Shifting down a gear

Originally published in The Sunday Times on October 1, 1999

He forged a formidable reputation playing industrial music, but Trent Reznor turns out to be a sensitive soul, says Mark Edwards

How's this for pressure? Just as Trent Reznor was about to begin the follow-up to The Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails' multi-million-selling album, the American music magazine Spin put him on its cover and declared he was "the most vital artist in music today". Then Time Magazine said he was "one of the 25 most influential people in America". Then another music magazine named the record Reznor was working on "the most anticipated album on 1998". When it didn't come out that year, the magazine updated its claim to "the most anticipated album of 1999".

All the while, Reznor was working away in his New Orleans studio, noting the regular press articles that proclaimed the music he was creating would "save rock music".

"I'll tell you how not to write music," Reznor says now, speaking on the phone from his studio, "and that's to sit down with a guitar, play a riff and wonder, 'That's pretty good, but is it going to save rock music?? Um? nope,' and play another one."

The Downward Spiral's achievement lay not just in selling millions of units, but in taking the formerly underground genre of electronic industrial music (think heavy metal with drum machines) and shoving it firmly into mainstream. As Reznor toured the album, his pounding, screaming music with its lyrics of despair and anger gradually emerged as the soundtrack for a new generation of alienated youth. When he went on the road in 1994, he was a cult figure; by the time he finished in 1996, he was a cultural phenomenon. Reznor's reputation as the man with his finger on the American zeitgeist had been further cemented when Oliver Stone asked him to compile the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers.

While the world was waiting eagerly for the new NIN record, Reznor was doing anything he could to avoid making it. "A family member close to me died, there were a lot of things I wasn't really dealing with," he says, "The only way I know how to write songs is to crawl down in a hole and examine myself for a while, and the last thing I wanted to do was to spend time with myself - so I took on other projects, soundtracks and stuff.

"But gradually I remembered that I liked to play music, and that that was what saved me in the first place - made me feel complete and whole. It took a while to realise that, and I've made a deal with myself not to forget it next time around."

So Reznor devised what he terms "a sketchy game plan" for the new album. The title came first: The fragile. He'd become dissatisfied with "everything coming out of a drum machine" and wanted to make music with a more human feel. "I wanted to build a beast that was flawed from the inside, and seemed as though it might at any minute collapse. One way was to use a lot more real instruments, and maybe tune them strangely."

Although the millions who bought The Downward Spiral will find plenty of Reznor's trademark noise-meets-melody tracks on The Fragile, there are also clear departures. Reznor called in the hip-hop producer Dr Dre to help mix the song Even Deeper. "We told him we'd really simplified it by bringing it down to 48 tracks. He couldn't believe it. He's used to using eight," says Reznor.

As well as encouraging Reznor to strip things down, Dre's influence can be heard on tracks such as Where is Everybody?, in which a looser, more flowing groove replaces the mechanical pounding of earlier NIN records. More radical than this is the piano-based instrumental La Mer, which suggests Reznor may have been listening to Debussy as well as Dre.

"That was what started the whole recording process," Reznor reveals. "La Mer was the centre piece. The first big chunk of the album was all instrumental. Then we [Reznor and co-producer Alan Moulder] began to think, okay, we should do some songs as well, and at that time we thought about using David Bowie's half-song/half-instrumental album, Low, as a kind of archetype." In the end, The Fragile is dominated by songs, with the instruments adding "esoteric flavours", as Reznor puts it. But their very presence encourages the listener to notice the subtlety of Reznor's textural approach to noise and distortion on the heavier tracks.

One of the keys to Reznor's phenomenal success is that his audience realises he means what he is singing. His lyrics veer from the kind of sixth-form angst that will be screamed back at him from the auditorium ("We're in this together now, none of them can stop us now, we will make it through somehow") to couplets that tackle the hopelessness of existence with all the simplicity and compact power of a line from Samuel Beckett ("All I've undergone, I will keep on"). They all reveal a man floundering in emotional turmoil.

"When I first started trying to write songs," explains Reznor, "I opened up my journal and found some things I felt were pretty eloquent. I incorporated them into a track, thinking, well, I could never play this to anyone, but let's just see what happens. I finally decided to play the piece for a friend, and I had to hand him the tape and walk out of the room. Then it got to the point where a record label wanted to sign me; then I said, oh God, do I want people to hear this stuff? I wished I'd been able to create a character or something. But, no, it's me."

The Fragile is a double album, and you do occasionally feel there's just too much music to assimilate; but it's hard to point to any tracks that don't justify their place, and Reznor is not about to apologise for making the listener do a little work.

"I aspire to make music that's challenging to me and to the public, and I even hope some of it sounds bad the first time you play it. That can be a sign of a great record. The records that go on to be my favourites - like PsychoCandy by the Jesus and Mary Chain - I thought my stereo was broken the first time I heard it. Later I read genius into that." He pauses and laughs. "Then I met them, and now I'm not so sure it was genius? but the record's still great."

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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