At the moment, Trent Reznor is not happy about freezing his ass off in Minneapolis, but the Nine Inch Nails mastermind is happy that his tour has finally hit its stride. The first two weeks were a disaster, with a cancellation and two postponements because NIN drummer Jerome Dillon suffered from a heart condition. (He's been replaced for the tour by Alex Carapetis.) "That threw a big wrench into the works," says Reznor, "but now we're up and running." Reznor, who quit drugs and alcohol four years ago, is still riding the high of sobriety. "I've had a newfound appreciation for music in general – listening to it, playing it, thinking about it and embracing it," he says, adding that there's a possible solo tour (just him, a piano and effects) and a new NIN album on the horizon. "I feel like I have a lot to do and a lot to say."
What's your first musical memory?
My dad told me that I was always putting on Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced? but I don't really remember that. I do remember my first purchase: the Partridge Family's Greatest Hits. I got it for $3.99 at a failed chain of pre-Wal-Mart-type stores called Jamesway. God, I'm old.
You're forty. Is that too old to rock?
It's just a number. I can tell you that making music right now feels more vital than it's ever felt. When I got sober, my first priority was trying to not want to kill myself. After that I was aware that drugs and alcohol had not only taken away my soul but also took away my love for music. It'd become a job, people hassling and pressuring me, and the competitive nature of business consumed me.
The Beatles and the Beach Boys were competitive, and they inspired each other. Was there a band like that for you in the Nineties?
There's different levels. When I was starting out, Jane's Addiction came through Cleveland. I might have been ten feet from the stage, and it completely destroyed me: "They kicked our ass, let's figure out how to compete." But there's another level of competition: the reality that you're in a business, competing with your peers, trying to sell your product. When Downward Spiral came out, Soundgarden's record [Superunknown] came out the same day, and they beat us. I have no beef with them, but that was the enemy at the time. Two and a half years later, I'd sunk into being a drug addict, but we sold more records. I beat you, fucking Soundgarden!
Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt" is the best, but what's the worst Nine Inch Nails cover ever?
One of those hair-metal bands [Trixter] covered "Terrible Lie." I almost called them up and said, "I'll pay you if you don't put this out." One of my biggest influences and favorite bands is Devo. Imagine my thrill when they were covering "Head Like a Hole." That thrill lasted right up to hearing the second bar! But they're still awesome.
Six years ago, you said in Rolling Stone that rock & roll "has taken a big shit." How do you feel now?
Well, we've managed to put rap rock – or, sorry, new metal – back where it belongs, as a forgotten footnote. I'm a bit more optimistic now, but in the alternative-rock world I see a lot of hype over substance. I think Radiohead are great, and Arcade Fire – I saw them live and couldn't believe how good it was. On the other hand, there's a band like Franz Ferdinand – all the cool people say they're good, but it sounds like I'm getting bullshitted by somebody. That's just my take.
You lived in New Orleans for nearly fifteen years. Was there any bar you went to regularly to hear live music?
What you should've asked me is, "Was there a bar that I didn't go to?" Music-wise, generally we'd go to Tipitina's – the real Tipitina's that was uptown. I miss that place. And I miss now the fact that it won't ever be the same.
What's romantic music to you?
I got to say, I don't think I've ever been asked that question. You mean, if there was romance in the air and I had my iPod sitting on my desk . . .
You've spoken for years about taking a female singer under your wing. Who'd work best with you?
Sade would be at the top of the list. Or someone raspier, like a Lauryn Hill type, minus the personality.
What's the best gift you've gotten from a fan?
Yesterday I got a Narcotics Anonymous keychain. And I did have a great letter that came when we were in California working on Downward Spiral. It says, "Trent, I'm your biggest fan. I would do anything for you. In fact, I'm writing this in my own blood." I'm not a handwriting analyst, but I can pretty much guarantee that this person was sincere.
This story is from the November 17th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.