Nine lives

By Neala Johnson for Perth Sunday Times on February 21, 2009

AFTER a hard day in the office, newly installed American President Barack Obama needs to blow off steam.

Does he close the door, turn up the stereo and rage around the office to the cathartic sounds of Nine Inch Nails? You better believe it – Trent Reznor does.

“We had a friend who was working for him (Obama) in the new media department during his campaign,” the Nine Inch Nails frontman says. “He had a fundraiser dinner in Los Angeles that we crashed. I shook his hand. He said he liked my music, and it was pretty cool.

“And even if he isn’t (a fan) I’ll choose to believe that he meant it when he said it,” he laughs.

“I’m impressed by him. I can’t begin to tell you how different it feels here (in the US). Whether or not he succeeds in all the things that need to be done, just the spirit of hope and a corner being turned and the dismantling of all the last administration has done . . . it really feels like a new day. The return of science and enlightenment and thought.

“It’s been an interesting thing to watch happen, and see the country feel like, ‘Thank God that is over’. We can start to make amends around the world and hopefully become a part of the Earth, instead of trying to be its dictator. Wish us luck.”

If the President has a lot on his plate, and a lot to live up to, so too does Reznor.

Since taking NIN out of the record label system and inventing new ways – his ways – to release his music, Reznor has been “doing an awful lot of stuff, with not a lot of time to do it”.

In March, he released the instrumental album Ghosts I-IV over the internet – offering the first of its four parts as a free download, then selling different formats of the complete album.

Only a couple of months later, he was back with The Slip, a fast blast of classic NIN noise, electronic artistry and introspection, which, again, he gave away.

It’s been a freeing and frightening experience for an artist who has spent most of his career working by the labels’ rules.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of NIN’s first single release, Down In It, and follow-up album, Pretty Hate Machine.

“In some ways it seems impossible that it could be that long. In other ways it seems like it’s been a long, long time,” Reznor says.

“What I’m most proud of is that I can look back at a career and a body of work and feel I’ve given it my best, and that I’ve tried to do what is right for the music and the art. And of the many different forks in the road you come across, most of the time I think I’ve made the right choice, and tried not to take the quick dollar or compromise for something that didn’t mean anything.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done and I feel like we’ve done it with integrity.”

However, the integrity of independence does come with twinges of regret from time to time.

“Yes, I have often thought, ‘Man, it was so much easier when you were on a record label’,” Reznor says. “You knew what the rules were; they give you some money, you make a record, you hand it in, then somehow it gets in the stores. You didn’t have to think about that stuff back then. But since everything’s broken now, you are forced to think about it. If you don’t, it’s your loss.”

He says it’s nice to make a living from music – “and it’s nice to not have to have a real job” – but giving albums away doesn’t exactly make you rich.

“We’re trying things. Not all of them have been successful, but some of them have,” is about the most direct answer he’ll give when asked if he’s still making money from his music.

So perhaps it’s little wonder that NIN’s touring schedule has become as robust as Reznor’s drug-and-alcohol-free body. The band returned to Australia this month to play the Soundwave festivals.

Reznor sees good and bad emerging from the state of flux that new technologies have wrought upon the music business.

“It’s good that these old dinosaur companies that have ripped off musicians since their inception – record labels – they’re falling apart,” he says.

“Their true lack of understanding and insight has come back to bite them in the ass. They’re all going to be out of business soon.

“But the bad side of it would be they’ve created a culture where people feel that they don’t need to pay for music.

“Eventually there will be some structure that establishes itself that makes sense, but at the moment everything is up in the air.

“Hopefully it will wind up like a big enema, and get rid of all the s*** that’s been clogging up the system lately.”

Freedom comes at a price, of course. Coming up with new business models for NIN has forced Reznor to think and act like a chief executive, marketer and accountant.

While he has enjoyed certain parts of this brave new world, he’d like the next NIN album to be “a more thoughtful, contemplative work” – when he finds the time.

“Just because it feels like the right thing, I don’t wanna put out records every four or five months,” he says. “It was fun to do and I may do that again, but at the moment I feel I’d like to take my time; I don’t mean two years, but have a minute to sit and really think about things.”

All the while, at 43 years old, Reznor finds his list of must-dos just keeps getting longer, not shorter.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that . . . I’ll get to them,” he says.

Nine Inch Nails play the Soundwave festival at Bassendean Oval, March 2.
Tickets: 5 at Ticketek. More Soundwave info at www.soundwavefestival.com.

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