Bring the noise
Trent Reznor has always lived in a dark place. The world the Nine Inch Nails frontman inhabited for most of his career was one filled with paranoia and self-loathing, fuelled by addictions to drugs and alcohol. It was wrapped in intense, chaotic industrial, gothic metal that established him as a highly influential musician.
Now 42 and clean for five years, Reznor still dwells on the darker side of life, and his music is as brooding and discomforting as ever. But the Nine Inch Nails' latest album, Year Zero, has a less introspective view. Reznor's consuming anxieties are channelled into an Orwellian look into the future shaped by the current state of the world. It's a bleak, dystopian vision that could be the basis for a sci-fi thriller, and has been shaped into a live show that Reznor will bring to Hong Kong next week as part of a world tour.
It's as if Reznor sobered up, took a look around and was terrified at what he saw. 'The fiction is based on realities that are already in motion,' he says. 'When I sat down and started working on a new record I tried to work on the format of an album, which is a bit outdated these days. I wanted to make a statement.'
After toying with the idea for a while he decided to focus on 'the state of America and where we're headed'. He says it's not a good destination. 'We've been hijacked by [the] criminals in charge right now. There's a feeling of shame and embarrassment at what's happening,' he says. 'I thought I'd look 15 years ahead at would happen if we [continue] on this road.'
The picture he paints is grim. From biological terrorists to military rule and shadowy background figures, the album presents a nightmarish scenario.
Reznor says that the lower-middle classes of America - from places such as the town where he grew up in Pennsylvania - are being duped. 'They don't have to worry about things because they're happening on the other side of the TV set,' he says.
He says Year Zero is partly intended to help awaken them. 'Everybody I know has in the past five years become more aware of what's happening. The world has got crazier. The administration is a travesty of what the country is supposed to be about.'
Reznor snipes at the media, religious zealots and big business for their role in the new world order. 'What they're doing is morally terrible,' he says, railing at the US administration for using the September 11 attacks to 'get oil'.
Nonetheless, Reznor is not as pessimistic as fans might normally expect. 'It feels as if revolution is in the air,' he says. 'People are fed up and p***ed off.' Although Reznor endorses Democratic hopeful Barack Obama, he says that a more fundamental change is needed to avoid his vision becoming reality.
'If Obama is elected we would at least have someone back in charge, but it's beyond what one man can do,' Reznor says, launching into an attack on the electoral system under which George W. Bush narrowly won the presidency in 2000.
Reznor isn't naive enough to think that his music can change the world. 'If I could write that magic song that would cause everybody in America to take up arms I'd be doing it right now,' he says. 'Year Zero is meant to be entertainment. Nobody looks to a rock star for their opinion. I'm tired of having Bono preach to me. The album is to encourage people to debate.'
Is he a conspiracy theorist? 'So many people can see what's going on. People are already on my side in a way.'
Reznor learned piano and saxophone as a child, but he made his name with a mish-mash of sounds from dance to metal as Nine Inch Nails, essentially a one-man band with a changing lineup of members for live shows (on albums he records most of the instruments himself). His 1989 debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, combined sinister themes with discordant noise and hooks and won him plenty of loyal fans.
Reznor worked with acts such as Marilyn Manson and scored the movie Natural Born Killers. In 1997, he was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in the US. 'I'm proud of that,' he says. 'It's nice to be acknowledged.' He's not so enthusiastic about having won two Grammy awards. 'A Grammy means nothing to me. It's an award given by a group of people who have proved they're so out of touch. I put it in a cupboard. It doesn't mean a f***ing thing to me.'
Reznor says his influence on the mainstream may have diminished, but that he still has a role to play. 'I've looked in the mirror and thought, 'Does a 42-year-old man have relevance these days?' And it feels as though he does. I'm not trying to pay rent or gratify my ego.
'I can look back with a clarity I haven't had. I was never well-equipped to deal with people and situations. Being in a band was a way to express myself. Drink or a little bit of this and that made me feel more interesting. It led me down a terrible path and I was going to die if I didn't stop'.
A brush with death in 2001 shocked him into straightening up. His 2005 album With Teeth began a shift that takes a sharper turn with Year Zero. Yet some fans maintain that he works best when tormented.
'I also bought into the idea of tortured artists - that it helped to be an alcoholic,' Reznor says. 'I'm not saying it can't [work], but what I was pumping into my system was killing whatever I had in me. Now, my music is coming from deep inside and I feel great about that.
'I'm no longer dictated by fear. I'm not the person I was and I hope not to be again.'
Nine Inch Nails Live 2007, Sept 13, 8pm, AsiaWorld-Expo, Chek Lap Kok, Lantau, HK$580.
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