I did an interview, “Oh, is this record about your relationship with your ex-girlfriend?” But that damage is part of it, and the song “I Want to Kill You Like They Do in The Movies” is about my fantasies. I have fantasies every day about smashing her skull in with a sledgehammer.
Um, I don’t think you can’t wrap that up and put it under the tree.
You can wrap that up with Band-Aids. I can laugh about it now because it’s a process I went through, and I need to have a sense of humor about it. That’s the only way that you can be me. Everyone is so, “Marilyn Manson is so serious, so eloquent, so intelligent, because he managed to have a sentence that had more words in it than I could think of, and, you know, Bowling for Columbine.” Whatever. That’s a compliment and all, but the whole point of the name Marilyn Manson sums that up — it’s a contradiction, an odd pairing.
And of course, a couple weeks ago that eighth grader said, “Hail Marilyn Manson,” then shot a teacher. It’s surprising because on the first song on the record, “Arma-Goddamned-Motherfuckin-Geddon,” I say, “Fuck the TV and the radio, I’m gonna take credit for the death toll.” It’s all I get blamed for. I don’t get credit for anything else. So if I’m going to get blamed for it, I want credit for it. I’m not saying I agree with it, but I’m not saying I don’t agree with it. I’m not going to be some kind of PC, tree-hugger. I’m the last person that causes harm in the world, and if people are worried about what my music does, why isn’t anyone saying, “Hey, shouldn’t we worry about what he does?” Besides throwing used rubbers on the wall.
Obviously I’m dangerous enough to make songs that are so problematic. I had my phone tapped by the FBI during Columbine. I’ve had more death threats than I care to remember. It’s a never-ending process where I sleep at night, sometimes, but I’m never kept up by a concern for my life’s safety. I can’t go to sleep at night if I didn’t accomplish at least something. That’s the one thing that keeps me up. It’s not partying; I don’t even know what that word means. Partying implies that you have a hat, and it was fun… with clowns.
What’s your reaction to the media scapegoating? I imagine the incident with the eighth grader brought a barrage of calls, letters, emails, etc. What was your initial reaction to the story?
Initial reaction: Where did he get the gun… and why can’t I get one? It’s shocking to me that it’s easier to buy a gun at Wal-Mart than it is to buy my record. And it’s entertainment, it’s music, but that doesn’t mean it has no value. In no way would I say that what I do is just entertainment. In fact, I love to insult shit that I don’t like by saying, “Wow, it must be art, because it’s not entertaining.” But it’s just ironic that they can sell a CD in a store, and they won’t put the title “Pretty As a Swastika” on the cover, but at the same store they’ll have Valkyrie, for example, which has a Swastika on the cover. Now, I’m not even using the symbol, I’m using the word, so the record company sort of created a new curse word, by default, for me.
So that’s why I personally chose to use the dollar sign in the “Arma-Arma-Goddamned-Motherfuckin-Geddon” video, because I think that’s the ultimate statement. My decisions are based on art and I have the ability to do that, and not because I can retire on a fucking island. I have nothing, I’ve lost everything, and I’ve got it back, and I’m happy to live in hotel, as long as I can feed my cat, get beautiful girls to do terrible things they shouldn’t do with me, and pay for absinthe and drugs — that’s rock’n’roll. Of course, there’s art to it. Of course I’m a painter, and of course I want to say things, but I’m not going to fucking sell myself out anymore. When I make a record, the music that I record and the thing I’m going to play live, that’s my album. Whatever they want to put in a package, that’s their product. Why would you want to censor the word “fuck” out of a song? Really, who doesn’t want “fuck”? The more fuck, the better. In life, it’s metaphor — the more fucks, the more fun. Hey, it’s only a couple letters off from fun.
Do you find any solace in the fact that this censorship actually gets your album into stores for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have access to your music?
No, I don’t. The fact that the record company says that they can’t put that song on the record… crazy. So I say, “Well okay, don’t put the album out.” And they just don’t know what to say. And it’s great to be able to have that kind of attitude. When someone makes you a product and you’re not in control of it anymore, you feel like a whore, like someone who’s being beaten up and pushed around. But with the live show I could sing, “I want to kill you like they do in the movies” for 60 minutes. What are they going to do, leave? Go ahead, it’s what I want to do.
The people that stay are going to love it, and I’m going to love it or I wouldn’t do it. And the record company execs wanted me to take “Pretty As a Swastika” off the record because they thought,”Oh, the record’s just so good Manson, we don’t want to ruin it because there’s just certain things…” And I said, “Look, what do you think this song means? Is it a compliment? Is it an insult?” It’s one of my proudest moments, lyrically, because it’s a love song, it’s political, it’s all of that — it’s me. I hope people marvel over it for years, and I know that girls like to strip dance to it, and I’m sure that people want to fight to it, and I haven’t had any complaints, least of all from Jewish people, who they’re so concerned it’s going to offend. I’m not saying anything about Hitler, the Holocaust, or Nazis. I’m not trying to be a pussy and say, “Oh, it’s a Hindu symbol.” Of course I know what it means. I’m saying you’re as pretty as a Swastika, art is a fucking question mark, you fill in the blanks. That’s the listener’s job — that’s what music is about.
There’s a couple blues-influenced songs here. What were you listening to in the writing process?
Lots of Johnny Cash. But I didn’t want to emulate Johnny Cash. I’m not exactly a fan of him, because I don’t understand his stance. He’s confusing. On one side he’s spiritual, on another he’s Folsom Prison. But that’s what I liked about him. I liked his attitude — he’s not taking shit from anybody. This irony influenced “Four Rusted Horses”; there’s irony in all placement of that song, but it’s fateful the way it came out. That song really started to dictate what we were going to do on the record. Lyrically, it’s almost a nursery rhyme. I realized that I was singing about the band, and everyone thinks initially that I was singing about the apocalypse, but it’s more just about the four of us, my band, that managed to survive through all of this, and where do we go from here. It’s me asserting myself as the hangman, the effigy, the pariah, the scapegoat.
There’s a lot of talk on the record about immortality, and the last record had a very vampire centered theme to it, not in a cliché way where now people will say, “Oh, that record was inspired by Twilight.” Or maybe Lost Boys, because I saw that in high school. It’s about the Nosferatu concept of trying to outrace the night before the sun comes up. This album, strangely, just looking at it objectively, talks about things in the opposite sense. I see a new beginning. And I suppose Christian school hammered the Bible into me. I identify with the villain, Lucifer, which is the fallen angel. He’s represented by light. Everyone wants to know, “Oh, do you consider yourself a role model?” I consider myself a role villain. A role model is a fucking mannequin. A role villain has to ruin things and break stuff and make changes. The villain has to put things in the world that cause problems and ask questions. There’s no story that anyone has ever seen, read, or loved where they don’t like the villain, even if they don’t want to admit it. The villain is the guy that makes the change. The hero is never the star of the story.
What’s up with the your next movie, Visions of Lewis Carroll? It’s been in the work for a while now.
Well, I hope that I can do that after this summer tour with Slayer. There’s been a series of complications, starting with that fact that it’s a big commitment to invest a period of your life to having no income. I’m not looking at it as a moneymaking venture, and I have no problem with that. I initially shoved myself into that because I was running away from doing music. I felt like I had nothing left to say in music. Right now, I’m very much in love with being a rock star and making music. So it will be made when it’s made. I’ve been filming, and when we hang up I’m going to film something else. But I don’t feel like making a Hollywood-shaped movie. All of my heroes, like Dali, are people who pioneered various forms of cinema. If it’s an hour long, if it’s two days, if it’s forever, that’s what it’s going to be. It’ll happen when it happens. Right now my heart and my creativity are much more — more than ever — in music.
Your tour with Slayer is coming up fast. You’ve toured with them several times before — any particularly good road stories?
First off, I bought [their 1985 album] Live Undead, and I was so terrified by it that I told my mom to return it. It’s really amazing to be able to do a show with them. It’s weird because I have a really difficult time getting along with other bands. There was talk early on about collaborating with different guitar players on the record. That was before Twiggy and I got back together, because once Twiggy was back, there was nobody else, and I don’t care what you have to offer — this was our record.
I like to believe that Slayer bring as much Satan on the road as we do. But Satan comes in many different forms and right now it’s coming in an impending erection. But I think the anecdote to sum it up is that I haven’t met anyone except Hunter S. Thompson and the guys in Slayer that can keep up with me when it comes to my intake of destructive forces. I try to make my body a place where drugs are afraid to live. Those guys are very angry, and they’re very serious. But I really like Jerry [Hanneman/guitar]– he has a sense of humor. Getting those guys to wear eyeliner is harder than getting me to wear a moustache. So there’s never going to be that combination where I put on a goatee and they wear eyeliner. I don’t think it’s going to happen…sadly. But what we do behind closed doors we like to keep in private — but let it be said that’s it’s cost me about $200,000.