“I wanted to continue
to live. I didn’t want to be that guy any more”
NIN 2005: Trent Reznor
talks exclusively to Simon Price about his journey to the edge. Portraits: Mick
needed to do something or I wasn’t gonna be around.” The gym-buff biceps and
twinkling eyes of the man draped across the plush Park Lane sofa don’t look like they belong to
someone recently scratching at death’s door. But for Trent Reznor, reluctant
icon of industrial rock, the last decade has been - to quote one estranged
friend, “a long hard road out of hell”. The
one time chemically braced berserker behind Nine Inch Nails is now a courteous,
thoughtful Evian-sipping soul. Like the 12 Step survivor he is, he’s prone to
lengthy self-analysis. The answer to one question can last 25 minutes - a
possible shield against being asked another (that way, Trent maintains control). Dig too deep,
and he’ll puff his cheeks and blow, “That’s a tough question…”
Reznor is speaking to Metal Hammer due to a
sudden burst of renewed NIN activity, which includes an enhanced version of the
classic ‘Downward Spiral’, a series of UK live shows and the release of an
excellent new album, ‘With Teeth’ - a record for which NIN fans have had to
endure a six-year long wait.
“What took this record so long? I needed to
clean up. Get my life in order. And after the last tour in 2001, I was a mess.”
“And if this sounds melodramatic, Reznor
assures you it’s not. “It wasn’t gonna be another way. It was gonna be the
To understand how Trent Reznor nearly met that
premature end, we need to go back to his beginnings.
You begin to understand the trapped rage of
NIN’s early music while flying over the American Midwest. Tiny sporadic
settlements are separated by mile after endless mile of square farming fields.
Trapped rage may be an essential requirement in rock’n'roll these days, but for
Michael Trent Reznor, born almost 40 years ago in rural Pennsylvania, and
raised by his grandparents in the arse end of Ohio after his parents divorced,
there were no reference points. This was an age, and a place, that left you
completely fucking isolated.
“I don’t wanna paint a picture of a terrible
childhood,” Reznor is at paints to point out. “I had a loving family. But where
I grew up was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was pre-internet, and
I’m trying to work out how much that would change things - probably quite a
lot. It was pre-MTV. There was no college radio. The only real way of getting
stuff was Rolling Stone magazine, which was not as ass-kissingly corporate as
it is now, but it certainly wasn’t cutting edge.
“You could see your destiny. People talked
about ‘high school, the best years of your life…’” says Reznor. “Well, it
sucked for me! I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t praised for throwing a football or
whatever. But for a lot of people it’s the last bit of freedom before settling
into the 30 year mortgage. ‘Be realistic. She’s good enough, marry her.’
“It came back to haunt me, I felt inadequate.
‘What do I know? I’m from a little farm town in the middle of nowhere.’ I later
used drugs and alcohol to compensate for that.”
Did a small-town upbringing have any benefits?
“If I was in an urban environment I would have
probably become an addict a lot quicker. There weren’t many drugs around where
I was growing up. Though later I found out that the local Amish Dutch (a
reclusive Christian sect who live a strict 18th century lifestyle) community
were running a cocaine ring. Those clever little fuckers. That would have been
as convenient as Hell, but I didn’t know. Who would have imagined there was a
couple of bricks in the back of the horse and buggy!”
Reznor’s desire to escape was fuelled by the
“impenetrable world of TV”.
“You can’t get to that world if you live here -
sorry!’ Looking back - through a romantic haze - it was TV that drove me to
plan how the fuck I was gonna get out of there.”
The answer, of course, was music. There were a
few low-grade garage bands - they didn’t come to anything. And then Trent, a
classically trained pianist in his teens, got a job as a cleaner in a studio to
pay for some demo sessions which, in turn, got him signed to TVT records (a
label with whom he would later fight a bitter dispute).
The result was ‘Pretty Hate Machine’, a debut
album that, with the help of singles ‘Sin’ and the anthemic ‘Head Like A Hole’,
eventually sold gold. Simultaneously as dark as Ministry but as catchy as
Depeche Mode, it featured what would later become trademark Reznor lyrics about
manipulation and betrayal - the sound of a young man making sense of the music
he grew up with.
“I haven’t sat and listened to ‘Pretty Hate
Machine’ for a while. I was in a transitional phase. My first record, I didn’t
know how to write or arrange songs or how a studio works, but I got a deal. And
I wanted to work with someone who could take the music further out.”
Trent’s first choice, Adrian Sherwood
(dub-rock producer who worked on Ministry’s ‘Twitch’ - one of Reznor’s favorite
records), was refused by TVT for being relatively unknown. Eventually they
compromised with John Fryer (who had worked with ethereal 4AD acts like This
Mortal Coil), and Flood (U2, Depeche Mode).
“It’s a record that, at the time, felt like the
best I could do.”
When the time came to perform his primarily
electronic, digital songs live, notably on Perry Farrell’s 1991 Lollapalooza
tour, Trent was forced to view his music in a new light.
“Playing live is a whole different animal,”
says Trent, who shelved the DAT machines for “real people sweating, and don’t
worry if it doesn’t sound like the record so much.
“The response was violent - I screamed, and
people screamed back. I was way too anal, way too studio, up my own ass. I
needed a more visceral flex of the muscle. That’s primarily why ‘Broken’
sounded the way it did.”
The ‘Broken’ EP, or mini-album (and its remixed
version ‘Fixed’) was Reznor’s first stab at independence (by now, TVT had been
swallowed by Interscope, though Trent’s own imprint, Nothing, was
appearing on NIN releases), his first fuck-you to record company meddling and,
arguably, his first great record.
“‘Broken’ was recorded kind of in secrecy. The
record company were interfering in a way I couldn’t put up with, instead of
saying, ‘OK, we didn’t understand. Just do what you do, we’ll sit back and take
your money.’ They said, ‘You sold a million records, now we’re gonna sell four
million, but you’re gonna use this guy.’ It came down to, I’d rather kill Nine
Inch Nails after one album and an EP than make records with Fine Young
Cannibals because they happen to be in the charts that week.”
Trent won the argument, with staggering
results. ‘Broken’, and most notably its exhilarating pivotal track ‘Wish’,
focused the NIN sound like sunlight through a spyglass. Lyrically laced with
dark humor (”Don’t think you’re having all the fun/You know me I hate
everyone”), where ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ was angry at the world, ‘Broken’s
knives were directed inwards. (”I’m the one without a soul, I’m the one with
just this fucking hole”).
“That’s the entrance of that, yes. That turned
into ‘The Downward Spiral’…”
THERE were three great quasi-suicidal,
misanthropic angst-rock masterpieces released in ‘94 - Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’,
The Manic Street Preachers’ ‘The Holy Bible’ and, perhaps the most underrated
of the bunch, Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Downward Spiral’.
Recorded in 10050 Cielo Drive, the Hollywood
house where Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ murdered actress Sharon Tate (Reznor
maintains he didn’t know this when he moved in), ‘The Downward Spiral’ was a
draining emotional journey in which a brutally honest Reznor dealt with all
manner of demons.
“It was about me, but a projection of me, a
character who systematically destroys all these different things in his life in
the search for some sort of answer. And in the crossfire is… sex,
relationships, trust, the spectre of religion and its flaws and its lies and
its hollowness, and drugs, and a sense of purpose, and self-loathing and
Its most famous song is its finale, ‘Hurt’ - as
covered so heartbreakingly by Johnny Cash, the original Man in Black, on his
‘American Recordings’ swan song.
“‘Hurt’ was the last song I wrote,” Reznor
reveals. “And it nearly didn’t make it on. But I felt the record wasn’t
finished. There was this sense of remorse, like I’d smashed everything in the
room and was sitting in the middle of a pile of broken stuff, and I’m not sure
what I’ve done and maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do. Then the record comes
out, and that becomes my life, or my life becomes that record. Almost to a
‘The Downward Spiral’ was a massive success,
selling platinum and Reznor threw himself into touring the album (NIN’s
mud-spattered performance at Woodstock 2 was universally hailed as that
festival’s highlight). Behind the scenes, Trent was going off the rails big time.
“I wasn’t prepared for the whirlwind that
follows a hit record, emotionally or mentally. I was at my most miserable when
I had everything I ever wanted. I’m not saying it’s a terrible thing - it’s a
GREAT thing - but when every aspect of your life changes, you can’t sit back
and watch it, you can’t understand it. You’re in the cyclone.”
Enter Trent’s little helpers, in liquid and
“I was in one of the biggest bands in the world,
and still felt like I wasn’t good enough. I’d walk into a room with five people
in it, and feel completely intimidated, like my skin was on fire… I wasn’t good
enough. The quickest way to deal with that was to have a drink, and the fire
went out - ‘I’m funnier than I was a minute ago, and more interesting.’”
And cocaine, of course, suppresses the
“Temporarily. Then there’s a lot more
self-doubt. It’s a good 15 minutes though… then you get off the tour bus two
years later thinking, ‘Who the fuck am I? And who are all these people around
me?’ ‘I’m the guy that’s in the magazine, right?’ You become a scarecrow, a
projection of what people read into you.”
Reznor has never courted celebrity. Apart from
a brief and acrimonious professional and personal relationship with Courtney
Love (Reznor was another of her 90’s rock star notches), he doesn’t have a
high-profile private life.
“It’s about knowing when to say ‘No’. It’s not
like it was when I was growing up. There’s the inernet now, and MTV, and music
channels pumping shit. There is a way to over expose yourself. I don’t seek
mystique - it’s not that I’m afraid of people finding out stuff about me - but
giving away too much is a bad thing. Maybe if you’re, I dunno, Creed, it
doesn’t really matter. But if you do something with some depth… I’d rather you
were curious, than sick of hearing about me.”
As a result, Trent can walk around mostly unmolested
by the public.
“Around the time of ‘The Downward Spiral’ I got
hassled, but less now. I usually go around as a woman, which throws people off.
I’ve tried to make a point of not letting my personality become…” He chooses
his words carefully. “I’ll say this, I think there are certain people whose
personality gets in the way of the music. And maybe their personality is what’s
good about them anyway. Not so much the music.”
Who can he mean? Marilyn Manson was being
looked after by Trent some 10 years ago. Does Reznor feel like Dr. Frankenstein eclipsed by
the fame of the zombie he helped create?
“To some degree. I have mixed feelings about
the whole thing, because from a business point of view, for the record label,
it was wildly successful. I think he’s a talented guy, and I’m not taking
credit where it’s not due. If there was a valid role I had, it was helping
provide a framework to allow him to do what he wanted to do. And then the whole
thing happened, and… what’s done is done. As a human, as a friend, I’m
Reznor signed Manson to Nothing records in
1992, and MM became regular Nine Inch Nails tour mates and the pair became
close friends. Manson’s (brilliant) autobiography The Long Hard Road Out Of
Hell tells tales of he and Reznor indulging in drug-fuelled depravity
(kidnapping, condiments, handcuffs, groupies etc), while the two bands worked
simultaneously on ‘Portrait Of An American Family’ and ‘The Downward Spiral’.
The duo disagreed over the musical direction
Manson’s ‘Antichrist Superstar’ should take. Silly conflagrations ensued -
Manson members smashing up NIN’s gear and vice-versa. The situation came to a
head when Reznor stole the job of providing the soundtrack to David Lynch’s The
Lost Highway from under Manson’s nose.
“I’m not blameless for sure,” Reznor admits.
“But part of it is… we were friends, I was helping him out, then he’s on my
label, then he’s opening for my band… and the competitive nature of it got to
him. You get tired of answering questions about your ‘big brother’. And when
you sprinkle lots of money and drugs on top of that…”
He sighs, and repeats; “I’m disappointed. But
you lose friends along the way.”
If Manson was unhappy about The Lost Highway,
Reznor in turn was unhappy about the revelations in Long Hard Road… On NIN’s
next album, ‘The Fragile’, Reznor wrote a song, ‘Starfuckers Inc’ clearly aimed
at his former protégé (”I am every fucking thing and just a little more/I sold
my soul, but don’t you dare call me a whore”). Ouch.
They did patch up their differences, to the
extent that Manson joined Reznor to sing the song at NIN’s Madison Square Garden show in May 2000, and Manson even
volunteered to direct and co-star in the video. But the feud resumed and Manson
quit Nothing and signed directly to Interscope. They have not spoken since.
“We’re at different situations in our lives.
There’s a toxic element to him that probably wouldn’t be healthy for me to be
Trent still can’t resist a dig.
When the FAQ section on official website
NIN.com asked if he had plans to record any cover versions, Reznor replied he
was, “hoping to do something unique and pertinent - like an exact copy of
‘Personal Jesus’ - but it was already taken.” Miaow!
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about
him,” he says. “Until I’m in Europe and people ask me about him. Because you still
remember him over here.” Double miaow!
FOR the first decade of his career, Reznor was
something of a workaholic. As well as recording and touring with NIN, he ran a
record label - whose roster included Meat Beat Manifesto, Plug, The The, 12
Rounds, Coil, Clint Mansell and (NIN offshoot) Tapeworm - and licensed Warp
records in the US. He made the Lost Highway and the
stunning Natural Born Killers soundtracks, contributed to the Tomb Raider and
Crow soundtracks and the Quake computer game, remixed N*E*R*D and Bowie,
collaborated with Tori Amos and, of course, produced Manson.
“I didn’t want anything in my life that wasn’t
fulfilling my potential as an artist. I maybe had a gift, and I had an
opportunity to make a career out of it. Every minute spend not working on music
was a minute lost, which may be a noble way to look at life when you’re 23, but
I’m still living that life and I’m 39. That’s what paved the way for me to
become an addict. I found I could do things myself, and I didn’t think I needed
anybody else. I didn’t need a friend, I didn’t need a girlfriend, I didn’t need
a producer, I didn’t need a band. I’ll do everything myself. Fuck you!”
Unfortunately, by the time NIN came to make
their third proper album, ‘The Fragile’, Reznor was every type of ‘holic going
and very fragile indeed. A sprawling double, long on experimentation but short
on lyrics (”I was more or less unable to write them”), recorded with Depeche
Mode producer Alan Moulder, it’s NIN’s most flawed release. An unfinished
“Tough question. I’m not just saying this to
justify it, but it’s an accurate snapshot of my life at that time. I made the
best record I could, with the tools available and, I was terrified, I was
overcompensating. I’m proud of it. It was made in insane circumstances, and the
effort that went into it… it was camaraderie-filled. But I hope I never make a
record like that again.”
Does it stand up now?
“I listened to it for the first time in a long
time, and I can see where I was, and what was about to happen.”
“I was the guy on the ledge, ready to jump. I
had to get to a true bottom. That’s why the last two records took so long. This
started in ‘96 or ‘97, and it took me that long to stop lying to myself and
deal with it. I kept digging deeper until I was as low as I could go.”
Two events caused Reznor to hit rock bottom.
Firstly, a friend of his was shot in the face (he only heard about it on the TV
news), and subsequently, Reznor took a massive amount of what he thought was
cocaine that turned out to be heroine, landing him in hospital in a critical
“So, 2001 rolled around, and I was scared
enough that… I was ready to do whatever it took. I wanted to continue to live.
I didn’t wanna be that guy anymore.”
Like seeking help?
“I went to a treatment place, from 12 Step
programs to meetings, to psychiatry. You name it.
“I wanted to be told. To listen for a change,
to realise I don’t know everything - I don’t - and that sometimes giving up is
winning, rather than defeat. I realised, when I’d detoxed and become physically
un-addicted, that I needed to figure my priorities out.”
But he didn’t rush back into the recording
“One reason was fear. I didn’t know if I could
write, if I could think. I didn’t know if I’d destroyed my brain. Also, I
didn’t know if I had anything to say.”
Trent was relieved to find that, without
his chem-dependence, his muse flowed even more freely.
“An interesting shift took place in the early
stages of recovery - away from the addict life I was grieving - like someone
flipped a switch and all of a sudden I’m swimming with the current.
“Before, I believed I could out-think this.
‘I’m too smart.’ And then you start to feel like your life is a Behind The
Music episode - ‘Oh, I’m that guy. And there are a couple of guys I’ve turned
into that I didn’t think I was.’ I didn’t think I was the addict guy and I
didn’t think I was the guy whose manager took all his money (in 2004, Trent sued ex-manager John Malm for
taking improper control of NIN’s finances). But now I’m this guy - and maybe
I’m not so fucking special. Maybe I’m not such a unique case.”
With his confidence back, things happened fast.
“Suddenly all this stuff starts flying out of
me, ideas which had been stuck in a clogged pipe. I’ve got a new set of tools
and I’ve got a new brain, and every 10 days I can do two songs, finished!
Regardless of what was gonna happen commercially - you know, ‘Will people like
the record? Will anyone remember me?’ - being back on track was the main
‘WITH Teeth’ is, in many ways, NIN’s most
accessible record yet. In addiction to the familiar electro-metallic assault,
it has one dancefloor-friendly track, ‘Only’, which boasts an infectious
“I’ve heard it criticised for being poppy and I
agree. It’s accessible… and I like it. A voice popped up in my head and said,
‘You can experiment with this, but it probably souldn’t make the record.’ Then
I thought, ‘Fuck what people think!’ Last time around there were too many
censors. The voices have kept waulity control pretty good up to now, but
there’s a fine line between quality control and terrified madness.”
And what’s next?
“I can’t believe all the time I wasted, being
crazy. I’ve got another record almost finished now.”
So it won’t be another six-year wait this time?
“Well, I sure as fuck hope not! It won’t be for
the same reason, put it that way.”