Further Up the Spiral
LA Times September 1999

After a five-year hiatus, Trent Reznor is back with a bleak, two-CD epic. The rock marketplace is far different than the one he left--and so is he.

It's understandable that Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor speaks with the seriousness of a man giving a deposition when he talks about his first album since 1994's "The Downward Spiral." The rock auteur is very much under scrutiny these days. "Spiral," a frightfully dark look at youthful angst, helped Reznor establish a deep, Kurt Cobain-like bond with the Generation X audience. Reznor also applied his edgy vision to the music for Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" and David Lynch's "Lost Highway" films, and he helped turn Marilyn Manson into a star by producing the shock-rocker's breakthrough album. All this led Time magazine to nominate Reznor as one of the 25 most influential people in the country in 1997, and Spin magazine to call him the most vital person in music that year. But this is 1999, an eternity since the last album by rock standards--and Reznor's return to action with his long-awaited new album is accompanied by questions and doubts about his commercial standing. The new two-disc set "The Fragile" is far from the lightweight pop-rock climate of the day. The album, which will be released Tuesday by Nothing Records, is another dark and demanding work that reflects the depression and self-doubts Reznor experienced. (See review, Page 72.) On the eve of the CD's release, Reznor, 34, speaks about his creative paralysis and recovery--and the chances of "The Fragile" in today's pop-rock world. Question: It's easy to understand the creative pressures involved in trying to follow up an album with the impact of "The Downward Spiral," but what about the commercial pressures? Didn't it worry you that you were taking so long? Answer: Sure. Nobody was more aware of how long it has been since the last record than myself. It was not a wise career move to wait this long, but I wasn't ready to put out a record until now and I'm glad I didn't because it wouldn't have been this album.

Q: There are also the changes in the pop climate since the last album. We're going through a period when audiences don't want to be challenged. Lots of other acclaimed bands from the early '90s, including Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins, have seen their fan base erode dramatically. Did that worry you?

A: Not to sound like a pompous ass, but I was watching bits of [this year's] Woodstock on TV and . . . it just seemed like nobody really cared--the bands didn't care, the fans didn't care. Well, not entirely. There was Rage Against the Machine. That's a band that is into more than just what clothes they are wearing. . . . But I just don't feel much depth out there. I think anything that is dangerous and exciting about rock music has moved over to rap or to hip-hop. However, you can't worry about all that in the studio. Ultimately, I made the record I wanted to make and I am just hoping for the best in terms of audience response. I didn't go into it thinking we were stadium-rock size. We're not where we left off [commercially]. I don't know where we are.

Q: Didn't you make it harder on yourself commercially by making the album a double CD?

A: I'm sure Interscope [which distributes Nothing Records] wasn't thrilled that it was a double CD, and I'm not a fan of double CDs. I didn't want to be one of those artists who is deluded into thinking fans want to hear every sound that you put on tape in the last two years, whether it's good or not. But the problem was that when you started taking pieces away from the album to make it one disc, it didn't feel as complete.

Q: How long did you actually spend working on the new album? Not the whole five years certainly.

A: No, the record took slightly over two years of solid, everyday work. Before that, I spent two years touring to build interest in "Downward Spiral." The main reason for that was we had no real promotional technique other than touring. MTV support was sporadic, and we never had radio behind us. So we had to rely on touring and I thought we did well. But it requires a lot of time and emotion. Over the two years, my personality became distorted.

Q: What do you mean?

A: When we got off the road, I thought, "OK, what am I going to do now?" The one thing I didn't want to do was sit in a room alone for a long time and examine myself, which is where my art comes from. I didn't know that person I had become. I had some personal tragedies going on. My grandmother, who raised me, died, and I never had to deal with that before. So I was numb. Plus, the [Marilyn] Manson camp turned sour. I thought, "Oh, OK, my best friends hate me now."

Q: What caused that split? After all, you discovered the band and produced their breakthrough album.

A: I guess you take two strong egos, mix in fame and fortune and watch what happens. There's personality distortion on both camps. I'm not pointing a finger, but there was a maliciousness on his part that I didn't expect and that I'm still saddened by. So all these pressures were building up, including pressure from people asking when my new record was coming out.

Q: What about all the acclaim that came your way long after "Downward Spiral"? Did that help you through the period or make it harder?

A: All that stuff is very flattering, but at the time it was more and more layers of pressures. As I look back, I didn't sit down and consciously say, "I really don't want to make a record right now." But I can see where I was stalling by taking on some other projects and being busy with unimportant things. In retrospect, I was afraid. Songwriting is the hardest thing I've ever attempted because it is a mirror. It forces you to deal with things about yourself, and that can be hard if you don't like what you see, and it also reinforces feelings of worthlessness because you fail more than you succeed. I throw out 90% of what I write because it's not good enough. I didn't have it in me to fail anymore at the time, so I didn't try.

Q: Have you read about rock tragedies over the years--the way people from Elvis to Cobain have been destroyed by pressures?

A: Sure, and you know what I thought about that? I thought, [expletive] those guys. What are they bitching about? And when I hear myself talking, I think, what does he have to be upset about? But there's truth to the problems that face you in this business.

Q: So what got you out of it?

A: It really came down to sitting down with myself and remembering at the piano that I love and I feel good when I play music and listen to it. That's why I got into this in the first place. With that realization came self-respect again. I remembered that all the [expletive] that comes with it is superfluous and I wasn't going to let it destroy me. I wasn't going to be another tragedy. I feel I have a gift and I want to [expletive] take advantage of it. Why would I even think of doing something else?

Q: Had you thought about doing something else?

A: Sure, I asked myself if anyone has ever just quit--other than killing themselves, I mean. Has anyone just said, "Enough of this. I don't like this"?

Q: Did you spend any time in therapy?

A: I did and it provided some answers: "Hey, there's a mild chemical imbalance going on. You're slightly depressed. You're not up and down. You're always a quart low." That's what I was told. "It's not your fault."

Q: So what took so long once you started to work on the album?

A: It wasn't like [co-producer and engineer] Alan Moulder and I were just sitting around in the studio, forever going, "Oh, God. Now what?" We were going through all sorts of ideas, just trying to find a direction. At the end of year one, we had an abstract, soundtracky, instrumental thing that excited us both. But it didn't sound like a rock album. We didn't know what it was. It wasn't until the second year that the songs took shape.

Q: Both "Downward Spiral" and "The Fragile" deal with alienation and lack of self-esteem, but there's a far greater sense of helplessness in this one in such songs as "Somewhat Damaged" and "Where Is Everybody" and "Into the Void." How would you describe the differences?

A: "Downward Spiral" was a sleeker machine. It was tougher, more muscle-flexing. I wanted this album, lyrically and sonically, to sound like there was something inherently flawed in the situation, like someone struggling to put the pieces together. "Downward Spiral" was about peeling off layers and arriving at a naked, ugly end. This album starts at the end, then attempts to create order from chaos, but it never reaches that goal. It's probably a bleaker album because it arrives back where it starts--the same emotion.

Q: Several of the songs seem so naked emotionally that they seem like a cry for help. You keep waiting for some comfort, but it doesn't really come. Why so dark?

A: I wanted to take you through my journey. It's not the happy ending you might have been looking for, but you may have a better perspective because of what you've been through.

Q: Did you use everything you recorded?

A: No. At one point, we were working on 45 tracks and we had to prioritize. One difficult thing for me was every time it seemed like the album was complete, there were always five more songs ready to go. I finally realized that if I didn't stop, I was going to end up with three CDs.

Q: The only track that seems to tread on conventional rock turf is "Star-------, Inc.," which seems to be an attack on the rock-star pose. You even have the "I bet you think this song is about you" line from the Carly Simon song. How does that fit into the album?

A: That is humor in that song, and it was difficult to find a place for it on the record. I considered leaving it off, but it seems to fit somehow.

Q: The emphasis this time seems to be on the guitar rather than the synthesizers that you used in "Downward Spiral." But the sound isn't what you normally get from guitars.

A. Most everything on the album is guitar because it's an imperfect instrument and I wanted everything to sound like any minute it could fall apart . . . or go in unexpected directions.

Q: Are the pieces back together in your own life? How do you feel overall? Confident? Nervous? Scared?

A: Right now, I feel really positive and confident, about myself and the record. I'm looking forward to touring to support the record. I hope people are interested in it and give it a chance. I think it's daring in the sense that it is asking a lot of a listener. I think this record really marked a necessary assessment of my own head and life, and I found I had some inner strength that I didn't know I had. I'm coming out of [the experience] a lot better spiritually, and I use that word hesitantly.

Q: What do you mean "spiritually"?

A: I don't mean God or church or anything like that. I mean peace with myself and purpose in life. Though I still have no semblance of a life outside of Nine Inch Nails at the moment, I realize my goals have gone from getting a record deal or selling another record to being a better person, more well-rounded, . . . having friends, having a relationship with somebody. Those are things I never felt I needed. I haven't had time to cry if I felt like crying. I haven't had time to stop myself from being this robot who is really running away from everything. You think that [success] or even good work will take care of everything, but part of you starts to rot if you leave it unattended. I want to enjoy some degree of the ride that I am on, and I do. I'm not walking around in a gloom all the time. I'm feeling whole again.

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

Robert Hilburn Is The Times' Pop Music Critic