Once Bitten

By Greg Kot for Guitar World on September 1, 2005

When last heard from, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor had released The Fragile, a 1999 album with the aura of a would-be masterpiece and the sales of a star on the downward spiral. The singer and multi-instrumentalist acknowledges he became addicted to heroine and bottomed out while on tour in 2001. Four years later, rehabbed Reznor is back with a simpler, harder-hitting studio album, With Teeth (Interscope), and a new perspective on his future.

Guitar World: Six years is a long interval between albums. Were you concerned that anyone would still care?

Trent Reznor: There is something to be said about that. But my situation was, You're going to die if you don't get better right now. I was out of second chances; I was out of rescues. My nine lives were up. It was such a terrifying and u unpleasant place to be that I had no interest in bending the rules anymore. I realized that I don't know everything; that maybe I do need help, I do need friends, I can't run the world, and maybe I'm full of shit; maybe I'm not smarter than anyone else. These were things that seemed impossible for me to comprehend up to that point. I had tried rehab before, and it didn't work. I knew that I had been hiding behind the career, behind working on music...to avoid life. Even if I lost whatever career I had left, being alive and healthy was more important to me than that.

GW: What role did music play in your recovery?

Reznor: I had forgotten in that whole process that I loved music. Music had become interchangeable with chart positions, competition and career and stuff that seemed to be bringing me nothing but misery. I came to realize th at I didn't get into music to be rich or famous but because I think music is why I'm here on earth. I almost began to fear that I couldn't write music. I'd think, What if I can't write sober or I don't have anything to say or I destroyed my brain in the process of getting here? I finally found the courage to answer those questions last year. I sat down in a disciplined environment and was amazed at how much stuff was ready to come out.

GW: Was it your intent to make With Teeth a less fussy, more direct record?

Reznor: Those were the rough parameters. It was a reaction to The Fragile: I've done a record w here everything and the kitchen sink is in it, so let me try to go the other way. In the process of making it, I went back to creating demos. I realized The Fragile and [1994's] The Downward Spiral had essentially been written in the studio, and as a result the songwriting hadn't really been separate from the arranging and production and sound. A song would start with a sound or loop, a lyric or a drumbeat, and I would keep adding things until I had a song.

This time around I wanted to start with words and melody. I was in Los Angeles at the time. I'd sit down at the piano with a drum machine and a computer to record vocals into. After four or five months, I had 25 songs. Then I went back to New Orleans, to a "real" studio, and I found out that I couldn't really beat the demos. A lot of it sounded good stripped down. I was feeling more confident enough to say maybe it doesn't mean to be layered, or maybe that vocal I sang where you can hear a TV in the background has an emotional quality that can't be bettered. It was an unexpected process and led to the record being more song oriented.

GW: Did the old perfectionist tendencies ever kick in?

Reznor: There was a point about five or six songs in that I came up with the idea of having a theme. I had an elaborate plotline, similar to The Downward Spiral-- a script, kind of, with a starting point, an end point and a progression with song titles that could be pepped in. I drew a graph in a notebook showing the sequence of events, wi th time as the horizontal axis. I started writing songs to fit that, but after a while it felt forced, unnecessary. I was coming up with good songs that could stand on their own, that didn't need to graft onto this heavy-handed storyline. I had the courage to say that's okay.

I don't have to hide myself behind the storyline, or the music, for that matter. I was always turning my vocal down in the studio. [Coproducer Alan Moulder] would say, "quite punching the board!" That's where the layering came from: it was like my blanket to hide under. It felt different this time around

GW: For the first time, your music really swings. Why did you decide to work with Dave Grohl and [Nine Inch Nails tour drummer] Jerome Dillon on drums instead of programmed beats?

Reznor: I've been listening to a lot of old Killing Joke, Flowers of Romance- era Public Image Ltd. stuff, where the drums have a tribal quality. I had a newfound appreciation of performance. I th ought, Let's put a new engine on this record. Start with drums and arrange the voice around the,. I wanted the record to be performed rather than cut and pasted. I was reacting to the sterility of a lot of music that is out now, that I think sounds like it was done on a computer. It used to be hard to make a perfect-sounding record in the world of tape. Now it's almost harder to make a human sounding record.

Transcribed by Jesse

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