Nine Inch Nails' hard-rocking Reznor drives the point home
The hibernation is over.
It was a long winter for Trent Reznor -- more than two years holed up in his New Orleans studio, a former funeral parlor, meticulously crafting the follow-up to Nine Inch Nails' magnum opus, "The Downward Spiral."
Not that he was exactly uncomfortable there. Reznor is the quintessential creative loner, an artist who plumbs the depths of his psyche and drags out all the messiness he finds there. His music has long confronted the not-so-delicate notion of self-isolation, the battle between "I" and "them," and the new album's title track, "The Fragile," sustains that theme: "We'll find the perfect place to go where we can run and hide / I'll build a wall and we can keep them on the other side."
But it's time to crawl out for a bit. So the man who made industrial music palatable for the masses -- detonating classic pop hooks with three-ton explosives -- is headed for the concert trail, kicking off his American tour Wednesday in Cleveland before aiming this way for a Friday show at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
On tour, says Reznor, "it's a different kind of isolation that creeps up. Especially when you're on the road a long time. You're surrounded by everybody, but still separated from everybody. You're rarely connected on a one-to-one, personal-type level."
But the audience is waiting. Upon its release in September, "The Fragile" fetched mixed reviews from critics and fans; at two discs and 23 tracks, the incessantly layered, wildly lurching album was tough to digest. By the end of the year, they'd gotten it. The album landed on myriad top 10 lists -- including No. 1 in Spin magazine -- and some devotees have chalked it up as the best work of Reznor's career.
The rock world has morphed dramatically since Nine Inch Nails incarnated Woodstock '94 and Gen X rock with a razor-edged, mud-caked performance. For Reznor himself, life has been transformed. The five-year gap between Nine Inch Nails albums wasn't merely a product of the artist's legendary perfectionism: Amid it all, he lost his grandmother, who had raised him, and battled disillusionment with music-making.
Sitting down Tuesday to talk about his return to the concert world, Reznor concedes he's ready to blast forward again. Fresh from a private LA dress rehearsal the previous night to work out kinks -- in which the band plowed through a series of inevitable computer snafus -- Reznor was reliably thoughtful and affable discussing his work.
Q: It's been a long time since American audiences have seen you on a stage. I imagine this moment is a surreal blend of anxiety, eagerness, nervousness, all wrapped together.
A: It's all that. The fact that we just had a good run of Europe, Japan and Australia, it's not like the first night out. There has been a little bit of conditioning. The biggest challenge is discovering what kind of band we are now. So much time has gone by. We've got a new drummer who's radically changed the sound of things, and a new two-CD album that has a lot of new interesting textures to get into. We've spent a lot of time debating what to play -- how much old, how much new.
Q: How did you end up weighting the set list?
A: The set last night was pretty new-album intensive. But I'm the kind of fan who goes to a show and gets pissed off because the band plays all new material. So this will be a smattering of things.
Q: Is the group gelling?
A: We started as a band again last summer. I had just spent two years sitting in a studio by myself, and was a bit apprehensive playing the new material, how it would translate. But when we got (new drummer) Jerome (Dillon), he became the engine behind the band. The musicality was increased dramatically. We took a month in the Bahamas to (mess) around and just play, to see how the material developed on its own, and it went on an interesting turn.
A lot of the older material that I thought would be stale really came to life, and I felt good about giving it another day onstage. The new material I saved for last, to let us challenge ourselves. Let me put it this way: When I present the band live, or rehearsing, I set a rough framework of how things go, but then it plays upon the musicianship of the band. That's pretty different from the "Pretty Hate Machine" era, me with a tape deck. Now it's more about what each guy has to offer.
Q: If a voice came from on high and demanded that you choose one or the other -- studio or stage -- which would it be?
A: I'd hate to have to choose either one, but today it would have to be the studio. That's where my best work comes from. It's soul-mining, all about creativity. There's no limit, no audience expecting anything, nothing except what can come out of your head. Live, it's a lot of responsibility -- you need to be here at certain time, you need to play this certain song because people want to hear it. That's not to say that when you're connecting it's not the greatest feeling in the world. But forced to make a choice, the art I create in the studio would be it.
Q: You're obviously not gripped by commercial considerations -- three full-length albums in 10 years isn't a mark of hunger for sales. But there had to be some relief in the success of "The Fragile" (which debuted at No. 1), knowing that people still wanted to hear what you had to say musically.
A: Very much so. I've convinced myself we're starting from scratch. I didn't know if everyone was still out there. I had to tell myself, it's a new era, a new climate. A lot of things have changed. The business has changed -- record labels don't appear to like music anymore. It's a very hostile climate for bands.
So I put out a record that's longer than most, denser than most, costs more than most, requires you to listen harder. What could I expect? I'm surprised with the success it's had. I'm also surprised with the lack of support Seagrams (owner of Interscope Records) has given it. The development of art means nothing to them. It's all, "What's the next Britney Spears?" That's disheartening to see a climate like that, to see your favorite labels like 4AD or Creation evaporate.
Q: After being quarantined in the studio so long, I imagine stepping back out into the world was kind of startling.
A: It's a new Backstreet Boys world. Socially, I'm a hermit by nature. My living in New Orleans reinforces that. Then to come out, to have to be onstage, presenting my material to people ...it's shifting gears from where every day I made my own schedule.
Q: There was so much hope in the early '90s that rock was going to be saved. It's got to be distressing to see that the cycle has just reverted back to the fluffy stuff.
A: It is distressing, and I like to think there are people like me and you who demand depth and want to be moved by music and enlightened and intrigued, and want to be challenged by it. I can't go around believing we're part of the last generation that thought of music that way. The business has changed. It's not so much that people's taste has changed as it is the labels force-feeding them. I guess I can sit back and bitch about it, or make music that matters and hope people listen.
BY BRIAN McCOLLUM
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is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.