Add Violence: My Journey With Nine Inch Nails

Challenged by friends, I set out to answer the question: “Why do I love Nine Inch Nails?”

It is a puzzling question, for sure. Anyone who knows me would never guess my favorite band. I am a classical musician by training, and a quiet person by nature. Even more puzzling is why I like Nine Inch Nails, but have never found a single other band in the same genre that I can tolerate. For me NIN is, apparently, unique.

[A note: This is NOT an overview of Nine Inch Nails, or a Greatest Hits compilation. Let me just note that although I am a decent musicologist in my own field, I am 100% not qualified to judge rock music. So I am only offering my own subjective reactions, not opinions.]

First I’ll tell you how I discovered Nine Inch Nails. That will probably reveal some things about why I like this music.

Picture it: Second Life, early 2007. I was a few months old and had fallen in with a community led by an artist and builder named Baron Grayson. Baron’s creativity fascinated me. The things he could pull out of his imagination were amazing. He was sort of Goth, which was a new thing for me. The worlds he created were dark, beautiful and rich with narrative.

Baron Worlds Collage


Baron and Trent smallBaron streamed NIN as the background music on his sims. The music was a perfect match. As you can see, he even modeled his avatar after him.

So NIN was the soundtrack of my life in 2007. This also tells you at what point in Trent Reznor’s evolution I joined the stream. It was firmly post-sobriety. I love all music by NIN but for this discussion I’m going to focus on music from 2002 on.

When I first heard NIN, I admit I recoiled from the more violent, screaming stuff. But Baron also played the moody ambient NIN and the acoustic and stripped down songs from the album Still. All the music on Still is pretty quiet, so it was easy for me to listen to.

[Adrift & At Peace – Still, 2002 – 2:52]

I remember thinking how much it reminded me of Arvo Pärt: meditative, hypnotic, and gently repetitive, like a mantra. The gentle repetition gives the music a feeling of stasis, of being suspended in time. At the same time, one can sense a subtle sadness underneath the serene sounds. I think I connected with that sadness, even more than the serenity.

Then Year Zero came out. At the time,  my life was in a place where the album’s message that “the world is fucked” totally resonated with me. All that despair in the lyrics, and the more violent sounds, started connecting with the darker places in my head.

Drawn by the darkness, gradually I found myself more willing to listen to the louder songs. And I was surprised by what happened. It was almost as if the music created a container, and instead of trying to push away my black thoughts and emotions, I discovered I could pour them into this container… and they wouldn’t destroy me.

For example, the last half of this next song just explodes in a violent tidal wave of noise – and somehow I found that instead of shrinking from it, I could fucking swim in it. I felt this exhilarating mix of primitive rage and elation.

[The Great DestroyerYear Zero, 2007 – 3:17]

I can barely tell you how liberating it was, after 50 years of trying to deny my dark side, to finally embrace it.

When The Slip was released the following year, I was embroiled in a really twisted relationship in Second Life. I was massively depressed, and one song on The Slip seemed to have been written especially for me. I played it over and over. Like many of Trent Reznor’s tortured torch songs, it’s very bleak and yet very tender.

[Lights in the SkyThe Slip, 2008 – 3:29]

So that’s the emotional underpinnings of my love of Nine Inch Nails.

But there are also some more objective things I like.

I like that the music sounds transparent, even when it’s loud; the various electronic sounds are separated so that it feels like there’s space between them, and you can hear them, instead of having it all blend into one big soup of noise.

I like how he layers all the sounds, building layers and then stripping them away. If the sound was full out all the time, I would become numb. But he controls the level of intensity, letting it rise and fall so it’s never too much for too long. That actually serves to make the intensity even more intense. It is really true that nothing is so loud as when it is surrounded by silence.

[Copy of aHesitation Marks, 2013 – 5:22]

I like his use of dissonance and distortion, not gratuitously, but sparingly, to make a point, like the pain represented in the opening notes of Hurt, or the distorted bending as the world begins to come apart in the second verse of The Great Destroyer.

I like that he uses motifs that appear in several songs. They are like clues that connect ideas. Sometimes he will invert the motif, or harmonize it differently, sort of teasing the listener into following him into the maze. He refers to it as a “trail of breadcrumbs.”

I like that the music is intelligent. It’s emotionally raw, for sure, but it’s not mindless. It rewards thoughtful exploration.

As a singer, I have a deep appreciation for poetry, and I find his lyrics very affecting.

And I love the energy and the pure physicality of the hard beats. It’s part of what creates the container for my darkness, capturing my body and making me get involved. I can’t sit still while listening to Nine Inch Nails. It compels me to respond.

I’ll stop talking now and simply offer three songs that illustrate these points.

[Less ThanAdd Violence, 2017 – 3:30]

[While I’m Still HereHesitation Marks, 2013 – 4:02]

[Just Like You ImaginedThe Fragile, 1999 – 3:49]

to be continued…


How to go to sleep

How to sleep like a babyApropos of nothing, I want to say something about insomnia.

I struggled with insomnia for many years, and it made my life miserable. Sleeplessness starts a chain reaction that affects everything else in your life: your energy and productivity, your mood, your sex life, your health, your personality and your mental health included. When I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t do well at work, I was irritable and my relationships suffered. My perception of the world was skewed, so that all my problems seemed much larger, and it seemed that everyone was against me. My immune system suffered, making me more susceptible to illness. Worst of all, insomnia made me depressed, and depression triggered more sleep difficulties, including nightmares and night terrors.

I wish I could say there is an easy three-step solution that will help you conquer your sleep difficulties. I was able to conquer mine, and this method does work, but takes time and self-discipline. Everyone is different, and some things work for some people but not others. All I can do is tell you what worked for me. With a lot of discipline, over time, little by little, I gradually got back to normal, healthy sleep.

Before anything else, I should mention that if you have an underlying cause of anxiety, coping with that will solve most of the problem.

After that, the core of the strategy is to train your body, mind and emotions to sleep when it’s time to sleep. This training will eventually work, but it may require some sacrifices. The payoff, though, is huge: less depression, more energy, feeling better about life, doing better at work, being more likeable, and in general being healthier and happier.

How do you train your body, mind and emotions to sleep? There is more to it than simply telling yourself to sleep. There could be many factors keeping you awake, and some of them might not respond to simple willpower. You need to train yourself, consistently and clearly, to sleep when it’s time to sleep.

First: develop a regular bedtime and stick to it. I know this sounds boring, but it really works. Even if you don’t feel sleepy, go to bed at the appointed hour. It may be tough for the first week, or even the first month, but eventually, your mind and body will be conditioned, and you’ll find yourself getting sleepy at the appointed hour. If you are tempted to stay up, just remember that every time you don’t observe your bedtime, you set yourself back, even to the point of having to start over.  If you can’t sleep, just lie in bed and rest with your eyes closed. Try to form a mental image of something pleasant, abstract and far away. Odds are, once you stop thinking about yourself, your life and your surroundings, you will fall asleep. If not, resting will still be good for you.

Once you have an established bedtime, the next step is to teach your body, mind and emotions to wind down. Create a period of about two or three hours before your appointed bedtime, that will be a buffer zone between wakefulness and sleep. In my case, I go to bed at 11:00 p.m., and the period from 8:00-11:00 p.m. is my sleep buffer zone. During this three hour period, I avoid certain activities, to allow myself to wind down and prepare to switch off for sleep. Protecting the sanctity of that two to three hour buffer zone is crucial.

Let’s talk about your body. You need to give your metabolism time to wind down before bedtime. If your body is working on digesting a meal, it’s going to be harder to fall asleep. So, for at least two to three hours before bedtime, don’t eat or drink anything. No bedtime snacks or late dinners. No alcohol, caffeine or sugar within three hours of bedtime. Also, it may sound obvious, but consider reducing your overall intake of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, sugar and other stimulants. Also avoid sleep medications if possible; the idea is to train your body to sleep naturally.

Add more physical activity during the day. Not only is it good for you, but it helps your metabolism function more normally, which can make it easier to fall asleep at night. Inactivity contributes to insomnia.

Now let’s talk about preparing your mind for sleep. Just like your metabolism, your mind has to wind down before you can fall asleep. The more mental stimulation you have in the late evening, the harder it will be for you to sleep. There is evidence that over-use of electronic media of any sort, including television, computers, video games, phones and other devices, contributes to insomnia. All these things can switch your mind into wakefulness rather than sleep. Avoid them for two or three hours before bedtime, to allow your mind time to wind down. Reading can go either way: a relaxing book can lull you to sleep, but an exciting mystery is more likely to keep you awake. Choose your bedtime reading carefully.

The same goes for your emotions. For at least two to three hours before bedtime, don’t watch the news, read newspapers or blogs, post on forums, or allow any other mental input that could make you feel anxious, angry or depressed. Your emotions have to wind down, too.

Now that we’ve identified some of the triggers that keep your brain awake, and have talked about how to deal with them, let’s talk about training yourself to sleep. Timing and environment are two of the most important ways to teach your subconscious to sleep when it’s time to sleep.

Timing and schedule are the crucial elements in this strategy. As I mentioned before, it is important to develop a regular bedtime, and stick to it. In addition, develop a regular bedtime routine. Do the same things in the same order every night. It’s a signal to your subconscious that it’s time to sleep. It may take some time, but eventually, your subconscious will get the point.

The environment where you sleep is important too. A quiet room with a comfortable bed helps, of course. If possible, use the bedroom just for sleeping (or other relaxing activities). Start calling it the sleep room – reminding your subconscious what it’s for. Don’t allow a television, computer or work desk in the sleep room. If there is a source of mental stimulation in the sleep room, your subconscious will learn to wake up when you go in there, which is not what you want.

Now that you know what to do, the next step is to do it, and keep doing it. It takes awhile. I finally achieved regular sleep after observing these methods for about four months. Don’t stop, or else you might have to start all over, retraining yourself from the beginning.

Sleep well! And may you have sweet dreams.