King of Pain

Originally published in Kerrang! on July 12, 2005

Trent Reznor couldn't look more relaxed right now. He's reclining behind Paris' gargantuan Le Zenith venue, chatting on his mobile, joking with friends. You wouldn't guess that, on the other side of the space-age structure, a few thousand black-clad Nine Inch Nails fans are getting restless after a day spent roasting in the sun waiting for the doors to kick open. It's 6.30pm, and is two hours from showtime. Mr Reznor looks curiously unconcerned. As he'll explain, he's just spent a blissful day free of professional obligation. "Except for..." and he forces a smile, "just one interview."

It's well documented that the reclusive singer prefers the studio to the limelight but the interest is very much justified. After all, NIN's recently-released 'With Teeth' album has met with a rapturous response both in the press and the public - an admirable feat considering the six-year hiatus that preceded it. It becomes even more admirable when you know the path that's taken him this far, because Trent Reznor's career has played out like a screen epic while his own music provides the soundtrack. Today,he's about to reveal all, to let us in on the stories that inspired that life. "Okay, but i'm not explaining lyrics," he says, brightening. "What people make up is usually better..."

HEAD LIKE A HOLE

"I don't remember what i was thinking about at the time, but it was pretty much about yelling at a beast without putting a face to it. I wrote it at the last minute as a throwaway. The rest of 'Pretty Hate Machine' was already written, and we'd revised everything else about nine times. Up until then song-writing had been a meticulous and agonising process, but this took me 15 minutes in my bedroom. The fact that it produced this huge reaction really pissed me off becuase i hadn't agonised over it. I was still back in Cleveland, and I had a job working at a studio where I'd spend time at night learning how to record and engineer things and I tried to work out how my voice sounded. I was playing everything myself but I had no confidence in playing guitar. I was convinced that if any real players heard it they'd laugh. Now i know that's bullshit but at the time I was very insecure."

SIN

"This is another song that I put together pretty fast but I like the way that it came out even though, as I recall, it was pretty easy to write. For example, 'Terrible Lie' was a lot of effort, and 'Down In It' underwent these epic revisions - but i'd been reading a lot of books by (cult horror/fantasy author) Clive Barker and in the midst of that i realised, 'I can write about whatever i want to write about and I don't have to work around other people's sensibilities'. But the longer I worked on 'Pretty Hate Machine' the less obscure it became and the poppier it was. And yet still the record label said, 'There aren't any big hits here'. I couldn't believe it. I was fighting that factor a lot, so for 'Sin' I was writing on impulse or else my head would have been clouded by those expectations."

WISH

"Anger was the fuel for 'wish'. We'd toured all through '91,and I was sharing an apartment with my drummer, Chris Vrenna. We got home and found that our apartment had been broken into. We tried to go out to a club that night and everybody hated us because we were making it and they were jealous. I said, 'You know what? Fuck this place!' I packed my shit up and moved to New Orleans, and then everything changed. Things with our label (TVT) became shitty. They fought me all the way on 'Pretty Hate Machine', telling me it was an abortion and that it was never going to sell. It did sell - more than anything they'd ever done - so on the next one they suddenly wanted to get more involved. What they didn't understand was that 'Pretty Hate Machine' was cathartic and it wasn't marketed to an audience. They didn't want to let that happen again, so I recorded all of 'Broken' in secret. I was sure my career was over so I decided I'd go out on fire."

CLOSER

"After 'Broken', Interscope just swept in and bought us from TVT. I didn't know anything about Interscope except they had more money and they'd signed Gerardo - this terrible, Latin rapper. But they treated me with respect, so I said, 'just give me some money to do a record and leave me alone', because by that stage everyone I'd ever dealt with told me I sucked. But our budgets went up, so it seemed to make sense to buy some gear and set up a studio. We found this place out in LA but they didn't tell us what it was, and then we discovered it was the Tate house (where Charles Manson's followers murdered Sharon Tate). It wasn't a spooky environment but you could seriously freak yourself out. It's not like it felt haunted but if you thought about it, it could be an incredibly dark place to write music like 'Closer' in."

HURT

"When i think back to it now that song's probably not accurate to how I felt at the time but everyone says, 'Oh,of course - you were living in a haunted house'. The reality - and what no-one knows about that place - is that it's a beautiful retreat to sit back and think about things. The house is nothing special, but the front yard looks right out on the ocean,you've got mountains to the left and Beverly Hills behind you. It's all green and quiet, it was a country-living kind of place. LA is about as different from New Orleans and Ohio as it could get and I was sitting in my bedroom in this foreign environment and i realised i was in this incredibly lonely place because I didn't fit in - I wasn't a rock star party guy. I remember handing the whole record in with an apology, saying, 'Thanks for the money, sorry there are no singles'. And then out of the blue it went platinum."

STARFUCKERS,INC.

"You start out thinking you can change the world, but when cool people at clubs who wouldn't even talk to me were like, 'Whoah,he's got a platinum album, who's that guy?' It was strange. I realised that the guys who beat me up in high-school were now in my audience. Money, fame, power - things I'd never had - those things are recipies for massive personality distortion. In my life I was standing on the edge of a cliff about to jump off because my brain wasn't working. After 'The Downward Spiral' I felt like I had to make the best record in the world but my addictions meant my head was packed with cotton. 'Starfuckers, Inc.' doesn't fit in with the rest of that record, but it came from bits of lyrics I'd written over a long period and was focused at Marilyn Manson and Courtney Love. I'm not saying I haven't fallen prey to this at times, but I think in their environment your priorities can totally flip before you realise."

THE HAND THAT FEEDS

"I've never paid that much attention to politics, and I'm not proud of that, but I just never felt - and it's probably a very American thing to say - that everything seemed to be okay even though there were some things i disagreed with. But Bush has taken things to the extreme and I found that I couldn't avoid it, it filled me with this rage. Basically Bush hides behind the Bible and I don't want everyone else in the world to think we're like him. What sucks is that by the time most of us had woken up,the propaganda had run so deep. Their propaganda was much better than ours and they may have rigged the election but they still got what they wanted. They figure, 'If we can scare the masses enough and hide behind Jesus then we won't have to worry about the homos and anyone who's different from us'. I'm very frustrated about what's happening."

ONLY

"It's about the business. When you get on this path of trying to sell records it becomes about selling more records and playing bigger venues. It's like,'I'm friends with Tom Morello but Audioslave are releasing something on the same day as us and I must destroy him'. It's like, 'Wait a minute!' The goal has to be about making the best music possible or else it becomes something that will make you implode. Although, I'd rather have money than not because I know what not having it is like and not being able to pay the gas bill sucks. I feel lucky that I can do this but I constantly have to remind myself what the goal is. Should I say yes to that Microsoft commercial because I could use a new house? Or do I say no because this is something precious that would be tarnished if I did that? I find myself saying this to record labels and business manager guys,and they're like, 'You won't do what because of what?' My feelings were hurt when I heard David Bowie's 'Heroes' on a fucking Microsoft commercial. It's like 'Why? Fuck!'"

RIGHT WHERE IT BELONGS

"There is an optimism there, absolutely. The catalyst was getting sober. Certainly the biggest part of that was not just getting high, but the bigger part was allowing myself to see things differently and realise there's a lot of things I've been wrong about. At the beginning of everything I was a lot younger, a lot more immature and I thought I knew everything. I had to give myself the freedom to rethink things. My priorities started with staying alive and sober, figuring out if I could ever write music again, whether I could ever do a tour, and then if I could ever get rid of my fucking ex-manager. It led to a jury trial but now it's over, it's done, and I feel like i've got very little to complain about now. The whole album felt that way. It wasn't laziness - it was very focused and disciplined, but I wasn't beating myself up every minute. It was like, 'Hey, here's an idea, it might suck but I'll figure it out later...', and here I am. It's come full circle."