"To admit you want to have a comeback means you have to admit you weren’t… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
Marilyn Manson greets his guests with the lights out and the curtains drawn. With only a few flickering candles and a violent prison film projected against the wall for light, Manson sits in his cluttered loft space — an ivory-haired cat he calls Lily White by his side — as he talks of reconnecting with the creative muse of his starving, young shock-rocker days.
It's here, in West Hollywood above an anonymous storefront, where the provocative metal icon recorded his new album, "Born Villain."
The record is his first in three years, and marks the beginning of a new era for Manson, ending a long, unhappy relationship with Interscope Records. The label is where Manson first emerged with 1994's Trent Reznor-produced "Portrait of an American Family" and 1996's "Antichrist Superstar," toying with the sinister sound and imagery of sex, violence, horror, fascism and a persona that earned platinum sales, public outrage and the occasional arrest. "Born Villain" is out this week on Cooking Vinyl.
"What I know is my music gets blamed for school shootings," Manson says. The sides of his head are shaved, and he's dressed in a simple black V-neck shirt, a tattoo of his"M"logo visible on his chest. "My music gets me girls that take off their clothes. My music makes me happy. My music pays for cat food and for the life that I need to live. But that's none of the reasons why I do it. I do it because it's instinctual, because I love doing it. Leave me in a room with some crayons and I'll draw on the wall."
An early sign of the new album came last year in the form of a short film by actor Shia LaBeouf, who directed Manson through a progression of alarming scenes of nudity, gunplay, the piercing of real flesh and some inventive use of female genitalia. It was all set up against the whisper and grind of the album's title song.
In one scene, Manson waves a pistol at a terrified old man and recites from the Old Testament ("The wages of sin is death…") and pulls the trigger. The chaos winds to a close with Manson's words, "No reason, no reason…" (He now has the words tattooed to his wrist.)
"The villain is the character in a story that is the catalyst that creates change," he says of the album title. "The hero is not really the most important character in a story — most of them. Without a villain, everything just stays the same. And I need to make a change."
The change Manson needed came after he veered off course with his last two albums (2007's "Eat Me, Drink Me," 2009's "The High End of Low"), caused both by label pressure, he says, and by questioning his own choices. The making of "Born Villain," he says, was much clearer to him, and songs often flowed in the studio.
"I didn't let my consciousness affect my subconsciousness," says Manson, 43. "I just went with what was feeling right. And with this album I didn't have to have the lyrics in front of me while I was singing. I just knew them, and I was very certain about what I wanted to say."
The 14-song collection opens with a rush of distorted guitars and creep show vocals on "Hey, Cruel World." On the love-hate song "Pistol Whipped," Manson growls, "You look so pretty when you cry / Don't want to hit you, but the only thing between our love is a bloody nose, busted lip and blackened eye…." As a closing track, Manson offers a grinding, distressed take of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," recorded with Johnny Depp in the actor's home studio.
"Making this last record wasn't all happy. It was ups and downs," he says of "Born Villain." "To admit you want to have a comeback means you have to admit you weren't what you were supposed to be. You dropped below your own standard."
An ongoing obsession with the forbidden can be seen throughout the loft, including a door in the recording studio plastered with gynecological pictures clipped from porn magazines. On the wall nearby is scrawled the words, "I am owned by death and I'm in love with oblivion," lyrics from the album's tortured lament "Breaking the Same Old Ground."
"I don't want to feel like I've matured. That's a stupid word that I never want to use," Manson explains. "'Experienced' is good. I'm like the 12th-grader that the ninth-grade girls want to go out with — experienced, I've been to jail, I smoked marijuana."
Two nights later, Manson is backstage at Club Nokia, where the Revolver Golden Gods Awards are honoring the icons of hard rock and heavy metal. Manson will close the show. In his private dressing room, the lights are low again, black curtains along the walls, a zebra-striped carpet on the floor.