Life on the Reznor-vation

It isn't that depressing being Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor. He explains.

By Allison Stewart
CDNOW Senior Editor, Alternative/Indie - feb. 2002

Even though Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor has a reputation for being reclusive, angst-ridden, and difficult that's likely well-deserved, he's an articulate and surprisingly affable interview. After having spent the better part of the past 13 years either locked away in the studio or on the road, "I'm realizing there's more to being a human being than writing a good album," says Reznor, who lives and works in New Orleans.

Reznor sat down recently with CDNOW to talk about his group's new live album, And All That Could Have Been (recorded on the 2000 The Fragile tour, and available as a one- or-two-disc set and as a DVD), and the future of Nine Inch Nails.

CDNOW: Did knowing that your performance was being filmed make you more self-conscious onstage every night?

Trent Reznor: If anything, just the opposite. We started working on the tour, and I didn't really think about filming it until it all kind of came together. Much like many things I do, it's always better in hindsight. I was so concerned about presentation of the tour, getting it all working right and executed properly, that it wasn't until a couple of shows into it that it clicked, that I thought, "We should probably film this, and have some document of it happening." That started the process.

Did you consider filming the shows only for internal use, or did you always intend to release it?

By executing it the way we did, with a very limited amount of money spent on it, it allowed me the freedom to not have to put it out if it wasn't that great. I didn't know if we could capture [the essence of the live show]. It looked good to me from being onstage and looking out, and I had people say it looked good in the audience, but I didn't know if it could translate into something watchable. If it didn't work out, I wanted to have the option to cancel it.

Were you able to watch footage as it was filmed, or did you have to wait until the end of the tour?

We would watch it as we went along. First, like I say, we tried to be reasonable as to the amount of money spent, and secondly, we wanted something that could capture the lights, which film had a hard time doing -- there are [usually] a lot of lights right in your eyes --and third, as a performer, when you film a show, you are aware that you're being filmed, and in our case, that's always resulted in a terrible performance that night. It's your big, multimillion-dollar camera shoot, and that night sucks.

"I don't know that the next time we go out it's going to be a rock band with the chaotic, stage-diving kind of thing. I don't know if it'll be me in a string quartet or me in an art exhibition."

I don't know whether it's because you're self conscious, or because there's a lot of people onstage that night, but this was our way of getting around that. We didn't know what we were doing; we still don't, in a lot of ways, but it would be like, "OK, you stand there; you stand in the corner; the other guy just films the drummer." And then on the bus after the show we would skim through the footage-because we could watch it immediately -- and we started learning what worked and didn't work, and we had 20-some shows left to fix what didn't.

In the editing room, how important was it to make things perfect? For the sake of accuracy, was it more important to leave the bugs in?

I believe it is. The whole mentality behind the execution of filming this was I wanted it to be like you were at the show. There wasn't a lot of gimmicky camera tricks. The camera was basically there to witness and to be honest, and to show it to you. We didn't use cranes, because nobody's watching the show floating above the audience. We didn't need a lot of trickery. It was like, "Let's let the show do its thing." The role of the camera was to be an audience member.

A recent review of the album suggested that live shows are freeing for you in a way, because you had no choice but to let the mistakes be.

It's two different things, being in the studio and being onstage, and that's one of the reasons I thought it might warrant a live album. From the inception of Nine Inch Nails, I've treated them as two separate things. In the studio, I've tried to make the best-sounding thing that I can, using the studio as an instrument. I've never been concerned about how it would play live or if it would play live, because it wasn't made that way. It wasn't a band rehearsing, drafting a song, it was me in the studio doing it. It was then interesting to take these studio creations that were agonized over, and throw them into a live rock band format and see if they would hold up. And to my surprise, they did hold up, and they would turn into something different. A lot of the subtlety in the studio got transformed into anger, and gave it a life of its own.

So it's different. I'm not going to say one's more freeing than the other. Sometimes the scientist in me and the perfectionist in me are frustrated at the imperfections of playing live. It always sounds shitty, and it's chaos, and random things happen, and sometimes, it just doesn't work.

But that lack of control is probably good for you.

Yeah, it's a good balancing out of too much of the other thing. I'm really not the control freak that I'm painted to be.

In the editing room, it must have been difficult to be surrounded with yourself all day; you on video, you on record. That's a lot of you.

That's a good point, yeah I'm self-conscious to start with, and to have to see video of myself singing my music -- I get into this sort of crazy, "Not that shot. Ooh. No." Warren Beatty kind of takes over my soul, and I start wanting to get photos retouched and that sort of thing. I've learned that I have to delegate to somebody who's more objective than I am, so a lot of the actual video editing and choice of shots I have to ask somebody else what they think: "Does that look good? Bad?" I know I'm not objective, and I can't be.

It's easy to get the impression that some of the older songs are going to be retired after this project, that this was sort of a final hurrah for them.

The songs we played on that tour I still love, and they're still a part of me, and they're still relevant to me. They may not mean the same thing they did when I originally wrote them, but they're still relevant in some fashion, or we wouldn't have played them. I think what I'd like to retire is the expectation, or the self-imposed [expectation], of having to present Nine Inch Nails in that format.

I don't know that the next time we go out it's going to be a rock band with those people smashing keyboards and the chaotic, stage-diving kind of thing. I don't know if it'll be me in a string quartet or me in an art exhibition. I don't know what it'll be, but I am getting kind of tired of, "OK, it's another tour. Let's break out the corn starch."

Do you have a time frame for the release of a new album?

I'm right in the middle of working on a new album, on a couple of new projects, and that's exciting to me. When they get a little farther down the road, I'll assemble a band. I'm not saying it's gonna be a middle-age jazz band or anything, but it may be different. I think one of the things that comes up [when we're putting a tour together] is, we get the band together, and we talk about what songs we're gonna play on the tour, and somebody says, "Well we really should do that one, 'cause it goes over great," or, "The crowd loves this one." And, pretty soon, it's the same set list you always do, with a couple new ones thrown in. That's what it always turns into.

"I'm really not the control freak that I'm painted to be."

Having to do the same depressing songs over and over again can't be easy. What if some days you don't feel like going there? Maybe some days you're happy, and you want to think about flowers or puppies.

It is what I feared at one point, around the Downward Spiral era, was that there's so much angst coming out in some of these songs, there's gonna be a time when I don't feel like doing this. But when I get onstage, something takes over, and it becomes real again, and cathartic. But after so many times it becomes dangerous to your brain and your own mind-space, continually revisiting some of that. That's also a factor in allowing myself the freedom to maybe not go back there as regularly.

Can you take time off, be a normal person?

If I knew what that was. I think what distorts [my] mind is that looking back now, I can see myself behaving a certain way. When you go on tour, you're thrust into this ridiculous situation where you're bombarded with attention and you have no free time. And later, the tour bus grinds to a halt and you get off, and you're back to whatever you call home, and you try to pretend you're the same person you were, but you're not. Things have changed, and life has gone on where you left, and your life has changed, and you've mutated, and not always for the better.

Your friends get married and have babies. Everybody hangs out without you.

Yeah. In my head I'm still, like, about 22 right now. I have an arrested sense of maturity in a lot of ways, because I've focused my life on other extremes, of working 100 percent on one thing and letting other things go. The main thing of what I do has taken over every aspect of my life.

But I remind myself that this is a finite time I'm in right now. I've focused everything on my career, and I try to keep myself in a position where that's the only thing that really matters to me, but I've also found that by going too far into that your art suffers, because you don't have any other aspect of your life other than the thing that's consumed you. So I'm working on that.