Nine Inch Nails: This Little Piggy Went Agro

by: Darcey Steinke
Spin mag. - July 1994

transcribed by daria

Sing the body electronic

All hail the antigrunge: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor sports fishnets, BPMs, and a new-gasp!-concept album. Got a problem with that? Darcey Steinke doesn’t.


The last time I saw Trent Reznor was at the Sharon Tate house in Los Angeles, during the recording of the new Nine Inch Nails record The Downward Spiral. It wasn’t quite the place nightmares are made of-an unassuming ranch house, cedar-paneled with burgundy trim, set in a secluded, downright pleasant spot at the end of Cielo Drive off Benedict Canyon Boulevard. After the grisly 1969 murders of Sharon Tate and her houseguests by Manson family members, the owners had a shaman come in to drive out the evil spirits. Maybe it was that ritual cleansing, or the big voodoo candles Reznor brought with him from New Orleans, but the place had an almost holy vibe, more like a war memorial than a haunted house.
  I remember feeling pretty comfortable until after dark, when steam began rising off the heated pool and the only light came from the red coals of the barbecue. Several beers later I went inside to use the bathroom. It was occupied, so I wandered down the hall to an unused bedroom. I stood in the doorway slowly realizing this had been Abigail Folger’s room. She had been lying over an antique bed in a long white nightgown, slightly stoned on MDA, when Charles Manson’s devotees cut through the screen of the empty nursery with a bayonet and creepy-crawled into the house.
  Reznor claims the Tate house’s macabre history had no effect on The Downward Spiral. “Honestly,” he says, clearly tired of the Manson-related questions, “with the exception of the name of the studio [Le Pig] which I now was in very bad taste, most of the lyrics had been determined before I even leased the house. Now, of course, I realize I used ‘pig, pig, pig’ in all these songs. But it wasn’t at all calculated. It could be perceived as trying too hard, but it just wasn’t like that.”
  It was all a strange coincidence, Reznor explains. The realtor forgot to mention the building’s history, and it was so much cheaper than all the others he’d been shown, such a pretty house suspended like a mobile over the twinkling lights of the city of angels.
  Still, it’s hard to believe that making music in the room where the most notorious murders of this century took place didn’t affect Reznor’s writing. Protest as he might, history has always served as muse to art; they have a sort of cross-pollinating, symbiotic relationship. The Beatles went to India and came home with The White Album. Bowie moved to Berlin and wrote Heroes with Brian Eno. Picasso painted “Guernica” to immortalize a battle in the Spanish Civil War. Steven Spielberg went to Aushwitz to file Schindler’s List, believing that the death camp’s evil ambience would be more evocative than some Hollywood back lot. Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut was influenced by Roger Water’s memories of World War II.
  And Reznor, however, subconsciously, used the Manson murders, still a resonating example of mind control and violence, as grist for The Downward Spiral. Manson’s two famous sayings-”You can’t kill, kill” and “Getting the fear”-could fit thematically almost anywhere on The Downward Spiral. The first single, “March of the Pigs,” seems subtly evocative of the murders themselves. “All the pigs are all lined up / Take the skin and peel it back / Now doesn’t that make you feel better.”
  As time passed Reznor reflects, Charles Manson and his grim legacy grew as irrelevant and distant as the ‘60s themselves. The house became peaceful and ordinary. “After a while it wasn’t freaky, just sort of normal. But in a way,” he says, “that’s almost scarier.

The Tate house is gone now, torn down in January to build a bigger, less tainted mansion, and NIN is on a run of warm-up gigs before the official tour in Seattle. We’re in Hawaii, land of palm trees, huge waxy plants, and vaginal-looking flowers. Reznor, in black leather pants and a black T-shirt, sits across from me on the couch of his messy room in the superposh Halekulani hotel. It’s a nice pad right on the Pacific and a choice view of Diamond Head.
  “How unfashionable are we right now?” Reznor says grimly, but with a healthy sense of the absurd. He has a long, expressive face, like a figure in an El Greco painting, and is wearing his black hair shoulder-length these days, with wispy, boomerang-shaped sideburns. “We use synthesizers, put on a theatrical show, maybe even use costumes. We’ve made a concept album with no real singles. We’re not from Seattle, and we don’t play ‘70s rock.”
  He shakes his head, fully aware of his precarious position as the son of Bowie and Eno at a time when the offspring of Neil Young rule the earth. “I appreciate what happened in that whole movement. It was needed for a while to kill off the Poisons and the Bon Jovis. But whatever was sincere about the whole back-to-basics college-rock thing that eventually turned into grunge-the whole ‘we’re not pretentious rock icons, we’re normal people playing earnestly’-is over. Now that’s the fashion.”
  “Trent represents something more mysterious to people than someone like Eddie Vedder.” says Kennedy, MTV VJ and a friend of Reznor’s, “but the real different is that Trent takes more showers.”
  It’s not only musically and hygienically that Reznor is out of sync with his contemporaries; he’s also not afraid to leap onstage in a garter belt and fishnet stockings. he’s intensely aware of the ritualistic, almost religious aspects of performance. “When I go see a show, I want to see freaks, dancing midgets. I want to see flesh and blood. I want icon and entertainment. I don’t give a shit that you look like the guy that just pumped my gas down the street.
  His flamboyance is part of a rich tradition: Jim Morrison wore black leather in the age of flower-power, singing songs about sex and death when everyone else was surfing the hippie-dippy-trippy wave; David Bowie wore makeup in a cosmic drag act called Ziggy Stardust; Peter Gabriel wore elaborate costumes and Kabuki face paint while embracing the most advanced technology available; Alice Cooper Goth-glammed his way through Welcome to my Nightmare. And then there was Kiss, who went so far as to become cartoons in grease paint and sparkly platform shoes.
  “They were the coolest,” waxes Reznor. “Fucking demonic, monster-loud rock band. They were superheroes to me. We were always having God of Thunder yardstick concerts. I was Gene Simmons in the Halloween parade, aluminum foil on my shoes. I was fucking styling.”
  Embracing the double helix of sex and death, creation and destruction, in such a theatrical and courageous manner as Reznor does can make for very zealous fans. He’s scratching at the taboos of suburbia in a way grunge never will; linking anger and violence to a sexually charged experience that suggest drag, camp, even homosexuality. At a show three years ago in Tampa, the vehemence and ecstasy of the young women pressed up to the front of the stage was reminiscent of girls fainting dead away at the feet of Elvis. But Reznor’s message-”I want to fuck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside”-is no kin to “Love Me Tender.”


Reznor was born May 17, 1965, to teenage parents and lived his first years during the most turbulent time in recent American history. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., race riots, Vietnam, and the Manson murders all came down before he turned five.
  But secondhand chaos was nothing compared to what loomed closer to home; in 1970 his parents divorced and the little boy landed, along with his sister Tera, at his grandparents’ house in a working-class neighborhood in Mercer, Pennsylvania. Reznor, like many children whose parents split up, felt “ripped off.”
  Mercer, population 2,333, resembles any other small town in America with its Shenango Valley Mall and multiplex theater off of State Route 62. Reznor says there was nothing to do, that the coolest thing that happened there was the opening of the new McDonald’s. He took solace in classical piano and saxophone lessons. About school he says, “I did well when I cared and shitty once I didn’t.” He went to church. “For a while I got good things out of it. Especially that feeling of purity.” But once he got a whiff of self-righteousness, a human quality on the top of Reznor’s long hate-list, he stopped attending. “I hate that ‘I’m a better person than you’ bullshit.”
  At Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, Reznor majored in computer engineering and hope to “fit in and make friend.” But it didn’t work and he eventually dropped out, moved to Cleveland, and worked as an assistant engineer at Right Track music studio. His first demo was made when the place was closed, in the wee hours of the morning. The tape made the rounds, eventually catching the ear of Steve Gottlieb at TVT Records. Adrian Sherwood remixed some of the songs and Pretty Hate Machine hit in 1989.
  The band toured and toured and toured; the record sold steadily, a fan base grew, and without much help from the media and radio, Pretty Hate Machine eventually sold half a million copies. It wasn’t until Lollapalooza ‘91 that the band gained wider recognition. But while its popularity rose, things at TVT were turning sour. Gottlieb, who Reznor claims was into “fierce artistic repression,” wouldn’t hear of a big-label buyout. Gottlieb claims TVT did right by NIN, citing the debut’s big budget and myriad artistic freedoms. He implies Reznor has a problem with authority.
  “We’re talking about the guy that wrote ‘I’d rather die than give you control,’” Gottlieb says. “But our relationship got dysfunctional and I do take full blame for that. I obviously let Trent down.”   John Malm, Reznor’s manager, says, “At that time, Trent would rather have mowed lawns than make another record for TVT.” Thus followed two years of litigation and the eventual settlement and jump to Interscope Records, where president Jimmy Iovine has a method more in tune with Reznor’s artistic individuality. “When you got the real banana,” he says, “it’s hands off.” As a part of his deal with Interscope, Reznor set up his own label, Nothing Records, which has already signed, among others, the Florida band Marilyn Manson. Reznor describes their material as offensive to some: “Serial killer stuff, but with this circus sideshow, satirical edge.”
  In 1992, Interscope released Broken, an electronic thrash-metal record that was made clandestinely with producer Flood during the legal mess. Reznor refers to the EP as “an island off a bit.” He further explains, “I was pissed off and just wanted to make a record that said ‘fuck you!’”
  The Downward Spiral debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard chart. It represents a new level of maturity for Reznor, distanced from both the bubble-gum freshness of his first album and his “fuck you” stage. The idea for the record came in 1991, after two long years on the road. “The bus comes to a halt...I’ve been in there so long...I come out. The light sort of hurts my eyes. I got everything I ever wanted but it doesn’t seem to be what I wanted. And I start thinking...Why do I feel this way? What’s all this negativity about? This anger? Why am I so self-destructive? I wanted to write about someone who was decaying, someone who was looking for salvation or hope through dangerous and improper means.”
  Reznor calls The Downward Spiral a concept album; like the Who’s Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the songs are connected into a (very) loose narrative. It’s a dark, visionary story filled with self-examination and loss. The line “nothing can stop me now”-more threat than mantra-is repeated in three different songs, reminiscent of my grandfather’s saying, “Nothing can stop a man when he’s got nothing to lose.” On “Hurt,” Reznor evokes that miserable abandon-”What have I become?/My sweetest friend”-and hints at the violence that sometimes accompanies it-I will let you down/I will make you hurt.” Getting at the way despair often leads to violence, Reznor is a depressed Walt Whitman, singing the song of himself over and over, like a man banging his skull against a concrete floor even after his forehead bleeds.


It’s only 6:30 p.m. in Honolulu, but there’s already a line outside the After Dark club. The band is in the dressing room, located in the bar of an adjacent Chinese restaurant called the Bohemian Cafe. It has a grass hut motif: split bamboo covers the walls, carved coconuts hang, lit up like jack-o-lanterns. The Time Machine flickers on the TV over the bar.
  Reznor is preoccupied. The monitors aren’t loud enough and he’s sure he’s going to blow out his voice. Mark O’Shea, the good natured road manager, unlocks the wardrobe case. Robin Finck, who’s worried his guitar strap will rub his sunburned shoulder raw, goes over and sniffs what he hopes to wear tonight. Lots of sparkly Lycra sticks out of the big black chest; all the band’s outfits could fit easily into a shoe box. Bassist-keyboardist Danny Lohner can’t find his gold leggings. Reznor shuffles through one drawer, then another, finally sighing with relief as he pulls out a pair of bright silver shorts.
  Just before the band comes on, I roam the crowd, most of whom are dressed like vampires on a cruise. Hawaii is the Disneyland of paradises, but it’s also suburbia, long and low with subdivisions and strip malls. And it just might be the most isolated comunity on earth. No doubt the locals get mightily stick of the old smiley face “A-lo-ha” routine. Everyone’s elated that the band is playing here. One guy with a mohawk and a NIN T-shirt tries to convince me he’s their hugest fan. “I can’t believe this band came here,” he says over and over. A Japanese girl, whose mother works as a waitress at one of the big hotels, is not surprised. “The spirits are very powerful here,” she says, and then tells me how one of the highway overpasses is haunted, and that tourists who take away lava (a big bad luck no-no) usually end up mailing it back.
  The tape rolls, the smoke machines hiss, and the strobe light beats like the heart of a fat man about to suffer an attack. The band takes the stage. They’ve pounded corn starch into their subtly metallic clothes and look like nothing except futuristic gypsies. Up in the VIP section (which consists of a wooden platform suspended by chains from ceiling rafters) stands David Gahan, the lead singer of Depeche Mode, and a rathe confused-looking labelmate of Reznor’s, Dr. Dre.
  As he works the stage, REznor conveys the perfect combination of sexuality, spirituality, and fascism; he’s the demon lover, sometimes whispering, sometimes snarling, always seducing. Mid-set, REznor uses the end of his mike stand like a hammer on James Woolley’s keyboards, while Robin Finck plucks theatrically at the neck of his guitar. I zone out and in on the computerized sound loops, and get the werid sensation I’ve taken a ride on a time machine, that it’s 2094 than 1994; that the future is now.
  After the show, backstage, the band emerges one by one from the dressing room in street clothes. Dre has split, but Gahan is telling everyone that the show was “fucking brilliant.” He knows Reznor from L.A. “Touring is exactly what that gloomy fucker needs,” hey says.
  We have one drink then another. Gahan laughs about doing karaoke to Depeche Mode songs in Manila. People are allowed in the dressing room now, but somebody warns us to give Reznor a little more time. Rumor has it he suffers horribly from post-performance depression. And it’s not long before we hear he’s gone back to the hotel. Gahan looks disappointed and even a little hurt, and I sense that, in the anti-affirmative, fucked-up, passive-aggressive way of rock stars, the electronic torch was just been passed.


The light has fallen, and it’s so dark in the hotel room that Reznor’s features are obscure as the face of a clouded moon. I can’t see my questions anymore, so I close my notebook and set it beside me on the couch. The ocean tongues rhythmically at the shore outside, and faint Hawaiian music blows in through the window. I’m convinced now that Reznor’s alienation isn’t just for effect, that he’s actually nourished by sorrow, and has an almost intellectual interest in hate.
  But what about love? Could he ever write a real long song? One that wasn’t about death?
  “You mean one where I don’t get my dick cut off?”
  I nod.
  “Well, I don’t know if I could. I’d try it.” He pauses, and when he speaks again the tone of his voice is dead serious. “You know, I do have the capacity to love. I have loved-and I mean truly loved-several times. I’m not afraid of it.”
  What about happiness? Is it a hollow concept for someone like you?   “No,” he answers immediately. “But trying to sustain it for any length of time-that’s where the trickery lies.”