Trent Reznor back from the wasteland

By Scott Kara for The New Zealand Herald on April 30, 2005

My name is Trent Reznor and I am an alcoholic. If there's coke around - cocaine that is, the Colombian marching powder - keep it away from me. I shovel that for breakfast.

At least I used to. Now, I am clean and I can think again. Although I remain an intimidating person, I am also less prone to being a dickhead.

Today, surrounded by the sterile swank of a suite at the Mondrian Hotel in Hollywood, the Nine Inch Nails main man is telling his story. He's cleaned up and proud of how well With Teeth, the first Nine Inch Nail's album since 1999's sprawling double-disc The Fragile, has turned out. The album nearly didn't get made.

"I started writing this record at the beginning of 2004 and it was finished by May. The process was quick, for me," says Reznor. "But in the time between that [and The Fragile] I had to address a problem that wasn't going away. And that was being an addict."

It wasn't the usual rock'n'roll cliche of heroin. "I was," he stops. "I am, an alcoholic, and if cocaine was around it seemed like a fantastic idea," he smiles.

The 39-year-old - he celebrates his 40th birthday on May 17, a day off between two sold-out shows in the US - doesn't look like a former heroin user. He's too well padded around his face and his complexion is a healthy, mid-summer tan. He is intimidating and at times looks at you with a face that's only just holding back a sneer. But he's got a staunch sincerity you have to admire and he even cracks a few smiles - albeit sly ones - during the interview.

"It [the addiction] crept in around the mid 90s and it got progressively worse. At the end of the last tour I was going to die if I didn't ... well, I was going to kill myself if I didn't die from falling out a window. I was [expletive] up from beginning to end, you know with withdrawal, and sickness. Everyday we weren't playing I'd be in the hotel room trying not to be sick and it sucked. I wound up in a very bad place."

He admits he hadn't taken care of himself - both physically and spiritually - since signing his first record deal with TVT, which released Nine Inch Nail's debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, in 1989.

That was the year Reznor started making it big with his unlikely mix of music styles including industrial, rock, dance, new wave and pop. Songs like Down In It, the deceitful Sin, and the anthem Head Like A Hole took industrial music to the mainstream.

"I always liked [industrial band] Skinny Puppy but I always wished there was something you could grab on to, a chorus or something, instead of [just] a meandering soundscape."

Plus, Reznor's lyrics were more personal and emotional than Skinny Puppy's obsession with "robots".

Pretty Hate Machine was extreme pop music and that album became industrial music's equivalent of Nirvana's Nevermind. In the early 90s, if you weren't getting into grunge, then you were wearing black, looking pale and striding round to the chant of, "Head like a hole, black as your soul, I'd rather die, than give you control."

In 1992, Nine Inch Nails won the best heavy metal performance Grammy award for Wish, off the Broken EP. The video for Happiness In Slavery (also from Broken), which showed performance artist Bob Flanagan being ripped apart - penis and all - by a machine, was widely banned and reinforced Reznor's notorious musical ways.

Then, with the release of 1994's The Downward Spiral, he became a superstar thanks to songs like Closer, with its famous chorus line: "I want to [expletive] you like an animal," and the dark and touching ballad, Hurt, covered beautifully by Johnny Cash.

The Downward Spiral was recorded in the house where Charles Manson's followers murdered Sharon Tate. But, says Reznor, he was interested in renting the house at 10050 Cielo Drive, Beverly Hills, before he knew it was the Tate house. "It was cheaper than the others," he deadpans.

"It was cool when you had a party because everyone in the world wanted to come." And party Reznor did.

Between 1994 and 1999 Reznor was a popular man. He had assembled the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, toured with David Bowie, built a recording studio in New Orleans, produced Marilyn Manson's best album, Antichrist Superstar, and produced the soundtrack to David Lynch's Lost Highway, which included Nine Inch Nail's new single, The Perfect Drug.

After a self-confessed bout of writer's block, The Fragile - a 23-track, 100 minute-plus double album - was released in September 1999. "It was a challenge," says Reznor.

Then came the tour where he eventually "reached the point where I would do anything to not be that person".

He cleaned up and, he doesn't know exactly when, his clarity returned by "a million per cent". It's a good thing it returned because around this time he began to suspect his long-time friend and manager, John Malm, had been ripping him off.

Last year Reznor filed a lawsuit against Malm, and his former accountant, Richard Szekelyi, seeking millions of dollars. The case has yet to be heard.

"Where did all my money go?" he asks, rhetorically. "When I was [expletive] up I wasn't really paying attention but I trusted this guy with my life. So I fired that [expletive] and it was like, 'Okay, let's start over again'."

"But I didn't want to start working on an album [straight away] because I didn't know if I could write. I didn't know if I could write sober. I didn't know if my brain was destroyed. There's been a lot of change [in my life]. But it finally came time to look in the mirror," he concludes.

He moved to Los Angeles once again, rented a house and set up a small demo recording room and wrote two songs a week for two months. "It was almost two records worth and it was the quickest I've ever done anything. And I could think for a change. I now have this superpower where I can actually finish a sentence and remember what I said ... things normal people can do."

After LA he went back to his recording studio in New Orleans to finish the album. He agrees that With Teeth turned out more accessible than The Fragile but says: "That wasn't intentional, it just came out that way."

Listeners will find it easier to get into - it's shorter for a start, but it's also more direct, less self- indulgent and the trademark Nine Inch Nail's effect of catchy-yet-heavy is there, like on new single The Hand That Feeds You and the rampant, mechanical Getting Smaller.

Reznor has always had a sentimental and romantic side - in the darkest possible way - which is evident on Every Day Is Exactly the Same and the moody, gnashing of title track With Teeth. There's even a sense of humour - check out the cheesy 80s jaunt of Only.

But the biggest difference is Reznor is no longer spitting at you, he's talking to you, but without any loss of intensity.

"The delivery of the lyrics is different from the stuff I've done in the past because I don't feel as intimidated. I look back on stuff I did and a lot of it was because I was afraid."

The liner notes for Pretty Hate Machine said: "Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor" and that still rings true. He has been the only constant in the band since the beginning. Maybe that's why he isn't the easiest person to work for.

There have been important members like keyboardist Charlie Clouser, drummer Chris Vrenna, who Reznor had a falling out with in 1997, and guitarist Robin Finck, who started in the band after The Downward Spiral.

Now though, he's openly scathing of Finck: "Robin Finck [was] getting paid loads of money to hang out with Axl Rose and his house was getting paid for. You know what, [expletive] you," he spews.

For With Teeth, Reznor had a clean-out. He wanted players who are in it for the music. He retained drummer Jerome Dillon from The Fragile era, and recruited Marilyn Manson/A Perfect Circle bass player Jeordie White, and keyboard player Alessandro Cortini.

But finding a guitarist was a problem.

"I'd see guys show up and they could play all the guitar parts and it's not like it's technically that difficult. But the test is always Terrible Lie [from Pretty Hate Machine]. It's two chords: C, D," he says, playing a sturdy air guitar.

"And you'd see these guys and they'd be playing C, D," he says, blankly. "And I'd stop them and say, 'It's not, C, D. It's, '[expletive], you'," he mutters, this time with a more violent air guitar.

"I want your hand to bleed, I don't care if you hit the right notes, I need you to support what I'm trying to say in the song. Here's what your role in the band is, it's not to show that you're the greatest guitar player in the world, it's about supporting this crusade we're on. I need a right-hand man."

Towards the end of the auditioning process, Aaron North, formerly of the Icarus Line, tried out.

You might remember North from his old band's gig at the Kings Arms in Auckland, early last year. He was the stroppy one who put his guitar through the pub window.

Reznor had met North socially. However, he was less than enthusiastic about the audition because he sensed North's bad attitude.

"He shows up, he looks shitty, he's got junk equipment, he looks like he's just got up and I want to punch him," jokes Reznor.

"And then Aaron starts playing and on the first note it's like, 'You're the guy'. He wasn't trying to be me, and play like I play. He played and chaos came out. It immediately made the band turn into something else."

"Thank Christ," smiles Reznor faintly.

If there's any proof that Trent Reznor - the former addict, the alcoholic - is a changed man, then it's that hint of a smile.

LOWDOWN

WHO: Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails

WHAT: The band who took industrial music to the mainstream in the early 90s is back with new album With Teeth.

THE BAND: The latest incarnation of Reznor's band is guitarist Aaron North (formerly of the Icarus Line), drummer Jerome Dillon (who played on The Fragile), bass player Jeordie White (aka Twiggy Ramirez from Marilyn Manson, A Perfect Circle) and keyboard player Alessandro Cortini.

KEY RELEASES: Pretty Hate Machine (1989); Broken (1992); Fixed (1992, remixes of songs from Broken); The Downward Spiral (1994); Marilyn Manson - Antichrist Superstar (1996), produced by Reznor; The Fragile (1999)

DOWNLOAD: The Hand That Feeds single is available as a 70MB file at the offical site. Reznor has made it into a format that you can download and remix. He even suggests turning him into a woman if you want. However, he does point out the copyright issues involved in using the track.