Hes survived infamy, addiction and a foray into tech. Now the Nine Inch Nails frontman has swapped his self-loathing for shame at the state of the nation
The title of Nine Inch Nails new tour, kicking off in Las Vegass Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, is Cold and Black and Infinite. To get here you must pass the tumbling dice, the restless women queuing for the Magic Mike live show, and the inert displays of Johnny Cash memorabilia. It is slightly incongruous, appearing as it does down the street from Backstreet Boys: Larger Than Life and Mariah Carey: The Butterfly Returns, but no less razzle-dazzle in its own way.
Since forming in 1988 as the brainchild of Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails have taken various anti-commercial elements industrial noise, songs about pain, absence and sex and hammered them into Vegas-ready shapes, showtunes for the goth-glam set. Thirty years on, Reznor the only official member until 2016, when his long-term British collaborator Atticus Ross was added is in one of his most fertile periods, having just completed a trilogy of releases with new album Bad Witch, six arresting tracks of wailing sax, acid house bass lines, and post-punk drumming, topped with Reznors trademark misanthropic lyrics (I eat your loathing, hate and fear).
Were just animals that, left to our own devices, will kill each other, Reznor shrugs, his regulation all-black attire making him blend into a leather sofa backstage. Were only out for ourselves anyway. This illusion that were more than that is nothing but that: an illusion.
This bleak worldview has barely changed since the bands beginning. After his parents divorced, Reznor, now 53, was raised by his grandparents in Mercer, Pennsylvania, a little, shitty town, a small-aspiration environment between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the kind that in teen movies only has room for one hooded, bullied outcast. I was always good at math, and I was going to be an engineer, because you had to have a real job, Reznor says. Where I come from, there are no artists; artists were teaching at the high school down the street.
Long before the internet and with no access to cool college radio, Reznor was immersed in mainstream AM-radio rock. I could sing you every hit from the 70s, every word to every song, because I heard them all constantly. The idea of having a chorus and a melody, its beaten into my head. At 23 and working alone under the influence of Prince, the industrial label Wax Trax! and more, he started writing the songs that would make up the bands brilliant 1989 debut album Pretty Hate Machine: tinny, seething tracks that had definite shades of Depeche Mode, Nitzer Ebb and other twisted synthpop, but with a head-banging street-punk swagger that was totally new.
The lyrics conjured up a struggle between God, love and death as Reznor contemplated suicide, sin and salvation in sex. I fucked around with some bad music; I was trying to sound like other bands, he says of his pre-Pretty Hate material. I thought the Clash were cool so I was trying to be cool, too. Important political statements, no ones going to make fun of me for them. But the journal entries of a horny, sad guy who doesnt fit in … He realised that the words he was writing in his journal to keep myself from going crazy were the real lyrics he needed, and Nine Inch Nails success was quick and exponential.
Today, with burly arms and designer stubble, he is still a rock star, but one with a top note of nerdish unease: shoulders ever so slightly tensed, head ever so slightly bowed. He says he has never fully grown out of the disquiet that powered Pretty Hate Machine and sent him into a gyre of self-destruction in the 1990s The Downward Spiral, to quote the title of the bands multi-platinum 1994 followup, infamously recorded in the house where the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate.
The self-destruct button was pushed when I first started writing, he says. There was a sense that I couldnt fit in anywhere, I couldnt relate to people; I felt alone, I felt angry about it. And part of me is still that. I felt like I was heading down into something that wasnt going to have a good ending. That ended up being addiction: its claws were in me but it hadnt fully revealed itself.
Reznor began drinking, then using hard drugs, culminating in an accidental heroin overdose in 2000 that nearly killed him. I wasnt the guy who aged 12 had a beer and turned into a werewolf, he says. It kind of crept up. I wasnt prepared for the transformative effect of fame and recognition. Now everyones here to see me, and I still feel like I dont belong there, that I dont deserve to be there, that I dont know how to act. I dont know how much of that is learned, how much is experiential, how much is in my DNA, how much is in how I was raised. But I found myself uncomfortable in a scenario where everybody wants to be your friend. Having a drink or two was a tool. It did help, for a while, until it started to define who I was. In every scenario I had to drink, because that was me now.
Someone who helped slow the rot was David Bowie, whom Reznor describes as his hero. He proposed a tour with Nine Inch Nails in 1995. Things in my life at that time felt unrecognisable, Reznor says, and Bowie definitely helped. Not in a lecturing kind of way, but I saw someone who had come through [addiction] , and he was happy and optimistic and remained fearless. I thought: if he can do that, maybe theres light at the end of the tunnel. Versions of Bowies Im Afraid of Americans and I Cant Give Everything Away feature in Nine Inch Nails tour setlist.
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