The redemption of rock's dark knight
As one of goth-rock's most sinister stars, Trent Reznor embraced drink, drugs and self-destructive excess. Now the Nine Inch Nails singer is the epitome of clean living. He tells Andrew Perry why he had to change
By Andrew Perry for Telegraph (UK) on July 7, 2005
Trent Reznor, one of the megastars of gothic rock, is a surprisingly civilised fellow. His band, Nine Inch Nails, which is just him, with extra musicians joining for live tours, has made some of the most violent and macabre music of the past 20 years, influencing other giants of the goth netherworld such as Slipknot and Marilyn Manson.
When he performed a low-key show at London's Astoria theatre recently, warming up for a full-blown world tour that arrived in the UK this week, he was greeted like some nocturnal messiah. The audience, who were draped in goth's wildest regalia - a riot of piercings, tattoos, hair dye, PVC and netting - screamed out his lyrics in unison. Not knowing all the words, I felt like a new inductee at a cult meeting.
Reznor himself is not nearly as frightening as I'd imagined. He arrives for our meeting wearing none of his fans' brutal fashions, preferring black jeans, black T-shirt, and neat, jet-black hair. He stands at only about 5ft 8in tall, but is densely muscular. His skin is tanned, his eyes are blue and clear, and, in conversation, he is well-spoken, articulate and utterly charming.
"It's not like I ride a broom into interviews," he jokes when I ask him about his image as one of rock's dark overlords. "I don't hang upside down with a cape on."
One might wonder how any of the dysfunction that Reznor exorcises in his music could ever have attached itself to such a healthy, good-looking Alpha male.
It actually came early when his parents divorced while he was still young, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents in rural Pennsylvania.
Despite the total lack of any scene there, he somehow latched on to rock music. He remembers subscribing to the arty New York paper Village Voice, which "was like a portal to another planet". That portal flew open when, in the mid-'80s, Reznor went to college to study computer engineering.
There he discovered the harsh new electronic sounds emanating from Chicago and Belgium, which harnessed the latest progressions in synthesizer and Midi-computer technology to a grimy punk attitude. He felt as though he'd found his own identity, so he dropped out of college to make that type of music full-time.
In 1989, he released his first album as Nine Inch Nails, called Pretty Hate Machine, and was soon touring the world supporting Guns N' Roses.
Thanks to an energetically self-destructive stage show, Reznor was tipped as a future star, if he would toe the line. "The idiot who ran the label thought, 'Next time, we'll iron out all this naughty stuff, make it sound like Fine Young Cannibals, and we'll sell four times as much.' "
Mostly out of bloody-mindedness, Reznor concedes, his next couple of records went in the opposite direction, plumbing depths of self-loathing and twisted emotion through sheer sonic terror. These, contrary to industry expectations, touched a raw nerve, particularly among America's suburban youth.
His most extreme record thus far, The Downward Spiral (1995), which, famously, was recorded at the house where Roman Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family, sold five million copies worldwide. This, he says, is when his problems really started.
"Fame, power, and people treating me differently - I wasn't equipped to deal with all that. It freaked me out. Like, can I even buy a faucet for a sink? And a house to put it in? I'd never even thought about those things."
He hid from public view in various side projects, such as movie soundtracks, and his label, Nothing, which launched Marilyn Manson's career. More damagingly, he hid from himself, in alcohol and hard drugs. These were his way of coping with his fear about making a follow-up to The Downward Spiral.
"It had been fun to tour," he says, "but it's not fun to sit in your room by yourself for a year - or two years, as it turned out."
When he listens now to 1999's comparatively ethereal The Fragile (which was nevertheless a massive international seller), he says that, to him, "it sounds like a paranoid, terrified person."
After touring that album for two years, he was "a complete mess". "I was really heading for death, there's no other way to put it."
Reznor's transformation into the clean-cut, genial man sitting opposite me began when he finally accepted that he had a problem, and got himself into rehab. Thereafter, he realised that he had to make some crucial changes in order to remain creative and alive - "like, not immediately burying myself in work, which had been my strategy for coping with life for 15 years, but to feel okay about myself first."
His self-esteem received an unexpected boost when Johnny Cash covered his nakedly honest anthem of addiction, Hurt. Released shortly before Cash's death in 2003, the track came to be seen as a poignant epitaph to the country singer's troubled life.
In January 2004, Reznor moved from his old adopted home of New Orleans to California, and there consulted Cash's latterday producer Rick Rubin on how to go about making records so he didn't almost kill himself every time. Within nine months - an unprecedentedly brief period by Reznor's standards - he'd completed With Teeth, which was released a couple of months ago.
Neutral observers might suggest that it sounds much like previous Nine Inch Nails albums, full of angst and anger, only with more concise and structured songs.
"It's not happy, don't worry," Reznor confirms with satisfaction.
"Everything isn't fixed, but there's a functional human being at the helm, for a change. There was a time when I would draw on depression and the romantic notion of the dark side as an inspiration - how low can I go? I thought I'd reached the bottom a few times, but then I'd realise there was another 30 floors of despair below that."
His clear, blue eyes shoot an emphatic look across the table at me. "And I have no desire to return to that."