Interview : Trent Reznor

By Paul Elliot Many for Kerrang! on September 1, 1999

You wouldn't have thought NINE INCH NAILS mainman Trent Reznor could sink any lower after 1994's bleak 'The Downward Spiral'. But then he spent the next five years dealing with death, feuding with Marilyn Manson and suffering an emotional breakdown. The result is the most harrowing music of his career.

New York City is sweating. On a public holiday like Labour Day, many local people have vacated the city, but with temperatures in the 80s and heavy cloud holding down the smog, Times Square is busy and muggy as Hell.

Fifty feet above street level, a huge, pulsing neon sign names the attractions at the 1999 MTV Awards: Britney Spears? Backstreet Boys? Puff Daddy? N-Sync.. Ricky Martin? Nine Inch Nails.

The streets leading off Times Square all have temporary nicknames: Eminem Avenue, Lauryn Hill Street, Korn Road.

Somebody suggests 'Nine Inch Nails Cul-De-Sac'. That somebody is Trent Reznor. The quiet genius behind Nine Inch Nails pours himself a strong black coffee - no sugar - in room 1506 of the Time Hotel, a minute's walk off Times Square. Rehearsals for Nine Inch Nails' MTV Awards performance have been intensive, but the 34-year-old Reznor is a composed figure - leaner than before, minus the facial hair and with his hair cropped short. He is dressed simply in faded black jeans, solid army-surplus boots and a purple long-sleeved T-shirt with a big rip in the neck: clearly an old favourite.

Reznor likes New York. He might move here sometime soon, he says, now that he has tired of New Orleans, where he has lived and worked for the past four years in a converted funeral parlour.

"I need a more metropolitan, cosmopolitan environment," he explains. "And I hate L.A."

However, this trip to New York is strictly business. "We've never done live television before," he says warily. "In America, you can fall into a relationship with MTV of needing them, and then you wind up in your underpants introducing your new video."

He's referring to platinum punks Blink 182, who the day before had paraded through the city streets on the back of a flatbed truck, near naked, playing songs from their new album.

"We're not indebted to MTV," Reznor states, "so we can deal with them on our own terms. This show is very lightweight, and the context is very important with the new record coming out." There, he said it. The new Nine Inch Nails album is released this week - five years after its predecessor, 'The Downward Spiral', identified Rezonr as one of the most creative and influential musicians of the '90s. Five years in which Reznor's life has been shattered, then slowly reassembled. Five years of struggle, both personal and artistic. Tellingly, the new Nine Inch Nails album is titled 'The Fragile'. "Its about trying to hold things together which inherently won't last," he says.

Michael Trent Reznor has felt like the loneliest boy on Earth for as long as he can remember. Known by his middle name because his father is Michael Reznor Sr, Trent has a sister but was raised as an only child by his grandparents after his mother and father divorced.

Trent's hometown was Mercer, Pennsylvania, "a little patch of nothing" near the big Mid-West steel town of Pittsburgh.

"I was so determined to escape rural Pennsylvania," her recalls. "There was so little to do there. I go back now and I see some of the beauty about it, but as a kid it just provided me with the drive to escape."

In his early teens, he began piano lessons at his grandparents' insistence. "I'm not sure why they forced me into that, but I'm glad they did," he smiles. "It clicked with me immediately. My whole life, I always knew what I wanted to do: play music and be in a rock band." But to the kid stuck in isolation in Mercer, it seemed an impossible dream. "You're so far removed from what's on the TV set, it was an impenetrable gap," he remembers. "I was always pissed off about that, because it looked like everybody was having fun on TV. You're being trained that you should have a family, it's normal, and everyone's smiling and happy, and there's an ocean that I didn't even fucking see until I was 18. There's shit going on and I'm looking out at a fucking cornfield! Our big event was going to McDonalds. Wow! I felt ripped off."

Unsurprisingly, Trent got out of Mercer as soon as he could. At 18 he took up a computer-engineering course at a college near Cleveland. "Something to fall back on," he explains in a mock-sensible tone. Here he discovered college radio, the'80s synth-pop explosion and "a million other bands who were a lot cooler than Foreigner". Sporting a mullet which he blushingly describes as "more Duran Duran than pro-wrestler", Trent starred briefly in a couple of college bands, playing 20 minute versions of Deep Purple's 'Smoke On The Water' and Eric Clapton's 'Cocaine', then quit the course and moved to Cleveland itself to form a serious band.

He ended up working in recording studios, often having to clean toilets. When he turned 23, he realised he was pissing his life away. Influenced by Cabaret Voltaire and Skinny Puppy, he began writing songs in earnest - songs, which would form the first NIN album, 1989's 'Pretty Hate Machine'. "I opened up my journal," he reveals. "It was full of bad feelings, honest feelings. At first I thought, 'I can't fucking say these things', but I also realised it was this honesty that made it important. That outweighed the fear of exposing my true feelings to everybody.

"I wasn't proud of a lot of the things I was saying, but I said to myself, 'Well, no one's going to hear this stuff anyway'. Then 'Pretty Hate Machine' does well, and suddenly I'm doing interviews and I haven't created a character to hide behind. The record is honest and that's where its power came from - and here's me, saying all this insane shit."

Reznor's lyrics were shockingly confessional. 'I'm starting to scare myself,' he starts on 'Something I Can Never Have', before admitting: 'I wish you were dead'.

At a time when Guns N' Roses were the biggest band in the world, and grunge was still gestating in sweaty Seattle clubs, the realism and emotive power of Reznor's lyrics, allied to a bold new form of electro-rock, made Nine Inch Nails unique. The resonance of that first album is still being felt 10 years later in the music and lyrics of Korn and Marilyn Manson.

The lonely kid from Mercer had achieved his dream: he was now a rock star. The dream would eventually become a nightmare.

In 1994 a second NIN album, 'The downward Spiral', made Trent Reznor a pop-culture icon. Preceded by two Eps, 'Broken' and its sister remix set 'Fixed', 'The Downward Spiral' brought industrial into the mainstream rock consciousness, selling five million copies in the process. It also created huge demand for Reznor's talents as a producer. When NIN's world tour was completed in 1995, Reznor immediately went to work on producing Marilyn Manson's 'Antichrist Superstar' album at his home studio in New Orleans (previously, he had produced Manson's 'Portrait Of An American Family' debut and the 'Smells Like Children' mini-album). He also acted as executive producer on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's controversial 1994 movie 'Natural Born Killers', and in 1997 he produced the soundtrack for David Lynch's 'Lost Highway'.

Reznor had been writing new songs in the years since 'The Downward Spiral' was released, but when the time came to really get to grips with a new Nine Inch Nails album, he was consumed with doubt and self-loathing. He might have been named among 'Time' magazine's 25 Most Influential Americans in 1997, but Trent Reznor felt more alone than ever. "I didn't like the person I was at the start of this record," he sighs. "'The Downward Spiral' became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wound up distorted, someone I didn't know. "Finishing a long tour for that record, I found myself in a weird place. Everything was different to when I go on that tour bus a few years before. More people kissing your ass and more wanting you to fail. Then I went right into doing a Manson record - which was a way of staying on tour, mentally. Every night was some ridiculous scenario. When that finished, I was really in a low emotional place, disillusioned."

You have alluded to a nervous breakdown. Was it as bad as that? "Yeah, it was, really, without sounding like I'm trying to create some great story for the press. Working really hard had brought me to this state of despair, emotionally and? spiritually, for lack of a better word.

"I avoided doing the record because I'd forgotten that I really like playing and making and listening to music. All the other shit that's around it - the good stuff and the bad stuff - clouded the reason I was doing it in the first place."

When, in the midst of despair, his grandmother died aged 85, Trent experienced only numbness. This he admits with remarkable candour. "When it happened I shut off," he says quietly. "I was frighteningly numb through the whole thing. I don't mean fucked-up numb. It was all just sitting in there waiting to rot, and I didn't deal with it. It came to a point when I thought, 'what the fuck else?'. Goddamn, I'm not equipped to deal with that stuff. I'd never dealt with a family death before - and I didn't deal with it, I just let everything build up. It really came down to me thinking, 'do I really want to keep doing this?'. I don't know anybody who just stopped when they were at the height of their career - other than those who killed themselves, which I wasn't wanting to do. Again, it was about remembering that I like music."

To complete his misery, Trent also lost a close friend at this time: Marilyn Manson. Having signed to his label Nothing and then produced the breakthrough album 'Antichrist Superstar', Trent feels betrayed by revelations in Manson's autobiography 'The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell', in which he is portrayed as voyeuristic and manipulative, with a taste for "shitty women". The revelations centre on a tour, which Nine Inch Nails undertook with Manson and the Jim Rose Circus, a travelling S&M freak-show.

"You can't explain this to people who weren't around it," Trent insists. "It's not sane, but imagine the kind of people who come to that show, and they're all trying to outdo each other. Some of the guys in the Circus have horns and a tail, and one of the guys was trying to have trepanation performed on him in my studio - drilling a hole in the back of the head so the spinal fluid leaks out, and you're high forever. That's the level it was getting to. Pretty soon there's going to be bodies showing up - and questions. I'm going to point the finger at Jim Rose. The first time I was ever around him, I was eating a light bulb, thinking, 'What am I doing?'. I always get sucked in. We were sitting in a cafeteria and he said, 'Have a chew on that'. I didn't swallow it, but the fact that I even allowed it in my mouth?"

You feel Manson violated your trust?

"If certain people do certain things which cross a line of what is decent, I don't deal with them any more," he answers cautiously. "With Manson, that line has been crossed. He said some very ignorant, mean, malicious things. You can believe me or you can believe someone else, but on that tour I was peripherally involved as an observer, and suddenly I'm pictured as the ringleader. It's just stirring up shit. That friendship was a big fuck-up for me," he adds wearily. "It fucked me up pretty good."

Out of this pain and anger has come 'The Fragile', Trent Reznor's strongest work to date - not such a paradox given the nature of Nine Inch Nails' previous output.

"I hate to think that misery is the impetus for getting art out of me," Reznor shrugs, "but it is an inspiration."

Featuring 23 songs over 100 minutes, 'The Fragile' is a rarity not just because it is a double album of new material - you'd have to rewind to 1995 and The Smashing Pumpkins' 'Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness' for a genuine comparison - but because it is a work of complete artistic integrity. No obvious pop singles. Art for art's sake.

"I sound like a pretentious ass saying I'm making art," Reznor smiles a little sheepishly, "but I love a lot of '70s records because the commerce hadn't got its claws into music to turn it completely into product at that time. 'The Fragile' requires a little effort from the listener," he reasons, "but it has its rewards."

Reznor claims he rarely listened to radio when he was making the new album, turning instead to his favourite records from the '60s and '70s: David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Pink Floyd, Queen and The Beatles' fabled double album set 'The White Album'. The latter is inextricably linked to Nine Inch Nails after Reznor recorded 'The Downward Spiral' in the LA house where, in 1969, followers of cultist Charles Manson killed nine partygoers including the pregnant actress Sharon Tate, later citing 'The White Album' as the inspiration for their murder spree.

"None of the reference points were current," says Reznor, who rates Atari Teenage Riot as "the only band of substance" among today's rock fraternity.

"You have to question yourself as an artist," Reznor insists. "David Bowie was always reinventing and challenging himself, failing along the way but making important music. I always wanted to throw everything out and reinvent, but then the question is: 'Am I throwing out what was good about what I had?'.

"Alan Moulder produced the record with me. We usually had too many ideas, unfocused. Halfway through there were no lyrics at all - it was all weird soundscapes, like film music. But we wanted an important record, not an esoteric, self indulgent thing from two guys who'd lost their minds."

Time, then, for Trent to dig into his journals once more, to reach deep into the darkness of his soul.

"'The Downward Spiral' was a descent," he says. "Shedding skin, taking a layer off and analysing it, arriving at a point. This one starts at the bottom."

As with previous NIN albums, 'The Fragile' features lyrics, which Reznor considers, in retrospect, to be a little too personal for public consumption. He prefers not to name the songs in question, returning quickly to a scholarly analysis of the music. "Sonically we approached the songs with instruments that were broken, not miked right or out of tune. This isn't a tough, hard machine like 'The Downward Spiral'. This one is rusted, shot, there's moss growing up the side of it, clay and paper clips holding it together. Pieces can fall off at any time. I tried to make it seem distressed on every level I could think of. The concept of fragility moulds it all together."

A little smile: "I just made that up now, but it sounds pretty good."

Reznor almost cried when he heard 'The Fragile' for the first time as a finished article. It's not surprising: five long, hard years of his life are compressed onto those two CDs. In all that time, Reznor and Alan Moulder had grown so close to the music that they needed fresh insight when putting the 23 songs into some sort of order. Enter Bob Ezrin, producer of Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' (an acknowledged influence on 'The Fragile') and classic albums by Kiss and Alice Cooper.

After several failed attempts and with the album's final deadline looming, Ezrin worked through the night at Trent's New Orleans Studio, and eventually succeeded in placing each track in perfect sequence.

"I'd never examined what I was actually saying with these 20-something songs," Reznor admits. "Then I realised it could be looked at as two acts. I see Ezrin as he's leaving my studio and I say 'Bob, you did it, man!', and he says, 'Yeah, I know - I got a flight to catch'. We hugged each other and that was it."

That was it. 'The Fragile' is complete. And Trent, still a little crazy after all these years, is happier than he's been in a long time.

"At the start of this record, I felt terribly alone," he says, "like I was the only person left on Earth stuck in a studio. I feel better now. I can face myself, I can look in the mirror and like what I see. There's still a sense of loneliness and lack of completion and a desire not to be alone, but I'm getting to know myself again. I'm kind of shy. I'm afraid of people, so I just sort of hide. Nine Inch Nails is mainly about the music and you don't see too much else. I'd rather let the music stand on its own. My burning quest for celebrity status, seeing my face everywhere, has never been why I got into this in the first place. I'll deal with it, but the interest in me personally is a side-effect of what I do. I don't make music to be famous."

Ironically, Trent Reznor reveals more of his true self in one song than Marilyn Manson does in his entire autobiography. "I stopped my life to do this album," Reznor says. "An act of self-examination in the studio. I just put whatever shell of my life on hold - which has kind of helped me in a weird way, because I didn't have to think about those things. Now when I go back to it, I'm in a better place to deal with things than when I left. If that makes any sense?

I do feel really good right now," he smiles, "even though you didn't ask me that question, because I'm really proud of the record. I'm pleasantly surprised it's as cohesive as it is, and I honestly wouldn't want to change a thing about it. There's a scene in the movie of 'The Wall' where the guy smashes up a hotel room and tries to put it back together. As he tries, it's obviously not right, but he's trying to make semblance of things. That's a visual that I've used in my head. It's helped me."

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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