Circus Magazine

May 1994

Going Down with Trent Reznor

If you feel a bit spooked listening to The Downward Spiral, the second full length album from Nine Inch Nails (alias Trent Reznor), it might have something to do with where the album was recorded. Reznor moved into the Beverly Hills house and set up studio in the living room where 24 years earlier the grisly Manson murders occurred. The Downward Spiral contains tracks with such Manson-esque titles as "Piggy" and "March of the Pigs," but Reznor says any connection with the Tate incident is purely coincidental. He claims he had no idea of the site's brutal history when he rented the house. But he does admit that it proved the ideal setting to create a record about pain and fear.

"The first month or so it was very frightening to even be there," says Reznor, who moved into the house shortly after the release of last year's platinum Broken EP. "Your mind plays tricks on you. And to be alone at night there with owls in the trees is like setting yourself up for a heart attack. But once I made peace with any of the spirits that might have been there, or the ones in my mind, it became pleasant to work in."

The actual process of working on the album was hardly pleasant, though. To capture The Downward Spiral's sense of utter hopelessness, Reznor locked himself in the Tate house for over a year, avoiding contact with friends and family and immersing himself in his work completely. He intentionally placed himself in uncomfortable situations to feed off their negative energy-- like choosing to record the album in Los Angeles, a city he loathes. "Looking back," says Reznor, "it was probably one of the best circumstances I could be in for the record, but it wasn't the most enjoyable of experiences."

Enjoyment plays no part in the Nine Inch Nails experience. Rather than seek out the brighter aspects of existence, Reznor focuses on degradation and despair. The most extreme example of Reznor's dark obsession is the video for "Happiness in Slavery" (Broken). The gruesome clip depicts a masochist undergoing unspeakable atrocities while strapped to an electric chair. Even more ghastly is an unreleased short film (created with the members of Coil) that looks like something out of a gory snuff movie.

"Darkness and desperation are obviously of interest to me," says the singer/guitarist/keyboardist/lyricist and all-around mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails. "I think it's just something that's chemically in me. And it provides a palette of something interesting to explore, almost scientifically at times. But it is a motivating force. And I feel more motivated to write about being pained than I do being happy."

As downers go, you can't get more down than the Downward Spiral, with its tales of infidelity, self-loathing and suicide, which is treated in graphic detail on the title track. "I don't think I would ever do it," Reznor says, "because I look at it as the ultimate cop out. No matter how bad things get, I don't see that as the solution. I would hope that people don't get any pro-suicide ideas from my music because that's not what I'm trying to provoke. I used that song as a way of confronting my own self-destructive urges, rather than actually killing myself."

The album's harrowing electronic soundscapes echo the disturbing lyrical themes. The Downward Spiral sounds like a cross between Joy Division and Ministry, combining oppressive keyboards with sharp guitar stabs and staccato drum-machine bursts. It's the natural marriage between Nine Inch Nails' first release, the malicious, industrial-dance album Pretty Hate Machine and the far more caustic, riff-centric Broken EP. "It wasn't intended to be an amalgamation of everything I've done in the past; it was more of a conscious effort not to repeat or follow the logical direction Broken was pointing towards," corrects Reznor. "The new record might have some elements of Pretty Hate Machine because I wrote both of those albums on computer. I wrote Broken on guitar for the most part, and I found it somewhat limiting. I'm just more inspired by all the things you can do on a computer."

Broken exploded in torrents of rage, expressing the sentiments of someone on the verge of committing an unspeakable act. The Downward Spiral soaks in the introspective pain of a man who has screamed himself hoarse and is now wallowing in the misery of his own sore throat. "I think Broken and The Downward Spiral work together as a team in a way, because they were written back to back with no interruption in terms of touring. And they kind of express what I was going through at the time. I wanted Broken to be really angry, kind of like a punch in the face. I was pissed off about so many things, and I wanted the record to reflect that. I didn't want to convolute that message with slow tracks or dance tracks.

"With The Downward Spiral I wanted to really examine the debris of that and see what I could make out of it. And maybe that involved bringing a lot more moodiness and atmosphere in the music and maybe a bit more lyrical vulnerability. To a large extent, the new record is me coming to terms with who I am and addressing that in a potentially ugly manner. When you peel back the skin sometimes you find that what you see is not always the person you thought you were."

This type of insecurity and confusion is the pulse of Nine Inch Nails' blackened heart. For Reznor, too much has happened too quickly. A small-town Pennsylvania boy and classically trained piano student, all he ever wanted was to make music. With the release of Pretty Hate Machine in 1989, it looked like his dream might come true. But by the time of the 1991 Lollapalooza tour, where he vented his spleen in front of 25,000 people everyday, his dreams started turning into nightmares.

Intimidated by all the attention, Reznor chose to avoid the public and was quickly labeled a pretentious, self-important snob. Soon after, according to Reznor, complications resulting from a dispute with TVT Records, which he felt wasn't supporting him properly, prevented Nine Inch Nails from releasing any material for two years (the label refutes the claim).

Last year, with the release of Broken on Interscope, Reznor returned with guns blazing. The EP was an instant hit, but to his dismay Trent's life had become completely consumed by Nine Inch Nails. "I have to accept the fact that I have nothing else now," he says. "I'm not complaining about that, but it doesn't lead to a real well-rounded perspective on things. I just tend to work in extremes. And with Nine Inch Nails I guess I wanted to see what would happen if I were to lose every other aspect of my life except trying to make this as good as it can be. I'm like that in every way. If I'm in love with somebody, it's something that goes all the way and is the most amazing, passionate, consuming thing or it's not happening."

While The Downward Spiral is an artistic triumph, it could well be a commercial failure. The songs are musically challenging, constantly experimenting with mood and tempo. But they lack the instantly recognizable hooks and choruses Nine Inch Nails has become famous for. "I quite intentionally shot myself in the foot commercially with this record," admits Reznor. "I didn't do that just to screw myself up; I just wanted to create a record that expressed my experiences. There were points where I was thinking, 'Is anyone going to like this?' But eventually I came to my senses and realized that it's insane to try to write music for other people. I'm not doing stuff I think people won't like; I'm just doing what I feel I have to do. I hope some people do like it. But if they don't, I can still go to sleep at night knowing that I did what I felt was right."

By Jon Wiederhorn

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Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails
This article is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously located at SUS.