Marilyn Manson was once considered the most dangerous rock star on the planet. But after a decade of decadence and outrage, he's facing his toughest fight ever - convincing the world he still matters.
Sat on a sofa in a plush Knightsbridge hotel suite, Marilyn Manson looks exactly as you'd expect: tall, stick thin, with a carefully gelled sweep of jet-black hair framing a long face that's half-covered with his trademark ghoulish make-up and half obscured by a pair of enormous glasses. He talks exactly as you'd expect, too; a low, croaking monotone that today finds itself punctuated by occasional creaks from the elbow-length leather gloves he's wearing.
It's 8:15 in the evening. Our interview was supposed to happen much earlier in the day, but waiting for Manson, it transpires, is not unusual. Yesterday he was two hours late for the photo shoot accompanying this feature, and today, as we sit around the Berkeley hotel - a favorite haunt of Madonna and Johnny Depp, incidentally - his publicist remarks that working with the man often reminds him of the quote Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts once made about life in a band being, "five years playing, 25 years waiting around."
At this very moment The Prodigy's frontman Keith Flint is also waiting for Manson, having taken up an invitation to dinner with the singer. He'll have to loiter a little longer in the bar, though - a bar where a swift round will set you back upwards of £60 - for right now Manson has some talking to do. And right now he's talking about what he talks about best, himself. Or rather the concept of Marilyn Manson, that is, to "take subversive, degenerate imagination and insert it into the mainstream, so they have something infected in them that keeps them coughing." He leans forward, accompanied by a theatrical creak of leather. "Because when they're coughing, they're thinking 'what's wrong with me?'"
If you've think that I've just walked into soundbite heaven, then you'd be right. There are few in the rock world that can spin reams of quote quite the way Manson can. But, in truth, no one has been coughing too much on his account of late. The gap between concept (always elaborate, always intriguing) and execution (generally the same noisy, industrial-Goth soundboard) of his music has become increasingly wide.
Manson's multi-platinum heyday of "Antichrist Superstar" is firmly lodged on the other side of the millennium. And while his name was once the scourge of very religious leader and every parent across suburban America, and a regular in the dock of one courtroom or another, his last album, "Holy Wood," was a disaster that didn't even go gold in the US - the country responsible for his infamy in the first place. And now, right when the whole franchise of rock seems to be floundering, with even the most marketable of acts failing to shift units, Marilyn Manson has chosen to return, claiming he's about to "change the face of art." As Mickey Mouse, apparently. It's clear that some straight answers are needed. But naturally, this being Marilyn Manson, you won't get them. And you're not meant to, either. As the man explains solemnly with another creak of his gloves, "art is meant to deliver a question mark, not an answer."
An audience with Manson is an unusual one to say the least. And it is an audience, rather than a conversation. Everything that comes out of his mouth seems designed to have quotation marks placed either end of it, with little room for either spontaneity on his behalf or interjection on your's. Equally, he'll rarely give one word answers when a block of eloquent text (strangely enough for someone who used to declare himself the 'God of Fuck,' Manson doesn't swear once during the interview, and he rarely makes eye contact), especially one that avoids giving a direct answer - or, better still, any answer - will suffice.
A few answers have surfaced anyway. First there's the new single, "mOBSCENE," a typically brash slice of abrasive industro-pop, with a typically eye catching video of high-kicking Nazi girls and a pouting, sooty-eyed Manson, that comes complete with a cheer-leader chorus that will be instantly familiar for anyone who's heard Faith No More's "Be Aggressive." Then there's the 'Grotesk Burlesk' live show that in the past few weeks has made its way through Berlin, Paris and London, featuring an exhibition of Manson's paintings, an elaborate strip show courtesy of girlfriend Dita Von Teese, and a cabaret-style performance form the singer himself. It's the latter, drawing on 30's Hollywood and Wiemar Germany's celebration of decadence and hedonism, that informs much of the imagery and style of the new album, his fifth studio effort proper, "The Golden Age of Grotesque." A far more rousing, energized proposition than the bleak, draining recitals of it's predecessor, the mood of ".Grotesque" can be thus characterized by it's creator as, "More." That's more as in, "More, more, more and not less," he clarifies. "Maximalism to the fullest."
Which, if you're a Marilyn Manson fan, means Christmas has come early this year. For those that aren't, or are at least a little suspicious, this means asking just what can a man who has been both 'Antichrist Superstar' and gender-bending glam freak, who began his career turned up to 11, possibly have to offer to a music-buying public long desensitised to such things? "That's the question I ask myself on 'This Is The New Shit' (the opening track on 'TGAOG')," he concurs. "Everything's been said, where do I go from here? I answered myself with the song and the record came from there. It's an assault of my personality and my imagination and the band unified into the most powerful form of Marilyn Manson to date."
Musically it's a form where the song has remained the same - there are no great musical departures on the record at all - but the themes of paranoia and censorship, from both post-war Germany and McCarthy-era America, that inform it, as well as the escapist function of entertainment at such times, is something Manson believed to be of utmost relevance to America today. "All these parallels can compare to America right now, and to my career," he explains. "'Holy Wood.' was a battle - a battle I won, proof that I am a survivor, that I cannot be silence by the people who dislike me for my imagination. '.Grotesque' is a celebration, something you build when you conquer something."
There's another creak of leather.
"Basically an amusement park."
One of the most unusually tracks on "TGAOG" is "Para-noir" - a cryptic composite title devised by Manson to describe the paranoia of relationships. It's notable for the fact that the lead vocal is comprised of several dozen women, who Manson personally auditioned, stating their reason for 'fucking' people, wither metaphorically, symbolically or literally. "It's a rare thing that I would take someone else's performance and use it," he notes. "But I just wanted to know what people really though." Unsurprisingly (this is Marilyn Manson after all) love doesn't get mentioned once. Equally unorthodox was his method of getting the right guitar part for the track. Apparently, guitarist John 5 was made to play blindfolded on unfamiliar instruments.
"John doesn't drink or do drugs," says Manson, definitely warming to his theme, "but he does have. womanising tendencies, to the extent that he'll sleep with four to five girls a day - strangers. So I wanted him to play guitar like he does women.
Despite it's occasionally bizarre genesis, Manson will admit that ".Grotesque" is by far the most accessible, conventional thing he's done. Not that this is a problem for him, because as far as he's concerned, it's his best, and he'll spend much of the interview saying as much. Neither, however, does he see it as a problem for any who might view him as a spent musical force.
"I think the album will provide people with exactly what they need from me now," he says. "Which is smashing all preconception of what I'm about." 'Smashing preconceptions' is very much part of the Manson mission statement in 2003. Indeed, oddly (or perhaps pointedly) for a man who chooses words so carefully, over the course of our 40-minute conversation he'll use this same phrase exactly four times.
Trying to get him to elaborate on the specifics of just what those preconceptions are and exactly how this record smashes them is a trickier task. Particularly when ".Grotesque" is rife with the kind of sloganeering ("I'm on a hate American-style kick" he snarls on one track) that suggest nothing other than business as usual.
His response offers little clarity.
"I've directed every album at a different hole in the world," he says. "And this one is directed at a much bigger one, so this record will appeal to more people, because more people will need what's on this album." Which is as good an indication as any of where Marilyn Manson's head is right now. But it just might not be the same place as the rest of the world, particularly America. Go to US online satire bible 'The Onion' (www.theonion.com) and you'll find Manson the subject of a news parody, depicting the singer being reduced to a door-to-door tour of suburbia in a last ditch attempt to 'shock and offend,' only to be met with blankets indifference. While utterly hilarious (his appointed 'tactics' included routines involving sheep entrails, flaming dog turds and an uncomfortable sexual encounter with former bassist Twiggy Ramirez), the piece made a pertinent observation of Manson's career. Namely, when you're career has been based squarely on the ability to shock, and your audience, having seen it all before, is no longer shocked, where does that leave you?
Exactly what can you offer to generation 'Whatever?'
"It's important for me, as part of my nature, to provoke things, and to revolt against them," he says. "If I wanted to be genuinely shocking, it would be a lot easier to do, but to provoke someone and ask questions with what you create is more difficult. Shocking someone only lasts for a short time."
This response, remember, comes from someone who used to cut himself onstage with razors and was arrested on his last tour for rubbing his genitalia against a security guard's head. You might expect something a little more sophisticated from someone so reportedly media savvy, but then as he points out, Marilyn Manson (as an artist and idea) is 'only' 10 years old this year. It's something he makes a play on, linking his 'pre-pubescence' to both the general carefree mood of ".Grotesque" and the latest manifestation of its creator.
"It's me not growing up, and also growing at the same time and trying to take my audience with me," he says. "It's part of transformation." Which is fine, except that you wonder who, among all those teenagers who aligned themselves with "Antichrist Superstar's" rebellious flag seven years ago - the same teenagers who are now dealing with the pressures of the real world in early adulthood - will be there to see this installment of his career.
Aren't you concerned that your audience has grown up, or rather grown out of Marilyn Manson?
"Maybe so," he considers, without missing a beat. "You create something without catering to a group of people. If you cater to people, you're a waiter."
He gears up to an impressive bout of spin.
"But I don't see a difference between me and the record buying public. I buy records so I'm the audience. This album was something I enjoyed so I know that it's something other people will enjoy."
What do you think people's expectations are of you now?
"I assume they're learning to expect the unexpected. It's my great pleasure to smash preconceptions, and I think I've been constantly doing that over the past year."
You can't really expect any other response from him. Marilyn Manson the concept just doesn't entertain self-doubt. Rather, he comes up with new definitions to align himself with. And he has a whole unholy host of them at his disposal. So ask him if he's confident he'll win back the lost crowds from "Holy Wood's" disastrous campaign in the US and he'll say he's not looking back to win back anything, rather to show people he didn't lose anything to start with. Tell him that Gottfried Helnwien's pictures (capturing that already infamous Mickey Mouse-meets-Papa-Lazarou look) are just the latest run of Manson-getting-fancy-with-the-make-up, and he'll quip that since he is Marilyn Manson, no one's going to see him as anyone other than that. Put it to him that the current wave of patriotism in the US might not be the best climate in which to release a record with distinctly anti-American sentiments, and he'll say that the only way to be patriotic was by making the record.
Are you proud to be an American?
"It's still possible for me to be both patriotic and still want to be an American," he responds. "America is a great place to be, an interesting place, where you can find things like me. And that's what America hates. That's the great duplicity."
Equally, ask him point-blank if he really, truly thinks that his new album will have the effect that he wants it to have (even though you know he wouldn't tell you if he thought otherwise) and he'll twist the issue to fit both his own internal logic and the point he wants to make (in this case, that ".Grotesque" is his fullest and finest vision yet, and thus proof that he, Marilyn Manson, is "smashing preconceptions"). Keep pressing him, and he'll twist it - somewhat admirably - even more.
One such twist is that Manson 2003 is, on top of the celebration of decadence and hedonism, apparently all about the personal, too.
"A lot of my other work has been about attacking, breaking down, asking questions about the outside world," he considers. "This is about creating a new world from within. I think that people will get a better sense of knowing me, knowing my experiences, knowing what I do."
In truth ".Grotesque" is hardly over-burdened with revelations - the blackened pit of despair that was "Holy Wood." might have been a more accurate state-of-mind gauge - and for all his talk of letting people in, Manson the interviewee is a closed book. A well-read one, an articulate one, certainly a rather peculiar one, but a closed one nonetheless. It's nearby impossible to get a measure of his personality, and there is a divide between the person and the persona, however faint. Go to his website and you'll find some frank advice given to fans on his messageboard ("Let them stay with, then call the police," he tells one fan concerned that a friend is being abused), so you know he can drop the cryptic bullshit when it's inappropriate.
Today, however, there's little that will break up the stream of well-ordered quote. In fact, it's put to him that were you to leave him and the tape recorder to it, you'd probably get a similar interview. It stops him, just for a second.
"I have a strange way of talking to people," he offers. "I'm aware of it, because people make me aware of it, but it's just part of my eccentric nature. I genuinely am not trying to avoid answering questions when I do that. My brain works in a certain way, and it's like having a tornado inside your head and trying to control it."
He swiftly manoeuvres the conversation back to his preferred topic.
"It's a controlled chaos - by letting go, you can have the most control, which is exactly what I did with my new album. "The Golden Age of Grotesque" is reckless. I really let go."
Our time with Manson is up. The singer gets to his feet, offers a leather-clad handshake and even an apology for the earlier wait. Just before he disappears off to his dinner engagement, he states that his forthcoming live show will be "very dangerous in it's way of thinking," suggesting that clues to the stage show might be gleaned from both the "mOBSCENE" video and his 'Grotesk Burlesk' sideshow, which, for those versed in the theatrical splendor of the Manson live show, is something to be excited about.
There is one other thing he lets slip however - intentionally or otherwise. Asked for a final snapshot of where he is right now in the scheme of things, he says he's looking forward to releasing the album and to "finally cause the genuine trouble needed in America" - the home, he says with a strategic pause, of Walt Disney, the home of George Bush, and the home of Marilyn Manson. And here he's really hit the nail on the head, for these days Marilyn Manson is as much part of the institution, as American as apple pie. And 10 years on from his birth, he's still making a party of it.
Marilyn Manson's "The Golden Age Of Grotesque" album is out May 12 via Nothing/Interscope.