Trent Reznor quietly wrote his latest record sitting in his bedroom at night, clicking buttons on his laptop, just enjoying the process. Not what you’d expect from the famously detail-oriented rock legend who enjoys access to the most advanced producers, musical instruments and recording equipment on Earth. But the casual and unplanned genesis of “Hesitation Marks”, Nine Inch Nails’ first record in six years, just ‘felt right’ for Reznor, who for the majority of his 25 year career has never had any qualms about doing whatever the fuck he wants.
The process started in 2012, following a busy five years in the wake of NIN’s last record, which was released in 2007. During that time, Nine Inch Nails went from major label, to entirely DIY, to major. Rez started a band with his wife Mariqueen Maandig called How To Destroy Angels. He won an Oscar for his musical score on David Fincher’s Social Network. He teamed with Dr. Dre to create a soon-to-be launched online music subscription service called Beats Electronic Streaming, which some say will rival Spotify.
Then one night in his bedroom, for no reason in particular, Reznor fired up his laptop, launched ProTools, and let his nimble fingers do the talking. His only thought was—keep it simple. He broke down the music in his head into its basic components, and reconstructed it with the smooth obsessiveness of a Bauhaus architect.
A year later, the result is one of the most eagerly anticipated albums of 2013. David Lynch directed the music video to the first release off the album, ‘Came Back Haunted’, and in August, NIN kicked off The Tension tour, a mammoth six-month festival and arena tour of the world, whose live show is expected to raise the bar even higher than his mind-rumbling ‘Light the Sky’ tour of 2007 did.
Trent made time between rehearsals in Los Angeles to speak with Dazed, to tell us how it all came about.
What’s the theme or narrative threat of the new album?
This record was an exploration of sparseness and minimalism. Which for me is difficult. But that’s how the record started. Sometimes, before I start an album, I’ll come up with elaborate set of plans or rules that help me, because if I have too many options I can spin around in a corner and make bullshit. But if I limit myself, that helps. Like in the studio, I might say ‘for the next couple of weeks I am not going to plug anything in’. Or ‘I am only going to use this laptop and see what I can make it do’. Which is what happened this time.
So you enjoy working within boundaries?
I need them. In the modern studio there are a bunch of instruments around me and I can simulate anything I can’t play, so sometimes the palate feels too big. I had been away from the concept of writing for NIN for several years. I wasn’t sure what I felt like doing, so I started noodling around on laptops. Pretty much the whole record was written in my bedroom, on a laptop. It felt more exciting to me that way.
A lot of lonely bedroom musicians with Garageband will be very inspired to hear that.
Writing this album, the first 75-80% of it was pretty smooth. But once I took it out of the bedroom, finishing it was a real challenge. We spent six months just trying to mix it, and figure it out. It’s so much easier to put 30 things in a song than three. We asked ourselves, how can we take everything else out except what has to be in there? And how can we make those things have purpose? Alan Moulder (producer), Atticus Ross and I—we spent a lot of time looking at each other in a room going “did this get harder, or are we just getting worse?” But we learned a lot of tricky things. And we never gave up.
So you’re currently rehearsing the festival show, which is a stripped down version of the arena show, correct?
Stripped down, but still good, we hope. We hope to maximize each venue. In a festival usually we are toward the top of the bill, so for fans there is that fatigue of having seen other bands, having been high and sober already ten times that day, and their ears are ringing. A festival is a distraction-filled place, so its like, how can we make a fucking field with shitty sound and another band playing on the other end, how can we turn that into an experience, on top of what I think is great music, played well? How can we make that festival experience feel more immersive, how can we can suck you in a bit more? That’s what we’re working on here in Los Angeles, today.
So how will the arena show compare?
It is our own show, and our environment, so we can get away with more. The audiences are usually very wiling to go on more of a journey, so you tend to make an artier, more immersive show for them. I think the best tour we ever did was Lights In the Sky, which involved an some very cool video technology. The end result was something that became a bit disorienting to the viewer. Where you could start the show looking like a rock band on a stage, but then make it feel like the stage had transformed into something else. The arena tour this fall is picking up where that left off. But my goal is not to give you a tech demo, like ‘look at all the gadgets I’ve found, look at how big this robot is’. I want to keep it like a great film or great book where it’s not about one emotion. Something that can hold your interest and surprise you with what gets revealed.
Do you go see much live music yourself?
I don’t go see that many bands these days because by the third song I kind of know what’s going to happen. Maybe I’m just old. If I go to a venue and it sounds kind of shitty, which it always does, and I’m in a place and there’s 50 assholes with their phones up in front of me, and I see the band and on the third song they’ve turned the lights on and they’ve played one song I like and now they’re deep in to the new album which I don’t know that well yet. And I’m thinking ‘God I’d rather be home right now’. Is that a familiar feeling at all, for you?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s why it helps to be a bit drunk on those occasions.
I can’t even do that any more! So now I’m completely sober, tuned in, and I cant escape.
You collaborated with Josh Homme on the latest Queens of the Stone Age record, Keep Your Eyes Peeled, tell us about that.
When he started working on this record, I went up to the studio and we talked for a long time. I could sense there was somebody who wanted to do something different, but felt unsure. Yet doing the same thing didn’t feel like the right move. Of course there was fear of trying to write in a different way, and feeling vulnerable as a person. I tried to encourage him, saying ‘hey these are the best feelings, this is the best time to start writing. The last thing you need to do is make another great Queens record that sounds like a great Queens record. See what happens, and if it sucks, no one needs to hear it. Lets just try some shit’. I heard some demos throughout the process, and I knew he was on to something. I think injecting his vulnerability into it was the key to making that record. It’s still Queens , but its not middle aged queens, its not beach-chair fucking Queens.
Is that ever a fear, at this point in your career--that you’ll turn into lawn chair NIN?
When the joys of yachting starts to tire, you mean?
How is your golfing game, by the way?
I have never golfed. Actually, I golfed one time, and was so filled with resentment.
Just the fucking people. I didn’t get past that. The outfits.
It’s an older, preppier crowd, for sure.
As you get older, it’s a weird puzzle—you try to look at yourself objectively and imagine what people think. Because, when we play a show, I look at the audience, and it generally looks the same as it did in 1990. Its not the same people, of course, but it doesn’t look like The Eagles when I look down there. It doesn't look like people my own age.
That will be a trippy day, when you look out at the audience at a NIN show and see a sea of walkers.
I like that we’ve found new generations of people who like the music. The moment it feels like it has become nostalgia, then it will feel different to me and I don’t know if I would want to do it anymore. Right now, it still feels vital to me. And when I am writing music, I not playing a character. I’m not Alice Cooper or Gene Simmons or someone like that, who has acknowledged that they are writing music for a character.
Isn’t it hard to remain original that within the confines of a brand, like NIN?
I’m acknowledging NIN is a brand, and you’re’ a brand, Dazed and Confused is a brand. But you can still be rooted in honesty, and integrity. There can still be evolution.
So you’re back with a major label again, Interscope, after being completely independent for a few years. Why?
We left Interscope because we were high and mighty and we thought file sharing has destroyed the record business, and had also damaged the relationship between fans and artists. I remember the day I woke up years ago, furious at fans, because the record had leaked, and now everyone was talking about the album a month before its supposed to come out. A little while later I relaxed about it. ‘They’re not stealing shit out of my house and making money from it – they’re excited about the music we did. Why am I mad at them? I would do it too.’ In fact, I do do that. So it got me thinking about this broken relationship that had led to the file sharing, the notion of selling people a plastic disc they don’t want in a store that's disappearing, pretending that it hasn’t leaked and pretending you can't get it free online anyway – I thought there’s got to be a better relationship that can be established here. So I went off on my own and spent a long time experimenting with different business models, saying ‘here’s a record that’s free, or five bucks if you want a nice version or $250, if you’d like a really nice coffee table thing’. Everything that I did felt like the right thing to do at the time, and then six months later, it would feel tired. And I would feel tired. All that stuff takes so much energy, figuring out, what’s the temperature right now, what are people expecting, and here’s a new thing called Kickstarter. So that is one of the reasons for returning to a major label. It was an intriguing idea and it’s proven so far to be a good one, where there are people who are actually good at what they do, and I let them do it. I don’t need to be the publicist really. I probably can, if I have to. But I’d much rather be worrying about the color of that light out there, and playing that note in tune, and picking out the best way to arrange the song. Rather than thinking about what pricing we should have for the download. That’s all marketing stuff. It’s not art. I realized I was wasting a lot of time thinking about that shit rather than the thing I’d like to be thinking about. Which is making music, and making art. That’s all.