Jahr 1994




Alternative Press,


April 1994


Mr. Selfconstruct

Jason Pettigrew gets under his skin.

Surface perceptions by Marina Chavez.



Nine Inch Nails‘ new album The Downward Spiral threatens to commit commercial suicide. But Trent Reznor doesn‘t care… or does he?

Nine Inch Nails‘ Trent Reznor is a wannabe. A wannabe regular guy who enjoys the privileges of success, yet clings to middle-class, midwestern values. Reznor might like to cash in his chips for some normal living, but he‘s still stuck at the roulette table in a casino where everyone else, winners or losers, has some place to go at the end of the day. In this world, the neuroses pile up as the stakes of fame increase.

“Sometimes I think I spend my whole life trying to find someplace where I think I fit in,“ he admits. “I pretend I do for awhile and then I realize that in high school I was a misfit; in college, a dropout. LA. rock scene? Forget that shit. I have to remind myself that I‘m able to do this.“

What “this“ entails is being able to create, pay bills and carry on, free from distractions. NIN‘s new album, The Downward Spiral isn‘t a set of songs, as much as it is an exorcism or neural surgery with the endings exposed. If one song displays a glimmer of hope, rest assured it‘s not permanent. Think of the most disturbing metaphors: the news story of the young Liverpool child stoned to death by psychotic adolescents, or the last casual conversation you had with a dose friend before you never saw him again. It‘s a heavy album, but not like the death disco or the fist-in-the-air brashness of the first album and EP. There are a few hints of familiarity, but not enough to appease any fan‘s discerning taste. At first listen, it seems like Reznor is biting the hand that feeds him by telling his dinner guests that if they don‘t like the meal, they can fuck off.

The album is also the culmination of how a naive kid from Mercer, Pennsylvania, reacts to an avalanche of success. He‘s adamant that he calls the shots, and that‘s quite true. But it‘s not just the shots that matter; it‘s the ricochets.

NIN drummer Chris Vrenna picks me up at my hotel and drives a few blocks to an unassuming house in the densely packed West Hollywood hills (star watchers have informed me that “real celebrities live in the proper Hollywood Hills, like Flea and Madonna“). Chris and Trent moved here recently because the infamous Sharon Tate house where they created most of The Downward Spiral was demolished so developers could erect a sprawling mansion.

The first things one notices upon entering the house are the high ceilings and a shiny baby grand piano, but more telling is the amount of unpacked boxes in the foyer, filled with t-shirts, hats, clothes, gear, pictures and other miscellaneous items.

The empty walls and minimal decor remind you it‘s a house, not a home. There have been some changes in the Nails camp since the last media blitz accompanying the release of the Broken EP. Richard Patrick has left the group, and even Maise, the retriever who supplied some growling vocals on the EP, and whose health seemed to be the only thing Trent was concerned about during an interview with Rolling Stone, isn‘t around any more. (She‘s now living with some of Trent‘s relatives.) But Vrenna introduces me to Fuckshop, a precious little black cat that likes to bring remnants of mice and birds back to his two roommates.

Trent appears in a black sweat shirt, chopped-up cut-off fatigues and army boots. The dark eyes and medium-length hair are more reminiscent of an old college buddy than an alternative rock personality. This contrasts sharply with the guy on the cover of the magazine you‘re now holding. That guy is wearing handmade duds created by a designer flown in to Cleveland from New York. But contradictions are seemingly a large part of Reznor‘s life.

The view out over the veranda is pure cinemascope, and the Pool below is protected by a thick crop of trees. Despite a house with a view and a cuddly black killer, Reznor hates LA. But he‘s stuck here until he finishes rehearsing his new group.

“I was curious about L.A.,“ he says. “It seemed like a farming ground for silicone breasts. It‘s the most foreign place in America, in terms of the way people think, look, atmosphere, you name it. What I hated my whole life about living in a midwestern nowhere town has ingrained me with values that I‘m glad I grew up with, versus some people I‘ve met here in the fake world of Beverly Hills.“


So your childhood was slightly different than Tori Spelling‘s.

“A little,“ he laughs as he curls his feet up under his legs on the chair. “But that‘s not to say everybody who grows up in wealth is fucked up,“ he says, catching himself from a generalization. “A stereotypical midwest mentality is slightly more grounded than some of the people here in L.A.

Over the past three years, Reznor has been frequently ripped and diced by the various forces of fame and business. His hatred for TVT Records and its owner Steve Gottleib has been well documented. (TVT is now a silent partner through an arrangement with Trent‘s current label Interscope.) Trent claims that the infamous Spin magazine cover story proclaiming him as “the leader of the industrial music movement“ almost ruined his life. The rapid and unexpected level of success he attained, both with Pretty Hate Machine and the first Lollapalooza tour, netted him the sneering contempt of the “alternative“ cliques who welcome million-selling artists much like Trump Plaza would welcome a leper.

Even back in Cleveland, the town that claims Nine Inch Nails as a hometown success, everyone seems to have a Trent Reznor story—musicians, club owners, ex-girlfriends, 7-11 employees. . . everyone. And it‘s always the same old pulp: Reznor demanded entry into clubs without paying, he impregnated a minor and now has a paternity suit against him, he treats his friends like shit, he has a small penis, he used to hang out with Jeffrey Dahmer when MIN played Milwaukee, he‘s romantically linked with MTV VJ Kennedy... As you read this, someone is probably blaming him for the recent earthquakes. If Trent was still a clerk at the Pi Keyboards shop, or somebody with nice hair playing local dives on the weekends, nobody would notice him, let alone care.

Yet whether he likes it or not, Reznor has woven himself into the fabric of Pop culture. Arena-rockers who once wore “Dio“ on their chests now sport bootleg NIN shirts. There are grandmothers who recognize the band‘s logo with the inverted “N.“ There‘s even a porn mag called Nine Inch Males. Let‘s face it, regular guys don‘t inspire such awareness or abuse.

Cynics will bark that Trent took the aggressive electro-rock of bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy, did a little buffing to it, and took it to the bank. Although there is a kernel of truth to that, by virtue of his lyrical themes, he made the music more human by injecting an emotional context.

As Reznor begins to answer, a neighbor somewhere down the hill has begun clearing his yard with a chainsaw. The angry buzzing provides a soundtrack for a mini-tirade against his detractors.

“Every diddley band points at us as ‘sell-out faggots,‘ and says, ‘We sound like Skinny Puppy, we‘re cool. You suck because you have a song.‘ Blow me. That‘s my biggest response. I’ll pick up a fanzine and I‘ll be the object of derision. I’m sorry you can hum one of my songs. I’m sorry I‘ve offended your keen sense of ‘alternativeness.‘ We‘re not Einstürzende Neubauten, and I didn‘t write the cover of the Spin article that almost destroyed my life. Our fan base is getting uneasy because, ‘They‘re getting big, my little sister likes them, they gotta suck.‘

“And that‘s a shitty feeling. If I had pulled a Shriekback—the reference point we use for a total sell-out—then I deserve that. But I didn‘t. And the same album that was cool then, isn‘t now. Even I‘m thinking that way!

“All the bullshit around music irritates me,“ he continues as the saw continues to grind away, “the whole let‘s-climb-up-your-ass-and-dissect your-life element. I don‘t want to be Gene Simmons,“ he says shifting in the chair. “I sadly realized here‘s some body who‘s 50 years old, singing songs about shit he doesn‘t care about, because he has to. I don‘t want to see myself like that.“

Broken, the frantic EP follow-up to Pretty Hate Machine was catharsis on wax. The nature of its recording was clandestine (Trent and producer Flood checked into studios using fake band names like the Stunt Popes because if any recording schedule said “NIN“ on it, TVT would have legally owned the sessions), and coupled with that were tensions from the constant touring, a crumbling personal life, and the decision that he would never make another record for TVT (thereby possibly snuffing his chances of ever recording again).

The chainsaw runs louder in the distance. “I knew Broken would burn a lot of people out who wanted to hear ‘Head Like a Hole‘ part two. But things were so fucked up when I made it, I had to get it out. It was miserable and that‘s how I felt at that time.“ He sits on his left leg. “And what‘s my reward for all that? A heavy metal Grammy!“ he rolls his eyes upward and laughs at the ridiculousness of it all.

Where‘s your Grammy now?

“Well, it was on the mantle at the Tate House, and I actually forgot that I had it until we started talking about it. I guess it‘s in a box somewhere.“

The Downward Spiral is a chilling recording that explores textures as much as songs. The opener, “Mr. Self Destruct,“ blows out of your speakers with baseball-bat-swinging fury that downshifts dramatically into an eerie quieter respite, then slams back into high gear. “Reptile“ is pure‘ dread that conjures the Image of having sex with one of the airbrushed mechanical monsters in a H.R. Giger painting. The title track is slow-motion suicide as if the victim is watching himself die slowly in a nearby mirror. It‘s filled with caustic self-evaluations, diatribes and observations of life through shattered glasses. The only time the listener feels semi-safe is during the ambient instrumental “A Warm Place.“ Reznor has triumphed in conveying that you can generate more tension with a whisper than a scream.

“Oh, I agree with that,“ he says. “The safest thing I could have done would be Broken 2, with harder guitars and catchier songs. You have to have some dynamics. You go see a band that plays at 300 BPM for ten songs, and by the third song you‘re bored. I wanted to make a record a little unexpected and show off some other elements. Not necessarily lighter, but intensity through other means. I‘ve got more to say than look how loud my guitar can go.“

But there‘s a whole bunch of people out there with copies of Broken, wondering exactly how loud his guitar can go. And there‘s another multitude who want to know if they‘ll be able to dance to the new album.

“I had to ask myself how much attention do I pay to that? The people looking for a ‘That‘s What I Get‘ album aren‘t going to like it. Hard guitar fans aren‘t going to like it. As a writer and an artist, do I sit down and say, ‘Well, to this legion of fans, I should write a good metal song. But then, let‘s think of my teenage girl fan club so I better put a “That‘s What I Get“ in there.‘ Wait! What the hell are you doing? The only thing you can do is be honest. It doesn‘t hit you over the head and say, ‘it‘s my new album, love it immediately.‘

“Having said that, it is just as fake to say, ‘I’m going to make an uncommercial record just to show that I can.‘ Just to prove I‘m ‘alternative‘? I‘ll go back to playing small dubs, AP will like me, fanzines will like me,“ he says, shifting his legs and leaning into the tape recorder. “That‘s no more true than consciously making a Top-40 record for money. I‘m not concerned about it because I‘ve been through the fickle tastes of what‘s cool or not cool. I’m like that myself sometimes as a fan. The stuff I‘ve done, I‘ve done with the right perspective and integrity. If you don‘t like it, great. I’m not going to blame a producer or a record label.“

What do record companies and fans have in common? Answer: they all like returns on their investment, whether it‘s a multi-album deal, or a $15 compact disc.

The chainsaw suddenly stops for a moment. “I don‘t know, maybe I‘m ruined,“ he says, second-guessing himself. “Maybe all I can write are ‘Head Like a Hole‘ songs. For a moment I was panicking because there wasn‘t a ‘Head Like a Hole‘ on there. You just gotta let it go.“

Although his lyrics complement the music‘s desolation, his vocabulary often borders on the trite. If you replaced the words “disease,“ “broken,“ and the many allusions to sex and oppression (or as Trent sings, “fucked“) with “car,“ “gin,“ “street,“ and “night,“ you might have the electro-angst version of Bruce Springsteen.

“I‘m aware of that,“ he concedes, pushing the hair out of his eyes. “When I first played Broken to [American Recordings founder] Rick Rubin, he told me that he would hate to see me become a parody of myself because everything is so extreme and it‘s the same subject matter and the same emotion. It‘s a fair critique. The idea of The Downward Spiral is taken from the point of view of a person who discards every aspect of his life— his inability to relate to others, to personal relationships, religion, to fear of disease, which is a metaphor for a lot of things. I wanted to address not just anger but tension.

“I‘ve been getting demo tapes from people and I can tell that I‘ve influenced some of them, because they‘re usually singing in the first person. And all I want to do is hit the guy. ‘Fuck you, I don‘t care about your life and your girlfriend leaving you. I just want to smash you in the face. Grow some balls and dry your eyes!‘ And then I think ‘Holy shit, what am I doing?‘ I hope I can get my point across more eloquently. I can‘t be objective to that in my own music so I find people to say, ‘Look, I know what you‘re going for but you‘re off base.‘ And I got a lot of that.“

Recording engineer Sean Beaven, mix engineer Alan Moulder and, for a brief time, Flood, were Rezrnor‘s “bull shit detectors.“ But why would Trent need them? He knows what he wants to achieve, and he‘s proven himself in the marketplace. Theoretically speaking, NIN are punk rockers. Nobody tells Trent Reznor what to do.

“I‘ve always been mildly depressed to a certain degree,“ he offers. “I can‘t tell you why that is. When I think back as far as I can remember I’ve always had an element of melancholy that I should probably have therapy for.“ He pauses and looks me straight in the eye. “But I’m making a career Out of lt.“ He tosses off a nervous laugh. “I’m intensely afraid of people and I don‘t like to be in social situations. I feel uncomfortable and I think my shyness and quietness is often misinterpreted as standoffishness. I‘ve heard more than one person say, ‘Hey you‘re pretty nice, thought you were a complete asshole.‘ I‘m not trying to be a rock god. I have a multitude of split personalities.“

So which Trent Reznor am I talking to right now?

“You‘re talking to the slightly sedate, tired-from-completing-the album, scared, skin-not-thick-enough to-be-doing-what- moment, million-things-I‘ve-gotta-do before-I-go-out-on-the-road Trent Reznor. I‘m not at my peak of confidence right now.“

The next afternoon Trent comes down to my hotel carrying a six pack of beer and a couple bottles of iced tea. He‘s been up all night practicing with the new Nine Inch Nails line-up consisting of Vrenna, guitarist Robin Finck, James Wooley—the keyboard player who accompanied NIN on Lollapalooza, and Danny Lohner, formerly of the Austin-based electro metal band Skrew. He doesn‘t look tired, but rather emotionally burnt out. To loosen him up, I play “Unrequited,“ the best song on the new Therapy? album. Reznor looks at the boombox, slightly nodding his head to the time changes. He thinks it‘s a cool song, but something seems to be bothering him.

“Last night I‘m at rehearsal and I‘m in a shitty mood. Why do I feel shitty? Well, I found out that I’m a sell-out, I‘ve got a paternity suit against me, my dick is small, everyone in Cleveland thinks I’m an asshole... It‘s like ‘Jesus Christ, why am I getting all this shit? Maybe I am an asshole and I don‘t realize it.‘ ITVT president Steve Gottleib probably doesn‘t think that he‘s an asshole. You know what I’m saying? You‘re not crazy if you think you might be crazy.

“There are always situations I could have corrected by extolling the energy to take on accusations, hut why? I don‘t feel I have to. There have been times when I could have had a better disposition with some people. Sometimes I feel like ‘Christ, every body is going to get on me about this record.‘ It‘s easy to be a band that sells 30,000 records. I’m not whining and I’m not reaching the Cobain factor. I’t‘s nice to know that I can put out a record and a certain amount of people will be interested to know what‘s on it. Sometimes I think about sitting around the house in L.A. with all this groovy equipment I can finally afford and I think, ‘Am I happy doing this?‘ No. What‘s my incentive for doing this? Get it done, so I can go back out on the road where I fit in somewhere.“

Constant touring not only kept NIN afloat financially, but it also kept Reznor stable mentally. In August 1990, after finishing a NIN road trip, he immediately accepted Al Jourgensen‘s invitation to join the Revolting Cocks tour. Touring wasn‘t an extension of record promotion anymore. It was a way of life.

“When we first started touring, I just went with it!‘ He smiles, stretching his legs across the couch while crushing a pillow with his boots. “Riding in that van, smelling each other‘s farts, talking about shit, what yours looked like, what color, what tint...“

Who ate corn...

“Who ate corn, who bad peanuts, classifying the different types,‘ he adds without missing a beat. “It was the most retarded, juvenile, fun, silly thing. Seeing the desert for the first time anti realizing it wasn‘t all sand dunes. Being in different situations in different places. It‘s a great feeling to be somewhere and you don‘t know anybody, but everybody in the audience knows every word to every song, and they relate to it, and there‘s something positive happening, even though the message might be ‘EVERYTHING SUCKS,‘ but goddammit, it feels good to fuckin‘ yell about it. That would happen all the time.”

Lollapalooza, the alternative-rock circus royale, established NIN, sending Pretty Hate Machine toward platinum status and heavy MTV rotation. It also irreparably damaged some friend ships, the closest semblance Reznor had to a normal life.

“Trent is a total perfectionist,“ says Nothing label partner and NIN manager John Malm. “He will not tolerate anything less than 110 percent. Trent could have had a number of different managers in either Los Angeles or New York, instead of having me in Cleveland. The reason anybody is involved with us is because he believes in them.“

“I hired all my friends as the crew because they needed money,” says Trent. “And they failed at various degrees to tune a guitar and then it‘s a shitty feeling when your friends are bitching to the other bands about you because you yelled at them because they can‘t tune a guitar, and I‘m like ‘Okay, I‘m the asshole...‘ Then the bus comes to a screeching halt, the label gives me shit, and then the band members hate each other. Time to be a civilian.“

One person who won’t be getting in the van anymore is Richard Patrick, the fiery guitarist who admittedly turned PHM‘s lighter songs into violence in the live arena. Patrick was the one constant in the Nails‘ touring band from nearly the beginning. He is currently writing songs in Cleveland for his own group Filter. Reznor feels that Patrick‘s exit was both understandable, and hurtful. Reznor recorded PHM and Broken by himself—the first album out of necessity, there was no band; the EP because he felt it wasn‘t a major project. But Patrick, according to Trent, wanted input on songs and production. When Trent began work on Spiral and was actively seeking assistance from the other members, Patrick had already secured management and was working on his own songs.

“Rich was working on a lot of his own stuff right at the time I was doing Broken. I encouraged him to do that, and I asked him if he wanted an objective opinion good or bad, let me know. He felt that he had to express himself, understandably, and I encouraged him. During the course of Separation I think he‘d been around a lot of people with ulterior motives, including the guys that were playing with him. What‘s in it for them if Rich goes out on the road with me for a year? I noticed a great sense of animosity and competition.

“At that same time, I was reaching out to my band for input. I called up Rich and he was working on his project but he was like ‘Okay, I’ll come out‘ He had been out here for a month and had never asked to hear a demo of the songs! I’m hurt, and I’m kind of insulted. Okay, everybody wanted to be part of this project and my goal is to make it more of a band thing. But I’m not going to beg for someone to help me. Then find out he has a manager and he‘s shopping for a deal. When confronted and his bluff was called, he admitted to it. We‘re friends, man, I wouldn’t have minded if you just told me, I’m trying to do what you wanted to do but there‘s more to being in the band than, here‘s your itinerary, here‘s your check, be on the bus next week.”

He takes a sip out of the tea bottle arid shakes his head slightly. “I have no problems with him. He‘s a great performer, he looks good onstage, and he worked well. Musically, it’s not hard to replace him. But as a personality who brewed in the stew of four guys on the bus, he was my best friend. Somehow in the course of last year, he‘s gone from being my best friend to somebody who hates my guts because somehow I stopped him from realizing his potential as a singer/songwriter when all I‘ve done is give him a salary to live off of for the last few years, and encouraged him to do it. I wish him all the best, but all I want to know is, ‘Why did you do it that way?‘ (According to Reznor, Patrick has since signed to Warner Brothers; at presstime, his manager told AP he was too busy songwriting to respond to the above question for this Interview.)

As the sun goes down, Reznor crunches up the couch pillow some more with his boots. If art imitates life, then “Hurt,“ could be a note to Patrick: “You could have it all/my empire of dirt.“ Obviously, this conversation has left him sullen.

“But I‘m feeling numb to everything now. I really don‘t know how big NIN is right now. I think that if we were accused of whoring ourselves, we would have made Broken again, created the greatest videos mankind has ever spent money on, done MTV Unplugged, New Year‘s Eve Concert, Jon Stewart Show, just fucking gone for it. I like what I do and I have no expectations of being great or small. We were hot shit a few years ago, but we’ve essentially fallen off the face of die earth. Did I fatally kill my career by not making an album for three and a half years?“

There are a lot of NIN logos out there.

“Yeah, I noticed,“ he says looking at my denim jacket with a logo patch on it. “But does that work against us? Are people tired of seeing that? I’ve been paranoid and reclusive since Lollapalooza, and all that shit happened and I convinced myself, ‘Christ, everyone hates us! Everybody who matters hates us now because we got too big and I want to be small in the back of that van, opening for some band that we can kick the shit out of onstage. And I want to be with my friends and that‘s all I want to do. If I can get the rent paid—great. It‘s not as much fun anymore. I‘ve been corning to terms with that, and thickening my skin.“

He pauses, stares out the hotel‘s huge window for a moment, and smirks.

“Here‘s the scene for NIN on MTV Unplugged,“ he says in an effort to break the tension. “The whole band is onstage. Chris is behind the drums and a tape deck not plugged in, no sound. Everybody‘s waiting to play. He hits it again. Nothing. I yell at him. He hits it again. Nothing. Then we smash our gear and walk offstage!“

Later that night, a friend of mine picks me up to go out to dinner. While driving to the restaurant, out of the blue she says, “I‘m going to start a cult.“ When I ask her why, she replies, “So I can get good real estate. The Scientology building is such a beautiful place. You don‘t get that kind of architecture as a private citizen.

“The only problem is,“ she continues matter of factly, “is that I don‘t know what I believe in.“

Although architecture is within his reach, Trent Reznor realizes that his safest belief system lies within himself. There‘s an old vaudeville one-liner that goes, “He says he‘s a self-made man, and I think it‘s nice of him to take all the blame.“ Most people aren‘t going to see the view from where he is, and if they did, the same type of psychological heavy bag would be thrown in their faces. The desolation of The Downward Spiral is real; whether the album spins up the sales charts or winds down at used CD stores doesn‘t matter. Reznor may be a paranoid looking for a home, hut he‘s not a very good liar, which furthers his conviction even more. Yes, the stakes are higher now, and Reznor doesn’t need to be reminded that you can‘t go home anymore. His situation is much like Hazel Motes, the fictional character in Flannery O‘Connor‘s book Wise Blood: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going was never there, and where you are now ain’t no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place.“

“I’m still at this state in my life where I can’t relax because there’s lots of work to do. I‘ve started having my tour-anxiety dreams, like I’m just about to walk onstage and it‘s ‘Oh, no. .I didn‘t teach the guys how the first song goes! Uh... “just play E guys, yeah!“ And then it‘s ‘Fuck! I forgot to write lyrics!“

You mean the “I slept through finals“ dream?

“Exactly! It manifests itself every day. Last night‘s dream there were ten people in a club that we were playing every night for the past three months. And I’m telling the band, ‘It‘ll be okay everybody!“