Remember how Marilyn Manson cut out his ribs, so that he could suck his own dick? Or how he bit the head off of a live chicken, during a show? This is what my friends were saying to each other in 1996, when we were 9, and Manson's nightmarish "The Beautiful People" video was competing with "The Macarena" and Alanis Morissette on television.
"If you act like a rock star, you will be treated like one," Manson wrote in his 1998 autobiography, The Long Road Out of Hell, explaining how he got paid $500 for his first-ever show. He has abided by this philosophy since, and for this reason his character's legend has often eclipsed the facts of his life. Those schoolyard rumors I spread about him weren't true. Manson never got his ribs removed, he admits in Long Road, though he did have plastic surgery on his big, "drooping earlobes." There was a chicken onstage in Dallas in 1995—it got tossed into the crowd, but it didn't die. Those were nothing, though, compared to when Manson was widely and wrongly blamed for 1999's Columbine massacre. Looking back, the myth that he was at all responsible was a vivid precursor to the way people now become famous on the internet, with or without their participation.
At 45, Manson is a flamboyant introvert. He calls me from a Los Angeles airport lounge, on the way to Europe to promote his upcoming ninth album. He's got a lot of "interior monologues," as he's put it, and jumps from one to the other fluidly throughout our hour-long chat. He tells me he keeps his home at 55 degrees and that he must get at least seven hours of sleep a night to ensure that his vocal chords will produce "five different notes at the same time." He's cocky and sensitive, intimating that he's carrying a "gold switchblade" in his suit vest, then letting me know how much he appreciated Die Antwoord for defending him recently, when someone accused him of being drunk early in the morning. "I was not drunk at all," Manson says. "And I was hurt by it. And those guys stood up for me."
When he coughs, it sounds like he says "I've got vodka stuck in my throat." But I'm not sure—we're both on cell phones and the connection is bad, and Manson's deep and sludgy voice makes him especially hard to make out. Maybe it really does have five tones.
"I don't like to be a warrior anymore."
The Pale Emperor, which will be released in January via Manson's own Hell, etc. label (with distribution help from Loma Vista), is Manson's first album in three years, a period where he's seemed more interested in film and television than music. "When you said [it had been] three years, I had to really check the calendar in my head for a second," Manson says. "Because I don't wear a watch and I have to have an assistant to tell me what to do every day."
Manson's last record, Born Villain, was the first he made after parting ways with longtime label Interscope, and it was largely self-produced and full of tangents, about Shakespeare and Ancient Greece. For Pale Emperor, Manson found an editor in Tyler Bates, a producer who's worked predominantly on scores for films and video games. "I don't know if the CIA hacked my brain or it was meant to, but Tyler and I were strangely on the same page, without knowing each other very well," Manson says. "I've never had that before in a friendship. I finally feel like I have a team around me. I don't like to be a warrior anymore. I think I needed to stand up and accept responsibilities, and that I needed to be the leader. This record comes with that confidence. I don't think it's the end all be all, but I think it's a new chapter."
On a recent episode of Bret Easton Ellis' podcast, Manson said getting albums approved by label suits could be "soul-destroying," and he tells me that for the past couple years, it's been "pretty difficult" to get him in into the studio. This time around, he says, it was a relief to record "without the pressure." Manson's notoriously vampiric, sleeping days and eating oysters at the Chateau Marmont through the night, but says he and Bates recorded much of Pale Emperor during the day. "I'm a changed person," he explains. "That doesn't mean I'm changed into a werewolf, it's just a different, motivational approach." He had to be up at 7AM anyway, he adds, to make his call time for Sons of Anarchy, the gnarly hit show in which he had a recurring role as a white supremacist.
"I'm very responsible in the fact that I like to be punctual," he says. "I like to show people that their preconceptions of me can be defied by confusion. I'm polite. When I meet someone, I shake their hand." Manson's traditional manner is perhaps a kind of security blanket. "From the first time I look someone in the eye, I know whether or not I'm gonna like them," he says. "I remember every detail of everything. And that's terrible sometimes. There's a lot of things that you don't wanna remember. Right now, there's 25 different conversations that are turning shit around in my head. My brain sometimes goes on tangents."
Listening to Pale Emperor, the songs remind me of Interpol and the retro biker bar rock that soundtracks Sons. Manson tells me that he and Bates were initially inspired by a scene from the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Specifically: "The overall vibe of the scene, when they're in the Pink Room and Laura Palmer and her friend are getting oral sex from someone and there's a band playing in the background that's sort of like The Cramps." Manson's a confessional lyricist, who has previously dressed his feelings in characters and extended metaphors. On this album, he lets melody lead. "I'm a man of few words on the record," he says. "What I hadn't ever found, till now, is the blues. The blues changed the way that I sang. And the music has a melody and a language in and of itself."
He tells me about something called ideasthesia, which is "when you have the situation where all five senses are happening at the same time." So, like, you're tasting smells and hearing colors. He says this happens to him, which makes him good at making art but also "very vulnerable to people or strangers." If this seems like a bad affliction for an entertainer, he says it's easier for him to live with his brain when he's performing for thousands of people than it is for him to "sit in a room with people I just met."
Though Manson's reputation has been as a shocker, his act has also always had a sweetly nostalgic air. The white pancake makeup, glitter boots, and prosthetic boobs call back to Bowie and KISS or even P.T. Barnum, the circus founder whom Manson cites as an hero. In 2014, his old aspirations to have stadium-size fame and disrupt the world with chaos feel almost wholesome, and certainly old-fashioned. These days, fame comes and goes faster. Young artists must contend with viral hits and fleeting co-signs (not to mention fleeting attention spans), so life as a KISS-sized rock star seems beyond anyone's grasp. Being accessible and imperfect is much cooler, these days, than becoming an idol.
Manson seems to know this. "I came around at the onset of the internet," he says. "Technology sort of scared me—I thought it was too mathematical. I've realized that technology can be a paintbrush, if you wanna use it that way." The internet has also become the main way for artists to maintain a fan base, and for a guy who used to be known for saying anything, Manson's got a pretty tame Twitter. "I think that people are so concerned to be up-to-the-minute and be relevant that they empty their bucket of mystery," he says. "I say things when I say them cause I want people to listen to them."
He realizes that being comfortable with the stage but reluctant to tweet means that the next generation of music fans will be less familiar with him. "I'm not the kind of idiot who thinks everyone knows what I'm doing all the time. They don't. I meet people and they don't even know that I paint, or that I have a song out," he says. "I don't expect people to remember what I did yesterday, let alone 10 years ago."