TRENT REZNOR OF NINE INCH NAILS PREACHES THE
DARK GOSPEL OF SEX, PAIN AND ROCK & ROLL
Tables sprout candles in the darkened control
room as thick and as numerous as mushrooms on a dank forest floor, and
miniskirted department store mannequins are scattered about in various states
of bondage. One mannequin has masking tape wound violently, around its mouth
and a plastic bag pinned over its head; another is gagged and has a pair of
silver Lurex panties around its knees; a third has its wrists bound and is
blindfolded. Four men huddle around a computer screen that displays jagged
green wave forms; several dozen recording levels jerk angrily into the red.
Electronic drums as big as redwoods pound from the studio speakers, and the
breathy, oddly calm tenor of Nine Inch Nails auteur Trent Reznor sounds as if
it were being broadcast by a shortwave radio from halfway across the world.
"Something inside of me has opened up its
eyes/Why did you put it there, did you not realize?/Something inside of me, it
screams the Loudest sound/Sometimes I think I could ... burn."
Nine Inch Nails are in Miami's South Beach Studios putting the
final touches on the soundtrack album for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers,
which Reznor has compiled from the 70- odd snippets of rock & roll used in
the film, and the going is getting weird.
The last time Reznor used this studio -- for
the clandestine sessions that resulted in Nine Inch Nails' 1992 EP Broken,
which resulted in a Grammy -- a studio employee made a crack about the
concentration of gay men on the beach. In retaliation, Reznor bought dozens of
gay porno mags, clipped out hundreds of pictures of phalluses and hid them all
over the studio -- some in places where they didn't turn up for months. This
time, Reznor screened an extreme S&M video for assistant studio engineer
Leo Herrera that still gives Herrera the willies a week later.
NIN bassist Danny Lohner darts in and out of
the studio, clutching DAT tapes; NIN drummer Chris Vrenna pushes the buttons on
the console that Reznor can't get to; Herrera works on the levels.
"We try to name all our hard drives
something easy to remember," Reznor explains to computer consultant
Charlie Clouser, "like Bum Cleaver, Cunny or Big Hairy Pussy. Sometimes it
gets complicated when we don't remember if the file we're looking for is
Assfuck 25 on the Fuckfuck 12 drive or Fuckfuck 12 on the Assfuck 25 drive. And
when we're talking to each other in To paraphrase the late poet Philip Larkin,
hatred is to Nine Inch Nails what daffodils were to Wordsworth.
"Ah, it's down to the comfortable last
seconds of mixing," Reznor says. "Imagine this on AM radios across America."
Reznor drags his mouse across the desk until
the cursor reaches SHUT DOWN on the menu bar of his Macintosh, and he releases
the mouse with a flourish. The computer screen flickers, then goes dark.
"No more excuses," he says.
REZNOR, 29, MAY BE just another black-clad
antihero in the great American tradition -- take a number, Ethan and Keanu -- a
good-looking loner bashing up against the thick wall of middle-class sexual
mores until his forehead starts to bleed, but he is also as complete a video,
audio and literary artist as anybody working in rock & roll right now. And
he's popular: His 1994 concept album, The Downward Spiral, opened at No. 2 on
the Billboard album chart, and this month, NIN are playing a megashow in Toronto with Soundgarden and will be
featured artists at Woodstock. Beavis and Butt-head want to be
But as an ultimate antihero, Reznor stands as
far outside the mainstream of American popular culture as it may be possible
for a million-selling rock singer to get.
One video, for "Happiness in
Slavery," from Broken, in which the naked performance artist Bob Flanagan
sacrifices himself to a gnawing machine, may be as close to a snuff film as has
ever been banned by MTV, a torture-lashed essay on the ecstasy of submitting to
ultimate control. Reznor's current video, for "Closer," is a grainy
meditation on the great fetish photography of Joel-Peter Witkin, shot partially
on supersaturated '20s film stock Reznor managed to cadge, overlaid with the
scratchy patina of early surrealist shorts and shot through with indelible
images: crucified monkeys; sneering industrialists straight out of a German
expressionist print; siblings with their hair braided together; and Reznor
himself, spinning in midair so out of control he cannot even touch the ground.
MTV made Reznor edit the hell out of it but plays it several times a day.
The album Downward Spiral is a carefully mapped
descent through Reznor's willful self- destruction, through sex, through
violence, through drugs, through suicide and through despair.
Reznor is a master of control and a perfectionist
to the extent that when the stage lighting did not work out to his satisfaction
at the beginning of the Downward Spiral tour, he spent two days reprogramming
the system's computer software. "It was looking like a Genesis
concert," he says. "Somebody had to get the job done."
In the light of day, maybe yelling at a
soundman or discussing marketing strategy with his manager John Maim, Reznor
looks pretty robust for a rock & roll guy. He has ruddy Midwestern cheeks
and an athletic ease you might associate with the quarterback of a
small-college football team. Perhaps surprised by his rude health, strangers
meeting Reznor for the first time often describe him as normal. (He is more
likely to describe himself as a "computer dweeb.")
Onstage though, splayed like a St. Sebastian
without the torturing arrows, Reznor resembles nothing so much as the Bronze
Age man they dug from that glacier in Austria a couple of years ago, give or
take a pair of fish-net stockings: rough-edged bowl cut, leather cod-piece
thing, garters, tunic and pre-industrial boots. Though the subject of control
is as central to Reznor's collected works as the subject of marijuana is to
Snoop Doggy Dogg's -- an early press release for Pretty Hate Machine took pains
to point out "Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails" -- Reznor appears
powerless onstage, buffeted by harsh, glowing fog, martyred to the noise and to
the crowd, enraged by a world he does not understand.
DETROIT'S STATE THEATER IS one of those baroque
old piles that sometimes still exist on the edges of American downtowns, and
when Nine Inch Nails are onstage, the orchestra of the great hall seems like
some Victorian notion of hell: rolling bodies smashing up against the brass
railings that separate each level from the next, pierced lips and noses coming
up bloody from the pit.
You haven't really lived, I think, until you've
heard a gang of Wayne State sorority sisters moan, "I want to fuck you
like an animal," the chorus to "Closer," which has sort of the
same resonance that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" might have had 30
years ago. Dressed in already- clammy NIN T-shirts newly purchased from the
concession stand, whipping clean hair over their eyes, shoving the pimply
skanks who dare to block their view, wild-eyed with hatred and desire, the
women howl along with Reznor, who in turn howls into the black-rubber void with
such intensity that you fear the throbbing balconies will sag and collapse,
sending 200 tons of concrete, steel and slam-dancing teen-agers onto your
The women crush their eyes shut and scream,
"You get me closer to God." All of them sound as if they mean it.
There are four other musicians performing --
though you would never guess it from watching the stage show -- and a zillion
gigabytes of RAM and a giant, costly rubber-fetish backdrop that is all but
invisible to everyone except for the roadies. Banks of colored lights, like
stands of bright, routant poppies, exist solely to shine in your eyes; infinite
layers of computer- generated racket deafen you to all but the most basic
blocks of harmony and rhythm and fucked-up guitar.
When Reznor changes up and sings a chorus in a
sobbing croak that might well have come from David Bowie's "Heroes,"
he displays a hundred times more emotional vulnerability than, say, Eddie
Vedder. "I just want something I can never have." Then again, unlike
Vedder, Reznor is acting, The crowd is silent, rapt; the slam boys pause, then
slowly begin to writhe until the pit undulates like a single-celled organism; and
sex power radiates from the floor.
"I'm not trying to hide," Reznor says
later. "Or make up for a lack of songs, but essentially Nine Inch Nails
are theater. What we do is closer to Alice Cooper than Pearl Jam."
After the show, deli platters picked at and
schmoozers briefly dealt with, Reznor ducks out of the theater and runs into
the knot of people waiting patiently outside the stage door.
"Trent! Trent!" one guy yells, a
scruffy-looking goth boy who looks as if he has just graduated to blue black
hair from a faded Metallica T-shirt. "Can I ask you one question?"
Reznor looks back over his shoulder and rolls
his eyes, anticipating the question. "Um, sure," he says.
"So, man," the guy says. "Tell
me, what was it like living at the Sharon Tate house?"
Goth Boy cannot see it, but Reznor is mouthing
his interrogator's words like an especially goofy ventriloquist's dummy. The
Downward Spiral is perhaps more famous for having been recorded in the house
where Sharon Tare was murdered by the Manson family than for any of the songs
that happen to be on it. Reznor has heard this question before; he will hear it
many times again.
"Trent.!" interrupts a second dude,
who materializes from behind aparked car. "Have you seen all the shit they
talk about you on the Internet?"
Reznor, head down, peeling leather jacket
gleaming in the dim streetlight glow, shuffles toward the darkness and
anonymity of the bus that will take him back to the hotel. "Of course
those techno-computer guys hate me," he says. "You can't really dance
to Nine Inch Nails, we don't play fast enough, and I don't know what the music
sounds like on ecstasy. Yeah, I believe in song structure. Yeah, I care about
the melody. I don't imagine they like us at all. But that guy probably waited
out there for an hour.Why was it so important for him to tell me somebody I
don't even know thinks that I suck?"
That night, as bass player Lohner and guitarist
Robin Finck check out a downtown disco, as keyboardist James Wooley scarfs some
chicken at an all-night hang in Greektown, Reznor is nowhere to be seen.
Woolley, an engaging guy who has been with Nine
Inch Nails on and off since the 1991 Lollapalooza tour, looks down at the floor
of the diner as if he were memorizing the arrangement of the sawdust
"Usually we find out what's going on with Nine Inch Nails by reading
Trent's interviews in magazines," he says. "I think he likes the band
now, but I guess we're all still a little too nervous to ask him."
THE DAY AFTER the Detroit show, blasting down the highway toward
Cleveland, Reznor curls up in the back seat
of the tour bus and strokes a bottle of mineral water as if it were a kitten.
"I probably rely too much on sexual
imagery as a metaphor for control, but I'm totally intrigued by it,"
Reznor says. "I think Nine Inch Nails are big enough and mainstream enough
to gently lead people into the back room a little bit, maybe show them some
things it might have taken them a little longer to stumble into on their own. I
don't mean that in a public-service kind of way.
"I think that hack room could represent
anything that an individual might consider taboo yet intriguing anything we're
conditioned to abhor. Why do you watch horror films? Why do you look at an
accident when you drive past, secretly hoping that you see some gore? I
shamefully admit it -- I do."
Reznor spots a NIN sticker next to a Metallica
sticker on a van that roars by the bus, and he momentarily frowns. "I'm
not as afraid to question my own sexual orientation as I might have been 10
years ago,"' he says. "I'm not afraid to think about certain things
you aren't supposed to think about I mean, I do wonder what it would be like to
kill somebody, though I'm not going to do it. I don't want to do it But I know
why people idolize serial killers.
"I can make something loud, but how can I
make it the loudest, noisiest, most abrasive thing I've ever heard?"
Reznor asks. "Can I go 10 steps past the goriest horror film you've ever
seen in a way that's more disturbing than cheesy? I know I can; I've done it Peter
Christopherson and I made a long-form video for Broken that was the most
horrific thing you'll ever see, but I didn't put it out because I didn't want
to spend the next five years explaining the thing to every reporter I meet. It
makes 'Happiness in Slavery' look like a Disney movie."
The framing device for the video, which was
inspired by certain scenes from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, involves a
lazy, brutal torture killing in which a victim is slowly dismembered while
being forced to watch Nine Inch Nails videos -- it may be a metaphor for the
vivisection of the soul by American media culture, or it may just be the
expression of a gore- film-obsessed rock guy who has been reading way too much
Bataille and Artaud. Every good R&B fan has at least a second-generation
copy of Prince's Black Album somewhere in his collection, but videocassettes of
"Broken" are as hard to come by as goatskin-bound copies of
Baudelaire poems inscribed in blood outside of Reznor's inner circle, the tape
seems to have been viewed mostly by professional dominatrixes.
And the soundtrack for Natural Born Killers
illustrates a brutal, grotesque comedy about serial killers that may not strike
that far from Reznor's own muse. "I know what you probably think of Olive
Stone," Reznor says. "But I saw the film, and surprisingly enough, it
was really good. He asked me if I wanted to put together the soundtrack album
-- there's no original music in the soundtrack just pieces of 70 songs -- and I
wasn't interested in doing a Reservoir Dogs kind of thing, but I told him my
idea for, like, a multi-layered collage with dialogue, and he made it
"That agony, that pain, that overwhelming
sense of suffering," says Stone from the remote village in India where he is shooting his next
movie. "Trent reminds me of Hendrix or Jim Morrison, but with a heavier overlay of
romanticism. The moment I heard Nine Inch Nails, I knew we had to get as much
as possible of it in this, and there is quite a lot."
"I don't know why I want to do these
things," Reznor says, "other than my desire to escape from Small Town, U.S.A., to dismiss the boundaries, to
explore. It isn't a bad place where I grew up, but there was nothing going on
but the cornfields. My life experience came from watching movies, watching TV
and reading books and looking at magazines. And when your fucking culture comes
from watching TV every day, you're bombarded with images of things that seem
cool, places that seem interesting, people who have jobs and careers and
opportunities. None of that happened where I was. You're almost taught to
realize it's not for you."
REZNOR GREW UP in Mercer, Pa., a farming town so small that when
it came time to leave home and move to the city, that city was Meadville, Pa. (pop. 14,258). After a year at Allegheny College, where he majored in computer
engineering he moved again, this time to Cleveland.
"I was trained as a classical
pianist," Reznor says. "I started when I was 5 years old. And it got
to the point where I was encouraged to drop out of school, get tutored,
practice for 10 hours a day for a concert career. But I'd just discovered Kiss,
so that was out of the question. I knew I wasn't going to get laid studying
piano with a nun.
"It wasn't cool to play music where I was
from. You had to be an athlete, or else an athlete, a fucking turd in a
football uniform. The teachers in my school were shitty for the most part, and
I got a pretty bad education because I had a bad attitude. If I wanted to get
good grades, I could. Stuff I'd like to know now, at the time, I thought was
irrelevant typical teen-age stupidity."
At first, college was even worse. "Where I
went to school for a year was super fraternity oriented," Reznor says.
"But when I started to hang around better colleges, I realized, Jesus
Christ, there's a lot of music I'd never heard. It was like a musical awakening
-- from Test Dept. to XTC, all these bands I never knew existed. All those
classic one-hit-wonder synth bands were permeating the airwaves, and it was
kind of interesting just to see Devo and Human League briefly edge out Bruce
Springsteen and Rush. That was about when synthesizers were becoming relatively
affordable, and sequencers for home computers were just coming out. And when I
stumbled into all that harder-edged music that incorporated electronic elements
-- what you, but not I, would call industrial -- it pretty much fit with things
that were already in my head. Suddenly, music started to make sense."
In Cleveland, Reznor worked in a music store and
in a recording studio - and he cleaned toilets. He shared a grungy apartment in
a bad neighborhood with Vrenna, still his drummer and closest aide. "When
we were living together broke in Cleveland, our unit of currency used to be
LPs," says Reznor." "That shirt costs three LPs and two 12
inches? No way.' Then it became video-game cartridges, back when a $40 gas bill
was enough for us to worry about for a week. The currency was drugs for money a
while -- that's the ultimate no value for your money -- and at a low point, it
was Top Ramen noodles and Busch in cans, because Budweiser was too expensive,
and Ramen will technically keep you alive. We kept some Old Milwaukee around in
case friends came by."
Reznor played keyboards in a succession of
lousy Cleveland bands before he found religion in early
records by Ministry and Skinny Puppy, the boom-whack disco, full-on. pumping
double- time bass line, anguished megaphone-sound vocal thing that became known
as industrial music almost by default In 1988, Reznor started recording as Nine
The band's first album, 1989's Pretty Hate
Machine, on which Reznor wrote, co-produced, sang and played all the
instruments, has been called the Appetite for Destruction of industrial disco.
It may have been the first industrial album -- and perhaps the first rock &
roll indie album - to sell a million copies. TVT Records, NIN's first label,
started to sniff the long green, and Reznor felt so alienated by what he calls
the label's creative interference that it would be four years before NIN would
put out another record. (The band's struggles, largely unsuccessful, to break
out of its contract are legendary within the music industry.) NIN stole the
show from Jane's Addiction on the first Lollapalooza tour -- also sold more
T-shirts -- and the single "Head Like a Hole," a disco-metal hybrid
with a hook raw enough to shatter concrete, came within just a smidge of
becoming the battle cry for smart teen rebellion that "Smells Like Teen
Spirit" would become a year later.
As a low-billed act at Lollapalooza, almost
green complected in the dimming sun, Reznor whipped and thrashed, leapt onto
his band's instruments, lowed until you feared his throat would bleed. Nobody
had ever seen industrial music in the light of day before -- early live NIN shows
had relied heavily upon glowing billows of fog and pulsating planes of colored
light -- but it hardly mattered, so intense was the sound.
Monstrous electronic disco beats washed with
jungle drums and shrieking feedback guitar were so loudly amplified that it
actually felt a couple of degrees cooler when the music stopped for a hit
between songs. Even Reznor's backup musicians looked terrified. It was as dose
to the anarchic assault of primo rock & roll as it is possible for, er,
disco to get. But suddenly, Reznor was something close to a heavy-metal star,
and he didn't like it.
"By the end of Lollapalooza," Reznor
says, "it wasn't uncommon to hear someone come up to me and say, 'I saw
you guys play, and you were fucking awesome, but I went out and bought your
record, and it was fuckin' synth-fag music.' We just weren't prepared. I felt
like the fucking Beverly Hillbillies onstage."
Reznor stretches his arms above his head into
something of a Vargas-girl pose and yawns. "When I see a band," he
says, "I'd rather see them in a theater than in an amphitheater or arena.
At huge shows like Lollapalooza you're up on a pedestal rather than going
head-to-head with people. It's hard to know if the energy you send out is even
So why is NIN doing Woodstock?
"The money," Reznor says. "To be
quite frank, it's basically to offset the cost of the tour we're doing tight
After Lollapalooza, Interscope Records, then
best known as the home of Gerardo and Marky Mark absorbed Reznor's contract with
TVT and helped Reznor set up his own label, Nothing. (Nothing's first non-NIN
release is a Reznor-produced splatter-glam album by the Florida group Marilyn
Manson that includes a song about child molestation that could be seen by some
as not entirely disapproving; there are also upcoming Nothing releases by the
British electronic artists Pop Will Eat Itself and Coil and by the brutal
Cleveland post-industrialist synth guy Prick.)
"All you can do with a guy like Trent is to believe in him and let him go,"
says Interscope co-chief Jimmy Iovine. "No matter how odd what he's doing
may look to us now, it will all seem exactly right in a year or so?
NIN immediately released the intriguingly
unlistenable EP Broken, which went Top 10 and quelled any rumors that the band
had gone soft. Reznor moved to Los Angeles, rented the infamous Tate house
without at first knowing the mansion's history, began to work on Downward
Spiral and became blocked.
"I'd been talking to my friend Rick Rubin
a lot Rick's a pretty good friend of mine," says Reznor. "And I was
completely bummed out. Rick asked me what my motivation for doing this record
was, and I told him the truth: Just to get it fucking done. And he said,
'That's the stupidest fucking reason for doing an album I've ever heard. Don't
do it. Don't do it until you make music that it's a crime not to let other
"I started thinking about it, and I
realized he was right," Reznor says. "I was in the most fortunate
situation I could imagine. I had a decent budget for the record. I've got
really cool equipment and a studio to work at. And for the first time,
recording music was my job.... I didn't have to fucking clean toilets all day
just to afford a few minutes in the studio. So I kind of got my head back straight.
I started noodling around with ideas, with computers, and five or six months
later I've got two-thirds of a record written. It's like I came up for air.
"But I got dragged into a strip club a few
months ago," Reznor says, wand it was, like, 1:30 in the morning. To my horror, to my
absolute horror, I realized the DJ was playing 'Hurt,' the last track on
Downward Spiral and a song based on the most personal sentiments, the deepest
emotions I have ever had: 'I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel.' We were
crying when we made it, it was so intense. I didn't know if I even wanted to
put it on the album. But there we were, and there it was, and girls were taking
their clothes off to it."
LATER THAT NIGHT in Cleveland, in front of a
hometown crowd of people that stand as impassively as if they were jaded
A&R men at an industry showcase in Manhattan, Nine Inch Nails are if
anything more intense than they had been the night before, lunging into their
power chords, Reznor alternating between shrieks of deepest anguish and
exquisitely sustained quieter bits that in their way are not unlike the
emotionally wrenching moments that raise the artistry of Frank Sinatra above
that of, say, Tony Bennett. Then it's back to heavy-metal thunder.
"I want to know everything/I want to be
everywhere/I want to fuck everyone in the world/I want to do something that
Reznor craves the respect from Clevelanders
that was denied him when he lived here. The town had not been good to him: He
had escaped it as eagerly as he has left Mercer and Los Angeles. "The thing about a town like
Cleveland," Reznor says, "is that nothing really ever comes out of
there, and the idea of getting a record contract is unimaginably distant People
go about it in such a fucking dumb-ass way: 'Let's just play bars and try and
fuck girls, and maybe somebody from a record company will see us.' When I was
here, the local media was incredibly unsupportive of local acts. There was a
local music magazine that was OK, but at the time, the big radio station's big
contribution was an hour a week on Sunday nights where they'd play the local
bands Its really this whole incestuous power struggle.
"I was working on a demo tape,"
Reznor says, "We sent it out to labels, didn't make a big thing out of getting
a deal, got a deal. Kept our mouths shut, made a great record -- what I thought
was a great record. And then I went to this club that we used to go to that
played this kind of music we liked, and I brought a test pressing of a 12 inch
that [British producer] Adrian Sherwood had mixed and said, 'Hey, you guys are
going to be the fast people in the country to get this record.' We were so
proud of it. 'We don't play local bands; they said. 'You don't understand,
we're from Cleveland, but this is a nationally released thing.
Adrian Sherwood produced it.'
"We don't play local bands.'
"I was like 'Fuck you,' you know? A month
later, they were playing it because it was in the stores and on the charts. It
was OK. But still, when Downward Spiral came out, it got almost universally
good reviews ... except for the scathing, scathing reviews in Cleveland."
Tonight, Reznor is redeemed. During the last
encore, a version of "Happiness in Slavery" that sounds like 200
guitar players methodically shorting out 200 Marshall stacks with 200 faulty cords,
Reznor tackles guitarist Finck. Then he wrestles his own keyboard from its
stand and strips off the keys with his boot heel as if he were stripping corn
kernels from a cob. The audience screams its approval even louder than the din
from the triple cranked guitar. Reznor looks out at the crowd, then down at the
destruction he has wrought and grins for what may be the first time in weeks.
The next day as Reznor is preparing to catch a
plane to Boston, somebody runs into the hotel and fetches him to see the near-total
solar eclipse that is about to occur. On the sidewalk outside, road manager
Mark O'Shea positions a couple of sheets of hotel stationery to make the kind
of jerry-built camera obscura recommended by all the newspapers. The air grows
dark and still.
Reznor leans over and squints through O'Shea's
construction, trying to make out the vague nimbus of light, but he is as
frustrated as he would be by a malfunctioning microphone or an incompetent
roadie, and you can almost see the anger beginning to vibrate within him.
Suddenly his shoulders relax, and he almost begins to smile.
Tilting his head toward heaven, shading eyes
with outstretched fingers, Reznor stares up at the blackened sun.