When Nine Inch Nails released their second full-length album, The Downward Spiral, on March 8th, 1994, it immediately sent shock waves through the alternative music scene with its bold concept (Trent Reznor's dark examination of obsession, suffering and self-destruction) and even bolder industrial-rock sound and expert songcraft. Not long after, thanks to inimitable singles like "Closer," the album became a surprise mainstream hit and against all odds now ranks as one of the decade's most commercially successful albums, as well as one of its most artistically enduring. On the eve of The Downward Spiral's 25th birthday, we asked some of our favorite contemporary musicians to talk about their experiences with this pivotal record.
The Black Queen's Greg Puciato and Steven Alexander both have unique histories with Nine Inch Nails. Puciato's former band Dillinger Escape Plan have toured with NIN (and even covered "Mr. Self Destruct" with them at a few shows); while Alexander has previously spent time on the road teching for Reznor and Co.
Below, the two talk about the album's "hard contrast" from Nine Inch Nails' previous work, why it's a "benchmark for artistic boundary pushing," getting a lap dance to "Closer" and more.
TALK ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU HEARD THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL, AND HOW YOU DISCOVERED IT.
GREG PUCIATO Oddly enough besides the "Closer" video I didn't hear this album until after I saw their performance on Woodstock '94, which I was glued to on pay per view waiting for Metallica to come on. I was pretty much only watching for Metallica and Primus.
STEVE ALEXANDER I heard Downward for the first time when I was eight or nine years old. My aunt and uncle were obsessed with Depeche Mode, the Cure, Ministry, or any band that used keyboards and guitars ... much different than my metalhead parents.
PUCIATO Nine? Eight? I was fourteen, this is a travesty.
WHAT DOES THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL MEAN TO YOU?
PUCIATO It's sorta like an upward spiral ... but upside down.
ALEXANDER Movie samples.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL BECAME AN UNEXPECTED MAINSTREAM HIT, THANKS TO SINGLES LIKE "CLOSER." WHAT DID IT MEAN TO YOU THAT IT BECAME SO POPULAR? DID YOU FIND THIS EMPOWERING OR FEEL DISILLUSIONMENT?
PUCIATO I think in hindsight it's kinda amazing that a song with "fuck" in it so many times got so much airplay, even with the obvious silencing of the word. That's pretty crazy for back then. At the time I didn't feel any disillusionment, I think that entire time period, with so much alternative music becoming huge or relatively huge, was more inspiring than anything. As a kid, not knowing anything about how the music industry worked or who controlled what, it just kinda seemed like the weirdos had infiltrated the system, or created a new one.
ALEXANDER I have a hard time hearing what a singer is saying most of the time ... I think Greg might have said "fuck" once? I enjoyed a song being played on K-Rock that didn't have guitars until about 3 minutes in, instead of .3 seconds.
HOW, IF AT ALL, DID THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL INFLUENCE YOUR OWN CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT, OR THE WAY YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WRITING MUSIC?
ALEXANDER After Downward came out, for the first time I became aware that particular artists and people involved on a project have an influence on sound. Producers like Flood and Alan Moulder were people I could hear on a recording without reading the liner notes. I think Downward helped me dissect and understand very busy, layered, textured mixes in an enjoyable way.
PUCIATO I guess later, like around the time of the Dillinger Escape Plan's [2004 album] Miss Machine, that record and The Fragile became referenced in our camp quite a bit, as part of a larger group of benchmarks for artistic boundary pushing and attention to detail — as far songwriting on albums by "rock" based bands are concerned. They obviously still represent those things. That sorta stuff is more important to me than any kind of surface-level stylistic element. As far as stylistic elements are concerned though I will say that I'm a big fan of hard contrast, and of kinda repelling or pushing against the previous thing you did, and there's pretty hard contrast between Pretty Hate Machine, Broken, and The Downward Spiral. Not sure if that's a self-hate thing or more so just a discomfort towards being kept or defined or put in a box, maybe a little of both, either way I relate.
THE VIDEO FOR "CLOSER" WAS CHALLENGING FOR MANY VIEWERS, AND WAS CENSORED BY MTV. TALK ABOUT THE FIRST TIME THAT YOU SAW THE VIDEO.
PUCIATO Man I can barely remember shit I saw yesterday.
ALEXANDER I wasn't allowed to watch MTV because my stepmom thought Sting was the devil's music. But, I did it anyway. I remember enjoying the censored version of "Closer" on MTV better than the actual video because, of the "MISSING SCENE" cards. I viewed the uncensored version for the first time as part of "The Work of Director Mark Romanek" video collection in 2008 ... Yesterday, I saw a man bring a Subway meatball sub into Del Taco and make a mess.
PUCIATO That man has no idea that he is now a legend.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DOWNWARD SPIRAL TRACK, AND WHY?
PUCIATO I'm gonna have to say the opening and the close are sorta tied for me. "Mr. Self Destruct," the song musically, the lyrics, and I just have more personal connection to it now from having done it a couple of times with them in 2009 maybe? Somewhere around there. "Hurt" because it takes a lot to be vulnerable, especially like I said when the previous release was Broken, which was more or less a barbed middle finger.
ALEXANDER "Reptile" because it's the longest track and has all the conceptual elements, dynamics and tones from the previous tracks. It hints at the finale of the record. When I started working for Nine Inch Nails in ... 2011? Trent asked all of the band and crew, in some shitty warehouse/practice space, if anyone knew the origins of the "Reptile" intro synth. "Does anyone know what synth this is?" No one answered. I knew, but kept quiet. The loud and wrong were later thrown into the pit.
IS THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL SOMETHING YOU REGULARLY GO BACK AND LISTEN TO? OR DOES IT REPRESENT A CERTAIN PERIOD OF TIME IN YOUR HISTORY?
PUCIATO Not particularly because I think I've been too close to that camp now through so many different people. In good ways though. But sometimes. There's a lot of different time periods and memories and people all tied to that band in general now. Even more so for Steve obviously.
ALEXANDER It's strange because that record was something I heard as a child, so it does have a place. I ended up working for Nine Inch Nails later in life and heard the songs in a live context more than most people. But, working on the side of the stage is a lot different than getting a lap dance to "Closer" at the Spearmint Rhino.
PUCIATO But are either of those things better than taking a meatball sub into a Del Taco?