Tables sprout candles in the darkened control room as thick and as numerous as mushrooms on a dank forest floor, and miniskirted department-store mannequins are scattered about in various states of bondage. One mannequin has masking tape wound violently, around its mouth and a plastic bag pinned over its head; another is gagged and has a pair of silver Lurex panties around its knees; a third has its wrists bound and is blindfolded. Four men huddle around a computer screen that displays jagged green wave forms; several dozen recording levels jerk angrily into the red. Electronic drums as big as redwoods pound from the studio speakers, and the breathy, oddly calm tenor of Nine Inch Nails auteur Trent Reznor sounds as if it were being broadcast by a shortwave radio from halfway across the world.
"Something inside of me has opened up its eyes/Why did you put it there, did you not realize?/Something inside of me, it screams the loudest sound/Sometimes I think I could . . . burn."
Nine Inch Nails are in Miami's South Beach Studios putting the final touches on the soundtrack album for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, which Reznor has compiled from the 70-odd snippets of rock & roll used in the film, and the going is getting weird.
The last time Reznor used this studio – for the clandestine sessions that resulted in Nine Inch Nails' 1992 EP Broken, which resulted in a Grammy – a studio employee made a crack about the concentration of gay men on the beach. In retaliation, Reznor bought dozens of gay porno mags, clipped out hundreds of pictures of phalluses and hid them all over the studio – some in places where they didn't turn up for months. This time, Reznor screened an extreme S&M video for assistant studio engineer Leo Herrera that still gives Herrera the willies a week later.
NIN bassist Danny Lohner darts in and out of the studio, clutching DAT tapes; NIN drummer Chris Vrenna pushes the buttons on the console that Reznor can't get to; Herrera works on the levels.
"We try to name all our hard drives something easy to remember," Reznor explains to computer consultant Charlie Clouser, "like Bum Cleaver, Cunny or Big Hairy Pussy. Sometimes it gets complicated when we don't remember if the file we're looking for is Assfuck 25 on the Fuckfuck 12 drive or Fuckfuck 12 on the Assfuck 25 drive. And when we're talking to each other in the studio, wondering aloud whether running the Cunnykick file through the Fuckchop program on the Asslick disc would help us access the Turbocunt compression . . . it's really like speaking another language altogether."
To paraphrase the late poet Philip Larkin, hatred is to Nine Inch Nails what daffodils were to Wordsworth.
"Ah, it's down to the comfortable last seconds of mixing," Reznor says. "Imagine this on AM radios across America."
Reznor drags his mouse across the desk until the cursor reaches SHUT DOWN on the menu bar of his Macintosh, and he releases the mouse with a flourish. The computer screen flickers, then goes dark.
"No more excuses," he says.
Reznor, 29, may be just another black-clad antihero in the great American tradition – take a number, Ethan and Keanu – a good-looking loner bashing up against the thick wall of middle-class sexual mores until his forehead starts to bleed, but he is also as complete a video, audio and literary artist as anybody working in rock & roll right now. And he's popular: His 1994 concept album, The Downward Spiral, opened at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart, and this month, NIN are playing a megashow in Toronto with Soundgarden and will be featured artists at Woodstock. Beavis and Butt-head want to be him.
But as an ultimate antihero, Reznor stands as far outside the mainstream of American popular culture as it may be possible for a million-selling rock singer to get.
One video, for "Happiness in Slavery," from Broken, in which the naked performance artist Bob Flanagan sacrifices himself to a gnawing machine, may be as close to a snuff film as has ever been banned by MTV, a torture-lashed essay on the ecstasy of submitting to ultimate control. Reznor's current video, for "Closer," is a grainy meditation on the great fetish photography of Joel-Peter Witkin, shot partially on supersaturated '20s film stock Reznor managed to cadge, overlaid with the scratchy patina of early surrealist shorts and shot through with indelible images: crucified monkeys; sneering industrialists straight out of a German expressionist print; siblings with their hair braided together; and Reznor himself, spinning in midair so out of control he cannot even touch the ground. MTV made Reznor edit the hell out of it but plays it several times a day.
The album Downward Spiral is a carefully mapped descent through Reznor's willful self-destruction, through sex, through violence, through drugs, through suicide and through despair.
Reznor is a master of control and a perfectionist to the extent that when the stage lighting did not work out to his satisfaction at the beginning of the Downward Spiral tour, he spent two days reprogramming the system's computer software. "It was looking like a Genesis concert," he says. "Somebody had to get the job done." In the light of day, maybe yelling at a soundman or discussing marketing strategy with his manager John Maim, Reznor looks pretty robust for a rock & roll guy. He has ruddy Midwestern cheeks and an athletic ease you might associate with the quarterback of a small-college football team. Perhaps surprised by his rude health, strangers meeting Reznor for the first time often describe him as normal. (He is more likely to describe himself as a "computer dweeb.")
Onstage though, splayed like a St. Sebastian without the torturing arrows, Reznor resembles nothing so much as the Bronze Age man they dug from that glacier in Austria a couple of years ago, give or take a pair of fish-net stockings: rough-edged bowl cut, leather cod-piece thing, garters, tunic and pre-industrial boots. Though the subject of control is as central to Reznor's collected works as the subject of marijuana is to Snoop Doggy Dogg's – an early press release for Pretty Hate Machine took pains to point out "Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails" – Reznor appears powerless onstage, buffeted by harsh, glowing fog, martyred to the noise and to the crowd, enraged by a world he does not understand.
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