In the heart of West Hollywood, along bustling Santa Monica Boulevard, Miley Cyrus look-alikes walk their teacup-sized Yorkshire Terriers, bulging men in skin-tight spandex shirts whisk by with their Starbucks iced coffees and movie producer types yell into their cell phone headsets while parking their BMWs. Everyone is bronzed. It’s the quintessential new Hollywood many glorify, and others detest. Read about it in line at your local grocery store. Few signs of the old Hollywood of the 1950s remain. But on a corner, in the window of a framing shop, is a large painting of Marilyn Monroe. She’s gazing out onto the strip and directly towards the loft apartment of one of the neighborhood’s more peculiar and new(ish) residents: Marilyn Manson.
Upstairs, in total darkness with only a single candle burning around his Blue Moon beer, Manson is watching the film noir Angel Heart on a wall-sized projector screen and lounging on his black couch. “I like to compare making records to movies,” he says. “I’m always trying to make a movie for people's heads.” And in his head, he’s directing his own personal tragedy, and he’s now, following a years-long downward spiral, hitting a positive upswing in the plot with his new album, Born Villain.
“Everything needs to have an up and a down; otherwise it’s just gonna be a straight line—and that’s boring,” Manson says of his life, setting a theme of “life’s up and downs,” like a Goth Guru, for our 90-minute chat. “The synchronicity that has always been a big part of my life is stronger now. But I lost it for a while.”
Manson moved to West Hollywood almost two years ago, as an escape from a particularly trying few years. In 2006, he was served with divorce papers from Dita Von Teese, who he married one year earlier in a lavish ceremony at a castle in Ireland (it was officiated by surrealist film director and comic book writer Alejandro Jodorowsky). The proceedings were documented, naturally, in a Vogue fashion spread. The couple divorced because Von Teese said she couldn’t deal with Manson’s party-hearty lifestyle. After their split, Manson continued fueling that rock star persona by getting royally wasted, and then he had a high-profile relationship with 19-year-old actress Evan Rachel Wood. It didn’t end well. In 2009, during my tenure at SPIN magazine, Manson told me he’d blew $200,000 on drugs on tour and that he spent his Christmas nailing cocaine bags to the wall of his mansion. “I was struggling to deal with being alone,” he said then, adding, “I have fantasies every day about smashing [Wood’s] skull in with a sledgehammer.”
Now, for the first time ever, Manson is living totally alone and reclaiming his life, art and, it appears, composure. He seems as happy as a dude who lives in total darkness (more on this in a minute) can be. Really.
“I went from living with my parents, going on tour and then [I lived] with [Manson guitarist] Twiggy [Ramirez]. And then I had three different long-term relationships, ending with the last one with the child actress girl [laughs]. Basically I had to realize that I don’t need to be around other people.”
Manson packed all his belongings away in storage, including his Nazi memorabilia collection, and centered his efforts. His new apartment is, essentially, the Goth Bachelor Pad of your/his dreams.
“I just made a place where you could create whatever you wanted at any time, but not have any distractions.” He pauses. “Less is more.”
The loft apartment is unnaturally dark. Sure, that’s what you’d expect from Manson, right? But it’s even darker than that. As I walk down the elevated back entrance to his apartment, I was met by Manson’s assistant Ryan who warns me, as we bathe in the hot California sun, that inside, my vision might be a little warped. “I was told to bring a flashlight,” I joke to Manson when I enter (I actually was). I couldn’t see anything. When Manson hands me a beer, I soon lose it somewhere on the black carpet. He offers me a seat. “Um, where…?” I ask. Just recline, he suggests. Trust games with Marilyn Manson.
I have to sit directly next to him to even see his pasty white face (he wore little makeup). But as the minutes pass, my eyes adapt and soon I see the stuff he kept—“my books, paints, musical instruments, movies and my photography equipment,” he says. The essentials. “And my cat Lilly,” he says (Lilly repeatedly clawed at my shoulder).
Manson waves an outstretched arm, presenting his domain of darkness: “White walls, black carpet,” he says, taking another sip from his beer and reclining in the couch, “you gotta fill that with something.”
He started with sketches and from there worked towards Born Villain—possibly his best, and certainly most urgent, album in more than a decade. “Restriction makes you more creative,” he says, referring to his more bare environs. “I had gone to CVS to get a child’s paint kit and I mixed the colors wrong and f**ked it all up, and the water was just dirty. So I just used the dirty water and that’s the first painting that I made here.”
I squint and make out the piles of black-and-white scrawled canvases in the corner, some covered with rudimentary, but expressive, faces and what appear to be portraits. But, as he labored away on the paintings (which he hopes to exhibit at some point), Manson soon put down the paintbrush and picked up the guitar. In fact, Manson played more guitar on this album than any before, writing much of the material at home all alone.
“It was a necessity for creative purposes. And I became determined to be better at playing guitar. This record has a different rhythm to it because I sang and played guitar at the same time, so I paced my voice. I never understood that because I’ve never been a singer-songwriter. But there’s a blues sensibility.” He points to a back room of the loft, and dives into a story about the album’s vital track, “Children of Cain.” “I was playing guitar, in that room right there, and I got electrocuted by grabbing a lamp while I had the guitar. It literally left a black stigmata in the palm of my hand, and my thumb was numb for a second, so I was really worried I had nerve damage. But I still wanted to play the song, so I was playing it in the most unusual manner. It’s the song that tells the best story on the record; it’s the one that brings it together. I always like to compare it to a movie or a book. That song is Act Two.”
He rediscovered books like Flowers of Evil by French poet Baudelaire and other works like Macbeth, which both influenced the lyrics (Macbeth is even quoted on the album). Musically, he turned to his youth for inspiration; Born Villain is influenced by the likes of Bowie, the Stooges, Revolting Cocks and Ministry—“my favorite records growing up,” says Manson.
“I was focused on what I wanted it to sound like,” he adds. “I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound and it sounds just like I wanted it to.”
He scoots in closer, putting his hand on my leg, like he’s trying to intimidate me. It doesn’t work. Manson, despite the trappings—the makeup, contacts, skull-crushing black boots—is really just a dude at heart, and 20 minutes into our conversation, any tension or anxiousness slips away. ”Girls,” he says looking in my eyes, “will either need to bring panties or tissues when they listen to [this album]. They’re gonna get wet someway.” We both laugh.
“I’ll always remember making this album,” he adds, petting Lilly on one of her many passes along the back of the couch, “because I enjoyed doing it, even the rough patches.” And by escaping the drama of his past, and the self-loathing that followed, he’s found a new perspective on life and music. “I realized that you’re supposed to have fun. That’s the whole point of making art. It’s not supposed to be painful. Life is painful. Making art is your way of pissing it out.”
“Making this album was a growing-up phase.”
That included finding solace in (and giving back to) his real friends. “You should feel fortunate if you have friends that still care about you after all the shit you’ve done to them,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, if they see something in me, then I need to see the same thing.’ So I had to make this about confidence and determination. I was not going to accept anything less.”
One of the friends Manson is fortunate to have is also one of his collaborators on the LP—his old pal Johnny Depp. The two met when Manson was just 19. Manson, then a budding journalist based in South Florida, was sent to report a story about being an extra on 21 Jump Street for 25th Parallel Magazine. “We’ve known each other for years. I’ve spent a lot of time with him, but we never worked on music together before.”
He continues, “Johnny called me up a couple months ago and said, ‘Hey do you wanna come over and work on something?’ So we started playing blues songs. I said, ‘Hey, my record’s done, but we should really do a song to add to the end of it, as if it were a movie.’ The movie is over and the end title credits are playing. This is the song that adds to it.” That song is Depp and Manson’s grinding cover version of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.”
“I once saw an interview with [director] Guillermo Del Toro,” says Manson, “and he said the score reflects what the director wants to say. That song reflects what the actors, the characters are feeling. I thought ‘You’re So Vain’ would make the perfect statement because the record isn’t about anyone else. It’s about me.”
That, says Manson, is another artistic epiphany: “I was making records about other people... I was making records about my failures, which goes against the whole point of what I started out doing.”
With Born Villain, Manson’s obsession with film has embedded itself in his music more than ever. That is perhaps partly fueled by his split from Interscope Records; released by Cooking Vinyl and Manson’s own Hell, Etc. label, Born Villain is his first release not on a major label. “Being out of that relationship contract, slavery, made me feel like I could do whatever I wanted. That gave me confidence to spend time being more creative.”
He has started filming his most violent—and some online commenters say too misogynistic—videos of his career. In the video for “Running to the Edge of the World,” a ballad from his last album, The High End of Low, he beats a young girl (an Evan Rachel Wood doppelganger) bloody in a bathroom. Then in the Shia LaBeouf-directed album trailer for Born Villain, there’s rape, gratuitous violence and, at one point, an eye is inserted into a woman’s vagina. His video for “No Reflection” follows suit—it’s a dinner party with a bunch of gorgeous young girls, who all die by poisoning.