With his Nine Inch
Nails project, Trent Reznor has made a career out of violent music for
vulnerable souls. The demand for his tormenting sonics is such that in the US he is a
multi-platinum artist. But now onto his majestic third album, The Fragile, why is it that Reznor still
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails operates from his
base at Nothing Records (which he also owns and uses to promote Einsturzende
Neubauten, Squarepusher and Autechre, amongst other sonic pioneers) in a pretty
house on a tree-lined street in downtown New Orleans. When I call in, there are five or
six guys in identical clothes - combats, boots, black T shirts - wandering
around, and high-resolution MTV visuals playing over the box. To a Londoner
brought up against the electronic pulse of club culture, Nine Inch Nails - the
project name of the work of Trent Reznor and whoever he‘s brought in to work
with him on any given piece - seems like the kind of music you‘re only likely
to listen to when you‘re a moody, precious 14- year-old. In England, NIN are
for the cool prepubescent crowd, the kids in the student common room who‘re
wise to what‘s rated across the pond. In America, NIN is big, big bucks - with
the albums Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral both going
multi-platinum, and Reznor‘s skills as a producer in demand from Oliver Stone for
his Natural Born Killers soundtrack
and for Marilyn Manson‘s debut - Trent Reznor is the saviour of guitar-based
music. Although usually lumped in with heavyweight industrial musicians such as
Ministry, Reznor‘s work has, until now, generally imitated the white-boy whine
of the weedy kid who never got picked for the sports team. No matter how much
he sang about disaffection, dislocation and disharmony on the previous albums,
his weak, unmelodic voice and strangely powerless sound made for an
underwhelming sonic experience. Reznor‘s new double-album, The Fragile, finally breaks through into a sound so original,
delicate and pure that it could be categorised as classical. Five years in the
making, of which o were conducted over endless full day shifts in the high-tech
studio at Nothing HQ, it is a work which totally reconfigures the gurning-and-moshing
arena in which Reznor has previously operated. Reznor strings a lifetime of
outsidership over 22 Alan “Smashing Pumpkins“ Moulder-produced tracks, a
significant portion of them without vocals - only the bleak buzz of
multi-tracked guitars, aquatic hip hop breakbeats and muffled, tender melodies.
The whole album has the feel of a work generated by a soul intent on
discovering its own secrets, instead of a music-biz icon working on finding the
magic key that‘ll unlock the wallets of America‘s youth. On “Into The Void“,
Reznor whispers that he tried to save a place from the cuts and the scratches;
on “The Big Comedown“ he again cries there
is no place / can go, there is no way I can hide and, after 12 such tracks
it becomes clear that Reznor‘s notebook is the place where demons are
exorcised, dreams dissected and lonely, embarrassing truths revealed. In
person, he‘s equally guileless. While most magazine pictures make him look like
some kind of medieval priest with a long, sallow face with black curtains of
hair and rodenty eyes, he‘s actually stocky and muscular, with a square jaw and
a certain physical - sexual - presence. He has the air of someone who‘s been
imprisoned for a few years and was finally emerged blinking in the light - as
is the case. Although his face curls into a full snarl of distaste when he
talks about the “duties“ of a rock star - the sycophants, the meet‘n‘greets,
the business decisions - he is beamingly proud of The Fragile. After many years
toeing the leather-wristbands-and-skull-rings line, Reznor should finally be
able to sleep easy in the knowledge that he has made an album as complex, rare
and delicate as anything by Debussy or Wagner. Knowing him, though, a night of
sweet dreams isn‘t going to happen - ever.
Dazed & Confused: What state of mind are
you in right now?
Trent Reznor: I’m feeling pretty positive. I
literally haven‘t left this building - other than to sleep - for two years. I
don‘t know horn to act around people any more, other than the five guys in the
studio who I‘ve been working with. The camaraderie of the team is good - it
feels like you‘re all fighting a war. But it‘s weird when it ends. Alan
Moulder‘s doing The Smashing Pumpkins now, we‘re getting ready to tour. We’ll
call each other every couple of days - but it just doesn‘t seem right.
D&C: What‘s your attitude towards the
TR: It started as a mystery. I knew with The Downward Spiral what I wanted
even before I started it. It was a matter of fitting things together. That
wasn‘t easy, but I had a game plan. With this album I was emotionally at the
very bottom of things when I started. I was a mess. I didn‘t know what I wanted
to do and what carne out was operating on the subconscious level. At the end, I
knew it must be good because I was afraid that it would be terrible. I was
afraid that I’d built a whole empire on a fault-line, that I’d made a tragic
mistake way early.
D&C: Why were you emotionally at the
TR: We toured for a long time supporting The Downward Spiral - that was
emotionally a pretty volatile record, and then to play it live every night...
and we toured for too long. We went from being a medium band to being a pretty
big band in America. The tour bus stopped and I got off,
and I wasn‘t the same person who‘d got on. I thought I’d been keeping track of
myself, but I hadn‘t. I had a way of dealing with things, which was to simply
not deal with them, let it go, work on something else so you don‘t have to
think about it. I didn‘t want to start doing any new work of my own, so I started
producing the Marilyn Manson album. I was so stupid. I thought the depths of my
soul had been... I thought that it I could just be successful, if I could be
good at something, then everything would be OK. I stopped my life to do Nine Inch
Nails, I went at it. I lost my friends, whoever they were. I got off on the feeding
itself aspect of try and try and try, and something good comes out of it, and
you get rewarded for it, and you do another, and another. By the end of The Downward Spiral realised I wasn‘t
happy even though I had everything I ever wanted. But it seemed like it was a
shadow. I never looked beyond the tangible goal. I got there but the clouds
didn‘t part and the sun didn‘t shine down. If I’d got into this to be a
celebrity, and if my skin was thicker, I’d be more equipped to deal with it. It
distorted me, it spun me around and I didn‘t know which way was up. And... I
had someone close to me (his grandmother) die, who raised me, and I wasn‘t
ready to deal with that, I was almost mad at her, I was like, ‘Not now. Why
now? Why did she have to die now?‘
D&C: Is that the worst thing that‘s ever
happened to you?
TR: Off the top of my head I’d say so, but it
wasn‘t all a bad thing. I‘ve grown from it. I tell you what I do feel like
right now - it‘s like, I’m 34 now, yeah? I don‘t feel like it. The last time I
check I was about 26. 34, that‘s fucking old. That‘s not cool any more. I never
thought about age, I was never concerned about it. Until I turned 34 this year,
and I went ‘Are those wrinkles? What the fuck? And is that hair? On my back?
D&C: What were you like as a kid?
TR: I was the freak for a while, because I was
good at playing the piano and I could read before anybody else. I was the
little weirdo, the puppet who could read stuff. But then when all emphasis of
social life revolves around athletic skills, around puberty age I got more into
music. That’s when my loner-guy self-image came into fruition. It was either
art class or the band room. Two safe havens. I always had this blanket feeling
that I wasn‘t part of something. And all the time I was desiring to be a part,
wishing I was popular. I wasn‘t unpopular, but the band guys had their clique,
they didn‘t like me that much. And the jock guys didn‘t embrace me, even though
I was friends with some of them individually. I was floating around not
belonging to any camp. So I guess that‘s what the art room‘s for. I floated
through school because I was smart and I didn‘t have to study. It wasn‘t until
I fell into NIN that I found something which truly challenged me to the limit. It
made me realise that the best I could do as a human being maybe wasn‘t good
enough. It provided me with a good challenge, but it was maddening.
you spend a lot of time alone?
TR: I used to hate being alone. I always used
to have room-mates, or somebody near me, because I couldn‘t stand being by
myself. I remember one time, it was about ten years ago, I was in a dilemma
because I wanted to see this film but I didn‘t have anyone to go with. So I
agonised over it - everyone was going to know I didn‘t have a date, and it was
a Friday night too. So I purposely crept in after the film started, and I
didn‘t enjoy it because... I don‘t know. I didn‘t like being alone, but now I‘ve
found I’m a lot better. Now I’m doing interviews and I have to Psychoanalyse
myself and try to fit the pieces together of the mess of my life, I think that
there‘s probably some abandonment issues going on with me.
I always felt that I wanted to be part of
things, and I never felt that I was. I always felt alone even though... (Takes a
deep breath) well, OK... when I went to college, for the year that I went, I
went there with this grandiose idea of...well, I felt like I’d tucked up in
high school because I was the guy in the art class not doing anything... I
decided I was going to fit in, in college: ‘I am going to fit in‘. One semester later I’m in the art room with
all the other guys that don‘t fit in. I just realised that I should fuck fitting
in. Then I start NIN up, pretty soon I’m on a tour with people all around me,
and I’m the boss, and somehow I don‘t fit into that either. What‘s the deal
with that? I‘ve become more comfortable with not fitting in.
D&C: Do you find that you throw yourself
into work as an excuse for not dealing with the whole not fitting-in thing?
TR: How do you know so much about this?
D&C: I‘m the same!
TR: I very much discover that. A good way to
not deal with something is to work a little harder at something else. Because
you can get results when you work.
D&C: And the triumph comes from knowing
that whatever anyone else is doing, you can work harder, for longer, and make
something better. Do you find it difficult to get close to people?
TR: I do. It wasn‘t something I planned on. But
I do. I don‘t let myself get close to people. And there‘s another string
attached to that, which is that my perception of myself isn‘t really accurate.
A lot of times, I get written oft as aloof or stand-offish when I’m shy and I
don‘t know what to say. So I don‘t say anything, and then I’m a dick.
D&C: Do you have plans to write?
TR: The whole NIN arena has satisfied my need
to expose myself. I feel weird about that because when I was starting out
musically I could figure things out, but lyrically I wrote some meandering
nonsense that didn‘t mean anything, they were just words to till up the space
of a song. I wasn‘t even that moved by it, so I couldn‘t imagine anyone else
would be. It wasn‘t until I read through my journal – I’d write feelings of
despair or anger almost as though they were lyrics. A certain phrase would
stand out. When I finally had the courage to look at it, I thought I couldn‘t
let anybody know that about me. They weren‘t strong, proud emotions. I wrote a
couple of songs that were on Pretty Hate
Machine and sheepishly handed the tape to a friend, and ha came back to me
saying it was powerful and good. I knew it must have a force because it was
truthful. In my head it felt like a relief to get the words out and express
what I was feeling. To be able to get it out in a form which had an element of
beauty to it made me feel better. It added weight and importance to the music I
was writing. But sometimes I felt it was a tough trade-off: success and art in
return for yourself. Giving yourself up also means exposing your every
inadequacy to every other person in the world. Unlike, say, David Bowie, who
made a character of himself, I had nothing. This is just me. Sometimes I feel
like - did I just give myself away? I didn‘t save anything for me at all.
is out now on Island Records