Nine Inch Nails
By Jason Gregory for Gigwise.com on March 26, 2007
It’s 2022 and a new dawn is approaching. It’s a daybreak filled with the benefit of hindsight but riddled with the naïve trepidation of a freshly hatched new born. Sound Crazy? Well yes, but this is the concept of a world according to Nine Inch Nails, a band, or more specifically a person – Trent Reznor – who has always had an eye for all things crazy. “There are no concepts in the story that aren’t routed in things that already are happening,” explains Reznor softly as he talks from the back of his tour bus, which, on the day of our conversation is docked in Amsterdam amidst a comprehensive European tour promoting the bands fifth studio album, ‘Year Zero.’
Although we’re here to talk mostly about the theory behind the impending long player, which it turns out is somewhat of a belated epiphany for Reznor, we’re also taking the chance to get into the brain of one of rocks most impenetrable characters – a man who was once voted by TIME Magazine as one of the twenty-five most influential people in America and an individual who over the last twenty years has experienced, both musically and personally, the glory of the highs and the heartbreak of the lows.
Initially, like so many naive newcomers, when Reznor established NIN as ‘officially’ a one man band (as it still is) in 1988, although he had the ambition, he admits in hindsight that he didn’t necessarily have the vision for what his ambition could become. “I think it started as ‘I just have to do this.’ My mind was dedicated to seeing if I could do it and hopefully there would be some other people who understood and got into it and could relate to it,” he continues. “Coming from a little shitty small town in the middle of nowhere it seemed like something impossible to do, so I just focused in on seeing if I could do it. Then, by I hope talent and certainly good fortune in being in the right place at the right time, I had the opportunity and took advantage of it.”
Few could argue that he didn’t take advantage either. After signing to TVT records and releasing the acclaimed 1989 NIN debut, ‘Pretty Hate Machine,’ Reznor suddenly found himself in possession of the one thing he had hoped music would bring him: escapism. No longer, therefore, was he confined to the “shitty” Pennsylvanian town of Mercer. In fact, as NIN exploded globally, no longer was his profile confined to his American homeland.
This global recognition, as he now admits candidly, came at a cost. Both personal relationships and addiction problems meant NIN only released two studio albums in the nineties (The Downward Spiral, 1994, The Fragile, 1999) of which the album titles alone convey a lot. “I got very disillusioned by a number of different things through the nineties realising that fame has its own catches involved,” Reznor adds. “Simply getting a record contract and putting a record out didn’t make me feel better about everything in my life. It wasn’t the answer to every problem I had. Then going through the experience of addiction and recovery and really reaching a bottom where it seemed that everything potentially in your life is being lost.”
The 41-year old's experiences would certainly be a valuable lesson to a number of artists who think narcotics instantly provide a source of unembellished inspiration. The fact that Reznor is now on the verge of releasing his second NIN album in two years – the band's fastest between albums turn around yet – simply reaffirms that sometimes the creativity comes from within. Isn’t it ironic though that his successful battle with drugs has also been the instigator for this sudden creative burst? “Yeah I think the biggest catalyst is the whole latter part of the nineties. I was caught up in the world of addiction and it took me a while to acknowledge that and accept that and then it took me a while to deal with it. I can see now with pretty much crystal clear clarity that that aspect and fear had governed my life.” It’s widely acknowledged that Reznor has always written from a tortured soul, or as he puts it to me with a wry laugh, been a bit of a “misfit.”
He continues: “I had made writing out to be a terrifying prospect filled with pain and failure and some things that I dreaded doing because I’ve always lacked self-confidence and every other thing. By the end of my run with drugs I’d also realised that my brain wasn’t functioning right and I’d lost the power to really concentrate – it really made my art suffer, which made me feel worse, which made me want to get high and you know, that cycle starts up.”
It was at the turn of the century that Reznor decided he would have to get his life in order or he was “going to die.” After quitting music to concentrate on getting clean and getting “comfortable in my own skin” again, NIN's 2005 return, the much criticised ‘With Teeth,’ he admits (again in retrospection) was him trying to find his feet with music once more. “That record in hindsight feels a little cautious to me and certainly not the most risk taking record I’ve ever made. But, it’s part of a process and when the record came out and we went on tour I felt more back to the old me and really like ‘now I want to bend the rules and do what I really feel is right and take more chances.’”
And so we arrive, bizarrely, at ‘Year Zero.’ The year, it seems, where it all begins – again. Written during the ‘With Teeth’ tour on the back of the tour bus (more proof that Reznor had new distractions to concentrate on), ‘Year Zero’ is a concept album, or as he says, “an essay,” of undeniable reflection that’s set in fifteen years time. “When it came to write the words I really wanted to focus on something that was at the forefront of my consciousness which is, as an American, I’m appalled by the behaviour of our government and the direction that it has taken and the direction that it’s taken everyone else in the world and its arrogance,” he continues. “I decided to write an essay about where the world might be if we continue down the path that we’re on with a neo-con-esque government doing whatever it pleases, which seems to be the way it works over here (America).”With the lyrics matching the sonic electronic music he’d penned on tour as if it “was meant to be,” Reznor’s biggest dilemma with the album was trying to find an elaborate enough way to feed his concept to the “community.” He chose, after much consideration, to create an ongoing puzzle which has, so far, lead NIN fans from secret websites to memory storage devices hidden in gig toilets across Europe. “As I’ve watched this unfold so far,” he confesses. “It’s been rewarding to me as the author and artist to see some interesting dialogue and discussions going on between the community out there of, not only the concepts but also how they are routed in what’s happening today. At the end of the day I think a nice benefit of making a record like this is, morally, I think if a handful of people pay attention to what’s happening right now I think that’s a good thing.”
With a record that leans on the distortion pedal more than any of NIN previous releases I’m interested as to whether the veteran still feels pressure to reach expectations. It triggers yet another introspective response. “I do feel pressure but I don’t feel it from the fans as much as I feel it from myself. I’ve really fucked a lot of things up in my own life, my personal life and the thing that I’ve tried more than anything to keep pure is the project of NIN,” he continues. “I think there’s a skill involved and it probably comes with a degree of maturity of putting that ‘voice’ in it’s right place because you know what happens if you listen to it and there’s plenty of example of bands that have started to cater to their audience and inevitably it sucks. I was probably guilty of that to a degree with the last record because I wasn’t going into it with a real firm confidence and I was thinking about what people would want from me.”
This time, however, it is different. “This record was like, I don’t give a fuck about record labels, radio I don’t listen to, so I’m not concerned about it and I’ve got people out there who know who I am and who are interested and if a few more hop on great and if a few hop off then that’s the way it goes.” Does this feel like a familiar stance you took into NIN debut album? “Exactly, Pretty Hate Machine came out and it was well received because I did what I thought was right with no expectations other than I want it to be the best thing that I could do and it would excite me as a fan, and if people got in to it great. That’s how I feel with this record. I’m proud of it; I can take the criticism because I know it’s what I wanted to do.”
Even if criticism does come, the reality is that NIN shows are still selling out across the globe with demand far exceeding venues capability to supply, and for Reznor – who admits to being apprehensive as to whether he could still pull a crowd after a lacklustre end to the nineties – it’s the age of the people who manage to get tickets that excites (and puzzles) him the most. “I realised after a couple of shows when I looked out at the audience that it looks the same to me but it’s not the same people because they are young people out there, you know they’re twelve. So there’s an interesting climate now of the same looking teenagers that I’ve seen since I started and older people, people my age, weird hippies and a whole variety of misfits just like me.”
Although Reznor might have battled vices over the last twenty years that have often brought his NIN project close to breaking point, it’s clear that he’s built with a rare innate impulse not to surrender – in his own word he “knows” what he needs to do. That’s something we should all be grateful for as well, because now it seems, in ‘Year Zero’ of all years, NIN and Trent Reznor are only just getting started.
Transcribed by Lt. Randazzo