“I could walk out of here, go get a drink and within a week I could be dead. But I’m not interested in doing that”: how Trent Reznor pulled back from the abyss to make Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero

Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor in 2009
(Image credit: Rob Sheridan & Tamar Levine/Press)

Having endured darkness, despair addiction in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor realised it was time to clean up or die. The result was 2005’s With Teeth and 2007’s Year Zero. When Metal Hammer sat down with Trent at the time of the latter album’s release, we found the one-time Prince Of Darkness clean, serene and uncharacteristically happy.

It’s impossible to tell if anyone’s on stage. The Glasgow Academy is dense with smoke, and you can just make out a silhouette clutching the mic stand: “Hello pigs,” comes a voice from the fog. Lights flash, the music starts, and the dark spectres slowly emerge from the smoke to reveal the cast of this theatre macabre before they throw themselves soul-first into a two hour flight of blackened, angst-ridden fancy.

Onstage, Nine Inch Nails’ great architect, Trent Reznor, throws his guitar and the mic stand around and spits his despondent lyrics into the microphone. But there’s something wrong and worryingly alien to the spectacle. He smiles, jokes with his bandmates, and banters with the crowd. He’s famously misanthropic, but tonight he seems friendly – as if the dark cloud that has for so long hung over his head has gone. It’s worrying.

“Manchester sucked last night, but you guys are fucking awesome!” he says with a grin. “Show me you’re better than those fuckers!” Has the voice of a disillusioned-generation undergone a permanent misery-bypass?

The next morning Trent is holed-up at his hotel to talk about the new Nine Inch Nails album, Year Zero. It’s there that our worst fears are confirmed. Trent is happy.

It usually takes over half a decade for a new NIN album to surface. Not this time. May 2005 saw the release of With Teeth, the long-awaited follow-up to 1999’s The Fragile, the latter the sound of helplessness and despair of drug addiction committed to tape. Now, both clean and sober, Reznor is on a roll. Having woken up from a deep dependency, he has found that the creative juices are still flowing, and in under two years, With Teeth’s successor is here.

Two years ago when Hammer spoke to the newly drug-free Trent, he was in good health, but his manner still painted a picture of an anxious sociophobe. Conversation came uneasily with little eye-contact. Today the classically-trained musician is the relaxed and sunny antithesis of his former self.

Explaining when and how he started this new album, Trent admits that it had a lot to do with boredom. That while “it’s fun to play the show,’ the rest of the day is just waiting around. So he started working with the “limitation” that all he had was a laptop, and so, “some cool stuff started happening.”

Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor performing onstage in 2007

(Image credit: Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

After the With Teeth tour, he decided against taking a break. He started expanding the ideas he’d created using only his laptop, and the lyrical concept was born. Trent had just moved to Los Angeles – an incongruous choice for the renowned antisocial – from where he’d previously moved to isolate himself, New Orleans.

“I didn’t go to LA for the culture,” he says smiling a wry smile. “I moved there to be around my peers. The fake tits and celebrity bullshit is all there, but it’s not all that’s there. You don’t see me out, or see pictures of me shopping – I’m repulsed by it to be quite frank – but I needed to be around people who do what I do, to make the whole Year Zero thing happen.”

With everything going so swimmingly, Trent moved from his new home to a remote and “creepy” house in the Californian hills to write and build lyrics out of his concept. Disappearing into the woodwork for a while, the isolation allowed him to escape the usual urban distractions, and Trent centred himself.

After three months on the far side of nowhere, all that remained was the odd nip and tuck, and Year Zero was road-ready. The new record was not to be simply another album of gloomy introspection, but the first of two albums: a big picture political narrative about a dystopian very near future in which a selfish people abuse their world and have to suffer the consequences, and an elusive force called, The Presence.

“Oh hey, we can talk about that”, Trent says before addressing the label person charged with keeping his schedule running on time. “Give me five more minutes, OK?”

Reaching the end of our allotted interview time, we mention something that he’s keen to talk about, and he extends our interview. Shocked that the socially anxious recluse would want to spend more time being probed, we sit down again.

He explains that the main purpose of the record was to call attention to the totalitarian political climate and how we are destroying ourselves and our planet.

“It was an epiphany of sorts,” he says. “And it revolves around sobriety. When you’re an addict you feel like your problems are the biggest problems in the world. I’m not saying I can change the world, but now I feel like it’s my duty as a human to do try and do something.”

Trent has admitted that when he quit drugs he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to write again, but that With Teeth proved he could. Does his lyrical choice of a fictional concept suggest he no longer has personal demons to confront?

“I was writing fiction for the first time,” he says before quickly reassuring us that: “it’s clearly fiction. I couldn’t write another Downward Spiral because that would be lying.”

So is ‘the concept’ a substitute for personal exorcism? Or are you really just tapping into emotions that are fast fading into the rear-view mirror?

“This is a good question because…” He stops for a few seconds and averts his eyes.

“Let me just think about this for a sec.” Again he pauses.

The silence is uncomfortable.

“I’ll just keep my mouth shut.”

About what?

“I know you’re baiting me,” he says, smiling warmly. “When the day comes that I have to hire the flavour of the day to write my records for me so I can sound like what my records used to sound like so I can make money… just stick a fork in me. Honestly. I don’t mean to sound like I’m on a high horse here but when it gets to that state, that’s absolutely not what I’m about. From principle. I’ll walk the highway before I start doing that shit.”

Trent becomes animated as he asserts that whether or not you like Nine Inch Nails, loved or hated this or that record, he made them all for the right reasons. “Because it means more to me than anything else in my life. I can sleep well at night – when I can sleep – knowing that I have always kept that pure.”

It is hard to believe that Year Zero’s subject matter is as separated from real-life as Trent wants not only us, but himself to believe. It’s easy to draw parallels between Year Zero and Trent’s own story: abuse of body/planet, an ambivalent force against which you have no power, be it addiction or The Presence, and having to cope with the aftermath. Year Zero is far more autobiographical than Trent admits.

While he says that it was a conscious decision not to let the words just pour out of him, he also says that he, “didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking, ‘Am I writing as a character?’” adding, “It’s just what came out.”

But, whether he agrees or not, nothing is ever truly fictional: you can only write what you know.

“For anything to be believable it has to have ‘you’ in it,” he says, indirectly denying the suggestion that Year Zero is as much about his life as it is a futuristic setting.

Today, Trent comes across like a man who is happy in the way that only someone who has returned from the brink of auto-extinction can enjoy.

“And I don’t have the darkness,” he says in a manner that proves his point. “I’m not ready to jump out that window. And a few years ago I was.”

When he wrote 1992’s Broken EP, he thought his musical career was over. When he wrote The Downward Spiral two years later. the demons were closing in on him. During 1999’s The Fragile, he was trying to fight his way out of addiction. Each album is an accurate picture of where his head was at that time. Year Zero is no different.

“I haven’t found out the answers,” he says, “but I’m not at war with myself as much as I was.”

He goes on to admit that his troubles continued into sobriety.

“I was a fuck up, and I had fucked a lot of shit up – maybe even my career. So I approached With Teeth with kid gloves – slightly afraid to touch it at all. I look back now and see things I wouldn’t do again,” he says honestly. This lack of confidence meant he allowed too many people to comment on the album before it was finished. “I wasn’t in a place to say, ‘thanks, but I disagree’. This time I didn’t let anybody in.”

Did that make you want to indulge again?

“No,” he says honestly. “I gotta say, truly not. When I got clean, I had really had enough. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll get clean. Maybe I’ll try it out’. I spent several years making sure that I’d had enough! I reached a point where there was no romance, no illusion of fun, so even in dark times now, I honestly don’t look back like, ‘Ah, if I could just…”

He taps his arm and simulates injecting, laughing at the thought.

“I’m not saying that can’t happen,” he continues. “I could walk out of here, go get a drink and within a week I could be dead, or…” he pauses again. “Who knows what? But I’m not interested in doing that. I’m on a path of healthiness. The process of working on this record has been more rewarding than any other thing. I fucked up relationships and my health, but I never wanted to abuse music like that.”

It’s hard to imagine that only a few years ago he was knocking at death’s door. Whatever he sees as the conceptual basis for Year Zero, it’s about more than addiction. It’s about a man catching himself before going over the edge; the struggle to redefine himself. It’s a new day for Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. Long may it continue.

Originally published in Metal Hammer issue 165