Reznor's Fragile Masterpiece

Originally published in Rolling Stone on September 1, 1999

Holed up in an old funeral home, the man behind Nine Inch Nails has spent the last four years coping with loss constructing a delicate and brutal masterpiece

1994 was the year Trent Reznor released The Downward Spiral, an unsettling opus that details one man's descent to near self-destruction. It was also the year Toad the Wet Sprocket had a Top Ten hit, O.J. Simpson was chased on TV and Kurt Cobain committed suicide. It was only five years ago, but pop music has the life span of a Sea Monkey -- maybe even shorter. Consider who shared the bill with Nine Inch Nails at Woodstock '94: Deee-Lite, the Spin Doctors, Porno for Pyros, Arrested Development and Jackyl. "At the Woodstock I did," Reznor recalls, "all you heard about was the Pepsi logo on the fucking bird thing and how it was all about money. Bands were getting shit-canned for doing it for money. Did anybody mention money this year?"

In the last five years, rock music, according to Trent Reznor, "has taken a big shit." It is a period he's glad to have missed. All the while he's been lying in wait, hidden away like a Brazilian wood tick on the underside of a branch. Sure, he put his hand to a few things: producing the soundtracks to David Lynch's Lost Highway and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, co-producing Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar and compiling Closure, a Nine Inch Nails video collection and tour diary. While these projects only made his fans rabid for a Nine Inch Nails album, he remained the Invisible Man. "All I really want to know," lamented a fan recently on a NIN Web site, "is, When will they tour? I've never seen Trent in real life." Don't worry, Reznor is ready now. It just took some time. First he needed to disappear. And then he found that reappearing wasn't so easy. Reznor, adept at most things he puts his mind to, had disappeared very, very well.

If you have a few hours, Trent Reznor can tell you what he's done in the second half of the Nineties - a period he jokingly calls his "summer vacation." He has brooded on the cliffs of California, suffering his writer's block at a grand piano. He has lost his grandmother, the woman who raised him after his parents separated, when he was five. He has lost a close friend in Marilyn Manson, one of the two or three people he had allowed into his life. He has spent two years of sixteen-hour days making a double album called The Fragile that far outshines anything he has ever done. He has traded drugs and alcohol for protein shakes and jet-skiing on the Louisiana bayou. He has wondered whether he is capable of sustaining a relationship and raising a family. And he has learned that he wants one.

Many of these changes and revelations have unfolded at Nothing Studios, in New Orleans, the former funeral parlor that Reznor bought in 1995, in the midst of the Downward Spiral tour. It is easy to tell when you are approaching Reznor's recording compound: Goth girls start cropping up like speed bumps. Even on a ninety-four-degree day, two vinyl-clad specimens are positioned at the gamy bar across the street, eagle-eyed for signs of life. Nothing Studios has a sand-colored stone facade and darkly tinted windows. It exudes a guarded stillness, like a bank vault. The front door is not original. It is the door that Charles Manson's minions passed through at Sharon Tate's house the night they killed her and four others in 1969. Reznor rented the infamous Hollywood Hills house at 10050 Cielo Drive to record The Downward Spiral in 1993; he took the door with him before the owners razed the place. There are security cameras at every entrance to Nothing. Now that Reznor has finished The Fragile, he may need more of them.

One of Reznor's engineers, a stocky Colombian fellow, answers the door. A wide staircase leads up to a large second-floor room where, presumably, bodies once lay for wakes. Today it is filled with vintage arcade games: Robotron, Tempest, Space Invaders. The first-floor living room boasts a worn-in black leather couch, a large TV, a larger video collection (Twilight Zone episodes, John Waters' entire oeuvre) and the six-foot canvases by artist Russell Miller that were photographed for The Downward Spiral's artwork. Original animation cells from the movie of Pink Floyd's The Wall line the halls. In the bathroom, a print of the film's famous screaming face is Number 666 of a limited-edition run. A homey kitchen is at the back of the building. Above the stove hangs what could be a picture from Woodstock '99: a frat-looking guy projectile-vomiting while his pleasantly surprised buds look on. No one is sure who took that picture. It just showed up at the studio one day.

Next to the kitchen is a large metal door with a sizable lock. This is the door to the control room, the room in which Reznor recorded ninety percent of The Fragile. Inside, tons of gear - sound processors, guitars, effects pedals, keyboards, computers - is meticulously arranged. Despite the massive seventy-two-track mixing board and the security monitor above it, the room is warm: rust-colored walls with a wooden floor, candles burning on every surface and beige drapes hiding imaginary windows.

Reznor sits alone in a front office. The carpet and walls are deep blue. He is busy at a buzzing blue Mac. So busy, in fact, that he doesn't notice the odd little lady who has stopped outside his window. She's using its dark reflective surface to comb down her hair.

Reznor's hair is short now; gone are the long black locks he once favored. It is one of many things he has changed. "I was putting off doing this record for a number of reasons," he says, "some conscious, some subconscious. It's not like I've had this big, long career where I could become tired of this, but I was disillusioned." Reznor is dressed in black jeans and old black combat boots held together with electrical tape. He wears, as always, one of an endless succession of black T-shirts that advertise his fondness for Atari Teenage Riot, the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow or Nothing Records.

Reznor speaks deliberately and softly, in clear tones. He waits before answering, seemingly composing entire sentences before letting them out into the air. "When we started the Downward Spiral tour," he says, sitting back on a nearby couch, "we were still kind of a small band. At the end of two and a half years of touring, we got off the bus and everything was different. I had money, and I had everyone kissing my ass, and I had friends I didn't know I had -- or I thought I did. I saw myself change on tour, because I could. It was like, 'You mean, I can treat you like shit and get everything I'm supposed to? Great!'"

Reznor had everything he'd wanted for so long: the means to build an ideal studio, the respect of his peers and free rein from his record label. "What I didn't have," he says, "was spiritual satisfaction." As Reznor does when something bothers or "chews at him," as he calls it, he dived into another project, namely, producing the album that gave Marilyn Manson a career, Antichrist Superstar. "That was just like staying on tour, without going anywhere," Reznor says. "The Manson camp party every night; there's something going on all the time. At the time I was in that mind-set already, so that was appealing."

When the circus split town, the inevitable fallout occurred. "The party left except for me," he says with a laugh, "and then I was supposed to do my real work." But Reznor had lost his musical passion. Depressed, he briefly saw a psychiatrist. "Then I decided I didn't want to go anymore," he says. "I turned a corner and I didn't need someone chewing at me to do things I didn't feel were right for me, like medication. I don't want to fuck with that. But that whole procedure made me realize I didn't like myself anymore and that I had to come to terms with certain things."

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

View the NIN Hotline article index