MARILYN MANSON: THE WIZARD OF ODD
by Jeff Pelrah
Marilyn Manson reveals the gory details of his shocking live show.
He's the undisputed king of shock rock, creating controversy with every grotesque move he makes. Raising the blood pressure of mainstream society with putrid imagery and ever-mutating personae is what Marilyn Manson does. And it doesn't happen by accident; Manson (whose real name is Brian Warner) knows exactly what he's doing. While many contemporary metallic rockers try to elevate teen testosterone levels with muscle-bound bravado and jockstrap humor, Marilyn Manson seeks to raise eyebrows with a volatile, venomous, and provocative critique of the status quo.
When last seen, Manson and band were spewing their shtick on the main stage of this year's Ozzfest. That followed on the heels of their Guns, God, and Government tour, which took its moniker from “The Love Song,” a key cut on Manson's latest opus, Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) from Nothing/Interscope. The sprawling album concludes a trilogy of sorts, which began with the industrial- and goth-flavored Antichrist Superstar (1996) and continued with the David Bowie — esque Mechanical Animals (1998).
While drawing from Manson's entire catalog, his recent gigs have featured his most, well, interesting presentation to date. His getups include a mechanized fetish dress that elevates him some 40 feet; an archbishop costume; and a huge, stage-spanning pair of satanic bat wings — appropriate, since Manson has been ordained as a minister in Anton LaVey's Church of Satan. He also croons beside a crucifix made out of rifles. In short, Manson's show is more bombastically topical than ever. “It's about those three words: guns, God, and government,” Manson says in a soft-spoken drawl.
“I really wanted to set them up against each other. I wanted the stage, at one moment, presenting an idea of God and what people worship, and then switching that with people's thirst for violence and how they are one and the same. So we made the crucifix into guns,” says Manson of his concept. “We were trying to throw these ideas back and forth in front of people so it would make them think and come up with their own conclusions. I don't think you can really spell something out completely. It's like preaching, so I prefer to create a bunch of strong images and let people be inspired by them or think about things differently from the way they did before the show.”
Although Manson's presentation is designed to shock at every moment, he claims that the truth about his show gets distorted. A few of his favorite tall tales are outlined in an “affidavit” section of his autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell (Regan Books/HarperPerennial). “Torturing animals, throwing big bags of drugs into the audience, raping young boys on stage,” Manson says. “In what country do they think this would take place, where I wouldn't be in prison for it? I'll move there!” he laughs. “Like with any mythology or folklore, it changes every time it goes from one to mouth to another. It's always based on a tiny bit of truth, and then it just goes somewhere else.”
Occasionally, however, the hyperbole gives Manson a serviceable idea. Not long ago, for instance, “it was reported that I was planning to use shredded Bibles as confetti in my show. What a great idea!” says Manson. “I think they must have combined the fact that I used to tear up a Bible to be symbolic and that I said I was gonna read from the Bible in Denver.”
For his interview with Onstage, Manson threw aside his devil's wings and colored eyeball-covers and revealed a candid, articulate, and surprisingly gentle demeanor. He spoke at length about rehearsals, onstage musicianship, and over-the-top theatrics — not to mention his own hell-raising crusade for free expression.
What most inspires you to perform live nowadays?
I think the same political and social atmosphere that was taking place when I started the band has kind of come full circle, and now I have the same fire in me that I had before. I think I lost it somewhat in the middle, but now I feel kind of born-again, like I did when I started the band. So I have the same anger in me to say all the things that I put in my songs with real conviction.
Anger about what?
I think a combination of political pressure — which inspires censorship, for example — and the never-ending idiocy of religion. And trying to blame entertainment for the way people behave. Like of course, the beating I took on Columbine. [In media reports, Manson's music was cited for allegedly helping to inspire the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, in which 2 teenagers killed 13 people, including themselves.] All of that combined together was kind of the boiling point. So I could either stop doing this entirely, or do it even more extreme than it was before, and with more conviction.
You've commented to journalists that you try not to be self-indulgent on stage. Do you think that might surprise people?
Well, I've always felt that I'd rather, as a music fan, see a show that was short but great, rather than see a show that was good and long — because I've been to concerts where I felt like if it would have ended 15 minutes earlier, it would have been the best show ever. It became mediocre because they went three songs more than they needed to and watered everything else down. I'm not necessarily self-conscious of boring people, but at the same time, I feel like I don't want to play music for my own entertainment. I'm there to entertain a crowd and to make them feel like they're a part of the same thing we [the performers] are a part of. The best way to do that is by giving them what they want. I still believe that, as an artist, you do what makes you feel good. But you have to remember that part of what makes you feel good is creating a response from an audience, so you have to really balance things. “Should I play this ten-minute song that I really like and the crowd doesn't know, but I'm doing it for myself?” I think that's kind of arrogant and becomes self-indulgent. Then again, everything I do on stage could be looked at as self-indulgent, the entire theatrical element.
What were some of the highlights of the Guns, God, and Government tour?
While I was onstage in Moscow, I had a Communist-like banner hanging down along with the gun crucifix during “The Love Song.” Meanwhile, the Russian army was in front of our stage as security, which was kinda scary. I offered two of 'em 50 bucks to stand onstage. And in Italy, I brought somebody onstage while I was singing “Sweet Dreams.” I was just sitting on top of him. I wasn't dry-humping them or anything like that; I wasn't naked, but they arrested me after the show and said it was a lewd act onstage. I think that they were looking to make a point just to make a headline, considering the Pope is located there. But I didn't have to go to jail; that wouldn't have been too fun. [Laughs.]
Religious and civic organizations protest your live show incessantly.
I think it really draws the whole crowd into what's happening to me, because if they see the protesters when they arrive, they instantly become part of what I'm a part of. And it makes the band and the crowd one big “us against them” unit — the ultimate galvanizing force that creates teen angst. The protesters are defeating their purpose every time. They would be much better off sitting at home, being perfectly still.
Did you really threaten to kill yourself on stage in 1996, as was reported?
No. Someone threatened to kill me on Halloween, but [it was mistakenly reported] that I threatened to kill myself.
You've inflicted a lot of mutilation on yourself onstage over the years.
People ask me about that period of my performance, a couple years ago, when I was really kind of destroying myself. And I was getting maybe a hundred death threats a day, so it was kind of my way, looking back, of saying that I was invincible to them. I was saying it by just destroying myself. It was ironic; I was doing that to myself [as a way of saying] something to the people who would complain about what I was doing to myself. It became a vicious circle.
Are you mutilating yourself much these days?
I ran out of scar area. All my pages are filled.
I attended one of your shows at Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom last year. During the encore, your drummer, Ginger Fish, broke his collarbone diving over and through his drum kit.
I put my mic stand into one of his drums and I tried to pull the drums down and they wouldn't come down. He got mad — either at me or his drums — and dove over them and landed the wrong way. But he finished the tour and it's still healing. I definitely gotta give it up to him, because that was really painful.
Do you often wreck gear onstage?
There'll be days when I do it and days when I don't. It really depends on how I'm feeling. I remember seeing Paul Stanley [of Kiss] smashing his guitar for the sake of the show, at the same time every song, every tour. He even had a breakaway guitar. And it's never been that type of thing for me, because if you're just going through the motions, then there's really no point to it. But there's also a fine line, because if I know I have something to break, it's kinda burning a hole in my pocket and I wanna break it. [Laughs.] But I don't wanna ever do that just to be entertaining. I'm not a monkey on a stick.
What's changed about your stage show since your original band, Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids, started gigging?
I think after more than ten years of doing it, we've become better at it, obviously. Now it really feels like a band. We really feel like we understand how each person's performance relates to the other. In the past, it was a real struggle, especially with guitar players, to find the right person who really held it together. Now I feel like everybody really works off each other. We're not relying on one person to weave the thread while everything else is falling apart.
When we were in Florida [the band formed in Jacksonville in 1989], my first guitar player [Daisy Berkowitz] never took the band seriously, in the sense that he never thought we would make it. That's why he's not in the band, that's why he never made it, because he never believed in himself. He thought this was kind of a “stepping stone” to his real career. He didn't want to be a part of the team. Now we all feel we're part of a team. We break collarbones for each other.
How does the inclusion of guitarist John5 benefit the band's live performance?
He's technically the most musical person in the band, but what's more important is that he plays with confidence. I think that carries more weight than someone who has particular technical skill. For me, picking up a microphone for the first time and never having sung before — it was just being confident enough to do it.
Anything to say about your contemporaries?
I listen to other music to know what the competition is. But I don't ever listen with jealousy. I don't need to hear something and get all bitter and competitive, like a lot of bands. I use it as inspiration to make something I think is better.
What kind of music has influenced you over the years?
Especially when I started the band, I liked industrial music, the kind of industrial dance music of bands like Ministry and Nitzer Ebb. And I think there's a little bit of rap influence, but not in an obvious way, just in a rhythmic way. I like rhythms a lot. Rhythms are very good.
Your industrial-dance music influences certainly showed on Antichrist Superstar [which was coproduced by Nine Inch Nails' main man, Trent Reznor].
Yeah, absolutely. All of that music coming out at the end of the '80s that was real European sounding was an influence, even though Ministry was American. It's got real rigid, regimented marching rhythms. It's angry, almost fascist sounding. So I think it was a good influence to draw from, when it came to trying to take a Nietzsche-like story like Antichrist and tell a musical story about transformation.
What do you mean by transformation?
I used the analogy of a worm into a butterfly. Trying to become a stronger individual, someone who believes in himself after being told he's wrong all his life. I think that's kind of a common thread everyone can relate to.
What's different about the way you perform your music live and the way you approach it in the studio?
It's more precise in the studio. But it would be interesting to record something in the studio with the raw energy onstage.
How much does the band typically rehearse before a tour?
At the beginning of a cycle, when you're playing songs for the first time and things like that, there's definitely a lot of rehearsing going on, and I'm very strict and particular that everything be played right and the best way possible. Once that's in shape, then there's room to be raw, and room for improvisation. But it has to be perfect first; otherwise, everything will fall apart.
The first time you're completely decked out and performing with stage props is in front of a live audience?
So you have to trust that it's all going to work.
Yes. It goes back to the confidence thing: you have to really carry it through, and if something isn't working, then you have to make it work that time. Your mic stand falls apart, then you use it to beat someone. If something's not operating, set it on fire. [Laughs.] That way you can turn something bad into entertainment. [Laughs.] So I guess that all the people that I've fired from my crew for doing things wrong should be given credit for my more outrageous destructive performances, because when something goes wrong is when I really kind of go off the deep end and enjoy the most, anyway. [Laughs.] Maybe they did it to me on purpose! [Laughs.]
How has new music technology affected how you perform live?
When I started using in-ear monitors, it changed my whole way of singing — made it much easier, much stronger, much better. Made me feel like when I'm singing in the studio. And I used to not like wireless microphones and I've started using those all the time now, too.
Why didn't you like to go wireless?
I was always afraid I might lose it in the crowd because I'm throwing things around. And I've done it a couple times. With my hand covered in sweat, I would raise my arm up with the microphone to the crowd, and it just went flying. Of course no one gave it back. These kinds of simple technologies have changed the way I perform. Being able to go anywhere onstage and hear myself, and not be trapped in that little area in front of my monitors on the floor — stupid little things like that make such a difference. But I wish I could sit out front and hear exactly what a show sounds like. Because when you listen to it on a tape, it's not gonna be the same.
What do you like to hear most in your monitor mix besides your voice?
Bass guitar is really important, because it's usually playing the root notes, which I sing off of. And the drums.
Is bass important because of the musical relationship you share with your bassist, Twiggy Ramirez?
Yes. We often write off of each other, so the bass is often gonna be the first instrument that I sing to. And it's the easiest thing to hear onstage for tone and pitch. With guitar, the frequencies are sometimes too high, and if everything's ringing, including your ears, you're not gonna be able to sing adequately.
Even though you wear in-ears, is hearing yourself on stage still ever a problem?
There are always problems, but I haven't had mix problems in a long time, because I think we got into a system where it's the same thing every day, and it ends up sounding perfect. If you're bringing your own system with you, there's no wild cards. But it'll be interesting on Ozzfest, when you have so many bands and you're not playing on your own stage. You can get into a real cluster fuck.
Do you think it is important for a musician to listen to a variety of styles of music?
I suppose so. I never like to call myself a musician. I've always hated that term.
What about artist?
Artist, yeah, but that sounds pretentious. And I don't mind sounding pretentious if it means saying I'm an artist, because I'm proud that what I do is art, not just music.
So what is your stage “look” these days?
On Ozzfest, the outfit I wear most is the black military uniform, and of course, I always like to wear my corset — that's actually conveniently where I put the battery pack for my headset.
Does your archbishop attire mock the fact that you've been banned in England?
They've tried to ban us many times, but never succeeded. In fact, we had quite a good sold-out show there in Wembley Arena — 14,000 people. Which was cool. The outfit is actually the one I wore in the “Disposable Teens” video, but it was more to really just evoke the God part of the Guns, God, and Government element. And it's interesting you noticed that it was an archbishop, because so many people think it's the Pope off the bat. All of those outfits have such a strong symbolism to 'em; they're just perfect archetypes.
Are your theatrics influenced by '70s acts like David Bowie and Alice Cooper?
Of course, Ziggy Stardust — era Bowie. I was always a fan of Alice Cooper as a kid, but I never thought his live performances were as cool as everyone else did. He just kind of sat there a lot. But I always loved the imagery that was surrounding it. I did think the band was really cool. On the first couple of records, their whole look was great, and his too, of course. Also Pink Floyd, for their grand visual elements.
How do you relax before a gig?
I don't like to have anybody in my dressing room right before a gig. If there's excessive talking, or a lot of people around, it really makes me uneasy and distracts me. Girlfriends are okay backstage, but not during the hour before I go on, because then I'm thinking about those things when I'm on stage and I don't want to be thinking about those things.
I really prefer to just sit with just the band, and we watch a video before we get ready. We'll often watch the same movie over and over again every day, so it's almost like a ritual in a sense. It's like, “Okay, when this part of the movie comes on, we know we gotta go brush our teeth.” It becomes regimented. I think that makes me feel at ease.
Have your parents seen you perform?
A lot, yes. I know it's strange to other people. It's strange to me that they're so into it. They're like big fans.