10 Years Ago: Trent Reznor Builds a Dystopian World With Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Year Zero’
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Trent Reznor was bored. Nine Inch Nails were promoting 2005’s With Teeth with a massive tour and the band’s mastermind found himself becoming restless when he was in between performances. So, he began to create little snippets on a laptop, conjuring new music in a way he’d never really tried before.
“I’d never had any luck writing music on tour because I never had the kind of attention span,” Reznor told Wired in 2007. “And this time I opened up laptops and, you know, everything had advanced so much that you actually get a very nice recording experience… When the tour was finished… I had more than an album’s worth of musical ideas that seemed fertile and interesting.”
The musician, who often felt exhausted after a tour, discovered he was energized by what he had been crafting. As he began to think about turning the sounds into songs, he again pushed himself beyond the bounds of his typical methods.
“It started with writing the backstory and wondering if I could write [without] every song starting with ‘I’ – at least 200 ‘I’’s per song,” Reznor told the A.V. Club in 2009. “I thought, ‘It’s either going to be really great, or it’s gonna be career-endingly s—ty. If it’s that way, I don’t have to put it out.’ So I was working on it and experimenting, and before I knew it, it was halfway done, and it felt exciting.”
The backstory was Reznor’s bleak vision for about 15 years into the future. Concerned about the state of American politics and policy circa 2006-7, he expanded on what the future might look like if events continued unabated. Reznor’s created a sketch of the year 2022 – dubbed “Year Zero” by a new U.S. government – in which a Christian fundamentalist authority takes power in response to numerous terror attacks. The songs on the album, also titled Year Zero, would be vignettes (“snapshots, Polaroids going by,” as he called them) from the perspectives of different characters existing in this version of the future.
Reznor worked quickly on Year Zero, combining these stories with the electronic music he had made on his laptop and recording new parts on more traditional instruments in the studio. By February 2007, the album was finished, but Reznor wasn’t.
While creating the music, the Nine Inch Nails creative force began kicking ideas around with the band’s art director, Rob Sheridan, for how to convey the larger world of Year Zero in other media. When a detailed album cover or an essay on a website didn’t seem to cut it, the partners in Nine Inch Nails began working with 42 Entertainment to create an alternate reality game that would dovetail with the musical component.
“To me, the art of that piece was not just the music,” Reznor said. “It was equally what they did with the storytelling and the web that was just as much the art as the music, because they’re all equal. It wasn’t like Microsoft is hiring a marketing company to come up with some way to sell Halo. So it was like, ‘Here’s the story, here’s all the entities and the setting, and there’s music. How do we make it an experience for people?’”
Watch the Trailer for ‘Year Zero’
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That experience became pretty elaborate, with clues and hints appearing online, via phone recordings and even USB drives left behind by Reznor at European concert venues during a pre-release tour. Secret clues even gave a group of lucky fans the opportunity to see a surprise Nine Inch Nails show. As an album, Year Zero held its own. After being released on April 17, 2007, it gained positive reviews from critics for the record’s wealth of songs, debuting at No. 2 on the U.S. album chart and becoming a hit around the world.
However, it was the album’s worldwide reach that led to a dispute between Reznor and the parent company of Nine Inch Nails’ longtime record label, Interscope. The singer got upset when he heard that Universal Music Group was planning on charging an extra $10 in Australia because of Year Zero’s elaborate packaging (the CD used heat-sensitive artwork to display a code that led to a website in the alternate reality game). Reznor claimed he had paid for the overages from the artwork himself and encouraged Australian fans to pirate the music in protest. Later that year, he announced that Nine Inch Nails had fulfilled its contract with Interscope and was breaking its relationship with the label.
Although the Year Zero album, tour and game seemed to be huge successes, one component of the project still remains unfinished. For years after the record’s release, Reznor was collaborating with a few Hollywood hot-shots to create a Year Zero television series. The project remains in limbo.
“This is currently in a holding state,” Reznor wrote in 2012. “We [Reznor and Sheridan] didn’t find the right match with a writer, and really have been avoiding doing what we should have done from the beginning: write it ourselves. … This project means a lot to me and will see the light of day in one form or another.”
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