Trent Reznor took a downward spiral into addiction. But at 40, he
By Neala Johnson for Herald Sun on June 7, 2005
On May 17, Trent Reznor-Nine Inch Nails mainman, dark lord of alt rock, turned 40. He doesn’t know how he got there and he doesn’t quite know what to make of it.
“I’ve been so busy since my birthday, I haven’t really even had time to comprehend what’s happened to me,” he laughs. “So far, so good.”
Yet that adage “life begins at 40” seems to be holding true in Reznor’s case.
The main reason for this, is that somewhere between the close of touring for 1999’s bleak double album The Fragile, and NIN new LP With Teeth, Reznor found sobriety. When superstardom struck with 1994’s The Downward Spiral and its single Closer, Reznor began his own downward twirl - alcohol, cocaine and at one point an accidental heroin overdose. But now the booze has made way for a new toy - Reznor is enjoying renewed access to his own brain.
“It sounds silly saying it, but it’s amazing to me now to be able to sit down and think and solve problems, or read a manual on a piece of software and get it,” he says. “Doing this records was a series of those kind of discoveries, of getting to know myself again, getting to like myself again, and becoming freshly appreciative of the ability to make music and the power that music has, and just feeling great about my music-it has never felt that way before, even before I really turned into,” he takes a deep breath, “a full-blown addict. There was always so much fear involved and so much insecurity.”
Reznor talks about his fears a lot, even sings openly about them on songs such as With Teeth’s first track, All the Love in the World. Sometimes they’re the usual fears everyone has - am I good enough? - just magnified by his unique experience. Other times there’s a whole lore more behind it.
“As I’ve tried to deal head on with the problems I’ve had, I’ve come to realise I have a social anxiety disorder,” Reznor says.“I could walk into a room and feel like I’m the person who doesn’t belong there-and that room could be backstage at a sold out show of mine,” he laughs. “I can walk in and feel like ‘Fuck, I’m not wearing the right shoes. It’s just crazy. It doesn’t matter if you tell me everything’s OK. Ingrained in me is ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I don’t deserve this’ or ‘I’m going to sabotage this"
“Just a whole host of self-destructive variations on insecurity. It’s one of the reasons it was easy for me to turn to, you know, having a drink-I felt better. The plan was not to become an addict necessarily, it was just to not feel so shitty about myself.”
Reznor’s openness is at first disarming, but ultimately just matter-of-fact. Ask 99 per cent of rock stars about their addictions and you would get a hang up or a walk out. Reznor just answers what he’s asked, offering a little one-note laugh-more like a “huh”-when he wants to highlight his own or someone else’s stupidity. So while he has found promotional duties for With Teeth uncomfortable at times, he also found relief in honesty.
“I was kind of dreading the first wave of press because I really didn’t know what I was going to say,” he says. “As it crept up on me I realised the best thing to do would just be honest and get it over with. And it’s not from an embarrassment point of view. It was just I really didn’t want to feel like I was exploiting that to try to tell a story. But at the same time I can’t tell a story about why the record took a long time or what it’s about or…"
“Pretty much every single aspect of my life currently has to do with that story. So I figured if I just deal with it... it doesn’t hurt me to remember where I was, though I’d rather not choose to dwell on that all the time. Anyway, it’s what it is and it’s done, so it’s too late now.”
Some might look at Reznor and say a tortured journey of some kind was unavoidable. He just has that look. From day one-1989’s scathing, industry synth rock explosion Pretty Hate Machine-he came clad in black in every possible literal and metaphorical way. Think the almost S&M video for Closer, the “I’d rather die, than give you control” warcry of Head Like a Hole, the fact Marilyn Manson was his protégé. Part of the problem was, Reznor admits, that he was trying too hard to live up to that dark image.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision. Looking back now with clarity, I know that I didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t know my role in things, and I suddenly found myself thrust into a position of fame and expectations, and I was very insecure,” he says. “I sometimes felt I was definitely myself by what I would read about myself and... then started to become that person.”
Here Reznor gives one of those short, derisive laughs.
“I really had no idea what was happening to me,” he says. “I look back at that time, before I really understood what was happening, and it’s embarrassing. And I saw that I have it in me to treat people poorly. Things I never though I would be, a number of those things I became. I was thinking about how things have all turned out... last week I was sitting in trial in the court case that’s the culmination of a number of changes I had to make in my life that have led me to a much healthier place. I like where I’m at right now and if it took me all that to get here... I mean, I’d prefer it didn’t take that much, and I’d prefer it would have taken two weeks instead of the better part of 19 years to get my shit together. But that’s the way it goes.”
The court case Reznor refers to is a civil action he bought against his former manager and longtime friend, John Malm. Reznor claimed he was duped into singing a contract that gave Malm 20 per cent of NIN gross earnings, and that despite the many millions the NIN machine was raking in, he woke up in 2003 to find he had 0,000 in cash. The jury returned a verdict only days after Hit spoke to Reznor, awarding the musician almost million. Still, the whole affair left Reznor more than angry. But it did not, he quickly points out, ever leave him destitute. And he is certainly not making music or touring just because he needs the cash.
“I’ve always treated music as a precious thing,” he says. “We’re touring for a year now and I want to do it. It feels right. It feels vital to me. Part of me feels like I need to make up some lost time, but the other part of me feels like I’ve never been more in tune with my art than I am right now. And I am aware I just turned 40 - I’m not sure how that happened - but I don’t plan on doing this to the point of it being ridiculous. I could name several acts that that doesn’t seem to bother, but...”
The removal of Malm as manager has cleared much of the clutter from Reznor’s professional life. For starters, his relationship with is record label, Interscope, is now, he says, based on ‘honesty and openness and the ability to communicate.’ Under Malm’s direction, that communication had disappeared.
"I’d been wit this guy from the beginning and as fame hit I know what it did to me now, but I didn’t see what it was doing to him,” Reznor says. “His form of madness came in a slightly different version. In sobriety and clarity, a lot of things that really seem wrong started to become apparent, which is what led me to firing him. Some of those things were money related and some of those things were strategy and ways-of-dealing-with-people related.”
Malm wasn’t a people pleaser, it seems, and certainly not an Interscope pleaser.
“They have a very distinct, hands-on type of way of dealing with artists,” Reznor says, “and what doesn’t work is trying to fight them,” - he gives another of those “huh” laughs - “and trying to tell ‘em to fuck off and ‘We’ll do it our way.’ At the time I was trusting my manager and a lot of the strategies he employed were stupid to being with and didn’t make any sense. But this time I delivered With Teeth, the manager’s out of the picture and it’s been a much different, more pleasant, productive experience.”
Reznor knows that the world has changed a lot in the five years since he released The Fragile. His expectations for With Teeth were therefore “very humble.” But the new album’s No.1 debut in the US was confirmation there is still room for NIN in the world. But a hit album, he has learned, cannot be an end in itself.
“A No.1 record doesn’t make you happy,” Reznor says. “It makes you feel good for a little while. And a sold-out concert tour or good reviews or having fans hug you backstage and tell you you’ve changed their lives - those are nice things but it’s not the key to happiness. There were a lot of things I never put any effort into or any credit on-like having relationships, or having friends, or taking time to take care of yourself, or not beat yourself up all day to try to push yourself to some unrealistic goal, or live in the present instead of... my whole life was always, you know, ‘some day’. And it’s realising that ‘some day’ came and went,’“ he laughs. “I was so concerned about where I’m gonna be in a few years, or down the road... you know, ‘I’d like to have a family-some day.’ Well, huh, I’m not sure what I’m waiting for, so... those are things that are different to me than they used to be.”
The With Teeth tour is now winding its way through Europe. The current NIN line up of Reznor, drummer Jerome Dillon, bassist Jordie White (aka Twiggy Ramirez of Marilyn Manson), guitarist Aaron North and keyboardist Alessandro Cortini will reach Australia in August.
NIN’s last Australian tour, in January 2000, was pre-sobriety. Reznor has few memories of the trip.
“I remember it being quite a blur actually,” he laughs. “But I’m very much looking forward to coming down.”
And, Reznor adds, he’ll be seeing it through fresh eyes.
“That’s the beauty of coming out of a coma - its like every time is the first time again,” he laughs.
Yes, this may be the newly 40, sober, brain-active and almost happy Trent Reznor, but just like his music, his hair and his clothes, his humour remains blacker than black.
GROHL OF HONOUR
In Trent’s thought.
Foo Fighter and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl gets around when he gets back behind the kit. He likens playing on other artist’s records to being an exchange student, and in addition to drumming on the new Garbage album, he was invited by Trent Reznor to play on NIN’s With Teeth.
In Melbourne last week, Grohl told Hit: “Trent’s in his head, you know. That guy is a wicker producer, an amazing songwriter and he’s easy in the studio. He knows what he wants and he gets it, I’m sure, every time”
But as enthused as Grohl was, the invitation was an even bigger deal for Reznor, who probably wouldn’t argue if you called him a control freak. If he ever though of bringing in a guest player in the past, Reznor would mostly dismiss it as too hard (in both a social interaction and a getting what he wanted musically sense), and just program the drums on a machine himself. So opening the doors to Grohl was ”a big step”, Reznor admits.
“When I did it it didn’t seem like a big step, but when I thought about it, how effortless it was for me to do that felt strange, after the fact. Like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even feel weird about that.’ It would be something that I would be very anxious about in the past. A lot of what would cripple me in the past was just being afraid something wasn’t good enough or I’m not good enough or this song isn’t good enough, or that lyric isn’t good enough and on down the line... and this time around I kind of had an attitude that if something was good - I mean there was plenty that wasn’t good and I knew it wasn’t good and that was the end of it - but if there was something that I wasn’t sure about, it’s like, hey, just let me take a deep breath and go outside for a minute, come back, listen, if it sucks it sucks, if it doesn’t, no one has to hear it except me, let me just keep generating more stuff. And I found that not beating myself up was the ticket to effortlessly creating a lot of thing. It was all just a matter of me twisting my head around, not sitting down trying to write the best song that anyone on the earth has ever written, which is a recipe for a blank sheet of paper and bloody fists.”
“Not that that’s any great revelation, but to me it was, because I was always tough on myself, and I still am, but I realise that, you know, things will be OK.”