If you want people to think that you’re darkly twisted, where better to set up shop than in the California house where Charles Manson’s minions murdered Sharon Tate and friends on a still night in 1969?
Trent Reznor – who is, in essence, the one-man industrial-rock band Nine Inch Nails – has taken over the notorious house perched on a hillside promontory with a stunning view of Beverly Hills. Having temporarily moved from New Orleans, he is living and working there, recording Nine Inch Nails’ second full album in a studio he’s fitted into the white-walled living room where Tate was killed.
Given the brutal nature of Reznor’s music, the house seems fitting. But sitting in a dimly lit corner of the studio, swiveling anxiously on an office chair and biting on his fingers, he explains that settling in this site was the result of serendipity, not willful perversity or conscious image-mongering.
“It’s a coincidence,” says Reznor, who is twenty-seven, swearing that he decided to rent the house before knowing of its notorious past. “When I found out what it was, it was even cooler. But it’s a cool house anyway and on top of that has a very interesting story behind it.
“The whole thing about living here, I didn’t even think of it,” Reznor says. “I didn’t go on a press campaign saying, ‘I live in Sharon Tate’s house, and I’m really spooky.'”
Not spooky at all. The sketchy public image of Reznor is of an obsessive, moody and demanding recluse. He almost seems cynically willing to let that stand unchallenged. “I’m the lyrics, that’s me,” he says, referring to the images of hopelessness and degradation that mark much of his work. “That gives enough of me away. I don’t want to talk about, you know, who I’m dating or if I’m an asshole in real life. Everyone assumes I am, so okay.”
On this drizzly Sunday afternoon, though, the trait that makes the biggest impression is of a still-young man worried about his ailing golden Labrador, which he just brought back from an emergency trip to the vet.
But he is unquestionably spooked, haunted by his own formidable ghosts. The music that made Reznor industrial rock’s first bona fide mainstream star – by virtue of 1989’s bleak yet catchy single “Head Like a Hole” and NIN’s stealing the show as the underdog hero of the 1991 Lollapalooza tour – speaks of edge-of-madness paranoia and disconsolate submission. The recent EP Broken, which debuted at a remarkable Number Seven on the Billboard pop-album chart, is one of the most anguished, fiercely haunted collections ever to crack the Top Ten, echoing in part Reznor’s frustrations with the contract wrangling and ego wars between himself and TVT Records head Steve Gottlieb, which prevented him from recording for two years.
The rural-Pennsylvania native never wanted to do anything but make music since he was a preteen piano student and, later, teenage rock fan infatuated with Kiss and Pink Floyd. This threat to his pursuits was almost unbearable.
“My whole life became my career, essentially,” Reznor says. “And then I was faced with the fact that my career could easily have been over because the people that controlled it are fucking assholes. It’s a horrible feeling. On one hand, Nine Inch Nails had a platinum album [1988’s Pretty Hate Machine]. And on the other hand, I thought it was over because I was not doing another album for Gottlieb. And I was told litigation [to get off the label] would have taken two years. That’s where a lot of the rage on Broken came from.”
That also, it would seem, is where the images of the first video from the EP came from. The graphic black-and-white clip for the song “Happiness in Slavery” shows a dour man dutifully submitting to unspeakable horrors in a mechanical dungeon. It shocked even the most jaded music-industry insiders and, needless to say, never got close to airing on MTV, save for a few very brief excerpts in news reports.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to make the most vulgar thing we could do to get press,” Reznor says, “which it could easily be attacked as being. But it was a chance for me to finally be able to do something I wanted without having to ask someone who has no fucking idea. The question came up: ‘How far can we take this?’ I said: ‘Let’s just take it as far as we think is right. Forget that it’s a music video, forget that it’s basically a promotional clip, forget standards and censorship.’ Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, it’s unplayable.”
The freedom to make such a video comes from a complicated deal that allowed Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records to sign NIN. Interscope released both Broken and a collection of remixes titled Fixed. But don’t look for that freedom to bring about any mood lift for the next album, which Reznor hopes to release before summer, with at least a year of touring with a band to follow.
“I realize that the strength of Nine Inch Nails – there’s not much room for happy songs,” Reznor says. “And I like that, I don’t want that to change.”
What has changed is the status and prominence of the style of music Reznor makes. “I think we’re largely responsible for a lot of that attention,” he says. “After Lollapalooza, this band came out of nowhere, apparently, to major-label ears. I think the knee-jerk reaction to that is where you see Front 242 now has this deal with Epic, the Thrill Kill Kult is on Interscope, Ministry’s doing great, Skinny Puppy’s looking for a deal, which they’ll get.”
The downside is that “in a lot of ways I’m looked at as the sellout of the whole genre,” Reznor says, because he brought industrial rock out of its exclusive, cult status and into the pop limelight. Reznor acknowledges that the accusations weigh on him a bit, but then so do concerns that fans attracted by the hook of “Head Like a Hole” might have found the less accessible Broken material off-putting. How any of that will play on the next album, he’s not sure yet.
Perhaps looking for guidance, he does seem open to inspiration from beyond as he prepares to go back to his slow, methodical work this day. Luckily, he’s got something that might balance whatever negative vibes are hanging in the house: a Mellotron that once belonged to John Lennon, on loan to Reznor from Ted Field, the billionaire who is the money behind Interscope. A mischievous twinkle in his eye, Reznor remarks: “We’ve got John Lennon and Charles Manson in here. Cool.”
This story is from the January 21st, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.