Trent Reznor
Credit: Rob Verhorst/Redferns via Getty Images

One of this summer’s biggest tours finds two rock titans sharing a single stage. Beginning July 19 in Las Vegas, Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden will storm amphitheaters across North America delivering both classics (both Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral and Soundgarden’s Superunknown turned 20 this year) and new stuff (Nine Inch Nails put out Hesitation Marks last year; Soundgarden released King Animal, their first studio album in 16 years, back in 2012).

Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor called in to EW from a tour stop in Finland to talk about holding grudges, retiring songs, and touring with David Bowie.

Entertainment Weekly: Why tour with Soundgarden this summer? What’s your history with those guys?

Trent Reznor: I was a fan of theirs back when I was first aware of them in the early ‘90s. And then I remember their big album came out the same day that The Downward Spiral came out in ’94, and they beat us, so I put them on the list. [Laughs] Then we crossed paths over the years—occasionally we’d hit the same festival, that sort of thing. I don’t know those guys personally, but we’re both surviving here however many years later. When we were talking about this cycle of touring, and we set out to make each leg feel like it’s its own thing, and we do that either through who we go out with or the type of production we take. It’s mainly to make sure everything has its own identity. It’s mainly to keep us from getting bored and really make it feel like it’s exciting for us on stage. So when we were thinking about this last leg, we liked the idea of co-headlining with somebody that was complimentary but not necessarily expected, with music that could fit together. But I don’t think we’re similar in style that much. That makes it a challenge for it to come off as a cohesive show and also for two bands to play together. We’re up for that. That kind of getting uncomfortable helps keep things from becoming a little bit too routine.

As far as the production goes, will this show be similar to the Tension shows from last fall’s U.S. tour?

It’ll be completely different. You’re catching me right now on the second show of the European leg we’re on, which also has a different production. So we just spent an intense week of pre-production and trying to iron out the kinks. I’m at the worst time right now, where I don’t feel the fruition of the work, and I can’t believe we’re doing this again, trying to get some different looks together and different things we’re trying to pull off.

Whether you either attend it or more likely see bits of it on YouTube, it feels like you’ve seen it a number of different ways to present Nine Inch Nails. So for the Soundgarden tour in the summer, elements of that will be based on what we did in the very first thing in the cycle, which we only did at a few festivals around the world, which was I think the most interesting thing we’ve done so far, even more than Tension. It really felt like a vital live show, where we build a show and put together a stage that starts completely bare. The plan is we’re going to base it on that and to expand upon it. Lots of chances for things to go wrong.

Back on the first Lollapalooza, you dealt with mistakes by destroying equipment. How do you handle when something goes wrong now?

Some of it I don’t know, because it’s happening behind me. I’m not sure what the effect is out front because I’m not in the best spot to see it. But the point of all this isn’t just to get lost in production. The point of approaching our live tour in the way that we do is to try to frame the music in a way that makes the experience feel better. I’m very aware that in this day and age there’s a lot of competition for people’s attention, whether it’s online, or films, or whatever. TV is good now these days. You have access to a lot of things you may not have had 20 years ago when going to a concert felt like it could be more special. This is my theory. It didn’t seem like there were as many things to do [back then]. So to go into a place and dedicate your evening to that and to spend money to do that—I don’t take that for granted.

I’m trying to continually challenge what can be done in that environment, and what can be done to make that experience more interesting or more immersive that doesn’t come across on your computer screen and doesn’t come across on headphones or someone telling you about it. We experiment a lot with different ways to achieve that, whether it be assaultive or more interactive in certain ways. But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that you have an experience watching it that expands upon what the music is trying to get across.

I see so few bands, especially those who have been around as long as Nine Inch Nails, still experimenting that way.

I appreciate you saying that, and I recognize the same thing. In my case, we got a band together and realized that people actually want to see you, so we graduated from opening in clubs for anybody to actually being able to play our own show at a club. But nobody sits you down and says, “Here’s how you do it. There’s these four lights and you can have the color green and blue, and you can do whatever you want.” But you start to adopt this thing, because there’s always a financial component that’s intertwined with it. I’ve lost—I’ve spent, let’s put it that way—an immense amount of money caring about those things. Because it doesn’t make sense when you put it on paper.

People say, “If you’re gonna do this tour, why would you spend that much?” Because it would be cool, that’s why. It’s a hell of a lot more work, and like I said, moments before I got on this call I just felt a sense of defeat where what we’re trying to do now isn’t perfected yet. I don’t think anyone who comes tonight is going to think, “Hey, that could have been better on these three songs,” but I know it will be three shows from now when we figure out the right ingredients. Yeah, I wish there was more emphasis on what went into it.

It’s tough also not to fall into the trap of, “Hey, how can we out-Pink Floyd Pink Floyd? Put more s— on stage!” It doesn’t necessarily equate to it being better. At the end of the night, my goal is that you leave that show and you go, “Hey, that was great.” Mission accomplished. Maybe we can do that with one light or maybe we need a hundred trucks to pull it off, but it’s the experience that matters and keeping that fresh.

What’s the set list like on this current run? Any songs that have been retired or resurrected?

It’s cyclical. The Tension tour had a lot of the Hesitation Marks album on it. I had a band that could accommodate that. We just went through a couple of months in Australia and Japan and New Zealand, and that was very reactive, and we played nothing from the new album. Everything was more aggressive and more spontaneous. Now we’re settling into a more middle ground. But a couple of songs off The Downward Spiral came back: “The Becoming” and “Eraser.” We hadn’t played those in quite some time, and it felt good. I think I was wary of not feeling too nostalgic or retro when we started this cycle, but now I don’t give a s—. We’re gonna do what feels right to me.

The Downward Spiral turned 20 this year. Those songs were obviously written when you were in a very different place than you are now, both personally and professionally. Do you still feel connected to those songs?

Most of them I feel a connection to, because it came from a true place. As a human being, I have moved out of a phase where I feel like I’m running into traffic at full speed. That album felt like sliding down into despair and embracing it in a lot of ways that someone in their mid to early 20s can do.

Having gone through a process after that record came out and the complications that came from it—including success—I feel like I’m on a journey. I haven’t arrived there yet, but I’m in a place that feels much more pleasant to be in, and I’m alive, and those are two things I wouldn’t have necessarily expected at the time of the writing of that album. The truthfulness of the songs sticks with me, and a couple don’t resonate at all and we don’t play anymore, but when we’re on stage and sing “Hurt,” it still feels like me in there.

What stands out the most about the tour for that album back in ’94?

It was strange, because it started and was booked right as the record was about to be released, and the expectation was that we were kind of a theater band, which is the size we were. We played every club in the world and opened for a bunch of people in ’90, and then in ’91 we graduated up to the first Lollapalooza, which kind of broke us in too, around the same time “Head Like a Hole” started getting played on the radio more and more.

People started to have heard of the band, and we probably could have headlined clubs or small theaters. Then the record came out, and “Closer” took off, and those theaters immediately booked up to arenas. It felt like the ride started, and it was weird. Your friends change, everything changed, and it was set against the backdrop of not being stationary or at home or even being sure of who you were as a person. It was overnight success, but several years of the overnight uphill part.

I would later see what the downhill part feels like, which isn’t as good, I can tell you. But it was mind-blowing, and it was hard to keep up and it felt like adrenaline. It was hard to take in. I’m not complaining about anything, but it’s a shame those moments get wasted on youth sometimes. I look back fondly in a kind of bittersweet way, because it kind of sped up the demise of my own life. But it was a process I needed to get through.

Part of that tour was a stop at Woodstock ’94. In retrospect, that was a huge moment for the popularity of Nine Inch Nails—your performance was one of the signature moments of that event. Did it feel like a big deal at the time?

I very much did so. What I’ve learned over my career in music is that sometimes planets just line up. It might be through hoping things happen, but a lot of it is out of your hands. A lot of it is being culturally at the right place at the right moment, but I feel like chance is involved. We did that Woodstock because they were paying us a lot of money to do it, and that’s the God’s honest reason.

I knew if we played that show, we could finance the rest of that tour and allow us to put on the production we wanted to. That felt like a compromise that was worth doing. It felt like it could be gross, and there was a Pepsi bird on the Woodstock guitar neck, and it felt like it could have been s—-y. But when we got there, it seemed kind of cool. The vibe seemed interesting, and when we went on stage, you could just feel like—I knew it was good. I knew it was one of those things that just connected.

The end of the Self-Destruct Tour in the fall of ’95 was a run with David Bowie, your first co-headlining run. What did you take away from that?

That’s one of those things where I still look back and go, “Oh man, that actually really happened.” He wanted to do a tour, and I had just got done saying I do not want to tour any more. I’d had enough. Then I got the message from Bowie and was like, “OK! Great! When do we start?”

The interesting challenge on that tour was at that moment Nine Inch Nails were bigger than Bowie, but there’s no way I was even going to suggest to Bowie that we play after him. So it was the challenge of trying to make it so the bill would make sense to both his fans and our fans, and the intersecting people in the middle. We talked it out, and I said I’d give up my exit if you give up your entrance, and we’ll just make it one big show. We’ll coordinate the production and use these white lights and make it this intimate thing and let it expand, and he was up for the idea. Then it was just a matter of execution.

I thought that was a cool tour. I’m not sure how many people noticed that. There’s some lasting impressions he made on me as someone who went from my hero who I didn’t know who I could project superpowers onto from my bedroom to a human being who is a really f—ing great guy.

He provided some really good guidance, especially artistically. He came to me and said, “I made this difficult album with Eno, and we’re probably going to bum everybody out because we’re just going to play stuff off this record. We’re not going to do any hits, because that’s what I want to do.” I thought that took real courage and conviction. I’m glad to have that in the memory bank. He’s the real deal. He’s one of those few people who didn’t disappoint you when you actually get to know them.

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