Sympathy for the Devil

Originally published in Spin on March 1, 1996

TRENT REZNOR is running victory laps these days. I meet him just as he's finished an American tour with David Bowie: NINE INCH NAILS , though technically the opener, provided the commercial clout to fill stadiums and amphitheaters. Now, purely to satisfy a nostalgic craving for NIN's early years, when their constant touring metamorphosed the agitated synth-pop of "Head Like a Hole" and "Terrible Lie" into a clomping rock'n'roll animal, Reznor is taking his band through the South for a series of club dates. After that, he plans to return here to New Orleans, finish remodeling a two story mansion in the Garden District, hook up the boards and wires in his almost equally large personal recording studio on Magazine Street, and comfortably begin the process of recording a sequel to The Downward Spiral.

That new album will undoubtedly debut at the top of Billboard charts; Reznor has money to burn right now, and he wouldn't be Trent Reznor if he didn't throw himself into the fun. Our first encounter comes at Nola, an upscale restaurant in New Orlean's French Quarter.

In honor of the tour hitting Reznor's adopted city, 16 or so band members, roadies, security guards, bus drivers, publicists, road managers, and an allegedly transsexual girlfriend of the keyboard player join Reznor for turtle soup and belts of a toxic tequila variant. The dinner stretches on for over two hours, the conversation purple enough to arouse people for whome partying is just another day at the office. Accordingly, Reznor genially recalls for me an earlier tour, where the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow accompanied NIN and held vicious after-show fests; one time, three groupies ate fruit loops out of a bowl on the ground, submitted to enemas, and were then matched up in a shit-stream competition.

Well, maybe there's a touch of the groupie in me too, because I'm not as bothered as I should be-Reznor has seduced me with his smile. It really is remarkable, a beam of approval he turns on people that says forget my celebrity, I'm working harder to please you than you are to please me. Some rock stars have enough off-stage charisma to hold your attention no matter how big the crowd; as I sit next to Trent Reznor my eyes dart all over the room. He's not exactly "one of the guys"-more the sort to surround himself with people wierder and crazier than he is, knowing he'll keep alive by trying to keep up.

So while it's certainly reasonable to disagree with Reznor's cruder perversities, his enthusiasm for life belies any simple charge of pandering. After dinner, Reznor's longtime friend (and NIN drummer) Chris Vrenna drives us to see Reznor's new home. (En route, Reznor plays around with the car's CD changer; he calls up "Nightclubbing" off The Idiot, the album David Bowie produced for Iggy Pop, and points out the opening beats: "I stole that for 'Closer'") A spacious Greek Revival, his new digs feature foyer walls colored with what looks like speckled blood, a soon-to-be-downstairs entertainment complex (supplied as a gift by his label, Interscope), balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows ringing the second floor, and a bathroom of the master bedroom bigger than many Manhattan apartments. Still, unlike more reclusive celebrities, Reznor will live on a residential block, with other homes across the street and next door. The local New Orleans newspaper rewarded this bit of humility by running a photo of the house, naming the street, even, on their Sunday front page.

We talked from one A.M. until four that first night. Two days later, following a surprisingly limber club date by NIN-all the anthems the Bowie tour omitted, all sorts of funky little outros and revamps, and a Queen cover-we finished the conversation in Reznor's new studio complex. The second-floor office is right nest to an area that houses Reznor's collection of vintage video arcade games (he's also a big fan of the computer game Doom, and is writing the music for it's sequel, Quake), a Kiss pinball machine, and the torture chair from the "Happiness in Slavery" video.

SPIN: Hanging around you and your entourage, I felt like I was watching a throwback version of the rock'n'roll lifestyle.

Trent Reznor: I'm the guy, if someone calls me at three in the morning, "Hey come do something." "No." "Come on." "All right." Why not? I'd like to bow out thinking, hey, I did that. I tried that. I experienced that. I wasn't afraid. Rather than sit in the back room with a fucking towel over my head, I want to be around it, consume. When I get off the road, I'm not good at making tons of friends. When I'm doing a record, I don't ever go out. The real me gets up at a regular kind of schedule, writes music, and doesn't party all the time. On the road, I adopt a certain kind of mentality. A lot of it is juvenile, but it's also about staying sane in an insane situation. It's politically incorrect in the alternative world to indulge and have fun in a touring situation. Certain camps, like Courtney Love's, like to say we're a horrible ridiculous throwback to cock-rock bullshit. That's not what we're about. But at the same time, if there's fun to be had, why not? Nobody gets hurt. And I'm not going to be doing this forever.

SPIN: One thing you told me that horrified me was that story about the Jim Rose after-show party. Women competing in enema contests, and such. You can say that's not different from wanting to stay late and party, but are people drawn to be around celebrities at any cost really willing participants?

Remember, you've got to put this in context of what's going on. It's not ten guys waiting to date-rape drunk groupies. That is not at all the situation. Lifto [from the Jim Rose Circus]-he can't do his lift-an-iron-with-his-dick onstage, so he can't wait to it for me backstage. He's walking around with his dick, that long. Naked. There's 20 drunk people sitting in the room. It's a party atmosphere. I was walk in, and they've got this stun-gun out. Pretty soon, 20 girls are getting shocked in the butt. And another guy gets his dick ring shocked with it. Retarded. That's the kind of vibe that we're talking about. Outperform the performance artists. That's where it turns into the dare of "who's going to get more gross than the next person?"

SPIN: Where does that leave you? It doesn't seem, from your personality and your behavior, that you're one of the participants.

I'm not getting shocked. It wasn't me sitting over a bowl of Froot Loops. I'm much more a voyuer. It's more fun than riding the bus back to the hotel. Or sitting in a bar with 500 people wanting your autograph while you're trying to relax. On the Bowie tour, his band hung out in our dressing room all the time. They didn't want to sit around, reading poetry and talking about fucking German art movies. They wanted to hang out.

SPIN: How did you go from being a kid in rural Pennsylvania to the party option on a David Bowie tour? What was the musical process?

When I was five, I got forced into taking piano lessons. And it came really naturally to me. Knowing that I was good at something played an important role in my confidence. I was always shy, uncomfortable around people. I slipped by. But with the music, I didn't. I got into bands. I studied trumpet and saxaphone a little bit. It got to the point where my teacher was like, you can be a concert pianist. But the last thing I wanted to hear at 15 is, well, you're not fitting in now, how about dropping out of school, studyoing all the time and becoming a concert pianist? It sounds like "penis." Even Earlier, Kiss had changed my world. It seemed evil and scary-the embodiement of rebelliousness when you're age 12 and starting to get hair on your balls. Also, my dad, who I'd not lived with since I was 5, got me an electric piano. He had a little music store that sold acoustic instruments in the back room, where me and a couple other guys started jamming in terrible garage bands. I realized that music wasn't all about learning a piece on the piano.

SPIN: You never felt snobbery towards rock?

No. On piano, I had a fairly knowledgeable database of theory. But I started fucking around with guitar, and I was never very good at guitar. I'm still not good at it. I took lessons off my dad for a couple months, and then said, Look, I'd rather just f**k around on it, and not know." I still only know two bar chords. But I don't care. The n�avet� with which you approach an instrument can lead to interesting results, versus the schooled "You can't do that."

SPIN: Was punk an influence even then?

No. You have to understand, I was in a geographical area where by the time I heard something it was already dead. There was no college radio. There were no alternative record stores. There was no independent anything. There was no MTV. There was nothing. My world was comic books and science-fiction s**t. Scary movies. Whatever I could absorb. And it kind of ingrained in me this idea of escape from Pennsylvania.

SPIN: What was the first real rock band you ever played in?

Option Thirty. That was actually about one-third originals, two-thirds covers, from Elvis Costello to Wang Chung. For what it's worth, Wang Chung put a record out before the "Dance Hall Days" record, when they spelled their name differently, H-U-A-N-G Chung. All guitar-base-drums. Still a real good record.

SPIN: When did you start playing synthesizers?

When I was in high school, I begged my parents to get a cheap Moog. Now I could play "Just What I Need." Whoo-oo-whoo-oo. [whistles synth line from the Cars song.] When that kind of explosion of synth music came around in the early 80's, it really was exciting; sequencers were just coming out. I was going to college for computer engineering and I thought, I love music, I love keyboard instruments-maybe I can get into synthesizer design. The excitement of hearing a Human League track and thinking, that's all machines, there's no drummer. That was my calling. It wasn't the Sex Pistols.

SPIN: What's the lowest point of music has led you to?

When I dropped out of college, which would have been the year of '84, I spent a year doing nothing. I lived with my dad out in the woods. And I was playing with cover bands. Three hundred bucks a week. It was the most whorish part of my career so far. I played keyboards and sang. My destiny was lounge bands.

SPIN: So how did you break away?

I moved to Cleveland, because the band I was playing in was there a lot. There was a music store that had all the high-tech synthesizers and sequencers that were coming out. I was there all the time. They offered me a job. Ten to six, every day. Hearing 20 people bang on drum machines. One of the guys that also worked in this storewas in a synth-poppy, all original band called Exotic Birds. I got a job with them as a keyboard player. The band eventually became me playing all the keyboards, the main guy writing the songs, singing and playing guitar, and Chris Vrenna, my current drummer, playing drums. That's also when I met my manager, John Malm.

SPIN: Had you written a single song, at that point?

No, I hadn't written anything. Ever. I'd never written a song. I was afriad. I always had an excuse not to do it. One day I woke up and said, "You're twenty-f**king-three years old, what the f**k are you doing? S**t or get off the pot." So I quit Exotic Birds and got this job doing odds and ends at a studio. And I made a pact with myself. I'd been getting high a lot. I was turning into what I'd never wanted to be. So I started this experiment: What would happen if every ounce of energy went into something? Because I'd never busted my a**.

I eventually had no excuse for not actually trying to write something. My very first song was "Down In It." At the time, I was really into Ministry and Skinny Puppy-in fact Skinny Puppy's "Dig It" was the impetus for "Down In It," I'm not ashamed to admit it. Finally I was hearing bands that were using electronics, and they didn't sound like Howard Jones or Reflex. They had all this fucking agression and tension that the hardest of heavy metal or punk had. But they were using tools I understood. And it seemed more interesting, because this music couldn't have been made five years ago, let alone 20. It was based on tools that were now.

SPIN: But unlike bands like Ministry or Skinny Puppy, your lyrics were confessional-you sounded like a rock from the beginning.

It was all stuff out of my journal. This wasn't character singing lyrics. This was my guts in a song. I still think about that sometimes. Now, Pretty Hate Machine has sold a ton of copies, and I'm dismissed by some as a caricature or cartoon. But when I wrote this thing, that wasn't a character singing. And I didn't know if I wanted people to know that much about me.

SPIN: Talk about the recording of Pretty Hate Machine

We had one month in England to do pratically the whole album. John Fryer, the producer, and I didn't hit it off. We didn't work on weekends, because he's "a normal guy." So by the second week there I was dreading weekends. I didn't know one person in England. And I'm not the kind of guy who would ever go to a club in another country by myself. I started getting bummed out, thinking, I've got two more days of nothing to do, I'm staying in this shitty little flat, it's cold. Here is the fucking icing on the cake. Before I decided I was going to stop my life and do this, I had this really great ex-girlfriend-let's call her Patti. Right before I left to go do this record, I saw her at a club, and she looked better than I ever remembered. We had a nice little talk. So the whole time I'm gone, while there was nothing else to think about, I started thinking about her. When I get back, I've got to make this happen. So, it's a Friday, and I've got a full weekend ahead of me, and I'm ready to tell John [Malm] hey, try to get her number, because I need to talk to her. In the middle of the conversation he goes, "Oh, by the way, I saw Patti last night." "Oh, you did? How is she?" He said, "Man, you'll never guess what." "What?" "She's pregnant, and she's getting married." I literally thought "God, f**k you. You got me, you f**ker." And then I get back to the States, and the label tells me hey, by the way, this record is a piece of s**t.

SPIN: Ultimately, Nine Inch Nails established it's reputation as a touring band, with manic live shows, which is also unusual for electronics-oriented music.

I was from the Todd Rundgren school. The studio is an instrument. Manipulate it, don't go in thinking it's got to sound like my band. When I got done with Pretty Hate Machine,i realized, "Holy f**k, how am I going to play this live?" I knew I didn't want to go out and do a Nitzer Ebb, two guys standing there kicking pads. I like electronic music, and I hate that sort of thing. I also didn't want the record to be one nerd with a synthesizer, but live for there to be a David Bowie-type backup band, 15 people and a horn section. I use electronics because I want to-not as a compromise for something else. So, after much experimentation, and trying to find the right people, I thought, we'll get a drummer, guitar player, keyboard player. And I'll plat the occasional guitar. Put the bass on tape. Or sequenced. And sequence some of the loops, in the backround, stuff that's unplayable anyway. That, ideally, will maintain the mechanical element that's in there. But maybe it will come to life with real people playing.

SPIN: It's almost like there's a contest going on between humanity and the machine.

Yes. As it was when I did the record-Pretty Hate Machine was about juxtaposing human imperfections against very rigid, sterile, cold arrangements. You can't just have icy vocals over icy music. If the music is very precise, make a vocal tape that's less perfect, so you've got this meshing of man versus machine. Much to my pleasure, after a few months of touring, it really started to work. The songs started to take on a new life. those were probably the best times of my life, when we first started touring. At that time, it was Chris Vrenna on drums, me playing guitar a little bit, this keyboard player, and Richard Patrick, who's now in Filter, playing guitar.

SPIN: Was it strange when Patrick made that Filter record, and a Nine Inch Nails-sounding record at that?

Rich was this friend, and he played in the band for awhile. A pretty good guy. We were going to work on Downward Spiral together. But he wanted to be the guy that got recognized for writing the songs and singing. I didn't realize his real agenda was to have a way out to L.A. to get a record deal for himself.

SPIN: There hasn't been any reconciliation?

There's been a drunken phone call to me to say hello. And then asking an ex-girlfriend of mine out on a date. Those guys. In their minds, they're stars. Anyhow, we started in January of '90, opening for The Jesus and Mary Chain. Toured with them for six weeks. Right after that, we went right to Peter Murphy. Two headliners that weren't difficult to blow off the stage. And then it took over. This wierd f**king energy and negative energy release, this purging exorcism that takes place onstage.

SPIN: Who is the creature you become onstage?

That's the me that's allowed to act. Offstage, I'm always trying to be nice to everyone, trying not to be - lets say you really respect somebody, and finally, you get the chance to talk with them and they're a dick. I'm so aware of that, and I overcompensate. I know what it's like to be a fan. But it's not really how I want to act, you know what I mean? I've just finished a f**king show. I don't care that you want to kill yourself. I'm sorry. Too bad. No, don't give me your poetry. And no, I don't want to go and do drugs.

SPIN: But the you onstage doesn't have to be nice?

No. He can do whatever he wants. There's this wierd kind of energy that just pops up when we do a show. There's a level of connection that starts to happen. Something about looking out and seeing a bunch of kids screaming back a lyric at you that at one point meant everything to you. Pink Floyd's The Wall changed my life when I was growing up. Even if I didn't have any idea of what they were really talking about. I've probably listened to that record a million times. Even now. The alienation factor. Man, someone else went through that. I think I see some of that vibe in people with our stuff. And that makes me feel pretty good.

SPIN: What you do live hasn't changed as much as your particular records.

I agree. The three records have different focal points, or viewpoints: Broken's central theme is self loathing; on Downward Spiral I'm searching for some kind of self-awareness; and on Pretty Hate Machine I'm depressed by everything around me, but I still like myself. on Broken, I've lost myself; nothing's better, and I want to die. Downward Spiral was searching for the core, by stripping away all the different layers. But live, the lines aren't as clear cut.

SPIN: How did playing on the first Lollapalooza affect Nine Inch Nails?

The entertainment factor of our show got proven at Lollapalooza. We'd filtered into mall culture a little bit. For awhile it was trendy to like our band. Then that quickly got dismissed, because the little sister of the trendy person started wearing a NIN T-shirt, and then we weren't cool anymore.

SPIN: In retrospect, was it fun to be part of that tour?

Aside from Henry Rollins deciding he hated me, it was real cool. Particularly as a fan of Jane's Addiction-I'd seen them when they first started touring on Nothing's Shocking, in small clubs in Cleveland. And I could not believe how good it was. It kicked my ass.

SPIN: It must have been new to you to have other muscians as peers.

I was real freaked out by it. What do I really have to talk to Siouxsie about? Like the Jane's Addiction guys. Perry had too many people's heads up his ass to ever really communicate with him. But the other guys are really nice, sweet guys that I could have formed good friendships with. But I always felt nervous around them. I still remembered that club show.

SPIN: Has it evolved, now, to where you're comfortable in those kinds of settings?

More so. But on this tour with Bowie, I found myself kind og hoping thta he wouldn't be sitting there, so I wouldn't have to talk to him. Not that I didn't like him. But I felt like I had to Impress him. I had to impress his band. I couldn't just let my hair down.

SPIN: Who are some of the musicians who you've come to think of as friends?

An odd bunch of people. I think the guys from Pantera are cool. Everyone from Tommy Lee of M�tley Cr�e to Adrian Belew. I met the guys in the band Live because we were playing at festivals in Australia. All of them are people I wouldn't hesitate to say, let's work on something.

SPIN: Like you did with Tori Amos.

Tori would be another example. She called me to do this vocal track. It wasn't that big a deal. Her first album was permanently in my car's CD changer. It really struck me as well written, in a similar vein to what I was doing-from a different point of view, but the same kind of addicting, pouring out, gushing, baring, naked kind of song. Other people put their fingers in the pie, and they kind of messed up a friendship. We're not that close now. Some malicious meddling on the part of Courtney Love. But I still feel the same feelings for Tori.

SPIN: How did the sucess of Pretty Hate Machine and your Lollapalooza tour produce a tormented record like Broken?

On a personal level, I was coming out of a wierd relationship. I really fell in love with someone and we lived together for six or eight months. But it went from being the best to the worst. Plus, I hadn't spoken to the label since before Lollapalooza. We made it very clear we were not doing another record for TVT. But they made it pretty clear they weren't ready to sell. So I felt like, well, I've finally got this thing going but it's dead. Flood and I had to record Broken under a different band name, because if TVT found out we were recording, they could confiscate all our s**t and release it. Jimmy Iovine got involved with Interscope, and we kind of got slave-traded. It wasn't my doing. I didn't know anything about Interscope. And I was real pissed off at him at first because it was going from one bad situation to potentially another one. But Interscope went into it like they really wanted to know what I wanted. It was good, after I put my raving lunatic act on.

SPIN: Is Broken, then, the summation of your personal problems, or is its noisiness a spit at the Lollapalooza crowd?

I wanted to be tough. I was so concerned about staying "alternative," that indie bullshit mentality. After Lollapalooza, I havd this snotty, elitist mentality-you're not cool enough to like my band, don't buy my records. I wanted to make a "fuck you" record. It was also a bit of a knee-jerk, "I'm not a pussy," "I'm not a sellout" attitude. After it came out, I wanted to start work right away on a real album. I had been working on the idea of Downward Spiral in my head for a while without writing any songs, just a concept. Originally, my pretentious aspirations were to make the dreaded concept record with a film that went with it. Derek Jarman was interested in doing something. Again, you could maybe hark back to The Wall as my inspiration.

SPIN: What was the crude, stick-figure version of Downward Spiral before you'd ever written the songs?

Well, I wrote down a bunch of topics I wanted to address. And key events in my life. A mom and dad getting married beause she's pregnant-like Patti, when I was in London doing the record. Wierd little displaced memories that conjure up emotions. Not always upsetting or unhappy. I remember walking home from piano lessons at age 10, 12, a weird, euphoric feeling. Life is good. So in my notebook there was this huge page of stuff.

SPIN: Let me ask you about Downward Spiral's "Big Man With A Gun." I'm sure you've heard the story of C. Delores Tucker going to the Time/Warner people and saying 'Could you read these lyrics out loud?" And they refused. They are crude lyrics.

Absolutely. The record was nearing completion. I had written those lyrics pretty quickly and I didn't know if I was going to use them or not. To me, Downward Spiral builds to a certain degree of madness, then it changes. That would be the last stage of delirium. So the original point of "Big Man With A Gun" was madness. But it was also making fun of the whole misogynistic gangsta-rap bulls**t.

SPIN: Really! The song was a satire of gangsta rap?

In a way. I listen to a lot of it, and I enjoy it. But I could do without the the degree of misogny and hatred of women and abuse. Then, my song got misinterpreted as exactly that. It was probably a lack of being able to write. I've been taken out of context,and it's ridiculous.

SPIN: C. Delores Tucker, I think, would be stunned to hear that to some extent she has an ally.

Well, she's a fucking idiot. But I think The Downward Spiral actually could be harmful, through implying and subliminally suggesting a lot of things, whereas a lot of the hardcore rap becomes cartoonish-it's real to youngsters.but it's so over the top. From an artistic point of view, if I'd had a couple more months to look back on everything, I probably would not have put that song on the record. Just 'cause I don't think it's that good a song, not because I got spanked for it.

SPIN: But the sickest lyrics you could come up with might now be the comemrcially best-selling. So where does the issue of responsibility come in? Like the Amok Press T-shirt you're wearing, and their slogan "the extremes of information in print." This notion that something that's the most extreme is best. Is that sensible?

Growing up, I so wanted to get the f**k out of where I was, away from the medocrity and mundaneness of rural life. Anything extreme caught my attention. I was intrigued with the limit, the movie that scared the s**t out of me, the book-I had a huge collection of scary comic books when I was a kid. What's the next step beyond? What's beyond Steven King? Clive Barker. What's beyond that?

Nine Inch Nails deals with that addictive part of my personality. How many mushrooms can you take? What happens then? WHat about mushrooms and DMT? Nine Inch Nails offers me the chance to do what I want to do. I want a show, a spectacle. I'm allowed to look stupid. And I want to.

SPIN: You did the soundtrack for Natural Born Killers, a movie about America's fascination with the edge. Is Nine Inch Nails part of the America that Oliver Stone is seeing? Is it outside of that?

Probably not. If that did not exist, we probably wouldn't exist. But I don't think we're just shock and carnage for shock-and-carnage's sake. I thin there's more to Nine Inch Nails than looking at the wreck on the Interstate. You want to turn your head and look, and hopefully see blood. There's an element of that fascination that has been worked into the imagery that I surround myself with, in music. It fascunates me, to a degree. I still watch Cops.

SPIN: At what point does this stuff get boring? I mean, if you've read your James Ellroy novels and you've seen Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, at what point is this ideal of finding the most transgressive thing out there conformist in itself?

It's just something that interests me. There's probably a psychological reason. I see it coming up in different things I do. Even sitting in the studio, I think about what's the most fucked up, slowest, and loudest song I can possibly record. Pushing boundaries, doing things you're not supposed to do. Incorporating shock value so you end up saying "I want to f**k you like an animal," and the chorus of the song is not subtle. It's a mechanism.

SPIN: Is it possible that, when you're working musically, you wind up with more nuanced, ambiguous, complicated work, because you're so schooled in music, but when you're writing lyrics or doing something theatrical you're not quite at the same level as an artist?

That's a fair thing to say. Musically, I'm always striving to go a little deeper. Playing mental games. Like when I wrote "Sanctified," I thought, "Can I do a song that only has one bass line and never changes through the whole thing?" My idea for the next record is to build more in the song format, instead of starting with a noise or a drumbeat. I'll do things like use a different sequencer to write, so I won't know how to work it as quick and it slows me down. On Downward Spiral I got to explore making an electronic record that doesn't sound electronic for some parts of it. We did things with drums that I don't know if anyone has really done. We sampled drums in stereo with stereo mics and discovered if you play them on keyboard it sounds like you're sitting behind the drums for real. On "March of the Pigs," "Eraser," and those songs, there's no live drums, but it alluded to being real because it didn't sound like a machine. No way someone could play that like that. It further added a kind of mind-fuck to it. Instead of falling into a Ministry-type trap of how can I make things harder and harder, it's scarier to have something creep up on you.

SPIN: What was it like being the poster boy for Woodstock II?

We got there the night before, and that rave was going on. I'm glad I saw it. We slept on the bus. The next day, a power line had fallen on the bus and there was voltage going through the bus while we were on it. I went back to the bunks: "Guys, don't panic, but try not to touch any metal. There is a lot of voltage going through the bus right now." I walk to the front of the bus, and i see fucking Crosby, Stills, and Nash looking in, and a sea of cameras, seeing me in my underpants. Hi everybody! That was the most nerve-wracking day of my life. But that changed things for us a lot, in terms of brand-name recognition.

SPIN: Did you feel like, hey, I've entered this other league?

The only time I felt like that was when Courtney Love wanted to date me. That meant I must be a star. It's a prerequisite, isn't it?

SPIN: For the last two years, SPIN readers have voted you their favorite artist and Pearl Jam their favorite band. Which must mean the same people like both you guys. That's a long way from where you started. Is it strange to be part of the rock pantheon now?

I don't know that I deserve to be there. I don't know that I want to be there. Downward Spiral is pretty anticommercial-sounding compared to what's usually at the top of the charts. If ten percent of the people that bought it go "that's pretty cool," then it opens them up to realize that there is more than Candlebox to the f**king world. There is something other than guitar rock.

SPIN: Pushing rock sonically into the future, away from grunge and flannel revivalism, is a real mission with you.

It is. I have a chip on my shoulder. Maybe it's from being keyboard-oriented. Not that bringing the keyboard to the forefront is one of my main goals.

The spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis. And Billy Joel.

And don't forget Liberace. Seriously, the point is more just to bring people out of complacency. Sonically, lyrically - your parents should hate it. Bob Dole should have a fucking problem with it. That's what's best about what I'm told rock'n'roll was, at one time. I could make music that I find interesting, that's experimental, instrumental noise records, and I may do that sometime. But I'm more interested, now that fate has dealt me that card that people are interested in what I'm doing, to see how far I can push. Take the "Closer" video. I thought, fuck it, instead of the Super 8 video directors we've used in the past, underground people, let's go with Mr. F**king Gloss, Mark Romanek, who just did that Michael Jackson piece of s**t. But he could do a beautiful shot, Stanley Kubrick-like in its attention to detail. So we decided to spend some money and go to ridiculous lengths to recreate works of artists that we liked, from Joel-Peter Witkin to Man Ray, Brothers Quay, this hodgepodge of stuff. That video was great, it was cool-as-fuck-looking. Right away, MTV said, "Can't have that, can't have that." Now okay, there was naked pussy. We knew that was going to get cut. And then we got complaints that people still found the video disturbing. "Well, why?" "Well, we don't know why, but it seems satanic and evil." And then I thought, great, we did it.

SPIN: So, there's almost a double mission. Pulling rock away from the Rolling Stones tradition and bringing into the mainstream these elements of fringe culture.

Right. I think popular music sucks today. For the most part, I cannot f**king stand the shit that's at the top of the charts. Now, I'm not saying my sole mission is to turn people on to other music. But maybe I can change things a bit.

SPIN: Any current bands you're proselytizing for?

In the electronic world, most people have gone the techno kind of route, which I never was that interested in. I like some of the sounds of it. It didn't hold my attention: a whole genre based on one song. However, of that genre I think Aphex Twin is a f**king genius. He's got my top billing and respect. Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 is a better Brian Eno record that Eno's ever made. I think that's a fucking masterpiece.

SPIN: What about using your visibility to champion political causes?

The idea of politics is just so uninteresting to me - I've never paid much attention to it. I don't believe things can really change. It doesn't matter who's president. Nothing really gets resolved. I don't know. I guess that's not the right attitude to take.

SPIN: It's kind of the attitude of Downward Spiral. There's a real I-versus-all-of-you in that record. And not much of a we. A lot of large, impersonal forces - maybe in your music in general.

That's a fair assessment. Generally, I've always aspired to become a part of something. But I just never felt like it - it hasn't really happened. It's odd, because I have my big club, now, and I'm president. It's not like I'm a part of it, though. When I went to college, I thought that all I wanted to do was just disappear and see what it's like to have friends, be in a group. Two months later, I was like, fuck this. I'm not like you. I don't want to lose my identity, my independence, by being around a bunch of other people who are also scared, doing the same thing. Hiding behind something printed on a T-shirt that gives you a sense of who you are.

SPIN: Despite your loner reputation, you seem to develop strong personal loyalties, including a group of people, from your manager to Gary Talpas who doesn your artwork, who go back to the early Cleveland days.

It's been nice to see the people who started off on a lower level kind of rise. We use the same manager, the same booking agent we had from the first tour, the same road manager (up to this tour). The same soundman, since the beginning. Even if it's sometimes gotten us f**ked over, because everyone else in the business is bullshit, I'd rather be around straight-up, no-bulls**t guys like [manager] John [Malm]. Personally, though, I'm still a mess.

SPIN: Yeah? You promise that for everyone out there?

I promise.

RG: Just going back to Marilyn Manson ... I'm open to whatever people wanna do and I've got nothing against them, but they really push that "shock" thing sometimes. I don't mean to imply something stupid like, "it is bad for the kids?" but....

Reznor: Is it responsible? Is that what you mean?

RG: Yeah.

Reznor: There was one moment when I was sitting with Manson and all the people from Interscope and one of their songs ended with a big long diatribe of a computer voice saying, "You might as well kill yourself. You're already dead.' And I had the president of Interscope looking at me like (blank face). But I've created an arena where I'll never tell anyone who I invite in, "You can't do that." I swore I'd never f**k with the art or whatever you wanted to say. And I thought on downward spiral when I wrote that poem over the song "downward spiral" that talked about killing yourself and making it kind of sexy, I felt like I needed to do it when the record came out. But the worst thing I could ever hear is that someone f**kin' shot themselves.

RG: "Trent Reznor told me to do it."

Reznor: And I never ... that's not what ... I meant to demystify it by acknowledging it there.

RG: That you had these feelings as well.

Reznor: Exactly. To me that was the ultimate, "I'm not the only person that felt that way growing-up' shit, where I felt, "I can't fit into this f**kin' world. F**k, yeah. Someone else understands."

RG: That's why I mentioned It with Marilyn Manson. Personally, I got the impression that you put a bit more thought behind it than he might.

Reznor: There may be a different end result. I did personally talk to Manson and say, "Realize the repercussions. If you're a band that sells 5000 records that's one thing, but the bigger you get, the more people want to f**k with you and the more responsibility you have." I'm an advocate of no censorship, no one should be able to tell you what you can or cannot experience and I think empowering the individual is the key. My parents: "You wanna try drugs? Here, do 'am. You wanna have a drink? Here, have a drink." Puked on the rug that night. And then, "Well, how was it?" It was demystified.

RG: But some people might not be smart enough to deal with that.

Reznor: I can't believe that I'm smarter than anyone else. I don't have the right to think I can say....

RG: You know that you're smarter than anybody who would be stupid enough to....

Reznor: There is a degree of responsibility. But I'm all for dangerous material getting into the mainstream. As I've gotten bigger and infiltrated the Kmarts and the f**kin' ldahos, I'm into putting a record out that gives them something they've never heard before and might be dangerous and their parents might be pissed off about it. But at the same time now, as a human being, I think there's a degree of ... I'm not gonna say, 'Take a knife and cut your throat If you're bummed out," kind of vibe. I'm not about that.

RG: But that Marilyn Manson "you might as well kill yourself" thing is along the same lines.

Reznor: You may be right in a way, but there's a schtick to the whole thing. And they'll get to maturity where they'll see that. But also try to understand what I've tried to offer the people around me is this protection. And when their first record came out, Interscope, who is now making a lot of money off the new one, wasn't gonna put it out. Why? "'Cause it's alluding to rape and..-." "Well, I'm not changing it. F**k you. Don't put it out."

RG: But can you imagine a limit?

Reznor: I know what you're saying, just from a responsibility factor. It's all fun and games in the studio and it's funny to say this and that, but It's another thing when someone f**king kills themselves, some impressionable....

RG: I'm just playing Devil's ... well, Devil's advocate might not be the right term here. I'm just asking.

Reznor: I know that. I know exactly what you're getting at.

RG: Like, "Mom, I want the new Marilyn Manson CD for Christmas." Just one look at the cover and Mom is like, "What the f**k?"

Reznor: That's what's great about it! It should f**king piss off your parents. It should be ridiculous. And where I think Manson has a somewhat dangerous message within that, it should do that. See, now rock is pumped into your house every second, every day. It needs a kick in the a**. To what degree of extremity ... who knows?

RG: But you have to have something beyond the shock value.

Reznor: I fully agree with what you're saying. I'm 31 now, and I've thought about kids and marriage and adult things and stuff I never thought I'd ever dream of. I'm not saying I'm an old man now, but I also see that the new challenge is how to promote yourself in a way that's true to who you are. I don't want to be singing "Head Like A Hole" at age 50. I'm aware that maybe my appeal had been this extreme statement that appeals to whoever. But everything that I've done has been honest to where I've been at the time and it always will be.

RG: Do you feel as you get older .. when you're a kid you get really excited and music is the way you -

Reznor: - identify yourself. Absolutely. The bands you like, that's your club.

RG: That's your thing. What was the first record you bought?

Reznor: The Partridge Family, the one that had the phone number on it.

RG: What was the first concert you saw?

Reznor: The Eagles with Fleetwood Mac and Boz Scaggs. It was the greatest thing. My dad took me and I had a hit off a joint....

RG: I'm asking just because, when you're a kid music things like that start to form the way you look at life. Those memories are emblazoned upon you. But as you get older----

Reznor: But it's a different thing now, too. Think about this: back then, like, I grew up in a small town and MTV wasn't pumping information at you, and you looked forward to staying up on Friday to watch "Midnight Special" or whatever.

RG: "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert."

Reznor: Yeah. You didn't have ... like I think about Aerosmith now and every 15 minutes there's f**kin' Steven Tyler on TV. It's safe now. You don't have to seek that out.

RG: Weird musical milestones on TV stand out for me, like the Plasmatics on "Fridays," when they sawed their guitar in half.

Reznor: Yeah! "Fridays" with Michael Richards.

RG: Kramer.

Reznor: I can totally f**kin' remember that! I remember KISS on that from Music From The Elder, when Gene Simmons was crying. But now it's ... not to sound like an old turd, but it's different now.

RG: But maybe it's not. What I'm getting at ... is there a way to put yourself into that mindstate to realize you're doing that for people now? Fifteen years from now they'll talk about you like this.

Reznor: I think we, as people our age, have to understand the medium has changed from the Internet down to MTV pumped into your house every second. It's different now.

RG: Just accessing something that others don't have is harder.

Reznor: It's again that elitism of music and ... also understanding that for me personally music has been... I remember songs that I first heard, where I was. That's my soundtrack to life. And not everybody is about that. Like I remember (sings) "Fooled A-round And Fell In Looove-" That's was what was playing at the Eagles concert at the stadium when I got passed a joint with my dad, and that was the coolest thing I had ever done at that point. I had a T-shirt that I got made at Kmart with iron-on letters that said "EAGLES" 'cause they were my favorite band- There are people that maybe now Marilyn Manson is doing that for them, but juxtaposing a different situation on it and realizing it's a different climate. One thing I always thought growing up was like, "Man, I hope I never get to the age where I don't like toys anymore 'cause I love Christmas and I love getting toys." Later I thought, "I hope I never got to the point where I lose touch with what's going on musically." But then you realize this weird thing of maturity creeps in- Understand that I'm not saying I'm Mr. Old Guy right now, but I've gone through changes and I realize I'm not 21 right now and I still like innovative, cool things ... but I'm lying if I think my brain hasn't changed.