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April 1994Who Really Is Trent Reznor?
There's a skinny black cat sprawled asleep on the suedette sofa. Out on the balcony that overlooks the obligatory LA pool, a colossal cheese plant is left to survive in a giant pot of dust. Below, puddles of clear blue water, that look as though they were spat from the pool, partly drown the terrace. A legacy of the catastrophic effects of the recent earthquakes.
A grand piano stands neglected in a corner of the extensive open-plan living/dining room. A large African head piece doubles as an extravagant paperweight on a table strewn with rock magazines, fan mail, newspapers and advertising circulars that read Cheat-A-Shrink. Are You Tired Of $60 An Hour Doctors? Under the table in the lounge there's a box containing a collection of sex aids, all wires, batteries and synthetic genitalia. On the floor in the dining room, a gilt-framed 18th century oil painting offers a resting place for the cat. And who could be living here, in this grandiose mini-mansion turned repository for random cultural junk?
"Be careful," warns a muffled voice from down stairs. "That cat's neurotic. It'll seem real friendly then it'll just go mad."
Welcome to Chateau Reznor.
The last time we heard from Trent Reznor, he was about to start recording the follow up to Nine Inch Nails' million selling debut album, Pretty Hate Machine in the house where Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered by the members of Charles Manson's Family in 1969. Reznor claims he was unaware of 10050 Cielo Drive's history when he rented the house, but it's hard to see how. The Manson Murders convulsed America and, just as much as Altamont, drove a stake through the heart of the '60s. During the trial it became clear that Manson and his followers believed that 'Helter Skelter' and other tracks from The Beatles' White Album contained coded instructions for the Family to provoke a race war. The crimes, which the Family hoped to blame on the black nationalists the Black Panthers, were unparalleled in their savagery: they stabbed to death Tate, who was pregnant, and four others, and daubed the words 'HELTER SKELTER' and 'PIGS' on the walls in their blood. No wonder Reznor's choice of studios confirmed the beliefs of the critics who--in the wake of the spectacular extremities of Pretty Hate Machine--saw him as just a sick punk with a mission to spread meaningless horror.
In the meantime Reznor released a taster of what wasn't to come. The Broken EP is an essay in homicidal rage and self destruction, created by Reznor and producer Flood in a place near Lake Geneva that resembled the deserted hotel in The Shining. To many, it was more evidence of Reznor's obsession with the macabre, as was the accompanying video for 'Happiness in Slavery'. It depicted a naked man strapped to a torture machine being dismembered with metal claws, with closeups his nipples and testicles being torn off. Funnily enough, MTV banned the video. Despite this, Broken went platinum. That was almost 18 months ago. Today, Reznor--mild mannered, shy and nervous--is embarking on the next step of Nine Inch Nail's erratic career. It's taken him four years to release his new LP, The Downward Spiral, not through any lack of inspiration but simply because of a no-win war with his record company TV Toons. TVT wouldn't let Reznor guest on a side-project with Ministry's Al Jourgensen. Trent was furious and wanted out but the label refused--NIN were the only money spinners they had.
So Trent refused to record any more product, but continued to tour and was duly accused by the critics of milking Pretty Hate Machine dry. And at the end of 1992, Trent Reznor had a near nervous breakdown.
"Do you want a drink or anything to eat?" offers Trent, settling at last, on the sofa with a bottle of beer, happy at having loaded the CD player downstairs so we can listen to Tom Waits' Bone Machine dripping through the speakers installed everywhere from the bathroom to the swimming pool.
"I can always phone out for something?"
He's still a thin, awkward figure dressed in mandatory black, with a gaunt face and a deathly pale complexion. But these days Trent is practically a new man: TVT was bought out by record producer Jimmy Iovine, after he realized the only way he could sign Reznor was to buy their record company. Trent has recently escaped the pressures of a stressful relationship and finished his thematic and gloriously understated LP.
He's now manager of his own label, Nothing, whose acts include (of all people) Pop Will Eat Itself. All things considered, he's recharged, relaxed and ready to go. So where does he hide the stroppy, rude, egomaniac alter-ego he likes to wheel onstage?
"People are always saying, 'You're really nice, I thought you were going to be a complete asshole.' I'm getting pretty fed up with it. I just want to say to them, 'Well I could always piss on your head.'"
Anyone who's ever seen the Nails live will know of Trent's terror tactics and bloody-mindedness. Plenty of other frontmen smash their instruments, a few abuse their audience, but not many also beat up members of their own band. According to Reznor, what most people have read as tantrums, gimmickry or uncontrollable rage, is in fact pure vengeance, a trick he learned early on in his career.
"We opened for Peter Murphy, up until then we were all fighting for the cause. So we went out and there were these miserable-looking goth kids with huge hair and make-up, competing for who could look the most bored. It just got so irritating, so I picked up a slice of cold pizza and hurled it into the crowd--it hit this kid on the side of his head and his gigantic hair fell over. He had bits of pepperoni stuck to his cheek. Then we started pouring beer on the kids at the front and it was, 'Oh I'm melting, I'm melting. It was the greatest feeling of, FUCK YOU!'
"There are times on tour when the last thing I want to do is go onstage, but after a while you're fueled by the crowd: either they're into it or they're fuckers. So we just try as hard as we can to break through that wall of complacency. I've realized as a performer that if the crowd is shitty, they're not expecting me to kick the entire monitor rig into them. I know there are some stunts I could pull out of the bag, but initially it didn't revolve around that. All those things we stumbled onto."
The grand piano in the living room hasn't been touched--you can tell because the lid's so stiff. Trent is a classically-trained pianist but at the mere mention of an impromptu tinkle, he retreats to the kitchen for a bottle, mumbling something like "I've forgotten everything I was ever taught..."
For such an avowed extremist, Trent's story is a prosaic one. Raised by his grandparents from the age of five as an only child, he was separated from his sister and parents and lived in the town of Mercer near Pittsburgh. College life--studying computers--proved lonely and pointless, and he was labelled 'faggot' for listening to music instead of playing sports. In his desperation not to fall into Middle America's vast well of dead-end life, he clung to the idea of Nine Inch Nails. A few years later he moved to Cleveland and rented a flat with friend, drummer and able assistant Chris Vrenna.
"We lived in the shittiest apartment, all we ate were peanut butter sandwiches. Chris and I were poverty brothers, we got our bills down so low so we could do music instead of getting shitty jobs. I worked in a music shop, which was hellish. The last thing you feel like doing is coming home and playing an instrument. And I cleaned toilets in a rehearsal studio. I wiped many a musician's pubic hair off the toilet seat. It sucked."
As if on cue, in walks Chris, loaded with beer, milk and various flavors of Iced Tea, and the whole absurd scenario suddenly dawns. Here are two men who renounced life's necessities, food and warmth for their love of a twisted kind of music and a belief that there must be something out there beyond sport and gas stations. These days, renting a $5,000 a month mansion house on Hollywood Boulevard does little to impress them.
They deserve the luxury, but they aren't comfortable with it. Although they plan to stay here two months, Trent is living out of his suitcase (he loathes LA and can't wait to leave), the kitchen cupboards are bare, the fridge does a nice range in milk, beer and Iced Tea but the only sign of food is a box of cat biscuits. The only evidence of occupation is what's on and under the table. Trent rarely goes out, he doesn't make friends easily because he spends so much time in the studio, figuring out where to take Nine Inch Nails next, if anywhere.
"Yeah, I'm lonely," he whines, staring into his bottle of beer, he rarely look you in the eye. "Sitting in a room on my own, to write and record an album, for a year and a half, tends to make you socially retarded. It doesn't do wonders for your social life. I don't have many friends and I'm not one to hang out with rock people, I feel uncomfortable because I'm insecure about who I am."
To make the writing of The Downward Spiral a little easier, he tried to construct it piece by piece.
"The idea behind the album is of someone who sheds everything around them to a potential nothingness, but through career, religion, relationship, belief and so on. It's less muscle-flexing, though when I started it I didn't know what I wanted it to sound like. I knew I didn't want to be a full metal album, so I tried to address the issue of restraint. It was a long process."
Anyone hoping for a Pretty Hate Machine 2 should give up now. Spiral is darker, more mysterious and avoids the noise terror of its predecessor, though it sounds dirtier. The mesh of industrial techno and furious guitar rock dynamics remains, but now there's the childlike repetition of "Piggy" and the queasy beauty of "A Warm Place".
Oh Jesus, he wants to kill his cat. Doesn't he? "Save it, take it home," he says, holding the scrawny thing awkwardly but tenderly. "Here. It'll only die if you leave it here..."
America loves a victim and Reznor is one of rock 'n' roll's targets--addicted to wild-side abandon but unable to quite get it right. All his bizarre anecdotes have unfortunate ends. Like Trent's letter from two male fans.
"It was all blotchy and scrawled, like it had been written with a leaking ink pen. And it's like: 'Hi Trent, we're your biggest fans blah blah, we would do anything for you blah blah, our devotion holds no bounds, in fact we're writing this in our own blood'...ARRRGH!" he pretends to throw the letter in the air in sheer horror, then smiles. "I don't think any of us knows how it ends."
Sometimes Trent isn't even left with the satisfaction of knowing that one day he'll be able to say, "We laugh about it now of course".
"One time in Salt Lake City, we'd invited around 300 people backstage. These two guys stop me and one says, 'Please can you talk to my friend, it would make his day, please.' And there was this guy all kinda sweaty and insane looking. So I'm talking to him and he's touching my hand and shaking and he won't look at me at all when he's talking. Then I notice a hospital wristband on his arm, and his friend tells me he just escaped from the hospital because he only has a week to live. All he's been listening to is Pretty Hate Machine because it gives him hope and he knows how I feel, and all he wanted to do was meet me before he died.
"What do you do? What do you say? So I turn around go back into the dressing room, sit on my own and have another beer. I know they didn't do it to make me feel shitty but it's really hard having that kind of responsibility."
Trent leans forward, staring ever further into his empty glass and shakes his head.
"Y'know. What do you do?"
Accidently kicking the box of Objects De Sex from under the table, he gets up and comes back clutching a beer and wearing an ill-fitting smile.
"I'll tell you a funny story about Prince. I was in this studio and I heard Prince was coming in. There was a time I thought he was awesome, but what a fucking creep! The rules were, you were never to say the word 'Prince', you had to write down that symbol. You were never to look at him, or talk to him unless he approached you first, shit like that. So he shows up in a limo, wearing a fluorescent pink jumpsuit, giant hair, a cane, huge heels and a lollipop."
He imitates Prince in heels trying to jive walk a four foot frame. It's funny.
"And he's wearing the worst women's perfume you've ever smelt. So he's got two giant bodyguards with him and there was nobody there who was gonna fuck with him! It turns out he wanted us to remix a track and make it harder--apparently he had Broken in his car for a long time. So then I see him at the other end of this hundred yard corridor, and there's only me and him walking towards each other. So we're getting closer, closer and...he walks right past me. I couldn't believe it, I don't care who you are, that's bullshit."
This is the private Trent talking. It sounds like there's another in charge when he's with his band. When they're all together the level of decorum slips into childish pranks, like gluing the heads of celebrities on to the bodies of fat women or sending the run-a-round kid to buy the most obscene porn mags they can think of. Over 50 is a favorite.
"Cruel but fun. Anyway, it came back on us when one of our friends told us he'd get us 'something special'. These girls walk in an he introduces them: 'This is Debbie and this is The Squirter.' I think, 'That's an odd name.' Then they take off their clothes, climb on to the grand piano and start going at each other and I'm thinking, 'What the fuck?' We were totally scared and freaked out, it wasn't sexy--it was terrifying.
"One of the girls asks for someone to get up close and everyone is like, no fucking way. Then we saw something I have never seen before in my life. One of the girls leans back and starts going at herself and making these shrieking sounds and, without elaborating, two liters of fluid shoots out of her and soaks them, the piano, and the people closest to them. Hence the name The Squirter.
"Call me a hillbilly, but that's beyond my realm of experience. I mean, do all girls do that?"
He laughs but it instantly drops to a sigh as he recalls the rest of the story. Apparently, they came back several hours later for more, this time armed with a stack of sex aids...
"Yes, oh no... um, yes, that's where they came from. I was hoping you wouldn't see them. I was trying to tidy up when bing-bong the door went and I thought, 'Shit! The dildos!'"
And this is the sick deviant, despoiler of the innocent, twister of minds? The guy with the cat?
"Oh, I wouldn't say I'm a rock star," he smiles. "Though we're always the last to leave a party. Does that count? Jesus, what a loser!"
by Gina Morris
This article is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously located at SUS.