For 20 years, Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor has specialized in music fueled by acute despair and self-loathing, expressed in degrees of intensity that range from pummeling aggression to airy melancholy—all of it ominous and almost relentlessly bleak. When Reznor started Nine Inch Nails in his early 20s, he had an endless well of rage and anxiety—notably aided by booze and drugs—to inspire his music. Now that he's 44, sober, and by all accounts, happy, that well has run dry. So it’s no coincidence that early this year, Reznor announced that Nine Inch Nails’ summer tour with Jane’s Addiction would be his last. Although he added a few final shows in New York, Chicago, and L.A., the last of which was Sept. 10, Reznor is serious about retiring NIN—from the road, at least. “We’re not stopping making music,” he told the crowd on his second night in Chicago. “Don’t kill yourselves just yet.” What Reznor plans to do next has less to do with catharsis and more to do with new ideas, particularly a new business model for artists in the post-CD age. He released Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 album, The Slip, via nin.com with variable pricing based on sound quality, an idea he first attempted when he collaborated with Saul Williams for Williams’ 2007 album The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust. While Reznor remains unsure of the solution to the music industry’s fundamental problem, he has a lot more time these days to think about it. Just before the band played its final run of shows, Reznor spoke to The A.V. Club about being happy, his upcoming plans, and the likelihood of his writing a silly love song.
The A.V. Club: When Nine Inch Nails began, you were hoping to match the success of Skinny Puppy or Front 242. When did you realize that Nine Inch Nails had surpassed them, and how weird did it feel?
Trent Reznor: It was very weird. When we started out, I just related to the world that I was in and the heroes I had, and the bands I liked were all encompassed in that world of Nettwerk and Wax Trax! and that scene. We put the record out at the end of ’89, and we just toured all of 1990, a lot of ’91, ending with the first Lollapalooza. I think that was when. That year and a half of touring around, I think we went around the country four or five times. You see the same people, and then 50 percent more people every time. I felt like the band was unexpectedly something different and resonating on some level with people. To answer your question, after that Lollapalooza, it sort of felt like there were these people I don’t understand that like us. Recognized in shopping malls. Strange. Then getting turned on by the bands we liked—there’s a wonderful brotherly nature in the music business. Everybody is sticking up for one another.
AVC: When bands have been around for a long time, it sometimes seems like the world is eager for them to break up, just so we can extol their legacy. Does it feel like the world is eulogizing Nine Inch Nails prematurely?
TR: It’s hard for me to be objective about that. That wasn’t really the intention of it. Some time last year—we had just finished the Lights In The Sky tour, I think—I really got a taste of the music-business climate the way it is now. People don’t really buy records anymore. One way you can put food on the table is to just tour. You always have a manager or agent around to say, “Hey, let’s do this. Go out for a few months.” I find that the age I’m at now, and where my head’s at, that I like touring—it’s great to be onstage. But I think, particularly on the Lights In The Sky tour, which is very production-heavy, the unintended consequence was that the show was pretty much the same every night. It became like being in a play. It was like, “Okay, an hour and 52 minutes from now, I’m going to be…,” and I found after doing that for months and months, it was pretty hard to stay in the present. I'd be up onstage thinking, “I should’ve ordered the chicken sandwich.” And I hate that feeling. I couldn’t concentrate enough to get myself back—I was a robot that goes through the show.
Putting that on a different level of trying to macro out my life and look at it, one of my biggest heroes and people I was fortunate enough to be around is David Bowie. I look at his career, and he always had the balls to break things that weren’t broken, to step away from something and try something new, at risk of failing. I remember when we toured with him in ’97, and we were talking about the tour ahead of time, and he said, “So when we go on, we’re gonna play all music from the record I just did with Brian Eno”—it’s a weird album, the Outside album—“and I’m not going to play any hits. You guys are just going to destroy us when you go onstage because we’re not giving people what they want. It’s just what I have to do.” On one hand, that’s kind of stupid of him. On the other hand, wow. He was right. He went out and bummed out a faction of the audience and didn’t want to indulge them, just foray into a new album nobody’s heard that was very dense and not for some people. I don’t have the balls to do that. If I go onstage, I want to give people everything they want and more. I’ll wash their car for them on their way out. And I guess the small answer to this diatribe is, Nine Inch Nails feels kind of safe to me. I know how to do it. I want to thrust myself into something that’s uncomfortable and might fail.
AVC: Anything you want to elaborate on?
TR: Some musical things that I think clearly fall outside the world of Nine Inch Nails and I would like to experiment with, and we’re still working on turning Year Zero into a television series, and that’s actually been pretty exciting. There are some things that are non-musical that I’ve been working on in software creation that I’m excited to be working on and have been wanting to for years, but just never have time because I’m always on tour. There’s some things music-business-wise that I’m trying to put in motion that I think could be helpful to others. It’s just getting to that list of shit that I look at and go, “Okay, practicing piano again. That’s been on the list for 10 years.” Building X and Y software platform, which I’ve not done because I’m on tour. I just wanna chip away at that stuff and see what happens and become human again. See what that’s like.
AVC: There’s an argument that the best art comes from being miserable. Now that you’re, by all accounts, relatively happy and getting married, is it impossible to be the angry young man?
TR: I think if I were to try to maintain that, it would come off as insincere, because it would be insincere. To be honest, I’m not particularly angry, at least to the level that I have been. But what I noticed is, because I went through this big question mark of things over eight years ago, I’m wondering how much of that fueled good things I’ve done? That argument that tortured artists have to throw out at you. But what I found and realized is that the focus of Nine Inch Nails when it started out, pretty much up until recent times, was a way for me to cathartically get this out of my system. You can punch a wall or write a song. Just as painful either way, but you have something to show for it at the end of the day with a song. Seeing that it resonated with people made me feel like I had a purpose in life. It really was taking something fueled by negativity or anger or loneliness and funneling it into something good, and I think the fuel for that fire has run out. That’s not a bad thing. So what I have learned post getting sober and being more of an adult is, that process of writing is not as torturous and laborious as it used to be. I used to fear an empty piece of paper. “Fuck, this better be the best song ever, man.” There’s no recipe for failure like that. But I found that if you just go into it and open up the color palette beyond one emotion, it’s actually kind of fun. I don’t foresee a Paul McCartney silly love song coming in the future. Another reason for Nine Inch Nails to call it a day. And I think there will be more Nine Inch Nails music. There will be more music of some sort.
AVC: Did that old anxiety make it uncomfortable for you to listen to your own music because you could only hear what could have been, or should have been?
TR: Quite honestly, the process up until Ghosts, it was so much editing and reconsideration, going back and tweaking and redoing and rethinking that, by the time it came out, it had passed every test I could think of, and really was the best I could do. I can listen back to pretty much everything—there’s an exception here and there—but for the most part, I go back and remember that guy that wrote those songs. And I’m proud of that, not that I would redo Pretty Hate Machine today, but I know who I was when I did it, and that was the best that I could do as that person. But I feel that way about all the records I’ve done, which I feel good about. I did a record with Saul Williams—hopefully he doesn’t think it’s bad of me to say this—but when we finished the record, he looked at me and gave me a hug and said, “It’s so exciting to put out a record you love. It’s the first record I’ve put out I really loved and am proud of.” “Really? Why would you put something out that you’re not proud of? If I don’t think that this is the best thing I could possibly do, why would anyone else feel that way?” And he’s like, “Well, I just didn’t have the knowledge or the resources or ability to do that. I put out stuff I think is good, but not as good as it could have been.” I really don’t feel that way about it. I’ve done some stuff I don’t like that much, or I realized, “Okay, that was kind of a mistake,” but 95 percent of it, I really feel like “That was me.”
AVC: Is it actual songs that make you feel that way, or just how things were handled?
TR: I’m speaking purely about what’s on the record. If I look at how a record was marketed or presented, I can name a million different things. [Laughs.] But what I deliver, when I walk out of the studio with something in my hands, that’s what I’m referring to.
AVC: On Year Zero, you took a much more impersonal approach, doing a concept album about the near future. How much of a relief was it to get outside your head?
TR: It was really fun. It was probably the most fun of everything I’ve done. It felt like a different thing. It started with writing the backstory and wondering if I could write [without] every song starting with “I”—at least 200 “I”s per song. I thought "It’s either going to be really great, or it’s gonna be career-endingly shitty. If it’s that way, I don’t have to put it out." So I was working on it and experimenting, and before I knew it, it was halfway done, and it felt exciting. The icing on the cake was when we got the idea to collaborate with 42 Entertainment.
AVC: That was a different approach, to create this whole multimedia world that exists outside of the album.
TR: And I’m excited about that. To me, the art of that piece was not just the music. It was equally what they did with the storytelling and the web that was just as much the art as the music, because they’re all equal. It wasn’t like Microsoft is hiring a marketing company to come up with some way to sell Halo. So it was like "Here’s the story, here’s all the entities and the setting, and there’s music. How do we make it an experience for people?"
AVC: You mentioned Saul Williams earlier, which was an interesting experiment with a new business model. How did that inform what you did with The Slip?
TR: Well everything we’ve done, and pretty much everything everyone else has done, has been a learning process of trying to figure out—it’s been driving me crazy for a while. It’s sort of like a riddle that there’s no solution to. Saul was the first thing, and the first experiment of my doing. We’d recently gotten off of Interscope, off a big record label. It’s very easy when you’re on a record label to know what not to do. Then it’s basically, anything they want to do is the wrong thing, and you can see their agenda. My experience with being on a record label over the years has been when both of your agendas are in sync, and they’re the same goal, it’s great to have another army of people and resources and money. But most of the time, they’re not the same. Their agenda is just simply to sell plastic discs at any cost, and yours is to preserve—at least in my case—your integrity, and hopefully sell some plastic discs, too. I wouldn’t do a Right Guard commercial or be on WWE or whatever, but they would want you to do that if it meant they could sell more plastic discs. Certainly as the Internet’s come up and decimated their business—entirely through their own fault, through their own ignorance—it’s very clear to see what you don’t want to do. When you’re trapped under “what they say goes” mentality, it’s easy to be very resentful. When we got free, it was like, “Okay, now what? We can do whatever we want! Okay, what is it?” You know, that’s probably what Radiohead did, and I think that it’s very exciting to watch that go down. It wasn’t a business for them. At the end of the day, when you saw what they did in terms of them signing with a record label and selling a record, it felt like a step backward, and it felt like it was just more of a stunt than any kind of real formula for people to survive in the same era.
The thing that I learned from Radiohead is, I don’t want to ask you what you think it’s worth. “Hey, I just worked a year on this thing.” “Well, that’s worth 10 cents.” “Hey, fuck you!” The Saul thing was a lesson. I naively thought at that time that if you gave the public the choice of do the right thing or not, I thought people would actually do it. Five bucks for an album? And I found that most people, no, they really don’t want to do that. I think I laughed about that and got shit-canned by everybody for whining about wanting to get paid for work that I did. The steps we’ve taken since then, I think, have gotten closer to something that approaches a business model. It doesn’t work for bands that nobody knows yet. These are things I’m thinking about. It’s frustrating, in addition, to do a record, and then it leaks out on the Internet in a way you didn’t want it to. You’re pissed at all the people that want your shit so badly, they’re willing to get it the second it comes out. Well, you should be happy that people are that excited. Try to find the right balance of keeping things exciting and treating your audience with respect, and also treating yourself as an artist with respect. So it’s an ongoing process, but I think we’re edging toward things that make more sense.