King Of Pain
By Matt Ashare for CMJ on October 1, 1997
There's a tooth missing from the Russell Mills original in Trent Reznor's kitchen-an earth-toned painting of a razor blade that's immediately recognizable as the image that adorns the back cover of Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral. The water in the goldfish bowl, which is actually part of the dining-room chandelier, looks a little murky. And, yes, the walls in the foyer are painted in a deep, burgundy or, er, blood red. Other than that, Reznor's home in the Garden District of New Orleans seems, well, like a pretty normal dwelling for a young, wealthy bachelor with good taste and money for a professional decoratot. Nothing hellish about it, except maybe that Grim Reaper scythe hanging on the living-room wall.
Reznor's been master of this particular domain since 1991, the year Lollapalooza helped make his Nine Inch Nails a ruling force for a growing nation of young nihilists. Three years later, with NIN liberated from a bitter feud with TVT and Reznor set up with his own Nothing imprint, the torturous epic The Downward Spiral proved there was a lot more to this guy than just post-industrial temper tantrums. If Pretty Hate Machine had been the soundtrack to a soul being smashed, The Downward Spiral was a grand symphony tracing the twisted path of each of its broken pieces as they were washed down some psychic drain.
There hasn't been a full-length Nine Inch Nails album since, but Reznor's been far from idle. Along with producing a groundbreaking cut-and-paste soundtrack for Oliver Stone's postmodern tour-de-force Natural Born Killers, and scoring David Lynch's visually stunning, if somewhat puzzling, Lost Highway, he's taken Nine Inch Nails on the road with Bowie and produced three CDs for Florida shock-rockers Marilyn Manson. Manson's Antichrist Superstar was almost as much a Reznor disc as anything by Nine Inch Nails, with its dense architecture of doom and techno-logical melding of man and machine. It also helped put Nothing on the mas as something more than just a vanity label. And, even if the Christian Right has been giving Manson most of the free publicity, Antichrist Superstar can only be whetting their children's appetites for Reznor's next offering.
Which is what brings me (Matt Ashare) to New Orleans on a balmy Saturday at the end of July. Reznor's currently hard at work on a followup to The Downward Spiral, in his nearby studio. It's a project that's absorbed most of his time since the beginning of the year, when, on the advice from producer Rick Rubin, he spent a month away from his sampler, trying to write at a piano in a rented house in Big Sur. Reznor has retained Rubin, instead of his longtime friend and collaborator Flood, to produce the new disc, in an effort to break out of old routines and, more importantly, reinvent Nine Inch Nails. So when he sits down on a big black leather sofa in the dimly lit den of his house to talk, the evolution of himself and his band is at the top of the list. And though his notorious penchant for dissing other artists (Bush, Courtney Love, and Filter to name three) isn't completely in check, he reserves the harshest words for himself-or at least the man he used to be.
"After our last round of touring," he reflects, "I thought Nine Inch Nails was a bloated, stupid thing that had become a parody of itself. I was embarrassed looking at videotapes of us performing. You switch modes from being the intellectual guy who thinks about what he's doing to the guy who just does it on tour. But after the tour, I looked back at some of that stuff and felt like I was becoming another retarded rock guy. I mean, when I started out I had dreams of being Mr. Big Time, but I never thought I'd attain anything. Where I grew up, girls didn't like me and I wasn't a football star or anything. Then suddenly it's like, you're rich, and your nose isn't that big, and girls like you. That can freak a lot of people out."
"But there's a point where the individual has to check in on themselves and realize enough is enough. I realized I was an asshole. I was shitty to people, shitty to old friends and new people I met. I thought, 'My shit doesn't stink anymore.' I'd seen people like Axl Rose surrounded by people saying things like 'Yes, Mr. Rose, that does smell good, can I flush it for you?' So at one point I sat back and looked at myself and went: 'You're a fucking asshole. You've become what you never thought you'd be.'"
Another thing Reznor never imagined he'd become, particularly in the wake of his tempestuous history with the business side of music-making, is the head of his own label. But Nothing, which is co-owned by Nine Inch Nails manager John A. Malm Jr., has quietly grown into a home for an increasingly intriguing roster of artists. Along with some of Reznor's confrontational pals (Pig and Manson), the Nothing roster now boasts drum 'n' bass wizard Plug (a.k.a. Luke Vibert and Wagon Christ), former Juda Priest singer Rob Halford's Two, the up-and-coming British duo 12 Rounds, techno agit-poppers Meat Beat Manifesto and Pop Will Eat Itself, and seminal avantgardists Einsturzende Neubauten and Coil.
"It's kind of a thing where we're just trying to mutate from being a vanity label to, hopefully, five years from now being like Death Row-you know, I'll be in jail, John will get murdered, and Manson will be gunned down on the street. No, serriously, the label is not taken lightly on our end. I find myself balancing the Coils versus the Mansons, trying to justify it to Interscope, who pays the bills. Coil are the feather in the cap in terms of being artistically cool, but at the end of the day they might only Sound-scan 5,000 records. So I'm trying to make it a viable thing for everybody involved-Coil, Manson, and Interscope.
"Peter from Coil and I are very good friends. We talked long and hard about the fact that I don't want to turn Coil into Marilyn Manson, I just want kids who come from where I came from in Pennsylvania to be able to find their records in the local store. If Manson wants to be Kiss on Nothing, then that's fine too. They just have to understand, it's a business. It's heartbreaking and it's soul-destroying, but that's the bottom fucking line. Nothing is trying to [tell] the artists that if they want X amount of money it requires X amount of commitment; be aware of the fact that you can have a big tour bus, but it always ends up coming out of your pocket. Record labels don't want to tell artists that stuff, because they don't give a fuck. The artists usually don't find out until it's too late that the limo that drove up to the hotel is something you paid for, the model in your video is something you paid for. But there is a balance where a band like Coil can be happy selling a certain amount of records and making great, arty, super-cool music, ;and not being forced to bitch about the fact that they can't put 'Bitch' on their record like Prodigy. That's how it works."
Indeed, Reznor has had to go to bat for his artists at Interscope, who initially balked at the idea of releasing Marilyn Manson's 1994 debut Portrait Of An American Family. "I fought Interscope to make Manson the right thing," says Reznor. "And it came down to saying, 'We want this record out, and if you don't put it out I'll put it out on my own.' They wanted me to ask Manson to change a few things, but I couldn't. The whole crux of Nothing is that we don't do things like that: We offer complete artistic freedom. My experiences with my former record label taught me that you shouldn't fuck with people's art. So I will never fuck with you as an artist. Just know that what you do has repercussions, understand that, and I'll fully support you. Do I support all of Manson's beliefs? No. Do I agree with most of them? No. Would I do that as an artist myself? No, I wouldn't do that personally and I don't have a problem with Interscope not liking it or not wanting to put it out. But I can't go back to a guy I just signed and say, 'hey, by the way, that thing I said about whatever you want to do is cool? Well, we need you to change the cover and change this song.'"
For the record, Reznor has nothing but praise for Interscope. Although he got off to a rocky start with the label-"They bought Nine Inch Nails without consulting me, so I began by telling them to fuck off," is how Reznor sums up the first encounter-he's since come to regard Interscope honcho Jimmy Lovine as a friend, and his staff as valuable allies. "What I learned after The Downward Sprial took off is that Interscope had resources I never had before, and that I can trust their marketing guy and ask him questions."
On the other side of the business, the success of The Downward Spiral has forced Reznor to reassess his relationship with his fans. "I had to deal with the personal demons that come with going from being a cool underground band to being big. Suddenly, your fan club, your alternative fans, don't think you're cool anymore. And I could relate to that-I didn't go see the Jesus And Mary Chain after they got big. So I had to ask myself whether I should be trying to make my music more inaccessible, or should I just do what I think is true to myself. It was actually Bono from U2, who I became friends with, who said 'Fuck those people.' I thought about that for a little while, and it was like waking up with a new haircut. It's different. I miss what I was. But I'm not what I was anymore. I've thought differently about Nine Inch Nails ever since."
On a more practical level, Reznor has been plotting a new musical course for Nine Inch Nails. "I think the whole industrial distorted thing is dead. I'm bored with it. All I listen to now is hip-hop. Erykah Badu's record is my favorite CD of the past year. The new wave of electronica also interests me. I was completely blown away by jungle. It's so not rock 'n' roll. Double-speed beats against half-speed reggae-what an interesting and cool style of music. I was pissed off, in a good way, that I never thought of it. Like I remember seeing Jane's Addiction on their first tour, standing in a fucking Cleveland club, unsigned and mad, thinking 'these guys are fucking good-fucking assholes!' It was a good mad. Not mad like with 311, where it just sucks that you have to listen to it. But a good, humbling mad."
Reznor says he's been toying with drum 'n' bass in the studio, as well with the kind of loops and electronic beats that have always dominated Nine Inch Nails material. But that's only part of the picture. he was recently in Chicago, where he had Steve Albini record Bill Rieflin (formerly of Ministry) playing drums. He's planning to cut-and-paste the results into rhythm tracks for the new disc. And there was the abortive month in Big Sur, which Reznor spent trying to write in a more traditional manner.
"When I got in touch with Rick Rubin about doing the album he said, 'As a friend and a fan, be aware that I think you're boxing yourself in a corner. There's only so much more extreme you can get lyrically.' He told me to try writing a record alone at the piano instead of a drum machine. I tried. I went to Big Sur and lived in a house by myself. I went insane and almost killed myself sitting at a piano trying to write like Tom petty does. I think Petty's great. I also realize that when I sit down and do that it starts to sound like Billy Joel's The Stranger."
David Bowie also offered some song-writing advice. "We had long talks when we were on that tour together. He said to me at one point, 'I don't mean to sound like your dad'-and he's the exact same age as my dad!-'but try writing in the third person, because you'll find that you'll get yourself out of a hole that I was once in.' So I've been trying to change that. It's just weird as a writer to try to define yourself in a different way. It's like learning how to write for me, because I don't know how to fucking write."
Ultimately, the next Nine Inch nails album won't really take shape until Rubin joins Reznor full-time in the studio this fall. All Trent can say for sure is that he's aiming to take people by surprise.
"In thinking about a new direction, I realized it's important to me to challenge what's accepted and stay away from doing the safe thing. I'm concentrating on fucking around thematically and stylistically. It'll be more like a Tom Petty record, not in the sense of being ten pop songs, but in being ten separate songs instead of one big story like The Downward Spiral was. I know this probably all sounds lofty and pretentious, but I think back to this interview with Clive Barker I once read. He said something like, 'I know a lot of people like me, but with the next book I put out I want to piss my fans off. But maybe they'll take my lead and respect me enough to go down a different path. And if I don't do that then I'm not being honest with myself as an artist.' That's the kind of album I aspire to make."
Transcribed by Keith Duemling