Hammer head – how Trent Reznor nailed the new Nine Inch Nails album
As they get ready for their Belsonic headliner in Belfast, Nine Inch Nails frontman and former hellraiser Trent Reznor tells the story of how a greatest hits project spawned NIN's new album, ‘Hesitation Marks’
Slow, deliberate and with meticulous attention to detail, Trent Reznor isn’t the kind of musician to deliver glib answers. The Nine Inch Nails frontman (and, latterly, film soundtrack composer) has the kind of self-discipline that comes with not only maturity but also having lived a life fully charged.
In other words, Reznor has been there, seen that, etc, via a lengthy spell of being – how can we put this? – under the influence, tired and emotional, run ragged. He has been sober and drug-free for more than 12 years and, of course, it suits his rigid adherence to getting things right. “Balance is good,” says Reznor, from a room in Japan, where he is sojourning in the lead up to a NIN gig, “because one extreme or the other leads to misery, and I’ve spent a lot of my life at one of those extremes.”
Born in Mercer, Pennsylvania, USA, 48 years ago, Reznor made early NIN demos while working as a janitor at a recording studios in Cleveland. Then in his early 20s, the singer and songwriter rabbit-punched a relatively moribund pre-grunge music scene with NIN’s 1989 debut album Pretty Hate Machine. If your schtick was intensely bleak lyrics and mechanised, shrieking electro-metal, then NIN was your poster band.
Reznor reached something of a macabre apogee with what many claim to be NIN’s masterpiece, 1994’s The Downward Spiral, which – as if to add to its desolate, dissonant mystique – was recorded in the Los Angeles house where members of the Manson Family killed actor Sharon Tate (who was eight months pregnant) and four other people. Fast forward almost 20 years (two decades that feature alcohol and drug abuse, rehab, panic attacks, rehab, marriage, movie soundtracks, fatherhood, Oscar wins and ructions with the music industry) and we have Reznor very much back on track.
The way he tells it (deliberately and with meticulous attention to detail, remember) he was fulfilling a contractual obligation for a NIN greatest hits album when he started writing a couple of new songs as add-ons. Before he realised it, the two songs had morphed into a batch – enough for an album, he reckoned.
“I went into it with an open mind, really, albeit with a bit of reluctance,” he begins. Reznor was working on movie scores for The Social Network (for which he and co-writer Atticus Ross, won an Oscar) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as co-writing music for his resolutely non-NIN referencing side project, How to Destroy Angels (which he operates with Ross and wife, Mariqueen Maandig). Other things, he says, had eaten into his time, but at the back of his mind was a notion to once again write under the umbrella title of NIN.
“When discussions came up about delivering the greatest hits record, and how nice it would be if there were a couple of new songs, I got to thinking about how good it might be if NIN material came to bear fruit. Like, how would I feel about that? What would the music sound like? Would it be exciting? Boring?”
With nothing close to strategy or design, song ideas began to filter through. “It was what felt inspiring,” Reznor allows. “I couldn’t have told anyone ahead of time that I wasn’t going to be playing a lot of guitar or that I wasn’t going to scream that much on the record. What was really inspiring was that I got to thinking of rhythm and to adopting a much more minimalist approach.