Interview:2015/03/01 How Marilyn Manson Got the Blues: Inside 'The Pale Emperor'

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How Marilyn Manson Got the Blues: Inside 'The Pale Emperor'
Mm travis.png
Photograph by Travis Shinn
Interview with Marilyn Manson
Date March 1, 2015
Source Revolver
Interviewer Dan Epstein
After two decades of shock-rock theatrics, meet Manson at his realest

It's New Year's Day, 2000, and Marilyn Manson and Johnny Depp are on a mission. Having spent the night ringing in the new millennium with fireworks explosions and absinthe toasts at Depp's villa in the south of France, the rock star and the actor are now driving crazily around the streets of Nice in a desperate, brutally-hungover search for some American-style fast food.

"We can't find a McDonald's anywhere," Manson recalls. "But we find a grocery store that says, 'Groceries—Serpents.' They sell snakes there!" Suddenly hell-bent on purchasing a snake or two, Manson and Depp are crestfallen to learn that the serpent area of the shop is closed for the holiday. Groceries, then, it will have to be…

For nearly 15 years, the fireworks, the absinthe and the unsuccessful fast-food-and-serpent run were about all that Manson could remember from his and Depp's little Y2K party. But last summer, while moving into his new home in the Hollywood Hills, Manson unpacked a box that contained his forgotten copy of French poet Antonin Artaud's Heliogabalus: Or, the Crowned Anarchist. "Johnny gave the book to me on that trip," Manson recalls. "But I think the fireworks, the absinthe and our little adventure derailed me from reading it at the time."

Heliogabalus is a surrealist biography of the Roman emperor Elagabalus, a.k.a. "The Pale Emperor," whose penchant for debauchery was impressive even by Roman emperor standards. The book reappeared in Manson's life at precisely the right time, inspiring both the title of, and some of the lyrical content on, his new studio album, The Pale Emperor.

Created primarily with assistance from Manson's new musical collaborator Tyler Bates (a soundtrack composer best known for his work on such films as Guardians of the Galaxy, 300 and Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects), The Pale Emperor is pretty much everything you could want from a Marilyn Manson album. From the sleazy opening stomp of "Killing Strangers" to the haunting coyote yips that bring the curtain down on "Odds of Even," Manson's ninth studio missive is an alluringly cinematic epic of darkness and decadence, with music that is equal parts goth-industrial atmospherics and cocksure glam-rock swagger. There's a real immediacy to the album, too; not only are songs like "Deep Six" and "Cupid Carries a Gun" infernally catchy, but they seem eminently more relatable—or, at least, more human—than the twisted fantasies that have populated some of his more recent albums.

There's an interesting sense of duality running through The Pale Emperor's lyrics, as well, something that's perhaps best exemplified by the track "The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles," which is both a middle-finger salute to the celebrity-besotted culture of Manson's current hometown ("Lazarus ain't got no dirt on me!") as well as a grudging acknowledgement that he may well have sold his soul to it. "I think this album is probably me struggling with the two sides of myself," he tells Revolver.

REVOLVER The last time you spoke with Revolver you were living in an apartment above a liquor store. It seemed designed for maximum creativity, with a home studio and a space for painting. Now you have in a house in the Hollywood Hills. Why did you move?
MARILYN MANSON I was acting on Sons of Anarchy [Manson portrayed white supremacist, Ron Tully] and I needed a place that didn't have any distractions. So I bought a house that was next to one of Johnny Depp's houses. I bought it the day before I started work on The Pale Emperor. It's haunted—doors slam behind me a lot, and I'm always hearing people walking up and down the stairs—but I ain't afraid of no ghosts. [Laughs]

Is it the ghost of a former owner, perhaps?
Yeah, it was owned by a silent film actress from the 1920s. I don't want to say her name, because she'll probably try to come out and give me a Satanic ghost blowjob or something one night. [Laughs] But it's good to have different sanctuaries. When I was recording the last album, I'd have to be dragged into the studio around two or three in the morning—unless it was the studio in my house, which made it even worse because there's something very important about leaving your everyday environment to create. But I hate normal studios, because you have to say "hi" to the person at the front desk. And then you go into the studio, and there's a second engineer in there that you don't know, and then you're stuck in a glass box with someone talking to you through a walkie-talkie.

Was it a more pleasant experience working with Tyler Bates?
Yeah, it was surprisingly easy. He invited me over to his home studio, where he does all his scoring work. While driving from my house to his studio, I told him, "You know that scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me with the pink room? Strobe lights are flashing, Laura Palmer is getting eaten out, and it's in Canada?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "I have something like that in mind." And by the time I got there, maybe five minutes later, he'd already put up a basic sketch of it. We sat face to face, and I said, "Put up the mic, and just play it." So "Birds of Hell Awaiting" was a first-vocal take, and he was playing the guitars while I sang. I didn't know where it was going, but I started realizing that it was really going to take us to a different place. The themes that started coming up—and the record happened very rapidly—were based around the Faustian tradition, relating either to myself as the devil, or to my own devils or to just the metaphorical idea of selling your soul to become who you are. I think that, for the past couple of years, I've been hearing a knock-knock-knock on my door—the hellhounds on my trail, saying it's time to pay up. And this record is my payment, and my payback. It's both sides of the coin.

Which brings us to "The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles." Are you the Mephistopheles of Los Angeles. Is Los Angeles your Mephistopheles, or is it both?
I think you're the first person to realize the double side of that song. That is exactly what I intended. That song was, originally in my mind, the title or theme for the record, though I hadn't completely decided on a title. But then I was unpacking boxes after moving into the new house, and I came across the first book Johnny Depp ever gave me, which was Antonin Artaud's Heliogabalus: Or, the Crowned Anarchist—the biography of the first Roman emperor to deny the existence of God. He was young, in his teens, and his complexion was pale, so they called him "The Pale Emperor." He liked to have peasants cut up in the middle of the street, and then he would pour wine over them and make their families drink from their dying relatives. He also castrated all the men around him—which is the ultimate form of cock-block, I must say—and made them dance for him. And I thought, "This reminds me a little bit of me, too…"

In other words, "The Pale Emperor" became a persona or concept that you could wrap the album around?
Well, it just so happened that I found the book on the day I'd finished "Mephistopheles of Los Angeles" and played it for the record label. I noticed that one record label person… it wasn't a speech impediment, but he was just really not capable of saying "Mephistopheles of Los Angeles." [Laughs] I didn't change my concept because of that, but I thought making the album simply about Los Angeles—and, as you say, the two ways of looking at it—was far too regional. The record unconsciously follows the tradition of the blues in that I'm telling a story, and the story is about the listener as much as it is about me. The images you conjure up while hearing it could be the same ones as mine, or you may be manifesting mine into your own version of it, like when you read a book. There was Flannery O'Connor, there was Baudelaire, there was Faust… there were a lot of things rolling about in my head while I was making it. But it was a record that, once it started rolling after that first song, it had a certainty to it—and I knew exactly what I wanted it to be.

You've talked about this album being blues-influenced, but I think the bluesiest aspect of it is that there's a sense of universality. On some level, everyone can relate to the stories you're telling here.
Thank you. That's what I was intending. When I listened to the record with my father, it sounded like it was a lot about him. When I listen to it with my girl, it sounds like it's a lot about her. And that's when I realized that it's about where you're at when you're hearing it. And I feel that's the greatest achievement of this record.

Your mother passed away while you were making this record. Did that influence it in any way?
I think "Odds of Even" was probably influenced by it, since it was written after that, and she died in the house that we lived in. I was in the studio, I heard some coyotes outside tearing apart a small animal. The story [of the song] had already formed itself, in the sense that you take on the world, and you stand up and fight, and then maybe you meet somebody, a romantic sort of situation—and you think you can win, but in the end you always die alone. It's not really a sad story, but it is the reality story. We all die alone. It's what you do when you're alive that counts. And if you make a deal with the Devil, don't try to outrun him, because in the end, he's always going to be there. Hearing that animal being torn apart made me think of how I'd been ganged up on before in life, verbally or personally and physically, and things like that.

How did her death affect you personally?
I think a lot of people were worried that I would crumble after my mom's death; instead, I went sort of in the other direction. I stopped drinking absinthe—mostly for vanity purposes, but it also clouded my temporal lobe. Making this album, I would wake up and go running — not from the police, but for exercise purposes. And I was doing fight training, because I was on Sons of Anarchy, and I thought, "I don't want to ever end up in jail and be on the receiving end of what my character does on that show!" When you're sweating and doing physically active things, your brain synapses fire off entirely differently. I would go to training, and then immediately want to go to the studio. So I had a lot of testosterone going through my bloodstream when I was making this record! It's not angry, it's not aggro, but it definitely has a swagger and a certainty about it—a sureness, a positivity. I think that there's a sense of masculinity on this record that isn't on any of my other records. I might have been angrier or louder in the past, but I know who I am on this record.

Who else played on the album besides Tyler?
I will be very, very specific: Tyler Bates made the music, and I did the singing and wrote the lyrics. I played some percussion—tambourine and pill bottles—and then we brought in Gil Sharone [from Stolen Babies] to add live drums afterward. Tyler also brought in some musicians to play saxophone, and he also used some live strings—he sort of cheated and took some of the Guardians of the Galaxy score that he recorded at Abbey Road and snuck some strings in there from another session. [Laughs] The only other person was [actor] Walter Goggins—he's the preacher at the beginning of "Slave Only Dreams to Be King." I worked with him on Sons of Anarchy, and he has the sort of deep Southern accent that would be just perfect for a tent revival.

Who will be playing in your band on this tour?
The same band that I played with at my Halloween shows—Paul [Wiley] on guitar, Tyler on guitar, Gil Sharone playing drums, and Twiggy playing bass.

Can we expect anything unusual for these shows?
Absolutely! This will be a whole different ballgame. We've developed it into something newer and more biblical, though not religious—and, strangely, not anti-religious. Imagine a church tent revival, and combine that with the evil part of the deep South… I think I'm bringing both elements of that to the stage. As far as the performance goes, I want to create an atmosphere, and use 5.1 sound and imagery and shape and form to transform the stage from one thing to another, as if you're watching a movie. But not in a big-budget, overblown sort of way. I want to create a structure out of the stage where each stage becomes my place. The stage will transform into what I want it to be, rather than me having to adapt to the stage. So it's a very chameleon-like stage show, and it's not going to end like people would guess, based on the past. But there will be some glorious elements of the past which I wish to revive. I'm not going to make it a tour where I play only new songs.

You talk about the stage show being biblical, yet not religious. Can you elaborate?
The album is all biblical or nautical or funereal. It has a burial element to it and a resurrection element to it as well. Lazarus was raised by Jesus from the dead, which made him the first zombie in the Bible. A lot of people don't think about it, but the Bible has every horror element that you can imagine. It's got the devil, the anti-Christ, Lucifer and Satan—which are four different characters. It's got the end of the world. You've got zombies, giants, demon possession, a lot of murder. So there are elements of the album that are very biblical, but I don't think it's about me trying to speak out about religion, like I have in the past. It's more about me seeing it from both sides. Both sides are always going to be a part of me, because I grew up around religion—whether I want to hate it or not, it's still a part of me.

It's interesting: Music is such an integral part of most religious services, yet the religious establishment has often tried to suppress secular musical expression.
The church wouldn't have tried to suppress music if there wasn't so much power in it. When you listen to a mass in Latin, it sort of hypnotizes you. When I was making this record, I got the Latin phrase "Solve et Coagula" tattooed on my hands, which refers to breaking something apart and putting it back together stronger. It's really all about alchemy in the end. It's about turning lead into gold, and that's what making music is. And they fear that—that's really the thing. It's not, "Oh, that evil rock and roll music— t makes the kids go out and have sex!" It's, "They're stealing our market! Those are our customers! Give them back!"