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Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral captured an aggressive zeitgeist

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Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

In the May 1994 issue of Circus magazine, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor talks about his newly released album, The Downward Spiral, with the kind of measured outlook commonly found in artists who’ve made challenging albums. “I quite intentionally shot myself in the foot commercially with this record,” he told interviewer Jon Wiederhorn. “I didn’t do that just to screw myself up; I just wanted to create a record that expressed my experiences. There were points where I was thinking, ‘Is anyone going to like this?’” A few sentences later, Reznor is cautiously optimistic about the record’s chances: “I hope some people do like it. But if they don’t, I can still go to sleep at night knowing that I did what I felt was right.”

His assessments seem utterly quaint 20-plus years after The Downward Spiral’s release: Not only was the album platinum by October 1994, but it spawned three alternative radio hits and helped Nine Inch Nails’ already-snowballing career momentum go supernova. The band landed in heavy MTV rotation thanks to an explicit song about sex as a mechanism for redemption (“Closer”), had a mud-covered bacchanal at Woodstock ’94, and embarked on a co-headlining shed tour with David Bowie the following year.

The bizarre thing was, The Downward Spiral in no way, shape, or form contained anything resembling commercial or mainstream music. Despite radio airplay and earworm melodies, “Hurt” and “March Of The Pigs” eschewed orthodox chorus hooks: The former has recurring lyrics that create tension but no denouement until the end, while the latter punctuates simmering electronic beats and whispered lines with the lyric “Doesn’t it make you feel better?” and then an avalanche of harsh metallic guitars. Instead of a collection of individual songs, The Downward Spiral feels like a cohesive but confrontational patchwork of scabrous distortion, manipulated found sounds, ambient electronic atmospheres, white-noise industrial beats, and twitching synths. Arrangements have their own invented internal logic, while the record’s genre-flouting resembles the boundary annihilation and futuristic perspective favored by fellow outliers Bowie, Gary Numan, and Ministry.

Still, The Downward Spiral sounded like a logical progression from 1992’s Broken EP, itself an abrasive, uncompromising salvo. “It definitely made sense with what [Trent] was doing sonically and the kinds of things that he was sampling,” The Downward Spiral’s engineer and co-mixer, Sean Beavan, told The A.V. Club. “It just had a much darker, heavier texture. And Broken really informed that. The transition [was] from [Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 debut] Pretty Hate Machine, which was influenced a lot by ’80s new-wave keyboard stuff, and then the industrial stuff that was happening in the mid- to late-’80s, introducing distortion to all this techno synthpop stuff. And then as the taboo got broken with distortion, more and more distortion got added in. It’s like, how many different ways can you distort different things and have them all make sounds together, you know? And that was really fun.”

By the time Beavan, who had been working with Nine Inch Nails as a live sound mixer since the Pretty Hate Machine era, jumped into the recording fray, Reznor had already started demoing the album. This process was more like sound sculpture rather than linear construction. “It was a few months of sound design: coming up with sounds that he thought were cool, sampling movies, sampling things and putting them over keyboards, coming up with ideas,” Beavan said. “That’s months. You take time to do that. And then when you finally go to lay things down, then—it can move in a fashion that’s more designed for speed, creativity, and sonic accessibility.”

This studio space, Le Pig, was notoriously also known as “The Tate House,” because it was where Charles Manson’s followers murdered Sharon Tate and several other people. Contrary to popular belief, Reznor told the Los Angeles Times in 1994 that he “didn’t rent it because someone had been murdered there or for publicity, and I certainly don’t give a [expletive] about Charles Manson. I just loved the view. If it affected the way the record sounded, it was simply because it was so isolated. I’d go for a week without leaving the place.” In keeping with the cloistered vibe, there were usually just two other people working on the music when Beavan was around: Reznor and producer Flood.

“A typical day would be—you show up around 4 p.m. at the studio and then play The Legend Of Zelda for about three or four hours, then get dinner, and then start working,” Beavan remembered. “That was pretty much our thing. By 7 in the morning, Flood and I had probably drunk 10, 12 cups of coffee each, and we’d just sit out on a bench and watch the sun come up. It was amazing, totally cool.” The recording environment was intense, however: Beavan’s role was to not only help Reznor puzzle out musical tones and texture—“He didn’t usually come up with parts before he had a sound,” Beavan said. “He’d find a sound and then create a part from it”—but also to capture these moments of inspiration.

“Part of the job in the studio with someone like Trent, who’s a volatile, creative guy, the ideas come in instances,” he explained. “You have to be ready at any moment to do vocals, or do keyboards, or do guitar. Like if he goes, ‘I want to sing the vocal,’ [you] have him pick up a mic, and it’s already run through everything, and you just press record. You have to have it like that or you’re going to lose the moment. Those moments are cosmic FedExes. You know what I mean? If you don’t catch ’em and bring ’em home, it’s going to somebody else.

“It was kind of like our own Vietnam, for Flood and I,” Beavan continued. “It was just like, ‘Get in and record, do it, go!’ When you have little technical glitches, like the MicroLYNX unit’s blowing up or the computer crashing—back then, the computer crashed all the time—it was like, ‘Ugh, screw it, we’re losing the time.’”

Still, Beavan—who had initially met Reznor because both were part of the Cleveland music scene and played in popular local bands—and the rest of the Nine Inch Nails musical camp were on the same sonic wavelength. “At the time we were doing it, we were trying to make something that bent all the genres,” Beavan said. “We were bending the industrial genre by using real song melodies, and bending a dark, ’80s new wave thing by doing all these harsh industrial sounds. Trent wasn’t concerned about making music that would sell; he was concerned about making art, you know, making something artful that would stand the test of time.”

Thankfully, Reznor’s label situation as he made The Downward Spiral was far more encouraging of this mindset. In fact, recording for Interscope (along with having his own label imprint, Nothing) was pretty much the polar opposite of Nine Inch Nails’ suffocating experiences with former label TVT Records (bitterness that never faded through the years). Then-Interscope head Jimmy Iovine gave Nine Inch Nails incredible freedom. “He goes, ‘I don’t understand what you guys are doing, but you know what you’re doing, so I’m just gonna let you do it,’” Beavan remembered. “That was one of the great things: Iovine kind of left it alone, didn’t try to [say] ‘Let me take a listen to this, and see if it’s gonna make it for radio.’ He trusted that he was going to do stuff that was in the zeitgeist of the moment and was going to make money for him.”

Besides giving them creative freedom, the label also supported Reznor and company financially and intellectually. Beavan noted the label connected them with legendary engineer Shelly Yakus to provide feedback on the studio they were building, introduced them to acoustician Coco Brandon, and ensured they had first-rate techs to keep their equipment up and running. Iovine even lent them John Lennon’s Mellotron: “He’d say, ‘Well, use this for a while, it’s been in my office for, like, eight years, take a listen. See if you can do something with it.’ Of course, we sampled it.”

Using samplers to create sound collages and leveraging other forms of nascent technology (such as early ProTools rigs) had a big impact on The Downward Spiral’s construction process. This primitive technology often forced the crew to get creative, working with (and around) limitations such as finicky computers and elaborate hardware linking. Still, the merging of digital and analog mediums—such as recording and editing sounds in ProTools and then transferring them to tape machines—also led to some unorthodox, impossible-to-replicate breakthroughs. “We were using a MIDI and a computer and MicroLYNX units to lock up tape machines to it,” Beavan said. “A lot of the guitar sounds we came up with was because we’d play the thing at twice the speed and then we’d slow it back down to get sound. You’d never be able to do that now.”

Lyrically, it also captures a very specific moment in time for Reznor. “When I started making Downward Spiral, I was also very depressed and the theme of self-destruction was heavily on my mind,” Reznor told The Los Angeles Times. “I wanted to make a record that explored the feeling that makes you feel so isolated that you feel self-destructive about everything in your life. I even plotted out the different ways you can go about destroying yourself. It was my attempt to chip away at all the darkness inside.” Yet the album was as much about the ongoing process of emotional decay and self-immolation as it was about the actual act of implosion. “The idea of The Downward Spiral is taken from the point of view of a person who discards every aspect of his life— his inability to relate to others, to personal relationships, religion, to fear of disease, which is a metaphor for a lot of things,” Reznor told Alternative Press. “I wanted to address not just anger but tension.” Although the protagonist of The Downward Spiral is resigned to his fate, he goes through everything that led him there: the hypocrisy of Christianity, his own vices and failures, abject depression, and external oppressive forces. Yet he’s still not going down without a fight, as evidenced by the violence-filled “March Of The Pigs” and the album’s generally frustrated, explosive bits of catharsis.

In Beavan’s eyes, the album’s thematic content is what helped it resonate with so many people. “[Reznor] was so good at capturing what people were feeling at the time,” he said. “People were feeling like there was no place for them in the world. The economic depression at the time, everyone was getting out of college and there were no jobs for them to go to. The frustration with the world was palpable. He voiced that frustration really well, just like Kurt Cobain did. That was probably the zeitgeist of the time. And his aggression—the aggressivity of the record was so intense, but was so unique in how it was manifested.”

Yet it wasn’t so much The Downward Spiral as the idea and sound of Nine Inch Nails that gave a commercial bump to industrial-tinged rock bands in the ensuing years such as Gravity Kills, God Lives Underwater, and Orgy. So many of these groups had ties to Reznor: Filter was fronted by his ex-Nine Inch Nails bandmate Richard Patrick. Stabbing Westward eventually added Reznor’s ex-Exotic Birds bandmate Andy Kubiszewski. Prick was the project of old pal Kevin McMahon; Marilyn Manson was on Nothing Records. Even tourmate David Bowie started getting heavily into jagged electronic music again (with mixed results).

Beavan still finds The Downward Spiral to be singular in its sonic influence. “There are certain things—like I hear influences from it in pop music, especially with the radio-ed out or distorted voices, the way they come in, the way breakdowns happen with a small distorted thing that would happen. So it’s like, now, there are little tiny hints of the things we were doing. But no one has gone in and made a bunch of Downward Spirals, you know.

“It’s funny because it’s a super-influential record on the idea of cool,” he added. “It’s not so much influential on a whole bunch of records that sounded just like it came out next year, but it’s influenced the idea of what is cool for over 25 years, or 20 years. Which is really cool, to have been involved with something like that. That it’s almost unique, and it’s a hallmark of what is actually cool.”

The Downward Spiral still sounds like no other record released in the ’90s: It’s dense and textured, with moments of both agonizing noise and tranquil beauty popping out of a layered, intricate mix. The album obliterated any sort of precedent for aggressive, heavy music, and created an innovative blueprint for how electronic and organic instruments could coexist. Even in an environment that was encouraging of new sounds and artists, Nine Inch Nails stood out.

“Between ’92 and ’94, I mean, really, the quality of music that was mainstream at the time—they were calling it alternative, but it wasn’t alternative, it was kind of mainstream—it was really a great time,” Beavan described. “There was great music. When you think of Tool and Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and all these other bands that were going at the time and were doing their thing… you know what I mean? It was not just C&C Music Factory.”

Beavan currently plays in the band 8mm with his wife, and is working on sound design, scoring, and mixing a short film for a friend, Gustavo Cooper. He also just finished mixing an album for Shining, a Norwegian “industrial-prog-metal” band. These current activities certainly had roots in The Downward Spiral days: For example, as he was finishing that album, Beavan also worked on mixes for Marilyn Manson’s debut, Portrait Of An American Family, which led to production and engineering work on future Manson albums. Working on The Downward Spiral also also gave him the chance to learn the production ropes from Flood, who was generous with his knowledge. “Every day was producer school,” Beavan said. “He just wanted to teach you things. You’d listen to his experiences, and he was all about paying it forward.”

Such support ended up emboldening him in future career endeavors. “When I left [The Downward Spiral] I was ready to produce records. I had no doubts at that point,” Beavan said. “Before I was always a little skittish about it, even though I was co-producing or assisting on things, this made me feel like I was ready. It gave me my shot. Trent was responsible for giving me my shot as far as being a live sound engineer going from clubs to arenas and stadiums. And then he gave me the shot to work on a major label record as an engineer. And then that record becomes one of the 50 most influential records of all time. I mean, damn, that’s pretty awesome, you know? I will always be indebted to that.

“It was amazing and fun to do and incredibly difficult hours, pretty much 20 hours a day, but it was amazing,” he added. “When you worked with Nine Inch Nails, you know, the music was the thing that drove you. You loved what he was doing.”