Trent Reznor: Darkness Audible

 Wesley Mann

Oscar winner Trent Reznor's evolution from a rock nihilist and addict who once wrote his own (quite vulgar) epitaph into the musical, brilliant -- sometimes even smiling -- soulmate of director David Fincher.

At the time, Reznor's only film credits were as a soundtrack producer curating songs for films such as Natural Born Killers and Lost Highway, or contributing artist, like in Seven. But in 2001, he was recruited by director Mark Romanek, who had worked on highly 

stylized NIN videos "Closer" and "The Perfect Drug," to compose music for the indie thriller One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams.

Reznor submitted several compositions, but none made it into the movie. "I remember there was an issue with the studio trusting someone who had never scored a film before, so that was the end of that," he says, recalling the sting of rejection by Fox Searchlight. "But the way I choose to see things in my own life, I was getting into a pretty bad space. I was an addict and not functioning very well at that time. So I'm kind of grateful it didn't come together because I couldn't have done my best work then." 

Whether his first film fail came before or after hitting rock bottom, Reznor can't recall, but he says, "It was another brick in the wall of, 'Hey, you need to get your shit together.' " Reznor finally did in summer 2001, checking into rehab and, once clean, moving to L.A. Soon after, he met British engineer and multi-instrumentalist Ross, also a recovering heroin addict, and the two "hit it off," beginning a professional relationship that would span many bands but little released material. Says Ross: "We had quite a good run of things that never materialized."

For Reznor, what came next was the sort of existential crisis that can drive a creative person straight to relapse -- the notion that, if your best art came during your darkest days, what does that mean for the sober version of your former self? It's a tricky reconciliation that Reznor has spent untold hours thinking about. He explains: "It was a huge fear, realizing you've got a problem and asking, is that where all the art came from? Because if it is, maybe I should keep going down that path and die young."

He was finally able to look at his situation with clarity. "I realized that my disease was killing my art," says Reznor. "I certainly didn't feel creative when I was high anymore, so I made a decision: that trying to stay alive and feel OK about myself was better than the risk that maybe all of that good music was coming from this substance. And my output has gone up 20,000 percent since I've been sober. The difference is, I'm no longer afraid to look in the mirror, or to think, 'Can I ever pick up a pen and write a good song again?' That's a great recipe to end up with a blank piece of paper. I did that for years."


An often-asked question of rock stars: What's the band that made you want to be in a band? The Beatles may come to mind, perhaps The Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground or Reznor's hero, David Bowie. And then there's Nine Inch Nails, a rite of passage for any goth kid, much like the Grateful Dead was to the high school stoner, only trade tie-dye for black and Birkenstocks for rumble-ready boots.

Fincher even alludes to the stereotype in a scene from Dragon Tattoo, when a disheveled, long-haired overweight hacker, who's helping Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) with her spyware, makes his entrance wearing a NIN T-shirt. Reznor had to sign off on the cameo. "I told Fincher, 'Look, man, do what you gotta do -- let's keep this as accurate as possible,' " he says with a laugh.

To that end, Fincher clearly appreciated what the tee symbolized: a global fanbase and maybe even a movement uniting disenfrachised outcasts launched almost singlehandedly by Reznor. “There’s a darkness and honesty to Trent’s music,” says Matt Pinfield, host of MTV’s120 Minutes, who’s become a friend of Reznor’s. “He’s an amazing songwriter and Nine Inch Nails are in a league of their own."

"As with Grohl and Foo Fighters, Reznor's radio presence with Nine Inch Nails has only multiplied exponentially over the years. In fact, the band had its highest-charting single (No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100) not in the mid-'90s when The Downward Spiral exploded, but in 2005 when a 40-year-old sober Reznor delivered another NIN insta-classic, "The Hand That Feeds."

But even with a hit in his grasp, negative experiences in the music industry tainted his successes past, present and future. No stranger to litigation (in 2004, he famously sued his former manager John Malm for fraud, citing unfair commissions  and misapporpriation of his trademarks and won, the judgment awarding him nearly $5 million) or denouncements online, Reznor had publicly criticized his label Interscope Records for myriad antiquated practices but perhaps most loudly about pricing, going so far as to encourage Australian fans to steal NIN's 2007 album Year Zero as an act of protest. "Steal it. Steal away. Steal, steal and steal some more, and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing," he wrote in a blog post, calling Universal Music execs "greedy f--ing assholes."

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Says one Interscope insider who lived through the drama: "When Trent was upset, he let people know about it. He was opinionated and complicated but also funny, sarcastic and insanely smart."

Weeks after the album's release, Reznor and Nine Inch Nails were released from Interscope and swore off major labels for good. Says Reznor: "It was liberating and terrifying, those both occurred within about 60 seconds of each other. Now you can do anything you want. Oh shit, now what are we going to do?"

Reznor did what musicians do: he toured, but something felt different on the last NIN outing. "It was starting to grate on me a bit that it doesn't feel as truthful as it once did," he explains, the days when he and his bandmates would cover themselves in corn starch (to contrast the glut of black leather) long behind him. "I'm kind of moving into a different phase, and I think that's a good thing in terms of a human being evolving, maturing and progressing -- to not feel obligated to behave or write music for a certain thing." In a case of curious timing, that was when Fincher came calling.

“I was always a fan,” says Fincher. He directed the video to NIN's "Only" in 2005 and reveals that he used parts of Ghosts, the band's 36-track 2008 instrumental album, as temp music for The Social Network before booking Reznor for the job. “It was fitting to me that there were parallels in both Trent and Mark Zuckerberg — they were both iconoclasts, embraced technology, and were engaged in broad aspects of communication.” 


The break from NIN turned out to provide an opportune window for his latest passion project, the band How to Destroy Angels, featuring his wife Mariqueen and Ross. Their cover of Bryan Ferry's "Is Your Love Strong Enough?" (from the 1985 Tom Cruise film Legend) appears at the end of Dragon Tattoo, and they are currently acing to meet a self-imposed mixing deadline. 

The band will release the album independently on Reznor's own Null Corporation. "No committees, no bureaucracies, no e-mails a week later of why you can't do this," Reznor says. "There's no talking to people on the other side of the world that have their own set of agendas and 'no' written a hundred different ways on a piece of paper."

But the DIY route has its disadvantages. "I miss how a record label can help spread the word that you have something out," Reznor confesses. "Sometimes I feel like stuff disappears into the ether. You tend to rely on the power of your Twitter feed and how loud you can shout from the rooftops, but I've noticed that voice isn't so loud in, say, France. … Putting a record out today, if you're not one of the four acts that gets carpet-bomb marketing and has a Coldplay-esque genericness that makes you a commodity to enough people that it warrants spending a lot of money to use outdated means of marketing to tell the masses what to like -- which we aren't -- you put a record out and it's consumed, stolen, judged and forgotten in a day. It used to be a couple days."

Perhaps that's what precipitated a recent lunch meeting between Reznor and Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine where the two "swapped war stories." Says Reznor: "Jimmy is a friend. We get along better when we're not working one under the other, not that I can remember it ever being a personal animosity. There was  frustration when I was on the label because I believed it didn't serve the customer right and couldn't move as fast as I liked and I felt like, I'm not at the right place anymore. But I think he’s pioneering and what he’s done with [headphones] Beats [by Dre] is incredible."

For the first time in awhile, Reznor is relishing his accomplishments as well, which includes recently celebrating that decade of sobriety (he marked the occasion by spending the day with his family) and occasionally admiring the little man of gold staring at him from across the room. "[As artists], we have no problem beating ourselves up about things," says Reznor. "It's how we are -- there's always a reason to feel shitty about yourself. But after the Oscars, Atticus and I did take some time, went against our nature, and said, 'This feels pretty f--in' good. Let's take an evening, we deserve it. Let's not rush to the next thing we're going to fail at.' "


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