Nine inch nails: the hidden side of a rock legend

My sense of humour keeps me going. He might look like a miserable old git but Trent Reznor isnt as sombre and po-faced as rumours would have you believe. Meet the real man behind Nine Inch Nails

By Browne, Nichola and Catherine Yate for Kerrang! on April 14, 2007

On a cold Wednesday night at London�s Brixton Academy, there are at least 4,000 people frantically going apeshit under a sense-shredding assault of strobes and dry ice. The reason? Nine Inch Nails are onstage. And, that, to seasoned NIN fans is the equivalent of the Second Coming of Christ for Christians.

So all this isn�t much of a surprise when you consider that it's the first of four dates at the venue on a sold-out UK tour that by its end, will see them play to roughly 10 times that number. More surprising, however, is the fact that among the shaking throng, you�ll find the Lostprophets and assorted members of Deftones, all wearing fan-boy faces. Deftones frontman Chino Moreno, in particular, is in superfan mode, enthusing to anyone within earshot about tracks aired tonight from his favourite NIN records. But even more than that, though, is the sight of Trent Reznor himself � a man for whom misery and self-hate have been creative staples long before emo ever uttered a whimper, and a man currently having the time of his life as he tears through the set, jumping up and down, hurling mic stands this way and that, and, Jesus, did he just crack a joke?

It�s a joy to behold, not just because it�s proof an artist 18 years into his career and 41 years old can still rip it up with a vitality that would put those half his age to shame, but because Reznor is about to return to deliver �Year Zero� � the best thing he�s done in years. And he�s excited.

This is far bigger news than it might first appear. At a time where you can buy Fall Out Boy belts and HIM wallets in high street stores, NIN � a band that can also count album sales in the millions � are nowhere to be seen. Yet among bands and peers � not to mention an obsessively devoted fan-base that has followed Reznor�s every move since the release of NIN�s 1989 debut, �Pretty Hate Machine� � it�s a different story. Though he�d kill you before admitting it, Marilyn Manson owes his career to him. Good Charlotte don�t, but Benji Madden sports a �NIN� sticker on his guitar, and if you ask pop-punk newcomers Madina Lake about Reznor, prepare to have them bend your ear for some serious hero worship. In fact, you�d be hard pushed to find a star inhabiting the rock world who won�t admit to being influenced by Reznor in some way or another. For the man himself, the reason for all this respect and adulation is a simple and unglamorous one.

�In my darkest hours when I grew to hate myself through addiction and chemical whatevers in me,� admits Reznor, �I always cared about the music higher than anything else.�

If the exuberance of his recent live shows and the fact that �Year Zero�, NIN�s fifth full-length album, is the first to shift from the personal to more political leanings in lyrical content, suggest a happier mind-set these days, it�s not something that�s immediately evident from a face-to-face meeting with Reznor. Words often used to describe the frontman include intimidating, serious and unnerving, and sat on an expansive, purple sofa in a room at London�s swanky Metropolitan hotel, thumb and forefinger pressed against his forehead in permanent think mode, the black-clad Reznor cuts an imposing figure.

On the table in front of him are several cups of herbal tea with a side order of honey to soothe an ongoing throat problem that resulted in the cancellation [postponement! �TNH] of a show in Birmingham on March 4. He offers a quiet �hi� as a greeting, and he waves away any questions about the state of his voice with a dealing-with-it shrug.

Interviews with Reznor are hard to come by; there�s been little promotion on this tour and the 45 minute audience he grants with K! is the longest interview he�s done so far. He speaks in a slow, considered monotone, punctuated by long pauses. His closely-cropped hair and long face give him a stern demeanour, although he comes across as reserved and pensive rather than aloof and arrogant. And while you sense that interviews aren�t his favourite pastime, he�s accommodating and there�s a welcome self-deprecating humour that he lets out occasionally � �My tea suppliers,� he announces with mock ceremony as a label minion clunks down another cup beside him.

�Year Zero� began life as ideas knocked out on a laptop in 2005 during spare moments on the 18-month promotional tour for �With Teeth� � the long-delayed follow-up to 1999�s �The Fragile� and his first sober after a long catalogue of drink and drug problems. Partly, as Reznor explains, because he found a way to �make it fun� on tour, partly because it passed the time, and because it kept him sane, too.

The biggest reason, however, was that he knew he finally had the confidence to make the record he wanted. Ask him what he thinks of �With Teeth� now and he�ll describe it as �cautious�, adding that it wouldn�t be his �favourite NIN record today�.

�Looking back, I can see I wasn�t completely sure of myself,� he confesses. �I got sober six years ago in June, and I took a few of those years just trying to stay alive and feel comfortable in my own skin before I jumped back into work to possibly fail.�

�Year Zero� is a different place for sure. For one it�s the most musically ambitions NIN have ever sounded. For another, its fiendishly involved concept is possibly the nerdiest NIN have ever been.

�I�m a nerd,� Reznor states, breaking into a grin. �I�m with you on that.�

Trent Reznor was born on May 17, 1965, which puts him one month shy of his 42nd birthday. He spent his 40th in court � �being sued by my lying prick ex-manager,� he says, flatly. �I won�. That the past year has seen more activity from him since the start of his career is less of a surprise than the fact he�s here at all. Certainly, were you a betting man, you wouldn�t have put your money on Trent Reznor being alt-rock�s last man standing. When 1994�s �The Downward Spiral� was shifting two million units and counting, he disappeared at the height of his fame for four years. When he resurfaced with �The Fragile� in 1999, the gap was six years.

�When you get some fame, you�d be surprised at how you as a person changes,� he explains. �With the whirlwind of stuff that comes at you, it�s often difficult not to become that guy you were just laughing at.�

Can you still relate to a �Pretty Hate Machine�-era Trent? Or an instrument-smashing �Downward Spiral� Trent?

�They�re all friends,� Reznor considers. �It�s not all me in those people but I know why I did those things at the time. They were done with the right intentions, and obviously there have been some missteps, but you live and learn.�

Though Reznor writes, records � and with the occasional collaborative exception � provides the sole creative force behind the music, when it comes to touring, NIN have always functioned as a live unit. The current line-up, which he�s played with for two years � guitarist Aaron North, bassist Jeordie White, drummer Josh Freese and keyboardist Alessandro Cortini � is also the longest standing, and in Reznor�s eyes, the best he�s had.

�But we haven�t explored actually writing music together,� Reznor explains. �I�m open to it, but I�ve never had success doing it. So now I�m just like, �let�s see what happens�.�

Ask him how close he is to the other members, whether he socialises outside of gig hours and he�ll say yes, a bit of that goes on. Before admitting that he�s certainly not rock�s resident party animal.

�I don�t really �hang out� at all,� he says. �But it�s not like we aren�t friends.�

The photo shoot the following day seems to attest this. With the whole band in one place together, the atmosphere seems relaxed and natural. There might not be any ostentatious displays of camaraderie, but there�s clearly enough rapport between them that allows for some joking around, as Reznor and White play-hug in-between shots.

Ask North about Reznor and he�ll tell you that he�s not �some kind of F�hrer-esque control freak dude�, adding that in two years, he and the frontman have �screamed at each other� just once (although he declines the offer to share what they were fighting about).

In interviews in the past, Reznor has made no secret of how he is determined to keep himself � the man � out of the NIN spotlight as much as possible. And it has been a wish that most journalists have granted, possibly due to the fact that he is such a formidable, stern presence in the flesh, or perhaps because no one has dared play the low-brow goof in front of such a smart and articulate artist. K!, however, decided that it was about time that the world got to know some things about Trent Reznor � the man. And here�s what Reznor gave us�

Describe yourself in four words. �Oh for fuck�s sake. That�s my four words there.�

What�s your best quality? �Determination.�

And your worst? �I tend to focus on one thing and let other things slip away.�

People suggest you�re a very intimidating, scary person. Would you say that�s an accurate observation? �It�s weird for me to hear that because I don�t see myself as that. A lot of times when I�m in a situation where I�m being around other people, I can mistake them as being standoffish, and later I realise that they might be intimidated. But I don�t see myself that way.�

So you�re quite a warm, friendly person, then? �No, quite not! Not that either.�

Why do you think people get you so wrong? �I don�t know. Maybe it�s the music a bit � it�s not necessarily happy songs and I do take my work very seriously. I try to keep my personality out of headlines and there�s a reason for that. I want it to be about the music and Nine Inch Nails and not about me the personality.�

What�s the most annoying untruth you�ve read about yourself? �There was a time when I used to pay a lot of attention to things and I�d get upset when I�d hear that I�m really depressed or I�m a vampire or I never laugh, that kind of thing. But I don�t let that come out in the music too much. As far as irritating untruths� Anything that�s ever come out of Courtney Love�s fat, liposuctioned mouth or that�s in Marilyn Manson�s fictional book. Those are things that have irritated me because they�re absolutely, patently untrue.�

So you and Courtney aren�t pals? �I make a point not to ever speak her name, but somehow it just crossed my mind. I saw a recent photo of some fat lady that looked like her and there was her recent transformation��

How do you relax when you�re not working? �I�m never not working! Actually, I do enjoy reading and I enjoy mountain-biking.�

Are you quite a fit person? �Um, yeah, pretty much.�

What�s the last book you read? �It was a book called �The Road�. I forget who the author is [Cormac McCarthy], but it was a post-apocalyptic, futuristic tale. You know, cheery light reading!�

What was the last thing that made you really laugh? �Really laugh? We went to the torture museum in Amsterdam recently and somebody farted in the middle of a presentation. I probably laughed for five whole minutes about that! There was a bunch of us laughing. It was one of those contagious, inappropriate moments.�

Can you cook? �Not very well, no. It�s on my list of things to get better at.�

If I was coming round to your house for dinner, what would you cook me? �I would probably suggest a take-out. But it would depend on if I�m trying to impress you or not.�

Say you are really trying to impress me? �If I were trying to impress you, I would call a friend of mine whose mother is an excellent chef, and I�d have her come over and cook. And I may even bullshit you into letting you think that I cooked it. Depending on how much I�m trying to impress you��

Does the whole notion of a celebrity lifestyle still turn you off? �Yeah. Life in front of the cameras has no appeal to me whatsoever. I can understand that if your career is one that relies on that, if you�re an actor, or a type of actor I should say, or a type of �musician� � that ego needs to be fuelled by thinking that that�s the way they want to portray themselves. But I have no personal interest in that. It plays into everything that�s wrong with music and art right now.�

So you don�t go to celebrity parties? �No, I hate that kind of shit.�

How do you feel about getting old? �That�s a good question. It�s surprising. You don�t have any choice in the matter, I�ve discovered, and I�m trying to be honest with myself as I can be � trying to reassess what matters to me and what makes me happy as an artist. It�s weird because I woke up one day and I was several years older than I thought I was and it was like, �How did that happen?� But then maturity begins to creep in� I�m feeling at peace with a number of things that I wasn�t in the past.�

Is staying sober still a struggle for you? �It�s nothing that I let my guard down about. I�ve gone to great lengths to ensure that the place I�m at is� I�ve got safety nets around me if necessary. But I do feel that I�ve made my peace with accepting that�s what I am and I don�t go through life wishing I could do things that I can�t do. I really don�t. I feel what I�ve got in sobriety is the ability to think again, and make music, and feel good about myself and about making music. I could never have pulled off a project like �Year Zero� fucked up.

So it�s the music that keeps you strong? �It�s one of the many things. Liking myself again is a huge thing because I�d hated myself and I�d hated what I�d become. And I surprised myself that I could get myself in such a bad place.�

Are you single? �Um, no.�

Can you see yourself married with kids in the future? �Yes.�

In the near future? �Perhaps.�

What one thing would you really like Nine Inch Nails fans to know about you? �There�s not really anything. With Nine Inch Nails, I�ve dedicated a huge chunk of my life and it really is the thing I care most about, aside from being alive and treating people properly. I feel like I�m doing it for the right reasons and I still approach it by trying to be as honest with myself as I can be and make music that�s out there to resonate and matter and be something you can make a part of yourself for the right reasons. It�s not to be rich or famous or follow trends.�

What do you think you�ll do when NIN comes to an end? �Nine Inch Nails has a lifespan that�s ticking. If I�m fortunate enough to be in a position to do what I want to do, then I�ll always be making some kind of music. I�d like to branch off into some other fields of entertainment in terms of writing things.�

Like films? �Perhaps. I�ve always toyed with the idea of directing things or writing screenplays. With �Year Zero�, that may come into reality or it may not. And that�s exciting for me. It�s more than just a record.�

Are you happy? �Yeah. Generally, I feel very, very fortunate. You�re wanting to speak to me, people want to show up for shows and people appreciate what I do. And I enjoy what I�m doing. It�s taken me a long time to get to that place.�

But you�re there. �I�m here at the moment. And there�re still places I�d like to go, but I�m fucking a lot further along than I was a few years ago.�

What would you like on your gravestone � �Here lies Trent Reznor, he��? �He did what he thought was the right thing to do and now he�s dead.�

There you have it: Trent Reznor sharing a few intimate details about Trent Reznor. Believe what you like about him, but let this be one of them � he�s a good sport. And yes, he�s super-serious, immaculately professional and as sharp as a razor, but you know those rumours he was talking about � the ones saying he never laughs? Bullshit. He does, you just have to ask the right questions�

NIN�s new album �Year Zero� is out on April 16 via Interscope.

(Sidebar: �A Bluffer�s Guide To �Year Zero��)

What is Year Zero? It�s the title of the fifth studio full-length album from Nine Inch Nails, the follow-up to 2005�s �With Teeth�, and it�s a concept record.

A concept album? Did he catch that bug from MCR? �Well�,� says Reznor, �It is unfortunate that My Chemical Romance have done anything. I heard they made a concept record and that�s as far as my interest has gone. So whatever.� That�s a �no�, then.

Will the concept melt my brain? Probably. It�s an elaborate multimedia, conspiracy theory web-trail of which the album is but a part. It began with a NIN tour T-shirt bearing a URL � iamtryingtobelieve.com � that took fans to a site concerning a �mind control� drug, Parepin. And if you go to fan checkpoint echoingthesound.com [.org, morons! �TNH], you�ll discover that �Year Zero� is a dystopian vision of the future � 2022 to be exact � depicting an Orwellian society in the throes of extinction. Crikey.

Complicated much, then? What did you expect? According to Reznor, it�s �the most elaborate album cover in the world�. Why? Because the websites, the fan forums, the coded merchandise, are all part of the �artwork�. And by reading this, you�re contributing to it, too.

So, is an anorak mandatory? An anorak is strictly optional. �I wanted something the insane, superfan couldn�t believe how involved it was,� explains Reznor. �But there�s an entry point for the �casual� person too.� In other words, you can just enjoy the music, if you�re not arsed to get too involved.