If there's a wrong way to go about being rock stars, the group known as Marilyn Manson seems to have it nailed. Everything about them--appearance, sound, outlook--is as ugly as possible, in direct opposition to the prettiness that gets everyone else in People magazine. And while other bands hone their output to suit society's fickle tastes, these guys don't change for anybody except themselves. The one resemblance they have to the polished perception of rock stars is that they live for the moment. Only to hear drummer Ginger Fish talk about it, that attitude has nothing to do with fun, and everything to do with basic survival.
"This band's not about a future: We have no future," Fish states, "So I take it at a daily, hourly basis. They say that bands live for seven years on the average. I hope Manson to be more than that. I hope Manson to live on and on and on. I don't foresee ever going anywhere, but I'm not surprised that any one day, at the blink of an eye, my life is going to change; the band's going to finish, someone's going to die, I'm going to kill somebody."
The role of myth has great importance in Manson's world. While other bands of their stature have teams of lawyers and publicists poised to snuff out rumors that spread about them, Manson thrives on the stuff. Truth and fiction are ingredients that get mixed and remeasured on a regular basis to cook up a portrait of a bunch of guys on the verge of a nasty breakdown. So it's no surprise that while speaking to DRUM! on the phone from Los Angeles on his thirty-fifth birthday, Ginger Fish claims to be more messed up by success than he's ever been.
Maybe he is and maybe he isn't, but a look at the hard facts reveals a drummer with a lot to be happy about. After six years with Manson, his group, which also includes Manson himself, bassist Twiggy Ramirez, keyboardist Madonna Wayne Gacy, and guitarist John 5, is about to release their third album with Fish's solid rhythmic imprint, HolyWood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death). His band is as huge and multi-platinum as a modern act can get, thanks in no small part to the dead-on drumming and programming instincts he's displayed on past smashes Mechanical Animals and Antichrist Superstar. And while Marilyn Manson's style is as haunting and darkly polished as ever, Fish's approach to playing drums has finally relaxed (even if the rest of him hasn't).
"Over the last two years [since the release of Mechanical Animals the way I'd say I've changed is just to not worry so much about getting better," Fish says, in a quiet voice that conveys a note of perpetual nervousness. "After a whole life of practicing, once you're in a situation where you're working, you're kind of doing the job all the time and you're not really stressing out so much.
"On Antichrist, we started pushing the speed limit, pushing 173 beats per minute, so I was getting stressed out a lot about how fast I was going to have to play, 'How fast? How fast?' And then after that, the last two albums weren't really about how fast you had to play, but what you didn't have to play. Play for the song and that kind of thing. They say a lot of great players, it's not what they do play, it's what they don't play that matters, and that's been the thought."
Besides trying to keep an economical presence throughout HolyWood's 19 songs, Fish maintains minimal involvement in the business decisions of Marilyn Manson. From Fish's perspective, being a pro might call for some creativity on the drum throne, but the rest of the time, it means staying out of the way. So when it comes to doling out either credit or blame for the group's latest collection, Fish defers to the maniacal higher powers in his life. "Generally, the songwriters dictate where the feel of the band's going to go, where the concept of the album's going to go," he says. "And I just go with it".
"I'm a drummer. I try to say, 'You are a drummer. You play drums.' I mean, with every extracurricular thing that I deal with that's not pertaining to drums, I try to relax for a minute and say, 'Look, you're a drummer and that's a full-time job.' The ultimate is being comfortable with who you are and what you are, and what I am is a drummer."
Which isn't to say that the drummer shouldn't have any input whatsoever. But in Fish's world, where the undisputed leader is Marilyn Manson, it's simply essential that the drummer stay focused on, well, drumming. "A beat is a beat," Fish says. "If you go into what people constitute in terms of a song or writing, you're not talking about a beat of a song. You're talking about chord progressions and you're talking about melody and things that don't pertain to the drum. Every band's different. You go with your situation. I was hired as a drummer to be a drummer, and that's what I do".
"A lot of bands break up because someone in the band has an ego that thinks they don't need one person or the other, and that's not what this band is about. I've been in this band six years, and the reason I've been in the band six years is because everyone respects each other's place. Manson's the lyricist and he's got a lot to say. He's very intelligent and lyrically no one's going to take away from what the band's trying to say. When I first talked to Manson on the phone, the first thing was, 'What do you do? This is what I need from you.' I'm like, 'I'm a drummer and I'm a programmer.' And he's never asked me once, 'Why don't you pick up a bass?' Because that's not what this band's about."
Still, there are forces bigger than Marilyn Manson--the band and the man--and some of the events of 1999 helped to make that crystal clear. Always a target for conservative media critics, they were grouped with the Internet, violent movies, the NRA and countless others as scapegoats for the Columbine High School shootings that took place in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. No logical link between Manson's music and the tragedy was ever established, but it nonetheless gave the band's critics a lot of extra ammo, and Fish and his buddies couldn't fight them all the way off.
"Mechanial Animals was critically acclaimed worldwide, it was pretty huge," Fish recalls. "Then you start having the Columbine shootings, which were pushed on [us] saying, 'Manson this and Manson that.' They shut down our last tour basically. It was overwhelming to everybody. I think it was just the media and the ridiculousness that music would have something to do with that."
While Fish had seen the band weather this kind of storm before, the interruption presented by the horrific trend toward school homicide proved especially irritating. "I'm surprised that something like that has any power over anything," he says. "Especially when you're crossing state lines, I don't get the whole politics of stuff like that. To me it's like, 'Screw them, I don't give a damn.' I could care less what happened in Denver when we're playing California."
"I just look out for number one. I don't care. I don't care what's happening. I wasn't really brought up to care about the neighbor next door, and I'm really not in a band that represents good will to your fellow neighbors and every man around. So when a promoter or a venue says, 'This is doing harm to you,' if anything, it pisses me off. It makes me want to go after them for coming after me. Basically, I could care less what anybody does. If someone wants to kill themselves, let them kill themselves...more power to them."
If this self-centered attitude seems surprising coming from a man who, as an entertainer, some might say, needs to feel some empathy with his audience to really do his job, keep in mind that his comments are only directed at certain segments of the population. "Giving to the audience is what I do -- I give to the audience because they come to see me," Fish explains. "But the people that are complaining about the music aren't the people that are coming to see me. The people that come to see me, I'm more than glad to sit down and talk to them and discuss all night what they want to talk about."
If anything positive for Manson came out of the situation, it's that it gave him plenty of inspiration to conceive HolyWood, which tells the autobiographical story of a boy who longs to be part of a "perfect" world that rejects him. Social commentary abounds as the story unfolds from there, track by track, all of it marked by the black pop sensibilities that put the band on the map, and kept them there. "The new album is dark and very heavy," Fish confirms. "I know that it's what Manson considers the evilist thing he's ever dealt with or done. There's not a single thing on the album that doesn't have to do with destruction or death. To my knowledge, that's what the band's always been about, though."
Despite the flack flying around them, the group managed to write half of the new material while on the road supporting Mechanical Animals. Once the concept had been completely worked out, the Manson master planners poked around and found an appropriately creepy venue to record in: escape artist Harry Houdini's former home in the hills of Los Angeles, which had been used as a studio by other bands in the past.
"We chose not to go into a studio and ended up taking over the Houdini mansion, which is where we set up and lived to do the album," says Fish. "We brought in every piece of gear we could find, and lived around it, breathed it in, and just went from there. There were five studios set up in the house, so there was a creative flow moving in every room. The sound is amazing--the miking of the drums (got) a really unbelievable, thick sound."
Working with co-producer Dave Sardy, Fish learned a whole new approach to getting the terrific drum sound that powers HolyWood, characterized by a crisp, meaty attack that succeeds in being totally natural, yet still a little larger than life. "Sardy was an opposite of what I was used to when it comes to getting a great drum sound," he says. "Working with (producer) Michael Beinhorn on the last album and people in the past, people would say, 'Hit harder, hit harder, hit harder,' and you're in a studio in a controlled environment, hitting an instrument that should resonate clearly and not be choked. The harder you hit, all you end up doing is choking a drum or breaking a head or a stick, and Sardy was sworn on the fact of hitting a drum really lightly, and getting a thick, warm sound from it."
"So what ended up happening was I would track first thing in the morning. I would wake up and sit down at the set. I wouldn't warm up or practice. I wouldn't stretch. I would just sit down at the set and play. To begin with, I'd be playing very lightly and very quietly, and the more excited I would get, the more blood pumping through my veins, I would start hitting hard, I would get more aggressive, more pissed off, and I'd start hitting harder and harder, and then the drum sound would go away."
Fish knows a good drum sound when he hears it, and to say he's pleased with the results would be a severe understatement. "You get this massive, heavy sound. It's the best sound to date that I've heard on any album in general," he says. "I've put on recent albums that are out there and compared them--it's the best I can think of. You listen to HolyWood and you think the drums are getting hit on with a two-pound brick. Basically, I'm half-asleep in the morning, hardly hitting the drum, and the sound comes out huge."
"In the middle of the day when I'd start getting pissed off, he'd cut me off and we'd start in the morning again. I would take it. I knew where he was going with it. I could hear the drums, and I knew the sound he was looking for early in the morning, and then later on in the day my anger, my aggravation, whatever, would get the best of me and the drums would just choke up. You just have to walk way from it at that point."
Most drummers couldn't handle being told to stop playing just when they're heating up. But for Fish, it's part of being a pro, and that's why he's been playing with one of rock's top groups for six years running. "I leave it up to the producer who they hire," he confirms. "I know a lot of people probably walk in with their kit, they say, 'This is how I play. This is the set I'm going to play. This is how I'm going to play it. I'm done. I'm walking out of here.' You dont stay working that long if you're a drummer that way. These guys I've worked with know more about the studio than I probably ever will know. So the point is to be quiet, do your job, listen and learn."
But Fish acknowledges that part of his job includes making good choices about his own drum parts. "I had personal opinions and personal tastes when playing," he says. "After three or four different people giving their opinion on what you should play or do, I was just like, 'Just let me jam the freaking song, and check it out,' you know? And chances are, because I'm the drummer, that's what ends up on the album. Just let me hit it, don't think about it, and basically that's when the best things happen. Let the drummer be free to play what he plays, and don't constrict him to what a drum machine might do. I can listen to any one (Marilyn Manson) album, and two thirds of the album I can pick something on the song and say, 'That's totally me. It's my choice, my decision.' And there's other decisions where, in postproduction I'll be like, 'You took out my favorite fill, my favorite place in the song, and I like nothing more in this song but that one fill right there. Put it back!' And it ends up back."
Fish sounds pretty happy with all of HolyWood, but that doesn't stop him from having a couple of favorite songs, like the tough, high-strung "President Dead." "That's one song that the whole band is just jamming," he says, "and that changed pretty drastically from practicing the song to when we got in the session and recorded it. That's one song where it was just like, 'Okay, let me just jam this. Leave me alone.'" Take a look at Fish's drum part from the verse of "President Dead" on page 51, Ex. 1. Another Fish pick is the meaty "Cruci-Fiction in Space." "That's just because it's just so heavy," he notes. "It's not like some kid in his mom's house, sitting in his bedroom with a drum set, couldn't learn the song, because it's very slow, and there's not a lot of speed or intricacy about the song. The point is that it's just straight ahead, drudgy and slow. It takes a lot more discipline to play with space between notes than it is to play fast, and that song is so slow you just lay back on it and hit the beat. Then there's a break in the middle that's odd-time. It's 4/4, but it doesn't start in 4/4, it doesn't end in 4/4, so it's confusing. It's got two extra eighth-notes at the end of it, or something. It works because it comes out cool. It's fun to play."
Fish's mastery as a programmer helped him land the gig with Manson in the first place, and he did his share on HolyWood. Working with an Akai MPC3000 sampler, Pro Tools and Logic software on a Mac platform, Fish contributed a lot of countless loops and feels, some more subtle than others. "There's a song that's very creepy and slow, it starts off with the 'Death Loop'," Fish says. "It sounds like you're frying a baby on a frying pan. And stuff like that. I take a lot of things from environments of where I am. Anything that reminds me of a sound or a beat, I will screw with the sound and put it into a time frame. So just by speeding things up and slowing things down you can speed it into a texture or a beat. I've always enjoyed programming. I've been programming since I was 17. It's just a constant learning process, which I enjoy."
Houdini's house made its own contribution to HolyWood, adding an extra dose of atmosphere that was due in equal parts to its strange history and the chilly supernatural weirdness that now lives there year-round. "The house was very old," Fish remembers. "All wood floors and four stories. I went up there before anyone else, and I picked out my room first. I think I picked the north wing of the house. It had its own private entrance, and a bridge made out of trees that came up over the property up to my door. You don't feel like you're in LA. The sense of the house--you're up in the hills in the middle of nowhere, and it's very creepy, a lot of weird things going on at all times. People always tell stories about the house, say it's haunted and this and that, but it didn't creep me out that much.
"But I think Pogo, our keyboard player, had the best approach: He would taunt things. If anything's about to happen, you throw a naked girl in the pool at 3:00 in the morning and ghosts would appear. 'Bring it on! Get something going on now!' I think we pushed it--went down into the basement in the middle of the night just hoping something would happen to you."
With the album wrapped, Marilyn Manson is geared up for another tour. This time Fish is looking forward to going back to basics with his stage kit. "Last tour it was pretty crazy," he admits. "I had three bass drums to the side of me, and I had extension bars running to the bass drum. On this tour, I'm going to have bass drums right in front of me, three mounted toms, two floor toms. No fooling around." Still, watch out for a switch. "On the next tour, I'm going to play righthanded," says Fish, who's a natural lefty. "I'm going to swap my set around, so it's a normal right-handed set."
Fish's return to a more stripped-down kit reflects his acclimation to the overall insanity of the Manson situation. "Originally, when I joined this band, I was in this huge black set. You couldn't see me," says Fish. "I started saying, 'You know, this is stupid, because it's been a whole year. No one has one picture of you.' I was like, 'Alright, I'm going to lower all my drums, I'm going to push everything to the side, I'm going to make sure I get seen.' So then I got seen and I was like, 'Who cares if I get seen? Every other song you have to bend down and make sure all the bars are straight and everything's in line.' So then I was just like, 'Who cares? Put me behind the big black set or whatever. I won't have to think about the damn bars and all the extra stuff, and I'll just play.'"
With his set all ready for The Big Show, all that remains for Fish is to prepare his body for the grueling months ahead. When asked what that entails, he giggles and says that we really don't want to know. Oh, but we do, we do. "I am, what is the word, I don't know, I'm addicted to physical addictions, I guess." he says. "Twice a day, people perform acts on my body to get me in a position where I think I'll be comfortable to deal with a year on the road.
"I go through, um, I start off the day with bleeding, like leeching. They bleed you, they put leeches on your body and they draw blood out of your body. And the whole point of this is your blood stagnates in your body after awhile, and if you don't cut yourself and get rid of the blood, the blood gets old. So I've been going on a regular binge--I consider it a binge. I constantly have on my body about four or five (leeches). It looks like a 5" diameter hickey on your body, and there's about five of them at a time. They go away in about a week-and-a-half or two weeks. And the whole point is just putting the leeches all over your body and they just suck the blood out of your body, and it supposedly means your body has to create new blood and clean your blood. I only started about a month ago, so I think I've got a lot more blood to get rid of. And there's certain other lancing techniques or whatever, if you stand upright ..." You really don't want to know what comes next. Trust us.
Still, Fish doesn't deny that the lust for leeching is indicative of a daily wrestling match he's gotten into with his own body. "Crazy pills and diets, I mean you know, you name it, if it has something to do with the body from top to bottom, I've dealt with it," he says. "I deal with everything from bleeding to stretching to stress management. I think a lot of the road and a lot of just being in a band is just keeping myself calm. I'm very high-strung and anxious, and anybody around me, I'll snap at. I snap very quickly, and people--doctors--say it's a matter of diet, certain drugs can cause irritabilty and anxiousness, and I'm very high-strung. I've always got a vein bulging out of my forehead.
"I think it scares me where I get to the point where I think I'm at that age. I just turned 35, and mass murderers and stuff are usually middle-aged men: white, Caucasian, middle-aged men. I scare myself sometimes. It's possibly a little relaxing on the road, because you're sheltered from normal life. When you're around normal society, it takes its toll after awhile. It'd be good to get back on the road and just lock yourself in a room and get away. With people, I'm afraid I'm going to hurt somebody eventually."
So Fish sequesters himself from the world, which in turn takes its toll. "The lifestyle destroys my body, and that's why I have to do what I do," he explains. "But it's tearing me apart. It's destroying me. I can't do anything about it. It's taking me down. I just have to try and stop it as much as I can, but it's getting the best of me."
Fish is addicted, for sure. His taste for the Manson experience seems to have consumed him. It's everything. "I don't listen to music, I don't listen to anything," says Fish. "Manson's philosophies are running around my brain. I live, eat, breathe, and think Marilyn Manson 24/7, and that possibly could be some of my mental, physical, metaphysical--however you want to put it--problems. But outside of the band doesn't exist to me. I don't know the world around me at all. It doesn't exist."