[MUSICIAN, NINE INCH NAILS]
Traditional Beatles-esque pop song skeletons
Few comebacks in pop music are as well-laid and well-timed as Trent Reznor’s return as Nine Inch Nails in 2005. The high-water mark of the band’s cultural relevance had come and gone eleven years prior, with “Closer,” a single from their sophomore album, The Downward Spiral, announcing the height of industrial metal—a marriage between samplers, sequencers, and distorted guitar riffs that was equally informed by Big Black and Europe’s electronic body music. The album galvanized the band’s cult, but its success apparently stunned Reznor, and the immaculately produced, eerily insular follow-up, The Fragile, took a full five years to appear. Though the album was manna to fans, it also threatened to paint Reznor as a one-dimensional angst merchant.
In the last four years, Trent Reznor has managed to be nearly as productive as he was in the entire first fifteen years of his band’s existence. NIN 2.0 consists of Reznor embracing social media and taking more control over his marketing—changes that coincided with some major developments in the music business. His latest release, 2008’s The Slip (The Null Corporation), was distributed as a free download, and an alternate-reality game surrounded the release of his album Year Zero, part of which involved strategic leaks via mp3-loaded USB drives planted in unassuming locations.
On the eve of taking a hiatus from touring, Twitter, and potentially the NIN moniker entirely, Reznor met with me backstage at the Shoreline Ampitheater before the band’s last Bay Area show (for the foreseeable future). After meeting his fiancee, Mariqueen Maandig of the L.A. band West Indian Girl, I sat and Reznor stood as we discussed the origin of his Twitter avatar (a screenshot from vintage arcade game Robotron: 2084), his future plans, the state of major labels, and why “Make cool shit” is his new imperative.
THE BELIEVER: Right now, people talk about albums less as stand-alone artistic statements than as advertisements for the live show, where most of the money is being made. Is this true of NIN at this point in its career?
TRENT REZNOR: What’s happened the last few years, certainly since we’ve gotten out of being on a record label, is I’ve noticed the amount of time I spend thinking about stuff that wouldn’t have been considered the artistic portion of being a musician—the marketing, presentation—stuff that, under the shell of the old system, you didn’t have to think about because you didn’t have much say in it anyway; your job was clearly defined as making music, work on the art part, fight the label to get your vision out, see what happens. As that system started to not work anymore, and the record labels have collapsed, it really feels like your role as a musician today, whether you want to accept it or not is to think about… you now have a lot of power you never had before. That’s the power of distribution—all the strangleholds that those labels had sewed up—are gone. Anybody is a broadcaster and a publisher. I can get headlines now from a Twitter tweet rather than going through a publicist and hoping the journalist says what I said accurately, whatever it is, and doesn’t portray me as an asshole. You do spend a lot of time as a musician now, at least I do, thinking about how you’re going to present yourself.
I grew up in the era of vinyl, there were records, the album—whether or not the reason it came about as a way to make more money for a record label doesn’t matter—I looked at that as an art form. That thirty-to-forty-five-minute chunk of music, with songs that relate to each other—that’s the format that Nine Inch Nails works best in. That’s the format that I prefer as an artist. As a fan of music, I never listen to greatest-hits records. I’ve never put shuffle on my iPod. I like to hear things the way they were meant to be heard. That might make me a Luddite or outdated or antiquated or whatever, but as a band that’s how I think about it.