Reznor nails his angst
Alt-rock trailblazer asks: ‘Why am I doing this?'
By Greg Kot

Chicago Tribune - January 22, 2002

The thrill is gone, a wise blues man once said, and Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor is trying to figure out how to get it back.

"I've had some time the last few months to calmly look back at my life, and to see if I'm happy with what I've done, and to determine whether I get the same pleasure out of making music that I did a few years ago," Reznor says in an interview from his New Orleans home studio. "And, I haven't had the same pleasure, basically. And I am trying to get back to why that is. The side of the record business that doesn't nurture artists or promote chance-talking, that has been shoved in my face lately. And I'm coming to terms with those things."

Not that Reznor has spent all of his time brooding. He has devoted most of the last year to editing a DVD of Nine Inch Nails' 2000 tour and a companion double-CD, "And All That Could Have Been" (Nothing/Interscope), to be released Tuesday. The DVD was compiled from more than 20 concerts then edited on computer; the CD comprises a different set of performances from the same tour, as well as a bonus set of ambient soundscapes. It's a beautiful set of packages documenting a visually sumptuous concert; the double-CD, for example, comes in a sturdy cloth-bound slipcase. The record-geek in Reznor wouldn't have it any other way.

Fighting for art

"I was the guy that on the way home from the record shop would smell the vinyl and couldn't wait to get home to turn off the phone and the TV and sit in my room with the headphones to experience the album," he says. "I like looking at the liner notes, the packaging, the extras that come with the music. It all adds to the experience. And that experience -- that art experience -- is what I am still fighting for. The many battles with the record company over this DVD were all about cutting out some of that stuff: how much color artwork could be on the DVD face itself, whether there really needed to be an extra CD of mood pieces, the cloth packaging. Nobody cares about that stuff, they say. Well, I care. I used to buy albums because the cover looked cool. But I'm getting the impression that fewer and fewer people do care about that stuff."

If Reznor were getting graded for attitude in elementary school, he'd get an "F." The casual fan might ask: Why so glum, Trent? You're a rock star! Get over yourself!

Fast fade

But if Reznor weren't such an obsessive personality, his music probably wouldn't be what it is. In 1999, Reznor finished work on Nine Inch Nails' "The Fragile," one of the most sonically ambitious, densely layered rock albums ever made. The double-CD had taken years to make in his New Orleans studio, but when it was completed, Reznor figured he had made the album of his lifetime, a work that expanded upon the multimillion-selling success of its 1994 predecessor, "The Downward Spiral."

But "The Fragile" never took off commercially. It inched past the million sales mark, and faded fast. Like many of Reznor's peers from the early '90s, the artists who had defined the alternative-rock era -- Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Hole, Rage Against the Machine, Jane's Addiction -- "The Fragile" was out of step with a pop culture dominated by Britney Spears and Jay-Z.

One could say that it was simply a case of one corporate marketing model (alternative-rock) being replaced by another (teen pop), but the artistic stakes were clearly higher in the early '90s. Reznor, the Pumpkins' Billy Corgan and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain wanted their hits, but they wanted them on their terms: To make albums that were as challenging as they were commercial. Now all of those bands have either broken up or been shoved into the elder-statesman outer fringe. Respect they may have, but commercial radio has moved on to newer, less complicated music, and most teens have made stars of less ambitious bands such as Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit.

"The down-key approach to art and music doesn't work anymore," said Billy Corgan, formerly of the Smashing Pumpkins, shortly before his band announced its break-up. "I saw that with the Nine Inch Nails record. It's a great, ambitious record. But people don't want art right now, they want P.T. Barnum. Our biggest album was in '95, and Trent's was in '94. That doesn't seem that long ago to us, but to kids who are 15, they weren't even in the loop back then and they just don't care."

There isn't much P.T. Barnum in the post-alternative-rock world at the moment. After dismantling the Pumpkins, Corgan has formed a new band, Zwan, which has played a handful of modest club shows, while he wrestles with the question of "am I still going to try to be a rock star, or just declassify myself into a lower ring of hell?"

The members of Pearl Jam have been working on low-profile solo projects. The surviving members of Nirvana are bogged down in court proceedings with Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, over the release of a box set. Jane's Addiction reunited, only to play 10-year-old songs. Soundgarden's Chris Cornell put out a moderately well-received solo album and has joined three members of Rage Against the Machine in a new band, which has yet to release any music.

Focus on the mission

Reznor, meanwhile, says he's going to work on his next studio album with a clearer idea of his mission.

"I've always done albums that were true to me at the time," he says. "It just happened that who I was when I made `Downward Spiral' touched a nerve with a lot of people. Then you're faced with, do I now chase that to maintain this success, which becomes a business, or do I remember why I'm doing this in the first place, which is to make music?

"You get off track of your priorities. You can say it won't happen to you, but it has happened to me. To the point where I have had to stop the train and say why am I doing this? The last album doing not as well has given me the courage and humbleness to make better music in the future, to put less attention on catering to an audience that is preventing me from making the truest art I can. You have to do it for yourself, yourself only. I have to keep that in mind. I am keeping that in mind."

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