Trent Reznor's Upward Spiral

Other stars hitched their wagon to the values 90s as it passed, but Trent Reznor always seemed like he was purpose-built to plug into its obsessions. 

He stood at the crossroads of all its psychic ley-lines. In his uneasy insularity, his thick lashings of self-loathing, he was as of-his-time as a Kurt or an Eddie. His big soft questioning eyes would peer out at interviewers from under his artfully unwashed mop of lank black hair, his broad shoulders contorted into a posture that suggested he’d rather be left alone, contrasted by something confident and unbowed in his bass voice that suggested he was actually totally OK with not being left alone and secretly rather enjoying being a spokesman for a generation that was suspicious of spokesmen.

His programmed beats and sampled found-sounds expressed the emerging taste for what people then used to call ‘electronica’. But his serrated guitar slashes were still mainlining him into the DMs-n-denim grunge heartlands. After him, people began to talk knowingly about ‘industrial’, even though in the mainstream world it was still pretty much a one man genre of Reznor. His black leather bondage look was an early take on what would later crystallise as ‘cyber-punk’ - that 90s fascination with the coming world of computers that tried to turn liking tech into a fashion statement rather than simply something you updated on the can. He was already into hanging out in these weird things called fan-forums on ‘The Internet’. At Woodstock ’94, caked head-to-toe in the mud that defined the event, him and his Nine Inch Nails gave one of those performances that were as integral to the spirit of the times as Jimi flambéing his guitar was to ’69. “Yes,” Gen X said that day, “I too hate everybody and everything. And yet I am insecure. And I am fascinated by this dance music thing. But don’t get me wrong: I still like my rock. Also: ...computers?” Trent Reznor’s historical moment had arrived. He was there to grab it.

And, in classic 90s style, he ended the decade by making an excessively long concept album which in its pained hunt for authenticity expressed as much the fact that he was taking rather a lot of coke and drinking rather too much tequila as it did anything else. The irony, as he’d later describe it, was that he’d been launched to superstardom via The Downward Spiral, a record about a jaded rockstar who consumed everything just to feel something. Then, gradually, his reality had morphed itself into those same cliches he’d already written. He hurt himself to see if he still felt. Irony alert.

The excess nearly did for him. He ODed in London on some excellent quality heroin he’d mistaken for cocaine. Then he got clean. Cropped his hair. Managed to release far more music in the span of four years than he did in the whole of the 90s. But got fed up with the treadmill, declaring the end of Nine Inch Nails as a touring entity in 2009.

And then, one day in March of this year, to a twinge of personal embarrassment, but no one’s great surprise, he announced that not only were Nine Inch Nails back, but that they’d secretly been recording an album, due at the start of September. And were back on a major label to boot - perhaps shakier ground for a man who’d spent the past decade as a Jeremiah crying out about label-death, new ways of music sharing, post-everything distribution models and radical modes of fan-democracy.

“Weeeelll...” Trent Reznor is sat on a furry purple couch in a side-room in an LA warehouse that is accidentally very Reznor: all post-industrial decay, a clutter of old monitors, broken cables and random techno-tat. He is wearing cut-off black denim shorts, black zip-up leather boots, a black t-shirt, the lifelong electro-goth’s best fashion life-raft in the middle of a crippling 36 degree Los Angeles heatwave. “I guess I was ready for the backlash... I mean, I’ve seen The Cure on about eight different farewell tours. KISS about ten.”

Four years after a farewell tour literally called ‘Wave Goodbye’, Trent will be waving hello at both Reading and Leeds this summer, playing the main stage undercard to Biffy. Where they will bring the soft-rock light, his job will be to cue it up with a bit of gritty noisenik darkness. Accompanying him will be a brand new stage show of a scope and scale that might surpass his ground-breaking video walls of his 3D-interactive techno-jizz-fest Lights In The Sky tour. Unlike that extravagance, this has been re-designed from scratch to work specifically in outdoor settings: “In terms of the physical components, it’s actually low-tech as opposed to high-tech... It’s either going to be the best thing we ever did or a spectacular disaster.”

It’s typically Reznor: that need to put a high-stakes wager on the new thing, always restlessly trying to ‘move things forward’. On the one side, he’s yer basic moody, Heathcliffian dude, playing a role that sits squarely within the confirmed archetypes of rock n roll history. But then there’s this other part, where he’s always peering off into the future. More than simply an interest in sonic innovation, he’s a sort of alt Jay-Z, stepping into a new posture of rockstar-as-mogul: the whole-package thing. The idea that you don’t ‘just’ do the art: that changing context around that art works is a powerful and necessary as the art itself.

“The concept of Nine Inch Nails felt tired,” he continues, “But what was really nagging at me was that I’d had a list of things I wanted to work on. But I’d had the same list for ten years, because I never had the chance to do any of it. My life consisted of getting back on the band treadmill...”.

Off the treadmill but unsure where his future lay, not long after NIN concluded their ‘final’ tour, the director David Fincher phoned him up, asked if he wanted to soundtrack The Social Network. He turned it down, citing exhaustion. But Fincher tried again. Despite already having created two songs and an found-sound piece of atmosphere called ‘Various Ominous Drones’ to David Lynch’s Lost Highway, he found the experience “creatively terrifying. In that everyone else on this film knew what they were doing, and I didn’t... I thought about phoning up Hans Zimmer and asking him if I could just come and intern for him... just to see how it was done.” A year later, he found himself collecting an Oscar for the finished work: easier than it looked, clearly.

At about the same time, he got engaged to Mariqueen Maandig, the almost-satirically good-looking singer of LA psychedelic group West Indian Girl. In the NIN vacuum, he formed a band with her and his long-time collaborator Atticus Ross called How To Destroy Angels. Previously, he’d been benign dictator and sole proper member of NIN. For the first time ever, he found himself working in a musical democracy. But, much like Mohammed Morsi’s Egypt, that democracy wasn’t to last.

Years earlier, he’d signed on the dotted line, and now was made aware that he still owed his record label a NIN best-of, a chore he’s been grumpy about for years... “I mean, who fucking cares, right? But I needed two new songs to go on that, so I just started making things, in that mould. And I realised that all that time off had really cleared the slate. That I’d learnt a lot from challenging myself in all these new ways...” He made two, and liked them so much he thought he’d make a few more. Suddenly, songs began to pour out of him. Before he knew it, he had the bones of an album.

That was to become Hesitation Marks - a piece of work that already reads something like a NIN best-of. In that it sounds like a familiar cross-section of his various past incarnations, but at the same time uses a range of tech to wrap it all in some of the sleekest, smoothest textures he’s ever been party to. Jump-off single ‘Came Back Haunted’ is a good primer: the classic whispery-Trent verse set against spidery sinister electronica, springboarding into a digital Niagara Falls roar of a chorus that’s as dancey as he’s ever been, as ‘pop’ as he’s ever likely to get. Though its accompanying David Lynch video is stroboscopic and sinister enough to induce epilepsy in people who’ve never had it.

Reznor has already described the record as ‘fucking great’ if he does say so himself. “I’ll say this, right? Everything I’ve put out, when I put it out, I thought it was the best fucking thing I was capable of. There was nothing left in the reserve tank. Because I figure why put it out otherwise? Why waste anyone’s time?”

It’s also one of the simplest things he’s done. Unlike The Downward Spiral, it’s not really a concept album. Unlike The Fragile, it’s not a 104 minute-long bake-off of one’s own cocaine psychosis. Unlike Ghosts I-IV it’s not Eno-style slabs of twinkly floating ambient noise.

Unlike 2007’s Year Zero, it is not a bizarre alternate reality game/concept album crossover about a near-future in which a quasi-fascist government enslaves the population with sinister smart-drugs. After Year Zero, it’s easy to see why you might want to go on an ambition-diet. That was the sort of scope of ambition that could only be adequately described as ‘Reznorian’. That began with an elaborate breadcrumb trail. Graffiti in the bathrooms at NIN gigs. That in turn directed you to a website. Which purported to be selling a drug. That drug was made-up. And so it went on, as you wove your way through its maze: USB drives, MP3s, emails, videos. It was the ‘concept’ part of the concept album reinvented for an age with interactive expectations, a world that kept on expanding in more and more musical 3D. One of Reznor’s many side-projects in recent years was trying to steer a mini-series version towards HBO. He even wrote a pilot for it himself, but it didn’t get past the development stage.

Lately, reality has been catching up with most bleak dystopias. Whatever he was asserting about the creeping snoopy-state has become less sci-fi in the light of recent events. He says he’s unsurprised by the Snowden PRISM revelations.

“My faith in America has been greatly shaken over the last decade. I definitely feel it’s in decline now. It’s already begun. When the history books write back about the turning-point of American power, they’ll pin it to the present day.”

Because US democracy is broken?

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist per se but the idea that your vote has any meaning... the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, but in this country we’re distracted by gay rights, or gun control from that fact, or the fact that our ecology is being destroyed. People are too stupid. I had great hopes for Obama. But there’s enough things that make you realise the system’s rigged. There’s an infrastructure in place that’s not going to risk the future on a public vote. I’m just not surprised. Power corrupts.”

Reznor’s an age-old Bowie fan. The talented school jazz-band nerd from semi-rural Pennsylvania who in his isolation first picked up on Scary Monsters (And Super-Creeps), which he adored because ‘it sounded unfriendly’, later expanding his collection of unfriendly records through the industrial music pioneers - Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Ministry and Cabaret Voltaire. There’s something that looks towards his all-time hero and one-time friend’s creative restlessness in his attempts to create these grand overarching concepts. But he’s also just a tech nerd. A guy who was originally contemplating life as a programmer back when that was like ‘wow’, and has that inherent idealism and enthusiasm for new ways of organising human experience. During the post-NIN years, he began working on a new well-funded project for Beats By Dre, which, if he pulls it off, will do nothing short of re-wire the entire music industry. Ten days after this interview, Nigel Godrich and Thom Yorke will pull their stuff from Spotify, citing the fact that new artists don’t get paid anything like a proper rate for streaming services. Reznor is in the middle of making his own streaming service to take the Swedes on, head-on. While he agrees that the line between art and money has been blurred into a blurry mess over the past five years, he bristles at any parallel between that and Jay-Z’s Samsung app adventure. “Look... There’s a very large difference between what I’m doing, and just ‘give me $5 million and I’ll give you a million downloads’. Streaming models are the future. That seems to me totally obvious. But what I’m trying to do is to make something that doesn’t treat the music like product. Something like Spotify is great tech. But it’s all designed by engineers. They treat the music like so-many marbles. Me, as an artist, I can’t change the way my work is displayed in there. I have no input. What I’m trying to do is to make a service which takes cool tech and makes the music experience seem exciting too. And, hopefully, do so in a way that means that the artists - those guys right at the bottom of the heap - can get a lot more out of it.” He’s as well placed to lead on this as anyone, having already released two free albums: The Slip and Ghosts 1-IV, in 2008, for a very good reason that no one else high up in the biz seemed to quite grasp: “Anyone with a working internet connection can get it free anyway.”

“But what sounded good last year doesn’t work this year. Like: what’s next? What - am I gonna come and live in your apartment for a year? I’m not into it for the gimmick. There’s people like Amanda Palmer that can’t wait to prop themselves up on the next new thing. That’s not for me.”

Nowadays, he’s ever-more conscious of that need to negotiate a way between the unbounded joy of new tech and more basic human psychology. Like Palmer, he was once a lively, combative Twitter presence. But he’s since recanted. In 2009, he even deleted his account, after bitchfights with Chris Cornell, and the tasteless carping of others after he raised $500 000 for a fan who needed a heart transplant: calling social media a place ‘where the idiots rule’. Ultimately, it seemed the tension between the broody man and his inner Zuckerberg, couldn’t be resolved. “I think quite a bit now about knowing when to shut the fuck up. Three hundred years ago, when I grew up, there was a mystique to bands cos you didn’t know about them. You certainly weren’t being bombarded with Twitter updates. In that information vacuum, you could overlay a fantasy that was important to you.”

Nowadays, the life lived behind the screen is more stable, and not coincidentally, more productive, than it’s ever been. As part of rehearsing the band, he’s having to go back and re-listen to all his old records again, a task he finds hard at the best of times. He says whenever interviewers ask him about the 23 year old who made Pretty Little Hate Machine, it unsettles him for the rest of the day as he flashes back to unhappier times. “The Fragile just reminds me of being so high out of my mind and terrified. That album in particular conjures up really unpleasant things to think about... My life was collapsing in the background.” Yet right now, he’s suddenly got the domestic thing going on: married, with two small boys, “who are changing me in ways I never imagined”. Tomorrow is the 4th Of July. He reckons he’s going to pack his young family off to the beach for a barbecue. Another goth fashion nightmare, but also a small island of real happiness he’s carved out. (It’s not all doughy domesticity, mind: his eldest son is called Lazarus Echo).

Exiting the store room’s zone of maximum Reznorian dystopia, we pass through the main hall of the San Fernando warehouse where he’s rehearsing the new band he’ll be bringing to Reading & Leeds. The place is some sort of a wellpoint for big acts who want to deposit bits of kit: a strange assortment of odds and sods, including three British telephone boxes that look like they fell off the back of the Be Here Now rig, and loads of flight cases stamped with things like ‘Green Day’ or ‘Jane’s Addiction’, We pass a big box branded ‘Muse’: “I took a shit in that and put it back together,” he grins. “Just a little surprise for them.” Reznor’s full of surprises. He is sometimes also full of shit. But the next generation of rockstars would be hard pressed to produce a musical thinker as full of imagination and daring.

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