SN&R’s exclusive Trent Reznor interview
Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor Goes off on a failed record industry and life as an indie artist after decades of appeasing ‘asshole’ executives
Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor took a short break from touring Canada to chat with SN&R about his upcoming Arco Arena show, what is likely to be the final Sacramento show ever. Reznor spoke of being a math geek and mercilessly laid out the faults of record execs—and experienced an “uh oh” moment when asked about NIN’s last Sacramento show. Basically, it was a good half-hour of me giggling and him talking a whole lot of shit about the music business. Magical.
How’s the tour?
I’ve got the Saskatoon blues today.
I don’t know if you recall the last time you were in Sacramento, but you blogged that the crowd here was the most unresponsive audience you’ve ever played for.
Did I say that?
Yeah, you did.
What do you have to say?
Well, if I said it, I probably meant it at the time. I wouldn’t have just said something like that. I’m a temperamental artist, and sometimes I have my little tantrums.
Well, that’s very honorable of you.
You know what? We’ll try extra hard this time to turn it all around
Are you enjoying major-label independence?
My level of contempt for the record industry has never been higher. I’m happy to work outside of that system, for sure, because it is obviously broken. …
You know, next year will be 20 years since NIN was signed … which is a long time.
It’s hard for me to believe, too.
I think back to how different it was then, in terms of climate. What I mean is that the way a record label would entice you was by telling you, “Hey, we want to support you. We want to creatively support your endeavor, nurture you, and by the third or fourth record you’ll have a growing following. We want you to be a career artist, and [we’ll] be there to back you up.” And the artist would be like, “Hey, great!”
And at the time, they would cite bands that have good careers, like the Cure or Depeche Mode, or other bands [that] would appeal to you. No artist wants to know that they’re a one-hit wonder; you want to think that you’re part of the picture. If you’re playing music for the reason that I am, you want to change the world. You know, I want to make things no one has ever heard before. I want to make people’s heads blow up.
Do you think being indie has made you closer to fans?
Well, it has forced us to. To finish what I was saying about record labels: Through the mid-’90s, the record industry continued to decline. They’re full of bullshit. They don’t care about music; all they care about is selling little plastic discs and that’s it. They don’t care if it’s timeless art that’s being put out, as long as they sell that disc—even if it means you wearing your pants backward or whatever it might be. That’s all that matters to them. You know what?
If the third or fourth record an artist puts out is a big hit, it better be on the first single, or you’re gone. If an artist has been around for a while, like us, suddenly when you turn your records in they say, “We don’t really hear a single.”
So I say, “Hey, guys, fuck you! You’re not an artist!”
I say, “You’re a fucking asshole executive who shouldn’t even be talking to an artist.” If that sounds arrogant, then fine, it is. Anyways … that can get me on a long rampage.
Being free from all of that shit is very refreshing, and it is also terrifying, because it’s very easy to see what not to do. Just look at what they’re doing! They’re suing fans and it’s tougher to figure out the right thing to do and have some sort of sustainable business model. Unfortunately, you’re up against a public, who by and large feels that it’s OK to steal music and feels no sense of remorse for that—and I understand why they do. It’s just kind of how the cards have been dealt right now.
But it seems like you’ve created an empire since going indie. You have your own social-networking site. You’ve stepped in when it comes to ticket sales. What made you decide to get involved with these different aspects of the biz?
These are all things we couldn’t do if we were on a record label, because they would have to have their fingers in it to fuck it up, because they don’t understand.
Here’s what gets me about labels: The Internet has essentially decimated that business, just completely ruined the entire business. If you went to most people at a record label and asked them if they spend any time online—or if they know what a torrent is, or if they know Twitter—they usually don’t. Then how the fuck would they expect to understand if they don’t look into it? If they don’t think about it? If they don’t know where their consumers even exist or how they interact?
That’s part of the reason why the business has been destroyed. They don’t know how people use social tools or interact socially. They’re so locked into this idea that they can make money selling plastic. So, anyway, what we’ve done is take advantage of that freedom of not having an albatross around our neck and put ourselves in a place where we can directly interact with fans and where we can supersurf and make them feel like they’re getting what they want from us. We make sure we’re giving them interesting content and we’re trying to treat them with respect … things a record label won’t do.
Do you actually go on your social-networking site?
I spend more time than I wish I did.
Then you see how people talk about you? I’ve explored the NIN [Nine Inch Nails?] site, and these people see you as their freakin’ messiah. Does that ever get weird?
Yeah, a lot of that, I limit what I expose myself to. I’ve learned over the years that that’s a place I’d rather not look.
There’s actually a site called TrentCanIBiteYourThigh.com.
Huh? I haven’t seen that, but I’m about to look it up right now.
It’s very strange; you’ve been warned. Does all of this female attention ever get old?
Of course not! That’s why I got into this in the first place.
I’m just kidding. You learn to put that kind of stuff into context. … It’s just, whatever. What I’m trying to do now is be as true to myself as I can and make music the best I can make, and then find a way to get it out to people that makes sense.
You’ve gone from releasing one album every three to four years to coming out with three this year alone, and that’s not counting the Saul Williams album you produced. Where’d the motivation come from?
Not to get all self-analytical, but I’ve been asked that question a lot and have had to think about it.
It has really been because I have been inspired. I got sober about seven years ago, and it really kind of turned my brain back on. I started working on With Teeth, and I realized that I was suddenly afraid and very scared to work on that record because I didn’t know if I could do it sober. It was like learning how to do things all over again. I realized in the process of working on that record that every time I sat down to write music in my life, I’d been terrified. I’d been terrified because I wanted it to be the best thing anyone has ever made, and there’s no greater recipe for failure than starting with that kind of premise.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
The only thing I was good at was math. I started going to college for computer engineering … you know, just calculus and stuff.
I realized I could do it, but I didn’t really like to do it.
The moment that really changed my life was in my first and only year of college. I was sitting in one of my classes at some point, and I was looking at all of these nerds sitting in the class with me. I was a nerd, too, but they were really into doing it. They were excited to do eight hours of homework by the next day, and these guys couldn’t wait to do it. I could do it, but, man, I didn’t want to. I didn’t enjoy that. I knew what I really enjoyed, and that was music, but you can’t really get a degree in it.
What was this whole deal with the “Art is resistance” theme surrounding Year Zero?
Essentially it meant, or was part of, the story that art can be used as a form of resistance to oppression, which became a slogan to a fictional group. … We blurred the lines between reality and fiction and everybody lived happily ever after, and then [Barack] Obama got elected …
Happy about that, eh?
Couldn’t be happier.
I hear you’ve met him?
I did, briefly. I’ve been impressed with him. If he turns out to be terrible, then fair enough. I’ll take the hit for that.
When is Closure coming out on DVD?
You can ask Universal, because they’re idiots, and they’re afraid to put it out.
People are dying for that.
Yes, but … there is a silver lining.
A couple of years ago around this time of year, somebody must have broken into my personal files and uploaded onto a torrent site the entire DVD of Closure.
Yeah, I don’t know who could have done that.
So, that basically means that it doesn’t need to come out on DVD anymore.
Sorry Trent, I’m going to have to steal a copy.
C’mon, you know that’s not the right thing to do.