"This has been a pretty tough tour cycle," says Tyler Bates with an exhausted-sounding laugh, speaking by phone from his hotel room in Hamburg, Germany. Tomorrow night, Bates — who co-produced and co-wrote Manson's 2015 album, The Pale Emperor, as well as the forthcoming Heaven Upside Down — will strap on a guitar and play the Wacken Open Air festival with Marilyn Manson, one of 14 dates on Manson's European summer tour. But tonight, he's just trying to recover from the grueling series of flights and drives that have taken Manson and band from Italy to Finland to Russia to the Ukraine and now to Germany within little more than a week, and which (at least in one instance) very nearly took their lives.
"In Moscow, we had a real asshole driver who worked for the promoter, and he nearly got us killed on the way from the airport — we got hit by a semi-trailer!" Bates marvels. "At some point, we just bailed out of the vehicle, because he was being really weird and contentious, and tried to lock us inside. It was like, 'Fuck, man — let me get to the hotel!'
"There's always a story when you're on the road with Manson," he chuckles. "It's all very organized — we stay at great hotels, the guys in the band are my friends, and the people we work with are great. But for whatever reason, he is a lightning rod for chaos and drama!"
For most people, a vacation from our day jobs involves kicking back and relaxing. But for Bates, a film composer best known for his scores for such blockbusters as Atomic Blonde and both John Wick and Guardians of the Galaxy flicks, occasionally hitting the road with Marilyn Manson provides a welcome — if not exactly tranquil — respite from his regular gig.
"I've done about a hundred shows with Manson since 2014," says Bates. "When you're working on film scores, the process is very stressful, because the film is constantly evolving, and the music has to adjust to that. There often needs to be multiple iterations of a single thematic idea, because the director wants to try a number of different approaches — so by the time you're finished with a film like Guardians of the Galaxy, you're talking about several hundred if not a thousand minutes of mocked-up music that sounds probably good enough to live in the final dub of the movie, but you still go and produce it all to its fullest potential…
"You're just cranking all the time, and deadlines are sort of insane," he continues. "My studios are in part of my house, and I will literally go three days without ever leaving, because of my work. So just to be able to go out with Manson from time to time, and fucking play guitar and blow off some steam, is amazing."
Bates, who has been scoring films for nearly 25 years — and whose credits include work on everything from 300 and HBO's Californication to four of Rob Zombie's films, including The Devil's Rejects and Halloween — says his musical journey began when he was still a little kid.
"From as far back as I can remember, my mom was a huge music enthusiast," he explains. "She'd buy like ten records a week, and she turned me on to everything from Sly & the Family Stone to John Coltrane, from the Beatles to Frank Zappa. Everything! And then I had these two 'bad girl' cousins who moved into our house, because their mother couldn't handle them anymore; they were older than me, they were from Detroit, and they were into Kiss. I was a little kid, and these girls smoked and partied, so I was pretty enchanted by them, and they turned me onto Kiss Alive. I was like, 'Wow, that's pretty cool!'"
After playing guitar in a series of bands — including Pet, an alternative band fronted by singer Lisa Papineau, which released a dark and atmospheric album on Tori Amos' Igloo imprint in the early Nineties — Bates began to try his hand at scoring films, beginning with the 1993 indie release Blue Flame. "It's one of the most difficult tasks I can imagine, creatively," he says. "Because you're trying to contextualize an idea in the form of music that's part of storytelling and emotion — but there's also dialogue and sound effects, and you don't have control over everything, because the dynamic mix of those relationships is pretty much out of my hands at a certain point. It's an interesting exercise in how you look at your own creative work, because you have to satisfy the director and the producers, and someone else will always reinterpret your work within the context of the movie…
"So it takes a while to kind of wrap your head around that — you know, like decades," he laughs, "and if you don't find a way to embrace it for what it is, it can kind of mess with your head a little bit. But I love music, so I'm always looking for an opportunity to challenge myself to do something different or new; and film does that, because you can't keep working if you're not writing your best stuff."
A chance meeting with Manson on the set of Californication led to the two men collaborating on The Pale Emperor, which in turn led to the creation of Heaven Upside Down. Bates says that writing and recording with Manson is a process that's refreshingly different than creating film scores — though it's certainly no less challenging. "The music is made out of a conversation, essentially, just between he and I, and we make it pretty much on the spot. It's me making music right from my head, and the lyrics are developed by Manson right there in the studio with me. I've been with him many times where he'll harness something out of thin air and turn it into a lyric, and I'm like, 'Holy shit — how did you just do that?'"
Bates describes Heaven Upside Down as "intense, fun and violent. It's more immediate than The Pale Emperor, much more aggressive, and definitely much more imbued with Manson's fucked-up humor. He's definitely got his finger on any button he can press — that's his nature. 'Is this the button that explodes the world? Let me push that one!'
"It's strange," he continues. "I did not plan on having some sort of creative kismet with Manson when I met him, but it's exciting to be part of the impetus for a creative resurgence for an artist that's already so iconic. We get together purely on an artistic level. And I do it because I love to play guitar and I love to write rock songs, and I love the excitement of when songs start to become songs, and you feel like you're creating something really special. And to experience that with somebody else who is all-in — because that's what he is, he is all-in," Bates laughs. "No matter what a person may think of him or his music, he's all-in as an artist, and he's living that life. And it's cool to be working with someone who definitely has that authenticity."