Fear, Self-Loathing and Vagueness
I was on the ledge and ready to jump
By Simon Price for Metal Hammer on June 1, 2005
FEAR,SELF-LOATHING AND VAGUENESS
NINE INCH NAILS
"I WAS ON THE LEDGE AND READY TO JUMP"
Reznor Resurrected "I wanted to continue to live. I didn't want to be that guy any more" NIN 2005: Trent Reznor talks exclusively to Simon Price about his journey to the edge. Portraits - Mick Hutson
"After the last tour I was a mess. It wasn't going to be another way. It was going to be the end" "I needed to do something or i wasn't gonna be around". The gym-buff biceps and twinkling eyes of the man draped across the plush Park Lane sofa don't look like they belong to someone recently scratching at death's door. But for Trent Reznor, reluctant icon of industrial rock, the last decade has been - to quote one estranged friend "a long hard road out of hell".
The one time chemically braced berserker behind Nine Inch Nails is now a courteous, thoughtful Evian-sipping soul. Like the 12-step survivor he is, he's prone to lengthy self-analysis. The answer to one question can last 25 minutes - a possible shield against beng asked another (that way, Trent maintains control). Dig too deep, and he'll puff his cheeks and blow, "That's a tough question....."
Reznor is speaking to Metal Hammer due to a sudden burst of renewed NIN activity, which includes an enhanced edition of the classic 'Downward Spiral', a series of UK live shows and the release if an excellent new album, 'With Teeth' - a record for which NIN fans have had to endure a six-year long wait. "What took this record so long? I needed to clean up. Get my life in order. And after the last tour in 2001, I was a mess".
And if that sounds melodramatic, Reznor assures it's not. "It wasn't going to be another way. It was going to be the end." To understand how Trent Reznor nearly met that premature end, we need to go back to the beginning.
You begin to understand the trapped rage of Nine Inch Nails' early music while flying over the American Midwest. Tiny sporadic settlements are separated by mile after endless mile of square farming fields. Trapped rage may be an essential requirement in rock'n'roll these days, but for Michael Trent Reznor, born almost 40 years ago in rural Pennsylvania, and raised by his grandparents in the arse end of Ohio after his parents divorced, there were no reference points. This was an age, and a place, that left you completely fucking isolated.
"I don't wanna paint a picture of a terrible childhood," Reznor is at pains to point out. "I had a loving family. But where I grew up was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was pre-internet and I'm trying to work out how much that would change things - probably quite a lot. It was pre-MTV. There was no college radio. The only real way of getting stuff was Rolling Stone magazine, which was not as ass-kissingly corporate as it is now, but it certainly wasn't cutting-edge.
"You could see our destiny. People taked about 'high school, the best years of your life...'" says Reznor. "Well, it sucked for me! I didn't fit in. I wasn't praised for throwing a football or whatever. But for a lot of people, it's the last bit of freedom before settling into the 30 year mortgage. 'Be realistic. She's good enough. Marry her'
"It came back to haunt me, I felt inadequate. 'What do I know? I'm from a little farm town in the middle of nowhere'. I later used drugs and alcohol to compensate for that."
Did a small-town upbringing have any benefits? "If I was in an urban environment, I probably would have become an addict a lot quicker. There weren't many drugs around where I was growing up. Though later I found out that the local Amish Dutch (a reclusive Christian sect who live a strict 18th century lifestyle) community were running a cocaine ring. Those clever little fuckers. That would have been as convenient as Hell, but I didn't know. Who would have imagined there were a couple of bricks in the back of the horse and buggy!"
Reznor's desire to escape was fuelled by "the impenetrable world of TV". "You can't get to that world if you live here. Looking back - through a romantic haze - it was tv that drove me to the plan of how I was gonna get the fuck out of there."
The answer, of course, was music. There were a few low-grade garage bands - they didn't come to anything. And then Trent - a classically trained pianist in his teens, got a job in a studio to pay him for some demo demo sessions which, in turn got him signed to TVT records (a label with whom he would later fight to a bitter dispute).
The result was 'Pretty Hate Machine', a debut album that, with the help of singles 'Sin' and 'Head like a Hole', eventually sold gold. Simultaneously as dark as Ministry but as catchy as Depeche Mode, it featured what would later become trademark Reznor lyrics about manipulation and betrayal - the sound of a young man making sense of the music he grew up with.
"I haven't sat and listened to 'Pretty Hate Machine' in a while. I was in a transitional phase. My first record I didn't know how to write or arrange songs or how a studio works, but I got a deal. And I wanted to work with someone who could take the music further out".
Trent's first choice, Adrian Sherwood (dub-rock producer who worked on Ministry's 'Twitch' - one of Reznor's favourite records), was refused by TVT for being relatively unknown. Eventually they compromised with John Fryer (who had worked with ethereal 4AD acts like This Mortal Coil), and Flood (U2, Depeche Mode). "It's a record that, at the time, felt like the best I could do."
When the time came to perform his primarily electronic, digital sounds live, notably on Perry Farrell's 1991 Lollapalooza tour, Trent was forced to view his music in a new light.
"Playing live is whole different animal" says Trent, who shelved the DAT machines for "real people sweating, and don’t worry if it doesn’t sound like the record so much."
The response was violent – I screamed, and people screamed back.