By Mark Guarino
Every few years, another bogeyman. That’s the formula funding countless rock careers, from Alice Cooper to Eminem. But no sole person has inflamed as much ire from right-wing and Christian groups than Marilyn Manson.
Manson (born Brian Warner) was working as a rock journalist in south Florida where he interviewed everyone from Debbie Harry to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Nine Inch Nails. That last band later took Manson on the road in 1994, launching his career that exploded in 1997 with the release of “Antichrist Superstar” (Nothing/Interscope), an industrial rock album with enough doom and gloom to stir up protests that haven’t completely disappeared.
The two albums since — the catchy, glam rock opus “Mechanical Animals” and the melodic, return-to-basics “Holy Wood” — showed Manson was not a flash in the pan, but was continuing to make creatively complex music, especially in light of the one-dimensional rap-rock bands that have since usurped his sales.
Manson returns to the Chicago area this weekend when this year’s Ozzfest kicks off at the Tweeter Center today and Alpine Valley Saturday. The tour is interesting since Manson follows a full day of bands — from the mask-wearing Mudvayne to the deeply disturbed Disturbed — that are in some way aftereffects of shock rock resurgence Manson began a few years back.
His last stop in Chicago happened to be the day of the Columbine massacre, a tragedy that would inevitably be associated with him when early reports (later proved false) stated the killers were Manson fans.
But to anyone who sidesteps the Satan rhetoric of his detractors, it’s obvious Manson thrives on walking the fine line between free speech poster boy and shock provocateur — the P.T. Barnum of hard rock, if you will. Critics who consider him a degenerate might be surprised to find that in conversation, Manson is articulate, thoughtful and self-effacing. We talked by phone last week. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: This is your second time on Ozzfest, where you’ll be competing on the same stage against both a legend like Black Sabbath but also a baby band like Linkin Park.
A: I wouldn’t say it’s a competition but it is something that really gets things up to the next level when you have to share the stage with other bands. Especially for me: I have to remind these new bands how it’s done and how it’s done is how Black Sabbath did it when I was growing up. I think there’s a real tradition that’s passed down from Sabbath to Marilyn Manson to Slipknot and I think the three of us really represent what I think music is supposed to be about. It’s about the underdog. A lot of these other MTV one-hit bands are really going to learn their lessons on this tour.
Q: A lot of these new rap-rock bands like Papa Roach are using rage as almost a device to seem somehow “deep.”
A: I think that people have adopted some of the attitudes and aesthetics of stuff I’ve done or Sabbath has done and they do it in a safer and insincere way that’s more marketable. So when making this album, I was reluctant to even write heavy songs because I felt it’s such a trend. My initial reaction is always to go in the opposite direction. Instead I tried to write a smarter, heavy record that uses loud guitars when they need to be used and not all the time.
Q: When you were based in Florida in the early ‘90s and first put together a band, what was your original plan?
A: Other than putting all my thoughts into music and saying everything I had to say in the shape of a rock band, I just remember it being an era much like we’re in now: on the heels of New Kids On the Block and very conservative, very much wrapped up in censorship. In the midst of living in Florida with 2 Live Crew being banned, I thought, “what would happen if a white rock group came out and did things that were offensive to some people like 2 Live Crew?”
Q: So the intent was simply to be shocking and get noticed?
A: Well, I wanted to be noticed and I wanted to say what’s on my mind. If you want to do that, you have to do that in a big way. But I don’t think it had really anything to do with wanting to shock people. But I definitely wanted to cause chaos. I like to be the musical version of someone yelling “fire” in a movie theatre (laughs).
Q: But can that kind of high concept mission be understood in such a culture that doesn’t get irony?
A: Irony has been my best friend and my worst enemy. Because it’s how I operate and it’s my sense of humor. My outlook on life is to always turn things around and find the twist in it. And it’s also been the thing that’s most misunderstood about me. But early on I really learned to use it to represent myself. One level of what I am is the misunderstood fear that’s generated by a lot of people. And I use that by the other level of me, which is the ironic level. You can’t have one without the other, they work hand in hand.
Q: This tour hasn’t even started and you’re already the subject of yet another controversy, this time in Denver where a religious group is trying to stop Ozzfest from coming through town. Were you surprised that your affiliation with Columbine is still in the public consciousness?
A: I don’t think it’ll ever be gone from public consciousness because the media really utilized that event to their own ends. It became the forum for what the election would be discussing: violence, gun control and entertainment. And I got caught in the middle of it. I think everyone clearly understands that I had no involvement in it. But at same time they also know that what I represent is a certain element of what those kids were trying to say in a way. Because they wanted someone to listen to them. And that’s why they did what they did, because no one was listening. They didn’t do it because of music or movies, they did it because they were angry. And I have the same anger, but I choose to express myself in music. And that’s why art is important and special and worth fighting for, because art is where people can separate themselves from their darker side. You can release all your demons into what you create. And it’s made me into something like the Marquis de Sade. I’m persecuted for doing the right thing. For expressing myself in a positive way, in a sense.
Q: That goes back to an earlier question of irony. That the general public in our culture can not separate artistic expression from literal thought.
A: Well being able to go all around the world on tour, you see that in other cultures, children are brought up a little bit different than they are here. We’re brought up in front of the TV and things go by so quick and there’s a commercial every second and that becomes your barometer for everything you think about when you grow up. I’m the biggest TV watcher. I’ve always had TV on, even when I’m not watching it. I sleep with the TV on, it’s just a habit from childhood. But I’m fortunate enough where I think on those terms but I don’t let it affect me in the wrong way. So it enables me to function in the world that we live in as an artist and make things that are strong enough to catch your attention but not as empty. So it’s a real tough line to walk. Because if I was very esoteric and self-indulgent, I would make records that I thought were great but nobody understood and I could complain about it. But instead I have to put my ideas in a format where they still hold the water I want them to hold but they can be understood and can appeal to the average person walking by. I can get their attention with it.
Q: Have you taken anything your detractors say personally?
A: I never took it personally, I’ve never taken anything personally. For someone to be the good guy, they have to find the bad guy. And I inset myself in the role as villain by the very nature of what I do. So that would be like the devil being mad because he’s the devil. And I also don’t take it personally because I think the people who lash out against me often don’t take it personally. I think they do it as a means to their own ends. Or maybe they want to be able to define something so they can rest at night. They want to be able to say, “well everything that bad happened is because of this guy. So if we stay away from him, go to bed, everything will be fine.” That’s the way America likes to function. It always has. It’s the one shooter theory: the Oswalds, the Timothy McVeighs and the Marilyn Mansons.
Q: You had a show at the Allstate Arena here in Chicago the day Columbine happened. What was going on in your head when media reports started saying the shooters were Manson fans?
A: I watched it happen on the news live. I saw it happening and they hadn’t yet mentioned me but I thought, “oh, I bet I get blamed for this.”
Q: Eminem has taken your mantle as rock bad boy. You recorded vocals over his song “The Way I Am” for a European single and also appeared with him onstage. Did you give him any advice for the criticism he received last year?
A: I don’t think he needs my advice. He’s in the middle of it now, he’s got to find his own way. I’m actually looking to work with him on some other stuff. I got along well with him, I think he’s real smart and real clever, I like his sense of humor. And I’m entertained by his records, I think that they’re good. A good rap record is often real hard to find because they’re thrown together but he puts the same sort of care and detail in his music like I do but in a different way.
Q: Since you started out in Florida, has the outcome of the recent election debacle down there made you worried about the new conservatism in charge?
A: Ironically, it’s so strange how things played out because I was so concerned about (Sen. Joseph) Lieberman being in office because of his hatred for me in particular and for entertainment. And now he’s not even elected and he is causing more problems than anyone else. I think there’s more coming from him than the White House.
Q: In fact, the Bush camp has been laying low on that issue.
A: If anything, I imagine that if Bush felt that entertainment was harmful or caused people to grow up to be violent, he would probably ask for more because it would feed his war machine.
Q: Because visuals are so important to your look, your videos, your albums, many people who never bought your record know what you look like. Why is your look so important and were did it come from originally?
A: Probably growing up watching television and always associating pictures with sounds. And ultimately, it’s pushing me towards directing and being involved with films. I’m such a fan of movies. When I was a kid I used to like to wear Halloween costumes all year round. I’ve always been one to, not necessarily hide behind a mask or an image, but to use that as a way of dealing with the rest of the world. I think it’s an armor for me, or a shell. It may be part of me feeling like I never fit in, that I had to become something else, or become the things I dream about or be like the villain in the movie instead of the hero, things like that.
Q: You’re 32. Will you still be dressing like a ghoul the rest of your life?
A: I’m always going to have my particular sense of style or whatever it is you want to call it. I like to dress a certain way, just like anyone does and I think it always changes from time to time. But overall I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of being that way. Because it’s not a task for me, it’s just the way I live and the way I like to be. So hopefully they’ll let me have makeup in the old folks home (laughs).