Ego is a Too Much Thing

By Lorraine Ali for Alternative Press on January 1, 1993

"It's a nice to be looking down on Beverly Hills for a change," says Trent Reznor, creator and core of Nine Inch Nails. Indeed, the view from his house is astonishing - Los Angeles actually looks beautiful from up here. It's the very same view Sharon Tate must have enjoyed only moments before she and four house guests were brutally slaughtered by three members of the Manson Family in August of 1969. It sounds odd but in some spots, you can still fell the terror. Trent points to a place on the lawn. " This is where they found the guy that got it worst." That was Jay Sebring, hairdresser to the stars - stabbed, beaten, and shot to death. "See, the grass won't grow there anymore." The bare spot sends a chill up the spine.

"Only Kidding! That's where Maise pees." Maise is a retriever who's not only responsible for pillaging the lawn but also for some of the demonic howls woven into NIN's latest EP Broken. Her dopey face is as sweet as sugar. We walk through the same do or where Susan Atkins scrawled "PIG" in Sharon Tate's blood. Only a coat of paint separates us from its gruesome presence. Like the door, the house has barely been changed since the horrifying night it made history.

Trent's studio sits in the main room under the same beams from which Tex Watson planned to hang two of the Family's victims. He never got around to it. Instead he and Atkins stabbed Voytk Frykowski 51 times and Sharon Tate 16. She was eight months pre gnant. This is where Trent is solely creating the next NIN album, tentatively titled The Downward Spiral. Candles everywhere cast abstract light on a million buttons and knobs, while a recording of some type of distorted mantra plays in the background. Maise chews away on soggy rawhide while Trent looks uncomfortable. his thin frame and shy features, not easily identifiable with his maniacal stage presence, seem so unobtrusive in this infamous setting.

"If you're successful," explains Trent carefully, "you're supposed to act a certain way. Being around people I meet for the first time and I'm not smashing guitars and wrecking my house, I'm letting them down because I'm not in character. What'd they t hink I'd be? 'Well, I thought you'd be a real fucking asshole.' What am I supposed to say, thanks? Am I coming across as boring because I'm not shooting heroin? I like playing music but I don't like the lifestyle you're supposed to lead while doing it."

When Trent Reznor speaks, you get the feeling he's got something to hide. His cool tone only momentarily hides his frustration and insecurity of being pegged "a success." His dark eyes brim with intensity and sometimes rage, but rarely, if ever, do the y reflect any sort of contentment. Everything seems a struggle for him - finding the right words, concealing revealing expressions, even keeping his mouth shut. If he opens it, a piece of him may escape and be analyzed by an envious music underground an d press. He doesn't seem cut out for all this, but thanks to a talent for converting blasts of emotion into dense, revealing music, he can't avoid it. Imagine there's no safe harbor, not even in your soul, because now your wailings are documented for al l to sing along to - welcome to the world of Trent Reznor.

He sits in front of his mixing board, swiveling his chair back and forth while explaining that his move into the Tate house was not some spooky publicity stunt but a matter of preference. He happened to like the house, even after learning about its past , and moved in. The murders were also mentioned in his lease to avoid problems for Trent, the house seems more like an inspiration than an obstacle. It's dark, horrific presence feels a lot like a NIN album; The Downward Spiral will be Reznor's first fu ll length creation in this studio he has christened "Pig," not to mention NIN's first album in three years. "I'm experimenting more now with ambiance and skeletal arrangements instead of throwing everything in but the kitchen sink, like I did with Pretty Hate Machine."

Nine Inch Nails' debut, with its stark, precise sound topped with screaming mad vocals and grinding guitar has nearly gone platinum. "The most bizarre thing is how intimate that record was when I made it," says Reznor. "I was so embarrassed when someon e would hear it. It was my journal and then to think that a million people bought that thing. It's giving yourself away and that's a creepy feeling.

"When I did Pretty hate Machine I thought it was a pretty bold and I was proud, and I still am proud of it but it's not where I am now." The Broken EP is decidedly heavier than NIN's danceable debut. "Then the marketing man in me, which I admit exists, thinks that this EP is going to turn off a certain percentage of fans off, but there's no place for snyth-pop, Depeche Mode songs. That's not where I'm at any more. I can see what's up ahead being lighter, not softer. A lot of Broken was muscle flexing male. A 'fuck you, here's a hard record."

An internal feud with NIN's former label TVT caused Reznor to record the EP in secret with personal funds he raised during the first Lollapalooza. He was also going to use that money to get a lawyer that would get him off the label. ("I decided to leav e the label at any cost, if that was the end of my career then that was the end of my career.") He eventually left TVT but the battles took up precious time which, along with touring, caused a lapse of two years between recordings. The result of all thi s frustration is the aptly titled EP. "I really had to re-discover how to write music because I hadn't done it in so long. I'm not the kind of guy that writes songs on the tour bus. The only way I can do it is to sit down and think. I have mixed feeli ngs about what's on the EP. Some of it I really like and some of it... it's reflective of that time when I did it." Reznor recorded the EP, as well as the debut with the assistance of Flood, renowned Depeche Mode, Nitzer Ebb producer who also engineered U2's massive Achtung Baby. Although Reznor does all the writing, creating and producing, Flood was there to co-produce three of the tracks and, as Reznor puts it, "filter my ideas through his taste. We burned ourselves out on each other, which is sad be cause he was really the other member of the band." He looks sincerely disappointed. " I don't think I owe anybody an apology for not putting any music out though because what we've been doing is touring. I could write an album about riding in a bus and puking after a show somewhere, but that's what Bon Jovi's for."

NIN is now signed to Interscope Records, and feels the label's hands-off policy has set him free. One of the conditions for his Joining Interscope was that they set him up with his own label, which he calls Nothing. "They give us the money and we give them the artwork, songs, etc. It sort of works like a shield. I can also sign bands but haven't done that yet, although I want to. It'd be a way f sharing NIN's fortunate situation by giving bands a chance to do their art and not get fucked with while doing it."

Security cameras cover every angle of the property. The monitors are mounted on Trent's studio wall, and occasionally, out of the corner of your eye, you could swear someone just ran down the long drive or past the guest house. Trent must be used to it by now. While discussing the making of Broken, he never once glances at the ominous screen. "I tried doing an album that I actually just wrote on guitar rather than my tried-and-true method of a drum machine and keyboards. So with the exception of 'Ha ppiness in Slaver,' all songs were written on guitar. I was gonna make it totally stripped down to guitar, bass and drums but as I started it I realized I could easily fall into another trap. What might sound interesting to me - because I'm not used to it - may sound like a garage band to the world. So we just took the three instruments and sampled 'em, fucked with 'em, processed them. It's kind of overboard, we did go crazy. It's kind of dense, too dense. It's over analyzed - every song has 20 diff erent melodies that you won't hear the first five or ten times you listen, or maybe never."

But layers of sampling and master knowledge of the mixing board were only half that album. It took a wrecked personal life to create the other. If the Trent Reznor of yesterday sounded like he was ready to snap, then Broken must document that explosion . Where Pretty Hate Machine had some semblance of control, Broken has skid off the rails into complete paranoia and insecurity. It's the ultimate meltdown of self. "Flood was working on Depeche Mode's record and my life alone was totally frustrating so why don't we make something that's not right, the doesn't sound right? I'm really proud of the stuff he and I did together but I don't ever, ever want to do that again," he looks exhausted just talking about it. "I think what I'm gonna do next is strip everything away and a song that's good enough so I don't know a million cool. gimmicky sounds. Thousands of parts to hide...," he stops then restarts, trying to explain.

"On a couple of songs on the EP I was really embarrassed about the lyrics so I wouldn't sing them right. I didn't realize that I was doing it until I'd sing it muffled, then he's say 'Do it again.' Like the song 'Last,' I can't listen to it anymore. F or some of them I was in the studio crying because I couldn't get it together in a goddamn month, and 'We're doing it today! I suck!' It's mixed that way because that's the way I felt. It's a pretty true statement about how things were then. Now I've got to move on." Broken isn't over quite yet. The recently released remix EP Fixed class on the talents of Coil and Jim Thirlwell of Foetus to help Trent "fuck with" tracks from Broken.

Reznor, who was trained as a classical pianist when he was a kid, left the keyboards and his home town of Mercer, Pennsylvania, to purse an exciting career in computer engineering. Once in college, tedious lectures on megabytes caused him to drop out an d perform with bands based around his new home of Cleveland, Ohio. If anyone had told the 22-year-old Reznor that in three years he's have major features running in Musician and Rolling Stone, he'd probably answer them with something like, "Yeah, and I'm Paula Abdul in drag."

After much deliberation on Trent's part, he appeared on the cover of Spin in March of '92, a time when he felt NIN was already oversaturated. He claims the results were disastrous. " I have to admit a bit of vanity seeing what it would be like to be on every 7-11 newsstand in the world. Danzing did, and they were cool." He switches to the role of journalist: "'I really want to get across industrial music and you guys being the leaders in that. Do you feel it's a big scene? Is it gonna catch on like the next heavy metal?' Not only is it not a scene, but we're not really a part of it. You should educate people to what you and other American journalists call industrial music. It's a far cry from what the originators of industrial music called it."

Industrial got its name because of its stark, clattering collage of noises - much like the innards of a factory. It's foundations were laid by experimental noise bands like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and Einsturzende Neubauten in the late '70s and early '80s. They ignored traditional, melodic song structure by creating their own instrument out of anything from metal pipes to power tools, and often utilizing electronically produced noise

"It was a way of shaking the foundations of the music business but in a more intelligent way than punk rock," explains Reznor. "When that fizzled out, is started melding with disco and you got bands like Front 242 and Ministry. NIN focuses on noisy ele ctronic music. It's menacing but a far cry from Throbbing Gristle.

"But in the Spin interview," he continues, never straying too far from what pisses him off, "cam out like I'm trying to spout off that I'm the leader of this new trend. The fans that know us know we borrowed from that but are by no means, by no fucking stretch of the imagination, by any sort of definition, industrial. To the hardcore industrial fans I must've came across like a total idiot trying to say I'm the next Throbbing Gristle. We're pop, sell-out idiots because I put a chorus in the songs and have some sense of melody and care about that, but I do. If you want to call us a pop band... that's another thing." He sips his beer and you can almost hear the cooling sizzle. In a less acidic voice he continues, That article put me in a position I d idn't want to be in. It's a lot cooler to be the underdog than the leader."

Maise is now outside chewing one of Trent's socks in the same place where coffee heiress Abigail Folger finally dropped after being stabbed 21 times by Patricia Krenwinkel. "When I was a record-buying consumer, before I was signed to a label," explain T rent, "if a band started to 'make it' then I'd go elsewhere and look for someone who wasn't cool. I know it's totally stupid but let's say you bought this record and it's cool and your little sister's an asshole and she comes home with a t-shirt of that band on it. Now her asshole friends like it, you go for something else. We're not a tiny little band anymore," he says uncomfortably, as if it's a big secret. "That puts me in an odd position which is, there's fans I really care about, that first liked us, and then there's the fans that, well, I'm glad that they bought the record but I hope they like it because they really like it and not because someone told them it's cool. It's disappointing when your whole base kinda collapses out from under you, a s I'm sure it has for Nirvana as example. They been oversaturated to the point where it's - 'Turn this fucking shit off!"

Driving down Sunset Boulevard later, Reznor spots a Volkswagen Rabbit with a license plate that reads "MORISEE." Above it sits a NIN sticker. He groans in disgust. Here's another fan he doesn't know. "I know who the first couple of thousand people are . All the bands in the alternative world go up to 200,000 in sales, then don't go over that until they make a leap into other arena. Like the Ministry-Skinny Puppy-242 world, that's the highest you ever get. You need some other means to get beyond that ." He then carefully adds, "which may not be necessarily what you want to do."

Lollapalooza was that "other means." It launched Pretty Hate Machine from the clenched hands of avid fans to the open arms of bored suburbia. Reznor's anger and frustration stirred dormant emotions that had originally been put to rest by an older gener ation telling us, "Hey, smile, it can't be that bad." Now he was saying, fuck that, it is. Reznor recalls the first night of the show. "we played about five minutes of one song and that was because the power kept shutting off. So of course every asshole had to say, 'Oh, it's because they're electronic and everything's on tape. It's Milli Vanilli. well, if I go up to Jimi Hendrix and unplug his amp, guess what? No fucking guitar and the show stops.

"We later found out it was one of the power boxes, so I was mad and stupid and upset and I said something like 'crew incompetence.' Of course it's printed in USA Today and then the crew wanted to kick my ass. It like, 'Fuck you!' We play a five-minute set and I'm back in the bus trying to figure out what's wrong and no one knows. MTV's trying to get on the bus - 'Hey, let's see the guy on the frying pan.'" His cool cover cracks and he spouts defensively, "Hey, you're right, we suck. We're a synth f agot band," then cools down. "It was a difficult tour for us to be on, then we went to Europe and that was even worse."

There, NIN opened up for the Wonderstuff and Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, which is like eating marshmallows smothered in battery acid - hard to digest. The British press hated the line-up even more than Trent did. He has a theory why London's we ekly music loved to slam NIN. "We weren't easily catagorizable as to what was happening in England at the time, the Manchester scene. Stone Roses were God and EMF was Jesus Christ, plus the press didn't invent the trend that we supposedly following. The y're into dictating what's cool in America later - 'Here comes Rave and House' - but surprise them with something they're unfamiliar with and you catch them with their pants down. Plus, everyone was attacking me because the stage shows were 'some theatrical thing.'"

NIN live is more like a field trip to the insane asylum than a theatrical presentation. The lunatic behind the controllable, frenzied head shakes and charged movements continues. "I'm theatrical? What do you mean? 'Well, you call yourself and industri al band.' Wait, never, anywhere, never have I called myself and industrial band, you said it, I never fucking said that."

But trend-hopping European press and audiences couldn't have primed NIN for their worst live nightmare yet - opening up for Guns 'N Roses. If you're looking for dirt on Axl, you wouldn't find it here. This time it was Mr. Rose's charming fans who sent the bottles flying en mass toward the stage. ducking cheap whiskey bottles and longnecks wasn't Reznor's idea of a good time. "I had actually forgotten about that but," he says in a sarcastic huff, "I guess it's OK now," and laughs. "We fuckin sucked. It sucked! The first show I tried to be as good as possible but by the second one my tail was between my legs."

As if it wasn't bad enough being hated simultaneously by a stadium full of stringy-haired rockers, they also had a dressing room right across from Gunners number-one fans and bill-mates, Skid Row. "Before they'd go up on stage we'd hear them listening t o Kiss a lot and doing the old hustle. We tried to video tape it but we couldn't get it. Afterwards, Sebastian would come into the dressing room all sweaty. Have you ever actually seen Sebastian Bach in person? He's like 18 feet tall and his body curv es like this." Trent forms an "S" shape with his hands and does an impression by walking like Bigfoot as he shouts in a nasal, high-pitched tone. "Hey, guys,' a total pest, 'us, mother-fuckers, you want any pot or ecstasy or heroin or drugs? Come on ov er, dude. Rock 'n' roll man!' Then later someone told us he said on stage, 'No fuckin' drum machines on stage, man, this is just rock 'n' roll, we don't play that fuckin' snyth music.' Like he needed to say that anyway." Trent sums it all up, "It's on e of those things when you think it might be a funny idea then you realize, when you're up there, maybe this ain't so great."

NIN had never played live before the release of Pretty Hate Machine. None of the songs parts were written for a band to play, so ultimately, touring bent NIN's studio-born studio in a new direction. But it wasn't until back-to-back tours in 1989 with P eter Murphy and the Jesus and Mary Chain that signs of change finally started kicking in. "About eight months into touring, we started getting meaner because we started getting tired and more fed up with the audience who were there to see Peter Murphy. The songs became more aggressive naturally. It wasn't hard to be hard, it was just hard because it felt better being that way. It went from "Let's just play these songs and try to be sincere' to explosions and screaming out. We won over the people we wanted to win over but some of the vampire crowd were not gonna ever gonna go for anything except their god, Mister Cheekbones... They probably should have been a second album in there somewhere that would've chronicled the change, but there wasn't. So by the time Broken came out, a lot had changed musically."

Trent's kitchen is just down the hall from where the police found the only clear print that connected Tex Watson to the Tate murders. The kitchen is stark, clean and by the look of it, unused. A lonely can of Gourmet Pride sits on the barren counter wh ile the only thing stocked in the fridge seems to be beer. It's like he took his single apartment kitchenette cuisine to Beverly Hills with him. His neighbors would be aghast, but what they may not realize is that Trent Reznor is till struggling with the fact that he now has money. "OK, we've sold a lot of records, we're fairly well known and I realize, things come to us now - opportunities, resources. For example, fuck rich people, fuck living in Beverly Hills, fuck owning a Jaguar." He snaps his fin gers. "OK, you're rich. You want this house up here? Ice I doesn't live in South Central. Suddenly, I don't have to wait in line at a club. Then you start thinking, 'Hey, this isn't bad' until you catch yourself. I've gone from a guy waiting in line to king in a day. I see Nirvana on the hot seat now struggling with the status of 'We're as big as Michael Jackson this year but still a punk rock band. Don't like us.' If people buy your record, you can't make them not because we did get into this to sell records. You want to make money so you can keep going. All I ever wanted out of music was to support myself so I wouldn't have to worry about the gas bill. I never though it'd get big, big."

A flame from one of the candles jumps and it followed by a weird sizzling sounds, or did that noise come from the speaker? Trent notices and casts as glance toward the door. His spooked expression doesn't seem to apply to the same man that a homogenize d, dull media portrays as the angriest, most frustrated guy around. Ultimately, aren't his feelings the same as those simmering inside anyone who faces a future without an ozone layer? "When I hear those comments it was presented to me like, 'Wow, you' re really fucked up. You're so mad.' I just wanted to write a record about certain topics, not 'Sometimes I feel good, sometimes I feel happy.' It wasn't appropriate in that context. I also don't think I'm the only person that feels that way. The bes t compliment I've gotten was 'I heard "Head Like a Hole" and man, I really know what you're talking about.' Even if it's the wrong thing, I mean, many people tell me asinine things - 'You're talking about taking acid, man,' I'm not gonna say, 'No, that i s not what I wsa thinking.' If I'm really bummed out, I'll put something on that's possibly sadder than I am which makes me feel better because at least I'm not as far out as that. I'm not the only one that feels shitty, upset. At that point, I'm more interested in that than making any grand statement politically. If it's something I can relate to, cool, but it's not for every mode. It's a little document on a feeling I've had, usually a bad one, or I wouldn't be motivated to write it."

Manson mesmerized his followers by preying on their insecurities and codling them; Trent attracts fans by exposing his own weakness with no offer for a cure. When he turns himself inside out, his listeners see someone as pissed off and hopeless as they are, yet with the balls to scream it out full throttle. But for the 'well-balanced" who just don't get it, his soul purging has frequently been described as self-absorbed. "I guess I'm guilty of that, if that's a bad thing. I try to take an introspecti ve approach on the songs. I'm not looking at it in an egotistical or self-important way." He pauses to rethink the question, and finally relaxes. "Things were shitty during the first album but there was still some amount of faith in one's self from my point of view. It was like the world may suck but I still care about myself. With Broken, that got thrown away so that there's also an amount of self-loathing as well as loathing all around. It's a bleaker perspective personally.

"That was a new inspirational point of writing - that I actually thought that way. Everything sucks but me, but what if you don't have yourself anymore? You've let yourself down and you don't have a permanent foundation to stand on. That's the differe nt perspective. That has a lot to do with the subject matter of the record I'm working on right now. It's an experiment, but then you start writing about it and find that it actually starts happening more and more to you. It fucks you, makes you miserable."

His intensity cracks and a strained smile appears, "It's a job though, hey."

Alternative Press January 1993

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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