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Danke, Nils!

Alternative Press,

 

September 1999

 

Nine Inch Nails: Out Of The Blue

Written by John Pecorelli

Photography by Ralf Strathmann

 

For the past five years, NIN mainman Trent Reznor has struggled with depression, writer's block, the death of a loved one and the most anticipated album on Earth. And as Reznor tells John Pecorelli in this exclusive interview, now that the album's finished, he's got a curious new demon to battle: what it's like to actually feel good.

 

How to pressure cook a rock star: In 1997 Time magazine wrote that Trent Reznor taught a "lesson as old as Robert Johnson's blues" and then named him one of the 25 most influential people in America. Months before that, Spin had called him the most influential man in music. Then he was Musician magazine's artist of the year. And later, A.P. dubbed his upcoming record No.1 of the 25 most anticipated albums of 1998. When it didn't surface that year we redubbed it one of the most anticipated of 1999. Or 2000. Or whenever it would come out. Regardless, with clambering fans left on the back burner for half a decade, and with critics the world over frothing in anticipation, a new Nine Inch Nails album has become a very big deal.

"Yeah," says Reznor. "And if you remind yourself of that and are then like, 'Now let's go in the studio and make some music,' you can't do anything without second guessing and thinking, 'Is that important enough? I have to save rock! I'm the most important guy ever in the history of --ugh!' Believe me, it doesn't add to your creative spirit."

Yet still we've been waiting five years since the last proper Nails album. Five years. That's longer then it takes Guided by Voices to release nine (or so) albums. Longer than it takes to get a degree in biochemical engineering. Hell, give a fertilized human egg five years and it'll have sprouted legs, developed the ability to use language, and maybe even started to beat up other humans. Five years. What the hell?

"Because it's hard," Reznor says bluntly. "It's fuckin' hard." Sitting back on a black leather couch in his New Orleans funeral-parlor-turned-recording-studio, the shockingly short-haired Reznor relaxes between sessions for his upcoming record with a cup of strong black coffee. Dressed in Levis, a black t-shirt and sneakers he looks more like a guy you'd see at a Louisiana tackle shop than the industrial-goth para-metal kingpin he is. And you'd hardly notice the weight of half the rock world draped over his shoulders, either, that Kong-sized monkey shouting, "When?! When?! When?!"

"I can't tell you how many times I sit down at the notebook or that keyboard or that piano and walk away defeated," he says. "That's just part of the territory, but it is not fun because more often than success is failure. I got myself in a Catch-22, a self-fulfilling prophecy: Afraid to write? Well, just put it off. Then I'm more afraid to write, so I toy around and fuck off. But you add in a little life crisis and it isn't a healthy environment. But the way out of it, and through it, was just addressing it. Not being a coward. Seeing what was there. And what was there was little twinkle saying, 'Remember? This worked last time, every time. You are worth something. You have a purpose; you have a gift. So use it.'"

Reznor's face darkens, and a touch of anger sears his words. "I sound like a fuitcake sitting here saying all this shit. But that is really what's going on--not to mention the fact that every time I pop my head out there someone's like, 'When? When? When?' It's better than nobody caring, I guess, but this takes a fuckin' long time the way I do it." He takes a sip of coffee and straightens up. "And I am not trying to make excuses.

Are the fans still going to be there?

We're trying to be realistic about the climate, and the climate's changed. It's been a while since our record's been out. It's been longer than I wish it had been. Another way to look at it: Maybe it's good because we've avoided a big shit stain--I don't think there has been much good music in the last few years, really, Um, in certain genres anyway.

Maybe that's one of the reasons rock is no longer dominating the charts as it once did.

Well what options do you have as a 15-year-old kid now? Korn. What else? There is more than that, obviously, but I don't know. I'm older then I was; my thoughts have changed in ways. Is music less good lately, or am I more cynical? A lot of times we sit around here and talk and comment, rarely is it, "Wow! I can't believe how good that is!" It's usually like, "Oh my God! What's happened to the world?" I can sit here and bitch about how bad music is, or I can go make it better.

So that's my strategy. And I certainly hope people like it, and I hope to get some new fans, but at the same time we've approached the whole launching of the new record with humble expectations. I'm going to get the best fuckin' live show I can get together and see what happens. And if suddenly no one cares, no one cares. We'll do it at whatever level we can do it at. It's unhealthy for me to play the second-guess game. I don't know. I cut my hair now, and nobody recognizes me. It's that whole thing I was bitching about earlier--"I can't go anywhere without someone pointing"--and now it's like, "Hey! It's me man!" I'm standing in the "N" section with my laminate on and covered in mud [laughs] I just can't get a response anymore.

The main control room of nothing studios houses a NASA-looking arsenal of tech equipment: sound processing gear and computer banks, as well as enough sophisto recording equipment to put together a tune with 120 tracks. This is the main recording room Reznor shares with co-producer Alan Moulder; there are also four in-parlor backup studios where Reznor farms out work to cohorts Danny Lohner, Charlie Clouser, and Keith Hillebrandt. All are connected via a computer network so that sound samples can be instantly telecommunicated from floor to floor, studio to studio.

But if you think the high-tech environs have resulted in icy music, think again. The Fragile is plenty Reznor, of course: Intact are his trademark, nearly 3-D production values--the sounds seemingly jumping out of the speakers--and tracks like "Starfuckers, Inc." and "Pilgrimage" are as darkly aggressive as anything you'll find on Broken. But perhaps "this machine is obsolete," as Reznor sings in the equally harsh "Somewhat Damaged," because so much of The Fragile is very experimental--some of it emotionally ambiguous, and most of it brimming with fully developed ideas and unexpected blasts of strangeness. One thing's certain: Taken as a whole, The Fragile is unlike anything in Reznor's back catalog. While he describes the album as "organic"-sounding, that, of course, is relative (after all, this is nothing, not Windham Hill). And while proponents of three-chord Neanderthal rock might dismiss The Fragile as a piece of self-indulgence on par with, say Yes' Fragile, Reznor's latest might be more aptly described as hate-pop's Pet Sounds: bizarre, disorienting and strikingly accessible.

"My aspiration is to make something that is digestible, but that you have trouble processing," Reznor explains. "You're intrigued, and you let it get in. I'm also aware that with a record of this length, it needs to be presented in the right light to be as subversive as I want it to be. Rather than, like, 'Fuck that!' I wanna suck ya in a little more before I let loose the toxins...."

Do you think a record this fundamentally different from your previous work will alienate fans?

I don't really know. I can say this, though: I've thought that I would [alienate fans] every time I've put a record out. But I'm a different person now than I was a year ago, let alone five years ago.

Is it gonna piss some people off? Am I gonna lose some fans? Probably. At one point I thought this record was so different from everything I've done that maybe I've fucked myself up by trying. Then there's other times I listen to it where I think, "It sounds like Nine Inch Nails. Is that good or bad?" I've approached this in my head the right way... because it's true to what I am right now, and that's the only criteria I've had in the past. And it works.

Is there a chance for radio play? Could I possibly gain you new fans?

I really don't know what's going on. I can guess what people might still think I'm like, or how interested they are still, but there's been a sizable amount of time. Rock has evaporated its presence a bit in the meantime, and alternative doesn't exist anymore because major labels convinced everybody that fuckin' Barenaked Ladies are alternative, that R.E.M. are still alternative somehow; and it's all confusion and bullshit, and hip hop took over. I could go mad thinking about it. I think I've made a good, complex album that is rewarding and very challenging at the same time. And that's all I can hope for. I like it. And I'm not saying that like, "Oh, I like it, really. I think I do." I fuckin' think it's the best thing I've done-and it isn't for lack of trying on the fucker! [Laughs.]

I didn't notice much synth noise, and this is by far your warmest-sounding album-any relation?

This record is mostly guitar, but it doesn't necessarily sound like it. I knew this record was going to be about systems failing, about things falling apart, about things being broken along the way. And just when a song's about to be right, something's fuckin' up and spinning out of control, and you're trying to piece it together like you're finishing the sentence of the song, but it doesn't let that happen. Sometimes maddening, but generally just showing a sense of fragility and not all fitting nicely. So I chose guitar or stringed instruments because of nature they're imperfect.

I switched up instrumentaion quite a bit. And a lot of it's made with computers, but I'm not using that many synths. If I hear a melody line, instead of instantly reaching for what I would normally use, this was more about trying it on a real instrument and then processing it. What would come from that would be an organic, distressed quality. And we started realizing that we'd get more sound out of like ukuleles and slide guitars and stuff I don't really know how to play. But I could get sounds out of them that were interesting; it was like getting a cello and figuring out how to make sound on it.

And again, those are all reasons that things take a long time. Kinda when we knew we were in for the long haul, we allowed ourselves to go down some of those paths. Those, to me, sound like experiments in the studio because the studio's the instrument in a lot of those. But I also didn't wanna come out with a real overproduced blob of pretentiousness, you know? I tried to keep an emotional quality about everything. I don't really know what I've done here....

A lot of it might be tough to carry out live.

Yeah, it will be. But also, the core of the songs I'm considering playing live lend themselves to be a lot more open and played live than shit we did in the past with tape, [which was' very rigid. I can see some of those expanding a bit-not like some kinda jam situation, but having it be more fun to play-but not at the expense, hopefully, of the listener.

I can't see it degenerating in a Rock Wakeman type thing.

If it does, remind me. Please. Throw something hard at me. [Laughs.] Anyway, the decision to do this was not one of: 'Look what I can do! I can make a double CD." It's just that a lot of the songs sound better when they're supported by other songs, if that makes sense. When we tried cutting it down, if kinda just scattered; it didn't seem to make sense. You need to be in for the long, couple -hour sit-down to get this.

So you think it should be heard as a whole, not track by track?

Um, yes, and it's a substantial time commitment. What I've always been about is trying to make an album as a full experience, more than: "Here's a good song. Here's some shit we just randomly three together." I'm really into the sit-down experience of the whole thing. The idea of a record that's a record, or the side of album that's great, that has always been something I've enjoyed as a fan. And that's what I aspire to do now, although I don't know how popular it will be in the near future. And I don't care.

As groundbreaking as The Fragile appears to be, and as acclaimed as Reznor's career has been since Pretty Hate Machine debuted a decade ago, the amount of self-deprecation the man still emanates is puzzling. At time he almost resembles Dostoevsky's hyper-intelligent Underground Man, first answering a question, then positing an opposing hypothesis as equally plausible, and finally concluding his answer with a thoroughly nonplused "I don't know." And that's not even taking into account statement made to the press in the past (I'm not proud to say I hate myself", as well as records made in the past-specifically 1994's toxic The Downward Spiral.

The Downward Spiral because the blueprint by which Reznor lived his life in the years immediately following its release. Years of touring took their mental toll (Check him out in full nihilist mode in the fascinating NIN video documentary Closure), which was immediately followed by a year long stint in the studio with Marilyn Manson recording Antichrist Superstar. ("Not a good way to reintroduce yourself to the real world after a tour, "Reznor says with a chuckle.) The resulting void, and amassing pressure to make another NIN record, among other things, led him to the brink of emotional breakdown.

The irony is that the personal nadir, and the stasis it brought on (which, to speak selfishly, is one of the reasons we've been waiting five years for a new NIN album), was best combated through the very thing Reznor had been avoiding, and the very thing for which the world had been on his back: composing new music.

Reznor: I reached a point where I just hated myself. I had no self-respect, and I didn't think I even wanted to make music.

Even though you had been releasing music that you were proud of?

Well, that hit when I wasn't putting out anything. I just went through a phase of not feeling that worthy. And it was getting my ass around to doing this record that made it go away and made me realize again what's going on. When you're in touring mode and Closure-video mode and Manson-album mode, it's a way of running away, of not facing what really is the hardest thing in life, which is writing and working on music. It's the hardest thing that I've ever had to do; it's the biggest fuckin' thing to chew off because I don't go at it half-assed.

I realized that I had a point, and part of putting of this record was not wanting to face going back and challenging myself. I didn't know if I was mentally ready, so the longer I could stay away from it, the less I had to deal with it, the more insecure I got about doing it. That feeds itself. I was like, "I'm not happy doing it anyway- so has anyone ever just stopped?" I don't know what I'd do, maybe get into computer programming because I think that's really creative in a different way, and it's not your face in a fuckin' magazine, and it's not people talking about you, and it's not getting fucked with all the time. And then I just woke up one day and said, "What the fuck am I doing? I'm a coward, and I need to turn this around." So I did.

How did that happen- the loss of drive?

I think that what kind of happened was that we went from being a relatively small band to being pretty big- or bigger than I thought we'd be. The same old story: It changes you. Having some money changes you. Being treated differently by everybody changes you. Put it this way: It was a lot more fun opening for bands when no one knew who you were and you played a show and you kicked ass. you had almost no cares in the world, and you had one bag with the same clothes you wore every day, and you learned to sleep on the floor of a fuckin' van driving all night to the next city. And it was a great time. It was minus the lawsuits and just everything that comes with the good things you thing you want. And then you get 'em, and it's like, "Holy Christ! I didn't think..."

I'm not bitching about it. But you start to see that on the way up it's easy. You start getting to the top, and there's just this whole line of people that can't wait- the same ones that put you up there- that just cannot wait to pull you back down, humble you, destroy you. And it might've been the surroundings I placed myself in, but the whole competitive, backbiting nature of the music business... I mean, I didn't get in it to make money. I did it because I love music, and I've never had a question of what I wanna do; it's this. Somehow it didn't seem like it was very rewarding; it didn't fulfill me as a human being. And i foolishly thought that if I just made it then everything would be okay. And it wasn't okay. If anything it was more hollow. I never, ever thought this would happen. Not that there weren't great times, but there's also a real shallowness about it, and I kind of went, "What have I got to bitch about? And I'm still miserable. What the fuck's wrong with me?"

What did you expect?

Well, it's like seeing behind the curtain. And now I'm innately cautious any time I meet anybody, like, "Okay, what do you want?!" You get used to it. You get fucked by enough people, your friends, and shit like that... Whether it be reading something shitty about you that wasn't true, or whatever. It just kept piling up.

What was driving all that negativity?

I found out I'm depressed for real. I'm not just saying that as a joke, which I've done my whole life.

A clinical depression?

Yeah. Mild, not crippling. But present. I'm always a quart low. And I think even just knowing that and accepting it explains a lot of things, you know? A lot of my behavior makes more sense to me now that there may be some explanation. If you found out you've acted or felt a certain way and there is actually a clinical reason, it's not just that you're a piece of shit or you don't have any friends and you don't want any friends and you never stay in a relationship. You realize, "All right, there is a reason I've felt this way, and I'm not a bad person." I feel like I'm more equipped to deal with the situation, although I've opted not to deal with medication or anything like that.

Is it something you maybe embrace a bit-like a source of artistic inspiration?

I've been down that path. I've thought of it as a resource, as a way of forcing you to deal with things because you can't pave them over. But when you keep doing it and it's still there, that's when it's not that romantic a notion. Another rainy day when you fell like just feeling shitty and watching another sad movie, that's all well and good occasionally. But when it's there all the time, suddenly its not as fun to flirt with; it's not as romantic. It's dangerous. It's like thinking you're getting through something and there's always light at the end of the tunnel, and there isn't. You get to the end of the tunnel, and it's still dim. There's no light anymore; you don't even know where you're going. That, and I had to deal with some shit. An important person in my life died.

Your grandmother?

Yeah.... it was a catalyst that kinda made me [pauses] shit or get off the pot. It was either figure out what's going on in your head or, you know, exterminate. Not say that I've got all my shit figured out and every day is great now, but I've got a newgound kind of energy to go at things. And a positively-no, I don't wanna say positively. Blech! I can see records returning in droves! "Oh, no!" No. I just spiritually feel better about where I'm at right now. That can all change later today, but generally I've got my head on a bit straighter.

Can you elaborate? What╣s your philosophical take now?

Well, I don't have any concrete system that I adhere to now, as far as what I believe in. And there are things I'd like to research when the pressure of saving all of music isn't on my head. [Chuckles.] I don't wanna sound hippie or anything; there's just a sense of purpose that I've had from time to time that I have my own personal views on. It helps me feel like there's some sense and order to the chaos. Not like I've got it figured out, but I do feel a lot better than I used to. And that's not from anyone sitting me down and training me to think a certain way. It's just from getting a good look at the bottom and realizing with better self-esteem and a better sense about me that... there is reason behind the, um... I don't know how to explain this well. Hit me again with this tomorrow. I'll memorize an answer.

With that Reznor smiled, we called it a day, and we never did get around to discussing the issue again. Not to say there's a Hollywood ending, that this is all just an episode of Behind The Music, the exhausted clicke' of an artist pushed to the brink of disaster only to return triumphant. As the man himself puts it, "There's rarely a happy ending to an artist's career. It rarely ends on a high note- it usually has a down-the-drain kind of effect to it."

But by the looks of things right now, the drain is quite a ways off.

oben