Trent Reznor speaks in full sentences.
Most interview subjects don’t, but it’s likely that the architect of Nine Inch Nails has sorted out his relationships to his demons through an extensive internal dialogue, and the time spent in self-analysis has made him articulate in situations where many others are thinking on the fly. He only breaks composure and sputters for a moment when talking about the Republican National Convention.
This has been a productive year for Reznor. He has released two albums, the four-disc Ghosts I-IV and five months’ later, The Slip. The former is a set of instrumental tracks looking for a movie to accompany, while The Slip is more traditional Nine Inch Nails. It’s not as cataclysmic as The Downward Spiral, but how many times can anyone write “Closer”? The issues that have fueled his music remain (“I still haven’t found my place,” he sings), but his imagery has become less gothic over the years, and he has developed a more personal sound that shares industrial artists’ love of texture without being constricted by it.
As anyone who saw his performance at Voodoo 2005 at the Fly can attest, time hasn’t mellowed him onstage, and on the occasion of this interview, he’s nursing a raw voice. It’s partly a result of the first leg of Nine Inch Nails’ tour, but, he says, “I also came down this acid reflex situation that has irritated my vocal cords. One of the tolls of getting older is that things are falling apart.”
The music business is one of those things, so much so that he chose not to renew his contract with Interscope Records in 2007 when he had met his obligations to the label. Fed up with its exploitation of his audience, he released his last two albums himself in a variety of formats, from free downloads to deluxe packages. “The people who hold the keys to the music are so greedy that they’d rather watch their businesses disappear and everyone steal music.”
Is it hard to find the emotions necessary to play a decades-old song?
I think that the emotions have changed over the years. Certainly, there was a long strand of time where I was really fueled by self-destructiveness, and this kind of self-resentment, hatred thing. Some of the songs have vanished from the set list, but, there isn’t a night that goes by that we play “Hurt,” for example, that I’m not teleported back to some place that it’s not acting.
I’ve said this for years now: If I start to feel like Gene Simmons probably feels now sleazing into his codpiece singing about 16-year-olds, I would really have to reassess what music and this career means to me.
So far, it’s always been a genuine thing that comes from “I’m either going to go crazy, or I’m either going to kill somebody or myself if I don’t write this down or get it out in some way.” Music has been my avenue. I’ve been able to do that, and then, surprisingly, it found an audience. That in turn changed my life and gave me the luxury to be able to do this for living and not have to clean toilets—which I’m good at—but I prefer to play music. It’s always served that function. Where it got complicated was when we did start to sell records and have an audience. A lot of new things came into play. Outside of lifestyle changes, there’s also a sense of responsibility to the audience. What do they want? Why did they like that? Should I try to pretend that I don’t pay attention to that and just do—what?
Does it help you creatively to have someone or something to rage against?
Certainly, there was a time that used to be me. I had it built into myself. I destroyed myself. As I grew out of that, I wondered, “Am I ever going kick into Paul McCartney mode where feeling good just makes me want to write music or whatever the fuck songwriters write about?” I realized that’s not the role that music plays for me. If I feel good, I don’t want to sit in a room and write a song. I want to enjoy feeling good. This is for trying to get out of the hole. I’ve learned that having some kind of catalyst inspires me to speak up about it in some fashion. Experiments made me realize that there are more possibilities than putting a gun to my head in a room somewhere. We’ll see what happens.
What does it feel like to realize that the music you made changed people’s lives?
I remember the first tour we ever went on, and I hadn’t really traveled much as a kid, and I’m in a van now opening for any band that will have us. I’m in Tulsa, Oklahoma, never been there. Play in a club of a few hundred people; they’re there to see somebody else. And you look out and see a guy singing, that guy knows the words. And, it seems like he means it, like I’ve touched something in that guy and it has some connection. Growing up, my best friends were Pink Floyd albums and I could relate to that guy. I don’t know Roger Waters, but he’s explaining how I feel. And I’m somehow becoming that to somebody else. It’s still a mind-blowing feeling, and that’s the coolest thing of all of this.
Is it—or has it ever been—a heavy load to carry?
There are times, certainly over the years, you get an inflated sense of self-importance, and you start to think that with enough people around kissing your ass and giving you money, and who want to hang out with you all of a sudden—I’d say anybody would go through a personality shift, and if you’re somebody not that well-rounded emotionally like me, it’s ripe to become somebody that thinks his or her shit doesn’t stink. I’m sure I’ve gone through a phase where you start to feel people are looking at you for some kind of guidance. All of that is bullshit. I just try to do the best work I can, and when I’m faced with whatever injustices that come in this line of work, whether it be record labels, or the way you’re treated, or issues of commerce versus art, just try to do what you feel is the right thing. Place the music and the art at the highest point of the pyramid. Try to always respect that. That’s a tough thing to do to. It’s tough not to just go for the money.
How long did you spend in New Orleans, and what drew you to it?
We put our first record out at the end of ’89, and we started touring at the beginning of 1990, primarily in the US. I grew up in Pennsylvania in a small town, and every time we’d come to New Orleans, it felt like another planet. It seemed like the weirdest place I had ever been. It wasn’t an overwhelmingly big city to me, but the culture, the tradition, the smell of the air, and the way it looks—things I never paid attention to like architecture. What I grew up seeing was steel row architecture. Houses you lived in, you didn’t see as art. They just functioned. And to see a sense of tradition, and the people I met. You can drink a beer outside! Oh my God! It was just mind-blowing.
I was living in Cleveland at the time, and after a few rounds of the US towards the end of ’90, I came back home. It was winter, my apartment had been broken into, I was living in the ghetto. The city I thought would be supportive of a band making it out of there was quite the opposite. I was bitter and jealous and resentful. And, I said, “You know what? Fuck this place.” I got in my car and rented an apartment in New Orleans because I liked it. There was no more thought than that, and I ended up staying there on and off until 2003. I look at it fondly. I miss it. I hope to return.
The reason I left really is that I know in my own psychology, one of the reasons I liked it there was I could isolate. I could hide from the world. I wasn’t in L.A. I was far enough away that I wasn’t going to get sucked into meetings or people who intimidated me. I wanted to hide out pretty much, and it dawned on me a few years ago that at this point in my life, I need to be around my peers. And, pretty much all the people that do what I do live in L.A., so I thought, “Let me try it for a while.” I’ve got a place up there now, but it doesn’t really feel like home.
It seems like New Orleanians tend to respect a celebrity’s privacy.
I had very little trouble. Living in the Garden District, I became a part of the Anne Rice tour, I think. You could ask any cab driver and they could take you to my front door if you wanted to. I bought this place that had a nice balcony around the house. I thought this would be great so I could have coffee out on the balcony, but on the first day, I realized, “Oh, there’s a walking tour of 20 people watching me in my underpants.”
I remember when a friend of mine from New York first came down to visit in New Orleans. He said, “This place is pretty cool. Everyone is concerned with being cool in New York. Here, nobody’s cool and everybody’s having fun.” It stuck with me.
What worked for you in New Orleans?
I like the pace of the city, and I like the people that I met, and I grew up in a pretty tradition-free environment, a small family. There was Christmas and Thanksgiving; there was one parade during the summer. And, it seemed like there was a whole other vibe going on down there. And, as I got into living there, I found things that helped me stay sane like riding my bike around, thunderstorms in summer afternoons, sweating profusely, being hot in the middle of the night—things that I like. I like that kind of thing. Where I grew up, it was hot for a week. You had to make the most of it.
There’s something in the whole make-up of the city that really struck a chord with me. It was the first time I lived in a place and I really enjoyed being there. You never feel out of place.
In an interview, you said New Orleans is “a flawed place.” What were you thinking of?
I had a really good friend that worked for me at my studio. He was a black guy. He was murdered while I was there. He was a product of the projects. He’s the guy that would watch my house while I was gone; I’d trust him with my life. I got an insight into a culture that I wasn’t exposed to, from where I came from and who I was around. And, I really got a firsthand glimpse of some of the hopelessness of growing up in an environment of feeling discarded, feeling like you don’t have a chance. I got a real insight into some race-relation issues. Their views of white people, for example, that I hadn’t seen first hand, hadn’t experienced. It changed me pretty profoundly because I think up to that point, I was always forming opinions according to my experience, my upbringing, and my values. When you realize there’s a whole faction of people that have been brought up completely differently, it’s unfair for me to judge them or expect that they would have the same values I have. If there was one good thing that came from Katrina, it was this flashlight of national and world attention on just how bad poverty and conditions are in a major American city.
Was it a conscious decision not to be involved in the music community while you were here?
It wasn’t a conscious decision not to integrate into anything, but the kind of music I was doing didn’t lend itself to a lot of jam sessions or whatnot. And, I think one of the biggest factors—and this is something I think I’ve kind of gotten away from in a good way now—was that I always felt intimidated. Over the last few years, maturing and sobriety have helped me feel a lot more relaxed about that. I feel more confident about things. I think that if the current version of me were living in New Orleans, it would be a different scenario. But, I blame myself, not the city.
Comparatively speaking, your time here was not terribly productive. Is it hard to work in New Orleans?
When I lived in New Orleans, I really devolved into addiction, and I became alcoholic. I bottomed out while I was in New Orleans, and I got better while I was New Orleans. And, I’m not at all blaming New Orleans. I just happened to be there. I’m sure it probably nudged me along and made the road a little quicker, but that was going to happen to me regardless of where I was. A lot of my lack of productivity wasn’t the city; it was me being drunk, me trying to kill myself in a certain way.
That’s not why I moved away. I considered that when I first got clean. I thought I should just get out of here and avoid this place, but I didn’t want to put the city on that list of things that I was running away from. And, when I made the decision to leave, it was a very difficult decision to make and a painful one. I had a house that I liked and a studio I loved being in, and I knew I wouldn’t have those things of the caliber anywhere else. Space-wise and financially, it was comfortable and easy for me to stay there. But, I knew that in my evolution of my trajectory, I needed an additional view out of the window. I feel confident that to leave was the right thing to do. I also feel that I managed to put it away in the right category in my mind, filed away as a place I missed and look forward to returning to versus ugh, I can’t go there because that’s where bad things happened.
Were you having addiction issues before moving to New Orleans?
I’ve met many addicts; they had their first beer at age 13 and knew that’s what they want to do. That wasn’t me. I felt like I was pretty normal until really mid-’90s when fame kicked it and I was probably the least secure about who I was. I had all these new friends. There’s a zero at the end of my bank account. I can buy a house. Things like that were happening and somewhere along the line, I realized that we had been on tour for two-and-a-half years solid that started in theaters and ended up in sold-out arenas. The bus stops, and I realize that I have a beer in my hand and I’ve had that same beer in my hand the last couple of years pretty much since lunch. Then the tour stopped, but the party didn’t stop. I realized that I’d turned into something that I really didn’t plan on becoming. I became this guy, and is that me? When did I become that guy?
It’s a tough process realizing hey, my life is pretty terrible right now and if I look down, I can see a trail of vodka bottles leading to where I am; I wonder if that has anything to do with it? And to try to identify yourself as someone with a drinking problem—it took me longer than I wished to truly accept that and then deal with it the right way. Finally, I’d had enough, and I’ve proven to myself, yeah, I am that guy. I can either do something about it, or I can die.
Are drugs easier to get here?
Were they easy to get in New Orleans? Yeah, but I haven’t found them hard to find anywhere if I wanted them. Again, I can’t and don’t blame New Orleans. I could have been in—name a remote location—and if I wanted them bad enough, I would find a way to find what I needed.
It looked like you were in really good shape at Voodoo 2005. Did you replace one addiction with one for exercise?
Probably. I put one addiction in the bag, and something else tries to creep up. The resentment I had when I got clean and I woke up out of a stupor, and went, “Several years of my life are gone. How old am I? Fuck.” I’m happy I got my life back together, but I wish I could have condensed that time into a couple of months instead of several years. I think part of it was, “If I stop doing this, I can focus on trying to get myself back in shape and take care of myself.” I probably took that to extreme at some points.
A friend of mine who’s an addict had a great line: “Really, all I want to do is just not feel bad.” My life is about trying not to feel bad, and left to my own devices, I feel bad, and that’s why I turned to drugs or alcohol in the first place. Whatever I can do now—physically or spiritually or mentally—if I can do something that makes me feel better about myself, I’d like to do it. Something that’s not causing harm to somebody else, that’s not causing harm to me.
I’ve heard a number of rumors; what was your role in helping Voodoo 2005 happen in New Orleans?
Simply, we were looking forward to playing it and then Katrina hit. My manager and I started thinking, “Let’s get in touch with Stephen [Rehage, Voodoo’s promoter]. If there’s a way to do it that doesn’t take resources away from the city that might help in some way, even if it’s just giving people an afternoon to not think about how miserable the situation is—I’d be happy to dedicate our time to do that. And that’s really all it was. Stephen pulled it together, and I called up some of the bands. Queens of the Stone Age were on tour with us, and I asked them if they would be interested in helping out with their time. We’re going to do it, and they said yeah sure, and that’s all the credit I can have for that. But, I will say, playing it was fun. I wish I could have done more. If we weren’t on tour, I would have gone down and volunteered. My manager actually did; he called buddies of his. They got a semi truck to meet them and bought a bunch of stuff from Costco and delivered it all along the Mississippi to some places.
Why did you release The Slip so quickly on the Heels of Ghosts I-IV?
Ghosts was just an experiment, and I thought it would be five or six EPs. Initially, it was just going to be something fun to do. I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off on a major label because they wouldn’t understand what it is. They’re only made to sell big things. Ghosts wound up being four CDs’ long somehow. I know that was indulgent, but I figured if it was reasonably priced and it was something that explained what it is, we’ll see what happens.
We had booked a tour at that point, and I knew we were going to be going out late spring, early summerish. I thought it might be nice to have a tangible, vocal-driven single that feels a bit more in the world of Nine Inch Nails. Five weeks later, there was another album down somehow. I think it was because there was no expectation and I didn’t feel pressure. I didn’t go at that record feeling like, “This has to be the big, important statement. It’s is going to define me for the next five years.” My response right now is not to put less care in things, but to treat it like a magazine issue instead of the next big novel. Maybe it’s a short story, and maybe one comes out every six months.
Metallica and Coldplay would be the best examples that I can think of offhand, of entire companies’ livelihoods dependent on these giant bands, so they’re going to market them in an old school way that costs lots of money. And, they’re going to buy slots on radio stations, and they’re going to pump it in every avenue they can find, and they’re going to bombard you with this event of this record. If you’re one of maybe five [bands] in the world that have a big enough audience or are mainstream enough to tap into something that might resonate, you might get that push. If not, you’re like the other 99 percent of bands that put stuff out.
Everyone’s got iPods that can hold 10,000 albums and everyone steals music and shares music. Before your record’s even out, it’s already been half-listened to by people and put on with the rest of them. As an artist, I wish it was the days when I grew up where you saved up five bucks, you bought a record and you listened to that record even if you didn’t like it. You’d invested in it, and you found yourself listening to it and listening to it. You spent time with it, and you got into it. You read in between the lines, and you read into what was being said. If I could wave a magic wand, that’s how the audience respond. They would spend time. And, there are some people, I believe, that do that. But, the vinyl record with the nice artwork turned into an ugly CD in a plastic package, then that’s turned into a little anonymous file on a computer with maybe a postage stamp graphic for the album cover, then that turned into a torrent file somewhere that became a competition to everybody of how fast can you steal something and how much can you steal of it. The importance of the art and the music gets lost in the quantity of the collection.
I’ve learned you can bitch about these things, and it’s not going to change anything. Or, you can accept, right now this is how things are; how can I adapt and still maintain my dignity and try to put out the best art I can?
People still like music; it’s just the way they’re consuming it and the value they’re placing on it is different. I bet a lot of kids have never paid for music and don’t feel like they should have to, and you can’t argue with that. I know why they feel that way. You can point the blame at greedy record companies and inferior, overpriced product, and the consumer feeling ripped off for a long time. I think that if you tacked on a couple of dollars on everybody’s ISP bill and you could download all the music you want, I don’t think anyone would really bitch about that, once they quit bitching the first week they found out about it. Right now, you’re paying for the Discovery Channel and you probably don’t know that or care. The reason that’ll never happen is because the people who hold the keys to the music are so greedy that they’d never agree to split that pie up.
Your solution seems to be to trust your fans, rather than treat them as a market ripe for exploiting, which has been the major labels’ way. You’ve put your financial fate in your fans’ hands.
With mixed results, but if it wasn’t for fans, we wouldn’t be talking right now, and I’d be doing something else. I always try to put a record out or design a T-shirt or work out production for a tour through the filter of, “Do I think that’s cool? As a fan, would I like this?” I am a fan, and I know what’s always appealed to me. If we’re going to sell this for this much, are you going to get value? Are you going to feel ripped off? If I just put out Ghosts for $5 or $300—and if you get the $300 one, the last thing I want you to say was, “Ehh, it’s okay.” I want you to go, “Goddamn, this is the nicest thing I’ve ever seen!” And you know what? It is, in my opinion. We spared no expense to do something we couldn’t do at a major label. Every bit of it was as nice a quality as we could come up with.
Then to think, “Oh, I’m going to put The Slip out and I’m asking you to pay to come see it in concert. Two weeks later, we’re going to put tickets on sale. You know what—let’s give them The Slip. That’ll be our marketing plan.” Is it the right move in the long run? I don’t know. It felt right at the time. It’s something that wouldn’t work for an unknown band; I know that.
An interesting extension of that is making the tracks for The Slip available to fans for remixing, putting your art in the hands of your fans.
A few years ago when we put out With Teeth, I was doing some press in Europe sitting in my hotel room bored out of my mind. I realized on my laptop—a Mac—there was GarageBand, a simplified version of the same program we used to record in the studio. Multitrack editing. Very easy to switch up drum beats. A nice library of stuff. It’s geared toward the home enthusiast. But behind it is a very powerful audio sequencer. I wondered if I could load in one of our songs to it as a way for people to do remixes. A couple of hours later, I’d fit “The Hand That Feeds” into it, and gave it out to the guys in the crew and said, “See how this works” Within five minutes, I had a polka version, some terrible stuff, but it was a fun toy to play around with. I decided to see if I could hoodwink our record label to let me give out the tracks as an easy way to do remixes. I don’t think they understood what I was talking about, but they let me do it. We put out “The Hand That Feeds” as a multitrack download and within a couple of months, there were thousands of remixes.
That led to us doing it with the next single, and finally, when we had the ability to do it without record labels being involved, we put out the whole thing as multitrack downloads. It created a whole community of bedroom remixers, and some have done some great stuff, to a point where I probably wouldn’t hire any quote-unquote professional remixers because their cover has been blown. And it’s been a fun thing to do. We have a part of our Web site that’s set up to share and put up your remixes and listen to other people’s stuff. It seemed like the right thing to do. There’s no direct pipeline of cash coming to me from it.
I’m not precious about it. I’m done with the song; here’s the components of a song. I think it turned a lot of people on to how a song is constructed, the sonic structure. I just stole “Bohemian Rhapsody”—the multitracks—off the Internet because I wanted to hear how it was put together.
Finally, what makes you laugh?
[laughs] I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of humor, and for a while I was typecast as this vampire, no-fun-allowed kind of person. We’re the kings of practical jokes, usually on each other. And anything that has to do with farting is funny.