An epic conversation with Marilyn Manson: 'I write songs to fight and f*** to'

Marilyn Manson (Photo: Loma Vista Recordings)

It’s been a rough and eventful past few weeks for Marilyn Manson. First, on Sept. 30, he broke bones in his fibula and ankle in a stage accident, forcing the postponement of his Heaven Upside Down tour. “The pain was excruciating,” he told Yahoo Entertainment last month.

Then, while Manson was recovering, his original guitarist Daisy Berkowitz (real name: Scott Putesky), died after a four-year battle with colon cancer at age 49. And just two days after Berkowitz’s death, Manson fired longtime bassist Twiggy Ramirez (real name: Jeordie White), after Ramirez’s ex-girlfriend and Manson’s friend, Jessicka Addams, accused Ramirez of raping her in the ’90s.

Manson quickly replaced Ramirez with Juan Alderete (of the Mars Volta and Racer X) for his tour, which resumed this past weekend at Ozzfest Meets Knotfest in San Bernardino, Calif., but he remained at the center of controversy. While performing at the hard rock festival on Nov. 5, he pretended to fire a prop semiautomatic shotgun into the crowd; the dramatic gesture was considered in poor taste, since earlier that day a gunman had shot and killed 26 people in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Perhaps Manson was trying to make a political statement about gun violence in America, but he was more likely simply using his art to provoke in the most confrontational way possible. That the onstage mock-shooting capped a month of real-life turbulence for the shock-rocker (including the death of his father and the self-destructive behavior that followed) was no surprise. Manson dwells in a sometimes self-imposed domain of chaos, which makes him one of the few remaining rock musicians that’s capable of shocking a jaded audience.

Yahoo recently chatted with Manson about the confessional nature of return-to-form 10th album Heaven Upside Down, his dad’s passing, his friendship with Johnny Depp, his beefs with Justin Bieber and Donald Trump, his time in rehab, and why he pulled a knife on his co-writer — among many other subjects.

Yahoo Entertainment: Heaven Upside Down is about your personal journey. Surprisingly, there’s nothing about politics or freedom or sticking it to the man.

Marilyn Manson: The last thing in the world I was going to do was to make something obvious and political. I circumvented that with the video [of “Say10”], I released on Election Day [which ends with Trump’s decapitated body lying in a pool of blood]. That was as close as I was going to get. But I did that early on, and that was not a reaction to what’s happening in America. It was my statement on what would or wouldn’t happen in America.

You flirt with the devil and evil and you’ve explored its outer fringes, so you’ve certainly seen the face of ugliness. When you look at President Trump, do you see an evil man or a misguided man?

I see the same thing that I may have pointed out about either Bush. I didn’t really have too much to complain about. Maybe it was the lack of stupidity in the government and the people that supposedly control our lives. But it seems a bit fumbling. The era in which I made records that weren’t as aggressive and in your face was during the Barack Obama administration, who is the only president I ever voted for. At the time it seemed like something worth getting up for. The only reason I didn’t vote was because it’s too early in the day. But I don’t think it’s anything new. It is just an unusual time. And I think that all of that is reflected in what I do. It’s not even a case of me being prophetic, it’s more just being aware of the culture that I could see developing. There’s this goldfish mentality, where you forget something every three seconds. I used all caps on some of the record, and for “Kill4Me” and “Say10,” I wrote it in the way you might send it on a Twitter message.

I think if you want to use any metaphor in life regarding Twitter, I think that social media is a very powerful tool. Example A: our new president. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. I’m saying it should be acknowledged as something that can be used powerfully or can be used foolishly because people have given it that power. My biggest influence, on the whole, would be Salvador Dali, who was not afraid to embrace everything as art and everything as a movie. When people say, “Life’s not a movie,” he’d say, “Well, why can’t it be? Half the time you’re being filmed.” And that’s why I start off “We Know Where You F***ing Live” with the line: “Let’s make something clear. We’re all recording this as it happens.”

What do you think as you watch the dumbing down of America, with gadgets like smartphones consuming people’s lives and the mainstream media playing to the lowest common denominator?

The greatest inspiration for me to be an artist is to point somebody in a direction without telling them, “Hey, go read this book” or “Hey, this song’s about this.” I don’t ever want to tell people what they should think. I’d rather show people a little bit of creativity that might inspire them rather than complaining about what you can’t really change. Rock ‘n’ roll is not gonna change the world.

Well, it’s not the ’60s anymore. But the world seems to be changing on its own in radical ways. Every time you turn on the news, there’s a breaking story about natural disasters, shooting sprees, political corruption, and other scandals. And a lot of this is stuff the best fiction writers couldn’t make up.

Regarding all of this, I have developed a new system and a new way of looking at things. Neither you or I have been to outer space, obviously, so we take it for granted the picture we see of the Earth from space is the Earth. But I don’t like to take things for granted anymore. I don’t like to hear bits and pieces of information unless it’s from a person in person, and I generally can tell when somebody’s being sincere or not. So I can’t comment on what I would think about something that I don’t really have my own theory or statement about. Nor do I know the president, nor do I know any of these other things that are happening. I do think it’s strange that a lot of Christians thought that Oct. 6 was going to be the end of the world — the Apocalypse. And that was the day my record came out. Is that a coincidence? I don’t know. Are these the end times? There have been the end times since the beginning of time. They wrote about the end times in the Bible, however accurate that book is. And I’m not gonna give it that much validity. Everything is a copy of something else — something that has been passed along. It’s like that game Telephone where you whisper in someone’s ear and they whisper in someone else’s ear. So it’s almost like the hieroglyphics. Things get diluted through the amount of people telling the story and their agendas. And oftentimes when I’ve been made into a pariah, it’s been for other people’s political uses. I don’t think that they ever intended it to be towards me. Am I a bad person sometimes? You know, I don’t think anyone could say they’ve always been a good person. But “good/evil” — these are moral statements.

Do you believe in the only Aleister Crowley quote most people know: “Do what thou wilt shalt be the whole of the law?”

I do have ethics. I do have a natural code where I will try my best to not hurt people that don’t deserve it. If someone tries to hurt people that I love or me, then I’m going to defend myself from that in every sense of the word. And I think any person should. But I’m not looking to cause harm. I’m just looking to cause chaos, and I don’t really have to try. And it’s a better time than ever to remain who I am. I’m as real as it gets. I’m not trying to be someone I’m not. I wanted to be someone I wasn’t when I was younger. I became that. Now I am that. And now I have to live by that. And I like being that. And I want to be the best at it. So that’s a little bit different than trying to be something you’re not.

When it comes to your lifestyle and your art, you don’t do one thing and then say another. You are unapologetic about who you are and what you do even when it’s to your detriment. Most performers don’t take their stage persona offstage. For you, there’s no persona. That’s rare.

That is rare. I appreciate and understand what you mean by that. I don’t make excuses. If I make a decision that I believe, I stick by it and I do it. But if that decision was wrong, then I will make it right. I don’t know if I’ll apologize for it. Apologies aren’t really worth anything at this point. Most relationships that are destroyed are wrecked over people’s feelings being hurt, their egos being hurt, rather than something real in the grand scheme of things. Man is a strange creature — the only one that kills for duty, profit, or fun. That’s a little taxing, so I like to lose myself in fiction. I like to read. I like to watch movies. But I also like to live in a fictional world that I design for myself while not ignoring the real one, because I have the ankle cast to remind me that there is a real world out there.

You delayed the release date of Heaven Upside Down for six months. What was the holdup?

It was a number of things and it wasn’t done. The most complex part of finishing the record was that it was the week that Saturn had started to go around the Earth, and that only happens every so often. I think the last time it happened was when Salvador Dali died. The same week that this starts happening, my father’s sick and we’re finishing the record. I was not clearly consciously aware of Saturn orbiting the Earth. But the concept can have relation to the world in the astrological sense of my birth date. And the word “Saturnalia” stems from the pagan things [and was an ancient Roman festival to honor the god Saturn] that originated in New Orleans, where I spend most of my music- writing time. So I wrote the song “Saturnalia” and finished it, and the day after I finished it, I flew to Ohio and my dad died and Saturn had finished its completion around the Earth. And I thought, “There has to be some cosmic element in this.” You have Saturn — the father eating his son and the snake eating its own tail. There’s a cycle of life that couldn’t be overlooked for me. That’s why I feel there’s a lot of energy in this record that was unexpected, and it let me make my dad’s last gift to me [for him] to go peacefully.

Did losing your dad have a profound effect on this album? And has it had a profound effect on you since or caused you to get depressed?

The record was just finished, for the most part, the day before I flew to see him. And I wasn’t expecting him to be as ill as he was. He died within an hour of me seeing him. I think he was waiting for me. I didn’t get to play him the record. I got to tell him I loved him and say goodbye. I dedicated this record to my father. And, sadly, I dedicated the last record to my mother, who was dying. So, it’s an in-between situation. The closest thing I could say I had to a long-term best friend or child, strange as it is, was my cat, Lily White, and she died. So I did get a sense of understanding loss between last album and this one, unfortunately, through reality. I just know that my father would have wanted me to move forward and to be stronger and not to be held back by it. That’s not ignoring it or not caring about it. It’s just mourning it in a different way — just embracing it as a part of what makes you who you are. And you know he would want to have passed on the good strengths to it.

Did you agonize over the material on Heaven Upside Down, or did it come naturally?

Since [the album’s collaborator] Tyler Bates is so skilled at scoring films, he sat there with me and we worked on the songs, and they just flowed. There was no discussion. He would see the music stand where I had the lyrics, and he would put up the tapping foot beat just to get started. And then he’d pick up the guitar and play and I’d start to sing. It was just me and him and the microphone. There was no vocal booth or anything like that. And that’s why it’s raw and a lot of times you can hear the guitar come through the microphone. But we did it like that more for the intimacy of it than for any other reason. Then our drummer Gil Sharone came in and expanded on the beats and helped build the songs from there. But the great thing is that Tyler and I knew what we wanted from the beginning, and we didn’t even have a lot of conversations about it before we did it.

Tyler is an accomplished music writer for soundtracks. Is it exciting to team up with someone who has such strong musical chops?

I think it goes both ways. Last New Year’s Eve, Tyler said working with me was like a vacation from his other job. And that was the nicest thing anyone had ever expressed to me. Being with Tyler just works, even though I pulled a boxcutter on him.

Wait, you threatened him with a boxcutter?

I had a beer bottle in my hand and I smashed it. It rolled over and it got his pedals wet, and he got pissed off at me. It had something to do with being on the Slipknot tour at the time and about me not being allowed to have drinks onstage. I was not mad at Tyler; I was just in a blood rage in the middle of the concert. I asked one of the techs for a bottle and he wouldn’t give it to me. So I grabbed a boxcutter and pointed it at Tyler. He was mad at me, but now we laugh about it. It just shows our friendship goes beyond that. He even changed his name of one of his companies to include the word “Boxcutter.”

Heaven Upside Down is poignant and pointed, and it brings back some of the intensity, if not always the volume, of some of your most powerful work. To what do you credit that? 

Well, I definitely think that Tyler brought back my desire to be who I am with Pale Emperor. When we finished that album we were happy. And he said to me, “Don’t worry, this is just the opening act for the next album.” That was three or four years ago. He was right, and I think that had to do with a combination of factors. We really looked forward to going into the studio and it reminded me of when I started out. There was an excitement. I wanted to do this, not that I had to do this or I did it because I had to pay the bills.

Pale Emperor was widely hailed as a rebirth album for you, following three seemingly less inspired records.

That’s the reason why I tried so hard to make Pale Emperor. I had to call that a comeback record. because I had to acknowledge to myself that I didn’t think the records that came before that were my best work. While I might have liked them or not liked them, I was not making music that lived up to what I wanted it to be. I was trying, but wasn’t succeeding.

What was holding you back?

I don’t think that I was clear on what I wanted to do. I could make up a lot of excuses, but I would just say that I didn’t have what it took. I didn’t have the focus to put my heart and my mind together in the same place. So heart’s going one way, but brain’s going the other way. And being someone who’s easily disposed to letting themselves go off the hinge mentally and shutting themselves off from the world, or simply being frustrated or making bad decisions. … I don’t want to focus so much on the bad part of it, because it was something I can look back at as if it were a different person. And it’s always good to have all of it because if you don’t have a complete experience — good and bad — than you are static and become stagnant. So I think it’s important to be what you are, and it keeps you feeling alive to remember that you’re supposed to enjoy what you do. ’Cause then you can smack yourself and say, “Well, if I don’t like what I’m doing, then I need to do something about that.”

The song “Kill4Me” is melodic, almost a pop song. But it’s kind of an ironic, violent commentary at the same time. Did you enjoy sticking the knife in and twisting it a little, and giving people what they don’t expect?

I always have, of course. But this record tells a story in several ways. It tells a musical story, for anyone who wants to interpret it that way. For me, it was telling my personality at the time starting out with, “I can handle this on my own. This is me it is my job. It’s my destiny to do this. I picked it, so I’m stuck with it, and I need to get it on.” And then it gets to the point where you start to see what happens in any — I just look at it like a movie. It starts and then there’s a romantic element that comes in. And then “Kill4Me” is the song that really defines my personality in some ways utmost in a romantic situation, because I managed to be charming and say things like that. But the lyrics in the first verse [“Let’s grab a gold switchblade and make us a blood pact, babe”] — that is something I had actually said in life. And I just felt that sometimes true stories can be made into great songs. I never know about where something that Dylan or Bowie wrote came from. And by the time you get past “Saturnalia,” the story starts to really unfold.

In what way? 

“Saturnalia” takes it into the story — the real heart of the record. And after that, it goes into my résumé on a song like “Je$u$ Chri$is,” that’s my résumé: “I write songs to fight and to f*** to/If you wanna fight, then I’ll fight you/If you wanna f***, I will f*** you.” It’s basically something I would say with a shrug when someone asked me, “What do you do?” “Well, I write songs to fight and f*** to.” And it wasn’t meant to be that basic. That’s one level you could view it. And other people think it might really be about fighting and f***ing, which is very more basic than the way I said it, because I was saying in a sarcastic way. But I would never write that in a sophomoric way.

Two of your new music videos star Johnny Depp. How did you guys meet and become friends?

It was just enjoyable to finally do something cinematic with JD. I’m sure you’ve heard all about the stories of our back tattoos and our nights together. I’ve had a long-term relationship with him as friends since ‘98. … We technically met, but not really, when he was an extra on 21 Jump Street in Florida, doing a job as a journalist when I was 19 years old. I was supposed to interview him, but I did not get to make that happen. So I had to watch him get interviewed by other people and eavesdrop on him and write my own article. We keep trying to remember when we met again, and we can’t recall how we re-ran into each other. But we spent a lot of time together when I moved [to Los Angeles] in 1998, when I was doing Mechanical Animals. And then more so during Holy Wood. I know at the time he shared an agent with someone that I knew. He’s such a fan of music and he’s definitely like a brother to me. So it couldn’t be more appropriate that there’s a Cain and Abel vibe in the “Say10” video.

You have never downplayed the euphoria of a good party. Are you still that debauched, hedonistic character?

I was that, and I can look back and see if I did not change that I could just be a caricature of myself. Sometimes people didn’t really believe that everything was as rock ‘n’ roll as my lifestyle truly was. But rather than trying to prove it and making a fatal mistake, literally, I just decided to change it up, and that’s when I made Mechanical Animals. One side of it was, yes, drugs are great. And this is great — this lifestyle of becoming a rock star. It’s all so great. And then, “Oh s***, it’s not great.” That record had two sides to it, A and B, and it was the sadness and isolation that would come. Before it came when I wrote the record, I just knew by looking at history that that’s what would happen.

Have you cut back substantially on the partying these days?

I could say that sometimes in the past it became the difference between knowing a party from a problem. But I never really understood the word “party,” and I’m not good at parties, because I don’t like to be around a lot of people. But as far as drugs and alcohol, I could simplify the wisdom of Marilyn Manson: Do drugs or alcohol when you’re in a good mood, not when you’re in a bad mood. And try not to do things when you’re by yourself just because you’re miserable. However, at the same time, I think that’s why they invented drugs and alcohol, sometimes — to deal with grief and or depression. I’ve been to rehab and I got bored after three and a half weeks, because I clearly just needed a reset. There’s a very difficult balance with depression and being creative, in having a mind that moves too fast for you to even sometimes control and for other people to understand you.

Has that been the cause of the party, or the result?

I spent a portion of my life blaming other people or blaming myself, and I got a greater understanding of mortality with seeing two parents. … It’s too foolish to waste the time that you have, because you don’t know when it’s going to end. So you should live every moment to the fullest — not to be reckless, but in a way that makes you happy and makes you feel alive.

Mainstream tabloids seem interested in your every move. It’s fascinating that you’ve managed to permeate these mainstream outlets, even though you’re a subversive, countercultural figure. Even the Jenner sisters and Justin Bieber seem to want credibility points by rubbing elbows with you — or at least ripping off your graphic design and pasting it over their clothing. Bieber wore your shirts and tried to pal around with you, and then in an interview he took credit for making you relevant again. What was that about?

It’s arrogant of him to say he made me relevant again. I think it’s ignorant to be arrogant. He has obviously figured that out about himself when they first started doing retro T-shirts for bands that are still around. This is a different wave. It’s almost like us wearing your brother’s punk rock T-shirt, but in a genuine sense. It’s strange to be part of that new element of pop culture. To me, people like Justin Bieber are not the same as other people like, Lil Uzi Vert, who I met and hung out with. He’s the same age as Justin Bieber and is a totally different person in every way possible. I don’t know Justin Bieber that much, but I know Lil Uzi and he’s a rascal. He has the potential to be great. He reminded me a little bit of me when I was starting out.

But it’s strange to become that type of symbol. I’m not really sure how to process it. It’s not like being dead and being famous. It’s not being alive and being a part of history. And it’s not being a parody or a cliché — you know where someone wears a heavy metal T-shirt to be ironic and they never listen to the band? It’s none of those. But I think it’s a good position to be in, because I think it proves the confusion that I was looking to create. It managed to seep through. There is some part of the world that still has a sense of history. Now, maybe it’s not always correct or what we want, but at least there was enough of a dent for someone like Justin Bieber to think he could put a dent in it. So that it’s a little bit of a ball of confusion.

It was reported that you might collaborate with Bieber if you could fit it into your schedules. Could that ever happen?

No, I don’t like wrestling.