To Hell and Back

The drugs are gone. The booze is gone. The old Trent Reznor is gone.
Making Nine Inch Nails' new album has been a long, hard road. And Trent Rez

By Stevie Chick for Kerrang! on March 30, 2005

Five years is a long time by most people’s standards, but when such a period passes between albums by Nine Inch Nails, the turbulent electro-noir behemoth conducted by Trent Reznor, it’s par for an increasingly elaborate course. Those seduced by the dark, minimal fury invoked by NIN’s 1989 debut ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ – the sound of gothic electro savagely torn apart by malevolent noise, Reznor wielding his words like a surgeon – had to wait half a decade for its follow-up, ‘The Downward Spiral’.

Recorded in the same house on California’s Cielo Drive where members of Charles Manson’s ‘family’ brutally and hatefully murdered actress Sharon Tate and a number of her ‘beautiful people’ friends in August 1969, the album expanded upon Reznor’s bitter visions, a vast but personal epic that wasn’t the work of a band but, rather, an increasingly obsessive studio artist who would splice together all manner of noises to create the exact soundscape he envisioned.

A masterpiece of its genre – a masterpiece, full-stop – it was supported by a similarly grandiose stage show he toured across the world. Once that ended, he went straight into the studio to supervise tourmate Marilyn Manson’s breakthrough album ‘Antichrist Superstar’, initiating a chain of events that would ultimately sunder their relationship. Still, somehow, he managed to deliver NIN’s third album – the vast, troubled, majestic ‘The Fragile’ – within five years, despite the fact that Reznor and his long-time production partner Alan Moulder ultimately handed a mess of sessions (featuring engineering by Steve Albini, mix-assistance from Dr Dre, and the talents of two Buddhist choirs) to legendry rawk producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Jane’s Addiction) to make sense of. Longer, grander, more elaborate than ‘The Downward Spiral’, ‘The Fragile’ was followed by an equally larger (but not necessarily better) live show. And after that…

Well, it would be churlish to say ‘nothing’. Sure, the five years that followed saw no trace of Reznor’s trademark flurry of side-project activity, the production jobs and soundtrack work that fed his legendary workaholism. But they were, perhaps, the most important five years in Reznor’s life, as he himself will intimate – a period of intense self-investigation, a psychological shelf-clearing resulting in ‘With Teeth’, an album that startles with its clarity, with its renewed vigour. A catalogue of grievances perhaps, like all his records, but possessed with more of a will to fight back than any other Nine Inch Nails release to date.

Certainly the man who greets us this morning in a cavernous but unassuming photography studio deep in the wilds of California outwardly exudes health and calm – skin tanned, muscles bulging, eyes bright and sharp. Trent Reznor has never been a man tongue-tied in the face of a journalist’s tape recorder, but the candour and eloquence of his revelations – regarding five years of change, relocation, trauma, and realisation – is startling. And he hardly hesitates to share them. Within seconds of a simple opening question, he’s telling all with nary a twitch.

The solutions began as ‘The Fragile’ tour wound down; the problems began much earlier.

“I reached a point in my life where I had to get my shit together, figure out that there was a human being that was being neglected,” he muses, sipping a black coffee in an impersonal side-room. “There was a persona that had run its course. I needed to get my priorities straight, my head screwed on. Instead of always working, I took a couple of years off, just to figure out who I was and working out if I wanted to keep doing this or not. I had become a terrible addict; I needed to get my shit together, figure out what had happened.

“I always thought that I was pretty average when it came to drinking and everything else,” he continues, unflinchingly. “We toured ‘The Downward Spiral’ a real long time, nobody had a house, we just stayed on tour. And it was great, but when the tour ended I went straight into doing the ‘Antichrist…’ record with Manson, and pretty soon I realised I get fucked up a lot. Pretty much every day I got fucked up. But I was functioning.

“I didn’t realise at the time, but that was the beginning of a pretty intense struggle; it was impacting upon my life. I was drinking, but a few drinks in me and if someone suggested getting some cocaine it would seem like a fantastic idea… it still seemed like a great idea 24 hours later, picking through the grains of the carpet looking for more (laughs). After a while I realised I wasn’t in control. The price wasn’t just feeling bad the next day; I was starting to hate myself. That led to a path of fucking around with it, procrastinating, until I decided there was a decision to be made, which was either to get better or to die.”

He pauses, just for a moment.

“And, unexpectedly, my life’s been exponentially better since then. It was four years ago, and it’s led to a series of changes, a shake-up in the longest relationship I’ve ever had in my life with my best friend, the manager I started off with. I realised, with my new-found sense of clarity, that we didn’t have a healthy relationship.

“And my moving from New Orleans to California…” he explains. “I got tired of being ‘out of the loop’, I guess. I have a tendency to isolate myself. What attracted me to New Orleans was that it was like living on a different planet. You were left alone. If you enjoyed ‘leaving the planet’, too; it was a good place to be.”

The next step was a course in psychotherapy.

“Because I though, ‘What the fuck, whatever it takes’. My way sure wasn’t working. I always though I was smart, that I could ‘lick’ anything because I’m smart enough to work anything out. It’s been a very humbling learning experience, of being right in the gutter – it’s one thing to talk about hitting the bottom, to flirt with it, this romantic notion of a dark side. Embracing it and getting really deep into it? I don’t ever wanna go there again. I’ve been there, and it was not good.”

For Nine Inch Nails’ artistic landscape, that ‘dark side’ has always been there. It informs Reznor’s every lyric, his flirtations with it, his panicked and disgusted recoil from it. Maybe it’s an obsession; he knows he’s drawn to it, but he can’t shake the suspicion that it stalks him too.

“Like recording ‘The Downward Spiral’ in the Manson House,” he laughs. “We didn’t go searching for that house, it crept up on us. We chose it only because it was the best location, and when the facts came out we just thought, ‘well, that’s an interesting piece of weird Americana we just inhabited’. I never dreamed I’d still be talking about it with journalists 10 years later. When we left the house they were tearing it down, so I had the front door shipped to my studio in New Orleans, which, out of pure necessity, had been a funeral home 10 years before. It makes for the dream press-pack, I know,” he grins wryly. “But that was never our conscious intention.”

Nevertheless, he takes great relish in relaying this next macabre chapter in the NIN storybook; further proof for Reznor that The Dark Side is pursuing him and not just the other way around.

“I recently closed my Nothing studios in New Orleans, and Alan Moulder brought the mixing console on which we recorded a number of projects – it’s the best desk he’s ever used,” grins Reznor. The guy who re-assembled it at Alan’s studio made an interesting discovery though. These huge circuit boards are usually constructed by one guy, and the guy who originally built this was an obsessive/compulsive, which isn’t good in life but is apparently great if you have to wire up 96 channels of sound for a recording studio. Anyways, one day this guy goes into the woods and kills his girlfriend with a circuit board tool. And the guy who was re-assembling this desk discovered the word cunt etched into one of the chips.”

This is the second time Reznor has uttered the word cunt in the interview. The first was in reference to a little lyrical investigation, an idle musing on the appearance of the word love in two of the album’s song titles, particularly the vituperative ‘Love Is Not Enough’, and the question of whether either song was written about fleeting ex-paramour Courtney Love.

“I would never…” he snaps back. “ She doesn’t bother me enough to make me write a song that has anything to do with that cunt. No.”

Even if their targets are veiled, the lyrics to ‘With Teeth’ – speaking with the wisdom of Reznor’s recent revelations – are prime NIN. Unlike previous albums, which were written with a concept in mind, Reznor feels ‘With Teeth’ works simply as an album of, “13 songs that are friends with each other”. There are themes however.

“After I got clean it felt like I’d landed on a different planet somehow. It looks the same, kinda, but everything is different,” he explains. “Learning lessons from listening to people, realising the humbling truth that I don’t know everything and that my way isn’t necessarily the best way. The idea was for the record to start from a place of panic and fear and gradually find a sense of acceptance. It’s a difficult journey that begins with a nightmare, the nightmare of what I was going through. Shortly after I got clean 9/11 happened,” he sighs, tackling another key influence. “It feels like we’re in this weird police state now. The government isn’t telling us the truth, fear is now being pumped into our homes as a great motivator to just do what you’re told.”

This sentiment is most clearly expressed on the brutal martial force of ‘With Teeth’s first single, ‘Bite The Hand That Feeds’. It’s as close as Reznor feels he can get to a hectoring anti-Bush track, and one he admits “is very close to bashing people over the head with the message”. As a protest song – and as a NIN song, also – it’s fine, a Molotov collision of fist-pumping rhetoric and pneumatic noise.

Like so many NIN tracks, it is the sound of sensitive souls stung into action by an all-enveloping disgust.

“I was and am just so filled with rage about what’s happened here,” he admits. “I was sitting in my house when 9/11 happened, my dad called me and said, “Turn on your TV, we’re getting attacked!”. So I turned it on and a couple of minutes later the second plane hit. One of my dearest friends, who’s sort of like my mother down in New Orleans, came over and we hung out. It was weird, we didn’t know if it was all over, what was happening.”

Reznor admits that he’s not one for being raked over the coals at to the meaning of his lyrics. However, the last five years also witnessed some of his most personal words adopted as the poignant farewell of a true American legend. Of all of the music the Man In Black, Johnny Cash, chose to cover for his final brace of albums with producer Rick Rubin – including songs by Soundgarden, Depeche Mode and, more inconceivably, Danzig – perhaps the most surprising was ‘Hurt’, ‘The Downward Spiral’’s closing track. Not many expected Cash’s leathery croak to be applied to the God of electro-core’s material but it was one of the most powerful songs Cash recorded in his later years. Released as a single shortly before Cash’s death in September 2003, accompanied by a beautiful video essaying Johnny and his wife June Carter Cash’s aged frailty and dignity, it made for a fine parting shot from one of the 20th century’s most potent rebels.

“When my friend Rick Rubin asked if Johnny could cover ‘Hurt’ I said yes immediately,” remembers Reznor. “Because I trust Rick and I admired Johnny a great deal. Later, when I heard the recording, I felt a little invaded, I have to admit. It was my song, one of the most personal I’ve ever written. And now it’s got this massive voice attached to it which isn’t mine. A couple of weeks after that I saw the video. And that’s when it all came together; I got goosebumps, I welled up with tears and I knew it wasn’t my song anymore. And I say that, not in a jealous way, but…it happened at a time in my life when I was rediscovering my appreciation for the power of music. I had been out of it long enough to get away from what I hated about music – the competitiveness of it, the shucking and jiving, all the bullshit. I had sort of lost sight of the music, the reason I got into it all in the first place. I wanna be a rock star and whatever, but what I really wanted to do was be in a band, make music and try to communicate with people that way. Hearing this song come back at me, a completely different interpretation, and having it have arguably more power than my version…” He sighs, for once lost for words. “And to have it juxtaposed against someone’s life in that way. And then the fact that he passed away shortly after that…

“It was just unusual,” he continues, laughing warmly. “I come from rural Pennsylvania, and I think when the Cash version came out it got around that I wrote it, and suddenly people there though I’d ‘made it’. To have someone who was a great songwriter cover your song – he said something about it being like something he would’ve written in the 1960s. I was like, ‘fuck, man!’. The older and more jaded you get there rarer it is you hear someone say something about you that you wanna go tell other people.”

The final set of changed in Reznor’s life would be initiated with his return to the studio for the sessions for ‘With Teeth’, and when he assembled the band to tour it.

“Straight after the last tour I went into the studio, ostensibly to start work on the next record,” explains Reznor, a notorious workaholic. “It was a disaster, I couldn’t get my shit together at all. But I did record demos of things, almost consistently. When I got clean I wanted to stop – to take a minute, to not feel like I’m always running for a train. I’ve never stopped working since 1988. The minute I realised I could get paid for doing this, for doing what I want to, I’ve taken advantage of that as much as I possibly could.

“But I itched to get in the studio. I wanted to see if I could even make music straight. So once I felt like I was getting a grip back on my life I started to ease myself back into it gently, checking over the stuff I’d been working on earlier. And I found that, instead of feeling crippled, it was like I’d had three hundred blankets removed from my head and that I could actually work much better. I felt empowered.”

The album’s speedy production was the antithesis of 1999’s ‘The Fragile’, he admits.

“But ‘The Fragile’ was madness! I was in the grips of addiction and was not acknowledging it. I was so governed by fear; I felt I didn’t have anything to say. There aren’t many lyrics on the album, and what there are are hidden. But I needed to make the music. So I went crazy. I’m still proud of it, but I never want to make an album like that again.”

The band behind Nine Inch Nails has changed also. Long-time bassist and keyboard players Danny Lohner and Charlie Clouser have disappeared in the post-chemical spring-clean, the touring outfit now numbering Jeordie White (ex-Marilyn Manson) on bass, Aaron North (ex-Icarus Line) on guitar, and Alessandro Cortini on keyboards. Jerome Dillon remains stalwart on the drum stool, but features in only half of the new album; no poor reflection on Dillon’s inestimable talents, says Reznor, just another avenue he’s chosen to pursue. That avenue being a certain Dave Grohl.

“I wanted someone to just pound the shit out of the drums. I felt like programmed drums were a bit tired, a little ‘done’. I thought of Dave, called him up and he was here the next day. Before I knew it I had rough versions of the songs with him drumming over them. Grohl instantly knew what I was looking for; he’s not some old buddy of mine, we met on tour in Australia sometime, but we clicked instantly.

“He was one of the first people to hear the new music, and it was a super kick in the ass,” he glows. “Because there’s always a critical juncture in the making of a record when you’re unsure you haven’t built your whole castle upon a turd.”

Grohl’s enthusiasms weren’t misplaced. Taut, clear-minded, vicious and compulsively funk-driven, ‘With Teeth’ is the record you never thought NIN would make: an electrifying live-sounding rock’n’roll record that’s light on their trademark ambience, and heavy in every way imaginable. The sort of record that explains the calmly confident manner of its creator today.

That isn’t to say Reznor’s inner turbulence has entirely subsided. He isn’t healed yet, but he is solemnly given to the ongoing process of healing, even if it takes his whole life.

“For a while I didn’t know why I was making music. I took some time out and came back to it and realised, simply, I love music. I haven’t run out of things to say; I haven’t run out of new ways to say them. When I come up with something I can’t wait for people to hear it – I feel like I have a purpose in life. I’ve always loved music; I’ve always been good at it. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to make a living doing it and communicate with people that way. I’ve been fortunate – and I feel that way now. For a long time I had to convince myself. ‘Why am I so depressed? I have everything I ever wanted.’ I’d feel like a big pussy just saying that. But it feels like things have shifted in my life. I feel more vital, maybe. More hungry.”

The touring commitments the band are about to undertake should keep that hunger docile for another five or so years. And with that, Trent Reznor says goodbye, and smiles one last time. Big and wide. With teeth.

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