TOOTH & NAIL
Silent for almost five years, NIN
By Brian Stillman for Revolver on June 1, 2005
The man behind Nine Inch Nails sits in an overstuffed chair inside a staid London hotel room, crossing and uncrossing his legs, tucking his feet underneath him, constantly shifting position. He drinks some coffee, takes off his sweater, then springs up to walk to an open laptop on a nearby desk. He glances at it, hits some buttons, closes the screen, and returns to the chair. Over the next hour, the ritual will repeat itself numerous times, with only slight variation.
"Sorry, I’m really jet-lagged," Reznor apologizes. The singer flew in from the States last night to play two sold-out shows in London; the performances are serving as warm-up to a full-scale tour he’ll soon be embarking on to support Nine Inch Nails' new release, With Teeth (Interscope). "I got two hours of sleep, but I’ve got some weird nervous energy."
Reznor flashes a boyish grin, and it’s suddenly hard to imagine how he ever got saddled with titles like Rock’s Dark Prince. Unless, of course, you listen to his music. Reznor, as the mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails, has created a volatile mixture of industrial, heavy metal, synth pop, and punk rock, dropping album after album of the most abrasive music this side of Hell’s own orchestra. With Teeth certainly burns with the band’s trademark angst, but this time, the anger and aggression actually hide a sordid, frightening truth: "I’m pretty happy right now." says Reznor.
"Wait!" he shouts. "Don’t print that! You’ll ruin my reputation. At least lie and say that I’ve got a dead body in my closet or something."
While he might be in danger of blowing his rep as the master of the morose, Reznor's got a lot to smile about. He’s about to release his first record since 1999's lukewarmly received The Fragile (which itself followed 1994’s fantastically successful multi-Platinum The Downward Spiral), and the dates on the upcoming tour sold out almost instantly. Most important, for the first time since the band's early days, Reznor's doing it all while stone-cold sober. "It’s amazing," he says. "I feel like I’ve got a new brain, and I can’t wait to try it out. If I wasn’t on tour right now, I’d be home finishing up all the songs I’ve got for the next album."
Nine Inch Nails broke out of Cleveland’s underground music scene in 1989 with Pretty Hate Machine, a darkly aggressive synth-pop record filled with self-reflexive anger, failed relationships, alienation, and disillusionment. Propelled by the hit single "Head Like A Hole", unstoppable performances (including the first Lollapalooza tour), and a sinister mystique, the band soon found itself basking in critical and fan adulation.
Reacting to problems with his record company, Reznor next recorded – in secret – 1992's Broken EP, a wild explosion of raw anger built on a bed of mangled guitars and pummeling beats. The accompanying series of videos, which featured a fake snuff film, sadomasochism, and necrophilia, gained a major cult following even as MTV banned it from rotation. Much to everyone’s astonishment, Broken earned Reznor a Grammy for Best Metal Performance.
Nine Inch Nails followed up the EP two years later with The Downward Spiral. The single “Closer,” with its chorus of "I want to fuck you like an animal," became a surprise hit. In the following years, Reznor started Nothing Records, releasing albums by Marilyn Manson and Prick, as well as his own remixes, singles, and video collections. Nine Inch Nails played the second Woodstock Music and Arts Festival that year, and did a joint head-lining tour with David Bowie. "The success of The Downward Spiral was completely unexpected," says Reznor, looking back. "Suddenly, people's kid sisters were coming to our shows. That really freaked me out."
"For a lot of fans, I know there was a feeling of abandonment," he continues. "I remember seeing a bunch of frat boys in the audience, people who would beat me up when I was younger, and they were liking my music. And it’s like, 'Wait a minute, this isn’t for you, this is for the other kids!'"
As if to derail his own increasing popularity, Reznor next released The Fragile, a massive double album full of experimental soundscapes and deep programming. It was a jarring departure from Nine Inch Nails' earlier repertoire, and many who jumped on the "Closer" bandwagon quickly jumped back off. "With The Fragile, I didn't intentionally release a record that'd bum out all the fans of 'Closer,'" says Reznor. "It did, in fact, do that, but it wasn’t my goal. I was improvising in the studio, moving in tangential directions, experimenting, leaving no stone unturned. I was just trying to write the most honest album I could for the time."
A successful stadium tour, and a subsequent live album and video, followed. And then Nine Inch Nails dropped off the face of the Earth. Floored by problems with alcohol, the dissolution of Nothing Records, and a falling out with his longtime manager, Reznor left many people guessing whether he'd ever write a new record, and if so, whether anyone would care.
Now Reznor's got his life in order, and a brand-new live band, which features longtime NIN drummer Jerome Dillon, bassist Jeordie White (ex-Marilyn Manson, A Perfect Circle), keyboardist Alessandro Cortini (modwheelmood), and guitarist Aaron North (The Icarus Line). With a renewed sense of faith in his own abilities, he's prepared to prove the doubters – including himself – wrong.
So tell us about the last four years.
TR: I was in denial about being an alcoholic, and I finally reached bottom four years ago. I was either going to die or get my shit together. So I checked into detox. After that, I decided, rather than start up a new record right away, I’d spend some time getting comfortable with myself. Since I got signed, I've always been in full-speed ahead towards avoiding life. I’d just keep working. And that burned me out.
How long was it before you began working on the new record?
TR: I started it in January of 2004. When I got sober a number of fears awoke. One was, would I be able to write? I didn't know if I'd destroyed my brain. And I really didn't want to answer that question the first week of not having a drink.
Was there a point where you finally felt comfortable returning to music?
TR: Throughout 2003, as the year rolled on, a number of changes occurred. The longest relationship I've ever had in my life – my manager, my best friend – was coming to an end. The relationship had become strained; I had to make a change there. And that was as unpleasant as I’m sure you can imagine it would be – lots of name-calling and backstabbing. And it’s still wrapped up in legal ramifications that I’d rather not talk about.
But, as my life began falling into place, and I realized that I can function in life and I can walk into a room and feel okay, and I can like myself again, I felt like I was ready to try writing music again.
What was it like going into the studio sober?
TR: When I started With Teeth, it was like, suddenly I could think again. A lot of the fear I had went back to The Fragile. I was on the slippery slope of trying to stay sober, knowing I had a problem but not wanting to accept it, being fucked up, lying to myself and others… Just caught in the fucking downward spiral.
I can’t believe I just said that [laughs].
Anyway, at that point, I would try to write and it'd be a blank notebook. And that’s a bad feeling. So when I cleaned up, I felt like I had superpowers.
What was the fear, exactly?
TR: Fear in my thinking that I’m not good enough. Of my not living up to my own expectations – because, believe me, they're much higher than those of my fans.
One would think that after selling a couple million copies of Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral, you'd feel pretty good about yourself.
TR: When it's coming from outside like that, it doesn't sink in. I've always been insecure. I always felt like an outsider and I wanted to be acknowledged. I came from a little shit town that nobody ever got out of. I wanted to say, "Fuck you. I can get out." I think back to my strategy of life when I was 23 and I started Nine Inch Nails. It was: Get a record deal and write good music, and everything will be okay.
Fine. I got a record deal, I think I wrote good music. And then I got a lot of things I never thought I'd get: Success, money, critical acclaim. I sold a lot of tickets to the shows, I earned multi-Platinum records and Grammies and blah, blah, blah. But at the end of the day, that didn’t really fix anything, and it feels really shitty when you tell yourself that. What have I got to be upset about? I’ve got everything I've ever dreamed of, but I still feel shitty. So what now?
Is that where the addiction came in?
TR: I'm an addict, and that would have come out no matter what I was doing. But this lifestyle definitely accelerated it. Being thrust into this role of being successful – all my fears became amplified.
How was writing With Teeth different from writing previous records?
TR: This was the fastest record I've ever done. I think this all came from my demo-ing songs for the first time since Pretty Hate Machine. In January 2004, I came out to Los Angeles from New Orleans and set up a small demo studio machine, and a computer to record everything into. I decided that every 10 days, I'd have two songs demoed.
By May, I had two albums of stuff done. I went back to New Orleans, fleshed out the songs, recorded real drums – which is something I've wanted to do for a while – and finished everything up.
Dave Grohl provided live drums for With Teeth. Previous records were almost entirely electronic.
TR: Yeah. The thing is, I couldn't have done that before. I'd think to myself: Okay, I've got to call him up. And then I'll have to meet him in the studio and play him the tracks. Then I'll have to teach him the parts, and then I'll have to tell him if he’s playing something wrong and explain how I need it done. Fuck it, I'll just program that shit myself.
The new record really reminds me of Pretty Hate Machine. Not so much in the way the songs sound, but in the sense that each song is its own piece of music and not necessarily part of a larger concept, or arc, or vibe.
TR: I agree. Before I started this record, I had the same sort of plan as Downward Spiral: An arc of songs, a concept, the title, the song titles, the issues I wanted to deal with. But when I started executing it, it began to feel heavy-handed. I was piling too much shit on the songs, and they didn't need it.
Your records have always been strongly rooted in the tradition of the album. Today, it seems like bands live or die by their singles. Between the release of The Fragile and With Teeth iTunes and other download systems – legal or otherwise – have exacerbated this trend. Has this affected the way you approach your records?
TR: I remember when I got signed, the A&R guys talked about building support over three records so that, by then, we'd have a strong fan base and the music would sell really well. I can’t imagine anyone at any record label saying anything like that anymore.
I've thought about the way things have changed with iTunes. I never bought singles, I never bought greatest-hits records. To me, songs weren't as strong when taken out of context. So I like the album format. Ten to 15 songs, two sides, I still think that way when I sequence my songs. I still think side A and side B. I think the idea of presentation means something – the way a record unfolds, the way someone experiences it. When there’s a record that I’m really excited about and I can't wait to hear it, I go home, take the phone off the hook, put on the music, and sit down and just experience it. But let's face it: I know people aren’t going to say, "Trent put out The Fragile. Let me take two hours to sit down and listen to it, and then do that five or six more times to really understand it."
This is the first time you’ve toured since becoming sober. How has it been different?
TR: The last tour we did was very bad for me. I was in bad shape when it started off, and by the end of the year, I was in worse shape. I'd get sick before the shows and I'd need a drink and I'd experience all the trimmings that go with physical addiction. Before this tour, my memory of playing live had been replaced by memories of fear – a year of trying not to drink and getting sick, and the shame involved in the way I felt, and ending up in the hotel room shivering and sweating. That wasn't any fun at all [laughs].
This time, I remember waking up the day before the show and feeling like there was this hum of anxiety, this current running through my body. I didn't like it – dread, almost. And then I walked onstage and it was great. And I thought to myself, I can't wait until 24 hours from now when I get to do it again. The fear was gone. Oh, and I actually remembered the show the next day.
Your recent performances sold out in a matter of minutes
TR: We sort of knew those shows would sell out – we underplayed what we thought we could do. But we also were acknowledging that it's been a long time. Someone at the show now who's a teenager was maybe nine when we last played. Now, that’s a fucking long time.
Still, everyone was taken by surprise with the furor in which the shows sold out. I’ve heard people bitching that they can’t get tickets. But we'll be coming through everyone’s town again, playing larger places. Of course, if we play venues that are too much bigger, everyone’ll bitch about that. So I can't win [laughs].
Does Nine Inch Nails ever feel like a trap? Is it too big of a machine now?
TR: It doesn't feel like Gene Simmons putting on makeup at 60. It feels like it still means something to me. Any restrictions I’ve got are, I feel, self-imposed. So if I sat down and wrote something that was completely outside of what I feel Nine Inch Nails means to me, then I'd give it a new name, a new feel.
Do you see a point where you'll release something as just Trent Reznor?
TR: I imagine so. This record feels like Nine Inch Nails to me, and at the same time – and you'll have to take my word for it – it doesn't feel like I'm trying to fit into something that fit me 10 years ago and, motherfucker, I've got to fit into it again. At the end of the day, if a record is successful, if your career is up or down or you're signed or not, you're left with yourself. And through the good times and the bad times, I feel proud that what I've done with Nine Inch Nails has always felt like the right thing to do. I wouldn't want to rewrite The Downward Spiral or Pretty Hate Machine. It was honest for the guy who did them, a confused fucker who was terrified. I recognize that guy, but I don't feel like him anymore.