He's back unhappily reaping the whirlwind of the Colorado high school shootings while trying to forge ahead with his first new album for four years. Marilyn Manson betrayed him, his oddball friends depraved him - but Nine Inch Nails' Reznor has cleaned up, No, really Story Andrew Male
Trent Reznor still remembers when it all got out of hand. It happened one night in 1995, in the gothic surroundings of New Orleans' Nothing Studios, a one-time funeral parlour in which Reznor had recorded 1994's 'The Downward Spiral'. He was there with a little known support act called Marilyn Manson and a group of extremist 'entertainers' called the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, locked in the dead end of Nine Inch Nails 'Self Destruct' tour.
Given that it was the tour that introduced Marilyn Manson to cocaine, things had already been eventful. For instance, there was Jim Rose's beauty contest in which naked groupies competed to see who could hold an enema in the longest before evacuating into a bowl of breakfast cereal that was then consumed by the Circus's penis strongman, Mr Lifto.
Reznor finally knew the tour had crossed over when Rose's tattooed sideshow gimp Enigma talked the Nine Inch Nails frontman into performing a trepanation on him. You know, bore a hole directly into his skull. For kicks, Reznor thought, 'No way! Iım not having a dead tattooed guy with a hole in his head and brain fluid all over the studio'. But that's the level it was getting to. The only thing he could liken it to was Vietnam - something so de-sensitising that evil becomes acceptable.
"I didnıt think about it then," says Trent Reznor, "but we were living that album. We wound up pretty far down the spiral."
Four years on and Trent Reznor is looking surprisingly well. He's been away so long you still expect to see the long-haired, pale-skinned praying mantis-man from 1995, the computer geek in industrial boots and ridiculous leather tunic who smeared himself with mud and blood, sang about how he wanted to "fuck you like an animal" and turned every live NIN show into an atrocity exhibition of pain, rage and excess.
Instead you get some Calvin Klein model. The 1995 tour scars are still visible but they're now on the arms of a man who's been spending time in the gym. Rumours that Reznor had become fat, bald and mad have clearly been circulated by envious industry types miffed at the fact that Mr. Self Destruct now looks like Mr. Self Improvement.
His dyed black hair is cut into a neat, unasuming fringe and he wears a pair of frayed combat trousers, some old black boots and a ripped black T-shit.
Taking an hour out from rehearsals for MTV's 1999 Music And Video Awards in the modest red and black lounge of New York's Time Hotel, he's funny, polite, soft-spoken ("Black coffee, please") and not a little wary, his piercing green eyes fixing you with a hard stare when straying too far from the path of acceptable questioning.
Then again, he's got a right to be wary. A lot has happened since Trent Reznor last appeared in public. In 1995, he worked with his then friend Marilyn Manson, producing his multi-platinum 'Antichrist Superstar' and crafting the brutal, relentless, militaristic sound that would strike fear into the hearth of the moral majority. Then, has if employing a controversy divining rod, he produced the multi-layered rock'n'roll collage soundtrack for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. He also created the soundtrack to David Lynch's hallucinatory Lost Highway, wrote the music for the doom-sodden computer game Quake and pretty much did anything to delay work on the follow-up to the 'The Downward Spiral'.
The longer he left it, the more important it became. In 1997 Time magazine called Reznor one of the 25 most influential people in America. Spin Magazine called him the most influential man in music, while his forth-coming album, 'The Fragile', has been hailed by the American media as the most anticipated album of the decade. But this year Trent Reznor as the folk devil has reincarnated when two depressed school kids Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17 who listened to Nine Inch Nails along with a lot of other industrial rock records, turned up at Columbine High School in Colorado armed with guns and bombs and executed 14 fellow students and one teacher.
So it's not surprising that Reznor's a little less that comfortable with 'The Fragile' being hailed as the most important and eagerly awaited album in America today.
"I see that Iım saving rock'n'roll." He says sarcastically. "Billy Corgan failed, now it's up to me." He says he had a hard time starting 'The Fragile' because he was in a "weird state of transition". He'd been fooled into thinking that every day was a party for him. It wasnıt just about drugs, it was the seductiveness of being a 'star'.
"I looked at some shit I'd done," says Reznor, "the way I'd treated people and I thought, 'How did I turn into this fucking guy?' Then I worked on 'Antichrist' and watched Manson go back out on tour while I had to sit here by myself. Plus I'm a procrastinator, plus my heart wasn't in it. My grandmother had just died and everyone was going, 'Where's your record, you're important now'".
For Trent Reznor, 1997 meant a new life of ascetic discipline. The year went like this: wake up at 10am, shower, leave the house, drive to the studio, work until 3am. Repeat every single day. "The only variation would be 'What are we eating today?'" says Reznor, smiling. "There's something that's subversively fun about that. It's hiding from the real world. Now I've got to get back to being a human being. Go film a video in Mexico, go to the Bahamas. My routine's all fucked up. Groundhog Day's been disrupted.
Trent hasn't listened to 'The Downward Spiral' in a long time. He did, however, catch the track 'Reptile' on the radio recently and was struck by how primitive it sounded. He thought maybe he'd lost his mind with this new album, where everything had to be over-complicated and it all sounds like My Bloody Valentine meets Tom Waits meets Queen.
"I could have just put out another cold, angry, machine-like record." Says Reznor. "It would have been made safe and no-one would have made fun of me."
'The Fragile', however, is not a safe album. The relentless combative techno metal of 'The Downward Spiral' has been demolished and rebuilt has a circuitous, 23-track, double-CD journey of pain, anger, and surprising vulnerability. It's an album that reveals an oddly human, emotional side to Nine Inch Nails. From weird classical instruments to fucked-up, chaotic songs of emotional damage (you know, for the fans) there's everything on here that you could possible want from Nine Inch Nails and more which isn't really surprising, given the album's ridiculous length. After all, shouldnıt every album restrict itself to 40 minutes? Twelve songs?
"I agree with you," admits Reznor. "I'm sick of the 20-song, two-good-ones-and-a-bunch-of-shit CD, but when we tried cutting things out they didn't support each other as well, but I'm pleasantly surprised by this album, people are already arguing over which CD they prefer." Like Guns N' Roses' 'Use Your Illusion'?
Trent Reznor does not find this funny.
For as long as he can remember, Trent always wanted to make music. His most vivid memory is of looking at himself in the reflection of his parents' TV, holding a broomstick and pretending to be in the Eagles.
Born in the one horse, one McDonald's farming town of Mercer, Pennsylvania on 17 May 1965, Michael Trent Reznor trained as a classical pianist from the age of five, practising ten hours a day. But then he discovered Kiss and realised he wasnıt going to get laid studying piano with a nun.
As he got older, Reznor discovered horror films. After he watched 'The Omen' he became convinced he was the Antichrist, searching his scalp for three 6's. By the time he was 23, working as a studio technician in Cleveland, he was so immersed in this world of music and horror that, when he started writing his debut album 'Pretty Hate Machine', he just took his journal and started writing songs directly out of it.
"I didnıt create a Bowie-esque persona as a shield," he says, "or to exaggerate the truth to make myself cooler. I wasn't a male prostitute from the ghetto. I grew up on a Pennsylvania cornfield with my grandparents."
Because of Reznor's upbringing he's often asked where the rage comes from. Surely you can't have that much anger growing up on a farm with your grandparents? It's a question that rankles. "Well," he says, "you can, They say, 'He doesnıt mean this'. Yes I do. All I ever wanted to write about was a way out."
This is perhaps the main reason why the music of Nine Inch Nails touches a nerve with American youth. Despite an outwardly 'normal' upbringing he still felt angry enough at the world to scream "Lose me/hate me/smash me". It's a self-hatred and vacuity that every miserable American teenage kid can relate to. Of course, such a stance begs the charge that presenting such negative images of murder, suicide and hate to impressionable teenage children, especially in the light of recent events, is completely irresponsible.
"Well, I would argue with that," says Reznor. "I'd like to have some faith in people. Society can't treat people like sheep. They need to make up their own minds. I don't feel that I'm doing anything irresponsible. But if I wrote a song that directly said, "Kill yourself, kill your friends' and someone had killed themselves listening to it, I would feel terrible."
That should no longer be a worry. 'The Fragile' represents a significant shift away from the relentless rage of The Downward Spiralı . This is Reznor divesting himself of his armour to reveal lonely, damaged individual.
In fact, a number of the songs on the album - particularly the the monolithic 'Starfuckers Inc', which includes the 'You're so Vain' refrain "I bet you think this song is about you" appear to be directed at two celebrities whoıve wronged Reznor in the past: Marilyn Manson and Courtney Love.
While Courtney Love's Trent Reznor slurs are in the past (she implied they'd had a sexual relationship and said things like: "Nine Inch Nails? More like three-inch nails"), -Manson's slagging of Reznor in his autobiography The Long Hard Road Out of Hell is more recent and still rankles.
"I felt let down, betrayed," he says "I still do. He was my best friend. I think both of us were in strange personality transitions and it just happened to spin out of control. I haven't talked to him in a while but, at the moment hurt? Yes. Betrayed? Yes. Is it all his fault? No."
Trent Reznor will tell you that he doesn't have many friends. He's always wished for a big circle of friends but, ironically, doesn't allow people to get close to him.
"I remember once I met somebody in another band. He was cool and we exchanged phone numbers," explains Reznor. "Later, my old girlfriend said, 'Give him a call'. I said 'I'm not going to call him, he's not going to call me, what's the fucking point? She said, "that's why you don't have any fucking friends.' I have no people to" He trails off. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."
Trent Reznor is 34. He hears a maturity in 'The Fragile' that reflects where his head's at right now. However, he certainly isn't looking forward to getting older.
"Not at all," he says. "I just hope that when the excuse of Nine Inch Nails is over, I'm not as unbalanced and incomplete as I've felt in the last ten years. Is that what scares you most?
"No. I'm scared of being alone. But," he says, draining the last of his black coffee, "I am alone."
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is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.