Ginger Fish: Premonitions from Marilyn Manson's Lizard King
November/December issue Drum! magazine
by Amy Doerschuk
Ginger Fish has been waiting a lifetime for 1998 to roll around. Funny thing is, he's not sure why. At least not yet, because as far back as he can recall, one thing after another has suggested to him that something significant would happen when he turned 33, which he did this past September.
It's hard to believe that a member of Marilyn Manson could get spooked by anything earthly or otherwise, but Fish sounds a bit tense when he says, "It's a very strange thing. Since I was a baby, that number just always comes up... I get this weird feeling that something's going to happen. It might be monumentally huge and great or it could be totally the opposite. I just think it's going to mark something, but I'm just not sure what it's going to be."
He doesn't feel terribly superstitious about the release of Mechanical Animals, though, the new album he has toiled over for the last several months with his band leader, the nefarious Marilyn Manson. After the extraordinary international success of the band's last release, 1996's Antichrist Superstar, anticipation and innuendo has surrounded its follow-up, and, true to the gossip, the album signals a radical change in direction for the band. Replacing Manson's banshee screech are melodies that are actually sung, layered over lush guitar-heavy tracks supplied by Manson bassist Twiggy Ramirez and former Jane's Addiction/Chili Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro. Say goodbye to industrial cacophony, and hello to classic rock and roll.
"The songs are just so different," Fish says. "There's some blues influences, all different styles that I've played in the past that people don't consider rock. The first single that's out (The Dope Show) is a full bump and grind song. It's the stripper beat. There's a bunch of songs on the album where I really got into the old school - Tommy James and the Shondells and the Animals and stuff like that - where the drumming is sparse and it's not rock in the sense that I left a lot of space. It's very roomy, almost the opposite of 1996 from Antichrist, where I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to be able to do the song every single night and not screw it up because I'm running as fast as I possibly can, like 186 beats per minute."
Much of this musical metamorphosis can be attributed to the fact that Mechanical Animals is the first Manson album that hasn't been influenced by Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails' mastermind and Manson's longtime co-producer. "I don't even know if Trent was an option, really," Fish says. "I don't think he was even available to work on this project. He got a lot of credit for Antichrist, but Manson has the predominant say over what the band sounds like. He's the visionary."
Work began on Mechanical Animals late last year, almost as soon as Manson had wrapped up Antichrist's extensive touring schedule. Moving operations to Los Angeles, the band members began hammering out new material at Manson's laurel Canyon home, where, for the first time, they could concentrate solely on the song-writing process without distraction. In contrast, the music for Antichrist had been written in hotel rooms and on the tour bus, which forced Fish to write most of his parts on drum machines. But this time around, Fish asked electronic percussion pioneer Dan Dauz to assemble a set of pads at Manson's house to approximate his live rig.
Finally Fish could work on his parts in real time. "I wasn't sitting pushing buttons and playing a drum machine," he says. "If you sit down at an electronic set and the bass player picks up his bass and starts playing, it's instantaneous. If someone wants to hear a different beat, you don't have to stop, reprogram, step edit and all that kind of stuff... So I could literally play just like I would on stage. When we went in to cut the songs it was literally written around my drumming."
While hashing out material with Manson and Ramirez, Fish would usually start by looping a drumbeat, then improvise over it on the electronic kit. "Whenever we're in the studio, I spend some time just jamming by myself and recording it," he explains. "Then later I'll go back and sample my own beats, and make loops out of that. I had done some loops in a studio in Houston two years ago, and one of the loops from that session became the main beat for one of the songs on the new album. So it can come from anywhere - everything from sampling old records, or just sampling weird sounds and making them into drum beats. You can take almost anything that makes noise and program it into a beat."
A closet piano-plunkin' songwriter, Fish restricted his input into the drum rhythms during songwriting sessions for Mechanical Animals, although he would love to be more engaged with melodies, harmonies and chord progressions on future Manson masterpieces. "I constantly think that I need to write more, and get more involved in the songwriting, because you can't copyright drum beats," he explains. "It's a constant struggle. But another part of me says, 'You're a drummer, be happy that you're a drummer. You've wanted your whole life to be a drummer, so just be the best damn drummer you can be.'"
That's right, damn it! But even so, something strange happened during the production of Mechanical Animals that not only threw his drumming abilities into question, but also could have restrained Fish from tracking his parts in the studio. After writing most of the material, and recording demos at Westlake Studios, Manson hired Michael Beinhorn [Soundgarden, Hole] to co-produce the album. And one of the first things Beinhorn wanted to know was if Fish could pull his weight.
It turns out that Beinhorn is notorious for firing drummers who can't live up to his standards. And when he does, he usually hires Deen Castronovo [Bad English, Journey] to ghost-drum. "So here I was - three years in the band, I'd done two albums with the band and now I've got to audition for this producer because he's going to end up firing me," Fish exclaims. "It's like, why doesn't the producer come in and just make the band sound as good as it can? How many times do I have to prove myself?"
More than once, evidently. Before he could even set foot in the recording studio, the frantic Fish was instructed to rent a rehearsal space where Beinhorn could put the drummer through the paces. Like a good little goth/glam demonic drummer, Fish did as he was told, and every day would ask Beinhorn if he planned to come to the rehearsal studio the next day. In the end, Beinhorn never showed up.
"I was stressed out for two weeks, right up until we finally got into the studio to get started," Fish says. "I guess he was going to decide that first day when we started cutting tracks if he was going to get me out of there or not. So I went in to start tracking and didn't know if this guy was going to say, 'This isn't going to work. I need to bring in Deen to do this album for me.' It's a lot to lay on someone's shoulders. You're just trying to play well and do a good job, playing with computers and click tracks, and stuff like that, and you can only be so perfect."
After fostering Fish's anxiety, Beinhorn never actually told the drummer that he would definitely appear on the album. The band just kept working in L.A.'s Conway Studios, and after a few days it became obvious that Fish had passed the test. So the first order of business was to dial-in killer drum sounds, and for that, Beinhorn pulled out the stops. They started with Fish's Premier kit as a basic setup and began listening to as many drums and cymbals as they could lay their hands on. "We rented every single snare drum in L.A.," Fish remembers. "We went through every rental company - Drum Paradise, Drum Doctors, we brought in snare drums from Matt Sorum from Guns, he has his own collection of drums. We spent three days going through snare drums to find exactly the one perfect drum."
In the end, Fish set up two separate four-piece drum kits in the studio. One featured big drums, and was set up in a large room with reflective brick walls. The second kit was made up of smaller drum sizes, and was in a little room with a more deadened sound. "About a third of the songs on the album are just full takes that were recorded all the way through, either on the little set or the big set," Fish explains. "Then there's another bunch of songs where I played the verses on the little set, and paused during the choruses. Then I would go out into the big room and cut the choruses.
"On a couple songs I did a basic drum beat, and then later on played toms on top of it to give it a two-drummer feel, like an Adam Ant sound with multiple drummers. We had to take it a few times, because when you play to your own drum tracks, you can do it so perfectly that it doesn't sound like two drummers. You've got to get a different feel going for the second part, and play it in a different way - above the beat, behind the beat, pull it differently."
In order to use both kits, Fish found himself in a familiar position, once again playing along to click tracks rather than jamming with the entire band. "Originally I thought that we were going to learn the songs and go in the studio and cut them as a band," he says. "That way you're a little more free. A drummer can float around the beat a little bit more - push a little bit in the choruses and pull back a little bit in the verses. But the point is that you want all the instruments to sound great. So if the whole band goes in and tracks together, one instrument might sound great, but the other doesn't sound as good as it should be. Which means you're going to overdub it anyway. But playing to a click is ten thousand times harder than just going in and playing as a band."
After spending three days testing and tuning drums, experimenting with microphones and heads with Beinhorn and drum tech Rob Coursey, Fish was raring to begin tracking his parts. Then the inevitable happened. "The first day of cutting, I went in and the producer heard a weird sound in the bass drum," Fish says. "None of the mikes had been changed. None of the drums had been changed. I hit it and it sounded the same to me. And he's like, 'I hear a slight overtone and a slight ring.'
"So the tech went in and tried to tune the drum and work on it a little. But the bass drum wasn't cutting it, and they spent ten hours trying to get it to sound the way it did the day before. They totally remiked it, moved it a quarter inch toward the wall. When we did Smells Like Children, we took my tour set that was all beat up from being wrecked all the time - even the front bass drumhead was broken - took the rim off the front head because it was rattling, put a blanket over the front of the drum and then did the whole album in three hours and three days. I listen to it now and I still think it sounds great.
"But back then, I wished that someone would spend the time on my acoustic drums and work with me on my sound. And these guys did it. The only thing that drives me crazy about stuff like that would be when Manson would walk in the room and say, 'What have you done?' 'Oh nothing, we've been spending eight hours trying to get the bass drum to sound good again.' And it's like, 'It's not my fault!' It's just the way it is. We've got to take it slow and get this done. If you start with shit, you'll end with shit. So the drums had to sound amazing."
Once they ironed out his bass drum buzz, Fish had to contend with Beinhorn's unusual ideas about how to lock into a groove. "He had a weird way of wanting you to play the snare and the bass drum above the beat and the hi-hat behind the beat," Fish says. "He actually got it from Zeppelin. He had tapes of Bonham playing in the studio by himself, and he actually analyzed them and figured out that Bonham played the hi-hat behind the beat and the snare and bass drum above. He's seriously that anal.
"It got crazy sometimes, though. We'd be playing in the studio and he'd say, 'Play above the beat.' And I would push it and play above the beat, and he's like, 'You're still behind.' And I'm like, 'I'm above. I'm above.' And he'd say, 'No, push it more.' So I'd push it more, and he's like, 'You're still behind.' So I'd go into the control room and listen to the playback, and I'm pushing so far above, I'm not on the click at all. I'm way in front of the beat, to an irritating point.
"Naturally, from my roots and training, I tend to play right on the beat or right behind it, and lock it down. So I went back into the studio and tracked the song again, and I just totally ignored what he was saying. I just said to myself 'I'm going to lock this down right where I think I should put it.' So I did. I locked it down straight onto the beat and he said, 'There, you got it now! You're right above it."'
While the schedule called for Fish to complete his tracks in two weeks, the intrepid basher actually polished off his parts in a mere six days. He's proud of the fact that the majority of drum tracks on Mechanical Animals was recorded on his acoustics. "On the last album, fifty percent were analog and fifty percent were digital," he says. "If it wasn't for Michael Beinhorn, I don't think that would've happened. He's a producer who knows acoustic drums and how to make them sound good. Without him, I could've gotten stuck with a lot more digital drumming."
Manson planned to do a short European tour as soon as the album was finished and had begun rehearsing when Fish came down with a case of mononucleosis. Even though the trip was canceled, Fish got a taste of how the new music was going to translate on stage, and began planning his strategy for the band's upcoming world tour. "This time I plan on being seen," he says. "On the last tour I had a big black drum set, and there were no lights on me. No one would even know if I was back there. But on the next tour, I plan to customize my set so my toms are as low as my snare drums. The set is going to be white or a silver-white, or something like that, so it's really bright. I plan on being as visible as anyone else in the band and getting much more of my image out, because drumming's a very visible thing, and if you can't see the drummer, you're missing part of the show."
Fish had a good reason to hide behind his drums during the Antichrist tour back then - Manson got into the habit of flinging heavy mike stands at Fish's skull during performances, sometimes sending the drummer to the hospital. "Part of me thinks that it's over with," Fish says. "But in the back of my mind I remember that I know these guys better than that. As soon as they get pissed off about something, they're going to start throwing stuff. I have a temper, too. If someone pushes me, I'll push back. But it's kind of immature to start kicking and screaming and throwing temper tantrums. I hope that the whole band has grown out of that, but I could still see it happening. And the way my drums are going to be set up, I'm going to be a sitting target."
On the other hand, Fish has the utmost respect for his boss. "Manson is very intelligent," Fish says. "It comes out in his writing. I pick up his lyric sheets and I'm really amazed at how articulate he is." So how does Fish reconcile his willingness to play with a singer who is smart but perfectly willing to crack his skull open on a whim? "There is a very fine line between love and hate," he says. "I walk it every day."