Interview with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails
If you built a Mt. Rushmore-style monument to the popular music of the last 20 years, you'd have to reserve a space for Trent Reznor.
As the one-man band Nine Inch Nails, Reznor turned the little-known "industrial" subgenre into a multi-platinum strain of alt-rock thanks to songs full of vivid, usually self-lacerating lyrics and a sound combining metallic crunch with undeniable hooks. Reznor was one of the featured acts on the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991, went multi-platinum with his 1994 sophomore album "The Downward Spiral" and closed down the '90s with an epic double-album, "The Fragile," a difficult tour and alcohol and drug habits that threatened the future of one of the most significant acts to grace a stage in modern times.
Now with a new album, "With Teeth," and new, more sober lifestyle, Reznor is on tour with a four-piece backing band to deliver his typically intricate stage show, including a stop in Utah Tuesday. In a recent interview, he talked to The Salt Lake Tribune about the show, the past and what it's like to one day be a kid in Cleveland, writing songs in his bedroom, and hearing those songs sung back to him by thousands of adoring fans.
Salt Lake Tribune: I've been a fan since I saw you about a million years ago opening for the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Trent Reznor: Ah, the first tour.
SLT: That's right.
TR: You saw us in Salt Lake?
TR: What was that place?
SLT: It was called the Speedway Cafe.
TR: Yes, yes, yes. I remember it well.
SLT: It was gone about nine months later.
TR: What, is it like a TGIFriday's now?
SLT: Actually, it's a road. A viaduct.
TR: (Laughing) That place was hardcore. I remember, like, a pretty rough crowd there.
SLT: Yeah, we had a lot of skinhead invasions and fistfights. It was strange, because then once in a while they'd have someone like Camper Van Beethoven. It was a great place. Long gone but not forgotten. It struck me, thinking back on that, I was curious why you decided this time to start out doing theater shows. Obviously they were bigger than that little cement room, but not quite the full spectacle of recent Nine Inch Nails tours.
TR: Mainly, I think the process of doing this record and the cycle of promoting it through touring or whatever, I got new management this time around, and we were very aware that it had been a long time between records and didn't really know if anybody ... what the climate was, to be quite honest with you. Not to sound humble, but we didn't know before the record came out what the deal was. So we thought, let's just go out and instead of overestimating how big we are, let's just play some places where we know we can get a good draw and test the waters and see how it feels. We had a new band together. And a little bit into that, it became apparent that, okay, we can come back and play more sizable places. So we broke up this tour into two chunks, this being the second of the two.
SLT: So that smaller environment, did you find it something that appeals to you, something you might want to do again just for the sake of being in a more intimate place?
TR: Yeah, I like playing small places. I used to always say I'd much rather play clubs than arenas, if you break it into those two chunks; I know there's variations in between. But I've got to say, a few shows into the arena tour this time, they compliment each other well. It's been nice to play. The club is visceral energy and you're right in people's faces and that, obviously, I like a lot. But being able to pull off an arena, for us, I think I can achieve more in level of dynamics and emotion because we utilize production to help frame the songs to where I feel we can get away with a more varied amount of music. That's kind of a pretentious way of saying, I find with Nine Inch Nails in clubs, we end up going for bombast. And if you have elements of that in the show, it's real tough to fit in a few mid-tempo songs or other things because it [expletive] the dynamic up. In an arena, what we try to do with production is try to make it so it's still exciting to watch some things that aren't getting jackhammered in the head. That's kind of challenging. I've never been a subscriber of "let's just throw everything we can on stage and overwhelm people with spectacle." We try to tastefully use things to make it theatrical but not overshadowing listening to the music. Hopefully that's what happens.
SLT: I have seen you on those tours as well, and I often think of U2 getting stuck in their giant lemon. Have you ever had one of those Spinal Tap things happen because of the ornate stage show?
TR: We've never been a big prop band, like the Spinal Tap, pod not opening quite right. Has there been technical [expletive]? Plenty, sure. Any time you use any kind of video, it has to trigger at the right time and there' s comical moments of things just not working out. But it comes with the territory.
SLT: From reviews of the first jaunt around, it seems almost universal among the writer types to say "Trent doesn't seem quite as tortured anymore somehow," or maybe you seem to be enjoying yourself onstage more. Maybe they're just reading into things, but do you feel that way personally? Having read "The Fragile" was a difficult tour and coming off "The Fragile" was a difficult time.
TR: During "The Fragile" tour, I was sick pretty much the whole time with withdrawal kind of things going on. And I was lying to everybody and myself about the state I was in. It made for a very rough tour to get through, because it's no fun throwing up. It's really no fun when it's countdown for the first song to start and you feel like you're going to vomit. But this time around, I feel completely different, and I feel a lot more confident on stage, and it feels like a different me. I know in my own life and my own head, I'm less ready to jump out the window. And I'm a lot more grateful to be, not only alive, but on a stage and seeing that people are really interested in what's going on. I think it makes for a much better show. I'm learning as I'm going here. It was weird to start playing sober. From experience, remembering what happened.
SLT: Was it scary? Did you have a stage-fright type feeling? I remember other artists who have cleaned up and then getting back on stage was so different, it was a little frightening maybe.
TR: You know, before I go on stage, I used to always get nervous before I went on. I'm not sure why that was. As soon as we start playing, I'm fine, always. But I used to really feel nervous before I went on. Now, I really don't. My adrenaline is up, but I know that we're good. I know the songs are good. I know the band's rehearsed. I know that I'm able to make it through the show. And I'm also feeling like I can't wait to play these songs for you guys. That's a new thing. For me, it was kind of undoing the conditioning of years. It wasn't what I needed to do, but it was just the way I did it and trained myself to be. So on and offstage it's probably more awkward offstage than it is onstage for me now, just getting used to a different set of circumstances and priorities and stuff like that. There's not really the temptation. I just used to play a show to get to the aftershow to do whatever I'd do there. Now, the days are focused a lot more on the two hours on stage than anything else.
SLT: One of the things I remember from that first tour -- and granted there were probably some bumps along the way because you were a new touring entity -- but you seemed fully confident as a performer back then, and an interesting performer to watch. Is that something that just came to you naturally, or is it something where you were a fan of certain people and thought, "Maybe I can cop a little of that and a little of this and help get these songs over?"
TR: Yeah, you know, that's a good question, because for me, I'd been in other bands before. [Expletive] cover bands, and bands where I played keyboards. Never anything that was my own. I never really was a frontman in any sort of capacity, and certainly not singing anything I wrote. And I spent a lot of time in the studio getting the sound together and trying to come up with the ideas and writing the songs and recording them. And then, in a relatively short amount of time, "Now play them live." I remember thinking, "Who the [expletive] am I? How do I behave? What's my persona?" So, I'm sure you start to cop things from other people. I can't think offhand who I was studying. For me, I just kind of let the music take over. I remember feeling almost like going into a trance. Once I started realizing people had heard the record, that's what freaked me out on those first tours. I was some kid from Cleveland, I wrote some songs in my bedroom, and I'm seeing the country for the first time, let alone the world, and you get someplace you've never been and "Wow, these people are yelling the words back at me!" Like, wow. And that made it more powerful, and then it was like this thing took over. It wasn't about drugs or drinking or anything. It was just happening. So, I don't know. It was something inside me. I can't say it was real calculated.
SLT: And it certainly came across as genuine. It didn't come across as someone acting a role or anything. As for the new songs, on this tour, oh wait, how's the drummer doing? (Reznor's drummer had some heart irregularities that forced the cancellation of two early shows on the fall tour)
TR: He's still alive. Whatever problem came up seemed to be something that was manageable. We just did two shows no problem.
SLT: You have these new songs you want to put across, and you have this fan base that wants to hear the whole catalog probably. What's the difficulty of putting together a set list, if it is difficult, and what songs seem to be getting over so far?
TR: It is tough to get a set list together. I find myself beating myself up a bit about this. From playing some of these songs for years, I know what goes over pretty well, and I think I know what people want to hear. Then the selfish, indulgent part of you as an artist says, "I'm going to play the whole new album." But no one wants to hear that. When I go see a band, that's not what I want to hear, the [expletive] new album. I don't mean that it's [expletive] , but you know what I'm saying. You paid your money, you went there, you made the effort to get there, and I do feel a responsibility as an artist, when it's billed as us, Nine Inch Nails, to deliver the goods. So, as the catalog's grown, it's tougher to fit all the things you think people want to hear in and a healthy amount of things that interest you as the guy playing them. But, to my surprise, we started and when I got this band together, the first thing we did was learn this album in its entirety. Then we went back and started cautiously exploring songs that still felt relevant, and a surprisingly large batch of them did feel exciting still. And the set list we're playing currently has a healthy dose of the new record, but I think everything you'd want to hear is going to be played. It's not purist. It's not all new record, "we won't play our old stuff" [expletive]. They sound good to me, they feel good, and that's the criteria of why we would play something. And it's fun for us. Because it can devolve into playing a role on stage if you're not doing something that feels vital to you. Today, I'm excited looking down at the list and seeing what we've earmarked to play on these shows.
SLT: Did the guys in the band bring anything to the table at rehearsal, like, "Hey, we have to play this!"
TR: Yeah, they did. Some of them had been kind of written off and they'd argue with me ... At the moment, there's a couple off the new record that we just haven't been able to pull off ...
SLT: How much are you exposed to the work of your peers, or other people's music out there. I think people have this image of Trent, holed up, the creative genius. Do you listen to what's out there on MTV now as opposed to what was there 15 years ago? I mean, listen not necessarily for enjoyment, but just...
TR: I try to pay attention to what's going on, sort of keep my finger on some degree of pop culture. And I do think there's some interesting music out there today. I don't find much or any of it on MTV. Now when I watch that, I'm kind of realizing either I'm old, which I am, or this sucks. I can't believe how [expletive] some of it is. I'm not saying music's gotten worse, and maybe I'm turning into my dad, but it doesn't feel as sincere or from a place that's art-driven as much as marketed. It feels much more artificial and contrived and pre-digested and ready to be a ring-tone.
SLT: I think when the band was starting out and playing the first Lollapalooza and it was kind of the takeover of the "alternative" bands or what you'd call the alternative bands, it struck me as a more hopeful time for music fans in a way. There were bands out there doing benefits for this and that. Do you think it's just the natural passage of time that that era is long gone, like thinking back to the '60s for people our age?
TR: I hope not, but as I recall that time, there was like five to 10 good bands that showed promise, that didn't all sound the same. It felt like there was a pretty healthy American music scene going on here. We were kicking out the dinosaurs of the Guns 'n' Roses era. All that [expletive] was dying off and it felt kind of real and it felt like it had some kind of purpose and it wasn't about corporate sponsorships. Then by the end of the '90s, that had somehow turned into where the only music left on Earth was hip-hop, and the promise of that being really forward-thinking, groundbreaking genre had collapsed into shiny suits and lookalike videos, and songs with a grunt acting as the chorus. One could blame the ultimate evil, sort of the gatekeepers, the record companies, who play follow-the-leader, and everything's gotten so corporate. When all these record labels, mid-'90s, merged together, and all the interesting little independents became A&R departments for the big labels, everything just kind of collapsed into something that sucked.
SLT: It gives me some hope the indies will sort of reform themselves now.
TR: I hope so, because I think fundamentally music is something inherently people love and need and relate to, and a lot of what's out right now feels like McDonalds. It's quick-fix. You kind of have a stomachache afterwards. It's not wholly satisfying. And it's fake. I would hope that the music that inspired me, that got me going, that talked to me, felt like it was coming from some place that had some true emotion and true integrity behind it. I think that can reemerge.