Four years ago Nine Inch
Nails' Trent Reznor found himself at the end of his rope after descending into
a hell of booze and drugs. Now, as he emerges from the darkness with a new
album, new band, new tour, and new lease on life, he reveals the truth behind
his downward spiral.
He can see out. But you can't see in.
For a decade, he's been "that guy in
there," behind the cement walls and black-tinted windows of this sprawling
property on busy Magazine Street in New Orleans' French Quarter. Outside, mutts
and garrulous families play on peeling front porches. Tourists browse the
mini-malls set in 200-year-old store-fronts. Today, much of the city is enjoying
the Bacchus Parade during Mardi Gras, tailgating as cotton-candy vendors and
colorful floats of angels, devils, snakes, and sirens roll by.
The French Quarter is always full of this kind of
life. But inside this building, a former funeral parlor turned live-in
recording studio, there has been all kinds of death. The lone occupant, looking
out at you through those one-way windows or on the security monitors--you might
know him. Maybe you'd recognize his voice if you heard him sing. Intimate
phrasing. Screams. Back in the '90s, if you were lonely and upset, he might
have been your perfect imaginary friend. The one who articulated your pain,
saved your life even. But to his neighbors, and to most others in this new
century, he's been Boo Radley, Charles Montgomery Burns, Bad Ronald, the Wizard
of Oz behind his curtain. A twisted recluse walking around naked, maybe. Or
"Let me give you the tour," Trent Reznor
offers after opening the large wrought-iron gate and waving me into the foyer.
I feel a bit like Keanu Reeves' Jonathan Harker at the beginning of Bram
Stoker's Dracula. The man behind Nine Inch Nails has a large-ish head like Gary
Oldman's Count, pale skin with very little pink in it. He's dressed in black:
T-shirt, cargo pants, and sneakers with orange piping. His hair is dyed to
blue-black goth perfection. Someone has lit a few candles. Gargoyles and skulls
haunt the foot of a wide staircase leading to...a tricked-out coffin? A torture
chamber? "Actually, there are a bunch of old, broken video games up
there," he says with a shy laugh.
Trent Reznor doesn't really suck blood or ball gags.
He drinks protein shakes. And a lot of black coffee. He's not trying to spook
me with the candles. It's aromatherapy. I've been summoned here not to close
some shady real estate deal or dally with undead babes, but rather to talk. And
to listen. I don't want to mess with his anonymity, but in Alcoholics Anonymous
meetings they call this "sharing." Opening up and humbly interacting
with your neighbor. Trent Reznor may or may not have been to a few of these.
"I have weird social anxiety," he explains
as we sit on the black leather couch in the studio's control room. I've already
been shown much of the interior, its hidden spaces, many of them cold and empty.
I've even looked in Trent Reznor's fridge (Kellogg's
Special K Red Berries for breakfast). But this socializing still feels weird.
Like getting the quietest kid in class as your study hall partner. "I'd
rather not feel this way," Reznor says. "It's like being at a party
and feeling like I forgot to wear pants, feeling like I'm on fire."
Reznor is adored by his fans, but his parents left
him when he was six. He has seen the world with his band but was raised by his
maternal grandparents in Mercer, Pennsylvania, a small mining town. In high
school he was a band geek and a computer nerd, but he loved Kiss' bombast and
Queen's pomp. And girls (most of whom didn't requite). All of this seemed
designed to create a real head case of a rock star. In the past, Reznor used
his material wealth to numb himself rather than examine any of these sources of
psychic pain. Until recently, songwriting didn't provide much therapy either.
"I think it's easy to rationalize any behavior
in any context," he says. "But when you have success and some money
behind you, it's even easier." All the platinum records and framed
magazine covers and posters from the films he's scored line the walls in here.
When he worried about himself, they were there to make him feel big, if not whole.
"New Orleans was a way for me to isolate
myself," Reznor admits. These days, whenever he says something honest,
he'll smile and shake his head very slightly, as if he can't quite believe his
own lack of bullshit. "Living here was a way for me to hide, which is one
of my things I'll do if left unattended." He grins again. I reflexively
brace myself for a confession. "It could have been the lure of partying,
As he prepares to release his fourth studio album,
With Teeth (fifth, if you count 1992's Broken EP), Trent Reznor--"that guy in
there"--is emerging. Tomorrow he'll ride a float in a Mardi Gras parade.
"I'm not leading it," he stresses. "Nobody will know who I
am." He'll be in disguise, but everyone else will be masked as well. He'll
fit right in. A few days later Reznor will leave New Orleans. He's putting everything in
storage and settling in Los Angeles. If he ever returns, it'll be
with his band--for a few hours in a concert hall. He's not going back to where
he's been. "I've truly reached the point where I never, ever wanna be that
guy again," he says. "I couldn't bear it."
There's been a lot of debauchery on and around this
very couch. "This is the room where the [Marilyn] Manson guys and I
decided we were going to build tents and watch the first three Alien movies at
eight in the morning while the drugs still lasted," he remembers.
"Jeordie [White, a.k.a. Manson's then-bassist Twiggy Ramirez] almost
burned the place down lighting fireworks. A lot of crazy shit went on. I felt
like I was pretty normal. I'd party like everyone else did, but suddenly you're
supposed to be a big rock star, and I didn't really feel like I was that
person. And with a few drinks in me, I thought I could be that person. If I had
some drinks and someone said, 'Hey, you wanna get some cocaine?'--that seemed
like a great idea."
Each Nine Inch Nails album has taken a half-decade
to make. "Every time, it's a different reason," Reznor says. From his
debut album, 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, to 1994's The Downward Spiral, Reznor
spent much of his energy legally extricating himself from his deal with indie
label TVT, recording the Broken EP on the sly, and founding his own imprint,
Nothing Records, at Interscope. From 1994 to 1999, he faced an even bigger
challenge: dealing with superstardom. Famously recorded in the Benedict Canyon,
California home where actress Sharon Tate and four others were massacred by
Charles Manson's Family, The Downward Spiral was a critical and commercial
smash that has sold four million copies (a tenth anniversary edition was issued
last November). The single "Closer" still boasts the filthiest chorus
to ever get bleeped on rock radio, and its deliciously grotesque, Joel-Peter
Witkin-inspired video was all over MTV despite containing constant edits that
suggested images had been deleted by censors.
"I handed in Downward Spiral with an apology.
'Here it is. I'll tour on it, but I'm not gonna change it.' And then
unexpectedly 'Closer' takes off, and then Woodstock, and it's like, 'Whoa!' That part,
the upward track, the roller coaster taking you up is pretty fun," Reznor
remembers. Nine Inch Nails stole Woodstock '94 (the one without the fires
and rapes) the same way they stole Lollapalooza '91: by proving to a mass
audience that industrial rock was indeed rock. For a band that wore arm-length
fishnet gloves and black lipstick, they played so hard and fast that punks and
heshers alike were pummeled into respectfulness. Reznor's scores for Oliver
Stone's Natural Born Killers, David Lynch's Lost Highway, and the video game Quake were
all easily as compelling as the controversial and often violent imagery.
He produced Marilyn Manson's 1996 breakthrough
album, Antichrist Superstar, and reportedly trysted with the recently widowed
Courtney Love. Her band Hole played some of their first Live Through This shows
on the Downward Spiral tour, and after witnessing some backstage antics, she
publicly impugned Reznor's manhood ("More like Three Inch Nails").
Anti-rock and rap activist C. DeLores Tucker was another well-connected foe.
Undaunted, Reznor revived David Bowie's career in 1995, touring with and
remixing songs for his hero. With Jane's Addiction broken up and Beck and
Radiohead still trying to prove themselves as more than one-hit wonders, Reznor
ran neck and neck with Billy Corgan as the most important modern-rock artist of
the '90s who wasn't Kurt Cobain.
Like Corgan, Reznor was practically obligated to
come back with a bloated double album. And he did, with help from legendary
producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd's The Wall). Despite topping the Billboard album
chart its first week out, in September 1999, and being named Spin's Album of
the Year, The Fragile is, in places, an ambitious and extremely beautiful
failure. "The Fragile was an album based a lot in fear, because I was
afraid as fuck about what was happening to me," Reznor says. "That's
why there aren't a lot of lyrics on that record. I couldn't fucking think. An
unimaginable amount of effort went into that record in a very unfocused way."
And people noticed: It sold only half as many copies as NIN's previous album.
"Coming down is not nearly as much fun," Reznor jokes. "There
was a real arrogance on our part. We said [to Interscope], 'Here's the new
record. Get out of the way. This is the new thing. Deal with it." But it
was a very different climate in the world of music. Nobody really understood
what the record was about. The label just threw their hands up." Reznor
shudders faintly and takes another sip of coffee. "Looking out and seeing
empty seats in the back of the arena that you shouldn't have played anyway, but
arrogance got you there. Combine that with personal ruin? It's hard to look
cool vomiting in a toilet, know what I mean?"
Reznor spent the first part of the next five-year
interval trying very hard to die.
"When The Fragile debuted at No. 1, I felt,
'It's time to have a drink,'" he says. "That whole tour I was in a
constant state of withdrawal and sickness. The success of that record was the
first week. Then the label had had enough, and the public seemed to have had
enough, and I'd had enough." With no single taking off (even the Marilyn
Manson-augmented "Starfuckers Inc." didn't click) and a dearth of
stage-friendly new songs, Reznor was left with the screaming monkey from the
"Closer" video on his PVC-covered back. "It lead me down a very
dark and terrible path. At the end of it, which was close to four years ago, it
was very clear to me that I was trying to kill myself.
"That was the path I chose," he continues.
"I was going to just drink myself or drug myself out of it. I got back to
New Orleans after the Fragile tour, and I'd
pretty much lost my soul. I just felt like nothing: 'Being famous doesn't
matter. I don't like myself. I think I'm a piece of shit.' It was
unquestionably the worst thing ever. Just lying all the time about everything.
I was in terrible physical shape, too."
Burnout rumors began to circulate: He was a
powder-scorched zombie who could only converse with hookers; he'd lost all his
money, sold his equipment, and was spending his days placing voodoo hexes on
record execs. Reznor had, in fact, hit bottom, like most addicts and drunks do,
unless they die. Then came the death of a close friend. "His name was
Rodney Robertson, and he worked for me at the studio," Reznor says.
"[He was] from the New Orleans projects. I wanted to help him
out. This guy had a doomed life. His sister died of AIDS. We'd go for rides
where he'd show me a burned-out building: 'That's where I grew up. There used
to be a swing set there.'"
One morning Robertson's mother phoned. Her son
hadn't come home. "I happened to turn my head, and the TV was on, and I
saw his truck," Reznor says. "Someone had executed him. Shot him in
the head in the projects. I was so fucked up I couldn't go to the funeral. And
that seemed to be what it took for me to say, 'Not for me, for him.'"
The main tenet of getting clean is admitting you
have no control over your addiction. For Reznor, initially at least, that was
antithetical to the way he approached his life and work. The credits on Pretty
Hate Machine's booklet infamously read: "Nine Inch Nails Is Trent Reznor." The lyrics to the
album's first song scream, "I'd rather die than give you control."
"Somebody telling me I had a drinking problem was not something I wanted
to hear," he says, recalling his initial exposure to rehab. "But
miraculously, the message took, and I learned a lot about myself. I learned
that I don't know everything. That was a new concept. Because I was pretty sure
that I did."
The ninth step of A.A.'s 12-step program suggests
you make amends with those you hurt while you were abusing alcohol. These
people, though certainly grateful that you are not dead, are not always
forgiving or understanding of the "new you." "I remember sitting
in rehab, listening to people with wives or husbands. They've finally decided
to fix their lives. [But then there's] the years of torture they've inflicted
on people around them, the lives they've helped ruin. Those people aren't going
to just say, 'Great to have you back.'"
Reznor's career-long partnership with manager John
Malm was one casualty of the artist's about-face. Due to ongoing litigation,
neither party can talk specifically about the split [Malm didn't respond to
numerous requests for an interview], but Reznor will allow a little insight.
"It's involving money and lots of things you can't believe someone would
do to you," he says. "Ultimately, it's my fault for not paying
attention. Finding you're not where you were financially because of deceit is
one big surprise.
"The dynamic of a relationship changes when one
person gets sober," he elaborates. "I remember thinking how thankful
I was that I wasn't married or in a relationship that had to refigure itself
out. And then it dawned on me that I was in that relationship--with my longest
and dearest friend, who happened to be my manager. It became clearer that my
relationship with John was deteriorating. We'd bitch at each other more on the
phone, and I wanted to try to at least say, 'Look, I'm not just a drunk guy you
put in a closet and take out once in a while and wash off occasionally. Treat
me like an adult. I am one. Thank you for helping me through those times, but
I'm an adult.' I don't know what a divorce is like, but if it's like this, it's
Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, With Teeth
stands to be more commercially successful than The Fragile, even with the
Wal-Marts of the world less inclined to stock bands like NIN than they were in
'94 (the first single, "The Hand That Feeds," is an attack on Bush's
right-wing agenda). Like Neil Young in the late '80s, Dylan in the mid-'90s, or
Prince last year, Reznor will likely succeed because he's an artist we once
believed in who is making music we can believe in again. All the pain he was
singing about? "Down In It," "Wish," "Mr. Self
Destruct," "Closer," and "Hurt"--for a while, it was
real. We believed it, and bought it. Then, with The Fragile it began to feel
forced, leading to the empty seats in big arenas.
Now the voice seems authentic again. The new songs
are lyrically dense and confessional. Over a relatively economical 13 songs,
With Teeth shifts from Downward Spiral-like shock production ("Love Is Not
Enough") to almost gospel-piano prettiness ("All the Love in the
Word") to harsh industrial screech ("You Know What You Are?").
If there's also an odd playfulness ("Only" seems to relish its
seriously cheesy disco-drums), that's because this time the process came
easier. "There was a pretty good game plan," Reznor explains. "I
had themes and subjects. I tried to keep a lo-fi aesthetic running through it,
a kind of carelessness. As my brain started working, the songs just started to
come out. I regained my self-confidence."
If you searched the Web for Nine Inch Nails updates
last winter, you likely saw a lot of apoplectic posts about With Teeth's
arrival. Someone had enough zeal to illegally upload a pair of songs, including
the first single. ("As infuriating as that can be for an artist,"
Reznor says of the leak, "another way of looking at it is, 'Hey, people
still care.'") Just seeing that tattered, ragged logo--the lowercase
"nin"--sniped all over New York City in late February was thrilling.
Fifteen years since Pretty Hate Machine and there's no shortage of lonely,
angry souls who will want the truth out of Trent Reznor. The difference now, in
2005, is that so does Trent Reznor.
"People need to believe that I mean what I'm
saying again," he says. "I don't think I believed it last time
because I was lying about everything else. I felt like I was an actor on that
last tour. An actor in a play that wasn't that great."
On May 1, NIN will headline the second day of the
sixth annual Coachella Valley music festival. Sixteen days
later Reznor will turn 40. "I look at [the years of insobriety] as a
chapter that's served its purpose," he reflects. "It got me to where
I am now. I like myself right now. I feel like I've reactivated myself. But I
also find I don't know how I got to be 39. I should be 26." Coachella
organizer Paul Tollett is one person not worried about Reznor's relevance in
the current musical climate. "Younger fans always have a way of finding
out the real thing," he says, "whether it's from the '60s, '70s, or
early '90s. I am not concerned about whether they know NIN or not. I give them
more credit than that."
NIN's next tour will begin in clubs and theaters
right before Coachella. Reznor will highlight much of the new material with a
new band--Fragile-era drummer Jerome Dillon, Jeordie White, guitarist Aaron
North (formerly of L.A. punks the Icarus Line), and Alessandro Cortini (of
modwheelmood). And he will play while loaded....on black coffee.
"Trent always leaves a nice, fresh boot
print in the face of contemporary music with each record he releases,"
says Brian Viglione of the tour's opening act, cabaret punkers the Dresden
Dolls. "I've always been inspired by his dedication to executing his
artistic vision with conviction and clarity."
"I would like to think that a lot of ghosts
have been cleaned out of the closet--it's not going to be a five-year cycle
[between albums] anymore," Reznor says. "There's another record
almost done that I hope to put out within a year." He's moving to L.A., he says, because he wants to be
in "the epicenter." "Whatever joy I have gotten from turning off
the world, I now get from being able to function at a higher than normal
percentage," he admits. "It might be the 15 cups of coffee, but I'm
not hiding anymore. I've actually returned people's calls, which is a first.
It's mainly to be around peers. Just to be around shit and not feel like I'm on
As Reznor leads me back into the foyer, his
publicist asks how our interview went. Reznor grabs his ass and mocks being
buggered. It's clear that socializing, especially with a journalist, is still
not his favorite thing. But he acknowledges that it's become necessary, with
survival being only the most basic of its rewards. Family, children, more
happiness could be next. "My changes of being alive a year from now,"
he says, "are much greater than they were a couple of years ago."
He lets me out into Mardi Gras. Soon, he'll follow
me. Through this big, black, wrought-iron gateway and into the sunlight