SOUNDS: Out of the Abyss

Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails on new road after parting company with label

By Jason Bracelin for Las Vegas Review-Journal on December 12, 2008

It was like slicing open his veins, only to have precious metals pour out.

Imagine a scar in the shape of a dollar sign, and, at one point, it could have been a symbol of Trent Reznor's career.

It was an unhealthy way to live, though at times, it couldn't have felt much like living at all.

Think about it: The further and further Reznor delved into the most sunless corners of his being, the bigger and bigger his band got.

His emotional depths were met with commercial, critical and artistic highs.

His success wasn't a double-edged sword, it was a shotgun blast to the psyche.

As such, trips to the studio began to feel like a march to the gallows, resulting in notoriously long, five- and six-year stretches between albums.

"The process of writing and going into the studio used to be the most terrifying, difficult, tortuous procedure," Reznor says. "I wasn't working for five years on 'The Fragile,' I was wasting time because I was afraid to go fail.

"If I get to the root of what I draw inspiration from, it's usually some variation of unhappiness, whether it be anger, frustration, sadness or something of that variety," he adds. "And I used to have a limitless amount of hating myself. 'OK, I've got all the material I need, I just need to look inward.' Around the time of (2005's) 'With Teeth,' I realized that every song I've ever written has the word 'I' in it probably 600 hundred times."

But during the making of 1999's sweeping and searching two-disc set, "The Fragile," Reznor hit an emotional nadir, after which, he began to climb up from the abyss.

"Upon reflection, I can tell you that the big turning point was getting my life in order and getting sober, which will now be seven-plus years ago," he says. "I took some time off just to get sane and really try to take care of my health and feel human again. When I started working on 'With Teeth,' I realized, 'I'm not as afraid of doing this as I used to be.' "

What's resulted since is a flurry of activity in the three years unlike any in Nine Inch Nails' near 20-year career. After releasing the equally desperate and determined "With Teeth," Reznor followed it up last year with the tempestuous concept album "Year Zero," a bleak and biting portrait of a futuristic society consumed by an Orwellian power structure.

Earlier this year, Nine Inch Nails' issued "Ghosts I-IV," a collection of haunting and seductive instrumental recordings, and most recently dropped "The Slip," perhaps the band's most immediate and off-the-cuff disc.

" 'The Slip' was a result of really working on impulse," Reznor says. "It started off as a single, and it kind of grew into a thing where the songs were semirelated thematically, but then weren't overthought, weren't woven into some bigger master plan. It was meant to be a less formal record, something that you listen to in your car."

Taken together, "Ghosts" and "The Slip" mark a pair of significant precedents for Nine Inch Nails: They were the first discs to be independently released through Reznor's The Null Corporation with no outside record company influence, and both were offered online in downloadable form for free as well as in the traditional CD format at retail outlets.

"It doesn't feel like an overwhelming success to me," Reznor says of his band's new business model. "In most ways, it feels like a blessing, because labels truly, truly have no idea what they're doing. There's no support of art, there's no, 'Hey, this is a great album,' none of that. There's simply, 'Hey, people like club music now, why don't you get Timbaland to remix your record.' To see that infrastructure die mainly due to their own ignorance and greed is a great thing to watch from a distance."

But when asked about the challenges of issuing material on his own in the era of the quick download, Reznor offers a rueful chuckle.

"I remember the day that we found out that we got out of our contract with Interscope, it was, 'Oh my God, great! Followed by, 'Uh-oh, now what do we do?' " he says. "It's very easy to see what they're doing wrong, it's much more difficult to figure out what you can do that's right. It's been a lot of thinking, a lot of second-guessing and a lot of watching the marketplace. Sometimes it feels like I'm rolling a boulder up a hill."

As such, it's been an eventual year for Nine Inch Nails, and it culminates here with the final stop of the band's current tour this weekend.

Two years ago, in the spring of 2006, NIN also finished a tour here.

Reznor says it's just a matter of routing, not an excuse for an extended stay to indulge in the fruits of Sin City.

"I'm not really a gambler," he says. "I don't know why -- I'm addicted to everything else. Several years ago, we rehearsed for a tour in Vegas, we were there for two weeks or something. That was enough that I think I started to lose my mind.

"Vegas is the place where tours go to die," he laughs, sounding like a man who knows a little something about rebirth.

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.