Down on the Upside

Originally published in Juice.net on January 1, 2000

As if there was ever a chance it wouldn't live up to its name. Spanning two years between 1994 and '96, the Downward Spiral Tour was a monstrous thing. It criss-crossed America three times, hitting Europe, Japan and all points between. Every night was a party backstage with all the trappings, and every night a moshpit circled a scene as close as you could imagine to the house band at the Gates of Hades. Even the Gothic iconography of The Crow had nothing on frontman Trent Reznor, an imperious apparition who moved through the mist like a wraith, solidifying with a whiplash to scream a line or smash at a keyboard. And the backing band played his fascist/masochist foil, dressed in a similar combination of black leather, vinyl, metal and fishnet.

Those who attended the Alternative Nation shows in Sydney and Melbourne saw what a Nine Inch Nails performance entailed: two hours of full-tilt physical abuse as headliner Reznor attacked his band members, his instruments (and his band members with his instruments), his audience and, most harrowingly, himself. In Sydney, Faith No More's Mike Patton impressed with a backflip which intentionally saw him smash himself into the stage. Then he spat sour grapes in the direction of the headliner he called The Cloud of Trent. But even Patton's physicality was nothing next to the onslaught of NIN's early metal machine noise. It was a thoroughly committed performance.

The Downward Spiral tour, in combination with MTV's high-rotation of the video for "Closer" (which simulated clunking, mechanical sex via vocal distortion, a grinding backbeat and its "I wanna fuck you like an animal" chorus) elevated Reznor from young acolyte under Al Jorgensen's Ministry to the new High Priest of Gothdoom. By the end of the tour NIN was a household name and "Closer" was being inappropriately hollered at every keg party in the States. But there was a price to pay for the leap to fame which Reznor had always dreamed of.

In the USA, the damage was exacerbated by NIN's Downward Spiral tourmates. The shock/schlock of the Jim Rose Circus, sandwiched between Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson , who at that stage, before he turned Judas with the release of his tell-all autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, was still counted as Reznor's protege'brought a hellish vision to the highways and byways of middle America. A cocktail of sleep deprivation, alcohol, drugs and star-shock took Reznor to the brink of something dangerous, with Manson's backstage craziness the icing on the cake. An extract run in JUICE detailed Manson's habits. He created his own video confessional, going to the trouble of constructing a de Sade-inspired apparatus of abasement to help with the task. They'd find a vulnerable hanger-on from that night's backstage area and lead them to a room set up with apparatus designed to immobilise and disempower the victim using a choker attached to a series of restraints. Manson would proceed to interrogate the hapless and often naked fan in an attempt to find out what was really eating them. With tourmates like these, who needs enemies?

"Last time around we were out for a long time," says Reznor, speaking from a hotel in the midst of the first tour around the new NIN album, The Fragile. "Every night was a party and if there was something going on anywhere we were at it" By the end of the Downward Spiral tour, Reznor was either fighting or fleeing from his own demons.

The end of that tour was followed by the death of his grandmother (who raised him from age five) and his last beloved connection to normal life, his pet Labrador. During a visit to the tour, the dog jumped from a stage presuming there would be somewhere to land on the other side; instead she found a 20 foot drop which broke her back. Both losses have featured heavily in Reznor's interviews since. Even as The Downward Spiral album went on to sell over four million copies worldwide, Reznor became more and more anxious.

When Reznor finally settled from the tour, he found himself in a deep funk. He was diagnosed with clinical depression, sent to shrinks and pharmacologists. He found anti-depressants like Effexor and Paxil didn't agree with his mentality, let alone his muse. And while talking about it helped a little, it wasn't a treatment he could buy into wholesale. It doesn't take a psychologist to work out that depression is something Reznor's suffered from since well before he started recording his music. But after the Downward Spiral tour, he hit a new low. "The tour definitely contributed to that depression,"he says. "I don't know if its the cause or the effect or what, but it ended up at a place with all of the above mentioned [sleep deprivation, alcohol, drugs] in excess.

"On top of that, and this is not a justification, more an explanation, it is a strange world to be dropped into. Every night's like your birthday party, you know, or New Years Eve. The party's always for you and everyone treats you funny and everyone's trying to kiss your arse. It does tend to cater to numbing yourself as a way out of it. It's easier to deal with if you're to some degree fucked up.

"You have night after night after night after night of that altered reality that you exist in. And when the bus stops and you return to where your home is, there is an adjustment period of trying to find some degree of normality. What I don't suggest doing is starting a Marilyn Manson album which is what I did [he produced the groundbreaking Anti-Christ Superstar]. Because those guys are like that all the time, even when they're not on tour. It just continues."

It continued to the point where Reznor, a painstaking, obsessive worker in the studio, was mentally and physically exhausted. He was also overdue for some soul searching. He'd already achieved most of his rock dreams, and was now dealing with the disappointment of learning that fulfilling these ambitions would not heal him. Instead the contradictions inherent in the star system, and the strain placed on his personality by the tug of ego and empowerment, threatened to destroy him. Holed up in his recording studio, a converted mortuary in New Orleans, he took a good hard look at himself in the mirror. He'd moved to New Orleans to escape the vacuousness of LA but now, sickened by the 'celebrity as royalty' ethic, he didn't like what he saw.

"You realise that things distort your personality," he says of this period of reflection. "Success, money and being treated differently by people makes you change, even if you try to watch it. I realised that I had treated some people poorly, and I had bought into some of the hype that I read about myself. You start to forget who you thought you were when you went into it. You start to see yourself as others see you. And I started looking more like the person in the picture than the guy in the mirror, if that makes any sense." Indeed the Reznor presented by interviewers circa 1995 was a far crazier man than the one I'm interviewing. In conversation he was prone to offering ambiguities about his sexuality, and to sledging his peers wholesale: his battles with ex-tourmate Courtney Love, which included her infamous "three inch nail" jibe, are the stuff of mid-'90s legend. He became known as erratic, moody, aggressive, in short, an archetypal rock enigma. This behaviour is expected of rock stars, and while Marilyn Manson may have taken this approach too far, initially it did seem to sit well with Reznor. Before long, however, critics started to accused him of being disingenuous, a claim which still rattles him.

The sheer emotional weight of The Downward Spiral and NIN's 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, were enough to beg the question: How can the Cloud of Trent really be this angry? With the benchmark for rock angst already set impossibly high by Kurt Cobain's suicide and no real horror stories of previous abuse to parade like a skeleton from his closet, Reznor was judged as a fake. It's understandable that he would wish to prove these critics wrong. And perhaps admirable that he realises he crossed a line in doing so. "It's just another example of the way that any form of power tends to corrupt you," he says. "I've seen it happen to different band mates, different friends in the business. Anytime you start to get a degree of success, it does change you a bit. I've had people ask, 'Are you the same person you were ten years ago?' No I'm not. Ten years ago I was scrubbing floors and hoping that some day I could get someone to listen to the music I'm trying to write."

Perhaps the greatest of Reznor's disappointments was the knowledge that even at the end of that journey, he was still little happier than he had been as a janitor. If anything his life was more confused and painful than it had been back then. These personality shifts, and an escalating level of expectation, put so much pressure on Reznor he suffered writer's block. He worked on the soundtrack for David Lynch's film Lost Highway, later explaining that the work, however good, was an exercise in procrastination. He hid out in a holiday home on California's beautiful Big Sur coast, tinkering on a piano and feeling uninspired.

He was amused and then distressed to see the follow-up to The Downward Spiral cited as Spin magazine's Most Anticipated album two years running, especially as it was nowhere near complete to his satisfaction at the time. Therapy helped him see his writer's block as a simple fear of failure, but one which would end up seeing him fail without even trying unless he managed to pull himself out of his depression. He also felt under assault from so-called friends and associates, not to mention a huge pressure to create a meisterwork in his follow-up to The Downward Spiral. People were already calling on him to Save Rock & Roll. He didn't know where to start, but taking the songs back to his roots, Reznor started in music as a classically trained pianist eventually offered him a pathway back.

"This record became pretty much about repair, about trying to sort out the mess," he says. "I also learned a bit about myself, and learned that, 'Hey, you are depressed, it's real. Okay, what does that mean?' I didn't want to accept that. I didn't want to think that there was something wrong with me. But the act of realising that made it seem a bit better. There's an explanation for my actions."

"Songwriting usually involves a degree of pain before the enjoyment comes out," he says later. "Sometimes I don't want to pick at those scabs and readdress those things. My head really wasn't on straight, and I didn't want to look too closely because I was afraid that I might not like what I saw. So when it finally came down to doing it, I realised that there's a nice guy in there, there's a person I remember and like." As for his depression, details are sketchy. An anecdote about noted manic depressive Spike Milligan's thoughts on his illness (Milligan said he would have given away all the creative flipside so essential to his fame for just a day's respite in the midst of a black period) leads Reznor to explain he's not bi-polar. Instead he has "a degree of chemical imbalance."

"Therapy got me along the path of getting the record going and getting my head straight and I've been in a much better place since when it all went down," he concludes. "When I had that revelation I thought, 'Why would I forget that? What was I thinking?' I had to twist myself around to what I had forgotten and this was what it was all about. It wasn't about selling lots of records or buying things or being around assholes. It was about playing music." This reassessment became the lyrics and tone of his huge, 70's-style opus, The Fragile, a double album of 23 songs and instrumental works which blew the format of the old NIN away. An early quote from Reznor misleadingly suggested The Fragile was going to sound like Tom Waits. Maybe on that particular day it did. But the sheer timespan involved allowed Reznor to work his way through many styles and shades of one oppressive mood. He ended up working on the album in his New Orleans studios, surrounded by computers, vintage strings and keyboards and sundry musical gear, for two years. The process was excruciatingly slow. At one point he decided that one particular track, "The Big Comedown," could use beefing up with a triumphal big band brass section. He decided to create the lines in his head using a sample and keyboard, telling engineer and musical confidante Alan Moulder: "Just give me two hours." Two weeks later the track was finished, complete with crowd noise, a gladiatorial throng over a truly evil marching band. The irony that he was working in a city overflowing with quality brass musicians was not lost on Reznor. This image of the workaholic with an obsessive eye for detail and a huge sense of ambition doesn't fit that of a man paralysed by his own fear. "I read about myself now and it's like I'm a poster boy for being depressed," he says. "That's not really the desired intent, nor is it that accurate. I don't want to paint the picture that I'm sitting in a corner with a blanket over my head, bummed out, because that really isn't an accurate description of me." Perhaps the album's lyrics are a better indicator. The songs seem to deal with these issues directly. "I'm Looking Forward To Joining You Finally" could be a direct reference to the brutalities of showbiz with its chorus, "Thought he had it all before they called his bluff/Found out that his skin wasn't thick enough/Wanted to go back to the way it was before," while its verse, "A fool's devotion/Swallowed up in empty space/ The tears of regret/Frozen to the side of his face", speaks of pure remorse. Elsewhere snippets hint at similar emotions: "God damn, I am so tired of pretending/I wish I was ending' ("Where Is Everybody"). '"The Big Come Down" details the urge to self-destruct; "No, You Don't" alludes to vampires and a "filthy little worn-out see-through soul" and "The Wretched" (part of a series of songs named in such downer style � "The Frail," "The Fragile" and "The Great Below" , it's hard not to laugh) contains abasement of biblical proportions as Reznor sings, "God himself will reach his fucking arm through just to hold you down/Stuck in this hole with the shit and the piss." There are, however, more positive moments. "We're in This Together" turns co-dependent dysfunction into an us-against-the-world anthem, while on "Even Deeper" a resolved Reznor concludes, "I'm straight/I won't crack."

By the time we finally speak, six attempts have been made to connect me with the elusive Reznor (he apologises for the inconvenience and makes amends by talking twice as long as expected). After one failed attempt the tour manager who is arranging the interview explains that Reznor, whom he suggests is more than a little moody, has accompanied NIN guitarist Robin Finck to the hospital after an onstage accident. That Finck needed six stitches in his forehead suggests that the NIN show for The Fragile has at least some of the aggro of the Downward Spiral shows. "It was more an accident," says Reznor. "Of course it happened on the second song, so to look over and to see blood pouring out of his head you think, 'Oh no' It looked fantastic but that can throw your game off a little when it happens right at the beginning of the show." He asserts this is no return to the bad old days of "95. The show is an exercise in pacing and dramatics, rather than amphetamine-fuelled craziness, as it works in the soundbites and symphonies of The Fragile amongst the industrial anthems of yore. The antics are under control, both on and offstage. Instead Reznor is surviving the insomnia he suffers on overnight drives by rolling around on the back lounge of his coach watching bad videos while his bandmates sleep. "I've got a little more of a sane head on my shoulders than I did at the end of the last tour," he says. "It's not like we're 'ld men now, rushing back to the hotel after the show, but at this stage it hasn't yet sunk to the level of debauchery it did in the past." I quiz him about Marilyn Manson's torture machine, using it as a bridge towards talking to him about another aspect of music making � responsibility. In asking if Manson's story of emotionally manipulating the vulnerable for his own amusement could possibly be true, I also want to know whether Reznor feels Manson's behaviour proves him to be entirely irresponsible to his fans. Reznor has seen videotapes the band made of those sessions but, despite the fact that since the book was released Reznor's pat line has been "he and I aren't the best of friends at the moment," he does defend Manson's actions. "I'm not by any means justifying them, but I was never aware of a true desire for complete and utter humiliation, or taking advantage of somebody. It's hard to put this in context but it took place on a tour with Manson, us and the Jim Rose Circus. The kind of people you get backstage are people that are always trying to out-do each other. So we got Mr Lifto from the Circus trying to lift a brick with his dick backstage while someone else is, well, you can imagine some of the things going on. So it was always kind of a light-hearted: 'What can we do tonight to out-do last night? Okay, I got a stun gun, let's see if I can try to shock my dick with it.So some of these scenarios that sound like a torture room, or sound like you should be in prison for just being around it, were to my knowledge done in the laughing around, playful kind of way. That's not an excuse for what went down, but it is important to understand the context in which some of that was taking place." Context is something Manson has little respect for, however. Slighted and betrayed by the book, Reznor admits that much of it shadows the truth. It's just that Manson moves characters within the events. "A lot of it is told from a perspective that makes him look better than he was," Reznor complains. "I don't wanna get into muck-raking, but I skimmed through it enough to know that a large portion of it was revisionist history. I just found the whole point of it unnecessary, spiteful." The alliance between Manson and Reznor over, Reznor's Nothing Records label now stands alone in an environment where business collusion is of growing importance. Witness the mini-empire of Korn, which includes a record label, the Family Values touring festival, the Firm management company and a roster of artists that includes Limp Bizkit and Orgy. While Reznor was sequestered in his remote studio dreaming up The Fragile, his contemporaries were networking and doing the business with gusto. Reznor expresses his concern that the time he took to finish The Fragile may have rendered him obsolete. "I worry that we don't matter anymore," he says. "I thought it was too long between albums and the climate has changed quite a bit since then."

The emotional connection Reznor made with America's abused and disconnected has been picked up by the likes of Korn. Theirs is a more violent, direct and unabridged version of Reznor's angst. Where Reznor will allude poetically to decay, Korn's Jonathan Davis will repeatedly scream 'rape.' I ask if he's heard Korn's new album, Issues, which seems to have raised the stakes yet again, and done it with more musical punch than The Fragile musters over its 23 track length. "I've just picked it up and I haven't had the chance to listen to it yet," he says. "But generally I like Korn a lot. At a pretty generic time in rock music, they're at least doing something interesting. But I haven't checked that album out yet." When he does, maybe it will inspire another angst opus. In the meantime, thanks to all that anxiety, everything is working. The Fragile has received glowing reviews and Spin has continued its display of appreciation by naming it the album of the year and sticking Reznor's face on its final cover for this millennium. "The band is really good, touring's going well, and I don't have a whole lot to complain about at this moment," Reznor laughs. "But I'll come up with something."

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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