Nine Inch Nails
By Melissa Fehr for Playlouder on April 13, 2005
It's been nearly six years since Trent Reznor released a Nine Inch Nails album, but with a new album out next month and a series of sold out gigs at the London Astoria behind him and a week of shows at Brixton Academy yet to come, it seems the whole world's dusted off their leather trousers and splashed on the spooky nail varnish, and folks you didn't realise knew the words to 'Closer' are suddenly Halo completists. Has the whole world suddenly gone Nine Inch Nails mad, or were they just all quietly biding their time before coming out of the woodwork? In the midst of a whirlwhind European press tour, a very calm Trent Reznor ushers PlayLouder's resident techie into his hotel room. There are no slavering groupies and only a small touch of black paint in the room, and it all seemed a bit too sedate and civilized frankly. That is, until he gets on to the subject of his record company's marketing department.
So Trent, the new album, 'With Teeth', sounds really guitar driven following the sequencers and computers taking prominence on the last album 'The Fragile'. Was that a conscious decision?
"Probably to some degree, yeah. The way I approached this record was totally different in terms of writing though that doesn't mean that it turned out radically different. Before I started writing the framework of it, I wanted it to be more performance oriented, less layered, and more stripped down. Not having a band in the studio means that sometimes I need some rules to push me in the right direction.
"I've been thinking a lot about this - it seems like since everyone has computers now, everyone can make perfect sounding records. Turn the radio on, and there's no shortage of that. I like using technology but I wanted to treat everything on this record more as a performance. We kept the synths and guitar riffs as a whole and I just played it like it's taped in one whole performance and kept it that way on the album."
So you recorded it live?
Yeah, a lot more like that. A lot of the stuff that sounds like guitars is actually synths. It's on an old patch synth keyboard - I'd set it to plug everything in, then start swapping bits and mixing. I would sometimes play a long, improvisational thing over parts of the track and while it's playing I'd change the sound and you can't ever get the original back once it's been altered. The idea wasn't just to make busywork for ourselves, it was more to make a record where the over all tone of the lyrics was one that was flawed, that wasn't perfect, wasn't glossy, and the working framework supported that idea. It became much more performance oriented. It's also the idea of having live drums, which changed the sound a lot - the idea of having someone actually playing something in the context of recording is interesting. It's inspiring."
With all the live performances, do you still write your own sequences or do you use ready made software like Pro Tools or Cubase on your studio computers?
"This time around I did everything on Pro Tools on the Macs. I got a guy to be a programmer so I can free up my brain for other things. Atticus Ross, who's my right-hand man on this whole record, helped a lot in this. The process this time was that I was working on demos myself, and then Atticus and I kinda fleshed them out in a real studio, maybe fined tuned some parts, but the thing that was interesting in this process was that there were demos at all. The last two records - The Downward Spiral and The Fragile - were written in a studio. It wasn't a conscious decision as much as thinking 'Well, I have a studio wherever I am and everything I need is right around me and if I'm going to work on demos I might as well be in the studio.' And pretty soon, songwriting and production and arranging all became the same thing. It eliminated having a demo because the demo was the real version.
"When it came around time to work on this album, I wanted to get back to having a demo, I wanted to focus only on the opposite side of things - all these songs started with lyrics and vocal line and basic chord changes. So I set up a room that only had a piano and a drum machine and a small computer to record into, and I would do about two songs every ten days. It didn't allow me enough time to go off on a tangent and do what I'd rather do, which was tinkering around with the sound. But when it came time later to flesh out the songs a bit and arrange them, I found that they didn't need a lot of extra shit - I started trying to layer things up and redo the vocals, and a lot of times the one I did really quickly was the best one. The demos had a spirit to them that an expensive mic and doing it 300 times just couldn't top."
It sounds like you're describing the sound on 'Still' [a bonus mini-album with limited copies of 'And All That Could've Been' that revisited old songs in a stripped-down style]. Do you think you'll ever go back and release these demos or redo some more old songs in that way?
So no rarities compilation then?
"No, there's not many rarities because everything's come out!"
Yeah, but only out as bonus tracks in Japan, it's not fair!
There's a distinct lack of instrumentals on the new album, after 'The Fragile' was full of them. Was there any sort of reason for that?
"I started writing this album in January 2004, but prior to that I had the general flow, concept, title, and vague theme and I was going to make it more of a conceptual piece. But when I started writing the songs to fit into the concept, I discovered that they were coming out as strong songs in their own right and didn't really need to be part of this epic thing."
Is this when it was still called 'Bleedthrough'?
"That was when I was changing it from 'Bleedthrough' to what it became, yes. It seemed like I was really trying to force it into something kinda pretentious and stupid. And I thought maybe this was just a record that's 10 or 15 songs that are friends with each other. I'm not saying it's out of laziness, it's just an editorial call to make a song based record for a change. And there wasn't room for an instrumental in there that made sense. I had four more songs I had to cut that I really loved, but I didn't want a long album, I wanted something that was digestible."
Do you think you'll release those four songs online somewhere?
"My plan right now is that I'm actively writing again and I would hope that by the end of this tour, in a year's time, there's another record ready to go. It feels that good to me. So, we'll see what happens."
So we won't have to wait five years for the next album like we have in the past?
(laughs) I hope to god not!
You've previously said that CD packaging 'feels cheap' and it's not as useful as it once was with vinyl. I've always felt that you've done really innovative packaging, from the tri-fold digipack of 'Broken' to the screen printed fabric cover on the live album 'And All That Could've Been'. Does that mean we're not going to get any bonus for buying the cd version this time as opposed to downloading it legally?
"Well, I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and you may not like the answer I've come up with! Two months ago Interscope told me [puts on marketing drone voice] 'Come up with the most elaborate package in the world because everyone's doing deluxe editions - you can make a bound book, you can make it anything you want, go nuts!'
"I thought about it and I came up with a package that I felt was a nice, tasteful package. It had two discs in it - one was the surround mixes that I sat and did myself and the other disc was in high resolution stereo as a regular CD. But about two weeks ago as the deadline for production approached Interscope came back again and said [same marketing drone voice] 'Hey, listen - no more deluxe packages since nobody's buying them so we want different copies for each store. We need video content because that's what-' And I said, 'Look. First of all, in my heart, those deluxe packages are shit anyway, because they're not really deluxe, they're not really anything more.
I'd personally rather have the 5.1 mixes than fancy packaging any day...
"So would I! But when you're talking to a marketing guy at the record label who says [back comes the marketing voice] 'Kids want video! Kids want this and that-' You know what? Fuck what the kids want. Maybe Jay-Z never heard his 5.1 mix because he doesn't give a fuck, but I sat in the room and did the thing and it's great. And that does have merit. What I'm not going to do is shit out some half hour video montage of us fucking around in the studio because it needs 'video content'. If you look at those deluxe packages, you're just getting some demystifying piece of shit. It's junk, and it further marginalises the art of the music.
"The end result of all that is that we're going to have a PDF of the packaging that I intended that you can download. So, download it, steal it, do whatever the fuck you want with it. If you want the artwork, get it online. The bought packaging is very simple, but I've been in denial ever since CDs came out. CD packages suck. They can unfold 15 times, but they're still shitty little pamphlets. It's not a sleeve, there's no real estate, and there's no room for art. It's in a shitty, plastic, exploding jewel box. They're shit. So let's treat it for what it is - it's just a means of getting electronic information. To me that's bolder than trying to pretend that this is some fancy, great package. But we do have a trick up our sleeves but I can't tell you what it is yet. But you'll see that it makes sense..."
Do you think that someone who buys just the regular cd version of 'With Teeth' (as opposed to buying the 5.1 surround sound version) is missing out on what you intended the album to be?
"I like the idea of a new format and I've found that it lends itself to what I do. I think the [remastered 5.1] 'Downward Spiral' turned out great, but it's not for everybody and I also realise that because I like it, it doesn't mean that everybody's set up with a 5.1 system in their house, let alone set it up right, so that it sounds right. I think to those that have done it right it's a really cool thing. I like it but it's tough to get in that argument with the marketing guy - I'm not a 16-year-old kid who buys records. I don't know what they listen to, whether it's in in 5.1 or not, and I don't know if having shit video content is more important than a good quality 5.1 mix. I don't know if anybody cares, but I like it."
Does it bother you that people can buy the album in an even lesser quality than the regular CD version on places like iTunes?
"Yeah, it does bother me. But can I do anything about it? No. Do I think most people that are ferocious about stealing music care if the bitrate is a little bit lower? Probably not. But most people listen to music in their car or on their shitty iPod headphones. Do they care? Not really. It's depressing in that sense but it's a fight I'm not sure how to win right now."
It's good people are listening at all...
"It's better than not listening to it, definitely."