Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor has put some old demons behind him

[26 August 2008]

By Brian McCollum

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

We used to wait for Trent Reznor. And wait. And wait.

Suddenly, we can’t avoid him - and fans aren’t complaining about that.

In the decade after Nine Inch Nails’ emergence with the groundbreaking 1989 album “Pretty Hate Machine,” Reznor issued three total records, each the product of painstaking perfectionist work that found him disappearing for years at a time.

In the past three years, we’ve had four NIN releases - including this year’s quadruple set, “Ghosts I-IV” and “The Slip,” both released online as digital files in a move some have called revolutionary.

Reznor, the ex-Clevelander who pushed hard-pounding industrial rock to the fore, has been more active than ever, directly engaging with fans via his Web site and staging unorthodox promotions, like a scavenger hunt for concert tickets stashed in offbeat Los Angeles locales.

The music may be as brutal as ever - “The Slip” pulses with the tense aggression of NIN’s early work - but it’s a bright, re-energized Reznor who’s running the show these days. At 43, he’s found a joy and serenity in the creative process he didn’t always let himself soak up. And he’s once again wielding a word he’d almost forgotten: fun.

“My worst enemy has been myself. I can see that. My perspective right now, I can look back and see clearly that I was sabotaging myself,” he says. “That was fear. I had some issues that plagued me, which resulted in always questioning, and questioning again. The act of working on music was always the most rewarding but also the most terrifying.

“Touring was the reward. But the act of creating and self-examination and looking in the mirror clearly at yourself - that was something I dreaded. So I’d put it off. That’s why there were so many gaps between records, and turning to drugs and alcohol. Getting in control at the forefront of life, and getting older, too, I realized: I do like doing this. It doesn’t have to be terrifying, and going easier on myself doesn’t mean the results drop to zero.”

Reznor got a surge of energy, too, when he was freed last year from a long-running record deal. The record business might be in turmoil, but for the NIN main man, the new future promised liberation.

“Getting off Interscope, at first it was great: I was finally rid of these guys - I’m not singling out Interscope, but they don’t know what they’re doing - but then it was, ‘Great, but now what do we do?’”

“These are the cards I’ve been dealt. This is the climate right now. And there’s nobody to tell me no. That, combined with feeling generally good about my art and feeling excited again, has left me reinvigorated. There’s not this giant obstacle of bureaucracy in the way.”

Reznor has devoted a whole lot of brain juice to the topic of music distribution, mentally placing himself in the role of NIN fan as he seeks to maneuver the right way. “Ghosts” and “The Slip” were both initially released via NIN’s Web site, the latter with a name-your-price policy akin to Radiohead’s much-ballyhooed promotion last year.

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about stuff I’d rather not be thinking about,” he says. “I’d rather be locked in a room working on music or onstage. But because things are broken right now, I’m thinking about how I’d want to be treated as a fan and how as an artist I can treat myself with respect - not put myself in a situation where I’m in a Right Guard commercial.”

The result: Reznor has landed on the vanguard of Internet innovation.

Still, he isn’t the full-on free-culture disciple many observers first assumed. His embrace of online distribution certainly wasn’t driven by ideology: Reznor is no fan of unauthorized file-sharing - he still calls it “stealing” - and he grants that it’s a “valid criticism” to say he has contributed to the devaluing of music by giving it away.

But he also thinks that ignoring the new reality would amount to, well, ignoring reality. And anyway, he’s not out to save the record industry. He’s simply tending to his own affairs.

“You have to acknowledge the fact that people steal music, and they want it as soon as possible. If you hear that a favorite band’s music has leaked, you’re not going to wait a month to get it,” he says. “As an artist, you want people to get excited about it. ‘The Slip’ is great for me because as an artist, I want a lot of people to hear it.

“Any business model I come up with is from a self-centered point of view - it’s about where I’m at.”

Reznor’s energy has also been directed to the new tour, a high-tech visual and audio show he describes as “the most ambitious thing I’ve ever tried to do.” With a band that includes A-list session bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and longtime guitarist Robin Finck, the set offers typically intense renderings of NIN material and acoustic reinterpretations that Reznor says are more than the standard “sitting-on-road-cases jam.”

“It’s all about framing the music to make it sound the best it can sound, and make your eyeballs explode out of your head at the same time,” he says. “If I can do that, I’m happy.”

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