Trent Reznor, the man behind Nine Inch Nails, talks to Adam Sweeting.
He's gloomy, obsessive and almost had a breakdown. No wonder teenagers love him.
The opening track on Nine Inch Nails'
latest album, The Fragile, is called
Somewhat Damaged. Building from a
simple cluster of ascending notes, it
grows into a shrieking metal juggernaut of
palpitating bass lines, roaring robot
percussion and bellowing vocals. It could
be a perfect description of its creator,
Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor.
On a fleeting visit to London to plug the
album and trail his band's forthcoming
tour, Reznor in person is entirely at odds
with the brooding and vaguely satanic
Reznor of industrial-techno-rock legend
("the most vital artist in music today",
according to the excitable Spin
magazine). Somewhat damaged from a
cold, probably not quite sure which
European capital he's in today, Reznor
slips into the room like a man who'd prefer
to remain anonymous. Gone are the
shoulder-length hair and the wizard's
goatee of yesteryear. Pale, short-haired,
wearing a battered black leather jacket
and scuffed boots, he could be any old
Until he starts talking, that is. Reznor
doesn't do interviews, exactly; he delivers
a carefully prepared monologue about the
conception, gestation and laborious birth
of The Fragile, then segues into a
comprehensive survey of the difficulties
involved in translating such multi-layered,
complicated music into something that
can be played on-stage by a small band
of musicians. From time to time, the
interviewer's attempts to jump in with a
question seem to remind him that he's
babbling like one of the endless
drum-loops on his album. "I'll just blab for
a second, then you can direct me into
whatever blanks I didn't fill in," he offers
If one were feeling uncharitable, one could
categorise Reznor as a nerdish
egomaniac incapable of seeing beyond
his catalogue of private obsessions. After
all, this is a guy who doesn't just play the
game Quake on his computer, he writes
music for it too. But that wouldn't explain
the astonishingly broad appeal of his
gloomy but frequently majestic music,
with 1994's The Downward Spiral selling
5m copies and its predecessor, Pretty
Hate Machine, logging a satisfactory 3m.
Nor would it suggest the vulnerability that
is probably what makes him keep talking
in order to fend off awkward questions.
Where many would see Reznor's career
as a spectacular success story, he tends
to view it as a gruelling saga of struggle
and near-failure. He makes the story of
how Downward Spiral boosted him to
superstardom sound almost tragic.
"I really expected Downward Spiral to fail
critically and commercially, because I
almost apologised when I handed it over
to the record company," he remembers
mournfully. Instead, it was a monster hit,
and Reznor found himself touring the
Spiral material for the next two years.
Naturally, he wasn't happy.
"I realised something had happened with
me. My brain had kinda changed, and I'd
fallen into believing the hype a little bit.
Also I was making music that had an
extreme emotional content to it, and I was
out there every night screaming my guts
out explaining some pain I'd had in me.
Then I was reading about myself in the
press and my self-image became
distorted by what I read. I can understand
why I'm pigeonholed into this character,
this doom-and-gloom guy and this
self-destructive guy, because I've painted
that picture to some degree. But after the
tour was over, I was trying to hide the fact
that I was generally unhappy about my
whole life. I realised there was this big
hole inside me that was unfulfilled."
A combination of music-making and
professional therapy helped him to work
through his problems. "I'd forgotten that I
loved making music, and in all the bullshit
surrounding it I'd lost track of why it
mattered to me. I went into therapy at that
point, because I found myself at the
can't-get-out-of-bed stage and it wasn't
fun. I'd always flirted with depression a
little bit and it motivated me to write, but it
got to the point where it was scary.
Therapy helped me, and it gave me a few
reasons why I'd behaved in a certain way.
It gave me the courage to sit down and
allow myself to fail at writing. Once I did,
everything gushed out, and it gave me the
feeling that, OK, I do have worth, and I
have something valuable to say."
Trent Reznor's emotional fragility has
been crucial to his reputation. In an
America of lost and lonely teenagers,
where some go missing and some go
nuts and indulge in psychotic
shooting-sprees, Reznor has become a
last-gasp safety net. In the same way that
country music's yarns about death,
divorce and drunkenness have traditionally
comforted blue-collar America, Reznor's
dark, pulverising music is perversely
Hence he was the perfect choice to
assemble the soundtrack album for Oliver
Stone's movie Natural Born Killers.
Although he had to drive himself to the
limits to get the job finished, locking
himself away in his hotel room with his
computers in the middle of a Nine Inch
Nails tour, Reznor seized the opportunity
to create a swirling, multi-layered collage
of sounds that seemed to echo the film's
themes of motiveless murder and
self-destruction. "It was a pain in the ass
to do it," he reflects now, "but all in all it
was a cool experience, and probably
affected me in terms of the layering of
sounds and the juxtaposition of sounds."
Reznor's solitary mastery of studio
technology further endears him to a
generation who often find their friends in
internet chat-rooms rather than in clubs or
cafes. The making of The Fragile duly
found him rearranging his whole life
around a non-stop recording routine in his
own Nothing Studios in New Orleans.
"I established a new lifestyle routine of
being in the studio all the time. This
record took two solid years of being in the
studio every day. When I started the
album, I didn't feel emotionally ready. I
didn't feel tough enough to take on a
project, because I was beat down to
almost breakdown stage. Once it started,
for the first time in my creative experience
I had too much material to deal with."
Reznor was happy with his creative
partnership with producer Alan Moulder,
and when he compared his new music
with his previous efforts he realised he'd
reached new levels of sophistication. But
he also realised he didn't have a clue how
to arrange and sequence his stockpile of
tracks. Even after deciding to risk the
"potentially pretentious" decision of
making a double CD, he couldn't make
everything fit. He decided to send for
veteran producer Bob Ezrin, who
collaborated with Alice Cooper and
worked on one of Reznor's favourite
albums, Pink Floyd's The Wall.
"He was a very smart guy. It was like
having a professor grade your paper. He
was what I'd always thought a producer
should be, teaching you things, and he'd
tell stories about how he got Alice Cooper
to sing in front of a full-length mirror and
then he'd get a good performance - just
shit like that."
After several attempts, Ezrin finally
concocted a running order that made
everything tick along like thermonuclear
clockwork. Reznor could hardly believe it.
"I called him into the room, tried not to
have him read my face, and said, 'Bob -
you did it, man.' He said 'I know.' He gave
me a hug and said, 'I have a flight to
catch. See you later.' "
So that was the record finished. All
Reznor had to do next was work out how
to convert his multi-tracked sequencers,
computers, synthesisers and "Freddie
Mercury-style stacked vocals" into
something performable on-stage. Since
Nine Inch Nails are preparing to blitzkrieg
this country, we'll see how well he
Nine Inch Nails play the Brixton
Academy, London SW9, on November 29
and December 1. Box office: 0171-771
2000. A new single, We Are Together, is
out next month.
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is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.