Trent Reznor is not unhappy. He's not tortured, distraught, deluded, strung-out, miserable, or bitter. The Nine Inch Nails auteur is, however, angry. The bile that seethes through With Teeth, his first record in six years, which debuted at number one in May, is the emotional link to his first three, renowned for the bleakness of their man/machine collision. Teeth is also Reznor's first output after a drawn-out dance with heroin; its vicious focus reveals that sobriety has brought a newfound sense of purpose. Industrial music's prime instigator spoke to New Times on a recent morning before heading to his next tour stop in Dallas (Reznor and Nine Inch Nails appear October 24 at the BankAtlantic Center):
New Times: Man, it's pretty early for you guys to be up and out.
Trent Reznor: It's not by choice, but duty calls. Old guys get up early in the morning.
Exclusive interview with Trent Reznor
Kind of speaks to this newfound sense of healthy balance you've established. Do you miss the self-destruction, the fucked-up-ness?
You know, I can look back fondly at a lot of that stuff, and I think we felt like we took it to the extreme. I did, at least. I'm sober now, and I can acknowledge that I had a lot of good times. And I had a lot of terrible times. For me personally, I know I can't continue to behave that way. And life doesn't suck now; there's been a lot of things in return for not being that way that I wouldn't trade. It's not like I mope around now missing the way I used to be, because I really feel that's not who I am now anyway, but I can look back now and say that those were good times, certainly.
An interesting thing happened when I started working on With Teeth that was the beginning of last year. I found that, wow, I've got a lot of ideas and I didn't need to be high or drunk to have ideas, and I didn't destroy my brain in the process of getting high those years, and I can think again and kind of revitalize.
And also, it's just been me fighting myself all this time, because I've been afraid. I'm afraid I suck or I can't write songs anymore or I don't have anything to say or was just lucky that I got this far, [that] I fooled people. I listened too much to that, and I wasn't rational enough to put it in its place, to know what that voice is, what its agenda is. And I just feel free of that. I'm waking up feeling like I don't have to lie to everybody, as an addict, and also waking up like I can sit down and write, and, hey, it might suck. So what? The next one might not suck, and it's not going to be the end of my life if it does.
That must feel really encouraging.
It feels unbelievably good. And when that time does come up that I think, fuck, it would be fun to be out burning someone's house down or whatever, what I've gained in clarity and self-respect and ability so much outweighs that. Life is a series of changes, and I feel glad that I am where I am right now.
I've always seen your music as beyond politics, speaking directly to the root of human behavior. Considering your stance on the Bush administration, have you considered doing something overtly political?
That's an interesting take on it, because my view has been like, the world is outside and I'd like to get to it, but I'm too busy stuck in my own head because I can't get my own shit together. On With Teeth, for the first time with "The Hand that Feeds," which was to me a political song, or certainly motivated by politics, it felt like what I've learned with my own experience in the last several years is that I need help and I need other people, as much as I thought I didn't. And there is strength in a community of people. I think we're all connected. There's a greater power in unity and feeling a part of things, and the whole "giving is better than receiving" thing finally made sense to me. That always seemed like a stupid fucking saying: "What do you mean, 'Giving is better than receiving?'" But I get that now, and now it feels more important to me to be thinking in terms of the greater good. It's just two different ways to look at it, what you said and what I just said. I always used to think a different way. I'm not saying one way is right or wrong; it's just perspective.
How have you reacted to Hurricane Katrina? I know you have a studio and a home in New Orleans.
I haven't been back there yet because of the schedule. [The studio] got water damaged and filled with mold, and all the carpet got ripped out. It got out fairly unscathed, compared to a lot of my friends. But to be honest with you, I haven't really... The first day, when the storm missed it, I was concerned about it and wondering how the studio fared, and I had just sold my house a few months ago. But after seeing what happened to that city, it just doesn't mean that much to me. It's just stuff and just a building and gear, and it's replaceable, and it really doesn't matter. But seeing the scale of tragedy and the repercussions that that had, not only what God or nature's hand had to do with but more the administration's murder of the city... [pause] It's just unbelievable, my feelings of grief the city that I love and really call home still. I lived there for about 14 years. I live in L.A. now, but I have some stuff in L.A.; I don't feel like I belong there yet. To see that place get wiped out and, "You're poor, you're black well, so what?" That kind of mindset, whatever feelings of mourning or loss quickly get replaced with outrage.
It seems to make sense to respond to that directly.
I've been thinking about that. The tricky thing for me as an artist is to make sure that the message gets across in the best way. With Teeth really is about different degrees of finding out who you are in a new world, which is a big analogy about getting sober. Nobody wants to hear someone talk about getting sober, nobody wants to hear the "sober guy" record. But in my life, there's been nothing that's been more important or life-changing to me. I don't think With Teeth sounds like the 12-step album, but that was a giant inspiration behind the upheaval in my own life. When something is as outrageous as the behavior of Bush, I can't pretend it doesn't offend me, and I'm sad to see the direction our country has taken, and I'm greatly opposed to his agenda. Finding the right way to articulate that that doesn't become chest-pounding or getting on a soapbox that's the key to having it be effective. I don't claim to have the finesse the Clash had or even Zack from Rage Against the Machine. That's not really how my brain works. If I find the right way to get the message across the most eloquent, powerful way I'll do that. That's something I'm thinking about working on.
You know, you were instrumental in putting Fort Lauderdale on the rock 'n' roll map.
How on Earth did I do that?
Two words: Marilyn Manson. Any memories of those times and this place?
Most of them are, you know, tainted by Manson. Not in a bad way, in that that was his backyard and his scene, and I remember all the good times going out and being around those guys, and it seemed like a fertile scene and one filled with people that loved music but kind of foreign to me, its set of parameters. But interesting. It's cool to look back and think, "Wow, the landscape has changed, and there's cause and effect."
We just played Cleveland, which is where I was living when we got signed, and you look back and think, man, it doesn't seem like that long ago that I was looking at that same bridge wondering what the other side of a record contract would look like. But you can't get there, man. You play shitty bars and get caught in that rut and break out, then seeing the same thing happen with Manson [whom Reznor signed to his Nothing Records label in 1993] and having a hand in it from a different side. And then seeing what a monster you've created in the process [laughs].
You were responsible for shepherding industrial music into the mainstream. How do you feel about that influence? There's been a lot of good stuff and a lot of shit.
Yeah, I mean, I never sat down and said, here's the game plan: My mission is to take industrial music and make it something that works its way into Hot Topic. It came down to what I was inspired by and how I felt like I was part of the scene, certainly as a fan of the Wax Trax stuff and Ministry and Skinny Puppy and all the classics. And that was the music that I related to on a number of levels I liked the sound of it, I like the way it was made, I liked the message, which seemed fresh at the time. I hadn't heard anything like that. It was as powerful as metal without all the silly metal stuff I understood or got into. But equally silly in its own way, for sure, especially looking back now. And when I started making music, I thought I was making music kind of in that genre because I loved it, but it started to come out like pop songs, with choruses and hooks and a lyrical element that I don't think had been in that type of music before. It wasn't any kind of master plan, but it just worked out in a way that... When you start to create, you draw from your influences and synthesize them into something else. It just worked out that the media kind of labeled us as industrial, and that pissed off a lot of the purists, quote-unquote industrial people, and I've always said, hey, man, point the finger at them; I'm not wearing a T-shirt that says Call Me Industrial. But at the same time, there's been a lot of effect from that cause that went down. You see, Skinny Puppy died because they got a big record contract and then imploded, and they got offered that contract because, when we got big, record labels, in their infinite wisdom, [said], OK, who sounds like these guys? Get Skinny Puppy, get Ministry, get Front 242. And a lot of those guys are used to having a budget of $50,000 to do a record; now they have several million and buy a lot of drugs and that's the end.
It's weird to see how things change. I remember when I first saw Korn. I met them with Manson, opening with them, and I didn't get it. I went, what the fuck is this? Now one can say they were a pretty important band, and now there's two generations of bands that have ripped off Korn, that ripped off bands that sounded like Korn. It's weird how your perception of things changes and how there are the bands that end up becoming iconic and the ones that don't live up to the hype. And yeah, I think a lot of bad music has come up that I think I'm responsible for...
It reminds me of a conversation I had I was hanging out with Zack from Rage Against the Machine, and I think Limp Bizkit came on TV, and he goes, "God, this sucks!" And I said, "Well, it's your fault, man, totally your fault. You created this, dude" [laughs].
Who are your peers today?
That's kind of an elitist question, but I'm impressed by Zack. I'm impressed by Maynard from Tool. There's a lot of new stuff out that's interesting and exciting from the DFA production team, LCD Soundsystem, their work with Rapture, etc. I like Arcade Fire a lot. When I look at people that I would like to feel have been a mentor or an inspiring kind of archetype of what I'd love to see my career eventually be mentioned as a footnote for in the same paragraph, it would be, like, Bowie. The courage that he's shown artistically, just to keep trying new things. I remember when I toured with him in 1995, he called up and said, "I want to do a tour, and I think the only band I want to go out with is Nine Inch Nails would you be up for it?" And I just got done saying I'm not touring for a long time. Yup, yeah, OK, yes, what time do you want to start? Playing the message back for people from my machine, [in British accent] "Hi, Trent, it's David Bowie." It's really him, man! But when we met for that tour, he said, "I'm gonna only play stuff off this new album I did. It's very obscure and obtuse, and it's probably going to fail, but it's something I feel like I need to do, and the audience probably isn't going to like it, but it's right for right now." And I thought, you know, either that's really stupid or, fuck yeah, do what you feel is right. Anyway, that stuck with me, and after getting to know him and becoming friends with him, it's been an inspiration not only in his music and his career but also his life. I met him when I was about to bottom out, and it was somebody that had bottomed out, and I saw that there was hope on the other end. Life wasn't about sitting around AA meetings, smoking cigarettes, reliving the glory days. His life was a shitload better than it was. Between him, Brian Eno, people like that, who really seem to have always put art first and maintained over a long period of time, doing stuff that's interesting, you know, failing on occasion but never sitting back and recycling the same crap... I admire that.
Ever thought, back in 1988, you'd be where you are now?
No. It always seemed like I was just fortunate to get whatever level of break it was, all along the line. I always lived life like it was going to be over the next day. I think that led to the whole partying vibe and all that: Let's enjoy it while it lasts. I did enjoy it while it lasted. I really feel now, like coming out of the experience I just went through, getting clean and how bad that was leading up to that, all I wanted to do is stay alive and not hate myself. And then finding out that, even after another long gap, people are still interested in what I'm doing and shows still have a good turnout and the record somehow debuted at number one, and it feels like what I'm doing is relevant and vital... I couldn't imagine that I would have all those things. And I really feel appreciative that I still have a platform to speak from, and I still have a renewed energy and excitement about music. I can certainly find something to bitch about, but I don't have legitimate things to complain about.
Well, I'm really glad you're still doing it.
I appreciate that.
I look forward to seeing you guys down here.
We have a really cool show together too. Not to be the plug or anything.
So I've heard. The whole thing is one of the best package tours of the whole year, I think.
It feels like the shows, we've finally got the bugs worked out. Sitting backstage, the intro tape starts, it's a good feeling to think, I can't wait to fuckin' blow your mind with this. Instead of, hmm, I wonder if the tape is going to come on or the video is gonna start or if I'm gonna remember the words to whatever. It's all good now.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.