Nine Inch Nails

by Paul Gargano
October 2005

Nine Inch Nail's Trent Reznor - photo by Adam Bielawski

Nine Inch Nail's Trent Reznor
photo by Adam Bielawski

It’s been six years since Trent Reznor released The Fragile, and a lot has changed in Reznor’s world. Nowhere is that more present than in new release With Teeth. Less epic in its structure than The Fragile double-disc, With Teeth is Reznor refined to a songwriting sheen, rather than navigating a colossal musical landscape. The songs still radiate with the thrust and tenacity inherent in Nine Inch Nails, but they do so with a bounce and vibrancy that breathes new life into the band, now featuring former Marilyn Manson bassist Jeordie White, Icarus Line guitarist Aaron North, returning drummer Jerome Dillon, and keyboardist Alessandro Cortini. At their heaviest, they’re industrial-fueled with a metallic surge, but there’s also an adherence to structural simplicity that harkens back to Reznor’s Pretty Hate Machine. With Teeth isn’t as pissed-off and dark as The Downward Spiral, or as emotionally bogged-down and cumbersome as The Fragile . And rightfully so neither is Reznor.

Maximum Ink sat down with the Nine Inch Nails mastermind to discuss the changes in the new album, as well as the changes in his life… 

MAXIMUM INK: Was With Teeth approached with a different direction in mind than previous albums?

TRENT REZNOR: Well, I went about writing in a different way. The last couple records, Downward Spiral and The Fragile, I realized I had written in the studio. Being that I don’t have a band to rehearse songs with, the studio becomes my instrument, and I had finally gotten a really nice place with everything I needed in it. I was realizing that the writing process was starting to become the same as the arranging and production process. It was all happening at the same time, there weren’t any demos anymoreI’d just go in the studio and come out with the songs finished, pretty much. This time around, for whatever reason, I wanted to get back to doing demos and start from a different place. Instead of starting with sounds and textures and that sort of thing, I started with words and melodies. So I moved out to L.A. and set up a place that purposely didn’t have much in it, just a piano and a drum machine, and a computer to record into. I set an every-week-and-a-half kind of deadline that didn’t allow me any time to really go off on a tangent, and let me just focus on the core of the song, then go back later and flush things out. And I think working that way made the record turn out more song-based, and less soundscape. I don’t think that’s better or worse, it’s just a different way of working that seemed like the right thing to do.

MI: Was this influenced by what you’ve done in the past? This album seems like the antithesis of The Fragile.

TR: It very much is the complete opposite way of working than that. I’m really happy with the way that The Fragile came out, and the way that we did it was insane, but my head’s in a completely different space now than it was when I did that record. It seemed like I had a different set of tools available this time, in my own brain, and it made more sense to try and go at it this way. And when I started it, it just kind of fell out of my head immediately, it was a pleasant experience. I didn’t start it until January of last year, and it was done being written by May, with another almost ten songs left over. I recorded it last summer and mixed it last fallI. In terms of the actual working time of the record, it’s pretty short, I think… Although it took me a few years to get started.

MI: That’s got to be a first. A “pleasant experience” with a Nine Inch Nails record?

TR: Well, working on the records is always in the vein of being genuinely challenging, but pleasant and fun to do. It’s the hardest thing in the world, but I don’t hate doing it. It’s usually something I look forward to getting into. Along the way, if I look back at every record, there’s always been a song or two, or three, that becomes an immensely difficult challenge and fights you from the beginning to the end. This time around, plans pretty much worked, strategies came together, the overall way we went about doing it worked, and nothing was a real problem.

MI: This album strikes me as a cross between the first couple of records. Really different than The Fragile. Does it take getting something as epic as that out of your system, to go back to something this song-oriented again?

TR:  I think a change has been, I’m sober now. That’s also what took so long for this record to come out. I was just at a point where I wasn’t functional anymore. I was going to either seriously die, or I had to get better. Right after that last tour is when I decided it was time to get my shit together. The time between that, and when I started it amounted to a couple of years. I decided to take off just to feel comfortable in my own skin. I’d really reached a bottom where I hated myself, and I didn’t think I could write or do anything. And I couldn’t, at that point. I wanted to get back to just feeling like I was on Earth, and feeling okay about myself before I jumped into doing a record. For the fist time since I’d gotten a record deal, I thought it might be a good idea to spend some time on me the person, instead of just rushing into the next thing that I’m gonna get done in time, chasing after working music, whatever it is, career kind of shit. So I took some time, started to feel better, and worked on myself quite a bit. I messed around in the studio on a number of different things, and when I started on this record, I had my confidence back as a person and was in a much clearer headspace. I opened a notebook to see what was in there, in my head, and a lot of stuff was bottled up that I couldn’t get out before. I know that’s why I worked on this record this way. The Fragile, I was on a slippery slope of lying to myself about what condition I was really in, I couldn’t think very clearly. What I could do in the studio was improvise, creating these insane, soundscape-type things that kind of turn into songs, turn on each other, and go off on tangents. That’s why The Fragile sounded the way that it did. I couldn’t have answered this question then, because I couldn’t see where I really was then. But, in hindsight, I can see that I was working the only way that I could at the time. I was trying to overcompensate for what I think I knew inside. That I was fucking up. I do think that this record does sound different. I think it’s much more song-based. Again, the reason I go into that story is, it’s not at all that The Fragile didn’t sell so great, so I’m gonna make a song record. That didn’t cross my mind. The Fragile came out the way it did because it was the only record I could make then. This record, the idea of putting as much time and madness into it, I didn’t imagine doing it that way, this time.

MI: So The Fragile is definitely indicative of your headspace at that time…

TR: Completely, yes.

MI: As far as inspirations for the songs go, and the physical writing process, was this one of the easier albums for you to make?

TR: Getting from Point A in my brain to Point B on a computer somewhere was a much easier process. I was fearing it would be the opposite of that, and being fucked up was an inspiration, or some kind of tool. I’m glad to discover that it was just the opposite of that. By the end, when I was high all the time, I couldn’t think, and I didn’t want to think. If I can’t think, and I can’t write, well, I might as well just get fucked up, because what else am I gonna do?

MI: Does the industry build into that a lot? Does it strip the artist from their art, really beating you down, in a sense?

TR: Addiction, or the industry?

MI: The industry. Not trying to makes excuses, but does the industry play a role in the process that leads to the addiction?

TR: Well, I learned a lot about addiction that I didn’t know until I discovered that, “Wow, I’m an addict.” I didn’t really have that in the cards, I didn’t plan that outThat happened to other people, but not me. For a long time, I thought it was about being weak, and weak-willed. But when you learn about what the disease of addiction is, you learn that you are that, and if I was a used car salesman, I’d still be that. Maybe the business of being in the industry might be a faster track of getting from the beginning to the end, because you get in less troubleIf you’re a doctor and you’re fucked up, you’re not going to have a job, but if you’re a rock star and you’re fucked up, it’s pretty-much encouraged, almost. But, I think you find a lot of addicts are creative peopleThe chemistry of their brain, sometimes, might work that way? I don’t know if that has something to do with it. I do know that, for me, personally, I wasn’t equipped to deal with fame, the aspects of stardom, suddenly getting a lot of money, suddenly everybody wants to be your friend, it’s a party for you every night, and everybody wants to sleep with you and give you stuff. You think that’s a cool thing, and there are cool things about that, but that’s not why I got into playing music. When I found myself caught up in this kind of whirlwind, my method of dealing with it, as an addict, was to just tune out. That made it okay, and for a while that worked. But it doesn’t work, and I couldn’t stop.

MI: It seems really easy to notice those patterns when they’re happening to other people, but you don’t see people in the industry doing a lot to help prevent that kind of behavior. Do you think it’s a control issue? Are artists easier to “control” when they’re medicated?

TR: It’s an interesting point that you raise, and there could be some validity to it, but I think it’s important not to get confused. An addict’s an addict. I would have wound up in the same place, regardless of whether I had a record contract or not. But, you look at tragic figures in music, you see that. Kurt Cobain. Didn’t anybody come in and try and stop him? He killed himself because he was a drug addict and he was depressed. I don’t know the guy, so I’m not speaking with any kind of authority here, but it seems like the tragedy of that situation is, wasn’t there anyone that could intervene in some capacity? All the warning signs were there, it wasn’t a big surprise. It’s the Elvis situation. It’s somebody rich, who everybody’s afraid to say no to, so you just watch them die. It’s happening to Michael Jackson right now. He’s obviously still high, you know?

MI: It’s much easier to look at an artist that’s not part of the mainstream and blame addiction on their lifestyle, than it is to do the same to someone in a more commercial avenue, whether it be pop music, the movies, whatever…

TR: And, right down the street at your clinics, with nurses, doctors, judges, lawyers and even the street bums. It’s not particularly selective when it comes to who becomes an addict. Having this job, I’ve got a job where I can get away drinking beer all day long, it’s expected, and that certainly sped the process up. People handing me bags of cocaine all day long eliminated the hassle of going out and acquiring it. So it may have put the foot on the gas pedal, but it didn’t create the problem.

MI: Does sobriety change the way that you view your catalog? Does The Downward Spiral mean something different to you now?

TR: I can look back from The Downward Spiral on and it was during that tour that problems started to arise. Prior to that I would have considered myself pretty normal. With The Downward Spiral, I can remember where I was in my head, what I was thinking, and I can remember writing that record, and the mindset. This record that was about an extension of me, became the truth fulfilling itself. With The Fragile, I can see how I was writing the record with a clarity that I certainly didn’t have then. It makes a lot more sense that it is what it is, now, and that’s interesting. When I sit down and write, the number one priority is that I always try and be as honest as I can with myself when I do it. Looking at Pretty Hate Machine, I’m not the same guy now. I wouldn’t write that record again. But I’m not embarrassed by it. I don’t cringe when I hear it, because I know that guy. I remember what he was going through, and it was fifteen years ago. Parts of him are still in me, but it was a guy fifteen years ago that wrote that record. And it’s the same with Downward Spiral. But The Fragile is hard for me to listen to right now. I just did for the first time about a month ago, for the first time since I’ve been clean, which is over four years now. It struck me how scared I was when I wrote that record, because I couldn’t think. I felt like I had maybe destroyed my brain, and was being boxed into a corner. I wanted to make a record, and I was trying the best I could to do whatever I could to do it. What I was doing felt good to me, in terms of musical output, but it was from a place that was a different part of my brain.

MI: How long did you go without music? You said you started the album last January…

TR: In June 2001, I got clean, and I was as scared as I ever want to be, to be honest with you. I said I would do anything, whatever I was told to do. I had tried to get clean earlier, and I listened, and I thought I bought into it, but in my heart I really didn’t believe that I really had a problem. When I tested it every which way, and discovered I did have a problem, I would do anything that was told to me to fix myself, and one of those things was just to take it easy. At that point, I didn’t care if I had a career anymore. I just wanted to be alive. I wanted to like myself again. I took some time off, and I took it easy on myself for a change. For that next couple of years I was working on stuff. I worked on some demos with Maynard [Keenan] from Tool that didn’t work out very well, and I did some tracks with Zack [de la Rocha] from Rage Against The Machine, and they’ll probably never see the light of day. I produced an album for a band that was on my label, 12 Rounds, but the label then took a shit, and that record will probably never come out… They weren’t any stellar projects, but I wasn’t avoiding music. I was a bit reticent to open the notebook and test myself, because I didn’t want to discover that, “Wow, I really can’t write.” Or that I really did fuck myself up, or whatever it might be. It was too early in sobriety. I just wanted to get back to gravity pulling me down, the sun rising in the East, and living on Earth. In that time there wasn’t any record label telling me I had to do anything, because they know better than to attempt to talk to me about any of that shit. I’d also assumed that it was probably the end of my career, because it’s not realistic to think you could vanish off the face of the earth for five years and still have people be interested in what you’re doing. I would have done things differently if I could have controlled them, but I couldn’t. Anyway, when I started working on the record, it just started to fall into place. Everything started to feel good, I felt good about myself, and I felt the music was vital. I felt like I had bottled up a lot of ideas that I couldn’t fit on one record, even, and now I’m doing interviews talking about it…

MI: Was it intimidating working with artists of that stature, so early in your sobriety, and not having it work? I can see where that might have been a setback.

TR: Of those three things, I thought the 12 Rounds stuff was good, it was just out of my hands why it didn’t happen. The Zack stuff, I like what we did, but, without getting too far into detail, I don’t think Zack was ready to make a record. I see a lot of my fear-based traits in him. I think he will, eventually, make a great record, but he’s going to have to have the balls to do it, which he didn’t at the time. He was trapped in a corner that he placed himself in“I don’t want to do anything that sounds like Rage Against The Machine.” Okay, then try this… “I can’t do that, it doesn’t sound like Rage Against The Machine.” Okay, that’s something you’ve gotta figure out! [Laughing] The Maynard stuff was just a matter of experimenting in a world of democracy. The problem I’ve learned about democracy is, four people means two on one side, and two on the other. I think what that came down to, to be quite frank, was that I wanted to make something experimental and challenging, and interesting to me, and another faction in the band wanted to make something that radio would playAnd, I couldn’t give a fuck less what radio would play. I don’t listen to radio, and it’s not like what we were coming up with… It wasn’t this, it wasn’t that, and it was kind of, “ehhh…” There’s no way I would be involved in something, myself, that invokes that reaction, and I wasn’t up to the fight on that one. That was disappointing, but it was the right thing to do. If you think something sucks that I’ve done, blame me, because I did it, and I did like it. There are some things that I’m not crazy about now, in hindsight, but everything, at the time, felt like the right thing to do. I can’t think of anything that made me go, “Well, fuck, that was kind of shitty, but I got paid a lot for it…”

MI:You may have doubted it would be there, but there is a lot of anticipation for this record. Did it surprise you that people have missed Nine Inch Nails?

TR: I’m humbled, and I’m totally surprised. One thing I have learned in the past five years is humility. I have learned that I’m not right all the time, and I don’t know everything. I’ve learned that I can learn from other people that have other things to say, and I need other people. These are all new concepts to me. And, I’m just grateful to be alive, and not hate myself, and not have to lie to myself, to be honest with you. I faced a big challenge a year-and-a-half ago and started working on a record, and I think it really turned out great. Then, much to my surprise, the record label thinks it’s great. That’s weird. Then, we start selling shows out, and it seems like more people like us now than five years ago, and I can’t explain that. I’m not trying to figure it out. It can all change tomorrow, but right now I really don’t have much to complain about. I just played five shows sober, and that was a challenge for me. Not that I wanted to go out and get fucked up, but the last year-and-a-half of my life touring, in 2000, every show, before we’d go on, I’d get sick. I’d have a panic attack, and if I didn’t have a drink I’d literally be vomiting backstage, because my body was addicted to alcohol. That’s how the tour started. There was that memory, and when these shows were coming up, I wondered “What happens if, twenty minutes before the show, I start shaking?” I have to admit, that morning of the first show, it felt funny. But I got onstage, played a great show, and I haven’t thought about it since then. I’ve replaced that bad memory with a good one.

MI: The times I’ve been around you in a backstage setting, you’ve been out of control, even a bit destructive. In the midst of it, it plays into the myth of Nine Inch NailsIs it a completely different approach to touring now?

TR: In that context, yes. It’s changed every part of my life. Not to sound like an AA handbook or anything, but it truly has changed everything. My friends, what I’m into, what interests me, my way of interacting with people in life… I’m not out preaching or scolding, and if people in the band drink, it’s not that big a deal to me. But I’m older, too. I don’t regret what’s happened to me. If I could have saved a few years in there, I’d have liked to. If I could have skipped some of the worst times, I’d have liked to have done that. But the end result is, I feel like, right now, I’m in a good place. Whatever it took to get me here, I like where I’m at now. I’m not carrying a big bag of shit around with me, and I’m not hiding a world of lies and trouble that I felt like I had with me in the past…

MI: With Teeth makes a lot more sense knowing what went into it. I got the impression that it’s a more optimistic record. Even innocent, in a way.

TR: My headspace is different. It wasn’t written over a period of five years, it was written starting last year, two years clean at that point. That’s a tough one for me to answer… I don’t think it’s a happy record, but I do agree that it’s not as filled with despair as the other stuff has been. As I haven’t been.

MI: Where does the album title tie in?

TR: A lot of what’s on the record is about my feelings with life right now, and trying to find my role in it. When I came up with that, I just thought it was something interesting, but ominous at the same time… Plus, it’ll tie in nicely with my Polident sponsorship. [Laughing]

MI: A lot of the songs seem like they could be written about your past. Songs like “The Hand That Feeds,” “The Line Begins To Blur”…

TR: No, most of it’s written from the present tense. This record started as a conceptual thing with a long story I was trying to tell, and I had it all planned out before I went in and started writing. When I started writing, and the songs started coming out, I thought they were good songs, and I didn’t think I had to try and be heavy-handed and try and wedge them into a bigger concept, and tie them together. It wasn’t out of laziness, it was because I was able to subjectively look at the stuff and know that it would be stronger as a collection of thirteen songs, rather than an epic concept album. At that point, I was a few songs into it, and I thought I’d just go with what feels right to me, instinctually, and not get bogged down in this pretentious concept. Part of the concept was waking up in what might be a dream, but not being able to wake up from it. It seems like a life you think you had, but there’s some profoundly different aspects to it. Maybe you’re on a different planet. Maybe fate has sent you different things that don’t make sense. Am I going crazy? A lot of it was analogies for getting sober, but I was trying to keep it creative enough where it wasn’t this boring “rock star gets sober” record that was incredibly tedious to even think about.

MI: Unfortunately, that tends to happen a lot when artists sober, especially in the world of hard rock and heavy metal. Excuse the pun, but their music loses its teeth. That definitely didn’t happen with this album.

TR:I think a lot of times, as people get olderand I see this in myselfpriorities shift, and commitment to music shifts. In my own case, which is the only thing I can talk about with any authority, when I was at the end of being fucked up, playing music was just a job and an irritant, and it didn’t bring me happiness. It didn’t bring me anything but more pressure, more people, more things and more misery. I’d somehow forgotten that I loved music. In the midst of me fighting everything in the world, I’d also turned on myself and, this might sound cheesy, I’d forgotten the magic of music, the beauty of it, and the importance of it. It’s not about record sales, MP3s and marketing plans, it’s about music, and the way it affects you emotionally, the way that you can communicate with people through it, and the way that you can relate to people through art. I’d forgotten that. Getting clean re-energized my commitment to that, and made me think about it in a totally different way. It made me appreciate it a lot more, and made me more committed to the right things. I’ll sit and do interviews, and I’ll do a tour, and I’ll do this and that, for now. But the part that means the most, is the way the person experiences it, and the way they get the experience through the music. Right now, in my life, staying alive is number one, and music is number two.

MI: You said you didn’t want to do an epic, sweeping concept album, even though you had planned on it. Once you got started, did the response to The Fragile come into play?

TR: What it was, was, when the songs started to come out, I had the courage to say to myself, “These are good songs…” In the arrangement process, a lot of those stripped-down demos turned into the final versions. Again, it’s not out of laziness. When I took the song to the studio, re-recorded stuff and tried to do it “right,” trying to sing the vocals fifty different ways, the one that I did quickly, the first time, was the best, because it sounds real. It doesn’t need a thousand layers around it, because it sounds good the way it is. I wouldn’t have had the courage to say that in the past. That was just one more way that it felt free to me. I wasn’t living in a world of being afraid of things like I was in the past. There was a lot of fear involved in past record-making. It wasn’t good enough for me and I had to keep adding stuff. Sometimes I think that worked out great, and sometimes it was like an obsessive-compulsive disorder in the ways it manifested itself.

MI: You’ve mentioned computers, and their importance to you. What is your songwriting process like?

TR: I’ve always had a computer as a writing tool, but I generally write, and this record was written, on the piano. What was different about this than the last two records was that it started with just chord accompaniments, and vocals and lyrics. That was usually the last thing that went into the songs the last time out. Not because that was the strategy, but the result of being in the studio and having a lot of cool things to fuck around with that were more interesting than a piano. I’m not saying one way’s right and one way’s wrong, but this time around I felt like approaching from the different direction, and it turned out different. It might have regressed in a way, but it felt like the right thing to do.

MI: You’ve only done five shows at this point, but how does it feel live?

TR: I couldn’t ask for it to be any better. It’s been a long time since I’ve been onstage, and I’ve been wondering if it was going to feel pertinent and vital. We’ve spent a lot of time working on the new music, and everything older that we play, we wanted to make sure we all felt good about. Maybe it’s rearranged, or maybe, if they don’t sound vital, we just don’t play them anymore. I look at the setlist now, and for the first time ever, I’m not dreading playing any song. I’m excited about everything.

MI: You’ve got a theater tour that will lead into the release of the album. What are your plans beyond that, touring wise?

TR: Theaters, then we go to Europe in the summer and do festivals, and we’re going to do arenas in the fall.

MI: The Dresden Dolls are opening for you now. Any plans on openers for the other tours yet?

TR: Saul Williams is going to open for us in Europe, he’s from L.A., and we’re just going to break it up so it sounds different every time we go out. With The Dresden Dolls, I wanted to step away from a traditional rock band, and I thought their record was interesting. I thought lyrically it was really good, and weird, and if you didn’t know who they were, and you came in, they’d be interesting enough to put up with for a half hour. My goal is, if the show’s from eight-to-eleven, you want to be there at eight. I can’t say I’ve always succeeded in doing that, but that’s the thought that goes into it. Make it an event, and maybe open people’s eyes up, one way or another.

Nine Inch Nails perform Oct. 7 at the Allstate Arena, in Rosemont, IL, and Oct. 13, at the Alliant Energy Center, in Madison. The band will also headline the Voodoo Music Experience, Oct. 29 at Tom Lee Park, in Memphis, TN, where all proceeds will benefit the Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in Reznor’s New Orleans hometown.

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