Los Angeles Times

September 1999

Further Up The Spiral

After a five-year hiatus, Trent Reznor is back with a bleak, two-CD epic. The rock marketplace is far different than the one he left--and so is he.

Itís understandable that Nine Inch Nailsí Trent Reznor speaks with the seriousness of a man giving a deposition when he talks about his first album since 1994ís "The Downward Spiral." The rock auteur is very much under scrutiny these days.

"Spiral," a frightfully dark look at youthful angst, helped Reznor establish a deep, Kurt Cobain-like bond with the Generation X audience. Reznor also applied his edgy vision to the music for Oliver Stoneís "Natural Born Killers" and David Lynchís "Lost Highway" films, and he helped turn Marilyn Manson into a star by producing the shock-rockerís breakthrough album.

All this led Time magazine to nominate Reznor as one of the 25 most influential people in the country in 1997, and Spin magazine to call him the most vital person in music that year.

But this is 1999, an eternity since the last album by rock standards--and Reznorís return to action with his long-awaited new album is accompanied by questions and doubts about his commercial standing. The new two-disc set "The Fragile" is far from the lightweight pop-rock climate of the day.

The album, which will be released Sept. 21 by Nothing Records, is another dark and demanding work that reflects the depression and self-doubts Reznor experienced.

On the eve of the CDís release, Reznor, 34, speaks about his creative paralysis and recovery--and the chances of "The Fragile" in todayís pop-rock world.

Question: Itís easy to understand the creative pressures involved in trying to follow up an album with the impact of "The Downward Spiral," but what about the commercial pressures? Didnít it worry you that you were taking so long?

Answer: Sure. Nobody was more aware of how long it has been since the last record than myself. It was not a wise career move to wait this long, but I wasnít ready to put out a record until now and Iím glad I didnít because it wouldnít have been this album.

Q: There are also the changes in the pop climate since the last album. Weíre going through a period when audiences donít want to be challenged. Lots of other acclaimed bands from the early í90s, including Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins, have seen their fan base erode dramatically. Did that worry you?

A: Not to sound like a pompous ass, but I was watching bits of [this yearís] Woodstock on TV and . . . it just seemed like nobody really cared--the bands didnít care, the fans didnít care. Well, not entirely. There was Rage Against the Machine. Thatís a band that is into more than just what clothes they are wearing. . . . But I just donít feel much depth out there. I think anything that is dangerous and exciting about rock music has moved over to rap or to hip-hop.

However, you canít worry about all that in the studio. Ultimately, I made the record I wanted to make and I am just hoping for the best in terms of audience response. I didnít go into it thinking we were stadium-rock size. Weíre not where we left off [commercially]. I donít know where we are.

Q: Didnít you make it harder on yourself commercially by making the album a double CD?

A: Iím sure Interscope [which distributes Nothing Records] wasnít thrilled that it was a double CD, and Iím not a fan of double CDs. I didnít want to be one of those artists who is deluded into thinking fans want to hear every sound that you put on tape in the last two years, whether itís good or not. But the problem was that when you started taking pieces away from the album to make it one disc, it didnít feel as complete.

Q: How long did you actually spend working on the new album? Not the whole five years certainly.

A: No, the record took slightly over two years of solid, everyday work. Before that, I spent two years touring to build interest in "Downward Spiral." The main reason for that was we had no real promotional technique other than touring. MTV support was sporadic, and we never had radio behind us. So we had to rely on touring and I thought we did well. But it requires a lot of time and emotion. Over the two years, my personality became distorted.

Q: What do you mean?

A: When we got off the road, I thought, "OK, what am I going to do now?" The one thing I didnít want to do was sit in a room alone for a long time and examine myself, which is where my art comes from. I didnít know that person I had become. I had some personal tragedies going on. My grandmother, who raised me, died, and I never had to deal with that before. So I was numb. Plus, the [Marilyn] Manson camp turned sour. I thought, "Oh, OK, my best friends hate me now."

Q: What caused that split? After all, you discovered the band and produced their breakthrough album.

A: I guess you take two strong egos, mix in fame and fortune and watch what happens. Thereís personality distortion on both camps. Iím not pointing a finger, but there was a maliciousness on his part that I didnít expect and that Iím still saddened by.

So all these pressures were building up, including pressure from people asking when my new record was coming out.

Q: What about all the acclaim that came your way long after "Downward Spiral"? Did that help you through the period or make it harder?

A: All that stuff is very flattering, but at the time it was more and more layers of pressures. As I look back, I didnít sit down and consciously say, "I really donít want to make a record right now." But I can see where I was stalling by taking on some other projects and being busy with unimportant things. In retrospect, I was afraid.

Songwriting is the hardest thing Iíve ever attempted because it is a mirror. It forces you to deal with things about yourself, and that can be hard if you donít like what you see, and it also reinforces feelings of worthlessness because you fail more than you succeed. I throw out 90% of what I write because itís not good enough. I didnít have it in me to fail anymore at the time, so I didnít try.

Q: Have you read about rock tragedies over the years--the way people from Elvis to Cobain have been destroyed by pressures?

A: Sure, and you know what I thought about that? I thought, [expletive] those guys. What are they bitching about? And when I hear myself talking, I think, what does he have to be upset about? But thereís truth to the problems that face you in this business.

Q: So what got you out of it?

A: It really came down to sitting down with myself and remembering at the piano that I love and I feel good when I play music and listen to it. Thatís why I got into this in the first place.

With that realization came self-respect again. I remembered that all the [expletive] that comes with it is superfluous and I wasnít going to let it destroy me. I wasnít going to be another tragedy. I feel I have a gift and I want to [expletive] take advantage of it. Why would I even think of doing something else?

Q: Had you thought about doing something else?

A: Sure, I asked myself if anyone has ever just quit--other than killing themselves, I mean. Has anyone just said, "Enough of this. I donít like this"?

Q; Did you spend any time in therapy?

A: I did and it provided some answers: "Hey, thereís a mild chemical imbalance going on. Youíre slightly depressed. Youíre not up and down. Youíre always a quart low." Thatís what I was told. "Itís not your fault."

Q: So what took so long once you started to work on the album?

A: It wasnít like [co-producer and engineer] Alan Moulder and I were just sitting around in the studio, forever going, "Oh, God. Now what?" We were going through all sorts of ideas, just trying to find a direction.

At the end of year one, we had an abstract, soundtracky, instrumental thing that excited us both. But it didnít sound like a rock album. We didnít know what it was. It wasnít until the second year that the songs took shape.

Q: Both "Downward Spiral" and "The Fragile" deal with alienation and lack of self-esteem, but thereís a far greater sense of helplessness in this one in such songs as "Somewhat Damaged" and "Where Is Everybody" and "Into the Void." How would you describe the differences?

A: "Downward Spiral" was a sleeker machine. It was tougher, more muscle-flexing. I wanted this album, lyrically and sonically, to sound like there was something inherently flawed in the situation, like someone struggling to put the pieces together.

"Downward Spiral" was about peeling off layers and arriving at a naked, ugly end. This album starts at the end, then attempts to create order from chaos, but it never reaches that goal. Itís probably a bleaker album because it arrives back where it starts--the same emotion.

Q: Several of the songs seem so naked emotionally that they seem like a cry for help. You keep waiting for some comfort, but it doesnít really come. Why so dark?

A: I wanted to take you through my journey. Itís not the happy ending you might have been looking for, but you may have a better perspective because of what youíve been through.

Q: Did you use everything you recorded?

A: No. At one point, we were working on 45 tracks and we had to prioritize. One difficult thing for me was every time it seemed like the album was complete, there were always five more songs ready to go. I finally realized that if I didnít stop, I was going to end up with three CDs.

Q: The only track that seems to tread on conventional rock turf is "Star-------, Inc.," which seems to be an attack on the rock-star pose. You even have the "I bet you think this song is about you" line from the Carly Simon song. How does that fit into the album?

A: That is humor in that song, and it was difficult to find a place for it on the record. I considered leaving it off, but it seems to fit somehow.

Q: The emphasis this time seems to be on the guitar rather than the synthesizers that you used in "Downward Spiral." But the sound isnít what you normally get from guitars.

A. Most everything on the album is guitar because itís an imperfect instrument and I wanted everything to sound like any minute it could fall apart . . . or go in unexpected directions.

Q: Are the pieces back together in your own life? How do you feel overall? Confident? Nervous? Scared?

A: Right now, I feel really positive and confident, about myself and the record.

Iím looking forward to touring to support the record. I hope people are interested in it and give it a chance. I think itís daring in the sense that it is asking a lot of a listener.

I think this record really marked a necessary assessment of my own head and life, and I found I had some inner strength that I didnít know I had. Iím coming out of [the experience] a lot better spiritually, and I use that word hesitantly.

Q: What do you mean "spiritually"?

A: I donít mean God or church or anything like that. I mean peace with myself and purpose in life. Though I still have no semblance of a life outside of Nine Inch Nails at the moment, I realize my goals have gone from getting a record deal or selling another record to being a better person, more well-rounded, . . . having friends, having a relationship with somebody.

Those are things I never felt I needed. I havenít had time to cry if I felt like crying. I havenít had time to stop myself from being this robot who is really running away from everything. You think that [success] or even good work will take care of everything, but part of you starts to rot if you leave it unattended. I want to enjoy some degree of the ride that I am on, and I do. Iím not walking around in a gloom all the time. Iím feeling whole again.

by Robert Hilburn

<< Previous Page

Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails
This article is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously located at SUS.