Visions Magazine

January 2000

A flight through the soul

Trent Reznor ­ described as a hero of our time, icon, "savior of rock'n'roll". But also as a "tough guy", "awe-inspiring", as "not exactly talkative" or even "talking about confusing stuff", and as "hateful" and "disgusting". In reality, Trent Reznor is reserved. He thinks for a long long time, before saying anything. He is very precise and in our conversation about private and semi-private stuff, about occupation and semi-occupation, about true and fake friendship, disappointments, about Grammys, fans, concerts, studio-work and colleagues he answers even the touchy questions openly and honestly ­ in the flight through the soul and the new record.

His project Nine Inch Nails counts as the epitome of experimentation and innovation in the '90's, amongst many musicians and music-fans; as an island in an ocean of increasingly monotonous music. Five years, the master took his time to create the new album. He named it ­ a broad hint ­ "The Fragile". And for nearly three years, this album has been floating through magazines and radio stations. "Soon it will be released, and it's even heavier than it's predecessor" they proclaimed, at a point, when Trent Reznor hadn't even started the first sketches for "The Fragile". For a long time nothing happened, other than the fact, that he composed music for movies or produced soundtracks. "The Perfect Drug" was Nine Inch Nails' only sign of life between the records "The Downward Spiral" and "The Fragile".

And it hits. Double CD, 23 tracks, two hours of music. One reason to rejoice. Yet although the record stormed the US-Billboard charts at #1 (knocking off the Backstreet Boys, who had claimed that position for months), a lot of disappointed fans turned away from their guru, who in their dreams would have "fucked you like an animal". Trent Reznor suddenly shows emotions (in words and music), and that's something his supposed fellow sufferers can't deal with. He hasn't lost his aggressiveness; he just expresses it in a less direct manner, and in a more subtle way. "The Fragile" contains more instrumental intermezzi, new themes and rhythms not typical for NIN. And there are questions. Those, we asked him.

Your new album "The Fragile" entered the charts at #1. Did you expect it? And what does its success mean to you?

No, I didn't expect it. That would have been presumptuous. I've also tried not to think about it. Now it's happened, and I'm flattered by it. But fame doesn't really mean anything to me.

Nothing at all?

You have to go way back. When I started choosing a name for the band, I wanted it to be something, that on the one hand implied something unpleasant, on the other hand something seductive. Nine Inch Nails contains something subversive and dangerous. It makes you recoil, yet also makes you reach out. After we started gaining more success, I started thinking. I've actually always had the opinion, that an underground-band shouldn't be allowed to become too big or too famous. I've had to witness, how a lot of people who I respected both for their work and as individuals, turned away from me, because Nine Inch Nails became too successful. I then tried to look at everything from the perspective of a fan: would a fan be happy, if everyone suddenly embraced a band that I've accompanied from the beginning? The feeling of betrayal also plays a role. In any case, I'm now in a position ­ that I never thought I'd reach ­ and that I also never had the intention of reaching.

How do you explain this to yourself?

The music I recorded ­ whether you like it or not ­ I've always done it out of deep conviction. I have always done, what I thought was good and right for music; also, to understand the music as a form of art. If what I did spoke to and touched some people right from the beginning, then I'm honored, even if I never really could understand it. But it would be just as fascistic, if someone told me, or if I told myself, that I make music just for these people.

Nevertheless, you did win the Grammy twice.

Ah yes. You know, I was quite shocked, when "The Fragile" entered the American charts at #1. It means more to me, than I thought it would. And I can't even tell you exactly why. Yes, I've won two Grammys, but I don't really give a shit. The Grammy is given by a committee of people, who aren't really interested in what I do, but rather what I represent in their eyes. It is of course still exciting to receive a Grammy, but as to what I do, it doesn't mean anything.

Are you really unimpressed by the fact that "The Fragile" stormed the charts from nowhere to #1, creating a direct competition for the Backstreet Boys?

While we were working on the finishing touches to "The Fragile", there was a void of 5 years in our work. I was racking my brains: maybe no one cares about Nine Inch Nails and the new record anymore. But to now see that a big interest remains, so big, that the record immediately went to #1, that's incredibly flattering. And it's a challenge for other people to approach our music, even though they normally can't make anything of it.

What do you think of the judgment, that Nine Inch Nails floats like a phantom through the music world?

I've heard that quite a lot, but that isn't always true. After all, we went on tour for 2 years with "The Downward Spiral", where everyone could see us. And there were one or two videos as well. But I think I know what you mean. Let me say it this way: I don't want to overshadow my music and its mystique with my personality. If you see too much, too much gets lost. The most important thing is the music. I'm not the type, who will meet supermodels, or kiss their ass backstage. I'm very aware of all that. That's incidentally also the reason why my records don't contain photos or pictures of me. It's only about Nine Inch Nails and the music, and not me. I always wanted to portray Nine Inch Nails in such a way, that you don't see the Wizard of Oz, the guy behind the curtain who pulls all the strings!

One could almost say that you have something to hide.

I have nothing to hide, and I don't do it, because I'm ashamed or anything. It's like the comparison whether to read a book, or go see the movie to the book. If you read the book and really get into it, it's always better than seeing the movie, which tells you, what you have to feel. I can also say it this way: I have gotten to know a few people, whose fan I've really been, whose records I've bought, because I found the music so great. If you meet the people, and they're like a piece of shit, the music doesn't mean anything to you anymore. I want people to like Nine Inch Nails for the music, and not for the personality that lies behind it. In addition to that, I'm actually a shy person, and I don't know how to deal with popularity.

Then such interviews are surely a complete horror for you?

Sometimes more, sometimes less. If the people take a more journalistic and a less "fan" point of view, where they can hardly utter a word, then it's ok. Then you can have a good and interesting conversation. I can learn something as well. Good interviews are more like conversations, in which I get to think about things as well, and maybe learn new aspects of my work.

Which ones, for example?

When I started making music, I wanted to do something meaningful. To me, writing lyrics was like a curse in the beginning. It all seemed so unimportant to me. So I took my music to a couple of journalists I knew really well then. I thought that they could provide the lyrics to my music. But they gave me strength and convinced me, that I'd accomplished something unique. They had discovered a power inside, something I hadn't been aware of 'til then. So it wasn't nonsense like I had thought. And in retrospect, that also showed me that I don't have to play a role behind which I could hide, but that I had turned my innermost, outside. And at the time, the decision was made: I was capable of making something meaningful, something artistic. I could have also hidden myself. Back then, I thought: no one will ever hear my music ­ and then a couple of people did. It meant something to them.

Meanwhile, the couple of people have increased into a few more. How do you, as a rather shy person, deal with it, when you're on tour for instance?

It's extremely hard for me. Not only physically, but especially mentally. We were on tour for 2 years with "The Downward Spiral". After that, I couldn't anymore; I was down. I had the feeling, I had completely lost myself. To play in front of a couple thousand people every night, who then wanted to know everything about me, without me ever knowing anything about them. I felt like I'd revealed too much about myself, that I'd been too honest and candid. I was naked and had nothing left. I had given people my most intimate and private things. It isn't something, I just play. I'm myself! I have no other option. It comes from deep in my heart and soul. I used to think that no one would notice, or that people wouldn't care. But it wasn't that way. And then I felt drained and empty.

For you, music undoubtedly seems to be a form of therapy as well. Are you even interested if people like your music or not?

I want to tell you about one of the nicest feelings I've ever had in my life: I'm sitting there, writing a song. I'm writing it, to get it out of me; maybe, to escape from myself. I feel better, once I've let out emotions and the song has attained a certain beauty. And then, much later, I'm standing on a stage in a foreign country, and the people are singing this song right in my face, without me having to do anything. The important thing is, that these people have something that connects them, it doesn't matter, if they understand what I meant. It gives them something. That's the nicest feeling ­ the crowd sees and understands: that's the reason I'm here. That's what makes everything worthwhile. That's how it must have been with David Bowie. He has always influenced me greatly as an artist. Then I met him, and now we're close friends. He isn't one of the guys, who'd leave me hanging. He's always stood by me and helped me, by giving me advice.

Do you see parallels in your artistic developments?

Good question. I think I'm currently in the phase he's already lived through. He came out on the other side, fully intact. That keeps me optimistic. I have a feeling towards him, like I would towards a big brother, who's telling me: "You're going to get through this; it will continue on the other side". I'm currently at the point, where a lot of things will change my future. David had the huge advantage of having Ziggy Stardust, who became "in" thanks to him. And Ziggy Stardust has also somehow protected Bowie, even guarded him. I wondered if it's a mistake not to have some sort of protection-level, the way David Bowie had Ziggy Stardust. Something between my heart and my exposed, unmasked soul. That was one thought, when I started working on "The Fragile".

You've worked with a lot of people, both on the record as well as on tour, who've also worked with Bowie before.

Yes, that isn't a coincidence. Normally, I can't work very well with other people. Not, because I don't want to, but mostly because I'm ashamed. That's why I often prefer doing things on my own. But I trust David. And that's why I'm working with a couple of guys, who've already made music with him.

How did you approach the record?

It was supposed to be a challenge for me, a new invention. I kept having to kick myself in the ass ­ I'm actually really lazy. I had to fight against that. I wanted to learn and improve. I thought that I could virtually use a character like Ziggy Stardust as a tool, in order to obtain another perspective to my work. But then I realized, that the framework I'd given myself with Nine Inch Nails, didn't allow that. Namely, because Nine Inch Nails is all about myself and my innermost feelings. And like I said before, it's not all about me as a person. Maybe Nine Inch Nails is my Ziggy Stardust

If we follow that thought, then you're probably "The Fragile".

For the most part, yes. Let me explain: We were on tour for two years with "The Downward Spiral". Two years without thinking about anything. We weren't being played on radio, or MTV and so on. So we had nothing, with which we could make people understand what everything was about. So we had to go on tour. When the tour was done, I realized that a relatively unknown band had turned into stars. I just hadn't noticed that I'd changed. I had turned into someone, who I'd sworn I'd never become. A little bit of power, fame or money can destroy your personality completely and totally change you. It happened to me. I realized this when I got on the tour bus, after the last concert.

And that makes one weak and fragile?

Before, I used to think a lot while making music; I kept examining myself. I'd analyze the way I'd experienced or felt certain things. When I sat down in the studio, to begin working on "The Fragile", the last thing I wanted to do was to be alone with myself and to try and find out, how I'd changed. So I lost a lot of time. I also used to think: "if you've achieved everything you've dreamed about, then you'll feel better". Now I have all that. Yes, of course it's nice not to worry about whether or not you'll be able to pay the next rent. But I also thought "what a pathetic, stupid goal in life. What kind of superficial person am I".

That sounds a bit like self-pity

No. But I realized, that the things that success brought, were exactly the things I couldn't deal with. I'd sit there, and not know how to go on. Then I also lost a couple of friends. And the woman, who'd raised me, died. A few other friends died as well. Everything around me died, and I couldn't deal with that ­ so I didn't even let it get to me. That didn't help either of course. I felt like an express train, speeding into the chasm. And then I stopped. I asked myself, why I felt so miserable and unhappy.

And then you started with the work?

I didn't just wake up one morning, and everything was different. No, it was the pressure of making another record that meant something. I discovered that I'd forgotten the fact that I love music. To make music, to hear and to experience. Music had always been my best friend, throughout my entire life. During my teenager-years there were moments, where a certain record was really something like a best friend. Now I have the chance to do the same for other people, and while doing that, I'll be getting a good feeling in return. I had totally forgotten that.

But even you can't avoid the promotion-machine that sets in as soon as the record is done.

There's a difference between music as art, that means something on the one hand, and commerce on the other. For example, I'm feeling really comfortable in our conversation right now, and I mean that. And that's crazy, isn't it? It's a coincidence that we're sitting here together, and I'm telling you about stuff that has pulled me down for years. I have jetlag, I feel sick, and I have a cold. But we're talking. Because it's important to me, so that I can support something I believe in. I've seen friends, who've had a little success and became famous. Their ultimate goal was to become stars. I've always felt really uncomfortable in situations like that. To me, it's all about the music, and not about using the music in order to join some holy club of stars. I'm disappointed in those people.

You're talking about Marilyn Manson, right?

Yes. But before you ask any further: I'm not going to start throwing concrete accusations around, or start telling the public about personal differences. That's not my style. Only this much: I wouldn't have expected to be hurt so much by someone, who I considered to be one of my few friends. But you're always smarter afterwards, even if you have to ask yourself, how you could have been so wrong about a person.

"The Fragile" doesn't sound as aggressive as its predecessor; there are even parts where you use string-arrangements and mandolins. Even the lyrics don't seem to be as provocative as before.

When we made "The Downward Spiral", I already had a prefabricated concept in my head. The record was practically done before I'd even entered the studio. I wanted to tell a story about a kind of descent into an evil place ­ pretty fatalistic. And on tour, that suddenly became reality, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I started with "The Fragile" when I was quite desperate, and I had nothing planned. But when I finally started working, it just poured out of me. The only framework I'd given the entire thing, was the title "The Fragile".

The track "I'm Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally" is dedicated to a Clara. That's your grandmother, right?

Yes, she's the woman who raised me and passed away.

The song title implies suicidal tendencies

Yes. At the time she went, I really felt weak and fragile. But I then aimed to find the weaknesses in order to make a record that puts together the pieces that had fallen apart. I started right at the bottom and faced my fears. I had to get through that. I just did it and watched what came out of it. For two years, I never slept more than 4 hours a night. Of course that's not healthy, but the record is the best one, I've ever made. The musical level has risen. I'm downright surprised that it's finished and I'm very proud of it. It gives me back the respect towards myself.

Between the two records there was "The Perfect Drug". How do you consider the song now?

When I was writing the song, I was just approaching my low-point. I don't particularly like it. I recorded it for a soundtrack that wasn't really important. It was an assignment to get the track done within a week ­ that was all.

Still, the obvious question: What's the perfect drug for you?

Now I'd almost say: music.

You said you were down after your last tour. What are you going to do, in order to prevent this from happening in the future?

I want to go on tour, because I think it's important to experience the new material live. I've learned from the last tour, and approach things with more sense of reality and less naiveté. That's why the risk isn't that big ­ that another crash will happen to me. I'm prepared for the unanticipated.

DAVID BOWIE

"Trent Reznor is a downright perfect musician, he is colossal. He is one of the most challenging musicians of our time and by no means a one-hit-wonder or a short-lived phenomenon. What Manson's doing at the moment is very American, but doesn't necessarily have anything to do with Glam. Manson isn't as open. What he's doing is a statement. Very puristic, but really not very interesting. I think that Trent Reznor has more longevity than Manson."

ALICE COOPER

"No one will ever make or represent industrial-rock as well as Trent Reznor. Still, it's too dark for me ­ so heartless and desperate. It's ok for three songs, but then I need something else."

FLEA (CHILI PEPPERS)

"I have listened to the new Nine Inch Nails record without interruption for hours. It's the damn best thing, I've ever heard. Trent Reznor has such a fundamental idea of rhythm, time and space; it just knocks me out. We're going to be playing with Nine Inch Nails in Australia, and I'm very excited."

Interview: Robert Baumanns

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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.