Marilyn Manson on 'CHAOS,' Collaboration, How Elton John Made Him Cry | Revolver

Marilyn Manson on 'CHAOS,' Collaboration, How Elton John Made Him Cry

An excerpt from Youth Code singer Sara Taylor's interview with the shock-rock icon
marilyn manson 2020 SHINN, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

It's 108 degrees in Los Angeles, and in Marilyn Manson's words, "the ants have come indoors." Between the hellish heat and the swarming insects, the August day is an apt reflection of the apocalyptic times, which have seen a global pandemic grip the world in turmoil. So too is Manson's recently released song "WE ARE CHAOS," the haunting lead single and title track off his imminent new album, due out September 11th via Loma Vista. "If you say that we're ill, give us your pill/Hope we'll just go away/But once you've inhaled death/Everything else is perfume," he intones, words that ring eerily relevant to the deadly airborne virus leading to COVID-19, though they were written before the rise of the contagion. "We are sick, fucked up and complicated/We are chaos, we can't be cured."

Also in L.A. is Sara Taylor, vocalist of the industrial duo Youth Code — "I want to fucking die," she says of the soaring temps. Her band released its own new single, the EBM stomper "Puzzle," back in April, just as the pandemic was really taking hold. The song could be seen as the latest culmination of a long journey kicked off back when Taylor was 10 years old and discovered Manson's debut album, Portrait of an American Family, in her dad's CD collection. Like "a fucking sleuth," she listened to the record for the first time on the sly in the middle of the night while everyone else was asleep. It "scared the living fucking shit" out of her. It also "started a fire in me that could not be put out," she wrote in an essay for Revolver in 2018, and "set the wheels in motion for who I've grown to be."

With the end times seemingly upon us, it only seemed right to bring these two very different yet deeply intertwined artists together. For her part, Taylor was excited at the chance to interview her longtime artistic hero. As for Manson, he seemed intrigued to field questions from a fellow creative instead of yet another journalist. "It's easy to succeed at dying or giving up, but it takes a lot more courage to try to excel in life and try to be better than you were the last time you did something," he offered as words of encouragement to a kindred spirit.

In the following excerpt of their conversation, the two discuss WE ARE CHAOS, Manson's collaboration with co-producer and outlaw country star Shooter Jennings, and why meeting Elton John brought the shock-rock icon to tears.

SARA TAYLOR How are you feeling about the new album? Stoked?

MARILYN MANSON I am, yes. … It's been a strange path to get to it, because Shooter Jennings and I started it essentially a year and a half ago. We were both touring, so we would work during times when we were both off. But strangely enough, WE ARE CHAOS, lyrically, and for the most part musically, was written about a year and a half ago, and the record was finished in January. We were supposed to release it sooner. [Then] the Ozzy tour that we were meant to do was canceled because he was ill, and then I was a little bit freaked out, in the sense that I was concerned about him. And then also, I had to figure out, "What am I going to do with the rest of my year?" And then the pandemic happened, so that answered the question of what am I going to do for the rest of the year.

Although the song "WE ARE CHAOS" has nothing necessarily to do with what's happening right now, it has changed from now, when you listen to it. It does feel as if it could have been written about now, but it really wasn't necessarily about anything other than maybe my own mental health, trying to relate with other people about how the world is ... Right now, it's [also about] mental health, that's also a great concern, us being kept indoors for so long can really do work at someone's emotions and their soul, and test their strength in a lot of ways.

TAYLOR Yeah. I mean, absolutely. Especially if you have a 30-year career of traveling, and doing stuff, being forced to be stuck in a house, it's a shit position.

MANSON Yeah. Yeah. That's true. [But] I wasn't even thinking of that so much, because the one benefit of being trapped indoors, for me, is that I've created my house to be a bit of a playground workplace of creativity, with having an art studio where I can paint, which is where I made the artwork for the album for the first time. I've painted artwork just for the album and not during lockdown, but before that. And then, I have a music studio, and I have my cats, and my partner in life, and I have my movies and books.

TAYLOR Yeah. Stuff to occupy you. What I wanted to ask first, outside of asking about you being excited for the record to come out, is that you've worked with so many different collaborators over the years, from Scott Putesky to Jeordie, to Tim Sköld, Tyler, Reznor — how has working with Shooter different?

MANSON Working with Shooter was different because he and I met right before I was on Sons of Anarchy, because they had asked Shooter to contact me, and we had never really officially met each other, and we were meant to do a song for the season finale of Sons of Anarchy. But we didn't really like the direction that they wanted us to go in, I suppose, at the time. So there was no hard feelings there, but instead I ended up being on the show.

The first time that we worked together was, I think, we recorded on his TASCAM 6-track, his cover of "Cat People" for his album [Countach (For Giorgio)], a tribute to Giorgio Moroder. And I liked it so much and we liked working together. And then we became really good friends, but both of us had then started touring, so it was a little difficult to find time when we could work together. But we would shift between working in his studio, my studio, another studio that could accommodate initially his entire band, which includes strings and drums and everything.

So what we did mostly, we started writing on piano and with vocals, and it seemed great for both of us to find a spot where my voice and piano sounded really different. And it seemed like I could really go places that I had not gone before. Different keys, or different rhythms, or just different elements and ideas. And sometimes while on tour, I would send him texts with pages of lyrics and things like that, [and] he would send me back music. [Or] when I'd see him a week or two later, we would sit down and he'd say, "What do you think about this?" Being inspired by the lyrics. So it was a bit of Elton John/Bernie Taupin for the beginning in a sense. I don't know, which one that makes me. Actually, it's in reverse.

And strangely, in the time period after we started doing the record, he had just won these Grammys for working with Brandi Carlile. And we went to this concert that she did that was a dedication to Joni Mitchell's Blue record. And then we got to meet Elton John and he kissed me on both cheeks.

TAYLOR Both of them?

MANSON I was brought to tears, essentially. Because Elton John … not only just musically, they're beautiful songs and the heartbreaking lyrics. And I enjoyed the movie [2019's Rocketman] immensely and cried every time I saw it. Doesn't matter if I say that. It was very special. So [Shooter and I] developed an intense brotherly, best friend relationship. I used to walk on the stage playing his song "Fuck You (I'm Famous)" before I ever knew him. And he told me that he learned a lot of his guitar playing and stuff from listening to Antichrist Superstar.

TAYLOR That's so sick.

MANSON Separate but together. It wasn't even a matter of us complimenting, kissing each other's ass. Of course, we went through that initial phase, kind of first date sort of sense, but [laughs] we were able to access references without speaking about them so much. It became a very compatible relationship where if I had written a line about something, he would really know where we wanted to go with it musically to make the right mood for it.

It's, in a way, like scoring a film or putting the right cover on a book, or painting — painting to create a certain emotion. But at the same time, if you're trying to make something that is a concept record that everyone can open up, and it's a story that ... I have my version of the story, and Shooter probably has his version of the story, but I wanted the listeners to have their version of the story, as well. So I began it with the intro prose to try to set the tone for what was to come on the record.

And we made it 10 songs so it would be treated, in the traditional sense, of how an LP works. How there's a Side A and a Side B, because it changes. Just like in a movie or a play, there's three acts. And we were very particular about how we pieced it all together, but it was not difficult. There were no extra songs that we left off.

We worked late hours. I would usually go to studio with him around 10 ... Shooter found that my peak hour for singing was 3 a.m. I'm sure that's probably because it's [when] the full range of rasp that comes out of my voice, but also just the creative circle that we go through, because we spent a lot of times talking when we're making the songs and what we wanted them to be, what we wanted to shape them into. And I believe in my heart, at least, I feel, and he feels, very satisfied with the end result. And I hope that people get their own satisfaction in whatever particular way that they're looking for when they listen to it.

A lot of people, I think, expect it to be country. But now that you've heard the whole record, you can understand that the element of country, I think, that he brings to it exists greatly in the bass lines and in the chord progression and changes that are not country as much as they are ... They remind me of Diamond Dogs Bowie, and Alice Cooper ...

It was a very ego-free zone of creativity. I would play guitar in some stuff, and then I would have him play it better if need be. Or sometimes he liked what I did. The inconsistencies, the flaws and the childish approach that I take on some things he liked, and I did, too. So I would say the short version of that answer is it was very enjoyable making it. It was something I looked forward to going to studio every time I could with him.

TAYLOR You sort of touched on it a little bit in answering that question, but I guess one of the things that I've loved about you as an artist since I was young, is that every record has had a different direction to it. I think that, in a way, you are to a generation of people, kind of what Bowie was to a lot of people beforehand ...

MANSON Compliment taken.

TAYLOR To me, you've never been the same on any record, aesthetically. You've never been the same, musically. And I think that part of the question that I was going to ask, the second part of the question, was when you start a record, do you have a certain idea of what direction that you want to lean towards, or do you let whoever you're collaborating with, in this case, Shooter, help shape and form what you're leaning towards?

MANSON I think it would be hard to recall on every record, but I do remember that it was always important for me, going in, to start maybe a first song or something, or just when suddenly after two songs, you know that you begin a record. I believe that that would be the way of looking at it for me. It's usually ... I remember very painstakingly trying to take my hair from black to red. A lot of times it starts with change in my look. In the midst of writing, you had just to kind of shed your skin like a snake or even ... I found out recently that tarantulas shed their entire bodies, including their fangs, which is really unusual. I'm not a big fan of spiders, but I'm not scared of them.

marilyn manson we are chaos cover art

TAYLOR Can you imagine having to grow new teeth?

MANSON Just in the general sense, just shedding your past ... It's almost like a cleansing or a rebirth, or something. But it does really depend on it. And plus, I don't like to get too comfortable in my own skin. I mean, once I'm committed to something I like about myself — which is very difficult to happen, because I'm very critical of myself — once I commit to something, then it helps in the whole creative process because it's not just songs. It's the painting that I did for the record, which was the first time I ever did that. And I paint on my knees.

So I just remember finishing the painting for the cover, and there's the second one that's on the inside. There's a couple other ones included, but because I paint on my knees, my legs were all stained black, and I had black all over my hands. And then realizing I woke up the next day and I'm like, "What?" Not like a fugue state, but a bit of a trance when I was painting the cover of the album. And that was probably about six or seven months ago. And I sent a picture of it still wet to Shooter and he thought it was amazing.

And that then spawned Side Two of the record, Infinite Darkness, because that's what I called the painting. And that's the second side of the record ... Come to think of it, I was having my house renovated after I got off tour during a large portion of finishing of the album, and I was staying in a house that wasn't mine, and I couldn't really change it into what my house is. So I was in an alien environment.

So I was stripped of all of my normal trappings, so I was sort of forced to become more creative. It's almost like when you're limited to only using black and white and you don't have the whole color palette, metaphorically with music, as well. So I was kind of stripped down, so I could only go with my notebook to Shooter's studio. And so what we created there was concentrated, because I didn't have the distractions of what might be now considered comforts being trapped in your home. I had somewhat like [the experience of] being on tour or being in a hotel room, in a sense, but it was a house. And then going to a safe place, which was a studio, which I was very used to and comfortable with. That helped the working relationship greatly.

And he and I, we share such a love for the same things. Same records. And we share stuff with each other as far as musically. ... I feel like there's a strange part of the New Wave era of music. There also exists lesser-heard Seventies music and some sexy stuff. A dreariness ... for example, a song like "How Soon Is Now?" by the Smiths, that guitar screeches in the background — waaat errro. That is a tone, and an unusual quality in music in songs that are essentially pop, but they have this haunting quality that I grew up with. [David Bowie's] Scary Monsters being one of the first records that I remember hearing and seeing "Ashes to Ashes" on MTV. And that's just sticking with me, just that it was very eerie. It wasn't scary, but it was odd. And it just drew you in, and he wanted you to find your own story in it. And that's really what I was hoping to capture lyrically, and with Shooter, he was on the same exact page with me on that one.