The Nine Inch Nails' front man, having
survived his own demons, has new worlds to conquer beyond music.
TORONTO — SHOWTIME was still a few hours away, and Trent Reznor of Nine
Inch Nails was sitting in a hushed, candlelit room backstage at the Air Canada
Centre trying to find his scream. Nails' music sounds like a massive nightmare
machine, but, on this day, Reznor woke up with his voice small and croaky. As a
humidifier gently chugged away in the corner, the rock star smiled faintly and
asked, "How old am I again?"
The answer is 43, but Reznor, who clawed
through some dark years of drug addiction, is a picture of vitality these days
with his brawny shoulders and clear-eyed confidence. He is also serious and
candid. Asked about the time when the backstage scene at a Nails show would have
been less seance and more human sacrifice, Reznor squinted down at his palms
like a farsighted fortune- teller.
"I got so bad that I couldn't even
write down songs that were caught in my head," he said. "And then I would feel
depressed, so I would go and get more messed up. I finally pulled out of it.
Then it was great to discover that I hadn't killed myself and my liver still
worked and eventually my brain started functioning again, and then [I] was
enjoying the process again."
That process is, in simple terms, caging up
the songs that swim through his stormy and considerable imagination. Reznor,
whose band will play a sold-out show at the Forum on Saturday, is one of the
acclaimed creative figures of his generation in rock, a showman who occupies a
territory somewhere between the digital throb of the dance club and the
thunderous amps of arena rock. There's always been a melding, too, of the tribal
and the technological in his work, and that has been the most fascinating
subplot of Reznor's career here in 2008.
The first week in May, Reznor
typed the words, "This one's on me," and posted the message on his website,
NIN.com, along with an entire new album's worth of raw, twitchy music titled
"The Slip." There was no advance notice given, no advertising or anything that
remotely resembled a conventional record-label approach. More than 1 million
fans downloaded "The Slip" by the end of the month.
It was the second
Nine Inch Nails release in two months. Reznor posted the 36-track "Ghosts I-IV,"
an unsettling instrumental collection, in similar fashion earlier in the year.
Nine Inch Nails -- which is the name Reznor records under; it's more of
a brand-name for him than a traditional band -- finished off a contractual
commitment to Interscope Records last year, and Reznor walked away and found the
fear of a truly liberated man.
"There was a moment of rejoicing, but at
the same time it was also quickly followed by panic, because there is nothing
real clear or right to do today," Reznor said. "I mean, it's obvious what record
labels are doing is wrong, but it's not entirely clear what the right thing is
Reznor's "right thing" appears to be relentless work. He doesn't
just follow his muse, he chases it and wrestles it to the ground. In addition to
those two albums released this year, he has been meeting with HBO to pitch his
idea of writing a two-year series called "Year Zero," which would be based on
the intricate science-fiction tale that he created for a 2007 album of the same
title. It also came alive for fans as an alternate-reality game on the Internet.
If the television show moves forward as Reznor expects, he will add new
chapters to "Year Zero" through another album, another game and a concert tour.
Reznor was giddy talking about this 21st century creative life that
allows him to be a rock star but also weave tales that can be watched on
screens, pursued through the Internet and performed on stage: "That's my grand
ambition. Will it happen? I don't know. But it's the most exciting thing on the
horizon when I wake up in the mornings. I mean, think about it; being able to
integrate different forms of media to tell a story with music."
then his cellphone went mad with lights and vibrations. "Ugh. Sorry, the whole
world is calling me." He turned the phone off without looking at the name of the
caller. "It can wait. Sometimes you just have to take a breath."
smirked, and for a moment the only sound was the humidifier gurgling away. "OK,
what were we talking about?"
MICHAEL TRENT Reznor
was born in leafy central Pennsylvania in a little town called Mercer. His dad
had the same first name, so the son went by his middle name. The youngster loved
music and computers and, in the early 1980s, he was part of a generation that
began to truly meld the two for its own pop-culture pursuits.
always been into computers," said Reznor, whose latest album began on a laptop.
"When I was getting out of high school and forming my identity musically, all of
it was really coming into the fold, computers and drum machines. It felt like,
you know, I'm in the right place at the right time. I liked the collision."
Reznor found his way to Cleveland, where he worked as an assistant
engineer and the janitor at Right Track, a recording studio. He'd heard how
Prince, the R&B and funk superstar, created entire soundscapes on his own by
playing each instrument and layering them over one another in the studio. He set
out to do the same -- the result was 1989's "Pretty Hate Machine," written,
arranged and performed by Reznor.
The music was harrowing human emotion
within the pulse and crash of an industrial soundscape. It wasn't man versus
machine, it was man vis-à-vis machine, as disturbing at times as living tissue
pinned down in an angry laboratory. Take the song "Down in It": "So what does it
matter now / I was swimming in the hate now I crawl on the ground / And
everything I never liked about you / Is kinda seeping into me."
the tour for the 1994 album, "The Downward Spiral," Reznor slipped into a
destructive cycle of addiction. "I was ill-equipped for social situations and
found that having a few drinks made it easier. Then I found out I liked cocaine
too. And try living in New Orleans, where the bars don't close. You come home in
the morning and you always see some guy jogging. That's the worst when you're
stumbling in and the sun is coming up. The sound of the birds in the morning. .
It's become a common error in articles about Reznor to report that
he was a heroin user -- maybe it's his lyrics about jabbing needles -- but he
hasn't asked for corrections. "That's kind of a sad conversation to have; 'I'm
not a junkie, I'm a coke head'. . . . "
How far has Reznor come? At
dinner in Toronto, the Los Angeles transplant -- he left Louisiana a few years
back and now lives near Beverly Hills -- was joined by a surprise guest, his
father, Michael Reznor, who had driven up from Pennsylvania. "This is my chance
for one-on-one time with Trent, I have to share him with the rest of the family
when he comes down and plays Cleveland and Philadelphia. I didn't tell anybody I
was coming up. His nephew is going to be mad. He just started playing the
The elder Reznor got hung up at the Canadian border; a guard
recognized the last name and, as a line of traffic started to form, the female
officer asked questions about the celebrity in the family. The rock star looked
pained as his father told the story, but he didn't complain. He just ate his
supper and smiled.
REZNOR became rich and
famous thanks to the traditional music industry and now has the ability to give
his music away because of the money he makes from touring and from die-hard fans
who will still buy CDs even after downloading the music. That's made him a
target of criticism from some newer artists who have the less fortunate timing
of starting their careers after platinum albums have become truly rare.
Reznor has mixed feelings; he enjoys working outside the larger
corporate system, but his pride hates to think of art discounted.
artist, I don't feel that it should be free; it's my life's work," he said.
"Record labels trained [fans] to mistrust them and feel ripped off by them, and
now the technology exists that you can just take stuff. I understand why people
feel it's OK, and I say, 'I can't fight that fight.' I look at the way the cards
have been dealt and make the most of it. There is also another side of me that
wants the world to hear the music, whether you've paid for it or not, I want you
to hear it. And people are hearing it."
"The Slip" debuted at No. 13 on
the U.S. pop charts and the reviews have been good, although Reznor said he
believes this quickly assembled album is more of a sketch than a painting. He
anticipates he will spend many months putting together his next collection.
At the show in Toronto, Reznor's performance was startling -- he can
still tap into the anger and fear of the old songs even though he's in a saner
place in his own life. The stage production is impressive too, with digital
effects and a cage-like curtain that descends from the rafters to make it seem
as if Reznor is in a parallel, static-filled dimension, peering into the real
There's also a quieter subset of the show, a sequence in which
the mastermind of Nine Inch Nails peels away the industrial power tools and the
computer hard drives to show the man inside the machine.
explained earlier, "it's just about the song and the singer."