Building an Album Out of Scraps and Feelings

Originally published in The New York Times on September 1, 1999

Trent Reznors smile seemed out of place but not to him. "Everyone has this impression of me that I m morose," he complained An interviewer pointed out that the albums he has made as Nine Inch Nails over the last decade are saturated with despair. "Point taken," he said

Mr. Reznor, 34, was caffinated and 'voluble as he sat in a midtown Manhattan hotel room, where he was doing interviews, sipping what was clearly not his first cup of coffee. Dressed in a black (of course) shirt 'and olive pants, clean-shaven with jet-black hair, he explained how five years went by between "The Downward Spiral", and Nine Inch Nails' new album, "'The Fragile.," Two years were' spent on tour, including Nine Inch Nails' mud' spattered appearance at Woodstock '94. Mr. ,Reznor worked as a producer: on Marilyn Manson's "Antichrist Superstar," on soundtrack music for Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" and David Lynch's "Lost Highway," on video-game sounds for "Quake." .He moved to New Orleans and built Nothing Studios in a former funeral home. And he procrastinated.

"I was tired of exposing myself," he said. "With Nine Inch Nails, it was stuff out of my journal and the way I really felt about things that gave it 'Its power. There wasn't a persona or a character in between that and me -it was me.

"It's one thing when you're in your bedroom thinking, 'No one will hear this.' And then; after several years, millions of people bought those records and now think they know you, and in a way they do, because that's my innermost feelings laid out. I didnt want to share myself in that way anymore."

The album and tour left Mr. Reznor rich, famous and clinically depressed. "We started at one level, we ended at another," he said. "I' everything I ever dreamed I have. I've got some respect, I've the bank account, I've got the studio. I think I have friends, whatever they are, though I was wrong about that. I gave up me as a person, as a human, to dedicate myself to this thing, it worked. And I'm miserable then I disliked myself more for feeling that way: What's, wrong with you? What are you whining about. You're the luckiest guy in the world to have this situation, and you're really, really unhappy."

Meanwhile, fans and the press were growing impatient sequel to "The Downward Spiral" and with, Nine Inch Nails silence, expectations and rumors grew. "I realized I was putting this off", Reznor said. "It probably was a reaction to some of the pressure got heaped on: 'most anticipated record' this, 'save rock-and roll' that, blah blah blah blah. It's flattering to have people interested in what you do, but it can be stifling when the stakes are so high. Is this riff going to save rock? No, and you start thinking crazy stuff like that, and it's not productive. By not doing it, I didn't fail. But I did fail. I was a coward.

Mr. Reznor, who grew up in the small town of Mercer, Pa., was reared by his grandmother after his parents separated. Her death in 1997 shook him up further. He went alone to Big Sur to write songs on a guitar and a piano, but didn't come back with much. Eventually, he and his co-producer, Alan Moulder, cloistered themselves in his New Orleans studio and started working without a master plan.

"I tend to over think things and overanalyze," he said. "For 'Downward Spiral,' there was a rigid set of guidelines. There was a story that I wanted to tell. With this record, the framework and the guidelines was complete train-of-thought subconscious- you go where the music takes you.

"The only real conceptual thing was the title, 'The Fragile'. I knew that before I started. I didn't want this to be a slick shiny machine, I didn?t want it to be tough. 'The Downward Spiral' has a brutality and an iciness that is a way to prevent you from getting inside. Its an armor. This record, I wanted to be like you're trying to construct something out of scraps in a desperation to make sense of things, and find order, or repair purpose.

"But its inherently flawed- you build an empire on a fault line. But the passion and the workmanship going into trying to make something whole becomes apparent. Instead of songs, Mr. Reznor started with sounds. "I see mood and visuals even more important than the chord changes or the harmonic content. So, for example, we'd take the feeling I'd get from watching a David Croenberg movie- dread- like 'Dead Ringers', one of my favorite movies. You can't put your finger on it, but you know something bad is going to happen.

"We'd think about that as a starting point. Do we want drums, or do we want anything rhythmic? Should it be car doors slamming, or people walking, or real drums, or cardboard boxes, or a bit of the sound of a train chopped up into pieces that might sound percussive?"

Mr. Reznor also chose to work with guitars and other stringed instruments rather than keyboards, his main instrument. "I don?t really know what I'm doing on guitar," he said "It was a more expressive way to get the part on there, its not perfect".

He ended up with an album, that combines "extreme low-tech primitiveness and ultra-high tech over thought", he said. Some background vocals were recorded with a sweaty T-shirt tied around a microphone to muffle it: "the sound of someone underwater trying to get through," Mr. Reznor said. "But we recorded digitally".

Making the album was an excruciatingly slow process. It took three weeks, for instance, to mix "We?re In This Together", the albums first single, trying to undercut any possibility that the chorus could seem triumphant. "IT was taking the vocal that wasn?t the good one, where my voice was blown out, and the one where the guitars were a little of out tune and played sloppily, and the drums were not mixed right, to make it sound emotionally correct.

"There is an unbelievable amount of unused material," Mr. Reznor added. "For every track that?s on each song, there are 10 more that aren?t used. So if there?s 72 tracks on a song, there?s 700 that you didn?t hear. That complicated way of arriving at the end result, does that make it better? I don?t know the answer to that."

by Jon Pareles Copyrighted to New York Times/Nothing Records

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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