Came Back Vaunted: An Interview with Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor

As the reconfigured Nine Inch Nails prepare for their biggest indoor tour of the UK, Trent Reznor says he can’t afford a nostalgia trip

Feature by Dave Kerr | 06 May 2014

Where are we coming from?” Trent Reznor reclines in his Los Angeles home to wonder where he’s been for the last month. “Oh yeah, we just got back from South America and we’re heading your way next week.” Now a quarter of a century into the Nine Inch Nails story, the veteran frontman speaks between transatlantic legs of a globe-spanning year-long tour which will this month see his proto-industrial rock giants give The Hydro’s PA system its greatest challenge yet.

A four year break from live performance has served Reznor well; today he’s mild mannered, focused and seemingly a world away from the troubled prodigy who penned furious Gen X anthems like Gave Up and Mr Self Destruct. But in an era of rampant reappraisal, where landmark anniversaries for classic records are celebrated weekly while a holographic 2Pac can stalk the stage, it seems nothing’s ever really over in latter-day popular culture.

Reznor himself didn’t appear to know what an early retirement from Nine Inch Nails might entail back in 2009. With new heights of acclaim and an Oscar on his mantelpiece to show for crafting a handful of scores for David Fincher with sometime collaborator Atticus Ross (their third, Gone Girl, has just been announced), there’s a sense he was playing the game, ultimately proving his worth as a versatile composer.

“There wasn’t a master plan to bring Nails back,” he says, staring down suggestions that this reprisal is some calculated deceit. “There really wasn’t. I felt like I needed to force myself into some unfamiliar territory and try to progress other projects I’d been talking about doing. It felt like that format of Nine Inch Nails, where we’d just got off a couple of solid years touring, I needed to force my hand and try something new – period. So I started a family, scored some films and worked with some other people on How To Destroy Angels.

"I unexpectedly found myself really very inspired by all of that and started seeing what some new Nine Inch Nails material might sound like. It felt strong, and I felt like there was a whole record in there. I accepted that and it became Hesitation Marks. Somewhere along the line somebody said ‘Do you want to play some shows?’ It seemed like it was worth trying that out – put a band together, start rehearsing and it felt good. I try not to get too bogged down with the things that I can’t control. Will people like me? I don’t know. Will people show up? Are they interested? I hope so, but I don't know. I try to live up to my end of the deal and see what happens.”

"How do you keep the ending exciting in this spoiler-based world of Twitter?" – Trent Reznor

Nearly five years after his last trip to Scotland – where Nine Inch Nails toppled The Killers on the neighbouring main stage and claimed their men of the match medallion after a memorable wave goodbye at T in the Park – they return to play their largest indoor gig in these parts. Has absence made the heart grow fonder? “It seems like that’s the case,” Reznor chews on the notion. “I don’t know exactly why that is. I just try to do the best work I can do. It’s nice just to see somebody out there gives a shit about us,” he gasps with a genuine relief. “…that feels pretty good.”

A cursory glance at behind the scenes footage of the band’s high-tech Tension tour late last year hammers home a clear sense that this ‘reactivation’ was no small undertaking. “We’re not the kind of band that will do a show here, then take six months off and play a handful of shows. We build a machine that can last X amount of time. In this case, we knew we’d be committing to a year of touring. Having done this a number of times in the past, what I realised is that when you build something that’s pretty production heavy – something specific that brings in theatrical elements or elements of video, almost like a film or a play where it starts in one place, winds up in another and there’s a kind of flow and a climax to it – the unexpected result of that as the performer is that it can start to fall into a routine. A lot of the spontaneity in terms of what happens during the show is gone – you know what’s gonna happen because you’ve done it 40 times. That’s something to be concerned about.”

Before they’ve even set foot on the next stage, Reznor points out that the perceived shock quality of any sustained string of live performances has already been undermined by the presence of a camera. “A lot of these shows – particularly festivals – are now webcast around the world. If you’re interested in Nine Inch Nails, chances are you could’ve seen our show at Fuji Rock or Lollapalooza, because it’s living on YouTube right now. How do we make that exciting in the spoiler-based world of Twitter? How do you keep the ending exciting? How do you keep things fresh? So we try to treat each leg of the tour as a separate tour.”

Inspired by the unconventional lodestar of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense tour, Reznor turned Nine Inch Nails into a rotating ensemble when it was time to head for the enormodomes. “With Tension, we went no holds barred, knowing it was a core audience coming into an arena to see us. ‘How far can I take that?’ So I expanded the band into an eight-piece, really went heavy on video and production integration and by the time we finished that at Christmas I felt like ‘Hey, we’ve proved our point and I’m kind of tired of doing that.’”

So what shape has the Nine Inch Nails live experience consequently taken for their imminent UK return? “What you’re going to see is a different thing,” says Reznor, keen to emphasise that this perpetual reconfiguration isn’t about cutting corners. “Now it’s a four piece band – much more nimble, less about deeply exploring the new album and more about the integration of an electronic and rock band and how far we can take that aggressively and also spontaneously. The shows we just did in Australia and South America were pretty bare bones – the show we’re building for your neck of the woods has much heavier production than that. It’s not the same as we did last year. The challenge is that this is 100 times more hard work on my end, because I have to keep redesigning and this is now the fourth set of rehearsals. But the goal is that it’s exciting for us on stage and it’s exciting for you in the audience, and you’re not sure what’s coming.”

Reznor offers prescient commentary on the plight faced by performing musicians in 2014. “I think that live music in general is suffering a bit, because aside from the EDM experience in the rave tents, the rock band suffers because there’s a lot of competition for your attention these days. There’s your phone, and whatever the fuck’s going on in that, and the various other options of entertainment platforms. If you’re going to invest your evening in Nine Inch Nails, then I want you to leave with a visceral experience, going ‘Fuck, well that was a lot better than watching it on my laptop.’”

Maybe it’s just the old-fashioned compulsion to thrill an audience that really lies at the heart of Nine Inch Nails’ rebirth. But there’s an immense pressure attached to designing a foldaway, state of the art, multi-platform roadshow that needs a reboot for every new continent it lands on. “It always comes down to the last couple of weeks, feeling like you want to kill yourself,” says Reznor. “It comes together but it never feels like it’s going to. I remember, before we started the Tension tour, Rob [Sheridan, long-term art director and collaborator] and I, utterly defeated after being up for three days solid, looking at each other and me saying ‘I know it’s always bad before we leave, but this time for sure it’s the worst.’ He said ‘Yeah, you said that last time.’ And I’ll probably say it the next.”

With no small number of casualties along the way, Reznor’s team sheet over the years has been one of the most remarkable in modern rock – whether he’s joined in the studio by Dave Grohl or Dr Dre, or taking to the road with Aaron North or Josh Freese. One returning personality who has frequently plugged into various incarnations of the band is perennial cyberpunk Robin Finck. Is he just harder than the rest? “What it is with Robin – and it really became clear through this whole period – stems from this: I’ve been doing this now for something like 25 years – which is hard to even comprehend from my point of view. My fear is that it gets comfortable, that it feels routine, it becomes expected and it’s not progressing forward, taking risks and feeling unsure. What this can easily turn into is something that becomes a nostalgia show – y’know, ‘Let’s go see Nine Inch Nails and relive how we felt 10 or 20 years ago.’ I’ve been beating myself up over this.”

Dismantling the past in an effort to move the band forward and match the scale of his evolving ambitions, Reznor carefully assembled a crew of virtuosic players hailing from various outside disciplines – most notably, occasional studio collaborator Adrian Belew (also an early accomplice of Bowie, Zappa and Talking Heads) and former Jane’s Addiction bassist Eric Avery – both of whom dropped out before playing a single gig. “When I started to put this band together for this cycle I thought ‘What if I really stir things up and bring in some people you wouldn’t expect and flip it on its head?’” he reasons. “What I found then was that Robin wasn’t a part of that initial rehearsal. I had really underestimated how valuable what he brings to the table is. It’s excellent musicianship and it’s also spirit. Singing those songs, looking over and not seeing or sensing him there wasn’t right, it was then I realised I’d very much miscalculated this. The second he walked through the door it was like ‘My bad – I fucked up here and it won’t happen again.’”

Since having the plug kicked out while his supergroup was in mid-flow at The Grammys this past February (to which he directed a very public “heartfelt FUCK YOU” towards its producers), it seems Reznor’s latter-day dalliances with the red carpet might be on ice for a little while. So is this to be a short-term reprisal for Nine Inch Nails, or is another chapter already coming into view? “I’m looking forward to playing these shows, but if I could do what I want to do right now I’d walk in the studio and start writing an album,” he confesses. “I’m going to try and pull off some of that while I’m on the road. I feel reinvigorated under the umbrella of Nine Inch Nails and I feel like this is more of a fresh start than sweeping ashes around and trying to rearrange things. It feels pretty positive to me. Now, when we finish this touring cycle at the beginning of the Fall, ask me again and it may be a different answer. But right now I feel pretty optimistic about where I’m at.”


Brody Dalle: T-Dog, do you believe in God?

“I do. I take comfort in thinking there’s some purpose and higher power of some sort. I’m not affiliated with any particular religion but that gives me some sense of comfort. I’ve had some dark days through the years and been through some shit that makes me think there is some reason here and it’s beyond just physics and biology.”

Ben Shepherd (Soundgarden): Is there a Soundgarden song you’d want to sing with us when we go on tour together? None of us can sing Half from Superunknown, would you give it a try? 

[Chuckles] “I’ll tell you, I’m a fan of Soundgarden. I’ve always been in awe of what Cornell’s capable of doing with his voice. I say this with flattery – when I was coming up in the 70s, listening to rock music, every singer could somehow sing high as shit, and I thought ‘Well, I can’t be a singer because my range isn’t that high.’ When Soundgarden appeared it felt reminiscent of that same kind of great rock singer, like ‘Goddammit!’ I was pissed off that he could sing that well. I don’t have the skill to sing like that! But I’d be happy to try anything in a scenario where I don’t look like an idiot, sure – if I can contribute.”  

Nine Inch Nails play Glasgow's SSE Hydro on 20 May and Manchester Phones 4u Arena on 25 May