"That's disgusting," says Marilyn Manson, standing inside the Burbank, California, studio where he's working on the final mixes of his band's third album, Mechanical Animals. Before him is a mock-up of the new album's cover - a photo of the pasty, emaciated singer naked, with prosthetic breasts, hands with six fingers and a groin that's been airbrushed into smooth androgyny. It's the embodiment of all things that aren't natural. Things that aren't meant to be. Things that offend Wal-Mart.
But it's not the album cover that disgusts Manson. Rather, it's a photo nearby - one that pictures his bassist, Twiggy Ramirez, mugging for the camera like a post-mortem supermodel. Manson picks up the photo, grimaces and zeros in on the problem. "Look at all that underarm hair!" he says. "Couldn't he have shaved?" Even Marilyn Manson has his standards.
Clearly, those standards are shifting. In his latest incarnation, Manson has traded his customary rotting-corpse chic for a glam look - today he arrives at the studio in custom-made lace-up leather pants, chunky platform boots that Baby Spice would covet and a synthetic long-sleeved shirt with a Star Trek-like pattern across the chest. His old favorite nail polish, Urban Decay blue, has been replaced by an unhip shade of suburban-mom coral, and his thin, straight hair has gone from black to a lovely crimson. In an even bigger step from gloom to glam, Manson has moved to Hollywood's Laurel Canyon, once home to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and many other notable leather-pants-clad debauchees.
"This whole past year, my house has become a real Hollywood Babylon, Studio 54 type of place," Manson says, carefully pushing the stringy hair off his face. "It's a magnet for the where-are-they-nows and the we-know-where-they-are-nows and the they're-not-doin'-real-good-nows. I started a project - usually at about six or seven in the morning - of taking these unlikely individuals and putting them together to sing karaoke in my living room. So at any given moment, you may have found Leif Garrett or Corey Feldman singing the theme from Grease. I've also been painting these ten-minute portraits. Sometimes I trade them for drugs, so there's a lot of portraits of drug dealers going around town."
Mechanical Animals reflects Manson's self-proclaimed new "glitterati" lifestyle. On the album, shimmering, flamboyant guitar grooves and strong melodic hooks replace the post-industrial grind of previous records, and his lyrics trade the topic of teen satanism for drug-addled space themes and sci-fi love stories. The fourteen-track album is also Manson's first without the aid of producer and mentor Trent Reznor.
"People probably expect us not to be able to function without the heavy hand of Trent," says Manson. "Not that I have a chip on my shoulder or need to prove something, but I think this record establishes that we have our own musical identity without someone telling us what to do."
As a result, there are fewer computer effects and little of the pummeling aggression that fueled 1996's Antichrist Superstar. "I'm bored with that," says Manson, caressing the large plastic ring on his finger, a mound of lacquer encasing a gold wasp. "Everything you hear nowadays is an offshoot of NIN, Marilyn Manson, Ministry. There's just no great rock albums anymore. There's a lot of rock music out there, but it's very bland and disposable. A lot of people may say this record is over the top, pretentious and theatrical, but that's what rock music is supposed to be about."
As he plays songs from Mechanical Animals, Manson pulls out a sheet of lyrics, thumbing through the pages like a patient grade-school teacher. "We're right here," he points out, directing attention to the lyrics to "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)." The song is a cacophony of voices chanting the title on top of guitar work by Dave Navarro. As on most of the album, Manson sings his lines rather than hissing or shrieking them, and, surprisingly, he sounds pretty good. With the sultry vibe of T. Rex's Marc Bolan, he croons, "You were my mechanical bride/You were phenobarbidoll/A manniqueen of depression/With the face of a dead star." He even sings brokenhearted love songs - like "Speed of Pain," which includes the line, "Just remember, when you think you're free/The crack inside your fucking heart is me."
"There is a bit of a love story that exists on this record," Manson admits. "The name I gave to the thing I was in love with was Coma White. It starts as the name of a girl I'm in love with, then ends up to really be a drug I've been taking. So I'm not really sure what I'm in love with."
Though he initially considered asking the Dust Brothers to co-produce the album, and Billy Corgan visited the studio, Manson ultimately chose Michael Beinhorn for the job. Beinhorn produced Soundgarden's Superunknown and recently finished Hole's Celebrity Skin. "He had quite a handful going from Courtney [Love] to me," says Manson with a smirk. "I went with him 'cause he was rock & roll. But Billy did inspire us to take a chance. We played him the first couple of songs and he said, 'This is definitely the right direction, but if you're gonna do this, go all the way with it. Don't just hint at it.' And that gave me the incentive. He's like a big brother, sort of."
Manson's advice-seeking from unlikely allies like Corgan caused rumors about the musical direction of his new album. "A lot of people thought this record was gonna be techno," Manson says. "A rumor even leaked out that I had used R&B singers [he did use Niki Harris, Madonna's longtime backup singer, on one track], so people were concerned that I was going in a rap direction."
The most noteworthy gossip surrounding the album, however, regards the departure of Manson's guitarist, Zim Zum. "We had problems with him not showing up, and I took that as an insult," Manson explains. "That's just the way I am. My feelings are, if you're gonna lead a rock & roll lifestyle, don't let it affect your work. I know I can stay up all night and still come in the next day and write a song, and nothing will stop me from doing it. I expect the same from everyone else.
"If you're gonna pretend to be something," he adds, "then you have to at least live up to what it is."