Historically morose Reznor has better outlook these days
By John Soeder for Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 7, 2005
Trent Reznor doesn't just have a new Nine Inch Nails album out. The industrial-rock band's tortured mastermind has a whole new outlook on life.
"I've probably never felt better about myself as a person or about my potential," Reznor said by phone last month from a tour stop in Seattle. NIN headlines a concert Sunday at The Q.
The group's fourth studio effort, "With Teeth," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart in May. The CD has spawned two top five modern-rock hits, "The Hand that Feeds" (a swipe at President George W. Bush) and "Only."
"This time around, one of the decisions was to make a more song-based record," said Reznor, 40. "Something I used to do -- because I was so afraid of writing, afraid of it not being good or not having something important or great to say -- was smother everything in layers of sound or layers of production or layers of meaning.
" The Fragile' [NIN's 1999 double album] was an exercise in tapestry, with layers and layers and layers -- insane layers of sound. With this one, I thought, Let's keep it to the bare essentials.'
"It felt daring to make a record that was less cluttered and more concise and catchier. Those things feel a bit dangerous to me. It's easier for me to write something that's more obtuse and less friendly."
Country legend Johnny Cash's stripped-down cover of "Hurt," a Reznor-penned ballad originally found on NIN's 1994 album "The Downward Spiral," boosted Reznor's confidence in his abilities as a songwriter. The tune became a hit swan song for Cash shortly before his death in 2003.
"When it came out, it felt like a nod of appreciation, like a warm hug," Reznor said. "I thought, Hey, I have done some good things, and I do have some talent.'
"Left to my own devices, I can convince myself I'm worthless. That's been a form of my sickness. Feelings of inadequacy have plagued me throughout my life."
'Mr. Self Destruct' comes clean
He's proud of "With Teeth," however. It might not boast a remake of the Partridge Family's "C'mon Get Happy," but the new album isn't as bleak as previous NIN efforts.
"I don't think its anywhere near as dark," Reznor said. "I'm not in nearly as desperate a place as I was. I generally feel hopeful about my life.
"This record is about exploring a feeling of waking up out of a coma into a place that looks familiar, but where I feel totally different."
The subtext is Reznor's sobriety. He gave up drugs and alcohol in 2001.
"I wondered if I could write or if I had anything to say or how important drugs and alcohol were in the process," he said. "It turns out the only role they played was stifling creativity.
"I recognized unquestionably there was a problem around '96, '97, then it was a struggle to get sober and to stay sober. I was just lying to myself, to others, to everybody, till I finally reached a point where my time was up. It was either get better or die.
"It took getting to a place of utter desperation and utter defeat before it was enough to get me to do whatever it took to get better. The side effect of that has been feeling like I've cleaned out my closet, being able to wake up and appreciate being alive."
Besides Reznor, who remains mostly a one-man band in the recording studio, the latest incarnation of Nine Inch Nails on the road includes guitarist Aaron North, keyboardist Alessandro Cortini and bassist Jeordie White.
Drummer Jerome Dillon recently dropped off the tour because of unspecified health problems. Josh Freese filled in on drums when NIN performed Tuesday in Salt Lake City, although a permanent replacement drummer for the tour had not been named as of Wednesday.
Reznor moved to Cleveland from his hometown of Mercer, Pa., in 1984. He worked at the studio Right Track, where he cleaned toilets in exchange for recording sessions and laid the groundwork for NIN's 1989 debut, "Pretty Hate Machine."
He played in several local bands, too, including the Exotic Birds. The synth-pop outfit was managed by John Malm Jr., who went on to manage NIN.
Malm sued Reznor last year for unpaid fees. Reznor countersued Malm for breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty.
A jury awarded Reznor .95 million in May.
"It was a painful situation," Reznor said. "He has his side of the story. I have my side of the story. I wish it would've been something that could've been discussed rationally between two adults.
"When it turned into a legal battle, the end result is I won. But it didn't feel like a victory.
"It sucks, is the bottom line. I miss the guy I'd been best friends with for years. Unfortunately, things worked out the way they did."
Is their relationship nonexistent today?
"To put it mildly, I would say that's pretty accurate," Reznor said.
In a separate interview this week with The Plain Dealer, Malm spoke publicly for the first time since the verdict - albeit briefly - about his falling out with Reznor.
"I agree with Trent that this is a very painful and unfortunate situation," said Malm, whose Cleveland-based management firm Conservative oversees the British electro-rock acts Spiritualized and Alabama 3 and local rapper Vincenzo.
"I also agree that I wish this would have been handled between the two of us, without the lawyers getting involved. Other than that, I have no further comment."
Reznor moved to New Orleans in the mid-1990s. He sold his mansion there in March. He now resides in Los Angeles, although he still owns a New Orleans recording studio, which took a hit from Hurricane Katrina.
"Seeing a room you spent several years being creative in covered in green mold isn't great," Reznor said. "There was water damage from roof leaks. Some guitars got ruined, too.
"But it's inconsequential, really, in the scope of what's happening there. I feel guilty even feeling bad about it. It's just stuff."
Would he consider moving back to Cleveland? Doesn't he miss those six-month winters?
"No," he said. "But I do have fond memories of Cleveland. Nine Inch Nails came out of there. I spent a lot of time in Cleveland, thinking, formulating, banging my head against the wall. The music scene there was really healthy when I was around, in the mid-'80s, late '80s.
"It's just not where my head is now."