Nine Inch Nails gig preview
By Craig Mathieson for Sydney Morning Herald on February 13, 2009
Trent Reznor is listening to Britney Spears. His many fans need not worry, however: it's not a voluntary decision. The industrial music icon is ensconced in a Los Angeles rehearsal facility, engaged in pre-production for the next stage of Nine Inch Nails' world tour, while in the room next door Spears and her dancers are undertaking their own preparation.
"I can hear the thumping low end of Britney Spears," notes Reznor, who has such a dry sense of humour you're not entirely sure when it's safe to laugh. "It's been a treat having them here the whole time we've been here."
Nine Inch Nails - essentially Reznor alone in the studio with a dedicated backing band live - pre-date the pop icon and they'll outlast her as well. Since the group's 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, they've been the catalyst for the movement of industrial music and hardened synth pop into the top 40, using debased drum-machine rhythms and shrieking keyboards to turn out unexpected hits.
Nine Inch Nails have released eight studio albums, as well as various remix discs, which combined have sold more than 20 million copies. Reznor was one of the iconic figureheads of alternative rock in the 1990s but unlike many of his contemporaries, he has remained creatively vital and defiantly popular. On February 22, Nine Inch Nails headline the Soundwave festival at Eastern Creek Raceway, the same outdoor venue they appeared at 14 years ago as part of the ill-fated Alternative Nation festival (they also play the Hordern Pavilion on February 24).
Time has not wearied him. Indeed, since an absence between 2001 and 2005 while Reznor dealt with substance abuse and rediscovered the confidence to make music while straight, Nine Inch Nails have grown increasingly productive. These days the 43-year-old is happy to be defined by his workload.
"I wake up at 6.30 in the morning and go to bed at one in the morning and every second of every day is planned out," he says. "I'm trying to do the best thing I can do and I hope you like it but if you don't, that's OK. I'm not trying to convince you to like it."
As well as producing an album for an undisclosed act, Reznor has been reshaping Nine Inch Nails. Drummer Josh Freese departed the fold recently because of family commitments, with Ilan Rubin (Lostprophets) replacing him, while keyboardist Alessandro Cortini ("one of the world's most miserable people", Reznor suggests without warning) has also dropped out. Reznor will now double as frontman and keyboardist, a decision based on shaking up the band's live output.
"On last year's tour we made a really complex, technically advanced production that was fun to work on and fun to play but by the end of it, it became musically stale," he says. "It was like a play: pretty much the same every time. After a while I found that it became difficult to stay present throughout the show as I knew it inside and out. I could sleepwalk through the set."
A large part of Reznor's recent motivation has been his split from the music business and his belief that in the digital age, music is a creative asset, not a commodity. Last year, free of an increasingly fractious record deal, Nine Inch Nails initially released two albums - a collection of mood fragments entitled Ghosts I-IV and then a strong new studio set dubbed The Slip - through the band's expansive website (physical releases in a variety of formats followed). The Slip remains free to download to anyone who visits nin.com.
"A few years ago I had a bitter pill to swallow: you're not going to make money selling records any more," Reznor says. "That's coming from a history of making a living doing that. Once you realise - through the fault of record company greed and bad technology decisions in the past - that people think music is free, you just have to get over it. "No one can change that. There are whole generations now who believe music should be free. You have to move forward."
Since then, Reznor has grown evangelical about the possibilities afforded by the internet. Multi-track files that make available all the studio parts used to compile the band's music are made available for download, with fans encouraged to make their own mixes. Recently, live footage shot at three 2008 shows was also released, allowing entire concerts to be cut together by devotees.
"I get to the point where I feel I'm finished with it," Reznor says. "I'll play it live, live with it, maybe reinterpret it at some point, but in this context I want people to have it. I'm not afraid of what you could find in there and I don't care if you put the sounds in your own music. I'm done with it. There's no secret to be lost."
Artistic freedom, Reznor believes, is power. "Has the world ended because I gave away my master recordings online? No," he says. "More people heard it, more people interacted with it. Mission accomplished."