The Hate Machine Burns Clean
Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor Meets Fear and Loathing Halfway
By John Srebalus for Rhino Records on June 23, 2005
Trent Reznor is doing interviews from West Hollywood's sleek, modern Mondrian Hotel. A whiter location could not have been chosen for modern rock's Man in Black. Set against walls and fabrics rendered blinding by the afternoon sun, Reznor is literally a sight for sore eyes. Dressed in gray jeans and plain black shirt—staples of his spartan wardrobe—he doesn't seem to object to the blanched surroundings, and he's hardly trying to cultivate any kind of dark persona.
"If you had asked me that question ten years ago," he says, "I would've said pain and despair and desperation and aggravation." The question was, What emotional state produces your best work? "Given the choice to punch a wall or write a song, I'd have to be in that mindset to get something out that mattered. I think what I learned on this record is that I can create without relying on that thing, and I don't need to be in a place of wanting to kill myself to write a song."
Plenty has changed in Trent Reznor's life since we last heard from him.
The new Nine Inch Nails album, With Teeth, is their first studio release in six years. While 1999's The Fragile followed a period of writer's block in the wake of 1994's The Downward Spiral, this latest gap in the Nine Inch release schedule is attributed to more sobering factors.
"It took a while to come out, because my life had unraveled into addiction and despair, and I needed to address that," says Reznor. "In 2001, fresh off the last tour, I did address that, and I decided to take a little time off to just get to know myself, get to feel a bit more comfortable in my own skin and start to clean out the closet of skeletons that had accumulated, and kind of reassess my desire to make music and get more comfortable with life in general. I then faced the question to see if I had anything to say sober and if I had the ability to say anything."
Now, these are generally forbidden topics in the everything's-fine school of micropublicity. But I don't even have to ask—Trent tells: "I was wary of creating in sobriety. I didn't know how that was gonna work or if it could work or if I was one of those tragic figures that has to rely on whatever to get to whatever state. Much like every other role that drugs or alcohol played in my life, I realized that it was more hindering than it was freeing. A lot of that was a lie and a cheap way to get to someplace. It wasn't real anyway. I can function much better creatively, as well as in life, sober."
Rigorous honesty is a cornerstone of recovery programs, perhaps explaining Reznor's candor. In any case, he speaks with a clarity and investment that's a rare treat for journos. He's attentive and serious without taking himself seriously. Seems downright well adjusted to me.
Produced by the longstanding Trent Reznor-Alan Moulder partnership, With Teeth sounds very much like a Nine Inch Nails record. Fans will miss none of the jackhammer beats, buzzsaw guitars, maligned electronics, and self-inflictions ("You know, I still got my one good arm/That I can beat myself up with"). But a big difference, at least with regard to process, is that Reznor, known to be picky in the extreme, sought imperfection as a guiding principle.
"I don't feel like I was as hard on myself," he says, "because I was in a much different kind of mindset. I was working a little bit with Rick Rubin as a kind of mentor. He'd encouraged this kind of safe environment to try things out and nurtured a no-bad-idea-type situation that really worked out well. So the editorial part of me was on hold for a while and I allowed myself to try some things. And as I was working I liked a lot of what was coming out, so I just let it roll. At the beginning I wasn't quite as much of a dictator as I have been in the past. I think a lot of me doing that was just because I was so afraid of a lot of things. I was afraid of my lack of talent. I was afraid that maybe this isn't any good."
Reznor must have liked what he heard; he kept his finger off the fix-it button to a far greater extent. "Everybody's using computers or ProTools as a recording device, which I've been doing for years," he says. "But I think what ends up happening, if you listen to what music is coming out these days, because it's very easy to fix things and to make perfect records—and put the drums in time and correct tunings and get vocals right—things start to sound a bit overproduced and homogenous to me. The feel I was going for on this record was quite the opposite of that. Now I wouldn't consider reverting to [analog] tape; it would seem stupid to me. But I did want to treat things in a different way. I wanted to maintain performances. I wanted to make a record that sounded like people playing, that sounded like it had some rough edges, and not too many things were fixed. I think this is the least produced record, the least fiddled-with that I've done."
Sure enough, With Teeth is the Nine Inch Nails record for those people with the "DRUM MACHINES HAVE NO SOUL" bumper stickers.
Reznor has also loosened the constraints on what he calls "the world of Nine Inch Nails." He's the epitome of the self-obsessed artist, and he doesn't apologize for it, but on lead single "The Hand That Feeds" he raised the shades to the outside world.
"I haven't set out to say Nine Inch Nails is lyrically going to be about a certain thing," explains Reznor, "but in general the rule has been, if I want to talk about something, it has to be real and I have to feel it and it has to be my own experience. And as much as I'd love to have written Clash songs, I've never had a real world-changing outlook. There's too much chaos inside my own head. I can't really go about changing the world yet, because I'm not sure where I'm at. Primarily, a lot of the music has been about internal politics and my relations or my feelings or reactions to situations, people, and things."
But the past four years have politically awakened artists all across the spectrum, providing a wealth of art that refuses to speak no evil. Reznor puts it bluntly: "With 'The Hand That Feeds' I couldn't ignore what was happening in America and is happening in America—having a lunatic run the country, having the insane right-wing Christian idiots involved, the genius job the Republicans have done of getting them and big business all under the same umbrella using fear and intimidation and leading to what could be the end of the world in my opinion. And it was a heartbreaking day to see the sliver of hope of revolution get crushed by rewarding this guy with four more years of what I feel personally is insane behavior. And that kind of came out in that song."
Nine Inch Nails helped usher in the auteur era of rock video with 1994's beautifully creepy "Closer," but these days Reznor is as sour on promotional polish as he is on American politics.
"As an artist I always find it's frustrating," he says, "because I can make the record sound the way I want it to. I can come up with the record I'm proud of. And then when it comes time to market that record, okay, do a video. And because I don't do videos, then I've gotta take a chance on somebody who's usually a jackass and charges more money than it cost to make your whole record to do a three-minute promo clip that they're using to get a movie made."
In keeping with Reznor's no-bullshit bent, the "Hand That Feeds" vid is just the band bashing it out. "I think it's a good song," he says, "and I think we're a good band, and I think we play it well, and here it is, and fuck you—that's the video. I think this record is kind of back to basics. A lot of bullshit has been cleared out of the way. We made room for the song, we made room for the message. The live show we're doing right now is not explosions and flying pigs. It's just us playing."
The With Teeth studio band is essentially Reznor, along with Jerome Dillon and Dave Grohl on drums. The Nine Inch Nails touring lineup includes Dillon, The Icarus Line's Aaron North on guitar, Marilyn Manson's Jeordie White on bass, and Alessandro Cortini on keyboards. See them on tour this summer, and visit www.nin.com/with_teeth for digital album extras.