Few comebacks in pop music are as well-laid and well-timed as Trent Reznor’s return as Nine Inch Nails in 2005. The high-water mark of the band’s cultural relevance had come and gone eleven years prior, with “Closer,” a single from their sophomore album, The Downward Spiral, announcing the height of industrial metal—a marriage between samplers, sequencers, and distorted guitar riffs that was equally informed by Big Black and Europe’s electronic body music. The album galvanized the band’s cult, but its success apparently stunned Reznor, and the immaculately produced, eerily insular follow-up, The Fragile, took a full five years to appear. Though the album was manna to fans, it also threatened to paint Reznor as a one-dimensional angst merchant.
In the last four years, Trent Reznor has managed to be nearly as productive as he was in the entire first fifteen years of his band’s existence. NIN 2.0 consists of Reznor embracing social media and taking more control over his marketing—changes that coincided with some major developments in the music business. His latest release, 2008’s The Slip (The Null Corporation), was distributed as a free download, and an alternate-reality game surrounded the release of his album Year Zero, part of which involved strategic leaks via mp3-loaded USB drives planted in unassuming locations.
On the eve of taking a hiatus from touring, Twitter, and potentially the NIN moniker entirely, Reznor met with me backstage at the Shoreline Ampitheater before the band’s last Bay Area show (for the foreseeable future). After meeting his fiancee, Mariqueen Maandig of the L.A. band West Indian Girl, I sat and Reznor stood as we discussed the origin of his Twitter avatar (a screenshot from vintage arcade game Robotron: 2084), his future plans, the state of major labels, and why “Make cool shit” is his new imperative.
I. THE COLLECTIBLE MINDSET
THE BELIEVER: Right now, people talk about albums less as stand-alone artistic statements than as advertisements for the live show, where most of the money is being made. Is this true of NIN at this point in its career?
TRENT REZNOR: What’s happened the last few years, certainly since we’ve gotten out of being on a record label, is I’ve noticed the amount of time I spend thinking about stuff that wouldn’t have been considered the artistic portion of being a musician—the marketing, presentation—stuff that, under the shell of the old system, you didn’t have to think about because you didn’t have much say in it anyway; your job was clearly defined as making music, work on the art part, fight the label to get your vision out, see what happens. As that system started to not work anymore, and the record labels have collapsed, it really feels like your role as a musician today, whether you want to accept it or not is to think about… you now have a lot of power you never had before. That’s the power of distribution—all the strangleholds that those labels had sewed up—is gone. Anybody is a broadcaster and a publisher. I can get headlines now from a Twitter tweet rather than going through a publicist and hoping the journalist says what I said accurately, whatever it is, and doesn’t portray me as an ass hole. You do spend a lot of time as a musician now, at least I do, thinking about how you’re going to present yourself. I grew up in the era of vinyl, there were records, the album—whether or not the reason it came about as a way to make more money for a record label doesn’t matter—I looked at that as an art form. That thirty-to-forty-five-minute chunk of music, with songs that relate to each other—that’s the format that Nine Inch Nails works best in. That’s the format that I prefer as an artist. As a fan of music, I never listen to greatest-hits records. I’ve never put shuffle on my iPod. I like to hear things the way they were meant to be heard. That might make me a Luddite or outdated or antiquated or whatever, but as a band that’s how I think about it. And forgetting about business for a minute, forgetting about selling records and all that, but just as an artist, what I’ve found these days, let’s say you spend six months to a couple years working on an album—that masterpiece, that hour of greatness. The second it leaks—the consumption rate to the public is so fast now that it’s been reviewed, criticized, critiqued, put on the shelf months before it’s even available traditionally for people to buy it. If I had a fifteen-song full-length record now, ready to go today—if it lent itself to it, I might split it up into five three-song EPs that come out every couple weeks. And that would give me five spikes of interest instead of one. Because as soon as your record leaks, it’s like your cards are on the table, and everyone’s on to the next thing: the collectible mindset.
BLVR: So the physical release would be a collection of the EPs with deluxe packaging, along the lines of what you did with Ghosts I-IV.
TR: As the artist, I want as many people to hear it as possible. There is no radio anymore. How do you get it out there? Let’s remove all hurdles from you listening to my stuff, which usually means make it free and make it not complicated to get it and encourage you to share it with people. It does also mean it’s a bitter pill to swallow coming from the structure of a major label contract where you do this work and you get paid for people buying this piece of plastic. If your job suddenly said, “Hey, guess what, we don’t want to pay you anymore, but keep doing it…” I remember ten years ago—it must be more than ten years ago now—going into a college kid’s dorm room and realizing everyone listened to music on their computers. What? Where have I been? Maybe I should give this iPod thing a chance.
BLVR: Do you feel like these new responsibilities take away from time you’d lavish on the act of making music?
TR: I have thought about that, and I would agree that, right when we got off Interscope, there was a period of time when all I did was think about this puzzle— there’s got to be a solution to this riddle right now. And I kind of got obsessed with it, I spent time reading everything I could on the Internet: what’s this new startup, what’s the business model that makes sense, and why it sucks and why the record labels are wrong about this and this, and why this band fucked up, and why subscription models on a band-by-band basis don’t make sense. Every minute I’m spending working out this problem I’m not spending writing a song. And the problem is there’s nobody else that is figuring it out—the record labels aren’t, and most managers aren’t because they’re as caught in the headlights as everyone else is. If you’re doing anything that’s remotely indie or interesting or outside the KROQ playlist, there’s no upside whatsoever to giving away the rights to everything else you have to be on a label that doesn’t know what to do anyway. I’ll tell you what feels great—and I would encourage any artist to strive for the day they can pull this off. With the last couple records, it was literally: finish in the studio Friday night, Saturday morning drive it over to mastering to get it EQ’d, and put it up on the Internet the same day. That was wildly exciting. I mean, it may not sound exciting to the nonmusician, but usually there’s a two-to-eight-month gap between when you last listen to it and the day it shows up in the stores. I’ve had some young bands say to me, and rightfully criticizing me, saying that what I’ve come up with for Nine Inch Nails works for a band like Nine Inch Nails, that has an established fan base and has a track record and also has reaped the benefits of years of support from labels. That’s a valid criticism because giving a record away free as an unknown band doesn’t do you any good, because no one knows who you are and you’re not going to make any money from live shows because nobody knows who you are.
BLVR: You’ve also been on the other side in the ’90s, running your own label. How does doing what you now do with Nine Inch Nails, taking control of all facets of its existence, compare with running Nothing?
TR: Nothing Records was an interesting and ultimately failed experiment, where Interscope at the time had money to throw around. The success of that was finding Marilyn Manson, finding them, and I do believe having the barrier of me helped let them do what they wanted to do, to allow it to come out and be in a pure, unwatered-down form. In the case of Manson, you got to see an egomaniac turn into what he truly is. I got a taste of being the bad guy, running the record label and being blamed for every thing that doesn’t work out right, and that kind of sucks. It did what it did; we kind of got lazy, to be honest with you. It wasn’t the full-time thing I was thinking about. Plus, at the time I was also getting sucked into a world of addiction. So it ran its course. It mainly taught me what I’d never want to get into in the future. If I can provide an infrastructure that helps the musicians get going, then great, I’m all up for that, and I’m actually working on trying to pull that off. I think the downfall of most major labels—most labels in general—is the way that they choose to spend money and recoup it. The scam of what labels have done is traditionally complete thievery— you lend me money to make a record, you make the lion’s share of the profits. When I pay it back, you still own it? How does that work? “Oh, well, that’s the way it is.” Who the fuck says that’s the way it is? “Starting with Elvis Presley, that’s the way it is.”
II. AN AIR CONDITIONER IN THE BACKGROUND, A WEIRD BUZZ, AND YOUR STOMACH HURTS
BLVR: Looking at your history as a musician, and what I can gather about your personal life as well, it seems like the way record labels have traditionally operated may have contributed to a sort of drawing away from the world. When you look at the release schedule of the last couple of albums, you’ve released—in the same amount of time you’d usually take between albums when you were on Interscope—about the same amount of material that you put out in the preceding decade.
TR: A lot of that has been dependent on getting some of my own demons out of the closet and getting my head screwed on straight and getting sober, and also identifying that the prime factor causing these big delays was my own fear. Not thinking I was good enough—what if it was just luck that I wrote a good song once, just crippling myself with unrealistic expectations and setting myself up to fail by saying, “Here’s a blank piece of paper: write the best song ever. Go!” “Uh, I’d rather have a drink.” One thing I do think is good now, with the collapse of all this and the splintering of niches: nobody can get real big, but lots of people can get attention. Nobody’s going to sell 5 million records today that I can imagine, aside from Coldplay, but if you’re into alt-country postpunk, there’s some blog, there’s some radiostation out there on the Internet that plays that sort of stuff. There are like-minded people you can find that somehow know the same bands that you do. “Make cool shit” is a much greater statement today. There are no Kevin Weatherly superprogrammers that get paid to pick who the next stars are; they don’t have any power anymore. An interesting, weird time. Let’s cut this parasitic middle man gangster out of the equation, the thuggy record-label backdoor bullshit. Hopefully we can get a bright light shining on it and, like a cockroach, it’ll disappear.
BLVR: You launched the band in Cleveland, where you famously worked in a studio as a janitor and got access at night to work on the NIN demo. What were you recording before you started there? NIN is very much a beast of studio perfection, so I wonder how you were working before you had access to a professional studio.
TR: My fi rst real intensive songwriting was NIN-based. I wasted a lot of time avoiding writing because I was afraid it would suck—a recurring theme. I could play keyboards in your band and I could tell if that song wasn’t that good, but I was afraid to find out if my own stuff sucked. So I became sideman to all bands in Cleveland at one point. By the time I really got into writing my own stuff, I had access to that studio. I could use a real 24-track tape machine if I knew how to work it. It was a good place to cut your teeth. Many years later, anyone who’s got a computer basically has a full recording studio, and that’s a great tool to have.
BLVR: Do you rely on computers for sketching out ideas that you flesh out with outboard synthesizers or a more expansive studio?
TR: My setup at home now is pretty small—it’s basically a computer with a small SSL console, so if I get an idea, it’s recorded at full fidelity. We actually mixed the last couple records there. But the computer has become so integral to how I write music—the computer is the sketchpad. If I’m on the road I use Ableton Live. I love that program because it runs on everything and it’s inspiring. It’s like a songwriter hanging out in your laptop bag with you. The line is blurred now, where a lot of a demo I record in Ableton becomes the final recording. I learned that long ago with vocals—good luck trying to beat the first take, cos that’s the one you’re going to end up using on the record, so try to get it recorded well the fi rst time. You try to go back and really record it right, but you don’t realize what made it right the first time was that you couldn’t hear yourself. There’s an air conditioner in the background, there’s a weird buzz, and your stomach hurt. I learned to treat every moment like it’s the real thing.
BLVR: In addition to your recording, your look changed markedly when you came back for With Teeth in 2005. Do you subscribe to any particular diet or workout regimen?
TR: I’m sure it’s some kind of midlife crisis. It really was trying to take care of myself. I was very afraid when we started touring in 2005 because it was the first shows I’d done sober. I’d had a terrible experience on the tour before that, in 2000, where I was sick all the time. If I didn’t drink before I went on, I’d get sick and throw up. It was terrible. I felt like when you go on stage, it’s like going into combat, you get picked apart by everybody. I wanted to go in feeling confident in myself. I thought I’d get in really good shape—that’s the incentive, walking on stage thinking, I can get through this, I’ve got some kind of armor on. It was also about discipline. I learned about discipline getting clean; I went from a life of excess and lawlessness to realizing the upside of discipline, work, work ethic, and all that.
III. EIGHTEEN YEARS OUT IN THE CORNFIELDS OF RURAL PENNSYLVANIA WITH NOTHING BUT FM
BLVR: As far as genres are concerned, Nine Inch Nails has been pegged as an industrial band for a long time. But the band is unusually songful in comparison to canonical industrial groups like Throbbing Gristle or 23 Skidoo, and there are strong whiffs of techno, pop, ambient, and metal in your sound. How much do you identify with the term?
TR: I always liked the sound of Skinny Puppy; it sounded like Skinny Puppy. Now, the range of that was pretty narrow, but it definitely was discernible—you could tell that’s what that was. I realized over time that, from my own perspective, we weren’t as narrow as that, for better or for worse. I don’t mind the term industrial. I understand where it’s coming from. I also understand why it’s polarizing to those who know what it really means and where it really came from. I highly respect those bands—the Throbbing Gristles and Coils and Test Departments of the world—they’ve influenced the sound, and the use of noise and texture, and I appreciate the experimental nature of them. Nine Inch Nails has been rooted, whether I want it to be or not, in pop song structure: melody, choruses, traditional Beatles-esque pop song skeletons. I can’t say that that was a formula I came up with, I think it’s more the result of spending eighteen years out in the cornfields of rural Pennsylvania with nothing but FM, mainstream radio, and AM radio, and getting hooks drilled into my head my whole life. I like the idea of presenting something that was complex but tangible, that had entry points. The frustration with a band like Skinny Puppy for me is that I wish there was a chorus once in a while, and I wish there was something you could hum, something you could come back to.
BLVR: I found myself looking at Nine Inch Nails’ history as one of pop music fandom—the records that Nothing was distributing by acts like Autechre and Meat Beat Manifesto, or the bands you’re bringing on tour with you, like Deerhunter or White Williams. How are you finding out about music now?
TR: There was a period of time that kind of coincided with being a drunk—I was convinced that I was gonna dig within for inspiration. Usually that meant going back to stuff like early Bowie or exploring Lou Reed’s stuff. Everything felt like, today’s coolest new band is basically just Joy Division, and the other great new band is just Gang of Four, kind of preying on people that aren’t that familiar with Gang of Four to know it’s exactly the same thing with a new name, minus the cool political lyrics. I started exploring out and over the last several years I’ve found lots of things that I think are really good. That usually comes to me from Pitchfork, Brooklyn Vegan, or Stereogum. I don’t get it from the radio, which I don’t listen to unless I’m in a rental car and there’s no other option. If I stumble across bands like that that I think are cool, if I think that it might be respectful for them and I think that they might have an OK time in front of our audience, then I’ll approach them if we’re in a touring situation. We’re faced when we go on tour with the question at the beginning: are you big enough to fi ll the space that you’re going to play? And the answer usually is no, you’re not. The last several tours, I’ve tried to take bands that I like and that I think it would be interesting to them to be thrown in front of a strange environment, take them out of Spaceland and put them in an arena somewhere. And not set them up to fail, but prop them up as much as we can. Make sure they have a sound check and use our lights and do whatever you want with the sound and see what happens. I fi gure if one out of ten people who go to that concert leave at least knowing the name of the band and think, “Hey, that was pretty cool,” or, “I fucking hated them”: mission accomplished. You’ve made some kind of impact.
BLVR: On the subject of touring and the hiatus you’ve just announced, does this mean Nine Inch Nails is going to continue as a sort of home-recording project, or are you looking to move forward altogether?
TR: We’ve toured so much since I reemerged in 2005 that it’s on the verge of feeling like it’s a duty versus something I love to do. It hasn’t crossed into that yet. Here’s what it feels like to me: —Hey, guess what, we’re pregnant with a new kid. —Wow! —Guess what! It’s his first birthday, do you want to come over? —What? —Guess what, he’s two now, come on over and… —Wait, it seems like it was only a couple months ago that you were…
Because the real world has been progressing on, and my world has been touring around, living the same day over and over again in different hotels. The other thing is that there are some ancillary things I’ve been wanting to do for the last five, six, seven, eight years that I never get around to because there’s a tour or there’s a record—your main job has become something that’s eating up time. Part of that falls into the whole Year Zero thing, and the narrative that went with that. We’ve actually just pitched that to the BBC as a limited TV series. And I’m also working on, as I mentioned, a kind of infrastructure that may work for other bands, that’s not a label. I’m sure there’s going to be a NIN tour at some point, maybe. I will definitely tour in some capacity and kind of get myself into the unknown a bit and see. I don’t wanna stay comfortable, and it feels comfortable to me right now. I want to fuck some things up, lose my audience and have to gain them back.