Nine Inch Nails: Not So Fragile Now
By Victoria Durham for Rock Sound on April 13, 2005
"Think Trent Reznor's an untouchable enigma? Think again. rock sound candidly gets under the skin of a living legend to discuss love, death, personal demons and David Bowie. It turns out even idols have idols - get reading..."
Words: Victoria Durham
Photos: Robin Laananen
When Trent Reznor presented 'The Fragile' to the world in '99, he felt certain of a new beginning. It was evident in the interviews he gave at the time, where he spoke about being able to look at himself in the mirror every morning without disgust, confident the self-loathing that had pervaded '94's 'The Downward Spiral' was on his way out. Over five years on, he reveals he couldn't have been more wrong. If the journey from 'The Downward Spiral' to 'The Fragile' involved battling external demons - the passing of the grandmother who raised him, or the recovery from destructive relationships with the likes of Marilyn Manson and Courtney Love - then the journey from 'The Fragile' to new album 'With Teeth' saw Reznor once again turn the focus in on himself.
"Since I got a record deal in '89 I've been chasing after whatever career goal, making a better record or touring forever, and I didn't really know who I was anymore," he explains, sitting in a brightly-lit Los Angeles photo studio, sipping black coffee."Me, the person, was just what happened when I wasn't on stage or sitting in the recording studio. My recollection of things is that I was pretty miserable, then I got a record deal and I thought that would fix everything. Fifteen years later, I was still miserable. Money and fame didn't help. Making good music felt better for a while, but it didn't fix everything. I felt like something was wrong with me, not the situation."
Consequently, Reznor decided he should get to know the "human being" he'd neglected since first signing a record contract. But not before he hit rock bottom one last time.
"With 'The Downward Spiral' and then the Manson 'Antichrist...' record, it was pretty apparent something wasn't right," he laughs softly. "That's when I acknowledged that my life was spinning out of control. But I thought I knew everything, so I said, 'I'm just not going to do this or that,' and that was the climate for 'The Fragile' being recorded. I thought when I was writing 'The Fragile' that I was dealing with stuff, but I really wasn't doing it the right way. Then I went into a touring enviroment in a terrible state and did a terrible tour in terms of my mindset," he sighs. As the Fragility Tour ended, Reznor once again found himself battling self-hatred, his perception furthered by drugs and alcohol. "I really just hated myself," he remembers,"I got to a point where whatever shred of liking I had for myself was lost. I was on a fast path to death. There was no other way around that. It was time to make a decision, 'Which way do you want to go?' He concludes: "I can't really tell the story of this record, why it took so long and where my head's at, without pretty much saying that I'm a terrible addict and alcoholic, who had to finally almost die to get his shit together."
When he did finally make the decision to save himself, it was in tragic circumstances. Reznor's best friend from New Orleans, a man he says he would have trusted with his life, was shot dead. Somehow it gave Reznor the jolt he needed to get himself in order.
"He was a black guy who was a product of the projects in New Orleans, and the projects there are the worst I've ever seen," he recalls."His sister died of AIDS, and he didn't know who his dad was, the typical story. This guy was hired at the studio and somehow over the years we became friends. I think it was a project of mine to save him somehow. Then his mother called me one day, worried he hadn't come home. I just happened to be in the studio and the news was on. My friend and his cousin had been shot in the face, found dead in the projects. Somehow that just cut through. I felt like I should have been the one who was killed. Shortly after, I had time to figure out the mess, and I think at first it was just for him. It didn't matter to me. I culd kill myself and it really didn't matter at that point.
Then, as Trent puts it, things turned around. Yet it was the struggle to get to that point, to find the courage to deal with his addictions, that caused him to be absent from our lives for so long.
"I think the secret is just knowing that you've had enough and it took a lot of thinking before I really really really got to the point where I never ever wanted to be that guy again."
It also took a humiliating spell in rehab to separate Trent the person from Trent the personality.
"I did the full deal," he details,"I did a week in the psych ward, detox, it was full on. It wasn't glamorous this time. I can kind of laugh about it now. But the door that closes and doesn't open back up, and you realise there are no handles on it - it's hard to feel glamourous in that situation when you're vomiting on yourself. I was taught humility." He breaks into a smile, anticipating the inevitable question. "There was no master plan in taking this long between records. This was really about survival."
Now completely clean of drugs and alcohol, you can't help but share his conviction that he's got himself on a more stable path once and for all.
"I don't feel like I'm wrapped in blankets and more," he stresses,"I've felt like I had cotton in my head, and what do you do when you feel like 'Fuck, I can't think?' You might as well get more fucked up. I operated from that method for a great while, and it didn't work. I feel more equipped for geting my vision out now"
But what about the man behind that vision - not the internal struggles that have for so long been the focus of his music and media coverage - but as Trent stressed, the person? Today,on a sunny Monday morning,LA seems the least likely place to meet Trent Reznor. It's whole culture is at odds with what he represents. Indeed, Reznor is the living, breathing antithesis of a town that prozes fame and fortune over artistic integrity, and where the pursuit of perfection overrides honesty and openness every time. The airbrushed models that compete for your attention from the numerous billboardsare a million miles removed from Reznor's visible awkwardness when places in front of a camera. However, after 10 years of hiding himself away in New Orleans, where he was able to create his own reality in the house and studios he'd always wanted, Reznor has relocated to LA. He truly believes he can find a place for himself and his soul-baring art in the Land of the Fake. Not least because, after an acromonious parting of ways with his manager and close friend of 15 years, it was time to move on.
"The whole process was weird, leaving behind the studios," he says. "That was the greatest place in the world to me, except it's tough not to walk through there and think 'Okay, this is where we did the Manson record. This is where we did 'The Fragile'. A big chunk of my life has happened in that building. But that chapter's over."
While it's true that you'd be lucky to find a more open, accommodating and witty interviewee than Trent Reznor (his personal life proves the exception to this), it's unsurprising that someone who's made his life's work about analysing his personal demons should be able to discuss them so eloquently; inner turmoil is just one of the cliches that surrounds Nine Inch Nails, cliches that Reznor is very much aware of. Ask him when he last had time off, for example, and he responds with a suitable helping of mock horrir. Nonetheless, cliches exist for a reason, and the quest to find out more about Trent Reznor, the person, sometimes means starting with the obvious. And so we come to preconception number one, Trent Reznor as the recluse who spends all his time locked away in the studio.
"That part's pretty true," Trent smiles. "The routine over the past few months has really been that I get up at the crack of dawn and spend some time exercising, then I'm writing and making phone calls and afternoons and evenings are usually rehearsals."
So what nomral things do you like to do when you're not working?
"I hang out with my dog, I like mountain biking, I like being outside and I appreciate being around nature and having time to think. I normally try to get away in the winter to go skiing somewhere - somewhere I can just disappear. I'd never skied until a few years ago and I'm shitty at it, but I like snow."
Are you the solitary person people perceive you to be?
"For a long while I couldn't be by myself. I couldn't stand it. I was always around people, a band, studio people or whatever. Now I've learnt to really enjoy having my own time. I used to feel like I had a swarm of bees in my head. If I had the chance, I didn't want to sit down and realise I couldn't focus on anything."
One of the reasons Nine Inch Nails' music is so powerful is it's ability to tap into those same emotions in the listener as Reznor experiences in his songs. Few artists can claim to have had such a profound effect on their listeners as Reznor has with songs like 'Hurt', music that resonates so strongly with basic human emotion and reaches a place so deeply hidden that it's won him a following of cult-like intensity. As he explains, creating that intimate relationship with his fans was always part of the plan.
"I know as a music fan myself, when I hear a song and it seems like, 'That person knows exactly how I'm fucking feeling right now', it makes me feel better. It feels really nice as an artist to think that you can take something that's very intimate to you, very truthful and honest, and then some stranger hears it and it somehow connects to something in their life. I'm sounding corny, but that was my goal. If I could just make music that did the same thing that happened to me, that felt so powerful that when you're 15 you listen to it and think 'I'm not the only person that feels this way' that's a pretty cool thing.
Do you get emotional when making your own music?
"I've become desensitised to my own stuff because I've heard it about 400 times in the last month. But usually it comes in the form of goosebumps. I've got that listening back to 'The Fragile' recently. That's my equivalent of crying."
How aware are you of the effect your music has had on people's lives?
"I've had my fair share of experiences first hand of people that have come to me, written a letter or whatever. That makes it seem pretty sincere, that the music I sent out clicked on some level and helped them through bad times or was something they could relate to in a period of, I would say happiness, but usually it's distress of some kind," he laughs, acknowledging yet another cliche.
Somewhat ironically, another reason Nine Inch Nails remains such a prominent name both in and beyond alternative music is that new material is excruciatingly rare. In a 15 year career, aside from remixes and live releases, Trent Reznor has made just four albums proper - roughly one every five years. That means each release is anticipated and then treasured to the highest degree. And while Reznor insists the delay is never deliberate, thre's no escaping the fact that he feels none of the same pressures to deliver as your average commercial artist, and isn't scared to keep us guessing. So is it Trent himself that constructs the mystery that surrounds him, or is the enigma of Nine Inch Nails something other than people have created?
"Part of it is that I'd rather have you fill in the blanks than have everything pointed out and dictated to you," he explains. "Part of it is privacy. Part of it is that I'm insecure. My face isn't on the album covers ever and won't be because I don't want to be on there with a bad haircut that'll look dumb in a couple of years. So I'm not actively trying to calculate an image that isn't true, but I'm also not out to let you behind the curtain too much. I try to think back to the ancient days before music videos. The good thing about it was as a listener you filled in a lot of those blanks. It's about using the music so you want to find out more but you can't."
Do you think people would be surprised in some cases to discover your just a normal guy?
"Who said that?" He laughs. "For a long time (before this record) I became invisible again. It was pleasant at first. It's nice to be able to pick your nose when you're out and scratch your ass and nobody's interested. It's something you need to do!"
You must admit you're on a pedestay to a lot of people?
"I think I know who I am better than I ever did and I understand the role of media perception," he allows. "There are people I've always respected and they're larger than life to me. Hanging out with David Bowie, it's like 'Jesus Christ, I can't believe I'm with him.' He takes a shit like everyone else, but I don't need to know that. I like to think he doesn't," he smiles. "But that's okay, and I think there's room for that in music. People need something to latch on to; I wouldn't say heroes but icons of some sort. I do it myself."
Part of Reznor's reluctance to become caught-up in the cult of celebrity is, of course, a direct result of his being an artist in the true sense of the word. His work ethic has always been awe inspiring, if not a little unhealthy. Where does an attitude like that stem from?
"It began as a very calculated experiment. I was smart in school, but I don't think I ever studied for tests. It left me feeling that I'd never really seen what I was capable of doing," he considers. "I wanted to see what would happen if I stopped all the bullshit in my life and put my mind to it. What happened was the first album ('Pretty Hate Machine'). These songs were coming out, and I thought, 'I want to make the best record anyone's ever heard of in the whole world and I'm going to put every ounce of energy I have into this.' That's how it got started. Then, obviously everyone I come across isn't going to put as much effort into my thing as I am, so I thought 'I'll do it myself' and that's how the pressure got established. I think people get that perception though..." he trails. "I worked with a different engineer on this record briefly. We sat down and it was this real meticulous process, like all day to get a sound. I was like 'What in the fuck are you doing?' He's going, 'Well, I know it takes you forever to do your record, I thought this was how you worked.' I'm like 'Just plug the fucking thing in! We do a whole song in a day!' It might take me a while to get my life in order enough to go into the studio, but when I do, it's much more accidental than that!"
Here we arrive at the final cliche - Reznor the emotional train wrect, the man whose struggle to maintain a healthy relationship was a driving force behind 'Pretty Hate Machine' and, on the new album, could be suggested in songs like 'Only'.
"I had neglected it (my love life), but I've been paying more attention to it," he says coyly. "It feels like I'm more equipped to function in that situation, and minus being fucked up all the time I can actually be honest with myself and another human being. What it had really been was an extension of that 23 year old kid who said 'I want to stop everything in my life to do this'. I didn't want a girlfriend or marriage or a kid to get in the way of that opportunity. What that leads to eventually is one day saying 'Okay, I've sold this many records and played this big place...I'm lonely.' Then 'Wow, I'm older than everyone else. How did that happen?' Plus with drugs involved, time just flies off the calender. So now I'm going to be an old dad instead of a young dad."
Can you see yourself as a husband and father?
"I can see that some day, yeah," he ponders. "The day better come pretty soon though, because I'm getting older."
Do you worry about growing old alone?
"I'm 39 right now, and I'm wondering whether I should have started lying about my age because quite honestly, in that last couple of years, I've asked myself, 'How the fuck did that happen?' Friends I grew up with I don't recognise - they're old people. The career having been top priority for so long, plus being an addict, your maturity stops at some point and that takes over. So I feel like I jumped from 28 to 36. But there's nothing you can do about it," he shrugs.
These days somewhat mellowed instead of somewhat damaged, the Trent Reznor of '05 is clearly a different man to the one you would have encountered a decade ago. ("I probably would have had some air about me," he admits). Can we assume then, that Trent Reznor is - dare we say it - happy?
"I'm not saying I wake up and rose petals fly in my window," he contenses. "I'm just saying I'm much more equipped to deal with life than I have ever been. I feel like I've got a second lease of life right now, and if this record takes a shit and nobody likes it, it's not the end of the world. I like it and you're just fucking stupid!" he laughs, leaving rock sound a little bemused. "Well, I say that now," he reconsiders, "but ask me in a couple of months when the record takes a shit and they find my swinging corpse in the fucking closet."
That's more like it.
WITH TEETH: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE
Written: January '04 to summer '04
Recorded: Autumn '04
Where: Nothing Studios, New Orleans and Sound City Studios, Los Angeles.
Produced by: Trent Reznor and Alan Moulder
Who's on it? Trent Reznor with help from Dave Grohl and Jerome Dillon on drums.
Who's playing it live? Alessandro Cortini (keyboards), Jerome Dillon (drums), Aaron North (ex-Icarus Line, guitar), Jeordie White (ex-Marilyn Manson/APC, bass)
Says Reznor: "I've always thought I could think my way out of situations, bend the rules. The big thing I've learned (this time) is that I really don't know anything. That popped up in the lyrics of the album."
Release date: May '02
'ALL THE LOVE IN THE WORLD'
An unexpected beginning. Mournful piano and drum 'n' bass style beats build into a screaming cyclone of noise.
'YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE'
Kick-starts the action good and proper. An obvious successor to songs like 'Starfuckers, Inc." and "Mr. Self Destruct".
An understated number where Reznor's vocals take center stage. Has the feel of 'Pretty Hate Machine' era NIN being reworked for '05.
'THE HAND THAT FEEDS'
The first single and a phenonomenal comeback statement. Think 'Head like a Hole' with a brand, spanking new relevance.
'LOVE IS NOT ENOUGH'
A dark and difficult track that wouldn't be out of place on 'The Downward Spiral'. Shows Reznor is still allowing the listener room to grown into his work.
'EVERY DAY IS EXACTLY THE SAME'
Epic but powerful. Recalls Reznor's talent for creating subtly lethal beauty in his music while still punching out a hypnotic rhythm.
Appears to update the lyrics of 'Sanctified'. A swirling tortured backdrop gives way to tranquil piano before exploding into a wall of sound. Unpredictable.
A future hit, make no mistake. Funky 80's electro-pop leads into spoken word vocals reminiscent of 'Down in It'.
A straight-up rock song that makes an unashamed shot at accessibility. Killer stuff.
Another demanding one. Music is stripped down to drums and piano as Reznor wrangles with that ever-troublesome female presence.
'THE LINE BEGINS TO BLUR'
And so begins the descent. Reznor fazes in and out like a paranoid schizophrenic: "Is there somebody on top of me? I don't know, I don't know."
'BESIDE YOU IN TIME'
A modest pop song that never quite reaches an obvious peak. Oddly reminiscent of the Foo Fighters' "Walking After You".
'RIGHT WHERE IT BELONGS'
Reznor saves the best until last. If you thought "Hurt' could never be matched, this song says otherwise.
THE HIGHLIGHTS SO FAR...
Release: "Pretty Hate Machine"
What is it? The album that started it all, as Reznor began what he calls his "quest for the impossible".
Says Reznor: "It wasn't until then that I had the courage to sit down and start working on my own stuff." Aged 23, this marked him out as a musical genius in the making.
Must Hear Tracks: "Head like a Hole", "Sin"
What is it? The eight-song EP that introduced "Wish" and "Suck". It's songs were then remixed on a second EP "Fixed". Confusing stuff.
Release: "The Downward Spiral"
What is it? Reznor's second album explores self-loathing and emotional dysfunction. As he was hailed the most vital artist in modern music, this showed that behind the scenes the story was far less optimistic.
Must Hear Tracks: "Hurt" "Closer" "Mr. Self Destruct" "March of the Pigs"
Release: "Further Down the Spiral"
What is it? Reznor indulges his passion for remixes with reworked songs from the album he's released a year earlier.
What is it? A double video release combining live footage from the Self Destruct tour ('94-'98) and promotional videos. Includes the "Happiness in Slavery" clip, which was banned, due to graphic content.
Release: "The Fragile"
What is it? Reznor's epic double vision - a double CD album that echanged outright rage for longer, introspective creations. Song lengths were stretched and lyrics were often left out altogether. For many, this is his greatest accomplishment.
Must Hear Tracks: "We're In This Together"
Release: "Things Falling Apart"
What is it? The trend continues as, once again, Reznor remixes songs from the album he released the previous year, including three versions of "Starfuckers, Inc."
Release: "And All That Could Have Been"
What is it? A live album and DVD. Both captured performances recorded on the tour surrounding "The Fragile". Accompanied by the "Still" EP, a collection of brilliant stripped-down versions.
Date: Appears on '02's "American IV: The Man Comes Around"
What is it? Shortly before his death, music legend Johnny Cash covered this NIN classic.
Says Reznor: "When I saw the video, I cried. It was a little reaffirment that music is magic."
Release: "The Downward Spiral (Deluxe Edition)"
Date: February '05
What is it? A remastered, remixed version of the '94 album in 5.1 surround sound, to celebrate it's 10th anniversary. Original songs reach a new potential. A bonus disc contains previously unreleased tracks and demos.