Rock's outlook bleak, but this Nail won't bend
Trent Reznor is bummed out. So what else is new?
Well, for starters, the tormented mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails has come down with a bad case of the record business blues.
"The state of the music industry right now is very bleak," said Reznor, speaking by phone recently from Los Angeles, where his band was rehearsing for its first North American road trip since 1995. The "Fragility v2.0" tour kicks off Wednesday in Cleveland, Reznor's base of operations when he launched NIN in the late '80s.
As he prepares to get the show on the road, Reznor isn't sure where or even if his industrial-strength electronic art-rock fits in today's fickle pop-music universe.
"I don't think there's any sort of commitment from record labels now in an artistic sense to cultivate a band that might be around 10 records later - a Cure, a Depeche Mode, a Jane's Addiction," he said. "If they came out right now, you wouldn't hear about them. Because they're not a commodity.
%%JUMP%%NAILS / 7-I "If youíre not a Backstreet Boy or youíre not a disposable hip-hop act or youíre not the alternative to the 14-year-old demographic, the Limp Bizkits, itís difficult to exist right now."
NINís latest release, "The Fragile," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart when it came out in September, not bad for a cathartic song cycle about self-loathing and healing, spread across a decidedly noncommercial double album. One week later, it tumbled out of the Top 10 like a hapless stage diver. Despite favorable reviews, "The Fragile" has sold 705,000 copies, according to SoundScan, a disappointment compared to the two previous NIN albums, which each sold 3 million copies.
"I put this record out in a climate of disposability," said Reznor, 34. "Not only is [The Fragileí] a bit more dense, itís also more expensive, itís longer and itís completely unfashionable right now.
"I put out a record that I would want to hear. Iíd want to spend some time with it. Iíd want to listen to it 15 times before I understood it. Iíd want to read between the lines. And when I did, Iíd want to find some meaning in there."
Shouldering the load He isnít going down without a fight, with or without the support of Interscope Records, the parent company that distributes NIN as well as other acts on Reznorís Nothing Records label. Founded in 1992, Nothing is also home to Marilyn Manson and The The, among others.
"Interscope used to be a label that believed in artists," Reznor said. "Now itís all about profit, period. . . . I can either sit back and bitch about it and let the record drop off the charts, or I can promote it myself. We funded this tour ourselves. Not Interscope. Us."
Interscope officials could not be reached for comment.
Reznor declined to reveal how much NIN and Nothing are sinking into the tour. But he promised to give fans their moneyís worth when he takes the stage.
"The reality is, Iím broke at the end of the tour," he said. "But I will never present a show that isnít fantastic.
"Iíve adopted a philosophy of the way to present Nine Inch Nails live that incorporates a theatrical element. I want it to be drama. I want my rock stars to be larger than life, you know? The Kurt Cobains of the world, Iím sick of that (expletive). I donít want a gas station attendant being my hero. I grew up with Gene Simmons. I grew up with Ziggy Stardust."
In his quest to deliver the ultimate concertgoing experience, Reznor has left nothing to chance. He even started his own merchandise company to make T-shirts and other souvenirs that are up to his standards.
"I bought a New Order T-shirt, I washed it once and an infant couldnít put it on," he said. "My thing is, if youíre going to spend 20, 30, 40 bucks for a T-shirt, have it be cool. . . . You get something for your money."
Such attention to detail is what sets Reznor apart from other artists, said John Malm Jr., NINís manager and co-owner of Nothing, which has an office in Rocky River.
"With Trent, itís about giving fans the best, whether itís an album or a T-shirt," Malm said. "He strives to do the best he can at whatever it is. He immerses himself in every aspect. Not many artists do it from soup to nuts."
In the studio, the multi-instrumentalist Reznor is essentially a one-man band. Backing him on the road are guitarist Robin Finck, bassist Danny Lohner, keyboardist Charlie Clouser and drummer Jerome Dillon. (An early version of the band included Richard Patrick, now fronting Filter, on guitar.)
Donít read too much into the fact that the NIN tour opens in Cleveland. It just worked out that way, said Reznor, who now lives in New Orleans.
"I like Cleveland," he said. "Itís a cool city. But when I lived there, I had a problem with it in the sense that the incestuous original music scene was not a very supportive one. When we broke out of there, I came back after a long tour and thought, Man, its good to be home.í But I was hated by everybody. Thatís when I said, Iím out of here.í"
Reznor moved here from his hometown of Mercer, Pa., in 1984. He worked at Pi Keyboards in Parma and the Cleveland studio Right Track, where he cleaned toilets in exchange for studio time and recorded the groundwork for NINís debut. Reznor played in several local bands, including Slam Bam Boo, Lucky Pierre and the Exotic Birds, a synth-pop outfit managed by Malm.
"He wanted to be a manager. I wanted to be a rock star. I said, When I come up with a good song, Iíll give you a tape,í" Reznor recalled.
He eventually slipped Malm a demo of "Down in It," a seething song that ended up on NINís first album, "Pretty Hate Machine." Malm was floored by what he heard.
"It was unique, it was intelligent and not a lot of music sounded like it at the time," Malm said.
"Pretty Hate Machine," which featured the definitive cyber-dirge "Head Like a Hole," was released in 1989 by TVT Records. Reznor and the label parted ways three years later. He knew it was a bad fit when TVT came up with the idea of sending actual nails that were 9 inches long to radio programmers as a promotion.
"They were ruining the integrity of what I was trying to say. Iím not dishwashing liquid. To me, this is art," said Reznor.
NINís show-stealing appearances on the 1991 Lollapalooza tour and at Woodstock í94 made Reznor a hero of the alternative-rock revolution. His superstar status was confirmed by 1994ís "The Downward Spiral," an emotional black hole of an album that was certified triple-platinum and had the harrowing hit "Closer" to recommend it.
Reznor went on to do soundtracks for "Natural Born Killers" and "The Lost Highway." He also composed music for the computer game "Quake" and produced the "Antichrist Superstar" album by Marilyn Manson, who had a well-publicized falling out with Reznor afterwards.
Album famine NINís main man kept busy. But a long time passed before he was ready to nail down another album.
"When The Downward Spiralí ran its course, I was just generally unhappy," Reznor said. "That made me turn introspective and try to determine what the underlying problem was. It was depression. Iím not proud to say it. But there are a couple of things wrong with my brain.
"When I sit down to write a record, I dig deep down into the hole of how I really feel. What Nine Inch Nails provides for me is a way that I can look in the mirror and turn things that feel terrible to me into something beautiful."
He suffered a devastating blow when his grandmother, who raised him after his parents separated when he was 5, died in 1997. Even now, the loss is difficult for Reznor to discuss.
"It hit me at a time when I wasnít equipped to deal with it," he said. "So I didnít deal with it. I put it off. Part of the delay of this record was . . . "
His voice trailed off. After a long pause, he added quietly: "I didnít want to, um, address the issues I knew I had to address."
He found himself in better spirits after spilling his guts in the studio. " The Fragile,í to me, is a positive record," he said. "It may not read that way to the casual listener. But it was a way of getting through it, a way of dealing with it."
The good news for NIN fans is that they probably wonít have to wait another five years for the next album. "Iíve almost finished a new Nine Inch Nails record that we did with The Fragile,í " said Reznor. "There are some lyrics, some singing and some production that need to be done. But basically, thereís a new record ready to go."
Having brought in the likes of Dr. Dre and Adrian Belew to lend a hand on "The Fragile," Reznor is keen to do more work with other artists, too. At the top of his wish list of potential collaborators is jazzy pop chanteuse Sade, or someone like her.
"I have a lot of extra music that Iíd like someone else to sing," Reznor said. "Iíd like to cross-pollinate . . . and see what comes out. I want to throw different, disparate things together: Make a Nine Inch Nails record where Sade is the vocalist - thematically, lyrically, emotionally and vibe-wise. Thatís what excites me right now."
By JOHN SOEDER - Sunday, April 09, 2000
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