Published on November 20th, 2019 | by Jeff Thiessen0
What is and What Should Never Be: Tapeworm
What is and What Should Never Be: Jeff explores Tapeworm and the untapped potential of the greatest 90s supergroup that never did release a song.
Being a rabid Nine Inch Nails fan from 1992 (release of ‘Broken’) to 1995 or so (about a year removed from the gripping afterglow the seminal ‘The Downward Spiral’ provided all of its adherents, and we rewarded Reznor handsomely with our militant commitment to NIN merch) was quite a run. Life was good! For many of us, ‘The Downward Spiral’ provided a thrilling, even logical progression from the death rattle of grunge. Indeed, Reznor’s lyrical vision was more conceptual in nature than the heroin stained genre that preceded his revolutionary new sound, and he felt more at home with Pro Tools software than a roaring Hagstrom. But when it was all said and done, for many of us it wasn’t overly difficult to seamlessly transfer the faux suburban depression Cobain and co. allowed us to collectively cultivate, and allow it to migrate over to Reznor’s industrial hellscape. Sure, his Marquis de Sade fixation tended to manifest itself in some corny ways at times throughout TDS, but it more than made up for those moments with its rampant nihilism and post-apocalyptic sonics. All of a sudden we had a record that was equal parts Nietzche and dick references — things were looking up!
That’s when things got a little dicey for us card carrying NIN fans. A couple years flew by with no sign of a follow-up anywhere in sight. We were reduced to gobbling up the remix-album table scraps Reznor would toss our way in a feeble attempt to buy him some time. When those ran out, many of us ran in droves to Reznor’s Nothing Records label, mindlessly buying whatever we could with that logo on the back. Those truly thirsty souls desperately hoped for something resembling NIN quality, while the realistic ones grudgingly accepted them as serviceable placeholders by proxy (for more on Nothing and how it affected my musical journey, click here).
We were a lost bunch and our jonesing had begun to take ugly forms. Furthermore, industrial was gaining serious momentum, as the mid-latter part of the nineties saw big releases from KMFDM, Rob Zombie, Filter, and dozens more thoroughly unmemorable acts openly copping NIN and mostly coming out ahead for it (Stabbing Westward, Gravity Kills, the Tea Party’s lame ‘Transmission’ album to name a few). The Antichrist Superstar was unleashed onto the world, on Reznor’s Nothing label to boot. It seemed anybody who could make a half-decent industrial album was wasting no time in doing so, all as a direct offshoot of the incredible effect ‘The Downward Spiral’ had on music at the time.
While all this was going on, Reznor was on a pretty intense PR tour for what seemed like years. And who could blame him for a victory lap or two; after all, he thumbed his nose at his TVT label, recording the vicious ‘Broken’ entirely without their knowledge, and following it up with a complete decimation of every preconceived notion of what a commercially viable album could look like when ‘The Downward Spiral’ sold over four million units. He deserved to invade our magazine covers, even if it meant us sometimes rolling our eyes out of our heads at quotes about David Bowie taking his calls and still wanting to kill himself. But by 1997 or so, all of us had basically had to accept the fact that Trent seemed to be in writer’s block hell, and optimism for a new NIN album had been pretty much been systematically eradicated with every random side project he took on being interpreted as one more nail in the coffin of our much-ballyhooed TDS follow-up. To us, composing the Natural Born Killers/Lost Highway soundtracks could be argued as acceptable detours from new music, but reading he also agreed to score the iD video game Quake really left morale in tatters.
Dire times indeed, and looking back on it, I’m reminded of Michael J. Fox’s quote to the commander-in-chief in The American President: “People want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” Well, Tapeworm was our sand.
To be more clear, in seemingly every interview he was doing around this time, Reznor found a way to shoehorn in a tantalizing quote regarding the mysterious new side-project called Tapeworm, and it was impossible to not be more than a little intrigued by this motley crew supergroup he was describing. Essentially this was the early form: Reznor, Danny Lohner, Maynard James Keenan, Page Hamilton of Helmet, and wait for it…Phil Anselmo of Pantera.
Yes, this is the sort of shit he was seriously peddling in the pages of Spin when he topped their most vital artist list in 1997. But Tapeworm wasn’t just mentioned in a one-off interview. Instead Reznor took any opportunity he could to gush about his new band, relying on grandiose proclamations and abstract musical concepts to really get our blood flowing. Not long after the gang grew bigger as Tommy Victor of Prong and Atticus Ross had the rope from the treehouse land down at their feet. By this point we were all-in.
Now, objectively examining the ingredients in the recipe, it’s nothing short of mind-blowing that so many of us were genuinely over-the-moon about the Tapeworm concept but if nothing else, hindsight will allow this to be viewed as a perfect illustration of how ugly group-think can get when things feel truly bleak. Anselmo+Reznor+Keenan wasn’t a can’t miss – it was a textbook “can’t fucking hit”. Instead, the question we should’ve been asking ourselves was: how many drugs and what kind that that led to one of them actually saying something alone the lines of “Hey, I just heard Pantera’s ‘Fucking Hostile’ track and I think Phil could bring something to the table for Maynard’s new prog demo he’s fleshing out”.
And maybe at times we were close to asking the hard questions, but then like clockwork, a perfectly timed picture of them hanging in the studio would get released and totally throw us off the scent. Seriously, that’s how debilitated we had become. I can only imagine what other fanbases thought of us when they saw us passionately dissecting leaked Napster Tapeworm demos that were clearly fake.
This was the sad reality of so many NIN fans until finally, mercifully, ‘The Fragile’ was released five years after TDS, September 21, 1999. The wait was worth it, as the sprawling double album proved to be a bona fide masterpiece. All of a sudden that project with the guy from Tool was ancient history, a passionate fling that felt so bizarre and shameful, at times it felt like it didn’t actually happen. Or best-case scenario, a mutant form of synchronicity.
In theory ‘The Fragile’ should’ve effectively buried Tapeworm. After all, in our heart of hearts we all knew this band would never actually put anything out, much less a full album (and time has proven this assumption to be correct). But somehow it managed to survive long after, and actually continued to be fairly consistently referenced in forums and interviews until 2004, when Reznor had enough and announced it was, “dead for forseeable future.” And just in case there were any stragglers holding onto any Hail Mary hope for Tapeworm greatness, he went on to add “the bottom line is this: if the music had been great, all of this probably could have been worked out.” Well, there goes the neighborhood.
Truthfully, we’ll never really know how close we were to hearing Tapeworm’s music. Lohner did go on the record saying their debut was effectively done and waiting to be mixed, but the different labels involved created a brutal, albeit predictable levels of red tape. If I’m being honest, I don’t ever want any of those recordings to see the light of day. Now that the dust has settled and Reznor’s legacy in music safely locked down, we can easily look back and see Tapeworm was never about the music, or the potential of a game-changing super group album. Instead, it served a much more noble role, a bigger one: it gave us NIN fans something to believe in at a time when we didn’t feel like we deserved to believe in anything. It was a smokescreen that transcended itself into a living being.
What started out as a welcome distraction rapidly built up to a fool’s paradise we felt was close enough to reach out and touch. The idea, a completely absurd one, had become the institution. And since we had been broken down and reduced to heartless mercenaries by this point, we gamely offered up Tapeworm for our blood sacrifice until that fateful September 21st day in 99’. Our meal ticket never really did make any sense, but when you’re that hungry, you don’t pore over the ingredients. You stuff your face and anybody who questions the taste is thrown outta the kitchen.
Tapeworm, I salute you. The hero we needed, but not the one we deserved.