Trent Reznor has some modest goals for Nine Inch Nails' summer tour: "I want you to leave feeling like your head exploded," he says backstage at the Forum in Inglewood, California, where his band is rehearsing. It's a fitting goal for a guy who has spent the past year blowing up many of the standard practices of the modern music business.
After completing his contract with Interscope Records, Reznor released Ghosts I-IV, a double instrumental record, in packages ranging from a $5 download to a $300 deluxe set. With no advance warning, he followed up in May with The Slip, an album free for download from his Website. Reznor's giveaway of The Slip went smoothly – more than a million people downloaded it – but he has some misgivings, worrying that he's contributing to an environment that devalues music and exploits musicians. "People feel it's their right to get stuff free," he says. "I don't agree with it, but I understand it. I think that's a fight you can't win. So then how can you treat fans with respect and treat yourself with respect? By experimenting." Reznor rejected the Radiohead scheme of letting fans decide what to pay for the album. "It gives them too much power," he says. "I'm not saying that you have to pay for it, but don't tell me that it's worth 50 cents." The Slip is now also available as a CD-DVD package, in a limited edition of 250,000, and it debuted at Number 13 when it was released in July. "People who want something physical at a reasonable price, they can get something that has value to them," he says.
Reznor is talking during a break from rehearsals at the Forum; he's wearing a black T-shirt and drinking a Diet Hansen's Soda. While his music is full of howling battles between the id and the superego, offstage he's calm with a sharp sense of humor. "I'm just an actor playing me," he jokes. "Puff Daddy and the real me are on a yacht somewhere."
The show's production was complicated enough to require weeks of rehearsal, which meant Reznor had to wrangle teams of technicians. "I didn't go to leadership class," he says. "But I'm having to transform from being an asshole to being a full-on dick." When problems arise, Reznor doesn't throw tantrums; he just wields his wit like a knife. "Are the smoke machines here?" he asks the techie manning the light board.
"Yes!" shouts the techie.
"Why, may I ask, is it completely smoke-free in here, then?"
Reznor is joined on this tour by four other musicians: drummer Josh Freese, multi-instrumentalist Alessandro Cortini, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen (formerly with Beck) and guitarist Robin Finck, who has returned to NIN after a decade with Guns n' Roses. Reznor remembers telling a previous guitarist that it didn't matter how he played "Terrible Lie" as long as he got across the message "Fuck you." Now, in what Reznor thinks might be a sign of growing older (he's 43), he prefers to work with musicians who can play their instruments.
As an experiment, Reznor gave away a pair of tickets for the tour's dress rehearsal by hiding an envelope under a rock in Burbank. Using a Google Earth link on his Website, Reznor indicated the tickets' location with a question mark. Fans quickly found the envelope. "Well, we couldn't leave that alone," Reznor says. "We hid another 30, in places from Watts Towers to behind a mirror in a strip-club restroom to a Home Depot." One envelope was hidden in a graveyard; the location was announced after it had closed for the day: "We wanted to see if anyone would break in, because I would've. And someone did." Reznor contemplated providing the location of Axl Rose's house and encouraging people to dig in his yard for tickets, "just to see how many people got arrested on his front lawn."
On opening night at Seattle's Key Arena on July 26th, Reznor delivers on his head-exploding ambitions. After an opening half-hour played under bright white lights, the band is sandwiched between video screens upstage and downstage. The screens create optical illusions, assault the audience with strobes and even deliberately hide the musicians' images behind a wall of static. The two-hour show careens through Reznor's catalog, including a set of chilled-out Ghosts material featuring Reznor on marimba. "Hurt" is apocalyptic, and during his savage attack on "March of the Pigs," Reznor throws his mike stand like a javelin. There are still a few technical glitches, including one point where the show grinds to a halt. "Somebody's supposed to press a button to turn on the lights," Reznor tells the crowd. "Things fuck up."
Reznor is girding himself for the rest of the tour, which crisscrosses the U.S. through September before moving on to South America and Mexico. A lot of the Nineties are a blur to Reznor, who was an alcoholic and a heroin addict; he's been sober since 2001. "I've learned how to stay sane on the road," he says. "One of the great things about being fucked up on the road is that it's not as boring. There's a lot of hours in the day. 'Have I jacked off to that movie yet?' Yes, I have. Again. Finally, I realized I can get work done – I've got three hours before soundcheck, let's see if I can get a song written in that time."
He still relishes the moment when he hits the stage. "That's the ultimate – you walk out, and you feel cool. Having good lighting and a cool stage is like having a nice outfit on." Has he ever wished he had that lighting offstage? Reznor laughs. "Yeah, and have it follow me around, playing 'Closer' the whole time." He beatboxes his song's famous rhythm and adopts a faux-smug expression: "That's me."
This story is from the August 21st, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.