'Columbine destroyed my entire career': Marilyn Manson on the perils of being the lord of darkness

He has been called an emissary of Satan and falsely blamed for one of the most notorious shootings in US history. But the singer has never been afraid of outrage. Is that really an excuse, though, to flick our interviewer’s testicles?

It is while discussing the difference between his stage persona and his day-to-day life that Marilyn Manson leans over and flicks me in the testicles. This comes as quite a surprise: I have encountered a lot of unusual things as a journalist, but have thus far managed to get by without an interviewee touching my genitals. More surprising still is that leaning over and flicking my testicles appears to form part of his answer to a question about whether he has ever felt consumed by the character he created a quarter of a century ago, in the same way that Bowie struggled to separate himself from Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke. Certainly, the way he says: “That’s the difference!” immediately afterwards suggests it is, but I’m not sure.

For one thing, I am distracted by my sore testicles, and, for another, I wasn’t really following his line of argument at the time. First, he took my notepad, wrote “person” on it and added an “a” at the end. “I’m this and I’m this,” he said. “A person and a persona. But I can’t really divide the two. There’s a difference on the stage; people I don’t know I just seduce, in a lot of ways. You go offstage and people … even me and you now, talking …”

His voice trailed off and, while I was trying to work out whether he had just said that he did inhabit a different persona on stage he flicked me in the testicles.

It’s all a bit peculiar, but then the interview has been peculiar from the minute I stepped into the Berlin hotel suite where Manson is receiving the press. He is midway through a European festival tour and promoting his forthcoming eighth album, Heaven Upside Down, a work he describes as “hard, punk rock, Killing Joke, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Scary Monsters”, and which reunites him with Tyler Bates, a guitarist, producer and soundtrack composer best known for his work on Guardians of the Galaxy. Manson seems surprised that Bates agreed to work with him again after 2015’s The Pale Emperor, or rather its ensuing tour, during which relations between the two deteriorated to such an extent that Manson pulled a box-cutter knife on Bates.

Heaven Upside Down was announced the day before the US presidential election, in typically understated Marilyn Manson style, with a short video that was widely reported as showing the singer decapitating Donald Trump. “Well, there was no actual decapitation shown,” he demurs. “It was implied. And no Trump. There was just a guy in a red tie. Could have been a preacher. It’s funny that people see what they want to see.”

Marilyn Manson on stage in 1997.
Marilyn Manson on stage in 1997. Photograph: Rob Bartholomew/Associated Press

I have been warned that, as per Manson’s usual requirements for meeting journalists, the room will be both dark and cold, which it certainly is: air conditioning up full, curtains drawn against the afternoon sun, the only light coming from a television tuned to one of those ambient channels that broadcasts endless footage of landscapes and animals. But I have not been warned that Manson will be hiding behind his hotel room door, from where he will jump out – black-clad, in full slap – pointing a gun at the back of my neck. Not, it transpires, a real gun, but a realistic enough replica for me to greet him with a startled bark of, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” rather than the more traditional “hello”. Manson laughs, shakes my hand and asks if I’d like a beer.

Thus begins an extremely diverting hour during which Manson will offer to wrestle me to demonstrate his physical and mental wellbeing; inquire, in the middle of discussing the difficulty of meeting your childhood idols and, apropos of nothing as far as I can gather, whether I am “a poop man, a scat guy”; suggest his partner, photographer and model Lindsay Usich – who wanders into the room in search of a drink – expose herself to me on the grounds that “the Guardian is an important periodical”; and flick me in the testicles.

It is difficult to work out whether all of this is done in a kind of spirit of collaboration – perhaps he is keen to ensure a journalist goes home with an incident-packed story, the better to promote the new album – or simply because Manson has, entirely understandably, chosen to enliven a long day of interviews with the European media by having a few drinks along the way. Certainly, something about his speech and gait strongly suggests the tumbler of neat vodka in his hand may not be his first of the day.

If it’s the former, then he really needn’t have bothered. Manson is a fascinating man even without the accompanying theatrics. Over the course of my time with him, he is variously funny, insightful, frank and preposterously self-mythologising: “I wake up in the morning and I just realise that I am chaos. That’s my job – I am a goddamn tornado,” he announces at one juncture. “You look at it, behold it, you get caught up in it, it tears off your roof – and I’m from Ohio, so I know about tornadoes”.

He is also, on occasion, wildly contradictory and incomprehensible, his answers veering so wildly off-road that I have no idea what he is talking about. Indeed, after one particularly unfathomable response, I find myself asking him if he’s OK. “I don’t know – check my pulse,” he laughs, but it’s a genuine query. His father, a Vietnam veteran, died days before this tour began. They were close – his dad would come on tour with him and the pair posed together for an amazing Paper magazine shoot, both in full Marilyn Manson drag. No one would have blamed him for cancelling his shows and promotional schedule to grieve. He looks aghast at the idea. “My dad would have hated me for that. He’d have kicked me in the dick. He would want me to be the best I could be right now. That’s what he raised me to be. Dad was a fucking fighter, a killer in Vietnam, but he was not a quitter; he just didn’t want to be here any more. He didn’t give up, he just wanted to be with my mom, and I respected him for that. So I wouldn’t miss a gig. It was not easy – I had to go see him a week before we went on tour. It was tough, but it made me stronger.”

Besides, he is bullishly proud of his new album, which he says “is about confidence, of fucking believing in yourself more than ever, which is something I may have lost along the road”. He is also theatrically furious at his record label for suggesting he put out a censored version for sale in the US’s Walmart stores. “It denies the legitimacy of it. If your parents give you money to buy a clean version of my record at Walmart, you might as well go there, buy a gun instead, take it into your own hands, do whatever you want.”

Listening to him talk, it’s tempting to wonder if he hankers after the era when he was American rock’s public enemy No 1, the primary source of outrage for conservative watchdog organisations. It’s easy to forget how much controversy Manson managed to cause in the late 90s, when his name was linked to the 1999 massacre at Columbine high school in Colorado, whose perpetrators were alleged – erroneously as it turned out – to have been fans.

He warms to his previous point. “Give them the money and let them make their own choice: guns or records. If [the Columbine killers] had just bought my records, they would be better off. Certain people blame me for the shootings at schools – I think my numbers are low, and hopefully they go up on this record.” It’s unclear whether he means numbers of shootings or people blaming him, but it’s provocation either way. “That’s going to be a great pull-quote for you. But, honestly, the Columbine era destroyed my entire career at the time.”

He was raising hackles long before Columbine, though. In Britain, his 1996 breakthrough album Antichrist Superstar was largely viewed as hugely entertaining glam metal in the grand gothic tradition of Alice Cooper. In the US, however, religious conservatives seemed to think he really was some kind of emissary of Satan. A succession of demented sworn testimonies on the American Family Association’s website claimed his concerts involved bestiality, satanic altars, ritual rapes and the distribution of free drugs. Some towns threatened to pass legislation banning him from performing on state property; schools in Florida threatened to expel students who attended his shows; the state of South Carolina ended up giving him money – $40,000 – not to play there.

“Well, I asked for it,” he nods. “You don’t make a record called Antichrist Superstar and not expect people to hate you. But I wanted to do something that made a difference. I wanted to put a fucking dent in the world, like my heroes: [Salvador] Dalí, Jim Morrison. I knew that there were people who would take it at face value, and that there were people who would see into it more deeply, and it would be that dichotomy that would cause chaos.”

After Columbine, the chaos ratcheted up even more. His concerts weren’t just being protested or picketed: during the 2001 Ozzfest tour, he says, he received daily death threats; “hundreds” when he played in Colorado. “I would just get on stage and smash beer bottles and cut myself and go, ‘Fuck you, bring it,’ – I’ve got scars all over my chest – I can show you. I would jump into the crowd and punch people. It wasn’t even those people who were at fault. But my dad gave me the best advice: ‘If people are going to kill you, son, they wouldn’t tell you in advance.’ No, I don’t miss that at all. It made everyone around me upset. And I discovered that police bomb dogs are also drug dogs. So when there were bomb threats, I had a very difficult time hiding my narcotics.”

It didn’t destroy his career as he claims – he still fills arenas around the world and has parlayed his notoriety into an acting career in the US TV series Salem and Sons of Anarchy, playing “a murdering barber and a paedophile white supremacist. Typecast.”

Performing in Argentina last year.
Performing in Argentina last year. Photograph: Santiago Bluguermann/CON/LatinContent/Getty Images

He has also found his fanbase extending into some unlikely places, not least the world of hip-hop. Gucci Mane and Rick Ross are fans; Lil Uzi Vert wears a diamond-encrusted pendant of Manson’s face. “I don’t know why rappers like me, other than what Gucci Mane told me,” he says. “He said I was ‘the only shit that’s real in rock’n’roll’. Rappers are hardcore and they’re real; rock’n’roll is so pussy and so lame. But I’m not saying I’m the realest thing in the world.” He sighs. “People say: ‘You’re the last rock star.’ Don’t say that to me – shut the fuck up, man! I don’t need that shit on my shoulders. But I’ll take it. I’ll own it.”

Perhaps they mean you’re the last rock star who could create the kind of controversy you created in the 90s? It’s hard to imagine anyone being shocked by a rock band now, in a world when you can see anything, no matter how gruesome or offensive, with a click of a mouse.

He nods. “I know. Fair enough. You just have to say what you’re saying with certainty, and look good when you’re saying it – that’s how you do your job.”

But if times have changed, he says he has changed, too. He used to be “angry, confused and upset”, he says. “Now, I think I feel more happy. Not like, Shiny Happy People. I think I’m just happy being myself. I think now, I’m much more charming and likable. I notice you’re enjoying yourself.”

Well, I am. He’s hugely entertaining company.

“And I’m sure in a moment you’ll take your pants off and I’ll smash you in the nuts with a beer bottle.”

No, I say, you’re OK. So instead, Manson opts for taking a selfie of us, showing me his ringtone (it’s Hot Love by T Rex), shaking my hand and asking me to write nice things about him. Of course, I say. “Good,” he smiles, ushering me out into the corridor. “Or I’ll find out where you fucking live.”


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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