Further Up The Spiral
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.
Itís understandable that Nine Inch Nailsí Trent Reznor speaks with the
seriousness of a man giving a deposition when he talks about his first
album since 1994ís "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
Stoneís "Natural Born Killers" and David Lynchís "Lost Highway" films,
and he helped turn Marilyn Manson into a star by producing the
shock-rockerís 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 Reznorís 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 Sept. 21 by Nothing Records, is
another dark and demanding work that reflects the depression and
self-doubts Reznor experienced.
On the eve of the CDís release, Reznor, 34, speaks about his creative
paralysis and recovery--and the chances of "The Fragile" in todayís
Question: Itís 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? Didnít 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 wasnít ready to put out a record until now and Iím
glad I didnít because it wouldnít have been this album.
Q: There are also the changes in the pop climate since the last
album. Weíre going through a period when audiences donít want to be
challenged. Lots of other acclaimed bands from the early í90s,
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
yearís] Woodstock on TV and . . . it just seemed like nobody really
cared--the bands didnít care, the fans didnít care. Well, not entirely.
There was Rage Against the Machine. Thatís a band that is into more
than just what clothes they are wearing. . . . But I just donít 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 canít 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 didnít go into it thinking we were
stadium-rock size. Weíre not where we left off [commercially]. I donít
know where we are.
Q: Didnít you make it harder on yourself commercially by making the
album a double CD?
A: Iím sure Interscope [which distributes Nothing Records] wasnít
thrilled that it was a double CD, and Iím not a fan of double CDs. I
didnít 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 itís good or not. But the problem was that when you
started taking pieces away from the album to make it one disc, it
didnít 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 didnít want to do was sit in a room alone for a
long time and examine myself, which is where my art comes from. I
didnít 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. Thereís personality distortion on both camps.
Iím not pointing a finger, but there was a maliciousness on his part
that I didnít expect and that Iím 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
A: All that stuff is very flattering, but at the time it was more and
more layers of pressures. As I look back, I didnít sit down and
consciously say, "I really donít 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 Iíve ever attempted because it is a
mirror. It forces you to deal with things about yourself, and that can
be hard if you donít 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 itís not good enough. I didnít have it
in me to fail anymore at the time, so I didnít 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 thereís 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. Thatís 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 wasnít going to
let it destroy me. I wasnít 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 donít like
Q; Did you spend any time in therapy?
A: I did and it provided some answers: "Hey, thereís a mild chemical
imbalance going on. Youíre slightly depressed. Youíre not up and
down. Youíre always a quart low." Thatís what I was told. "Itís not
Q: So what took so long once you started to work on the album?
A: It wasnít 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
At the end of year one, we had an abstract, soundtracky,
instrumental thing that excited us both. But it didnít sound like a rock
album. We didnít know what it was. It wasnít 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 thereís 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
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. Itís probably
a bleaker album because it arrives back where it starts--the same
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 doesnít
really come. Why so dark?
A: I wanted to take you through my journey. Itís not the happy
ending you might have been looking for, but you may have a better
perspective because of what youíve 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 didnít stop, I was going to end up with three
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
Q: The emphasis this time seems to be on the guitar rather than the
synthesizers that you used in "Downward Spiral." But the sound isnít
what you normally get from guitars.
A. Most everything on the album is guitar because itís 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
Iím looking forward to touring to support the record. I hope people are
interested in it and give it a chance. I think itís 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 didnít
know I had. Iím coming out of [the experience] a lot better spiritually,
and I use that word hesitantly.
Q: What do you mean "spiritually"?
A: I donít 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 havenít had time to cry if I
felt like crying. I havenít 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. Iím not walking around in a gloom all the
time. Iím feeling whole again.
by Robert Hilburn
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is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.