Trent Reznor

By Mike Gee for Icon Magazine on January 1, 2000

The war has begun again. And there is already a minor casualty after the first 11 skirmishes of The Fragile campaign. Blood has flowed - as it has for more than a decade.

It's hard to see Nine Inch Nails and its general and mastermind, Trent Reznor, in any other light. Since 34-year-old multi-instrumentalist Michael Trent Reznor, of Mercer, Philadelphia[sic], first emerged in the summer of 1988 in Cleveland, Ohio, after short stints in four local outfits - Innocent, Exotic Birds, Problems and Lucky Pierre - with a three-track demo tape and the debut incarnation of NIN (enough to earn him a contract with TVT Records), it's doubtful that any other modern artist has so successfully defined the notion that life is a war, a struggle where the dark side constantly smothers the light, suffocating beauty and love in a nightmare of psychosis, pain and emotional treachery.

Sex and love are weapons, the primal scream is a daily tear for release. The pressure and intensity are unrelenting.

The soundtrack was initially dark industrial and electro-shock rock over two critically-hailed albums, Pretty Hate Machine (1989) and the massive selling (five million plus in the US alone) Downward Spiral (1994). Remarkably, to some, Reznor's personal war mirrored that of youth caught in a cultural and social no-man's land as the world accelerated beyond its own capability to understand exactly where it's going and what it's doing.

If there is a moment in early NIN history that defines Reznor's catalogue of agony it is the 1992 EP Broken and, in particular, the track Happiness In Slavery which was accompanied by a video featuring performance artist and supermasochist Bob Flanagan being tortured by a machine. Tormented and over-powering, Happiness In Slavery took the groundswell of songs such as Head Like a Hole and Sin - which had set the video standard with images of men smearing blood on their bodies and genitalia piercing - and nailed it to a cross for all to see.

On its release The Downward Spiral became the catch phrase of a generation. Never has being screwed up seemed so normal. The singles March Of the Pigs and Closer confirmed the power of NIN's dark dynasty. Tracks (Burn, Something I Can Never Have) on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994) added to the chaotic jungle of comment swirling around Reznor. The remix album Further Down The Spiral (1995) and the stunning track The Perfect Drug (1997) from the David Lynch-directed Lost Highway soundtrack reaffirmed that a Reznor in hiding had lost none of his potency.

Finally, in 1999, five years after The Downward Spiral, Reznor and NIN - which to now had been a loosely organised support to its mainman, the line-up in constant flux - released The Fragile, a double album that redefines their canon with its meld of trademark industrial rock and surprising moments of gentleness and electronic ambience. It takes more than a few sittings to digest Reznor's altered vision.

However, the world's press needed little convincing. Almost to a man and woman they fell over themselves in praise. Time declared Reznor "one of the most influential people of the decade", Spin said he was "the most vital artist in music today" and Rolling Stone placed him alongside David Bowie, Lou Reed and Eno as a musical auteur while calling the album "a delicate and brutal masterpiece".

And so the war continues. At stake is the future of music, at least that's the way Reznor sees it. "I would only hope that maybe, in a world of insincere, bullshit, pop-music crap, this music might make a difference. And that's why I do it: I think it does," he said, in a recent interview.

NIN keyboardist, sometimes vocalist and theremin player, Charlie Clouser, is lying on a couch in the band's New Orleans studio reflecting on his role in what has now become a fully-fledged and seemingly settled outfit where the members are beginning to have some input in the recorded work and are more than just foot soldiers in Reznor's personal crusade.

"It was only 11 gigs but we had one good band member injury and a lot of broken gear," he says. "Robin [Finck] our guitar player, formerly of Nine Inch Nails, formerly of Cirque Du Soleil, formerly of Guns 'N' Roses, now back in Nine Inch Nails, took a hit from something, either his own guitar, his own microphone stand or the drum kit he fell on top of during the third show in Munich. He somehow wound up with six stitches over his eye. There was lots of blood flowing everywhere and it looked very impressive. We've reviewed the video tapes and we still can't work out how it happened. He just came up minus a guitar and with an injury.

"I guess we do get caught up in the heat of the moment. There's a lot of songs in the set like March Of The Pigs, Gave Up and Wish that are full on, pedal to the metal, mania kind of songs. It only feels right when you're playing them to get a little out of hand. The music is definitely out of hand."

Clouser talks about the initial burst of touring, the fact that NIN has yet to tackle the US live with The Fragile, its place in the musical charter of the late '90s and the way current trend may benefit them more - particularly the growing rediscovery of the fact that just because a piece of music is long and complicated doesn't mean it's boring or self-indulgent - than it may have worked against them in the short, grunge-influenced, radio-driven consciousness of the mid-'90s. It is further evidence that NIN is now indeed more than Reznor with a supporting cast. It also begs the question, Where does Trent stop and the band start in the creative process? After all, five years is a long time to make a record.

"It was different on this record to any of the previous ones, " Clouser says. "At the end of the last big touring cycle Trent was really liking what the band was sounding like and wanted to inject as much of that energy as he could back into the record making process and to open things up to a little more collaboration.

"Part of that is because this is like the third or fourth round of guys he's had in his band. I joined the band on the strength of studio work I was doing for Trent and remixes I was doing for Nails and Marilyn Manson [signed to Reznor's Nothing records]. Eventually, he said 'Why don't you become my keyboard player, it's much easier that way, it'll save me one hotel room when we go on tour' because I was already going on tour to set up a portable studio that we'd set up in hotel rooms.

"At the end of last Downward Spiral tour he said, 'Hey, I want you guys to move down to New Orleans and be part of whatever the next record becomes and we'll all start generating songs ideas and rhythm tracks and drum programmes and we'll put it into a big pile and see what comes out of it. Surprisingly, it worked. Danny [Lohner, bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals] was able to co-write a couple of songs with him. Some of the foundations for songs which we had each created in our own separate studios here within this big facility would be turned into something different and used.

"We're all playing on most of the songs. There's a lot of guitar and keyboard work Danny and I had done on songs Trent had written. And he would say 'Here, take this upstairs and do whatever you like and put it on the file server'. As we were doing everything in Pro Tools on Macintosh, the business at hand downstairs could continue on while Danny and I were up in our smaller rooms recording stuff until 5am. Then we'd leave that on the file server for them to pick through at a later date. So when they came back to working on a particular song downstairs they could look on the file server and find the hours of guitars and keyboard parts we'd recorded and pick through the bits they wanted. It was the ideal environment in which to work.

"It worked out really well because we could spend a lot of time exploring the deep reaches of sonic twiddling without disturbing the main flow that was going on downstairs. That also helped facilitate what collaboration did exist.

"Although Trent can do everything in the studio if he wants to, I think, finally, he was looking for more than just one flavour. He didn't mind the added work load created by having to go through all the bits and pieces we contributed and integrate them into what he was doing. It would have wound up taking four years to make the record, not two, if it was just one guy in the control room by himself. And you have to remember that all of us were in there 12 to 15 hours a day or more for those two years, every day, plugged up that computer's ass."

Obviously when NIN goes out live, the songs take on a completely different character. These songs, as Clouser says, are not dealt with as an entity to be played by five guys. None of the songs on The Fragile were recorded with more than one person playing at a time. As such it is a tapestry made up of thousands and thousands of individual parts. As a result the more complicated, intricate and delicate songs on the album end up sounding "tougher and more punk rock" live because the level of detail can't be reproduced and, in some cases, even if it was it would be impossible to discern in a live mix.

Reznor also apparently doesn't want the live versions to be carbon copies of the album originals and allows the band to take considerable liberties on stage with the way they approach playing each track, preferably in a tougher, more aggressive fashion. War, after all, needs to be fuelled by adrenalin.

If it sounds intense, it's because it is. There are no half measures when it comes to Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor isn't the kind of guy who's going to go out for a night on the town chasing skirt, getting drunk, having drag races down the beach front or some empty highway and generally hanging out. He's the antithesis of Disney and candy floss. But is he the dark, twisted, wizard of decay, living in some dimly-lit castle, hiding in the shadows, with nothing else but nightmares, cold technology and broken emotion to fuel his dreams? The media would love him to be so.

"He's definitely extremely intense in terms of his focus and drive and creativity," Clouser says. "It's not a nine-to-five job . It's wake-up go the studio, eat breakfast at the studio, stay there until it's time to go directly home to bed. It was like that for three solid years. A year of Manson [Reznor-produced Antichrist Superstar] and two years of our record.

"That's when he - like the rest of us - is happiest; when you're working on a song and it's almost down but not quite. It sounds great but you haven't yet ruined it by committing to a final mix. That's his intensity.

"He's not sitting around in a candlelit room chanting from the ancient texts or anything. But he's definitely extremely focused and all his time is spent working on Nine Inch Nails. A side product of what we do and the way we do it is that really it's five guys who stare at each other for two years at a time. First, you are in a studio, then you're inside a tour bus, then you're inside a studio again, and that monochromatic existence gives you plenty of fodder for these lyric themes that might lean towards the isolationist.

"It's not that Trent's crouched in the corner of a castle somewhere bemoaning his fate but he is crouched in the corner of something; he's crouched in the corner of a recording studio. It's not VIP rooms and parties. We're in New Orleans here, but there's nothing going on outside of our building. The way he - and all of us - shape our lives being in the studio 14 hours a day and not doing much outside of it affects the lyrics that come out of the guy and the tone of the music, which means that his public perception is not all that inaccurate.

"As spiritually oriented as the public perception is, his is no less focused and centred around one thing - the studio and his songs."

So the war rolls on and Trent Reznor marches to the sound of NIN's drum. And still the walls come down.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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