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25 Years Ago: Trent Reznor Gets Rough on Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Broken’

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In 1992, Trent Reznor was in a bad place. Literally.

Nine Inch Nails’ head honcho was renting the Beverly Hills home where, in 1969, Charles Manson’s “family” had murdered five people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. In the house, Reznor put together a recording studio that he dubbed Le Pig, after an infamous incident in which the murderers had used Tate’s blood to scrawl “PIG” on a living room wall. After working at four other studios, Reznor was using Le Pig to finish Nine Inch Nails’ second major release, Broken.

Of course, Reznor had been in a bad place emotionally long before he moved into the house. In 1989, he had witnessed Nine Inch Nails break through with Pretty Hate Machine, only to become embroiled in a battle over creativity with the band’s label, TVT. While Reznor wanted to move on to darker, edgier material, TVT demanded a commercial, synth-pop follow-up immediately. When Trent refused to comply, his record label refused to put out any other Nine Inch Nails music.

“We made it very clear we were not doing another record for TVT. But they made it pretty clear they weren’t ready to sell,” Reznor told Spin in 1996. “So I felt like, well, I’ve finally got this thing going but it’s dead. [Producer Mark Ellis] Flood and I had to record Broken under a different band name, because if TVT found out we were recording, they could confiscate all our s— and release it.”

After coming off a high-profile slot on the inaugural Lollapalooza tour, the live version of Nine Inch Nails disbanded, but not before leaving an indelible mark on Reznor. The live lineup’s aggressive mix of rock and electronic music had given the musician a notion of the way forward and he began to put together new songs and sounds with Flood, who had already produced “Head Like a Hole” and “Terrible Lie” on Pretty Hate Machine.

Listen to “Happiness in Slavery”

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What began with Reznor and Flood surreptitiously recording this heavy, industrial-influenced material ended with Nine Inch Nails’ main man working alone, expressing his mental state through the music. The record label conflicts, the creative frustrations, the fractious live incarnations of Nine Inch Nails all seemed to merge in these new songs, which carried titles like “Happiness in Slavery” and “Help Me I Am in Hell.” Reznor wrote most of the new tunes on guitar, which allowed for a more aggressive approach, and he (and Flood) heavily distorted most of the sonic elements, from Mellotrons to dog barks. On “Wish,” Reznor indulged his darkest moods, including the words “fist f—” in the lyrics, along with the mantra “You know me / I hate everyone.”

“A lot of people may say, ‘Oh, I don’t like it as good as Pretty Hate Machine because it’s not as accessible or it’s not as pretty or it’s not as sad,’ or whatever the f— they might say,” Reznor told Chaos Control in 1992. “That was meant to be a flexing muscle, it was meant to be an abrasive, hard-to-listen-to thing, and lyrically, it changed viewpoints. Because where Pretty Hate Machine’s viewpoint was kind of like ‘Things might suck, but I still care about myself and I still want things to be cool trying to fix them,’ Broken was ‘Things suck, and I suck and I don’t f—ing care about anything, including myself.’ And that’s not as positive a statement to make or yell, and a lot of people I don’t think want to hear that statement and that’s a specific statement for a specific mood for people.”

But it was a specific mood that appealed to the folks at Interscope, who worked out a deal to transfer Nine Inch Nails from their record deal at TVT to the major label. Reznor was suspicious at first, feeling he was being “slave traded,” but relaxed a bit when he was assured of creative control over his band’s music. After having kept Broken under wraps for much of the year, he presented the EP to Interscope that summer.

In addition to those six songs, Reznor told his new label that he would also like to put out two cover songs – a version of Adam Ant’s “Physical” and a new twist on “Suck” by Pigface, of which Trent had been a member. Reznor would have preferred to release these songs separately in 1991, but didn’t have a label that was willing to do so. To separate them from the Broken material, Interscope included the two tracks on a bonus mini-CD for the first 250,000 copies, then added the songs to the regular disc as tracks 98 and 99 (with tracks 7 through 97 consisting of one second of silence, each).

Listen to “Physical”

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“It was a way to distance them from the other music because it wasn’t part of the same mindset,” Reznor said. “Unfortunately, the risk involved is, with radio being as conservative as it is, I knew they would jump on ‘Physical’ or ‘Suck’ because they’re a bit more digestible than the other stuff, so I’ve tried to make them as obscure as possible.”

Just as Reznor didn’t want the covers to overshadow Broken, the multi-instrumentalist didn’t want the visual components of Nine Inch Nails to take precedence over the music. Although controversial videos were released with lead single “Wish” (in which Reznor and pals play inside a cage surrounded by malicious thugs) and “Happiness in Slavery” (in which a man becomes ground meat), Reznor had worked with director Peter Christopherson on a full-on Broken movie. He shelved the pseudo-snuff film – featuring torture by razor blades and blowtorches – although bootleg copies were gobbled up by rabid fans.

Broken became Nine Inch Nails’ major label debut when it hit stores on Sept. 22, 1992. The EP carried with it a nod to the live band that inspired the harder-edged music, with Reznor writing, “The sound on this recording was influenced by my live band in 1991 featuring: Richard Patrick, Jeff Ward, James Woolley.”

Listen to “Last”

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Trent also made a different sort of gesture to his former record label. Following the “thank you” section of the liner notes, he wrote, “No thanks: You know who you f—ing are” and also “The slave thinks he is released from bondage only to find a stronger set of chains.”

Chains or not, Broken was released to an ecstatic reception from most fans, some of whom had been waiting for a follow-up to Pretty Hate Machine for three years, others who had become interested in Nine Inch Nails via their Lolla shows. It went platinum in the U.S. by December, the same month that the band released the remix EP Fixed. In 1993, “Wish” won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance, which caused Reznor to joke that his epitaph could read “Died. Said ‘fist f—.’ Won a Grammy.”

And there were more ugly thoughts and serrated music to come, with Reznor opting not to tour with Nine Inch Nails to promote Broken in favor of getting to work on the project’s second full-length album, which would come out in 1994. While living and creating at the Tate murder house and exploring the darkest corners of his mind, Reznor would start with an appropriate title: The Downward Spiral.

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