The Shadow of Death
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.
By Marc Spitz for Spin on June 1, 2005
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 much worse.
"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, too."
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 not fun."
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 an island."
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.