Silent for almost five
years, NINís Trent Reznor has clawed his way back to sobriety and sanity, and
delivered a gnashing new album to boot.
By Brian Stillman
Photography by Karin Catt
Trent Reznor can't stop fidgeting
The man behind Nine Inch Nails sits in an
overstuffed chair inside a staid London hotel room, crossing and uncrossing
his legs, tucking his feet underneath him, constantly shifting position.
drinks some coffee, takes off his sweater, then springs up to walk to an open
laptop on a nearby desk. He glances at it, hits some buttons, closes the
screen, and returns to the chair. Over the next hour, the ritual will repeat
itself numerous times, with only slight variation.
"Sorry, Iím really jet-lagged,"
Reznor apologizes. The singer flew in from the States last night to play two
sold-out shows in London; the performances are serving as warm-up to a
full-scale tour heíll soon be embarking on to support Nine Inch Nails' new
release, With Teeth (Interscope). "I got two hours of sleep, but Iíve got
some weird nervous energy."
Reznor flashes a boyish grin, and itís suddenly
hard to imagine how he ever got saddled with titles like Rockís Dark Prince.
Unless, of course, you listen to his music. Reznor, as the mastermind behind
Nine Inch Nails, has created a volatile mixture of industrial, heavy metal,
synth pop, and punk rock, dropping album after album of the most abrasive music
this side of Hellís own orchestra. With Teeth certainly burns with the bandís
trademark angst, but this time, the anger and aggression actually hide a
sordid, frightening truth: "Iím pretty happy right now." says Reznor.
"Wait!" he shouts. "Donít print
that! Youíll ruin my reputation. At least lie and say that Iíve got a dead body
in my closet or something."
While he might be in danger of blowing his rep
as the master of the morose, Reznor's got a lot to smile about. Heís about to
release his first record since 1999's lukewarmly received The Fragile (which
itself followed 1994ís fantastically successful multi-Platinum The Downward
Spiral), and the dates on the upcoming tour sold out almost instantly. Most
important, for the first time since the band's early days, Reznor's doing it
all while stone-cold sober. "Itís amazing," he says. "I feel
like Iíve got a new brain, and I canít wait to try it out. If I wasnít on tour
right now, Iíd be home finishing up all the songs Iíve got for the next
Nine Inch Nails broke out of Clevelandís underground music scene in 1989
with Pretty Hate Machine, a darkly aggressive synth-pop record filled with
self-reflexive anger, failed relationships, alienation, and disillusionment.
Propelled by the hit single "Head Like A Hole", unstoppable
performances (including the first Lollapalooza tour), and a sinister mystique,
the band soon found itself basking in critical and fan adulation.
Reacting to problems with his record company,
Reznor next recorded Ė in secret Ė 1992's Broken EP, a wild explosion of raw
anger built on a bed of mangled guitars and pummeling beats. The accompanying
series of videos, which featured a fake snuff film, sadomasochism, and
necrophilia, gained a major cult following even as MTV banned it from rotation.
Much to everyoneís astonishment, Broken earned Reznor a Grammy for Best Metal
Nine Inch Nails followed up the EP two years
later with The Downward Spiral. The single ďCloser,Ē with its chorus of "I
want to fuck you like an animal," became a surprise hit. In the following
years, Reznor started Nothing Records, releasing albums by Marilyn Manson and
Prick, as well as his own remixes, singles, and video collections. Nine Inch
Nails played the second Woodstock Music and Arts Festival that year, and did a
joint head-lining tour with David Bowie. "The success of The Downward
Spiral was completely unexpected," says Reznor, looking back.
"Suddenly, people's kid sisters were coming to our shows. That really
freaked me out."
"For a lot of fans, I know there was a
feeling of abandonment," he continues. "I remember seeing a bunch of
frat boys in the audience, people who would beat me up when I was younger, and
they were liking my music. And itís like, 'Wait a minute, this isnít for you,
this is for the other kids!'"
As if to derail his own increasing popularity,
Reznor next released The Fragile, a massive double album full of experimental
soundscapes and deep programming. It was a jarring departure from Nine Inch
Nails' earlier repertoire, and many who jumped on the "Closer"
bandwagon quickly jumped back off. "With The Fragile, I didn't intentionally
release a record that'd bum out all the fans of 'Closer,'" says Reznor.
"It did, in fact, do that, but it wasnít my goal. I was improvising in the
studio, moving in tangential directions, experimenting, leaving no stone
unturned. I was just trying to write the most honest album I could for the
A successful stadium tour, and a subsequent
live album and video, followed. And then Nine Inch Nails dropped off the face
of the Earth. Floored by problems with alcohol, the dissolution of Nothing Records,
and a falling out with his longtime manager, Reznor left many people guessing
whether he'd ever write a new record, and if so, whether anyone would care.
Now Reznor's got his life in order, and a
brand-new live band, which features longtime NIN drummer Jerome Dillon, bassist
Jeordie White (ex-Marilyn Manson, A Perfect Circle), keyboardist Alessandro Cortini
(modwheelmood), and guitarist Aaron North (The Icarus Line). With a renewed
sense of faith in his own abilities, he's prepared to prove the doubters Ė
including himself Ė wrong.
So tell us about the
last four years.
TR: I was in denial about being an
alcoholic, and I finally reached bottom four years ago. I was either going to
die or get my shit together. So I checked into detox. After that, I decided,
rather than start up a new record right away, Iíd spend some time getting
comfortable with myself. Since I got signed, I've always been in full-speed
ahead towards avoiding life. Iíd just keep working. And that burned me out.
How long was it before
you began working on the new record?
TR: I started it in January of 2004.
When I got sober a number of fears awoke. One was, would I be able to write? I
didn't know if I'd destroyed my brain. And I really didn't want to answer that
question the first week of not having a drink.
Was there a point
where you finally felt comfortable returning to music?
TR: Throughout 2003, as the year
rolled on, a number of changes occurred. The longest relationship I've ever had
in my life Ė my manager, my best friend Ė was coming to an end. The
relationship had become strained; I had to make a change there. And that was as
unpleasant as Iím sure you can imagine it would be Ė lots of name-calling and
backstabbing. And itís still wrapped up in legal ramifications that Iíd rather
not talk about.
But, as my life began falling into place, and I
realized that I can function in life and I can walk into a room and feel okay,
and I can like myself again, I felt like I was ready to try writing music
What was it like going
into the studio sober?
TR: When I started With Teeth, it was
like, suddenly I could think again. A lot of the fear I had went back to The
Fragile. I was on the slippery slope of trying to stay sober, knowing I had a
problem but not wanting to accept it, being fucked up, lying to myself and
othersÖ Just caught in the fucking downward spiral.
I canít believe I just said that [laughs].
Anyway, at that point, I would try to write and
it'd be a blank notebook. And thatís a bad feeling. So when I cleaned up, I
felt like I had superpowers.
What was the fear,
TR: Fear in my thinking that Iím not
good enough. Of my not living up to my own expectations Ė because, believe me,
they're much higher than those of my fans.
One would think that
after selling a couple million copies of Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward
Spiral, you'd feel pretty good about yourself.
TR: When it's coming from outside like
that, it doesn't sink in. I've always been insecure. I always felt like an
outsider and I wanted to be acknowledged. I came from a little shit town that
nobody ever got out of. I wanted to say, "Fuck you. I can get out." I
think back to my strategy of life when I was 23 and I started Nine Inch Nails.
It was: Get a record deal and write good music, and everything will be okay.
Fine. I got a record deal, I think I wrote good
music. And then I got a lot of things I never thought I'd get: Success, money,
critical acclaim. I sold a lot of tickets to the shows, I earned multi-Platinum
records and Grammies and blah, blah, blah. But at the end of the day, that
didnít really fix anything, and it feels really shitty when you tell yourself
that. What have I got to be upset about? Iíve got everything I've ever dreamed
of, but I still feel shitty. So what now?
Is that where the
addiction came in?
TR: I'm an addict, and that would have
come out no matter what I was doing. But this lifestyle definitely accelerated
it. Being thrust into this role of being successful Ė all my fears became
How was writing With
Teeth different from writing previous records?
TR: This was the fastest record I've
ever done. I think this all came from my demo-ing songs for the first time
since Pretty Hate Machine. In January 2004, I came out to Los Angeles from New Orleans and set up a small demo studio
machine, and a computer to record everything into. I decided that every 10
days, I'd have two songs demoed.
By May, I had two albums of stuff done. I went
back to New Orleans, fleshed out the songs, recorded real drums Ė
which is something I've wanted to do for a while Ė and finished everything up.
Dave Grohl provided
live drums for With Teeth. Previous records were almost entirely electronic.
TR: Yeah. The thing is, I couldn't
have done that before. I'd think to myself: Okay, I've got to call him up. And
then I'll have to meet him in the studio and play him the tracks. Then I'll
have to teach him the parts, and then I'll have to tell him if heís playing
something wrong and explain how I need it done. Fuck it, I'll just program that
The new record really
reminds me of Pretty Hate Machine. Not so much in the way the songs sound, but
in the sense that each song is its own piece of music and not necessarily part
of a larger concept, or arc, or vibe.
TR: I agree. Before I started this
record, I had the same sort of plan as Downward Spiral: An arc of songs, a
concept, the title, the song titles, the issues I wanted to deal with. But when
I started executing it, it began to feel heavy-handed. I was piling too much
shit on the songs, and they didn't need it.
Your records have
always been strongly rooted in the tradition of the album. Today, it seems like
bands live or die by their singles. Between the release of The Fragile and With
Teeth iTunes and other download systems Ė legal or otherwise Ė have exacerbated
this trend. Has this affected the way you approach your records?
TR: I remember when I got signed, the
A&R guys talked about building support over three records so that, by then,
we'd have a strong fan base and the music would sell really well. I canít
imagine anyone at any record label saying anything like that anymore.
I've thought about the way things have changed
with iTunes. I never bought singles, I never bought greatest-hits records. To me,
songs weren't as strong when taken out of context. So I like the album format.
Ten to 15 songs, two sides, I still think that way when I sequence my songs. I
still think side A and side B. I think the idea of presentation means something
Ė the way a record unfolds, the way someone experiences it. When thereís a
record that Iím really excited about and I can't wait to hear it, I go home,
take the phone off the hook, put on the music, and sit down and just experience
it. But let's face it: I know people arenít going to say, "Trent put out The Fragile. Let me take
two hours to sit down and listen to it, and then do that five or six more times
to really understand it."
This is the first time
youíve toured since becoming sober. How has it been different?
TR: The last tour we did was very bad
for me. I was in bad shape when it started off, and by the end of the year, I
was in worse shape. I'd get sick before the shows and I'd need a drink and I'd
experience all the trimmings that go with physical addiction. Before this tour,
my memory of playing live had been replaced by memories of fear Ė a year of
trying not to drink and getting sick, and the shame involved in the way I felt,
and ending up in the hotel room shivering and sweating. That wasn't any fun at
This time, I remember waking up the day before
the show and feeling like there was this hum of anxiety, this current running
through my body. I didn't like it Ė dread, almost. And then I walked onstage
and it was great. And I thought to myself, I can't wait until 24 hours from now
when I get to do it again. The fear was gone. Oh, and I actually remembered the
show the next day.
performances sold out in a matter of minutes.
TR: We sort of knew those shows would
sell out Ė we underplayed what we thought we could do. But we also were
acknowledging that it's been a long time. Someone at the show now who's a
teenager was maybe nine when we last played. Now, thatís a fucking long time.
Still, everyone was taken by surprise with the
furor in which the shows sold out. Iíve heard people bitching that they canít
get tickets. But we'll be coming through everyoneís town again, playing larger
places. Of course, if we play venues that are too much bigger, everyoneíll
bitch about that. So I can't win [laughs].
Does Nine Inch Nails
ever feel like a trap? Is it too big of a machine now?
TR: It doesn't feel like Gene Simmons
putting on makeup at 60. It feels like it still means something to me. Any
restrictions Iíve got are, I feel, self-imposed. So if I sat down and wrote
something that was completely outside of what I feel Nine Inch Nails means to
me, then I'd give it a new name, a new feel.
Do you see a point
where you'll release something as just Trent Reznor?
TR: I imagine so. This record feels
like Nine Inch Nails to me, and at the same time Ė and you'll have to take my
word for it Ė it doesn't feel like I'm trying to fit into something that fit me
10 years ago and, motherfucker, I've got to fit into it again. At the end of
the day, if a record is successful, if your career is up or down or you're
signed or not, you're left with yourself. And through the good times and the
bad times, I feel proud that what I've done with Nine Inch Nails has always
felt like the right thing to do. I wouldn't want to rewrite The Downward Spiral
or Pretty Hate Machine. It was honest for the guy who did them, a confused
fucker who was terrified. I recognize that guy, but I don't feel like him