Trent Renor is clean,
sober, and even happy. Which only makes his dark vision for the future, as
heard on Nine Inch Nails new CD, that much scarier.
By James Gill
The Carling Glasgow Academy in Scotland is dense with smoke, but you can
just make out a silhouette clutching the mic stand. “Hello, pigs,“ comes a voice from the fog. Lights flash, the music
starts, and the dark stars of this theater macabre emerge and throw themselves
into the savage opener, “Mr. Self Destruct.“
* It seems like the two-hour gig to come will
be just the sort of visceral, angst-ridden exorcism with which Nine Inch Nails
won over so many black-clad outsiders throughout the Nineties. But then Trent
Reznor smiles. He jokes with his bandmates and banters with the crowd.
* “Manchester sucked last night, but you guys are
fucking awesome!“ he says with a grin, referring to the English soccer team
Manchester United. No longer the spindly goth poster boy of old, the muscular
frontman apparently follows—say it ain‘t so—sports. “Show me you‘re better than
* It‘s hard getting used to the new Trent
It usually takes more than half a decade for a
new Nine Inch Nails album to surface. Not this time. Reznor, clean and sober
for more than four years, is on a roll, With Teeth, the long-awaited follow-up
to 1999‘s The Fragile (which committed to tape the helplessness and despair of
drug addiction), was released just two years ago, in May 2005, And its
successor, Year Zero, is already on store shelves.
Reznor admits that the new disc‘s origins owe a
lot to boredom on the With Teeth tour. “It‘s fun to play the show,“ he
explains, “but the rest of the day is just waiting around.“ So the classically
trained musician embraced the “limitation“ that all he had to work with was a
laptop, and “some cool stuff started happening.“
After the tour, he expanded on the ideas he‘d
created on his computer, and thus the lyrical concept was born. This would not
simply be another album of gloomy introspection but the first of two
thematically ambitious discs: a big-picture political narrative about a
dystopian future in which a selfish populace has abused its world and must
suffer the consequences; and the story of an elusive force called the Presence.
At the time, Reznor had just moved permanently
Angeles, an incongruous choice for the antisocial frontman. “I didn‘t go to L.A. for the culture,“ he says with a
wry smile. “I moved there to be around my peers. The fake tits and celebrity
bullishit is all there, but it‘s not all
there is there. You don‘t see me out, or see pictures of me shopping. I’m
repulsed by it, to be quite frank. I needed to be around people who do what I
do to make the whole Year Zero thing
In search of the right setting in which to
build lyrics out of his concept, Reznor settled in a remote and “creepy“ house
in the California hills. After three months on the far side of
nowhere, he emerged with Year Zero. The singer explains that the main purpose
of the album was to call attention to what he sees as a totalitarian political climate
and the ways in which we are destroying ourselves and our planet.
“It was an epiphany of sorts. And it revolves
around sobriety,“ he explains. “When you‘re an addict, you feel like your
problems are the biggest problems in the world. I’m not saying I can change the
world, but now feel like it‘s my duty as a human to try and do something.“
Reznor has admitted that when he quit drugs, he
was worried that he wouldn‘t be able to write again but that With Teeth proved he could. So is
working with a concept for this new album a substitute for personal-demon
exorcising? Will he, like Korns Jonathan Davis, tap back into emotions that are
fast fading in the rear-view mirror?
“This is a good question because…” Reznor stops for a few seconds. “Let me just
think about this for a sec.“
Again, he pauses.
The silence starts to feel uncomfortable.
“I’ll just keep my mouth shut.“
“I know you‘re baiting me,“ he says, smiling
warmly. “I know how Korn did their last record,“ he starts, letting his guard
down. ‘I know where a lot of [ Jonathan Davis’] lyrics came from, because he
didn‘t write them.“
Reznor is referring to the songwriters and
producers Linda Perry, the Matrix, and his own friend and colleague Atticus
Ross, who worked on Korn‘s 2005 album, See
You On The Other Side.
“When the day comes that I have to hire the
flavor of the day to write my records for me so I can sound like I used to,
just to make money, stick a fork in me.“
Reznor becomes animated as he asserts that
whether or not you like Nine Inch Nails, or loved or hated this or that record,
he made them all for the right reasons. “Because it means more to me than
anything else in my life,“ he says. “I can sleep well at night—when I can
sleep—knowing that I always kept that pure. I’ll never put making money ahead
Still, it‘s hard to believe that Year Zero‘s subject matter is truly as
separate from real life as Reznor seems to want not only us but also himself to
believe. There are many parallels between the album‘s story and Reznor‘s: abuse
of body/planet, an ambivalent force against which you have no power (be it
addiction or the Presence), and having to cope with the aftermath.
“It‘s just what came out,“ he says, though he acknowledges
that you can only write what you know.
For anything to be believable it has to have ‘you‘
in it.“ And while the “you“ may be more obvious in intensity personal, self-flagellating
discs like 1992‘s Broken EP and
1994‘s The Downward Spiral, every NIN
album is a picture of where Reznor‘s head was at that time. As is YearZero—which is exactly why it lacks
the darkness of those earlier records.
“I‘m not ready to jump out that window. And a
few years ago I was,“ says Reznor. ‘I haven‘t found out the answers to
everything, but I’m not at war with myself as much as I was.“
He goes on to admit that his troubles continued
into sobriety, and that he felt compromised when he make With Teeth: He was clean, but he was still unconfident. “I was a
fuck-up, and I had fucked a lot of shit up—maybe even my career. So I
approached With Teeth with kid
gloves, slightly afraid to touch it at all.
“I look back now and see things I wouldn’t do
again,“ he continues, noting that he allowed too many people to comment on the
album before it was finished. “I just wasn‘t in a confident enough place to say
‘Thanks for your opinion, but I disagree.‘ I don‘t want to officially say that
I felt compromised on that record, but this time around I didn‘t let anybody in
Though the going was tough at times when he
recorded With Teeth, Reznor says he
was never tempted to fall off the wagon. When I’ll try it out. I spent several
years making sure that I’d had enough. I reached a point where there was no
romance, no illusion of fun, so even in dark times now, I honestly don’t look
on [booze and drugs] like, Ah, if I could just... ,, And he taps his arm and
simulates injecting, laughing at the thought.
“I’m not saying that can‘t happen. I could walk
out of here, go get a drink, and within a week I could be,“ he looks pensively
out the window, “dead, or...“ He pauses again. “Who knows what? But I‘m not
interested in doing that. I‘m on a path of healthiness. The process of working
on this record has been more rewarding than any other thing. I fucked up my
friendships, my relationships, and my health, but I never wanted to abuse music