The drugs are gone. The booze is gone. The old
Trent Reznor is gone.
Making Nine Inch Nails' new album has been a
long, hard road. And Trent Reznor’s not sure he ever wants to go back…
Five years is a long time by most people’s
standards, but when such a period passes between albums by Nine Inch Nails, the
turbulent electro-noir behemoth conducted by Trent Reznor, it’s par for an
increasingly elaborate course. Those seduced by the dark, minimal fury invoked
by NIN’s 1989 debut ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ – the sound of gothic electro
savagely torn apart by malevolent noise, Reznor wielding his words like a
surgeon – had to wait half a decade for its follow-up, ‘The Downward Spiral’.
Recorded in the same house on California’s
Cielo Drive where members of Charles Manson’s ‘family’ brutally and hatefully
murdered actress Sharon Tate and a number of her ‘beautiful people’ friends in
August 1969, the album expanded upon Reznor’s bitter visions, a vast but
personal epic that wasn’t the work of a band but, rather, an increasingly
obsessive studio artist who would splice together all manner of noises to
create the exact soundscape he envisioned.
A masterpiece of its genre – a masterpiece,
full-stop – it was supported by a similarly grandiose stage show he toured
across the world. Once that ended, he went straight into the studio to
supervise tourmate Marilyn Manson’s breakthrough album ‘Antichrist Superstar’,
initiating a chain of events that would ultimately sunder their relationship.
Still, somehow, he managed to deliver NIN’s third album – the vast, troubled,
majestic ‘The Fragile’ – within five years, despite the fact that Reznor and
his long-time production partner Alan Moulder ultimately handed a mess of
sessions (featuring engineering by Steve Albini, mix-assistance from Dr Dre,
and the talents of two Buddhist choirs) to legendry rawk producer Bob Ezrin
(Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Jane’s Addiction) to make sense of. Longer, grander,
more elaborate than ‘The Downward Spiral’, ‘The Fragile’ was followed by an
equally larger (but not necessarily better) live show. And after that…
Well, it would be churlish to say ‘nothing’.
Sure, the five years that followed saw no trace of Reznor’s trademark flurry of
side-project activity, the production jobs and soundtrack work that fed his
legendary workaholism. But they were, perhaps, the most important five years in
Reznor’s life, as he himself will intimate – a period of intense
self-investigation, a psychological shelf-clearing resulting in ‘With Teeth’,
an album that startles with its clarity, with its renewed vigour. A catalogue
of grievances perhaps, like all his records, but possessed with more of a will
to fight back than any other Nine Inch Nails release to date.
Certainly the man who greets us this morning in
a cavernous but unassuming photography studio deep in the wilds of California outwardly exudes health and calm –
skin tanned, muscles bulging, eyes bright and sharp. Trent Reznor has never
been a man tongue-tied in the face of a journalist’s tape recorder, but the
candour and eloquence of his revelations – regarding five years of change,
relocation, trauma, and realisation – is startling. And he hardly hesitates to
share them. Within seconds of a simple opening question, he’s telling all with
nary a twitch.
The solutions began as ‘The Fragile’ tour wound
down; the problems began much earlier.
“I reached a point in my life where I had to
get my shit together, figure out that there was a human being that was being
neglected,” he muses, sipping a black coffee in an impersonal side-room. “There
was a persona that had run its course. I needed to get my priorities straight,
my head screwed on. Instead of always working, I took a couple of years off,
just to figure out who I was and working out if I wanted to keep doing this or
not. I had become a terrible addict; I needed to get my shit together, figure
out what had happened.
“I always thought that I was pretty average
when it came to drinking and everything else,” he continues, unflinchingly. “We
toured ‘The Downward Spiral’ a real long time, nobody had a house, we just
stayed on tour. And it was great, but when the tour ended I went straight into
doing the ‘Antichrist…’ record with Manson, and pretty soon I realised I get
fucked up a lot. Pretty much every day I got fucked up. But I was functioning.
“I didn’t realise at the time, but that was the
beginning of a pretty intense struggle; it was impacting upon my life. I was
drinking, but a few drinks in me and if someone suggested getting some cocaine
it would seem like a fantastic idea… it still seemed like a great idea 24 hours
later, picking through the grains of the carpet looking for more (laughs).
After a while I realised I wasn’t in control. The price wasn’t just feeling bad
the next day; I was starting to hate myself. That led to a path of fucking
around with it, procrastinating, until I decided there was a decision to be
made, which was either to get better or to die.”
He pauses, just for a moment.
“And, unexpectedly, my life’s been
exponentially better since then. It was four years ago, and it’s led to a
series of changes, a shake-up in the longest relationship I’ve ever had in my
life with my best friend, the manager I started off with. I realised, with my
new-found sense of clarity, that we didn’t have a healthy relationship.
“And my moving from New Orleans to California…”
he explains. “I got tired of being ‘out of the loop’, I guess. I have a tendency
to isolate myself. What attracted me to New Orleans was that it was like living
on a different planet. You were left alone. If you enjoyed ‘leaving the
planet’, too; it was a good place to be.”
The next step was a course in psychotherapy.
“Because I though, ‘What the fuck, whatever it
takes’. My way sure wasn’t working. I always though I was smart, that I could
‘lick’ anything because I’m smart enough to work anything out. It’s been a very
humbling learning experience, of being right in the gutter – it’s one thing to
talk about hitting the bottom, to flirt with it, this romantic notion of a dark
side. Embracing it and getting really deep into it? I don’t ever wanna go there
again. I’ve been there, and it was not good.”
For Nine Inch Nails’ artistic landscape, that
‘dark side’ has always been there. It informs Reznor’s every lyric, his
flirtations with it, his panicked and disgusted recoil from it. Maybe it’s an
obsession; he knows he’s drawn to it, but he can’t shake the suspicion that it
stalks him too.
“Like recording ‘The Downward Spiral’ in the
Manson House,” he laughs. “We didn’t go searching for that house, it crept up
on us. We chose it only because it was the best location, and when the facts
came out we just thought, ‘well, that’s an interesting piece of weird Americana we just inhabited’. I never dreamed
I’d still be talking about it with journalists 10 years later. When we left the
house they were tearing it down, so I had the front door shipped to my studio
Orleans, which, out of pure necessity, had been a funeral home 10 years before.
It makes for the dream press-pack, I know,” he grins wryly. “But that was never
our conscious intention.”
Nevertheless, he takes great relish in relaying
this next macabre chapter in the NIN storybook; further proof for Reznor that
The Dark Side is pursuing him and not just the other way around.
“I recently closed my Nothing studios in New Orleans, and Alan Moulder brought the
mixing console on which we recorded a number of projects – it’s the best desk
he’s ever used,” grins Reznor. The guy who re-assembled it at Alan’s studio
made an interesting discovery though. These huge circuit boards are usually
constructed by one guy, and the guy who originally built this was an
obsessive/compulsive, which isn’t good in life but is apparently great if you
have to wire up 96 channels of sound for a recording studio. Anyways, one day
this guy goes into the woods and kills his girlfriend with a circuit board
tool. And the guy who was re-assembling this desk discovered the word cunt
etched into one of the chips.”
This is the second time Reznor has uttered the
word cunt in the interview. The first was in reference to a little lyrical
investigation, an idle musing on the appearance of the word love in two of the
album’s song titles, particularly the vituperative ‘Love Is Not Enough’, and
the question of whether either song was written about fleeting ex-paramour
“I would never…” he snaps back. “ She doesn’t
bother me enough to make me write a song that has anything to do with that
Even if their targets are veiled, the lyrics to
‘With Teeth’ – speaking with the wisdom of Reznor’s recent revelations – are
prime NIN. Unlike previous albums, which were written with a concept in mind,
Reznor feels ‘With Teeth’ works simply as an album of, “13 songs that are
friends with each other”. There are themes however.
“After I got clean it felt like I’d landed on a
different planet somehow. It looks the same, kinda, but everything is
different,” he explains. “Learning lessons from listening to people, realising
the humbling truth that I don’t know everything and that my way isn’t
necessarily the best way. The idea was for the record to start from a place of
panic and fear and gradually find a sense of acceptance. It’s a difficult
journey that begins with a nightmare, the nightmare of what I was going
through. Shortly after I got clean 9/11 happened,” he sighs, tackling another
key influence. “It feels like we’re in this weird police state now. The government
isn’t telling us the truth, fear is now being pumped into our homes as a great
motivator to just do what you’re told.”
This sentiment is most clearly expressed on the
brutal martial force of ‘With Teeth’s first single, ‘Bite The Hand That Feeds’.
It’s as close as Reznor feels he can get to a hectoring anti-Bush track, and
one he admits “is very close to bashing people over the head with the message”.
As a protest song – and as a NIN song, also – it’s fine, a Molotov collision of
fist-pumping rhetoric and pneumatic noise.
Like so many NIN tracks, it is the sound of
sensitive souls stung into action by an all-enveloping disgust.
“I was and am just so filled with rage about
what’s happened here,” he admits. “I was sitting in my house when 9/11 happened,
my dad called me and said, “Turn on your TV, we’re getting attacked!”. So I
turned it on and a couple of minutes later the second plane hit. One of my
dearest friends, who’s sort of like my mother down in New Orleans, came over and we hung out. It was
weird, we didn’t know if it was all over, what was happening.”
Reznor admits that he’s not one for being raked
over the coals at to the meaning of his lyrics. However, the last five years
also witnessed some of his most personal words adopted as the poignant farewell
of a true American legend. Of all of the music the Man In Black, Johnny Cash,
chose to cover for his final brace of albums with producer Rick Rubin –
including songs by Soundgarden, Depeche Mode and, more inconceivably, Danzig –
perhaps the most surprising was ‘Hurt’, ‘The Downward Spiral’’s closing track.
Not many expected Cash’s leathery croak to be applied to the God of
electro-core’s material but it was one of the most powerful songs Cash recorded
in his later years. Released as a single shortly before Cash’s death in
September 2003, accompanied by a beautiful video essaying Johnny and his wife
June Carter Cash’s aged frailty and dignity, it made for a fine parting shot
from one of the 20th century’s most potent rebels.
“When my friend Rick Rubin asked if Johnny
could cover ‘Hurt’ I said yes immediately,” remembers Reznor. “Because I trust
Rick and I admired Johnny a great deal. Later, when I heard the recording, I
felt a little invaded, I have to admit. It was my song, one of the most
personal I’ve ever written. And now it’s got this massive voice attached to it
which isn’t mine. A couple of weeks after that I saw the video. And that’s when
it all came together; I got goosebumps, I welled up with tears and I knew it
wasn’t my song anymore. And I say that, not in a jealous way, but…it happened
at a time in my life when I was rediscovering my appreciation for the power of
music. I had been out of it long enough to get away from what I hated about
music – the competitiveness of it, the shucking and jiving, all the bullshit. I
had sort of lost sight of the music, the reason I got into it all in the first
place. I wanna be a rock star and whatever, but what I really wanted to do was
be in a band, make music and try to communicate with people that way. Hearing
this song come back at me, a completely different interpretation, and having it
have arguably more power than my version…” He sighs, for once lost for words.
“And to have it juxtaposed against someone’s life in that way. And then the fact
that he passed away shortly after that…
“It was just unusual,” he continues, laughing
warmly. “I come from rural Pennsylvania, and I think when the Cash version came
out it got around that I wrote it, and suddenly people there though I’d ‘made
it’. To have someone who was a great songwriter cover your song – he said
something about it being like something he would’ve written in the 1960s. I was
like, ‘fuck, man!’. The older and more jaded you get there rarer it is you hear
someone say something about you that you wanna go tell other people.”
The final set of changed in Reznor’s life would
be initiated with his return to the studio for the sessions for ‘With Teeth’,
and when he assembled the band to tour it.
“Straight after the last tour I went into the
studio, ostensibly to start work on the next record,” explains Reznor, a
notorious workaholic. “It was a disaster, I couldn’t get my shit together at
all. But I did record demos of things, almost consistently. When I got clean I
wanted to stop – to take a minute, to not feel like I’m always running for a
train. I’ve never stopped working since 1988. The minute I realised I could get
paid for doing this, for doing what I want to, I’ve taken advantage of that as
much as I possibly could.
“But I itched to get in the studio. I wanted to
see if I could even make music straight. So once I felt like I was getting a
grip back on my life I started to ease myself back into it gently, checking
over the stuff I’d been working on earlier. And I found that, instead of
feeling crippled, it was like I’d had three hundred blankets removed from my
head and that I could actually work much better. I felt empowered.”
The album’s speedy production was the
antithesis of 1999’s ‘The Fragile’, he admits.
“But ‘The Fragile’ was madness! I was in the
grips of addiction and was not acknowledging it. I was so governed by fear; I
felt I didn’t have anything to say. There aren’t many lyrics on the album, and
what there are are hidden. But I needed to make the music. So I went crazy. I’m
still proud of it, but I never want to make an album like that again.”
The band behind Nine Inch Nails has changed
also. Long-time bassist and keyboard players Danny Lohner and Charlie Clouser
have disappeared in the post-chemical spring-clean, the touring outfit now
numbering Jeordie White (ex-Marilyn Manson) on bass, Aaron North (ex-Icarus
Line) on guitar, and Alessandro Cortini on keyboards. Jerome Dillon remains
stalwart on the drum stool, but features in only half of the new album; no poor
reflection on Dillon’s inestimable talents, says Reznor, just another avenue
he’s chosen to pursue. That avenue being a certain Dave Grohl.
“I wanted someone to just pound the shit out of
the drums. I felt like programmed drums were a bit tired, a little ‘done’. I
thought of Dave, called him up and he was here the next day. Before I knew it I
had rough versions of the songs with him drumming over them. Grohl instantly
knew what I was looking for; he’s not some old buddy of mine, we met on tour in
Australia sometime, but we clicked instantly.
“He was one of the first people to hear the new
music, and it was a super kick in the ass,” he glows. “Because there’s always a
critical juncture in the making of a record when you’re unsure you haven’t
built your whole castle upon a turd.”
Grohl’s enthusiasms weren’t misplaced. Taut,
clear-minded, vicious and compulsively funk-driven, ‘With Teeth’ is the record
you never thought NIN would make: an electrifying live-sounding rock’n’roll
record that’s light on their trademark ambience, and heavy in every way
imaginable. The sort of record that explains the calmly confident manner of its
That isn’t to say Reznor’s inner turbulence has
entirely subsided. He isn’t healed yet, but he is solemnly given to the ongoing
process of healing, even if it takes his whole life.
“For a while I didn’t know why I was making
music. I took some time out and came back to it and realised, simply, I love
music. I haven’t run out of things to say; I haven’t run out of new ways to say
them. When I come up with something I can’t wait for people to hear it – I feel
like I have a purpose in life. I’ve always loved music; I’ve always been good
at it. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to make a living doing it and
communicate with people that way. I’ve been fortunate – and I feel that way
now. For a long time I had to convince myself. ‘Why am I so depressed? I have
everything I ever wanted.’ I’d feel like a big pussy just saying that. But it
feels like things have shifted in my life. I feel more vital, maybe. More
The touring commitments the band are about to
undertake should keep that hunger docile for another five or so years. And with
that, Trent Reznor says goodbye, and smiles one last time. Big and wide.