The Globe and Mail May 2000
Mr. Self Destruct is mellowing

As his latest album The Fragile suggests, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor has conquered his depression, as long as he doesn't have to suffer the current musical climate for long.

Toronto -- For Trent Reznor, there is a beauty in ugliness, a poetry in the obscene and a frailty in brutality. More importantly for the mastermind behind the neo-industrial juggernaut that is Nine Inch Nails, there is a light at the end of his deep, dark tunnel.

In his 13-year career, Reznor has defined angst in ways Kurt Cobain never dreamed of or wanted to -- but there are hints that the self-described Mr. Self Destruct is coming out of his self-loathing depression, and as a song on his latest magnum opus The Fragile so simply says: The way out is through.

After 1994's triple-platinum breakthrough The Downward Spiral, an album that had everyone -- including tour mate David Bowie -- wondering if he would end up like Cobain, Reznor knew it was time to change. And The Fragile, his masterpiece, is the blueprint for that change.

"When this record came out, I realized I wasn't the person that did The Downward Spiral. I lived it, I wrote about it and then I experienced it. Then I was at a place where I had to either jump out the window or repair myself, and this record was about that, subtly," he said while lounging in a posh and tranquil banquet room on the top floor of a Toronto hotel on the weekend. The surroundings stood in stark contrast to the man, who can't help but let his passions -- negative and positive -- seep out with every sentence.

"When I was around Bowie, I was nearing the bottom. When we were touring together, I looked at him as a kind of big-brother figure and I also looked at him as somebody I had a lot of respect for. The age and the period he's at in his life, I'd like to be there some day. He has a kind of content peace about him that's something to shoot for."

The fact that the usually nihilistic Reznor is thinking about the future is a sure sign of how he has changed. He's also toned down the physical violence that used to take place during his live shows -- Reznor once threw his guitarist across the stage, breaking his wrist.

Reznor, a 34-year-old from small-town Pennsylvania, writes every note of music, plays every instrument and meticulously arranges every song on a Nine Inch Nails album. When he tours -- as he's currently doing, with stops in Toronto and Montreal this past weekend, and Vancouver in June -- he's joined by a band that helps him present what is often very dense and complex music.

Through the band, Reznor has revolutionized industrial music, a genre pioneered by bands in the eighties such as Ministry and British Columbia's Skinny Puppy. Industrial, at its most basic, was an aggressive variation of rock where hard-crunching heavy metal riffs were fused with electronic beats and synthesized sounds.

Nine Inch Nails' 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, introduced an element of pop accessibility to the genre, and Reznor quickly emerged as a rising star. That star exploded with The Downward Spiral, one of the ugliest yet most influential albums of the nineties, and established his brand of neo-industrial music as part of the mainstream, paving the road for bands such as Marilyn Manson, Filter and White Zombie.

With The Downward Spiral's commercial and critical success, all eyes turned to Reznor, who was suddenly expected to take rock music to its next level. It took five years to craft a follow-up, and in November of last year, Reznor released The Fragile, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard. The double album plummeted off the charts and critics quickly branded it a commercial failure -- a proclamation that seriously burns its creator.

"We've sold more records in the first week than we've ever sold with any record in the past, but somebody at the record label predicted it would sell more than that, so: failure," Reznor says, with more than a hint of venom in his voice. "Instantly, you have a record that might be critically acclaimed or that fans may enjoy, but because some asshole in a suit that counts beans says it didn't live up to their expectations, suddenly it's a failure commercially, and the media can't wait to jump on it and say: 'Rock is dead, see.' "

Reznor couldn't be more proud of The Fragile, an album many critics praised as one of the best of 1999. It took him a long time to come to terms with himself and the success he had achieved. For years, he threw himself into side projects, such as producing film soundtracks to Natural Born Killers and Lost Highway, not to mention other artists, such as Marilyn Manson, to avoid having to sit down and think about himself and his life. In that time, the music business changed -- a fact that Reznor laments.

"I come out of this cocoon now into a climate where things have changed, and it hasn't in my opinion been for the better. Today, musicians are complimented much more on their business plan than their talent. When I see an idiot like Fred Durst [of Limp Bizkit] spouting off about, 'I'm in it for the money, buy my record, buy two copies of it, I'm going to be the best business man, I'm just doing this till I get into movies' -- [he should] sell dish-washing liquid or something. It's damaged music. I don't mean him personally, but this climate has created a very unhealthy situation to spawn new creative acts."

The days of artist commitment from record labels, he says, are over. In the current climate, it would be very difficult for influential artists such as Depeche Mode, The Cure or Prince to come along. "It's basically: perform immediately, or we're off to the next thing," Reznor said.

Meanwhile, artistic endeavours such as The Fragile are destined to be written off as failures -- but, unlike their peers, such albums are also likely to be the ones that stand the test of time.

"I don't think the chapter is quite closed on The Fragile and I don't consider it a failure on any level." Reznor says. "If one person leaves the experience of being around that record thinking, 'Music should be better than it is right now,' then mission accomplished."

He's right: Music should be better than it is now. And if The Fragile helps at least one person -- namely Reznor -- make it through their ordeal, then its mission is accomplished.