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"I’m not from New York. I’m not from LA. I’m from Pennsylvania so I know these people"


"it’s not ‘let’s all commit suicide/drink the Kool-Aid’. There’s PARTS that are like that . . ."

Soft. Interior. On the conveyor. Plush environs. Hotel interviews. They’re ace – they remind you of what a piddling peon in the chain you are. Every twenty minutes of today, Trent Reznor is asked to talk about himself but by the time I get to him he’s still chipper, giving you a firm handshake backed by biceps you’d scarcely credit him with, clearly keen to talk about new opus ‘Year Zero’ with the assiduousness and seriousness of an ingénue auteur dropping his dew-fresh debut. That he’s no spring chicken , that for the past fifteen years the calmly outspoken, disarmingly well-met & clearly bright individual talking to you has been variously an avatar of his own self-destruction and a fantasist of vengeance worthy of Marvel, an equally important figurehead in the careers of Marilyn Manson & Johnny Cash, and further, an icon of morbidity for a generation of pop perverts all seems irrelevant when your ears are still zinging from your first exposure to his latest, greatest work.  Played to us an hour before this chat, ‘Year Zero’ feels like a wiping clean of the slate, a densely-layered sci-fi parable about the dystopian future to come within and without and possibly the best 60 minutes NIN have ever given us. Fifteen years in, Trent’s outdoing his past on all fronts but what militated towards a new NIN album right now?
   “What it never is is someone on the business side saying ‘hey it’s about time you had an album out’ – hence the sporadic output of NIN releases so far. I try to be in a place where an identity hits a form and there’s a purpose to it. I aim to reinvent the rules each time – I don’t really like to work with a band during the writing process and left to my own devices I’d just fool around. At some point there’s a cerebral process where I say ‘maybe the album could be about this’ – then it’s a case of experimenting around that concept for awhile. Pretty soon I’m at the point where I’m thinking – I’m bored with all this, BUT this fits with this and that fits with that, and pretty soon after that the album starts taking shape. Lots of demos and eventually we stumble into things and I think, I’m not just fucking around. You feel a certain fire.”

When did the seeds for ‘Year Zero’ first start simmering?
   “On the last tour of the US in 2006 – just to stay sane sitting around waiting I started making music on a laptop just to see if I could entertain myself, if I could see it as a creative limitation rather than just a bummer limitation. I found ways to manipulate the limited software to arrive places I’d never been before – in the studio the possibilities are endless and deadeningly so, but on the laptop I was stumbling into things that felt fresh and exciting. The music felt amazing. Came off tour and though physically shattered, mentally I was gunning– I set up a studio in my house that got flooded out, which I saw as a sign. So I set up a place in the woods – total exile, deer in the back yards. The concept of the record really came to me there – that for the first time, instead of just writing about myself, now,  I could write from the perspective of several different characters and set the whole piece at some point in the not-too-distant future. From then it came together real quickly and it felt, it feels, like the most singular and focussed thing I’ve ever done up to this point. It was fun battling my ability with the technology with the sounds I had in my head. I’m at constant war with my own boredom and making ‘Year Zero’ won out every time.”

 No question- the album hits you up more effectively and directly than anything Trent’s ever done, as if given a limited sound-palette has stretched his imagination and sonic vision to its kino-eye limit. There’s multi-textured Bomb Squad-style funk noise, labyrinthine digi-dub, strung-out doom-electro – it’s the most exquisitely gorgeous collage, an endless glut of sonic delight and aggravation a million miles away from the confined synth-rock you might’ve feared.
   “The mindset with the previous records was always – how is this gonna work with a band. This time around that wasn’t a concern and it was totally liberating not to reach for a guitar or a bass to find the precise imperfections I needed, but to see if I could squeeze it out of the little technology I had. I was getting dangerously unconcerned with making another album at all, so a new method had to be found. It’s totally reinvigorated my relationship with music, and hopefully anyone who listens to it will feel that.”
An extra kick to ‘Year Zero’s fresh impetus is Reznor shifting his lyrical eye from self-conceits to out’n’out polemic – tracks like ‘Capital G’, ‘The Good Soldier’ and ‘Vessel’ step away from the navel-gazing angst you might expect (and that undoubtedly made Reznor a star) into the most avowedly political poetry he’s ever aired. You keep recalling Public Enemy, not just for the seething noise-scapes but the righteous/resigned agit-rhymes they’re couching.
   “”Lyrically and thematically everything’s changed. Previous albums, the lyrics have kinda been thought up after the event of the music, and so long as they were true to me, then that was ok. I didn’t over-consider lyrics, they either worked or didn’t. This time around I wanted to be honest about what I’ve been thinking about in recent years and that hasn’t been me, it’s been the state of the world and just exactly where the hell we’re heading morally, as Americans.”

One of the ideas that leap to the fore on ‘Year Zero’ is how civilization’s façade isn’t just slipping, it’s irredeemably shattered. In such unclear ground, base survival is all that’s left.
   “And the major emotion behind ‘Year Zero’ is disgust. Concern growing into dawning horror. What I definitely wanted to avoid was anything that directly namechecks what’s going on today. That’s just horrible and nobody, least of all me, wants to hear it. But I AM a huge sci-fi fan, and I was intrigued with being able to create a vision of how the world might be in 15 years from now if we carry on down the road we’re on to the point of a crisis. Fleshing that out made ‘Year Zero’, thinking of the viewpoints of characters that’d inhabit that world, from religious zealots from both sides of the world, to the greed-fuelled lunatics who’d be running things, to the everyman American who vaguely knows what’s going on but is secure in the knowledge that nothing will ever happen to directly affect me.
   What specifically made ‘Year Zero’ into the first album where you addressed all this though?
   “There are a couple of things giving doomsaying an extra urgency at the moment. One is how close we are to running out of resources, and the clear, visible way we can all see the environment collapsing. Another is the way that radical evangelical movements in the States are coming to the forefront – that’s not new, but the fact that these extreme fundamentalist ideas are becoming so MAINSTREAM now is a genuinely new, frightening phenomenon. It’s every bit as terrifying to me as the Muslim-extremist movements are presented to all of us. S’just a different costume. In both cases what we’re seeing is the horrifying brainwashing of children into soldiers gladly willing to die for their God.”
  How come most music in the States seems silent on this?
   “Well, I’m not from New York. I’m not from LA. I’m from Pennsylvania so I know these people. A whole lot of people who elected Bush were easily brainwashed into voting for ‘that’ guy because ‘they don’t want gays living next door to you’ or whatever. Political rhetoric is becoming avowedly religious and apocalyptic – people are being convinced that the end is nigh in the middle-east, and that we’re headed for a holy war in which all us good Americans will be raptured into the sky and salvation. That’s the kind of lunacy that’s being propagated and I have no idea what to say to these people – they’re locked in on these ideas. I have as little to say to my neighbours as I do to the guy with a bomb strapped to his chest strolling into an Iraqi market. In both cases religion is cutting people off from reality and each other.”
   What can music do at such a time?
“When all that’s being said is lies, music has a duty to cut through with the truth. Or at least suggest that something else might be going on. That’s what ‘Year Zero’ is all about.”

  You wonder if a younger, more tortured Trent would have made such a calmly devastating indictment as ‘Year Zero’ is. You suspect not. Less monochrome both musically and visually than previous NIN albums, ‘Year Zero’ steeps itself in the lurid hues of our present chaos, and posits a future in which the contrasts and shades of planet earth are even more brutally tweaked up. Refreshingly free of judgement yet clear in it’s portrayal of our modern malaise, ‘Year Zero’ treads a deeply personal line ‘tween resignation and resistance, Trent ever-able to to translate his vision through technology into sonic-warfare and ear-candy alike. And further, it’s the numbness that’s suggested, the sense on ‘The Good Soldier’ and ‘Me I’m Not’ that the desensitization of us all is nearly complete, that gives ‘Year Zero’ its timeliness and accuracy to the west’s ravaged soul. In an era where technology seems to be giving us everything we want and nothing we need, ‘Year Zero’ is a reminder that in the right hands, and with a clear conscience, technology can unpick the clickable atrocity-exhibition we may call contemporary life like nothing else.
   “I wanted to recall a time when an album was something you continually discovered, that sci-fi feel of an internally coherent universe to explore. That meant either having the most elaborate sleeve imaginable or what we’re actually doing – on the net we’re trying to flesh out the backdrop to ‘Year Zero’ with a kind of background story, give people jump-off-points and information that’ll help make the album a totally engrossing, engulfing thing. They have 11 chapters so far, I’ve written a hundred, and looking at the chatrooms there’s some satisfyingly intellectual discussion going on instead of the usual drivel-of-the-net bullshit.”
   If you were younger would you be so rigorous about backdropping the album, or would you just be demanding the bombing of the White House?
   “Well – the scariest thing suggested on the album is that now that voting has become privatized, now that democracy has truly disappeared and we’re pretty much living in a state of dictatorship, what happens to people who don’t have a voice? I don’t mean the nutjobs, I mean the rational sane people who realise that they simply do not have a means of resistance other than violence, that nothing changes other than the colour of ties. The only option left for so many of us is violence, is bombing, is terrorism. The album’s not suggesting that people should do that, but it’s saying that the State is cut off from the people so much, the only way most of us would ever feel involved in politics ever again is by direct, violent action. That’s worrying.”
   But where exactly do you stand between hope and hopelessness for our future?
“If I could get on my pretentious soapbox for a while I’d say that I just want people to think about things the rest of the world doesn’t want them to think about right now. The record for me is a cautionary tale but it’s one of hope. It’s mainly hoping that at the moment of madness when there are fingers on the buttons that there is some innate sense of right and wrong in people that means we won’t extinguish ourselves. At the moment of moral crisis there is an innate humanity that people have.”

  Odd to hear you say that.
Your work isn’t exactly famed for its positive attitude . . .
“True. It’d be ludicrous for me to say, ‘oh there’s always been a real optimistic side to our music’ BUT most of the time, no matter what state of despair or desperation I might be in on the records - there is an element of hope, of salvation being searched for. When I’m on stage reacting to people it certainly doesn’t feel hopeless or hate-filled to me.”
That’s the weird thing I noticed at the show last night – it was an energising, positive experience. At a NIN show. Whodathunkit.
“Yeah, it’s not ‘let’s all commit suicide/drink the Kool-Aid’. There’s PARTS that are like that! But overwhelmingly for me, NIN is always searching for redemption of some sort. There was and is a positive reason for this record to exist. To get people to pay attention, look around themselves in a different way. It’s pretentious. It may not work. But it’s worth a shot. I’m only pissing my own money away! And I’d hate to look back and just think my music sleepwalked through these years. ‘Year Zero’ feels like the right thing to do for me right now. The only thing I could’ve done and still been ok with myself.”
Still sating his demons, but slaying a fair few in the process. You’d be insane not to listen up. Hard.

(From Terrorizer Magazine, 2008) 


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