25 Years Ago: Nine Inch Nails Sail Upward With ‘The Downward Spiral’
Nine Inch Nails exploded out of the gate in 1989 with their stellar debut disc Pretty Hate Machine, then satiated fans with the scorching industrial EP Broken, but by the time 1994 rolled around, fans were more than ready to see what would be Trent Reznor's follow-up act.
Surprisingly to some, it was not a crushing yet danceable Pretty Hate Machine II, but rather a harder edged, aggressive conceptual album called The Downward Spiral. As Reznor explained to Select Magazine, "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."
Reznor set up shop at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles, initially claiming he was unaware of the significance of the address when he rented the house, but as many are aware, it is the home where Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered in 1969 by members of Charles Manson's family. The home had a studio dubbed "Le Pig" that Reznor used for recording both Broken and The Downward Spiral.
Speaking to Guitar World, Reznor stated, "I wanted it to be a departure from Broken, where I wanted to make a real hard-sounding record that was just one big blast of anger. Not necessarily a well-rounded record -- just one ultra-fast chunk of death. This time I wanted to make an album that went in 10 different directions, but was all united somehow. I didn't want to box Nine Inch Nails into a corner, where everything would be faster and harder than the last record -- where every song had to say, 'Look how tough we are.' I don't think that's really me ... Or rather, there are lots of times when I'll come up with musical ideas that don't fit that mold. On this record, I was more concerned with mood, texture, restraint and subtlety, rather than getting punched in the face 400 times."
Digging a little deeper he added, "The record also looks at certain vices as being ways of trying to dull the pain of what this person is hiding. Of course I'm talking about myself. So that was the general theme. Not that that's any great leap for me, thematically. The reason why I hope people like Nine Inch Nails is the lyrics. I think that's the element I care about most on this record, in terms of honesty and nakedness of emotion." Reznor would not only use his own issues for inspiration, but would also rely upon some influences, citing David Bowie's Low and the music of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed for helping to fuel his creative fire.
By the time, Reznor got ready to record, he assembled an interesting crew of musicians to help him in the process. Co-producer Mark "Flood" Ellis worked in coordination with Reznor and The Downward Spiral would become one of the in-demand producer's calling cards for years to come. Reznor also had Sean Beavan, Bill Kennedy and Alan Moulder working on the mixing for the effort. On drums, programming and sampling, Chris Vrenna held things down. Jane's Addiction's Stephen Perkins came on board to drum on the track "I Do Not Want This." Longtime Nine Inch Nails collaborator Danny Lohner lent some guitar work to the disc, while drummer Andy Kubiszewski and programmer Charlie Clouser also made contributions to the disc. But perhaps the most intriguing name in all of that was King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew.
"His name just popped into my head. I called my manager and two days later he was here. As it turned out he was already in L.A., working on something else," Reznor told Guitar World. "We basically told Adrian, 'Just play whatever you want and we'll piece it together however we see fit. Maybe stuff from one song will fit into another.' We did about six or seven songs with four or five passes each. One time we'd tell Adrian something like, 'Concentrate on a rhythmic part.' Another time, 'Think in terms of countermelody.' Or, 'Think in terms of no pitch at all, just noise.' He pulled out a bunch of great sounds that he never gets to use."
With a stellar crew surrounding him, Reznor was able to create in ways he had previously only dreamed of. "On Downward Spiral, I got to explore making an electronic sound that doesn't sound electronic for some parts of it. We did things with drums that I don't know if anyone has really done," said Reznor to Spin. "We sampled drums in stereo with stereo mics and discovered if you play them on keyboards it sounds like you're sitting behind the drums for real. On 'March of the Pigs,' 'Eraser' and those songs, there's no live drums, but it alluded to being real because it didn't sound like a machine. No way someone could play that like that. It further added a kind of mind f--k to it. Instead of falling into a Ministry-type trap of how can I make things harder and harder, it's scarier to have something creep up on you."
By March 8, 1994, Reznor and his Nine Inch Nails cohorts finally released The Downward Spiral. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, bested only by Soundgarden's Superunkown in its opening week. But it didn't have a hot song right out of the gate.
The thrashy industrial rocker "March of the Pigs" was released a week ahead of the album's street date, but only managed to climb to No. 59 on the charts. It wasn't a natural song for radio play, but was definitely embraced by fans of the band in the live setting who loved the high energy BPMs that bridged the song's piano breakdowns. Adding to the song's legacy was the single-camera video for the track, which simply had the band rambunctiously performing on a white soundstage, with no mic stand in site safe. While the track set things in motion for the album, no one could have predicted what would come next.
In May of 1994, Nine Inch Nails released a funky single called "Closer" that needed major edits in order to be aired both on MTV and radio. But there was no denying the infectious nature of the song. With the memorable NSFW line, "I want to f--k you like an animal," Nine Inch Nails had a hit on their hands. "The song started with that line. Everything else kind of got pieced around that," said Reznor. "I was trying to get a vibe something like the song 'Nightclubbing' from Iggy Pop's album The Idiot. I don't know what it sounded like when it came out. But now it sounds like a real obvious, cheesy, almost disco, song--but in a cool way."
And while the song needed edits to cover the curse words, the video needed much more work before it could air. The singer told Spin, "I thought, f--k it, instead of the Super 8 video directors we've used in the past, underground people, let's go with Mr. F--king Gloss, Mark Romanek, who just did that Michael Jackson piece of s--t. But he could do a beautiful shot, Stanley Kubrick-like in its attention to detail. So we decided to spend some money and go to ridiculous lengths to recreate some works of artists that we liked, from Joel-Peter Witkin to Man Ray, Brothers Quay, this hodgepodge of stuff. The video was great. It was cool as f--k looking. Right away, MTV said, 'Can't have that, can't have that.' Now okay, there was naked p--sy. We knew that was going to get cut. And then we got complaints that people still found the video disturbing. 'Well why?' 'Well, we don't know why, but it seems satanic and evil.' And then I thought, 'Great, we did it.'" "Closer would fall just shy of breaking the Top 40 on Billboard's Hot 100, but did climb to No. 11 at Alternative Radio.
The album featured three more key tracks. "Piggy" was pure Reznor, with the song sauntering along while Reznor played guitars, bass, piano, organ, synths, drums and percussion while also singing on the track. The song is one of the few on the album to feature live drums as the singer liked the sound that emanated as he set up the mics in the studio. The track would crack the Top 20 at Alternative Radio.
The somber, gut-wrenching song "Hurt" was released in April of 1995 and climbed to No. 8 on the alternative chart. It also received a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song in 1996. Sean Beavan told us of the session for the song, "We recorded 'Hurt' in Studio B at A&M studios (now Henson) because Bob Seger was on Christmas break so the room was available. Seger's microphone was still set up with it's pristine vocal chain, but when it came time to record Trent's vocal he didn't want to sing through that big polished setup in the beautiful live room. Trent preferred to sit at the console and sing through a handheld Shure SM Beta 58 so he could connect more intimately with the lyrics of the song."
He continued, "It was just the two of us in the room, sitting side by side. We did three takes, each one was incredible, I remember being in tears most of the time, and I think we just used the third take in it's entirety. Trent never wanted to do much comping, no single word edits. We always had to use whole phrases so the emotion came through. He believed the voice and the guitars were the human aspects, the emotional touchstones and that they shouldn't be perfect, they should be honest, to provide a counterpoint to the relentless machinery of the rhythm section."
While the Nine Inch Nails version of "Hurt" is the original, Reznor would later agree to let Johnny Cash record it as one of his final releases. The singer said of his decision to let Cash record it, "I pop the video in, and wow … tears welling, silence, goosebumps. Wow. I felt like I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore. It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. That winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning -- different, but every bit as pure."
Rounding out the key tracks, "Mr. Self Destruct" opened the album on a high note, pushing the pulse with a high energy feeling. The track is one of the ones that Reznor turned over to Belew to lend a hand on, and the guitarist came back with the song's ending. The guitarist said of Reznor, "Trent has an astounding command of technology, old and new. He's such an intriguing person to work with, but that may have helped in some way. The music just lent itself to so many ideas that are in my realm."
The combination of a stellar record, a major hit single and a well-received tour and Nine Inch Nails were on their way to major success. And with a tipping point performance at Woodstock '94, the band reached more audiences than ever. When the dust settled, The Downward Spiral was certified four-times platinum and became the group's biggest selling disc.
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