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.
Below, Cold Cave's Wes Eisold talks about how Downward's "honest but complicated account of the human spirit" inspired his own creativity, what it was like touring with Nine Inch Nails and more.
TALK ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU HEARD THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL, AND HOW YOU DISCOVERED IT.
WES EISOLD I didn't discover it. It was unavoidable and quickly became a part of pop culture. I was in high school when it came out. Nine Inch Nails went from a secret to a cult to everywhere. When Pretty Hate Machine came out a girl with her ears pierced 18 times played it for me on her Walkman on a Florida school bus. Perfect, I know. I liked it but Broken was the first Nine Inch Nails record that spoke to me. I wasn't really into metal. I liked punk, hardcore, goth and early indie bands. "Wish" just fucked everything up. It had more in common with the realness and direct hit of hardcore than fantastical metal. I loved it but it shot my interests underground instead of over. So then came The Downward Spiral and it's a total explosion and also a continuation. If I'm speaking totally honest and a bit narrow minded in the grand scheme of my small high school life — industrial music did become a "thing" but that thing quickly went from Ministry and Skinny Puppy and Front 242 to a mainstream interpretation of that world which was basically just Nine Inch Nails and Manson. It was just popular music at that time and I've always been someone to shy away from that.
Pop culture changes definitions and intent. Eventually grunge kind of meant you didn't care about anything and industrial meant you carried a lunchbox to school. People associate the 80s with dark brooding music but that's a little too simple. Of course you have to consider the music that would be made a few years later in the next decade by the next musicians after years of listening to all this dark brooding music. What follows is always worse. People think the world is so fucked now but it's probably nothing compared to what it's about to become. The 80s everyone was in shell shock. The 90s you had to deal with the hangover. That hangover was Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. Both of those bands have a darkness to them but one was based in rock and one was shaping the future.
WHAT DOES THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL MEAN TO YOU?
You have to consider the culmination of context, taste, urgency and all the things that makes it otherworldly. The title, the songs, the sounds, the looks, the influences, the production, Flood, Alan Moulder, the Cielo Drive house. You can still hear the Wax Trax and Coil and Throbbing Gristle influences in it. You can hear glam in it. It's violent and aggressive and sexy without being macho, desperate, boneheaded or pathetic. It's still a referential album for artists today yet 100 percent of the time when people aim to sound like that era of Nine Inch Nails they blow it. And I really think that's because the depth of all that went into Nine Inch Nails at the time is so singular and special to Trent. What I mean is, although Nine Inch Nails was the industrial breakout band, it's not like all these incredible industrial bands started popping up left and right. And bless them but how could they? All of the elements that make up this album are just peerless and in their own world. It may sound cliche but I think The Downward Spiral is a really honest but complicated account of the human spirit. The title just sort of sums up that era perfectly.
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?
No, I mean, I was really checked out and driving across the northeast to see mostly pretty terrible hardcore bands made up of other 16 to 21 year olds and still listening the Cure and the Smiths. I loved Ministry. I loved Nine Inch Nails. I liked Skinny Puppy and Front 242. When something reaches that level of popularity it kind of gets swallowed by culture and becomes part of the collective unconscious more than being like, my favorite band or something. Messages just get reinterpreted to people's own simple situations and you can't control that. Like, I hear younger people now talking about how radical Rage Against the Machine must have been and not to discredit them at all but in real time it was just high school jocks giving teachers the finger and saying "Fuck You!" Intellect replaced by rage. I didn't feel disillusioned about anything. I thought the music was really special and if anything I was intrigued by how a difficult listen became so celebrated. Another great thing about this album is how much it stressed out other bands and it was really fun watching them try to reinvent themselves to sound like Nine Inch Nails.
HOW, IF AT ALL, DID THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL INFLUENCE YOUR OWN CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT, OR THE WAY YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WRITING MUSIC?
In my own way I can relate to the trajectory of Nine Inch Nails. My first album Cremations shares some of the influences that early Nine Inch Nails had. I wanted to make esoteric industrial not dissimilar to the genre's early records. I liked Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Cabaret Voltaire, the Grey Wolves, White Hospital. I started making music and aimed for that but I accidentally kept writing pop songs. I remember plugging in an old Casio through a rat pedal and fucking "Life Magazine" or "Love Comes Close" would come out and thinking to myself, You fucking asshole! It's just not what I wanted to make. It was all 80s influenced and a life of only surviving via radio and early MTV was engrained in me. You can hear Human League, Bowie, Joy Division, New Order, Tubeway, Depeche Mode in Nine Inch Nails even at their most sadistic. The Downward Spiral album freed me from caring too much that my desire to work on a harsher palette was being overrun by an inherent pop DNA. That sensibility is what separated The Downward Spiral from potential contemporaries.
IS THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL SOMETHING YOU REGULARLY GO BACK AND LISTEN TO? OR DOES IT REPRESENT A CERTAIN PERIOD OF TIME IN YOUR HISTORY?
It's both. It's contemporary because of my experience with it. I had a real-life moment with it being up close and personal for a few months. We toured Europe and the U.S. wth Nine Inch Nails a few years ago and I revisited the album before those tours and then watched them play a lot of the material over the course of 30 shows. I think part of the reason he brought Cold Cave on tour was that we are contemporary and not tied to his past or the 90s or the landscape of that record when it was released. In a personal way that tour was a really, really wonderful time. It didn't change my path artistically but it was inspiring to watch and get to know a consummate professional and artist. There aren't many of that caliber. The first time around it was competing with my adolescence. I was becoming an artist and laying ground work for the band I would start a few years later. There's a depth to the album that I understood more with time. It evades resurgence but is somehow re-popularized and relevant to today.