Marilyn Manson's fire burns again with 'Pale Emperor'

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Playing a prison inmate on TV's "Sons of Anarchy" was a little too close for comfort for Marilyn Manson, who in 2001 faced jail time himself for an incident at DTE Energy Music Theatre.

During a concert at the Clarkston amphitheater, Manson thrust his genitals on a security guard's head, and was brought up on fourth-degree criminal sexual assault charges that, if convicted, could have resulted in two years behind bars for the singer.

"I could have been the guy that (my character) ended up savagely struggle-snuggling in prison in Detroit, which would not have been good for me. We wouldn't be talking right now. I probably would be dead," says Manson, on the phone from a Los Angeles hotel room. "Thank you to the judge in Detroit who let me off with a fine and assault and battery. I learned my lesson. I am a rehabilitated assault and batterer."

In 2015, Manson is a rehabilitated artist, as well. He was a cultural lightning rod in the 1990s, angering parents and religious leaders with his provocative shock rock tactics, and even catching heat for supposedly inspiring the killings at Columbine High School in 1999.

But the new millennium saw the self-proclaimed Antichrist Superstar slip from relevance both culturally and commercially, and while his output never slowed, it faced diminishing returns from artistic and sales standpoints.

That changes with his new album, "The Pale Emperor," which is a return to form and Manson's best album since 1998's glam-rock deconstruction "Mechanical Animals." He knows it's his best work in years, and Manson — who performs at the Fillmore Detroit on Tuesday — looks at it as a repayment of past dues.

"I sold my soul to be who I am, and I did not pay the bills," says Manson, who turned 46 this month. "The devil came knockin,' hell hounds on my trail, and he said, 'You owe me, plus interest.' This record is that."

Talking to Manson — born Brian Warner in Canton, Ohio — is a trip. He speaks in perfectly quotable soundbites in a droll baritone and tends to linger on points, like when he tells a long tale about getting beat up by a gang of skinheads in the parking lot of a Florida nightclub. He's a master storyteller and self-aggrandizer who won't let a few details stand in the way of a good story. He's also a survivor, and he's clearly relishing this moment, when the pendulum has swung back in his favor and he can once again enjoy his status as one of our last great Rock Stars.

"A part of me felt inhibited or shut off from the world, because I don't think I knew where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to be, and I really found myself this past year by doing this record," he says. "It made me start feeling the momentum of being back to who I started as.

"I don't think that I was as great as I wanted to be, or who I was supposed to be, or who I am," he says of his last few albums, including 2007's "Eat Me, Drink Me," 2009's "The High End of the Low" and 2012's "Born Villain." "I don't dislike those records, they had their moments of greatness, and I'm a no-regret type of person. You live with your scars, they make you who you are. But this record has certainty, confidence and no doubt about itself. We did our best work."

The "we" is Manson and Tyler Bates, the Los Angeles producer and composer known for scoring dozens of films, including "Guardians of the Galaxy" and several Zack Snyder titles. Manson met him at a wrap party for "Californication," on which they both worked, and they decided to collaborate on new music.

On his way to his studio one day, Manson called Bates with a suggestion based off the "Pink Room" scene in "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," which is scored to a druggy, churning piece of roadhouse blues. That served as a jumping off point, sonically, for what would become "The Pale Emperor."

The songs — many recorded in one take, without previous discussion of their direction — took on a Southern gothic, pounding blues vibe and feel like a long hangover, the "Third Day of a Seven Day Binge," as one song describes it. In another Manson dubs himself "The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles" — don't ever say the guy doesn't have a way with words.

In addition to "The Pale Emperor," Manson's role on "Sons of Anarchy" also played a key role in helping him regain his inner fire and expand his worldview. He got the call saying he would be on the show, playing an imprisoned white supremacist, shortly after his mother died in May of last year; he took the role, in part, because it was his father's favorite show, and he wanted to make him happy in the wake of her death.

Filming got him out of his routine of keeping vampire-like hours, while the camaraderie of the cast taught him the value of male friendships, which the self-described "lone wolf" never understood. He also relished confounding expectations that he would fail.

"I liked that people underestimated me. It makes me feel like the old adage of 'the devil's greatest asset is that no one believes he exists.' People were like, 'Oh, he's not going to show up for (expletive) work': Surprise, there I am. It was good for me, I really like to prove people wrong, and I like the art of war, not the art of worry." He pauses for emphasis. "That's W-O-R-R-Y," he deadpans.

Manson, who says he's going back in the studio with Bates for a "Pale Emporer" follow-up soon, likes to call himself chaos — "not quite the Joker character that Heath Ledger played, but pretty similar," he says. "I do things because someone has to do it. And it's not for attention, it's not for anything, but it's what I'm supposed to be. I can't figure out anything other than that to do. And I enjoy doing it.

"I'm the third act. I'm the rain. In the movie, I'm the part where the person dies that you don't want to die," he says.

Now that he's wrangled control of the narrative of his own movie, he's not about to give it up.

"I don't feel any fear of anything except being not as great as I should be," Manson says. "Once you get back your mojo or your swagger, you realize how important it is to never lose that. I think this is the year for me to get back what I had."

Marilyn Manson

6:30 p.m. Tuesday

Fillmore Detroit

2115 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets $32.50-$63

(313) 961-5451