He Can See Clearly Now
Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor stills rages, but approaches life, and music, with a new outlook
By Jim Farber for San Diego Union-Tribune on May 26, 2005
These are a few of Trent Reznor's favorite things. Or at least some of his most familiar things.
Since the start of his career as leader – and often sole member – of the industrial art-rock band Nine Inch Nails, malodorous emotions have served as Reznor's muse, not to mention as a lure for fans eager to have their worst feelings exorcised.
But what happens when a guy like Reznor starts to become happier?
That's the ironic dilemma he faced when constructing his latest album, "With Teeth," the first new studio work under the NIN name in over six years.
The CD is the first work Reznor has recorded since he quit a long addiction to cocaine and alcohol and began an examination of his life that shook him to his bones.
"I had to try to figure out who I am on this record," he explains. "Can I write sober? Did I destroy my brain? Did I have anything to say?"
Much of what Reznor says on "With Teeth" doesn't sound different from what he has railed about for eons.
I'm getting smaller and smaller and smaller and I have nothing to say, he complains in "Getting Smaller."
Isn't anybody stopping me / Just how far down can I go? Reznor yelps in "The Line Begins to Blur."
Not a single song could be described as joyous. But Reznor insists his latest lashings were written with a "new clarity. I feel like I woke up from a coma. It all just kind of came out of me, instinctually. And a lot needed to come out."
Reznor's proclaimed clarity can be more easily detected in his music. While "With Teeth" retains NIN's cherished brutality, featuring his usual mix of metal/new wave/industrial riffs, there's more melody-making along the way. Also, you won't find the artier soundscapes that dominated NIN albums like "The Fragile" or "The Downward Spiral."
The changes made Reznor self-conscious at first.
"Sometimes the editor in me would stop and say, 'I don't know if this is right for Nine Inch Nails,' " he admits. "It was scary to include songs that were catchier and lighter. A 20-minute art epic is not scary because I know no one will make fun of it. But a song like 'The Hand That Feeds' had a melody that was pretty obvious. I had to ask why I was afraid to put it on. And I found that fear was not a valid reason."
In several lyrical passages Reznor angrily asserts that he no longer cares what other people think, which shows a greater confidence, if not greater peace of mind. It took much of his adult life even to get to that place.
Reznor says you can trace his cycle of loathing through his lyrics. "It was first 'me against the world,' " he says of his early work. "That turned into 'me against me.' "
Reznor began to isolate himself from people, cutting out friends, band members and lovers to focus entirely on a self-gratifying approach to making music. Recording became his refuge. Any problems that crept up, he medicated away.
"For most of my adult life, I dealt with problems by not dealing with them," he says.
Reznor's serious addiction began around 1996, but he didn't admit to himself for years that his situation had become that bad.
"If you gave me a polygraph test back then and asked 'Are you an addict?' I would have said 'No' – and I would have passed," he says.
As a result, his substance abuse didn't begin to abate until more than five years had gone by. At a certain point, he realized something crucial had changed.
"It wasn't a question of 'maybe I should do this,' " he explains. "It was 'either get better or die.' "
After Reznor started to clean up, he took a few years off from music. "I didn't want to rush right back in," he says. He believed music-making could have become another form of avoidance.
In January 2004, Reznor began work on the new album. Though he found a fresh ease in working, he retained the old habit of playing all the instruments himself.
It remains to be seen how the world will react to a new NIN CD, not because the music is so jarringly different, but because Reznor has been out of the limelight for so long. The album debuted at No. 1 two weeks ago on Billboard magazine's charts.
The last time he and his band went out on the road, they headlined arenas like Madison Square Garden. For the new tour, which lands at SOMA in the Midway area for two shows this week, Nine Inch Nails will play smaller theaters.
Reznor turned 40 last week, a dangerous age for someone who has defined himself by a kind of fury most associated with adolescence.
"I see people who are my age and I don't feel like them. One thing you learn in recovery is that your maturity gets slowed down at the point that you tuned out of life. So, technically, I'm about 33 right now," he says with a laugh.
Reznor acknowledges, however, that if his joy escalates, it may mean outgrowing the band, or at least their brand.
"If it ends up with me being a truly happy guy, it may be time to stop calling it Nine Inch Nails," he says. "I'll cross that bridge when – and if – it happens."