MILAN, Italy -- It wasn't the Marilyn Manson people have come to expect -- not by a long shot.
As he would later say, these days the shock-rocker is more about Marilyn -- as in the legendary actress -- than he is about Manson -- as in the infamous serial killer.
Things started out typically enough, with Manson (born Brian Warner) arriving well over an hour late for the press conference Monday to promote his band's recently released album, Mechanical Animals, which hit #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week. Still, when the leader of his namesake band finally arrived in the hotel lounge to confront a corps of Milanese journalists, the once-angry young rocker was surprisingly low-key, if not a bit sarcastic.
"I can afford to be that sarcastic because I'm on magazine covers now," Manson said. "But it's something that doesn't matter to me. And, if it stops happening someday, I can laugh, because I've been there already."
Instead of the dark, ghoulish outfits and zombie-like makeup he was once known to wear, Manson's clothing was positively upbeat. Clad in a light-green jacket and orange tie, he entered the room through a side door, accompanied by an attentive, tattooed bodyguard.
As he passed by life-size reproductions of the androgynous, otherworldly portrait of him with breasts that is used on the cover of Mechanical Animals and sat behind a table, Manson seemed impassive. Hiding behind a pair of large, blue sunglasses, the rocker who chose his moniker by combining the names of Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe and mass-murderer Charles Manson answered questions in a near whisper.
"I'm scared of him," joked one journalist sitting in the first row.
All kidding aside, Manson in person was nowhere near as daunting as the performer who has lately adopted the alien, polysexual image that is marketing Mechanical Animals. Nor did he seem as creepy as the character who shook up the American religious-right with his previous opus, the sacrilegious, goth/industrial-rock album Antichrist Superstar (1996).
Obviously, "transformation" is a key word these days in Manson's vocabulary.
"If I didn't take things to extremes to transform myself, I wouldn't be myself today," he said. "A lot of times, if you only go partway, you can't find yourself, so for me, it's always been about taking things to extremes."
And Manson refuses to stay in one place. There appears to be a profound change in image, musical style and subject matter with Mechanical Animals, compared to Manson's previous album. "With Antichrist Superstar, I took the responsibility to oppose mainstream ideology, both in religion and [in] rock 'n' roll," Manson said. "Now, the responsibility for me as a person is to embrace my fears and overcome them.
"I've found that music is a religion of its own. I've learned that God can be found in art and expression. I don't have to be oppressed or feel guilty for expressing myself."
Manson called Mechanical Animals "more spiritual" than his earlier recordings. "Not in the Christian sense, but in an individual sense," he said. "I tried to find a more balanced approach on this album. I've chosen the extremes of fame, Hollywood and alienation as my subjects. So this record probably shows more 'Marilyn' than 'Manson.'
"I still think that Antichrist Superstar is valid, but I didn't need to repeat myself."
The themes on Mechanical Animals -- which Manson called "a sarcastic look at Hollywood and the rock 'n' roll lifestyle" -- are evident on the album's first single, "The Dope Show," on which he sings, "There's lot of pretty, pretty ones/ that want to get you high/ but all the pretty, pretty ones/ will leave you low/ and blow your mind/ We're all stars in the Dope Show."
Asked if Mechanical Animals also marked a transformation on the musical side, with its stylistic references to the glam-rock era, Manson replied that he had been listening to David Bowie, Queen and T. Rex and that they influenced the album. "But the change in musical style was something that came from within me and the band," he said. "We came together as a band on this album, so this is very much a beginning."
And, as far as his fans are concerned, at least, the new Marilyn Manson is a refreshing twist on the old.
"I like [Marilyn Manson's] new music," commented Davide Giroldino, a 23-year-old fan who had been waiting unsuccessfully outside the hotel where the artist was staying in order to meet his idol, "because he makes references to the past in a way that's out of the traditional schemes."
Giroldino reasoned that Manson's transformation is due to his sense that audiences are looking for something fresh from artists and not the same old thing. "Though he's not as wicked as he was some time ago, he's still very angry toward the American lifestyle," Giroldino said. "I guess that he is more positive now, because his audience may get tired of hearing him sing about death all the time."
But Manson refused to admit that any outside pressures govern his artistic decisions, whether those pressures come from his audience or as a result of the controversies that surround his work.
"There's always pressure, but the greatest pressure for me is from myself," Manson insisted. "If people receive what I'm doing and enjoy it, that's great. But as an artist, my only responsibility is to create."
Before the conference came to an end after half an hour of questions, a journalist asked Manson if he ever thought of seeing a psychiatrist. "No," he replied, "because he would probably tell me that I have too many personalities. But I don't think you should be just one when you can be so many."
The crowded room burst into applause, as if Manson had just finished a performance, rather than a media event. He refused to sign autographs as he left the lounge.
And, as with everything else, he calmly explained why.
"If I sign one, I'd have to sign all," he told a fan who had asked him to inscribe a copy of Mechanical Animals.