KERRANG! MAGAZINE • HOLY WOOD
Deep in the heart of the Hollywood hills stands Marilyn Manson's house. Inside are several bottles of absinthe, one stuffed monkey and a giant goat-headed skeleton. And its owner is about to give us a guided tour.
Thirty-one years ago, ex-convict and failed musician Charles Manson instructed his clan of blank-eyed devotees to engage in one of their 'creepy crawly' missions in an affluent home in the Hollywood hills. Manson, a career criminal of illegitimate birth, was intent on instigating a race war by brutally slaying white, wealthy residents of Tinsel town and laying the blame at the feet of the black community.
Driving from their compound in Death Valley - A vast tract of inhospitable desert an hour's drive outside of Los Angeles - Manson's followers broke into a house belonging to film director Roman Polanski and shot and stabbed the five inhabitants, including Polanski's pregnant wife Sharon Tate. The following night they were dispatched to the house of businessman Leno LaBianca. When the 44-year-old LaBianca disturbed the intruders, he and his wife were stabbed to death. Almost as an afterthought, their assailants then etched the word 'War' into Leno LaBianca's stomach with a blunt fork.
What followed was possibly America's most high profile murder trial, during which the full horror of Manson's work became known. Something of a hippie by nature, the diminutive killer had exerted an almost hypnotic hold over his many young, lost followers, all of them at odds with the American Dream.
With the slayings and the subsequent trial, the '60s and its loved-up, LSD inspired ideals gave way to the more macabre '70s. Hollywood, previously a playground for the rich and famous, was suddenly as dangerous as any of the projects across town; at there your death as likely to be caused by an instant gun shot.
Manson himself became an overnight icon, a bogeyman, a by-word for all those who agreed that perhaps modern America wasn't really paradise after all. He was transformed into a mouthpiece for those disenchanted with force-fed religion, the facile entertainment world, a system that abandons the needy - an icon of rock 'n' roll at its most libertarian.
So it is with a certain amount of trepidation you join us driving through the back lanes of the very same Hollywood foot-hills in the dead of night, only the distant sound of cicadas breaking the silence as we hurry to fulfill an appointment with Manson's modern-day namesake and Public Enemy Number One to the moral majority and religious zealouts across the country. Charles Manson may now be a relic of another age rotting away in a California jail, but tonight, along the dark roadside that leads to Marilyn Manson's palatial pile, his spirit lingers. Quite frankly we're shitting ourselves.
I'm deposited at an anonymous looking gate by Manson's publicist Paul, who elects to stay in his car, with instructions to go through the garden, past a narrow, deep-blue swimming pool and to the rear of the outdoor annex that houses a recently-built recording studio. The door swings open and out of the candle-lit darkness steps the black-clad man himself, Marilyn Manson.
"Hello" he says, extending a long thin hand.
"I've been expecting you."
As first impressions go, it's certainly a memorable one. After the initial hellos, Manson gives me a brief guided tour of his back-yard, pointing out the roof-top garret that looks out over the city.
"If you see a skunk" he says as we walk, "run."
The local rodents have, it turns out, been kicking up a stink. The Man That You Fear he may be, but in the dead of night, when things are leaping out from pitch-black shadows, everyone is equal. Spookiness goes out the window and, in these circumstances, one milky contact lens is unlikely to frighten the little blighters.
Sticking close by, we hurry back into his studio. It's only when we finally sit down that I notice the unique interior decoration. A snarling, stuffed monkey head stands at eye level by the back door, a half empty bottle of absinthe sits on the counter. Candles flicker from all surfaces, and a bank of silent, grainy security camera screens trace all movement around the perimeter of the garden. The look is, if we're being pretensious about it, elegantly decadent.
This week, Manson released his long-awaited fourth album, Holy Wood (In The Shadow Of The Valley Of Death). It comes after a troubling 12 months, the low point of which came on April 20, 1999, when students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado with a selection of guns and home-made pipe bombs and killed 13 of their fellow pupils. Despite no evidence whatsoever that Harris and Klebold were Manson fans - indeed, reports suggest that they thought The God Of Fuck was "a joke" - the world's media pounced. The knee-jerk reaction wasn't so much, 'Why/', but, 'Who can we blame?' and one name cropped up repeatedly: Marilyn Manson. 'Killers Worshipped Rock Freak' screamed the headlines, vilifying the singer and transforming him in one fell swoop from shock-loving showman to genuine public hate figure. Within 24 hours, Manson had reached a level of notoriety that surpassed even his own expectations. He was a household name alright, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
Holy Wood is Manson's reply. In the week that US President Bill Clinton - the one person who can change US gun laws - comes to the end of a term that has seen some of the bloodiest violence in recent history, Manson has created a record that sounds like one big fuck you to the world.
Not since his '60s namesake has one man polarised opinion to such a degree. But while Charles Manson was a cold-blooded killer, Marilyn Manson is tackling the establishment in a very different way. A modern day freedom fighter intent on upholding anti-censorship laws and the right to be an individual, it seems that, right now, America needs Manson more than ever. And, after months of secrecy, statements released via the Internet and withdrawal from the public at large, he's finally ready to talk.
First off, you seemed to have kept yourself to yourself in terms of your media profile over the last year. Why is that?
"Well," he begins, clearing his throat as he lowers himself into a large leather chair.
"When I began working on the album, I made a statement on my website telling the public that my only contact with them would be via the site. I was only really talking about the time while I was working on the record, but some people took that to mean I would never talk to the press again.
"At the same time, I've made my website the place where people can find the truth unfiltered by the media who tend to just pick out the parts that they want and then sometimes use against me - or for me. I've also made it a place where fans can get the information first. You know, I enjoy doing interviews, but I will always remember those who have turned their back on me during the very difficult period that was 1999.
Is there a Manson shit-list somewhere?
"Sure. There was a lot of negative press against me and like Santa Claus I made my list. I also remember people like Kerrang! who stood behind me all the way too,"
Albums, books, film scripts, videos and artwork - some would see you as the archetypal modern media manipulator. Does the Internet appeal to your Renaissance man sensibilities?
"I think what I like most about the Internet is what I like least about it: it's chaotic and you can't have any control over it," grins Manson. Recently there seems to have been a great fear that your record is going to leak out and turn up on Napster, but I've taken a different attitude. We're in the information age now - if you were in the Ice Age you would want to give your child a woollen coat, and in the 'Information Age' you should want to give your child information. Don't hide it from them you need to explain it to them."
So is the Internet really a subversive highway that's beyond censorship or just another short-term device to get your message across before it's swallowed up by the media at large?
"The reason why there's a lot of fear surrounding Internet pornography, video games or violence in entertainment in general is simply because parents are no longer smarter than their children," he states. "One of my favourite ever movies is called Wild In The Streets, where Christopher Jones is a rock star who runs for President and he takes everyone who is over 30 and puts them in a concentration camp with loads of LSD, but then of course, he himself turns 30. It's all very ironic, but it kind of illustrates the time that we're living in now. It's an allegory that could quite easily be applied to these times."
On a purely self-satisfying level, do you ever log-on and do a quick search for, oh I don't know, the weather report or Dirtbox Ladyboys? Or what about the plethora of Manson chatrooms out there?
"I communicate with my fans on a regular basis," he smiles. "Initially there's a danger in both directions. What I mean is, if you take the adulation so seriously you'll be fooling yourself into thinking that you're something that you're not, or if you take all the negative comments that people make to heart, it can sometimes hurt your feelings. Everybody thinks they have an opinion and they try and express that - everyone's thoughts are out there. It'll be interesting to see where it goes because only the strong and the truly creative will survive."
Thankfully, some things never change. In the time that's elapsed since the release of '98's Bowie-influenced Mechanical Animals, rock and metal have morphed into a mainstream proposition, giving us a breed of bands caught in the major label loop of over-priced videos, guest appearances, remixes and million-dollar ad campaigns.
While this is not necessarily something new, the likes of Limp Bizkit, Creed, Blink 182 and The Bloodhound Gang are ostensibly offering nothing beyond stylised angst or the type of testosterone-fuelled jockstrap humour that kids have to put up with from the brainless farts in school - which is exactly the reason why Manson is all the more relevant in the year 2000.
"Right now it's worse than Andy Warhol's prediction about everyone, at some point, achieving 15 minutes of fame," he says, masking his disgust via the slow, thoughtful drawl that he reverts to when mulling over an idea.
"When you put the power of entertainment in the hands of everyone and not just artists, eventually you'll have to weed it down. I don't even like the idea of giving people the ability to remix your songs - I put my songs out there and say 'This is how it's going to be', while some bands say, 'Hey, what do you think about this?' and then they get feedback and change it. That's the death of art - you lose your creativity. It's great to have people's opinions, but you've really got to stick by what you want to do."
It's approaching midnight and he's on a roll. It's also around about now that I realise Manson isn't quite as he appears. While the dignity that surrounds his movements and his articulate way of offering answers to all my questions are very much in evidence, Manson also spends a lot of the interview smiling - a sight that's completely at odds with his public persona. And get this: sometimes he even laughs. Out loud and everything.
The initial sense of fear that permeated the whole situation upon my arrival has waned, thanks in part to our cordial host and his generous measures of absinthe. Still banned in America and only recently available in the UK on account of its effects on artists such as Van Gogh (who chopped his ear off) and Ernest Hemingway (who blew his brains out), the Wormwood-based liquor has appropriately been Manson's preferred drink during the making of Holy Wood... With the absinthe comes an elaborate ritual involving spoons, sugar and fire, which Manson repeats for the mixing of each drink, tossing cold water into the over-sized glasses to dilute the potent aniseed-flavoured potion. He may have had a couple too many during the photo shoot that happened earlier this afternoon, but he's the God Of Fuck and he's caning it again now.
With extracts of "the third and final beast" (his words) emanating from the mass of studio equipment that dominates one side of the small room - the first and second being Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals - Holy Wood (In The Shadow Of The Valley Of Death) is pretty much in the bag. In fact, save from some fine tuning the final mixing was completed this very day. On initial listening the album seems the perfect ending to a trilogy of albums through which Manson has determined his place in the entertainment world as a viable commentator on a society that's rapidly in decline. Sonically, Holy Wood is Manson's strongest album to date - an unsettling mix of trademark industrial intensity and darker, more cerebral moments incorporating all manner of sounds to create one homogenous work that's as immediate as it is unsettling. Pilfering all the best bits of the band's work to date, it seems like this album is the one Marilyn Manson the band has always wanted to make.
"That's a good compliment, I think, because that's what I set out to achieve - the fact that it ties all three together," he says, playing with an oversized ring on his finger. "We wrote the songs as a band and we actually started playing them before we recorded them, which is something we've never really done before. When I recently said to Kerrang! that this is our White Album (The Beatles 1968 master-work - Music Ed), I didn't really elaborate. So to go a little bit further, The White Album was, not only in its diversity, very significant for several reasons: it was one of the more important records of the late '60s and, to my knowledge, it's the first record to be blamed or associated with violence. That, of course, is an attraction for me because of me being blamed for things all the time."
Considering The Beatles' opus featured in the trial of Charles Manson, who interpreted songs such as Piggies and Helter Skelter as having hidden meanings which he then applied to his own crackpot theories of world domination, it's easy to see the appeal to the latter-day Manson.
"I'm not even necessarily sure that it's my favourite Beatles album, but there's a lot of its influence in my new record," he muses. "Plus the relation to the Charles Manson side of things has always inspired an interest. Only now, I can appreciate it as a powerful record too."
As ever, there's a concept to Holy Wood, and Manson goes to great lengths to explain the story of certain songs. It is an album that follows a character through the modern 20th Century landscape, a journey that recalls German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the parables of The Bible. "The first song GodEatGod is loosely about the character of Adam," Manson elaborates.
"The song is about him contemplating things from Death Valley - I use Death Valley as a metaphor for the outcast and the imperfect of the world. The second song The Love Song, is kind of a strangely religious anthem for the new religion that rules Holy Wood - a very fascist, commanding and demanding religion. I took the chorus from a famous truckers' bumper sticker: 'Do you love your God, gun, government?'. It's much more of a rhetorical question, because in this country you really don't have a choice to say no. I put a sample of it on the internet to mark the anniversary of the Manson murders.
"Then there's a song such as The Fight Song, which is more related to the revolutionary aspect of the album," he continues. "You've got a person who's grown up all his life thinking that the grass is greener on the other side, but when he finally does everything that he can to be a part of this world that he thinks is perfect, he realises that it's worse than where he came from and that it's truly exploitative. He feels betrayed and, idealistically, he thinks he can over-throw it and make a better world, so he tries to make a revolution through music. In some ways it's autobiographical... I don't know which came first: did the story write me, or did I write the story?"
You recently said that this album wasn't necessarily about yourself, yet surely what you've just described is the journey of Brian Warner The Nobody to Marilyn Manson The Superstar.
"The more distance I get from the record, the more I realise it could be me," he explains. "I could have explored all of this when I did Antichrist Superstar, but I don't think I had the musical wherewithal to truly accomplish it. I think this album really shows a growth within the band and within the songwriting. I'm happy that with each step of the journey there has been a record that I'm proud of, and nothing that I regret."
What other topics does Holy Wood broach?
"Well, there's a song called Target Audience, which, to me is about being a nobody and wanting to be somebody," he continues, barely pausing for breath. "Disposable Teens is a signature Manson song. I feel that a lot of kids, particularly those who have been made to feel like accidents - those whose parents got married because of their pregnancy - aren't being treated right. Another thing that really bothers me about America is this: if you're 16 and you get a job, you have to pay taxes. Now, if you're 16 and you pay your taxes to the government, you deserve the right to decide what you can see, and why. There needs to be a new set of guidelines."
Manson might now be suitably confident as to how the Holy Wood project is shaping up, and he's clearly itching to get out there to rile the masses once again, but there's no doubting that the album is the product of his most trying period yet. But would the record have sounded different if he hadn't shifted from being a rock star to a public hate figure?
"Absolutely," he says. "I don't know whether it would have been a different 'sound' so much..."
A different story then? "I don't even know if it would have been a different story, because I had every intention of telling this story. I just think last year made it necessary for me to complete this record; it gave me a purpose, something to stand up for. It's not necessarily about the Columbine incident, but more the reason why it happened - the way America raises its kids to feel like they're unwanted and made to feel like they're dead already. They really don't have anything to live for and it's also concerned with the repercussions of that incident; music and entertainment have risen to an all-time low... or rather fallen to an all-time low. Things have become very innocuous. To detract for a moment, one thing that I loved about the book and film American Psycho is the fact the killer really finds a lot of his inspiration from innocuous pop music - that pleased me a lot, given the state of music at the moment."
American Psycho seemed to be about one man rebelling against the bullshit culture of modern life, where everything is taken at face value.
"Absolutely," nods Manson. "It's all about trying to fit in to that type of society - and that goes back to the character on Holy Wood. He just wants to be part of what everyone is supposed to be part of. Yet American Psycho was done with a lot of humour - when I saw it I laughed out loud in the theatre and everyone was looking at me." And that, seemingly, is the difference between those who only see the shock tactics that everyone from American Pyscho author Bret Easton Ellis to gansta rap to yourself use to get your message across.
"Sure, that's the worst part about the repercussions on society that I mentioned before. Bill Clinton's effect on America during his reign has been both positive and negative. One of the big negatives is that a return to political correctness has really made people afraid to say anything because whatever you say is going to piss off a certain group of people - like with Eminem right now. So my goal is just to piss them all off. I don't want to discriminate against any motherfucker that's in my way, if I may quote myself."
You must take a certain amount of pride in the fact that you're such a challenge to the establishment. Was this the goal from day one?
"On a smaller level, yeah, I think so," he nods, swilling his drink around the glass.
"There's been very few people who have gone and done that. John Lennon did and, I think in a way, Elvis did, in a different sense. There's also been the Sex Pistols, The Doors, The Stooges, people who have pushed that envelope, not just in terms of shock value but in true political sense, because when you create something like punk rock or whatever, it really reaches people and changes the way everyone thinks. It's important. I can't say that I've changed things in such a way, but I have taken a stand when other people have been afraid to. I feel responsible - not because I care about the world necessarily, I'm not idealistic in that way - but I do care about people who remind me of myself."
And do you see yourself in the front row of your own gigs?
"Yeah. My fans remind me of how I was when I was growing up and, you know, there's really no-one there for them to say, 'Hey, what about their rights? What about their feelings?'. For me, there was definitely a sense of escape in music. KISS, in a cartoon way, was something I could identify with. There were ways to escape in music, listening to The Wall (Pink Floyd's 1979 classic - Music Ed) - music that took you out of a world you didn't really want to be a part of."
He pauses for breath, a large uncharacteristic grin spreading across his shadowed face before quickly turning into dark, sardonic laughter.
"The normal, white teenager does not have a support group other than Marilyn Manson."
Don't you think your contemporaries - your Korns and Limp Bizkits - fulfil those needs?
"No," he states. "I think it's a matter of waiting five years and looking back and asking what made something popular at the time. It's hard for me to have an opinion on these bands."
From the early days of Marilyn Manson & The Spooky Kids through to last year's infamous sphincter flashing incident at the Big Day Out, the Manson concept has pretty much changed at the same rate it has grown. But what if something went wrong? What if, as with Mechanical Animals, sales figures were not as high as expected? Given his Machiavellian control over the band's career, would he be content with a career as an underground hero?
"Everybody likes to be successful but I think as long as you continue to climb, which we have, it's okay." he says democratically.
"Sometimes the record companies expect a record to be bigger than it is, or the same as its
predecessor. When I started making this record I had the attitude of, 'I don't care if anybody buys it'. I made the record because it's very cathartic and very important for me to do this. From early indications, it's definitely something people need and want from Marilyn Manson."
"The other thing I have to say about music now is that faux angst has really become a product," he continues. "I don't want to name anyone specifically, but the record industry is full of people pretending to be mad about something - there's a lot of pretence. I think if you're doing something that genuinely captures an emotion it's not a 'career'."
But having tasted mainstream success, would you prefer to take a step backwards?
"The only reason or desire to be part of the mainstream is, if you want to accomplish something subversive, you have to let as many people know about it. To me, whenever my ideas seep into unsuspecting, normal, mainstream people it makes me just as happy as seeing hardcore fans who are getting something from the music. It's like music is the only accessible form of revolution left now. That said, the only band who have been successful in the mainstream without really changing anything are Rage Against The Machine. They're far more political than I am and they've really stuck to their guns. You've got to give them credit for that. Revolution can't really be done on a small scale.
Things must be going well, because after another hours of talking, the tape recorder is clicked off and Manson stands, stretching his tall frame.
"Would you like the guided tour?" he asks.
Would I like the guided tour? Does the Pope shit in the woods? "Follow me."
Asking me not to describe the inner sanctum he shares with his fiancé, actress Rose MacGowan, it seems fair to at least mention some of the interior decoration chez Manson. Previously inhabited by the Rolling Stones, who recorded 1969's Let It Bleed album there, the house is exactly as you would expect, only cooler. Originally built for a silent Hollywood starlet, whose picture sits on the mantelpiece, the house is full of Manson paraphernalia including his own paintings. A prosthetic limb from a one-year-old baby, complete with menacing metal pincers in place of a hand hangs, from the wall ("It's tragic really," sighs Manson, "that someone so young had to suffer").
After a quick peek into what he calls his "Blair Witch room" - a darkened storage area full of rubbish - the tour continues. In one room a skeleton sits in a chair. Nothing overly strange there you might think, apart from the fact it's seven feet long and has a large goat's skull in place of a human's.
"The guy must have been a giant," sniffs its owner. "You can see how old it is because the bones are blackened in places."
Elsewhere there's a giant mellotron used by Tom Waits, , a 'den' room full of CDs, videos and DVDs, complete with an easy chair - no pipe and slippers sadly - and more stuffed animals.
"Let me take a picture of you and the monkey," says Manson, whipping out a Polaroid and directing me to stand next to the snarling baboon.
"I like taxidermy," by way of an explanation.
"I like it here," he continues as we return to the studio room. "It's not really Hollywood, more the edge of it really. I could never live in somewhere like New York."
It's nice and quiet here, I remark."It is," he says. "Apart from the construction workers who wake me up at nine every morning."
Aside from the many internet messages, the only other glimpses the public have had of Manson over the past year have been at various showbiz shindigs, invariably snapped with red carpet underfoot and over-sized shades wedged onto his face whilst hob-nobbing with everyone from Richard Branson to Fiona Apple. For a while there it was looking like he had become one of the beautiful people he so despised.
"Strangely, in the past year I've only been out to two such parties," he laughs with a shrug. "It's true. And one of those times was to offer support to my friend Johnny Depp and his film Sleepy Hollow. I don't really go out very often. Making this record I pretty much didn't leave the house for three months - I've got everything that I need right here."
Maybe it's just because when you go out you're photographed so much it gives the illusion that you don your glad rags and paste on the slap every time someone whips out a tray of vol-au-vonts.
"I guess there was a bit of that with the character Omega on Mechanical Animals," he says. " A lot of that story was just me taking the piss out of that type of thing. I draw inspiration from that lifestyle in many ways."
With the album done and already considered a success by its creator, talk turns towards future plans. Are you expecting the same mad scenes that follow The Greatest Show On Earth everywhere?
"Absolutely," he says, clearly excited at the prospect. "Once again, I want to take things to the next step. In terms of presentation I think the stage-set is going to feel and look a lot like Death Valley - again, I'm not talking geographically. I think we'll play a fair share of songs off all the records, although we'll probably lean towards Antichrist Superstar. I don't like self-indulgent acts. I saw someone recently - I won't name names - who were so boring."
Come on, you don't need to be shy.
"All I'll say is there's a fine line between being an artist and being self-indulgent," he smiles democratically. "I feel an obligation as an artist to the people who pay to come in and want to see something - if it wasn't for them I wouldn't be there, so I don't want to alienate them by jerking off for 20 minutes and playing any old bullshit that people wouldn't want to hear on record, never mind at a show. An artist understands what people want."
So is an artist someone who can give the audience what they want without compromising their work and still enjoy it themselves?
"Sure and that's the real difference between Billy Corgan and I. While he's a brilliant, brilliant musician, I don't think he's an artist. I know that I'm not the greatest musician, but I am an artist. They're two very different things. An artist is able to create something and sell it. It's not all about the idea of selling something to make money though, it's about making it in the first place and people wanting to hear it. That, to me, is a true artist."
It's 1:30AM and time, sadly, is up. In the nocturnal world of Manson, however, the day is just beginning. Having dispelled a number of Manson myths, the man has one little prank up his sleeve.
"Let's go and wake up Paul," he says of his publicist, who's been sleeping off his jet lag in a car outside.
With Manson silently leading the way, we walk back through the garden, past the pool, through the gate and out into the dark lane. He walks up to the car and slowly leans over to the window, his tall frame casting a shadow over Paul. He gently raps on the window with a knuckle. Paul wakes in an instant to the sight of a slightly-pissed God Of Fuck's pale face leering at him from above, and immediately starts screaming the kind of fearful obscenities normally heard from marked men or the darkest nightmares.
"Holy shit," sniggers Manson, taking a step backwards before disappearing back into the shadows. "That was cool..."
And then he's gone.