Pulse Magazine November 1999

Nine Inch Nails

Down on the beach, warm Caribbean waters lap against the lounge chairs of pale empty-nesters: flocks of dentists and insurance brokers, husbands and wives eager to rekindle the romance of honeymoons long past. Ordering mai tai's from white-uniformed waiters while the hotel band performs indigenous island music (e.g.: "Kokomo," "Yellow Bird," "Margaritaville"), they settle into their blissful reverie, little imagining that, here, in their very midst, lurks the man who taught their children to sing: "I want to fuck you like an animal."

Greetings from Nassau, tropical haven for rich recording stars, a fantasy island that's only weeks away from being pummeled by the 20th century's last great hurricane. But first this tropical paradise will play host to an even more tempestuous guest:

Ladies and gentlemen, for your dining and dancing pleasure, the dark auteur who produced and promoted Marilyn Manson, the mastermind and sole proprietor of Nine Inch Nails, who, in just two albums, 1989's Pretty Hate Machine and 1994's The Downward Spiral, managed to reconstruct elements of two "underground" musical movements--industrial and goth--into an unlikely formula for hate-pop success, Mister Trent Reznor!

"Pretty rock star-ish, isn't it?" smirks Reznor, sitting cross-legged on the couch of a seaside suite adjacent to Nassau's Compass Point studios, where he's rehearsing the touring version of The Fragile (on nothing/Interscope), NIN's first album in five years. "We had a month to practice, so I thought let's do it somewhere that I can fool myself into thinking I'm on my vacation. It hasn't been a vacation, but at least I'm not looking out the same window every day."

For Reznor, the years between albums were a bleak period. "I had put out Downward Spiral, and then I lived a downward spiral and wound up in a terrible place," he says. Shaken by the death of the grandmother who raised him after his parents divorced, Reznor discovered that years of making depression fashionable had, in fact, left him clinically depressed. And who would have thought that success could, well, suck?

"As much as people want to put you up on a pedestal, they just can't wait to grand-slam you down," says Reznor. "People who you think are your friends are turning on you, and all these other people are kissing your ass. And I looked in the mirror one day and went, 'Who the fuck?' What have I turned into, you know?"

Realizing his disposition wasn't quite sunny enough to fit in with L.A.'s culture and climate, Reznor naturally relocated to New Orleans and set about recording in a converted mortuary.

"We just found an old building, and it happened to be a funeral parlor," insists Reznor, whose previous abode in the Hollywood Hills just happened to be the infamous house where the Manson-Tate murders took place. "We found one that had large rooms and, bit by bit, turned it into a full world-class studio that catered to how we work. We have tons and tons of effects and instruments lying around everywhere. The control room is really big, so you can make music in there instead of behind glass. It's mostly me doing it, so it's easier to have the shit just laying next to the board."

Reznor only spent the latter half of his five-year "hiatus" working on The Fragile. Prior to that, he was busy producing Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar album and commandeering his own two-year marathon tour with Nine Inch Nails. "My philosophy when we're on the road is that I've always felt like it could be over tomorrow, so let's enjoy it. If there's something going on, count me in. I like to get immersed in it. I've toured with bands where it's like nine o' clock and they're back in the hotel sleeping, reading a book and bitchin' about being on the road the whole time and how they can't wait to go back home. And I've always thought, fuck that, enjoy it--how often do human beings get to be put into a position like that? I mean, it can be a great thing.

"But then the tour bus comes to a stop, and it's time to go back and write a record. I'm not the kind of guy that's written a lot on the road, and my best stuff comes from being able to sit and think, and being able to achieve some degree of meditation or contemplation. You know, it's not like when there's 15 minutes before soundcheck, I can go and get my notebook. It takes me that long just to find my notebook. But that's also a lack of discipline on my part.

"It's just difficult to stop, take the circus tent down and try to pretend you're normal again, and the reason I live in New Orleans is because nobody cares who you are there. You know, nobody cares about Nine Inch Nails, and I didn't want to get into some existence where I'm always onstage, where, if I'm going out to 7-Eleven, I've got to put my costume on, you know?"

Did you know that untreated depression can cause sleeplessness, eating disorders and even sexual dysfunction? In the studio lounge, members of Team NIN stare blankly at a TV monitor where the proprietor of a Miami clinic is hawking his mental health services with the zeal of a used-car dealer. Guitarist Robin Finck, who recently rejoined the fold after a stint with the reclusive Guns N' Roses, fixes himself a sandwich. Down the hall, a New York publicist and photographer tough out the tropical heat and humidity in stylish black, while Daisy, Reznor's more sensibly dressed Weimaraner, sniffs pantlegs and casually bites the arm of a nearby journalist. Further on is a studio reserved for playback of NIN's newly mixed The Fragile. While the readout on the SSL mixing console displays an earlier Mariah Carey session, the music that comes crashing through the monitors is a far cry from Carey, Puff Daddy or any of the other pop star clients who tend to record here in the Bahamas.

The making of The Fragile, which clocks in at nearly two hours, began with Reznor retreating to an isolated cabin in Big Sur, Calif., at the suggestion of his friend Rick Rubin. "I started this record off thinking I was going to relearn or break down how I'd written in the past and try to do it a different way, just simplifying," says Reznor, whose attempts to compose using just voice and piano or guitar proved frustrating. "That was a failed experiment," he admits, "but it started that way, and the idea of that was to get better at the craft of songwriting. I'd been listening to 'The White Album' a lot, and I just really appreciate the craftsmanship of the songs. And I started thinking about how everything I'd done up to Downward Spiral would start out as just a collage of sound, and then putting a melody and a vocal on top of it to turn it into a song. I'd never really sat down and thought about melodies so much as just: Here's the words, here's the music, put a mic on, and something comes out and it's a melody.

"I just heard a little bit of Downward Spiral the other day," Reznor continues. "We're rehearsing now, and someone put on a track to learn a part. It was 'Reptile.' And I walked into the studio, and I started listening, and I thought, this sounds really naive. A little primitive, you know? It didn't sound bad, but it just sounded like it wasn't the same me that did that record, you know? I have morphed into something else, right? I'd hope to say evolved into something, you know, but I don't know if that really is the case."

Although Reznor found the Big Sur experiment more alienating than idyllic, his attention to songwriting is very much apparent on The Fragile. Would the Trent Reznor of Pretty Hate Machine days have come up with the falsetto melodic hook in "The Big Comedown," let alone a half-dozen moody instrumental tracks that range from aggro to ambient? Working with Smashing Pumpkins/My Bloody Valentine producer Alan Moulder, Reznor opted for a hybrid approach, integrating more traditionally composed songs with soundscapes that evolved from using the studio as a compositional tool. "When Allen came aboard and I played him 15 demos I had, I explained to him the approach I wanted to try, and we both knew we were in for the long haul. We didn't know it would be as long as it was, but we assumed it would probably be a year. It ended up being twice that."

Along the way, Reznor brought in a series of guests, including King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew, Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson (who adds some trademark Aladdin Sane dissonance to "Ripe With Decay"), Skinny Puppy producer Dave Ogilvie, and even rap impresario Dr. Dre.

"One thing that's come out of this record is that I'm not as cripplingly shy in the studio," says Reznor. "I have more confidence. I can work with other people now and not be so intimidated that I can't make a sound. I feel a lot more confident on a musical level. In the future, I'm really aiming towards becoming involved in much more collaborative situations, outside of Nine Inch Nails and maybe even within Nine Inch Nails. I like the idea of just going head-to-head with someone else and seeing what we're both capable of."

As an example, Reznor cites a recent session where he actually handed over the production reins to someone else. "I sat in the studio with Dr. Dre for a day, just fucking around on some new stuff, and had him produce me kind of thing. Treating me as a musician, and him as the arranger and producer. And what little we did--and it was just done to kill some time while we had nothing to do on something else--it was really satisfying to not have to wear all hats at all times, you know what I mean? To have someone else that you respect, that's coming from a different perspective, I mean, both of us realizing we're from different worlds, kind of seeing, 'Oh, that's how you do that!'"

Quite a step for an artist who once sang, "I'd rather die than give you control." Reznor smiles. "Just some people, now," he cautions. "It's a question of respect, remember?"

Thematically, The Fragile finds Reznor moving from the total alienation of The Downward Spiral toward meditations on relationships, embattled though they may be. While critics have already hailed the sunny side of the single, "We're In This Together," tracks like it and "I Won't Let You Fall Apart" are more an exploration of codependent paranoia. Reznor smiles at the suggestion that he's come up with a "You and Me Against the World" for manic depressives, and he admits to concerns that the song's ironies will be overlooked. "I wanted 'We're In This Together' to be a tragic, desperate kind of song that wasn't as surface as it appeared at the very first level. We also had a nightmarish time recording that track, because if it didn't come off desperate enough, it would just sound bad. So a lot of care went into trying to get the vocals to sit right. I needed it to sound like the speakers were going to blow up."

While Reznor began The Downward Spiral with an identifiable story arc, The Fragile was a more intuitive effort. "It wasn't as direct a message as Downward Spiral, which is about someone systematically analyzing and destroying every bit of what's around their core, peeling off the layers, attempts at relationships with love, attempts at religion, attempts at why I am who I am. To just strip it away. It takes you down and it stays down . . . You peel away the layers and kill yourself at the end."

The Fragile is somewhat more optimistic and a whole lot less linear. The album also finds Reznor indulging a range of musical tangents, including a marching band (albeit synthesized) on "Pilgrimage" that harks back to Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. Appropriately enough, Reznor and Moulder ended up calling on '70s-identified producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd's The Wall, Lou Reed's Berlin) to sort out the final running order.

"We had a list of people we thought would be cool to bring in--people like Todd Rundgren, Brian Eno and Ivo from 4AD--but Bob Ezrin was at the top of the list. He came to New Orleans for a week, and we set him up with Pro Tools out back." Ezrin's initial attempts to sequence the material into a coherent album were unsuccessful and only served to convince Reznor that, after all this time, the album was still far from completion. "He was supposed to leave that day, but he said, 'I'll blow it off, I can't leave you in this state, because I've never left a project,'" recalls Reznor.

After a last-minute heart-to-heart talk, Ezrin got the insight he needed to put together the perfect sequence. "He really got into my head and I got into his head. He pretty much psychoanalyzed what I had come up with, and after that talk he came up with the order that you just heard. It wasn't a cry for help so much as we wanted some objective input."

Reznor is quick to point out that the recording and mixing were all finished by the time Ezrin was recruited. "I want to stress that, after two-plus years of work, it wasn't like in one week this shining knight comes in. But he came in in this weird role, and what we asked him to do, he did a really good job."

With its ambitious scope, the 23-track The Fragile almost feels like a throwback to the heady days of concept albums, albeit without characters or a discernible plotline. "There's a lot of things in there that I think are going back to my '70s records roots," says Reznor, "a lot of the song structures and the fact that I wanted it to be an album, you know? I used to like listening to a piece of work that was 10 or 20 songs long, instead of 'Oh, we got two good songs, just skip around on your CD player.' God forbid you hit the random button. It's not meant to be that way, you know? The random button is my enemy."

As for the supposed brevity of contemporary attention spans, Reznor insists he's unconcerned. "I agree that it's kind of unfashionable for today's climate, but I don't think that's a bad thing. I think that's all the more reason to do it. And it's not just to buck what's going on now. I think there's something to be said for giving people credit. You should give people the benefit of the doubt."

Still, amid the press frenzy in the wake of The Downward Spiral's success, Reznor began having doubts of his own. Alternative Press proclaimed the new Nine Inch Nails the "Most Anticipated Album of 1998," and a year later, after Reznor failed to release anything, updated it to "Most Anticipated Album of 1999." "It wasn't writer's block, it was just motivation difficulty," says Reznor. "You know, I was just really questioning: Wow, I never thought I'd ever even get a record deal, let alone have people care about what I'm doing. And at the peak of that, reading 'most anticipated record of the year,' and I haven't started it yet, you know? I didn't want to start it. I didn't know if I wanted to do this anymore. And then 'most anticipated of next year,' and [moans], 'WILL HE SAVE ROCK?' I don't want to fuckin' save rock! You're sittin' in the studio playing a part, and you're thinking, 'Is that going to save rock? That part's not going to do it. What about this idea? I don't know, that might sustain it for a second, but it's not going to save it, you know?'"

If Reznor was daunted by the prospects of having to save rock, he was also dismayed when purists accused him of killing industrial music. "After we started getting big, an interesting thing did happen in the little subculture of industrial or whatever. What happens when a band starts to take off? Every major label asks, 'Well, who else is like that?' And so what do they do? Skinny Puppy gets a big money deal. Front 242 gets a big money deal. And they implode. If it's the sellout factor, then they're right in line to get the big paycheck, and a lot of those bands disappeared because they got sucked into that. When the stakes get higher, it's a lot easier to fuck up, you know?"

Of course, like most other artists early on in their careers, Reznor drew upon obvious influences. "I never really sat down and consciously said, 'I'm going to take X, Y and Z, and then add this to it,' but that's what I did," he admits. So what were X, Y and Z? "It would have been the aggressiveness of [British producer] Adrian Sherwood around the era of Ministry's 'Twitch.' And what interested me about that aesthetic was, being a keyboard player and liking electronic music, but feeling that too many people read the manuals and they were doing it right. Then I heard a lot of Sherwood's approach, where it sounded like something was really wrong. It had all the kind of danger of the hardest rock or heavy metal, but it was done in a way that could never be done before, because there wasn't the technology to do it. I really liked the music that was umbrella'd under industrial here in America--Neubauten, Test Dept., Cabaret Voltaire, Front 242, Skinny Puppy. I really like the bludgeoning ridiculousness of it, you know, the aggression of it.

"Another part of it was the bleakness of the Cure, the coldness of Depeche Mode when they were at their best, or like Telekon by Gary Numan. I still listen to that record, I mean, it's fucking great. Because it's just cold-sounding. I still remember as a kid when I discovered Pleasure Principle. Sometimes it was just comical. I didn't take it seriously, but it scared me at one point. It painted an emotional place that wasn't pleasant to be at. It seemed creepy, science fiction in an unpleasant way.

"And then I liked the lyrical nature of the Smiths and the Cure, and add to that XTC's songwriting. The musicality of XTC appealed to me, although it really wasn't apparent in my other stuff. But it all kind of seeped in."

Though Reznor never set out to be "hated for ruining a genre of music," he knew melodicism was "what separated us from the pack of contemporaries at that time. There were songwriting elements in there that weren't present in some of the other bands.

"I always felt a bit lightweight around other bands I thought I liked. I wasn't really as tough as they were, you know, I'm not that macho. You know that stupid shit you get into: My guitar is as loud as yours. Or we're sellouts because Wal-Mart sells our record, or because your little sister has 'Head Like a Hole' stuck in her head. Or MTV played us and they didn't play you! There was a time when I was concerned about that. It worried me that the fanzines that praised you initially had to turn their backs on you. Because it's the same record they liked six months ago, but now, their little sister has it, and now it's not cool. You know what I mean? I thought that wasn't fair. What the fuck did I do? Of course, there was a time when I would have been one of those people.

"In a way, I think [the 1992 EP] Broken was kind of a knee-jerk to a lot of that. Just to try to piss people off so they wouldn't like me anymore, and I'd be cool again. And as dumb as that sounds, you know, you get into that distorted mindset. And then, I finally said, fuck those people, you know, I'm going to make what I feel is right. And if I'm a bad guy for having a chorus, then go get something else, you know?"

Meanwhile, Reznor has his own bad guy to contend with. After producing the cartoon version of himself that is Marilyn Manson, Reznor felt his protégé turned on him in his autobiography.

"We were best friends at one time, and I think some of the trappings of success have distorted both our personalities in such a way that we're not friends right now," says Reznor. "And I have acted as maliciously as he has, you know, so leave it at that. Am I hurt by the whole situation? Yeah. Do I feel betrayed? Yes. Am I staying up at night worrying about it? No. Am I ready to make amends? No, no, not right now. There's too much. He's a smart guy, you know, and I respect his art. But as a friend, I've been let down."

Marilyn Manson isn't the only one of Nine Inch Nails' opening acts that have gotten ugly. Hole's Courtney Love took to mocking Reznor--at one point questioning the size of his, er, nail--and the artist still winces at the idea of Marilyn and Courtney trying to tour together. "Well, I knew how it was going to end before it started, you know? I knew them intimately, and you just knew it was going to end in tears."

Asked about the inspiration for The Fragile's most vindictive songs, "You Don't" and "Starfuckers, Inc.," Reznor insists there's no shortage. "There really isn't one thing we're talking about," he says. "If I'm looking for inspiration, I know where to draw from. I mean, 'Starfuckers' had about 75 verses at one time . . . "

I'm invisible right now," says Trent Reznor as the sun sets over the Bahamas. While that's not technically true, Reznor's recently shorn hair, "fuct" T-shirt and running shorts do serve as a good disguise from those expecting the goth poster boy of days gone by. "While we were mastering the record in L.A., I waited in line at the Nuart to see The Blair Witch Project. The line went around the block, and no one recognized me. I cut my hair, and no one knows what I look like now! Fuck, man."

And what about the music? Will fans stay loyal, especially those who discovered the band in the less-than- subtle environment of the rock arena? "I remember when we were getting off TVT and talking to some labels, an A&R guy saying how we got in at the tail end of the career artist," says Reznor. "At one point, with Fleetwood Mac or Bruce Springsteen, people were interested in what they put out. If there was a big single, all right. But if there wasn't, you still waited in line to get that record. You were just interested in that artist. [But] two hours of music, and it's not really background music . . . Am I thinking that everybody that's ever seen our show or heard 'Closer' is going to accept this? No, I don't at all. But I think it's an important piece of work that I'm proud of."

Reznor also feels that he's remained true to himself, although he sometimes envies his hero and tourmate David Bowie for being able to reinvent himself though the use of characters. "When I wrote Pretty Hate Machine, I didn't know how to write songs," says Reznor, who instead used fragments from his personal journal. "I'm just telling them the truth about stuff. Because I always felt, you know, I'm not that exciting. I wasn't like a male prostitute or anything. So I just tell the truth about things and [so] people kind of know me. They don't know me as a person, but they know a lot about the way I feel about things that I didn't conceal. I wasn't smart enough to know what I was sacrificing when I said, 'Here's my guts, go ahead and do what you want with it.'"

Perhaps not coincidentally, Reznor is no stranger to the world of overzealous fans and even restraining orders. "I've had some intrusions, but that comes with the territory," he says. "I think our fans are a bit more intense, but I'd much rather connect with someone on that level than be the 'great to fuck to' band. 'I know where you're coming from, I can relate to that.' I hear that a lot, and that's a good compliment. And it's flattering. If I had more of a life for people to intrude on, I might feel differently."

Getting a life beyond Nine Inch Nails is on Reznor's agenda--it's just not that high up. "That's part of a trade-off, really, the me that's not Nine Inch Nails has become far less important than the Nine Inch Nails part of me. Because it's almost overtaken it really. And I've sacrificed things to do this. Like, I don't have very many friends, I don't have much time to do anything else . . . I do have some friends, but those are the people who hear from me by phone every six months: 'It's me, I love you, but you know how it is' . . . I envy some of my friends and acquaintances who have degrees of normality, things I thought I'd never give a shit about. Christmastime I started getting crazy. I don't even have a house. I mean, I do now, but it was always like, fuck, when is the tour over? How many weeks? Where would I go? I don't even have anybody I want to go with, you know? I was in that frame of mind."

Reznor's disillusionment with success didn't help. "I foolishly thought at one point that just being successful would bring me some degree of contentedness and happiness, and that really was not the case," he says. "I'm very unbalanced at the moment where the Nine Inch Nails portion of my life has taken over whatever the other part was. And I think a part of me tends to immerse myself in things as an excuse not to deal with people in the real world."

At 34, Reznor is coming around to the idea that people may well be the only real cure for loneliness. But family life will have to wait until he has time to fully participate. "My focus right now is really working on maximizing what I can do within the frame of Nine Inch Nails while people are still interested. And if the price of that is giving up a degree of normality for a while--or ever--I wouldn't trade it. I wouldn't go back if I could."

Reznor smiles, a bit joylessly. "I've got the rest of my life to be well-rounded," he says, "if I make it that far."

by Bill Forman