Interview:Interview with John 5 of Marilyn Manson
by Adam St. James
Controversy follows certain rock stars like a bad smell follows a skunk. Go ask Alice Cooper. Ask Ozzy Osbourne. Ask Marilyn Manson. Of course all the controversy only serves to attract the media, earning the performer more exposure than they could ever hope for walking the mainstream road. And exposure builds careers. So the exposure didn't hurt guitarist John Lowery of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, when Marilyn Manson dubbed him John 5, and invited to become another oddity on stage with the most controversial frontman of the past decade.
John 5 joined Manson in 1998, played on the Mechanical Animals tour, and then took part in the recording of the concept album, Holy Wood in 2000. He left the group last year. So what has John 5 been up to since?
He's been preparing to release a simply amazing, completely ripping instrumental album that will probably surprise as many Manson critics as it does his fans. I, for one, was thoroughly unprepared for the virtuosity displayed on Vertigo, which John has released through Shrapnel Records, a welcome home for guitar shredders and other amazing players since the '80s. If you're a fan of modern rock - or just rock guitar in general - you've got to listen to this record. It may be one of the most inspiring releases you'll hear this year.
Guitar.com spoke with John 5 just two weeks ago. In this detailed interview, the affable guitarist discusses his lengthy career as a session player and sideman - including his gigs with David Lee Roth and Halford - prior to Manson. He also admits his passion for vintage Fender Telecasters, and tells us a little about his two signature model Fender Teles. And he explains one of his other unexpected passions as well: tearin' up the Tele country style (you gotta hear it to believe it!)
And since you're going to ask, NO(!), we didn't speak with John about his engagement to the gorgeous Aria Giovanni, but on that end, we think a picture is worth 1,000 words, right? And we're sure you can find those pictures on your own. So let's get into the guitar stuff:
Guitar.com: Hi John. I have to tell you: I'm very, very impressed with your instrumental record, Vertigo.
John 5: Oh, thank you!
Guitar.com: Have you always been pursuing the instrumental virtuoso thing, even while playing the easier riffs behind Marilyn Manson?
John 5: Well, that's sort of what I grew up with. All that stuff was happening while I was playing, and that impressed me. If you see anybody that's really good, at anything - like someone who is really good at shooting pool, or anybody who is really good at their craft. I was always really drawn to that, and I always wanted to do a record like that. I was working with so many artists, when I started working professionally, and it really just wasn't a situation that called for big solos or anything like that. But I always thought, in the back of my mind, 'Maybe the next group will be one where I can play a little.'
And so at the end of the last Marilyn Manson tour I decided I was really going to do this. And before I even started writing songs I thought about, 'What's the right thing to do? What's the smart thing to do?' Instrumental albums get a bad rap of being boring. So I was like, 'All right, what I'll do is make it heavy, ''cause that's the music I like, and I like this crazy type of country music, where there's this crazy guitar playing. I'll do that, and that will make it interesting too. And I won't make the songs very long, and I'll make them all up-tempo.'
So I kind of just thought it all out before I even started doing anything. And I think it worked out pretty good. It's got a wide variety of things I like to play, and I think that keeps it interesting. It keeps it entertaining.
Guitar.com: It is very entertaining. Probably the most out there thing - for all the people who know you from Marilyn Manson - is going to be all the country and bluegrass influences. Where did all that come from?
John 5: When I was really little, like 6 or so, before I started playing guitar, I saw that TV show "Hee Haw." My dad used to watch it, and there was this little boy who was so good on the banjo, I couldn't believe it. I still remember it; I can see it now. He was so good that I was like, 'Wow! I really want to do that!' And I kind of forgot about it for awhile - I got into Kiss and Van Halen and all that stuff, and I forgot about it.
But then I was on tour with k.d. lang and a lot of that was country stuff. And a lot of the musicians were multi-instrumentalists. There was one guy who played lap steel, fiddle, guitar, mandolin - and that was common. That was like as common as having a bunch of guitars.
So he was playing that kind of music, and that just really clicked it in again for me. And that was around 1996. So I just buckled down and just studied and studied and studied, learning that stuff. You know, when you're on tour, you only work an hour-and-a-half every night, or every other night. So I had a lot of time on my hands. So that's what I did: I just worked and worked and worked. And it wasn't that my plan was, 'Oh, I'm gonna be this great guitar player.' I did it because it sounded so cool! It was fun to do. It was like, 'Wow, that really sounds cool!' I liked doing it, and I just did it for my own enjoyment.
And this last summer I went and played with Les Paul at his club [Editor's note: Les Paul plays every Monday night at the Irridium Club in Manhattan.] and he was like, 'You should really let the world know that you can do this stuff.' And everything just added up, and that's how it all came about.
Guitar.com: So besides playing professionally with Marilyn Manson, you've obviously had a career as a sideman?
John 5: Oh yeah.
Guitar.com: Who else have you played with?
John 5: Let's see: When I first came out to Los Angeles, I started doing little sessions. John Wetton was my first one. John Wetton was in Asia, he was in U.K.
Guitar.com: He's a bassist?
John 5: Yeah. So I did that, and I did it so fast, and I did it really well, and I think they paid me like $50. They asked me what I wanted and I was like, '50 bucks?' because I didn't know. And they were like, 'OK.' Then it just started by word of mouth: 'There's this kid that does sessions, and he's really fast, and he's really good. He does his job really quick.'
So the next one I did was like Robin Zander or something like that. And I just went in there really quick and did my thing. And then it was like Night Ranger, and Rick Springfield, and Wilson Phillips, and all these groups that I would just go in and record for really quick. And they were psyched because it was cheap and quick for them.
And then I started doing some stuff for the "Tonight Show." They called me in sometimes to play, and I did Salt 'n' Pepa on the "Tonight Show," which is hilarious. There's so many artists - The Go Go's and a lot of that stuff. I was a hired gun. And I met up with some people, and they introduced me to bigger names. I made some albums with David Lee Roth, and Rob Halford, and all that stuff. I've been working ever since I got out here.
Guitar.com: When did you move to Los Angeles?
John 5: 1988. I moved from Grosse Pointe, Michigan. It was funny because I had an upbringing which was - I don't know if you ever saw the movie, "Grosse Pointe Blank," but it's kind of like the Beverly Hills of Michigan, very upscale. So I was so alienated from everything. And I moved out to California and I lived in a warehouse full of bums. Back I home I had like two maids, to myself. Then I moved out to this warehouse in L.A. But I never went home. I never said, 'Oh, this is too much for me.' I always stuck it out. So I'm glad I did.
Guitar.com: You know, right now I'd like to stick to more guitar stuff, but I'd like to talk to you more about this kind of thing another time for a book I'm working on tentatively called "How They Made It," for Hal Leonard?
John 5: Oh, I love the instructional stuff from Hal Leonard!
Guitar.com: Yeah, there's some really good stuff out there. What are some of your favorites?
John 5: Greg Koch?
Guitar.com: Yeah, Greg is amazing. [See Guitar.com's interview with Greg Koch here .]
John 5: A lot of that stuff is an influence on the Vertigo album.
Guitar.com: And what else?
John 5: Did Albert Lee do one? Brent Mason?
Guitar.com: Oh yeah, that video of Brent's is amazing.
John 5: He's so good. Scotty Anderson?
Guitar.com: Oh yeah, from Cincinnati.
John 5: He's just ridiculously good. It's such a shame that a lot of the guitar players out today have no idea who these people are. That is a true, true skill that those guys have, and it's so inspiring, and it's so great.
John 5: Of course I love Chet Atkins and Albert Lee, and Doc Watson, and all that stuff. Rock-wise, I love Steve Vai, and I grew up listening to Yngwie and stuff like that. I love the melodic side of - I love Joe Satriani too. And I think Buckethead is really cool too. He's got a lot to offer.
I'm pretty much influenced by - I can appreciate anybody that comes out there and does something. Even if it's just songwriting, everybody has something to offer. But the people who stand out to me are the people I mentioned.
Guitar.com: How did your relationship with Marilyn Manson get started?
John 5: I was playing with David Lee Roth. I was recording a record with Dave, and I was getting ready for a tour with Rob Halford. We went on tour, me and Halford went on tour in Europe, and we were playing and having a good time, and I was a big Marilyn Manson fan. And Marilyn was going to play one of the big festivals that we were going to play. And I remember riding in the tour bus, I remember riding into Amsterdam and they were playing in Germany, and I was so excited, laying awake going, 'I get to see Marilyn Manson tomorrow!' I was psyched. I get off the bus, and I'm thinking maybe I'd get to watch from the side of the stage, 'cause I was playing before them, and they canceled! I was so crushed. And it was the last show of the tour.
I had tried to go see them before - I was playing on the "Conan O'Brien Show" with an artist - and they were playing at Roseland in New York. Right after I got off stage from Conan O'Brien I ran to Roseland, bought tickets from a scalper, and they were finished!
So anyways, were on that long flight home from Europe, and I was so bummed. I heard that the drummer had mono or something. I got in my apartment and the phone was ringing, and it was Marilyn Manson's manager. He said, 'We're having trouble with our guitarist. Do you want to go have lunch with Manson?' So I was like, 'OK.' And I told him the whole story about being a big fan and missing them and everything. And he knew my work with Halford and with David Lee Roth, so he knew I could play. And he knew what I looked like, so he kind of gave me the job right there, without even playing with them. Luckily I knew all the songs.
It was awesome. I remember like going home - 'cause Manson actually gave me the name John 5 - and I remember going home and going, 'I need some kind of a cool little log thing.' So I put the 5 with a circle around it. And I remember going home and practicing the autograph! I was so excited. I was such a big fan.
Guitar.com: That's a cool story.
John 5: You know, everybody is always coming up to me and asking, 'Is he real? Is he really like that?' And that's why I'm still such a fan: The guy is really like that. He's so smart that he's out of his mind. It sucks to get in an argument with him, ''cause you always lose. He pulls these things out?
Guitar.com: What other projects have you worked on?
John 5: I did an album with an artist named Leah Andreone, called Veiled. That's got some cool songs and guitar playing on it. I did this Japanese Hendrix tribute album. That was wild. Zakk Wylde is on it, Peter Frampton is on it. All these great artists. Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum are on it. I'm just thinking of obscure stuff. That was all the stuff before Manson.
Guitar.com: You're credited on a lot of those projects with your real name, John Lowery, correct.
John 5: Yeah, but I'm keeping John 5. I can't wait for you to see the art work on the CD. It's incredible. It's a trip.
Guitar.com: How are you going to deal with the "look"?
John 5: It's still going to be freaky. I was always freaky, even before I got in Manson. When I was in Halford I looked exactly the same way I do now, except when I got into Marilyn Manson I had to shave my eyebrows off. But I looked the same. My hair was the same and I wore crazy makeup and all that stuff. So it wasn't anything to different. I still have the same vibe going on.
Guitar.com: Now isn't this new album, Vertigo through Shrapnel Records - the long time home of so many incredible shredders? Why does the advance CD say Chrysalis Records on it?
John 5: Yeah, the album is through Shrapnel. Chrysalis is my publishing company.
Guitar.com: Oh, OK. So you're a staff writer for Chrysalis Publishing. Tell us about that. What does a staff writer do?
John 5: I'll write for different artists. They'll say, 'Hey, we want you to get together with Scott Weiland,' or 'We want you to get together with Avril Lavigne,' or 'We want you to get together with Kelly Clarkston,' or people like that. Even Hillary Duff and things like that. But it's hard to become a staff writer because you have to show that you can write these kind of songs and they'll get published.
Guitar.com: And just being able to write those kind of songs isn't enough - you have to get a couple published too?
John 5: Right. And I've been with them for like eight or nine years now. It's been a great thing. I've just kept on working and doing that because, you know, everybody is looking for songs. And actually, after I did the instrumental album, and I was out of Marilyn Manson, my partner, Bob Marlette, said, 'Instead of writing songs for these people, let's do it for us. Let's write the best songs and create a band around it.' And we have this band called Loser. And it is a rock radio band. We have this amazing singer. And that's probably going to be out the first of the year (2005). And it's so good. The songs are so good, I'm really excited about it. There's not a lot of guitar solos or anything like that.
Guitar.com: What vein of music is this?
John 5: It's kind of like Queens of the Stone Age.
Guitar.com: Is it on a label?
John 5: No, we're going to start shopping it at the end of this month.
Guitar.com: Bob produced Sabbath and Evanescence, right? When you say, 'My partner,' what other projects have you two worked on together?
John 5: We've done so many projects together. We worked on Halford, Leah Andreone, Red Square Black - so many things. And we went into this project saying, 'Let's do this.' Bob is the guy that gave me my first session. He kind of brought me into the whole realm. So this is perfect because I want to do the rock thing, but I also want to put a bunch of instrumental albums out. I want to put out one a year. Maybe I'm being spoiled, but I want to have the best of both worlds: I want to make these great, fun guitar records, but I want to have the big MTV type thing too.
Guitar.com: Well, good luck with that. We'll look forward to hearing it. Let's talk about your guitars and your rig. D you go through a lot of gear, or is your rig pretty stable?
John 5: I love gear. I love old, vintage guitars. That's my passion. And I love old vintage Telecasters, that's what I mainly play. What I want to do, and I'm not going to be able to do it soon, but hopefully by the time I die - I want to have a Telecaster from each year that they were made. So far I have a ''66, ''68, ''69, ''71, ''72, ''73 - and that's it. I'm only going to go up until 1980. But I'm starting there.
Guitar.com: A lot of guys I've been interviewing lately have been telling me that they want to get their favorite model, made in the year they were born.
John 5: Absolutely. It's hard to do, sometimes it's expensive. So every time I get a big check, I'll go out and buy a nice Telecaster or something. I love old Telecasters.
Guitar.com: Tele's aren't your usual metal guitar.
John 5: No, but I did use them on the last Manson tour. Fender put out my own model, the John 5 Telecaster, and it is?I can play country stuff on it, but then I can go play Manson stuff on it. It's built like that. It's got that kind of pickups in it.
Guitar.com: How is this guitar set up?
John 5: There are two models, actually. The one with a Bigsby has a Hot Rail and a Twisted Tele pickup. And then I have one with a Seymour Duncan Enforcer humbucker and a Twisted Tele, and a toggle switch so I can do on-off stuff. So I have two models. And they're perfect for what I do. (See links)
Guitar.com: What are you using for amps and effects?
John 5: I use the Marshall Mode 4. And I love old effects, but my real true passion is old guitars. I've got probably around 80 guitars. I have probably like 10 or 11 Les Pauls, and 8 or 9 SGs, and just a little bit of everything. I've got a Gretsch Black Falcon, a Gibson Chet Atkins, a lot of stuff. A little bit of everything, because, one time Manson was like, 'You only have 13 guitars? And you call yourself a professional musician?' And I was like, 'Oh wow!' And he was right. So I started getting all different types of guitars. I also use a Fender Bass VI a lot on Vertigo. I did some of the bass lines. I love that instrument.
Guitar.com: Well good luck with the new record, and thank you again for your time. It's been cool to speak with you.
John 5: Thank you so much Adam, any time.
About the Author
Adam St. James joined Guitar.com shortly after the website launched in the summer of 1999 and has been the site's Editor for several years. Adam is the author of several guitar instructional books, including "101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard). He fronts blues and rock bands in the Chicago area. See www.adamstjames.com for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.