X Press Magazine February 2000

TRENT REZNOR : The Higher Road

There's a heavy weight to be found in the seconds when Trent Reznor pauses, as he gathers his thoughts. The man's contemplative silence evokes almost as much depth of response as his spoken word, but when he moves to reply, his answers are sincere, heartfelt and obliging, given that he's often drawn to discuss the inner workings of his mind and being.

"I haven't found exactly what works right for me yet," he ponders boldly, before adding, revealingly, "but there's a realization that it's okay to need some help."

Speaking a few weeks back on the morning of the Gold Coast Big Day Out, Reznor often seemed contemplative of his state-of-mind before, during and after the making of the new Nine Inch Nails album, The Fragile. That may seem fair enough, given that such things are (hopefully) the very stuff of interviews, but given the privacy the man seeks, not to mention the blood and anguish already conveyed in Nine Inch Nails' music, his ability and willingness to peer into his soul for a stranger-on-the-line is surprising.

Then again, it's not as though The Fragile was a run of the mill recording experience. Given Reznor's very nature and the primal scream that is the music of Nine Inch Nails, it never could be.

Even so, the album was completely a product and process of the complex history that preceded it - the mass popularity of 1994's The Downward Spiral album; the two years of intense (in every sense) touring that followed it; Reznor's soundtrack work on Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and David Lynch's The Lost Highway; his production of Marilyn Manson's breakthrough album, Antichrist Superstar, then the horrible and very public disintegration of their friendship; the death of his grandmother, the woman who raised him from the age of five. It all rolls out point-form-like on paper, but these things backed Reznor into a corner and The Fragile - some two years in the making - was his way out or at least up. The history of the man may appear along the lines of a bitter soap opera, but there's no doubting the stark reality inside the music. Nine Inch Nails will take on the Orange Stage of the Big Day Out at 7.30pm this Sunday.


Recording an album is an insular kind of experience at the best of times, but that seemed especially so with The Fragile. Now that the touring for the album has kicked in how's it feel to be back out there in the wide, wide world?

Well we've just started, so I can't give you a real, truthful, experienced answer there, but it's gone much better than I feared it might have. For The Downward Spiral I thought we'd turned into a pretty good live band. And also a band where we knew our dynamic. We knew the dynamic of the music and we knew how to present that dynamic.

Incorporating music from The Fragile was a bit more of a challenge because it was a little less jumping up and down and screaming and a little more thinking and playing. I was wondering how to make a set that could travel the path of the history of where we've been and where we are right now. I was also wondering if the old material, like the stuff off Pretty Hate Machine (NIN's 1989 debut album), would still sound pertinent to me. I was real surprised when we started rehearsing that a lot of that had to do with the fact that we had a new drummer (Jerome Dillon) - that it really seemed alive. It seemed fresh not at all dated, the songs we chose.

The difficult task of working out songs from The Fragile as a live band now were quite a bit more complex. That was a bit of a challenge. Then when we played our first show in Barcelona (in November last year) everybody knew all the words to all the new songs and all the old songs. It was a welcome sigh of relief. So, its been going quite well.

Most recent press about Nine Inch Nails tends to focus in part on how apparently long it took The Fragile to come out. Are you getting tired of hearing that?

Well, of course I'm gonna hear that. Am I getting a bit tired of it? Yeah. People think it took me five years to make an album, it's not accurate, because for two years we toured for The Downward Spiral. A little over two years. Then I did the Manson Antichrist Superstar record and that took longer than expected, several months.

So there's almost three years out of that time gone. The rest of the time I wasted up until the time that it took me to do it. It took me two years to do The Fragile. Now that, in itself, is ridiculous. That is a long time. But it wasn't a five-year process, it was just five years between records. Given that it was borne out of those hard years of touring, then the experience of producing Antichrist Superstar, followed by the death of your grandmother, is The Fragile, both as a creative process and as a work of music, about transition for you? Very much so. I think transition and a kind of enlightenment. I feel that it is a much more positive record than The Downward Spiral, which starts somewhere at the top then bottoms. This one starts at the bottom and winds its way, at least searching for a way out or up. It was definitely a rewarding and healing process for me.

Almost therapeutic in a sense?

Very, very much so.

Has music always been that way for you?

Nine Inch Nails has always been that way for me. That kind of came out of feeling like I was either gonna explode or I could bend it some useful way. That became writing angry music which was very heartfelt or naked, that had a sense of honesty to it. That when I screamed it out I felt a lot better about it and I realized I'd made something that had a sense of beauty to it. I turned the anger and ugliness into something nice. That became a kind of self-found way of therapy. A way to get better. A way to feel better about myself.

Then when we played the music live, way back when, to see people screaming the lyrics back at you it meant something to them. I don't know them, but something in what I'd written had struck a chord in something in their lives. That made me feel even better. It made me feel like there was a purpose here. I've continued that kind of thread through The Fragile, which is a different set of emotions and from a different place, but still very much me. It's very much me screwing the top off my head and examining what's in there; poking around trying to figure out why I feel a certain way and express that somehow.

Lou Reed said of his 1989 album, New York, that it was a song cycle that needed to be experienced in its entirety in the manner in which you'd read a book or watch a film. Is that how you view the two-discs that make up The Fragile?

I view each side that way. Both discs. I think that skipping around and independently hearing tracks out of context is not nearly as important as looking at the whole work. Now I realize that also requires a substantial commitment of time and effort on the listener and I think that in today's short-attention-span world that makes this record even more of an aberration.

So, both sides together, that's the way to listen to it. But one disc stands independently and distinctly on its own.

Given the huge success in '94-'95 with The Downward Spiral, did you have any expectations as to at least to the initial reaction to an album - indeed a double album - like The Fragile?

In my mind - during the process of making it and stripping my own self down and re-thinking my head and my music and the way I make music - I kind of figured that we were starting from scratch with this record. Because it's different sonically; I'm older; quite some time has passed; the music out there now has changed; the climate has changed. I was very proud of the record I delivered, but I was very unsure of what the reaction would be. If anyone still cared.

When you juxtapose it against the other music that is in the charts, it certainly stuck out as something that didn't fit in very well. So it was a pleasant surprise to see it do well, initially. And it was nice to have, for the most part, critical acclaim.

You obviously feel quite detached from the music world at large.

I do, generally. I have very few friends I'd mention, that's just 'cause I'm a hermit. But what's going on musically right now, I don't hear a lot that excites me. The occasional thing here and there is good, but in general the climate of disposable pop music I have no interest in. I realize why there's a need for it, but enough's enough.

The Fragile is something of a guitar-driven album yet totally at odds with what's touted as 'guitar music' these days. Was that intentional or just the path of the creative process?

As far as what my subconscious was up to, I can't answer that. But consciously, I can honestly say that there was nothing on the approach of this record that would say 'fuck you' to what's happening right now, or to be a knee-jerk reaction to anything. It really was me and (engineer/mixer) Alan Moulder sitting down and taking the time to figure out what inspired us and try things that we never had time to do in the past. To go down avenues of ways to record and ways to structure songs; ways to layer songs on top of each other all kinds of approaches. We found ourselves surprisingly working on guitar pretty much all of the time. I don't think it sounds necessarily guitar-ish, but I'd say some 90% of the sounds on there were generated by a guitar or some kind of stringed instrument that we manipulated or played around with. We really approached this kind of like an art project. It was in the mode of 'I don't know if anyone's gonna like Nine Inch Nails anymore. I have my own studio and I have a label that's allowing me enough time to do what I want to do right'. You can abuse that, which we probably did a little bit, but we really allowed ourselves to sit down and approach it purely as art, to see where it would take us.

We didn't sit down with a game plan. I didn't sit down with a real distinct set of rules like I did with The Downward Spiral. I really wanted to see what came out of my head and see where I was at. The rule became to let the subconscious take over. 'Whatever path that leads to, let's follow that, see where it goes and later we'll be editorial and see what was full of shit and what was good'. There was a lot of ideas pouring out. It was never two guys sitting around scratching their heads with a desperate look on their faces.

It was always too many things. I didn't want to initially funnel them into any one direction 'cause I didn't know where I might be leading to. Later in the record it became much more editorial, it was `now let's make this sound like an album' or `let's fit this to that song to help it make sense'. A lot of that.

What about the lyrical process, was it happening throughout the creation of the music, or at a certain time during recording? Was it a daunting or troubling process?

It's a hellish procedure. It's the one that is the most rewarding, but also the most difficult, harrowing and frustrating at times. It was probably a third of the way through the process of the record that I even started on anything. We did all instrumental things to see what moved and what areas we were going into. Plus I needed some time to regain my confidence as a musician and as a human being before I felt that I had the courage to start investigating what was in my head and making sense of it lyrically. I rarely sit down and try to write a story. Usually I'm trying to verbalize some emotion and create something out of that.

You're touring Australia as part of the Big Day Out. Do you feel that festivals are a good forum for Nine Inch Nails, given your disdain for much of popular or so called 'alternative' music?

I would have said no before the first show we did (the Auckland Big Day Out on January 21). What we've done is cater our show to this kind of situation. I think a more appropriate show is our own, in our own environment, where we've got an audience that hasn't been in the sun for 10 hours. But we've made a set that we feel is challenging yet appropriate for this kind of situation.

It went over a lot better with the first show we did than, again, I feared it might. Because we're sandwiched in between two rock bands - The Foo Fighters and the Chili Peppers - and I like both of them, but it's like I don't know if we're the party kind of band that fits that environment, plus we're playing in the daylight for the first two-thirds of the set. It's a little bit out of our element, but it's a challenge that we're up to try and so far I think it's a success.

You're a very private person, yet aspects of your personal life have been thrown into the public domain by what the likes of Marilyn Manson and Courtney Love have said in the press. Is that hard for you to deal with or is it something you've become used to, if and when it happens?

Um... it's always hard to deal with. It's less hard now, because usually what comes out of their mouth is is 90% false. Then I'm forced into a position of 'do I retort to that? Or do I just let it go and take the higher road?' Most of the time I try to take the higher road. It's frustrating because there's rumors and stories about you, after, that are not true. Or there's a shred of truth and it's been altered to benefit whoever's saying those things. At times it's very hurtful. Now there's a (pause) ... kind of a shield up. I don't feel like they can get to me as much anymore.

Prior to The Fragile you stated that you'd attained everything in life except spiritual satisfaction. It reminded me of Mick Jagger's famous quote at a late '60s press conference when he was asked if, a couple years on from writing the song Satisfaction, he had actually attained it. He said `Sexually, yes. Financially, no. Philosophically... trying'. After the experience of the last five years, and the process and result of The Fragile, how are you doing?

I would agree with Mick's response to those, almost 100%. When The Downward Spiral was out I was like 'I'm a self-contained entity. I don't need anybody, anything, any God, any reason. I've been fucked around long enough. I'm here on my own. Period. And fuck you'. That was kind of my spirituality level at that time.

What The Fragile kind of taught me was a sense of needing people, humans, for a reason. For spirituality, a sense of a God or a purpose or whatever it might be. I haven't found exactly wha tworks right for me yet, but there's a realisation that it's okay to need some help. It's okay to interact with people.

There's a sense of karma in most people, that if you put out it comes back at you. I believe that very strongly. That's what working on The Fragile, that era, turned around for me. So just write Mick's answers for me on that one.