Trent Reznor talks – his head off. About addictions and longings,
therapies and relapses, creative origins and false assessments of his self.
About his 40th birthday and the fear of becoming a new Mick Jagger.
Visions: We don't want to make the next forty-five minutes a therapeutic session but the more you know about the new record the more you find out that there have been some radical changes.
Trent Reznor: That seems to be the case, yeah.
V: Well, what should the world know about the reborn Trent Reznor?
TR: "Reborn" is a too overloaded word, it has that christian gloss.
V: How about reinvented?
TR: That's okay. When I began this interview tour I thought about how to deal with the actual situation. I have to talk about myself to explain the album; but at the same time question arises: how much of your life do you want to give away in interviews?
V: Afraid of the public soul striptease?
TR: Above all I want to prevent myself from misusing my own life as a marketing tool and packing the last few years in some catch phrases. And yet: when you think about what the record is all about, why I sit here – almost every aspect of my life is reflected on that album. If I wasn't willing to tell about myself, I would have to come up with lies because there’s a very close connection between my life and the album.
V: More than the previous records?
RT: More than all the records before, yes.
I have learned a lot of things about myself in the past time. Not only concerning my current life but also the past. Now I can explain why each album sounded the way it did, why many things took so damn long.
V: Where do we have to begin to understand With Teeth?
TR: Probably at the times of the Downward-Spiral-Tour. I was an addict waiting to break out. At that time I didn't know anything about addiction. I thought a real alcoholic lies face-down on the counter and drinks his last whiskey seconds before the end. And I believed all that had nothing to do with me. It took a damn long time and uncountable terrible situations in which merely surviving seemed problematic to realize that I had to stop lying to myself. Everything started about ten years ago. When we got out of the bus in 1997 after a tour of two and a half years we looked back at an exciting time. All the impressions, the public interest – Nine Inch Nails had gone from a well-known band to a damn well-known band. And the addict in me had found the perfect base to grow. All that hysteria had something overwhelming, and my way to deal with it was simply: self medication.
V: What do you call your disease?
TR: Inner emptiness. It was an utterly weird feeling that I carried with me. The frustration, the exposed energy, the lots of money that played a role, the attention that I got – all those things led to a point where I thought I had to substitute those aspects, had to live them in other ways . The tour bus stopped after after two and a half completely crazy years, I got out and went straight into the studio with Marylin Manson – which is from the feeling the same thing as being on tour, only without driving around all the time (laughs). It was the proverbial hell, but we did a good work nevertheless. When it was over I thought I’d break into pieces.
V: What was your favourite medication?
TR: Cocaine was great. Everything that was wrong with me was repaired in a time of ten minutes. Just snort a line and all your problems are light-years away. A great antidote. You mutate from an autistic person to a skilled socializer, I was super-happy and relaxed, pleased with every form of occupation and entertainment.
V: A fallacy.
TR: Of course. I began to work on "The Fragile" and couldn't get my shit together. I gave up and checked in at the rehab without telling anyone – except my manager, who helped me through that awful period of time. I seriously didn't know what I was going for. I thought: rehab? nice! A little back massaging, sitting cross-legged and listening to relaxing music, some feet rubbing, some shopping here and there...
I stayed for a month and at the end many of the things that I had learned there began to make sense. It just feels good to change a part of yourself, you get the impression that you do something good to yourself. You get a lot out of the companionship with the other weird guys that stick around there, searching for their self. When I got out I was sure: It will never come to this point again.
V: And so you found yourself in New Orleans as a new person?
TR: That's what I thought, yeah. Until I began to stretch the new learned rules a bit. I thought I was different, stronger than those people who sit in their cutters and start drinking from pure boredom. So I went to the studio, worked my ass off and made "The Fragile".
V: Looking back you said that that was the hardest phase. Which surprises because you were actually over the hump and clean again.
TR: Well, clean means in this case: I wasn't drinking continually. But I hadn't yet managed to replace alcohol and drugs with something reasonable. I felt bad, empty, unstable. I was in the middle of being someone who knew everything better and was smarter than the rest of the world to a point of self diagnosis and realization that I can never have a drink again if I don't want to relapse. So much of what I had become had been defined by that lifestyle. And so I got very quickly to the point were I woke up and asked myself: where is the next drink? I consciously lied to myself. It's always the same disease it just puts on a different cloth to deceive you. That's nothing you can really explain. Moreover it goes against everything that I defined with and wanted to claim to: rationality, intelligence, vigorousness, vitality. It was a circle of self-denial.
V: How did it come to another creeping downfall?
TR: Well, The Fragile was done and went to no. 1 of the charts. I had withstood quite some time without drugs and alcohol and thought I was cured. I thought: looks like you're clean, how about rewarding yourself with a little drink? It was only one and it tasted so incredibly good. I checked myself the following days, went out with friends, had only water and thought: you made it. If you want you can have a drink but you don't have to. So one week later I had two drinks. Still everything cool, I felt good, no problems. Another week later I went out and thought: why not party once? I had about thirty drinks that night. Right at that time the one-year-lasting Fragile-Tour began.
TR: Exactly. The idea of being able to control the addiction was simply wrong. When the tour started I was on my daily alcohol ration again. I had my first drink before breakfast otherwise I would feel bad. Half an hour before each show I had a panic attack and had to throw up. I fought that with even more alcohol and drugs. In lighter moments I told myself again and again: stop it, just fucking stop it! Which is absolutely impossible in the middle of a tour. I wanted to stop but knew that that would cost me a few million dollars. When the tour was over the least bit of self respect was gone. Everything was gone, everything. I hated myself from the bottom. I looked into the mirror, looked at those damaged teeth, the grey skin color and didn't have the tiniest explanation, how I had gotten into this disaster. It was followed by an intensive phase of self-pity.
V: Which must have been very typical for that stadium.
TR: The whole process was typical. The tour was over, I was in New Orleans again and had absolutely no plan but to lie around and live on. I felt like in a David Cronenberg movie.
V: Was there a special occasion that made you reconsider you situation?
TR: Yeah, Rodney.
V: Your studio good guy, who took care of everything...
TR: He was one of the most outstanding characters I have ever met. A real product of the Projects (ghetto of New Orleans). I trusted that guy more than everyone else; he took care of the house and the dogs when I was on tour, he took care of me when I was at home. It was a giving and taking: he helped me out of my psychic disorientation, I helped him out of his Project-misery. And then he was murdered.
V: How did you learn about it?
TR: His mother called me and cried. I turned the local news channel on, saw the squad cars and emergency doctors, a covered corpse, his truck with bullet holes in the window...They had shot him and his cousin directly in the face. Another one of those senseless, inexplicable moments that occur from poverty, false friends and dangerous commitments. In this drastic and unreal situation I instinctively knew: this is the low point. I didn't even attend his funeral. I couldn't have beard it. But somehow I knew I had to change myself – if not for me then at least for him; to give his sudden and final disappearance some kind of meaning. Otherwise I would have followed him a few months later.
V: So what did you do?
TR: I spend an extremely uncomfortable week in a closed mental hospital where I was tranquilized with strong sedatives – an experience that I wouldn't recommend. It's hard to find yourself convincing when you're that lethargic and apathetic that you're pissing yourself in bed. But when you get to the substance of your existence like that you find humanness (compassion). After this first phase of detoxication...
V: ...you surely didn't feel better.
TR: No, but from there I went straight to a home for attended living and participated several therapeutic single and group sessions daily in a period of six weeks. Many things weren't new to me: I knew all the discussions and realizations already. And yet it was different this time because I prove to the shadow of the last doubt that I wanted it. That’s the disgusting thing about an addiction: you can ask yourself a hundred questions about your addictional behaviour and answer 99 with "yes" – this one "no" will get you back into the vicious circle. This time I wanted to say yes to everything without a compromise. The happy ending of the story: I was so sick and so tired of being in this condition that I was willing to say: okay, whatever they tell me to do, I'll do it.
V: And what happened?
TR: Within the shortest amount if time a big amount of overwhelming things happened. The most profane, everyday situations appeared in a new different light. That sounds like an awful cliche but suddenly everything seemed to be okay more or less, at least I could cope with it. In the end the secret is simple: I could let go of this person that I thought was me who carried those false longings with him. Since then things really turned out well; I feel good with myself.
V: Even under pressure and in stressful situations?
TR: Yes, absolutely. That's what it depends on. I had to manage a few of these situations during the last months. Take the recently begun live-playing, an enormous pressure: the panic attacks, the bad feeling, the throwing up – everything gone.
V: What was the most important thing you learned at the therapeutic sessions?
TR: From the moment of my first record deal I had neglected the needs of my inner self. It got to the point were I forgot several times in my life why I love music so much. Music had become an aspect of my career, it was connected with pressure, expectations, entitlements, competition thoughts – my own and those of others. A bunch of shit that has nothing to do with why I started making music almost 20 years ago. And then I asked myself the deciding question: are you ready for music? Do you have something to say?
V: And the answer?
TR: I was looking for the answer a long time – more than two years. I gave myself time to get used to my new self, to do intelligent things. At the beginning of the year I went into the studio. There were ideas. And with them came the answers.
V: What was different from the artistic point of view?
TR: Interestingly not as much as one would assume. I found out that the fuddle was useful for many things but surely not for a better inspiration or more creativity. The way of working, the ideas that I got, the progression, it all felt similar, just a lot more directly. The drugs had helped me over the years not to feel as crappy and to lift my personality from a minus level to an 0-level. And suddenly I was on a positive level without all that. That's the biggest difference. It was a great feeling to become clean, to eventually behave like an adult instead of some disoriented idiot who doesn't get what's going on.
V: Is there something good about that long period of descending?
TR: It may sound dull but when I heard the stories of the other people who were married and had families I was glad. Not only did they spend many years ruining themselves, they also destroyed the lives of others; sometimes even their kids. In those moments I thought: I'm 37 and I always regretted not having a wife, not having a family. I'm always on my own. But in the end it was pure luck that I don't have all that yet. Because now I don't have to feel bad about destroying someone else's life.
V: A relationship that lasted almost twenty years ended when you recovered: the one with your manager John Malm Jr. Is there a connection?
TR: Of course. Since I'm clean we have hardly seen each other. He was my closest friend, closer than my family. But obviously not only the addict changes but also his environment. I don't want to claim that anyone around an addict is disappointed when this person becomes clean. But I believe that dominant personalities have a problem when someone whom they know as having no personality suddenly has a brain, an opinion and a presence. That guy stood beside me in uncountable unpleasant situations; he was my best friend. And then I change and suddenly the friendship feels hollow because he can't see the good thing about it. It proofs how much drugs and alcohol change you: You think a relationship is the most important in your life and it just vanishes as soon as it is confronted with reality.
V: What did reality look like?
TR: When I for the first time took interest in my business concerns the big question came up were all the money had gone. There was never a plan for the future, no strategy. Instead there were many odd involvements. That's how the separation began. "Nothing" was closed, the contracts cancelled. He didn't want me to leave New Orleans. As painful as that was I have to say I'm glad I finally made all those overdue decisions.
V: Back to With Teeth: The album sounds perfectly like Nine Inch Nails
and yet quite different – reduced, much more pop-like, the sounds are
more focused and it's overall more to the point. How was the recording compared
to The Fragile?
TR: The fear that I couldn't come up with anything was the same. I was sitting in front of a white sheet of paper that wouldn't fill. But I persisted this time. I gave myself time. At some point I forced myself. If nothing had come that would have been a big disappointment but I was over the point where I would have jumped out of the window because of that. So I went to the studio in L.A. and turned my song writing completely around: I began with the words. And so it came together. I had words, set at the piano, found a melody. No sound-design, no improvisation, no aimless fumbling around.
V: And the result was what you call "13 strong songs" who
are friends with each other but stand each for themselves?
TR: Yes. Because it was only about that one song. Since my debut the processes of song writing, arrangement and production were one thing. This time I separated them intentionally. And I wanted to make demos – things that I get half done, lay aside, and get back to record them properly when they prove to be strong enough. Not like on the albums before when I tried to create a song around a cool sound. And it worked. It's another NIN-outfit then before but it's still completely NIN. And: I felt better and more secure with what came out then ever before. A good feeling.
V: What means security to you in that relation?
TR: I think it's become clear to me how I was dominated by fear all the time. Always. The Fragile should have honestly been called The Fear. I was in a permanent stadium of absolute panic. Even with the Downward Spiral – from which I always claimed that I had the concept done and ready in my head – I permanently thought about what people would think of it. When I was working on With Teeth I noticed for me the most upsetting and yet creatively seen most potential music is found in songs that will sound conventional to others: All The Love In The World, Right Where It Belongs, Love Is Not Enough, but especially The Hand That Feeds. They seem catchy, accessible and obvious. They don't sound intentionally tough, they're the opposite of eight-minute art epics, they're no Tool-songs, that nobody but the artists themselves understands. There's nothing wrong about it, I've done that too. But when I was working on that music, those standardized song structures with simple riffs I noticed: Damn, you actually like that!
V: Now there are people who accuse you because of this. Your fans are
afraid to loose you to mainstream.
TR: For me the point of making music was always: with everything that you have try to make the most honest, most personal music that you're able to do. Show the listener with your music who you are, how you feel about a certain situation. I simply believe that this is the only way to tell your truth through art. A truth that possesses sense and integrity. I can look back and honestly say that I always did that. But the fact is, I don't have anymore much in common with the guy who made the previous records. That doesn't mean that I have to sing about happiness, teddy bears and sunshine. It was just very interesting to see that I was able to work with elements and ideas that I wouldn't have seen as art before.
V: So the Dark Prince was self-deception?
TR: At least you can say that the depression that I had all my life was no elementary part of my personality. It was inspiring sometimes it made me come up with curios ideas but it wasn't anything that belonged to me. I still like to flirt with the darkness and I still feel anger, depression, sadness. But at the same time I like to try and see what comes out when I'm happy and balanced. There's nothing romantic about being stuck in a black whole so that can't get up for days. That's not sexy, not at all. All I can do is being honest with myself. I can't bother with what others think of the result. I'm not willing to go back to a place where I don't exist anymore so that pathologic Goth-fans and other freaks are satisfied. That would be the greater sin. The last ten years were sin enough when I think about how I dealt with myself. I remember clearly when I was twenty-eight. Now I'm thirty-nine. But where is the time between?
V: Speaking of age: How do you feel about you upcoming birthday? Are
you afraid to turn forty?
TR: One thing that you learn in therapy is that your experienced age stops at the moment that you're seriously addicted. So I feel like twenty-eight. (laughs) No honestly: What can I do? I don't want to be forty of course. But all I can do is: being honest with myself. If I ever hear a comment like about Mick Jagger – "He looks really good for his age." – then maybe I should reconsider my role and start to play acoustic concerts with seats. But at the moment I feel extremely vital. There is no uncertainty or fear of not being able to play a tour. We'll see what comes.
(VISIONS, may 2005)