Sick punk deviant, despoiler of minds… cat
lover? Is arch-deviant Trent Reznor as black as he’s painted?
Story by Gina Morris
Photos by Harry Borden
There’s a skinny black cat sprawled asleep on
the suedette sofa. Out on the balcony that overlooks the obligatory LA pool a colossal
cheese plant is left to survive in a giant pot of dust. Below, puddles of clear
blue water, that look as though they were spat from the pool, partly drown the
terrace. A legacy of the catastrophic effects of the recent quakes.
A grand piano stands neglected in a corner of the
extensive open-plan living/dining room. A large African head piece doubles as
an extravagant paperweight on a table strewn with rock magazines, fan mail, newspapers and advertising
circulars that read Cheat A Shrink. Are
You Tired Of $60 An Hour Doctors? Under the table in the lounge there‘s a
box containing a collection of sex aids, all wires, batteries und synthetic
genitalia. On the floor in the dining room, a gilt-framed 18th
century oil painting offers a resting place for the cat.
And who could be living here, in this grandiose
mini-mansion turned repository for random cultural junk?
“Be careful,“ warns a muffled voice from down
stairs. “That cat‘s neurotic. It‘ll seem real friendly — then it‘ll just go
Welcome to Château Reznor.
The last time we heard from Trent Reznor, he
was about to start recording the follow up to Nine Inch Nails‘ million selling
debut album, ‘Pretty Hate Machine‘ in the house where Sharon Tate and her
friends were murdered by the members of Charles Manson‘s Family in 1969.
Reznor claims he was unaware of 10050 Cielo
Drive‘s history when he rented the house, but it‘s hard to see how. The Manson
Murders convulsed America and, just as much as Altamont, drove a stake through the heart of
the ‘60s. During the trial it became clear that Manson and his followers
believed that ‘Helter Skelter‘ and other tracks from The Beatles‘ ‘White Album‘
contained coded instructions for the Family to provoke a race war. The crimes,
which the Family hoped to blame on black nationalists the Black Panthers, were
unparalleled in their savagery: they stabbed to death Tate, who was pregnant,
and four others, and daubed the words ‘HELTER SKELTER‘ and ‘PIGS’ on the walls
in their blood.
No wonder Reznor‘s choice of studio confirmed
the beliefs of the critics who — in the wake of the spectacular extremities of
‘Pretty Hate Machine‘ — saw him as just a sick punk with a mission to spread
In the meantime Reznor released a taster of
what wasn‘t to come. The ‘Broken‘ EP is an essay in homicidal rage and self destruction,
created by Reznor and producer Flood in a place near Lake Geneva that resembled the deserted hotel
in The Shining. To many, it was more
evidence of Reznor‘s obsession with the macabre, as was the accompanying video
for ‘Happiness In Slavery‘. It depicted a naked man strapped to a torture
machine being dismembered with metal claws, with close ups his nipples and
testicles being torn off. Funnily enough, MTV banned the video. Despite this,
‘Broken‘ went platinum. That was almost 18 months ago.
Today, Reznor — mild mannered, shy and nervous
— is embarking on the next step of Nine Inch Nail’s erratic career. It‘s taken
him four years to release his new LP, ‘The Downward Spiral‘, not through any
lack of inspiration but simply because of a no-win war with his record company
TVToons. TVT wouldn‘t let Reznor guest on a side-project with Ministry‘s Al
Jourgensen. Trent was furious and wanted out but the label refused — NIN were the only
money spinners they had. So Trent refused to record any more product,
but continued to tour and was duly accused by the critics of milking ‘Pretty
Hate Machine‘ dry.
And at the end of 1992, Trent Reznor had a near
“Do you want a drink or anything to eat?“
offers Trent, settling, at last, on the sofa with a bottle of beer, happy at
having loaded the CD player down stairs so we can listen to Tom Waits ‘Bone
Machine‘ dripping through the speakers installed every where from the bathroom
to the swimming pool. “I can always phone out for something?“
He‘s still a thin, awkward figure dressed in
mandatory black, with a gaunt face and a deathly pale complexion. But these
days Trent is practically a new man: TVT was bought out by record producer Jimmy
lovine, after he realised the only way he could sign Reznor was to buy their
record company. Trent has recently escaped the pressures of a stressful relationship und finished
his thematic and gloriously understated LP. He‘s now manager of his own label,
Nothing, whose acts include (of all people) Pop Will Eat Itself. All things
considered, he‘s recharged, relaxed and ready to go. So where does he hide the
stroppy, rude, ego maniac alter-ego he likes to wheel onstage?
“People are always saying, You‘re really nice, I
thought you were going to be a complete asshole. I’m getting pretty fed up with
it. I just want to say to them, Well I could always piss on your head.“
Anyone who‘s ever seen the Nails live will know
of Trent‘s terror tactics and bloody-mindedness. Plenty of other frontmen smash
their instruments, a few abuse their audience, but not too many also beat up
members of their own band. According to Reznor, what most people have read as
tantrums, gimmickry or uncontrollable rage, is in fact pure vengeance, a trick
he learned early on in his career.
“We opened for Peter Murphy, up until then we
were all fighting for the cause. So we went out und there were these
miserable-looking goth kids with huge hair und make-up, competing for who could
look the most bored. It just got so irritating, so I picked up a slice of cold
pizza and hurled it into the crowd — it hit this kid on the side of his head
und his gigantic hair fell over. He had bits of pepperoni stuck to his cheek.
Then we started pouring beer on the kids at the front and it was, Oh I‘m
melting, I‘m melting. It was the greatest feeling of, FUGK YOU!
“There are times on tour when the last thing I
want to do is go onstage, but after a while you‘re fuelled by the crowd: either
they‘re into it or they‘re fuckers. So we just try as hard as we can to break
through that wall of complacency. I‘ve realised as a performer that if the
crowd is shitty, they‘re not expecting me to kick the entire monitor rig into
them. I know there are some stunts I could pull out of the bag, but initially it
didn‘t revolve around that. All those things we stumbled on to.“
The grand piano in the living room hasn‘t been touched
— you can tell because the lid‘s so stiff. Trent is a classically-trained pianist
but at the mere mention of an impromptu tinkle, he retreats to the kitchen for
a bottle, mumbling something like “I‘ve forgotten everything I was ever
For such an avowed extremist, Trent‘s story is
a prosaic one. Raised by his grandparents from the age of five as an only
child, he was separated from his sister and parents and lived in the town of Mercer near Pittsburgh. College life — studying computers
— proved lonely and pointless, and he was labelled ‘faggot‘ for listening to
music instead of playing sports. In his desperation not to fall into Middle
America‘s vast well of dead-end life, he clung to the idea of Nine Inch Nails.
A few years later he moved to Cleveland and rented a flat with friend,
drummer and able assistant Chris Vrenna.
“We lived in the shittiest apartment, all we
ate were peanut butter sandwiches. Chris and I were the poverty brothers, we
got our bills down so low so we could do music instead of getting shitty jobs. I
worked in a music shop, which was hellish. The last thing you feel like doing
is coming home and playing an instrument. And I cleaned toilets in a rehearsal
studio. I wiped many a musician‘s pubic hair off the toilet seat. It sucked.“
As it on cue, in walks Chris, loaded with beer,
milk and various flavours of Iced Tea, and the whole absurd scenario suddenly
dawns. Here are two men who renounced life‘s necessities, food and warmth for
their love of a twisted kind of music and a believe that there must something
out there beyond sport and gas stations. These days, renting a $5,000 a month
mansion house on Hollywood Boulevard does little to impress them.
They deserve the luxury, but they aren‘t
comfortable with it. Although they only plan to stay here two months, Trent is
living out of a suitcase (he loathes LA and can‘t wait to leave), the kitchen
cupboards are bare, the fridge does a nice range in milk beer and Iced Tea but the
only sign of food is a box of cat biscuits. The only evidence of occupation is
what‘s on and under the table. Trent rarely goes out, he doesn‘t make friends
easily because he spends so much time in the studio, figuring out where to take
Nine Inch Nails next, if anywhere.
“Yeah I‘m lonely,“ he whines, staring into his
bottle of beer, he rarely looks you in the eye. “Sitting in a room on my own,
to write and record an album, for a year and a half, tends to make you socially
retarded. It doesn‘t do wonders for your social life. I don‘t have many friends
and I‘m not one to hang out with rock people, I feel uncomfortable because I‘m insecure
about who I am.“
To make the writing of ‘The Downward Spiral‘ a
little easier, he tried to construct it piece by piece.
“The idea behind the album is of someone who
sheds everything around them to a potential nothingness, but through career,
religion, relationship, belief and so on. It‘s less muscle-flexing, though when
I started it I didn‘t know what I wanted it to sound like. I know I didn‘t want
it to be a full metal album, so I tried to address the issue of restraint. It
was a long process.“
Anyone hoping for a ‘Pretty Hate Machine 2‘
should give up now. ‘Spiral‘ is darker, more mysterious und avoids the noise
terror of its predecessor, though it sounds dirtier. The mesh of industrial
techno und furious guitar rock dynamics remains, but now there‘s the childlike
repetition of ‘Piggy‘ and the queasy beauty of ‘A Warm Place‘.
Oh Jesus, he wants to kill his cat. Doesn‘t he?
“Save it, take it home,“ he says, holding the
scrawny thing awkwardly but tenderly. “Here. it‘ll only die if you leave it
America loves a victim und Reznor is one of
rock ‘n‘ roll‘s targets — addicted to wild-side abandon but unable to quite get
it right. All his bizarre anecdotes have unfortunate ends. Like Trent‘s letter
from two male fans.
“It was all blotchy und scrawled, like had been
written with a leaking ink pen. And it‘s like: ‘Hi Trent, we‘re your biggest fans blah blah, we would do anything for
you blah blah, our devotion holds no bounds, in fact we‘re writing this in our
own blood‘... ARRRGH!“ He pretends to throw the letter in the air in sheer
horror, then smiles. “I don‘t think any of us knows how it ends.“
Sometimes Trent isn‘t even left with the satisfaction
of knowing that one day he‘ll be able to say, “We laugh about it now of
“One time in Salt Lake City, we‘d invited around 300 people
backstage. These two guys stop me and one says, Please can you talk to my
friend, it would make his day, please. And there was this guy all kinda sweaty
and insane looking. So I‘m talking to him und he‘s touching my hand and shaking
und he won‘t look at me at all when he’s talking. Then I notice a hospital wristband
on his arm, und his friend tells me he just escaped from hospital because he
only has a week to live. All he’s been listening to is ‘Pretty Hate Machine‘
because it gives him hope und he knows how I feel, and all he wanted to do was
meet me before he died.
“What do you do? What do you say? So I turn
around go back into the dressing room, sit on my own und have another beer. I
know they didn‘t do it to make me feel shitty but it‘s really hard having that
kind of responsibility.“
Trent leans forward, staring ever further
into his empty glass and shakes his head.
“Y‘know. What do you do?“
Accidently kicking the box of Objets de Sex from under the table, he
gets up and comes back clutching a beer und wearing an ill-fitting smile.
“I‘ll tell you a funny story about Prince. I
was in this studio and I heard Prince was coming in. There was a time when I
thought he was awesome, but what a fucking creep! The rules were, you were never
to say the word ‘Prince‘, you had to write down that symbol. You were never to
look at him, or talk to him unless he approached you first, shit like that. So
he shows up in a limo, wear a fluorescent pink jumpsuit, giant haft, a cane,
huge heels and a lollipop.“
He imitates Prince in heels trying to jive walk
a four foot frame. It‘s funny.
“And he‘s wearing the worst women‘s perfume
you‘ve ever smelt. So he‘s got two giant bodyguards with him and there was
nobody there who was gonna fuck with him! It turns out he wanted us to remix a
track and make it harder — apparently he had ‘Broken‘ in his car for a long
time. So then I see him at the other end of this hundred yard corridor, und
there‘s only me und him walking towards each other. So we‘re getting closer, and… .he walks right past me. I couldn‘t believe
it, I don‘t care who you are, that‘s bullshit.“
This is the private Trent talking. it sounds like there‘s
another in charge when he‘s with his band. When they‘re all together the level
of decorum slips into childish pranks, like glueing the heads of celebrities on
to the bodies off fat women or sending the run-a-round kid to buy the most
obscene porn mags they can think off. Over
50 is a favourite.
“Cruel but fun. Anyway, it came back on us when
one of our friends told us he‘d get us ‘something special‘. These girls walk in
und he introduces them: This is Debbie and this is The Squirter. I think,
That‘s an odd name. Then they take off their closes, climb on to the grand piano
und start going at each other and I’m think what the fuck? We were all totally
scared and freaked out, it wasn‘t sexy — it was terrifying.
“One of the girls asks for someone to get up close
and everyone is like, no fucking way. Then we saw something I have never seen before in my life. One of the
girls leans back and starts going at herself and making these shrieking sounds
and, without elaborating two litres of fluid shoots out of her und soaks them,
the piano, und the people closest to them. Hence the name The Squirter.
“Call me a hillbilly, but that‘s beyond my
realm of experience. I mean, do all
girls do that?“
He laughs but it instantly drops to a sigh as
he recalls the rest of the story. Apparently, they came back several hours
later for more, this time armed with a stack of sex aids...
“Yes, oh no... um, yes, that‘s where they came
from. I was hoping you wouldn‘t see them. I was trying to tidy up when bing-bong the door went and I thought, Shit!
And this is the sick deviant, despoiler of the
innocent, twister of minds? The guy with the cat?
“Oh, I wouldn‘t say I am a rock star,“ he
“Though we‘re always the last to leave a party.
Does that count? Jesus, what a loser!“