Nine Inch Nails are in the Bahamas for three reasons: to prepare for the MTV Video Music Awards their first public appearance in almost four years – to make The Fragile road-ready for a tour that will take up much of next year and to vacation while doing it. Before settling down to work, they frolicked for a few days: swimming with Bahamian Reef sharks, jet-skiing and snorkeling. "The music sounds better than it did at the height of when we had our shit together before," Reznor says. "Our drummer, Jerome Dillon, is really changing the sound." Dillon was one of many who tried to land former drummer Chris Vrenna's spot. Vrenna – who left on bad terms two years ago – was the only person aside from Reznor's manager who had been around since Day One. "When Chris left the band," Reznor says, "part of me was relieved. I miss him as a friend a lot. But it was freeing on the musical level."
Nine Inch Nails have taken over Compass Point Studios, the facility that Chris Blackwell built in the late Seventies to record Bob Marley, for whom he couldn't get an American work visa. In the woody main room where Marley recorded Survival, Exodus and Kaya, the band has set up its gear. A second control room serves as Trent's office, while the attached studio has been converted into a gym. Reznor's Nautilus and stationary bike have been shipped from New Orleans. Nearby is a table full of vitamins, protein powders and – aha, Reznor's real secret: a bottle of Mega Creative Fuel.
When the band members settle in for rehearsal the night before our boat trip, their chemistry is tangible. In conversation, Reznor is shy and thoughtful. Put him in front of a mike and all of that changes. His body tenses, his arms flex as he holds the mike above and in front of him, rocking it back and forth. The band fiercely attacks older songs like" Suck," "Terrible Lie," "March of the Pigs" and "Down in It" like it's been at it for months. When it falls in on "Reptile," hot air streams rhythmically from the stacks of speakers in the small room. There are only three of us in this audience, but the band members are kinetic, playing with closed eyes, bouncing up and down, as lost in it as they would be for 3,000. ("Rocking in bare feet is not cool," Reznor says afterward. "Toestubbing is a problem.")
The MTV Video Music Awards will mark Reznor's second television performance – his first was Dance Party U.S.A. Yes, back in the early days, before his debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, was even released (attention, VH1 producers), Trent Reznor lip-synced on the raised platform of that low-rent-Solid Gold show. "I told this publicist we wanted to do it, completely out of my ass," he says. "Next thing I know, we're booked. It was like mall people doing these crazy Hairspray dances. Terrible. And, at the time, we had this keyboard player who was a fucking idiot. When we were talking about what to wear on the show, he said, 'I'm thinking about a sword.' I'm thinking, 'Is that some sort of cumberbund?' He meant a real sword. He's probably dead by now. There's no way someone hasn't taken him out."
Reznor guards the NIN mystique zealously. He has never played Saturday Night Live, never sat in on Politically Incorrect. It hasn't been for lack of offers. "I've worked hard at keeping Nine Inch Nails precious," Reznor says. "Everything I do is secondary to the music. It's pretty easy, once you let your guard down, for someone to say, 'Hey, want this Prada jacket?' Next thing you know, you're some jive dude; Carmen Electra is on your lap and you're a rock guy that's full of shit." That said, Reznor is looking forward to joining us, live and worldwide, on MTV. "I like the challenges of flirting with the mainstream with Nine Inch Nails. I think we can do it honestly," he says. "You know, let Fred Durst surf a piece of plywood right up my ass."
Reznor is frank about today's clownish rock climate. "If you turn on MTV right now," he says, grimacing as if a foul smell has found him, "I bet Kid Rock is on there, judging something, giving something away with sumo wrestlers and his pants on backward. But that doesn't seem inappropriate for what he's trying to do." Reznor was recording during Woodstock '99 but had it tuned in on TV. "It struck me as some of the worst shit I'd ever seen," he says. "It was a dismal synopsis of everything that's bad in music right now. The incredible lack of importance seemed to jump off the screen at me. But it did make certain bands really stand out. I thought Rage Against the Machine looked like the Second Coming of Christ."
After the night's rehearsal, Dillon, Finck and Lohner have a beer while lounging around the hotel pool. They recall the injuries sustained during the last Nine Inch Nails tour (broken fingers, bruised ribs, a severely lacerated head). Reznor returns from the studio. "Is this the all-male pool party?" he asks, his chocolate-milk Weimaraner, Daisy, in tow. He says good night and is gone.
The next day, on the private island, Reznor is the first off the boat, and he's soon exploring every inch of what is basically a large sandbar with palm trees, bordered by sharp rocks. It has been colonized by hermit crabs that caravan over the sand and up the trees. "This one's in charge," he says, pointing out a fist-size shell. "Pick it up; they don't bite," he goads one of his sound engineers. He does and it does. "Did that hurt?" Reznor asks with a sly grin.
Reznor moves to a stone stairway that descends into the water. Below it the ocean is deep blue and tranquil. It is very different from Big Sur. "You'd walk down this rickety ladder to this not-very-pretty beach scene: crashing waves, moss-covered rocks, weird ocean life. It was scary," he recalls. "It summed up a lot of things. Like, 'I should be enjoying this, but I'm not.' It's a very spiritual, very cleansing place. But all that my antennae were picking up were the bad parts." As hard as that time was, it served Reznor well. "Day-dreaming, just sitting out there became a catalyst," he says. "It's a force that crops up in some of the album's lyrics." And it's a force that seems to have washed away some of The Downward Spiral's suicidal tendencies. "I had a little flirtation with the bottom," he says, "and I don't want to be there. After Downward Spiral ran its course, I wound up at a pretty desolate place. It's one thing to flirt with suicide when you're writing, it's another when you arrive there. It's not as funny or romantic a notion."
The same goes for nihilism. "I'm still anti-organized religion," he says. "I still think that's a crock of shit. But in my head, that spilled over into an utterchaos outlook: 'I don't need anything, I don't need anyone, and I don't need to believe there's any reason to anything.' It was a pretty self-centered approach. I was lonely and had a bleak outlook on everything. I think people have an inherent need for belonging, to feel they are a part of something."
Reznor talks about working with other people in the studio and being closer to people outside his career. "There's a shitload of things I've given up to do this," he says. "I look at friends from other eras of my life who are now married, paying off condos. They have that rock of stability and normality that maybe they wish they didn't have. It's like, 'Fuck, you've got a lot in that life.'"
He often wants that life, too, but thinks he'll need to end this one first. "When I do something, it's total immersion. I don't allow anything to get in the way," he says. "I know what my life now can bring, and it's great things – but there's a shallowness to it. I've been saying for a long time that I wanted to raise a kid." He tosses a rock absent-mindedly into the waves. "I'd want to wait until I wanted to dedicate a lot of time to a family. It's not right this second."
Trent Reznor has other plans. He wants to start a new band, one that he's not in. "I want to do everything I do for Nine Inch Nails and produce it, but not sing," he says. "What I liked about producing Manson was that I could help make the music better and not have any pressure on me." Calling all divas: He has people collecting tapes and is looking for a female singer. "It has to be the right thing – genreless and raceless, but soulful. Not Nine Inch Nails with a girl singing." He also plans to tackle more scoring. "It sounds kind of jive, but I like the idea of getting deeper into music, minus the constraints of pop music and being an icon." Hopefully, this will leave Reznor more time to make friends, of which he has few. "I don't really have many friends," he says. "When Christmas comes every year, I get a little bummed out because if I'm not in a relationship, I don't have anywhere to go."
Where he usually goes is home: Mercer, Pennsylvania, a small rural town far out in Amish country. He plays music and talks computers with his dad, visits with his younger sister, her husband and two kids, and returns to the house where he was raised to see his granddad. Everyone is within twenty miles of one another. Though Reznor's parents have been separated since he was five, they get along well. "I used to just think it was a little shitbag town I couldn't wait to get away from," he says. "That motivated me a lot to succeed and drew me to things like sci-fi and horror movies and Kiss. Anything that wasn't at all like Mercer, Pennsylvania." Reznor has begun to accept and even embrace his roots. "Now I realize there is a quaintness to Mercer that's kinda cool," he says, then smiles and throws a sidelong glance. "Still, I don't think I'm moving back there." Reznor has joined Eydie Gorme and Tony Butula, of Sixties pop group the Lettermen, in the ranks of famous Mercerians. For the sake of the town square, let's hope they don't commemorate him with a statue. "I'd be the first one to spray-paint it," Reznor says. "I'd put tits on it."
Midway through his thirties, Reznor finds that the majority of his friends are younger, and he doesn't feel different – for the most part. "Thirty-four," he marvels. "Suddenly the balls lower a little bit. I only feel weird when I look at someone else my age and think, 'Fuck, they're old.'" Reznor will not be rocking when he's fifty. "I've thought about artists like Tom Petty," he says, "who seem to have been around forever and still make passionate music. I never get the sense he's putting on an act for a generation he doesn't belong to." The dark void of the generation gap is already something Reznor has gazed into. "We did a show in New York," he recalls, "and we brought Adam Ant onstage. We're like, 'Fuck, yeah, Adam Ant,' and the audience is looking up at us like, 'Who the fuck is that guy?' They're all fifteen. I'm thinking, 'Oh, I forgot. I'm older than you.'"
Reznor pokes a Paleolithic-looking creature clinging to a rock. It doesn't budge. "Do you mind if we take a break for a while?" he asks, eagerly looking at the people goofing around on the beach. "I want to go hang out with everybody for a bit." He walks back toward the group. Wait – where is he going? He walks past them, to the water. He stares out at the setting sun for a few minutes, letting the ocean lap his feet. Then he turns around and faces everyone. He doesn't look happy, he doesn't look sad. And he doesn't move to join them.
This story is from the October 14th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.
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