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.

“I worked on about 100 ideas like that; what felt comfortable was filling up space with lots of tracks and textures, and weaving tapestries of complexity, which, of course, made the task interesting, challenging, difficult yet rewarding.”

It is odd, Reznor accedes with a self-deprecating “yeah”, to be discussing a greatest hits album from a band that would, perhaps, better soundtrack Buffalo Bill’s needlework than anything else.

“I agree that a greatest hits collection isn’t really a good artistic endeavour – it was a record label thing. NIN owed a hits collection to a previous record label we were on – it was written in a contract we signed 20 years ago – and it fulfils a certain commitment. I was reminded some time ago that it might be something I’d like to clear from my plate – so I did, and, as I’ve been saying, it turned out to be a catalyst for new material.”

Which will be released through, curiously enough as we shall read, a major record label (Columbia in the US, Universal in Europe). In 2007, Reznor established his own independent label, The Null Corporation, via which, in 2008, he released two subsequent NIN albums, Ghosts I-V and The Slip (the latter of which was made available to download for free, courtesy of an online message from Reznor that read, “this one’s on me”). He continued to release music via his label, doing his intelligent best to figure out how to instructively engage with online business models – or what he terms, atypically, as “disruptive technologies”. One such engagement was offering 3,000 deluxe editions of the (much extended) soundtrack to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the price of $300 each: signed copies of vinyl, with a flash drive, and – Reznor is quoted as saying – “a blowjob when you open it up.”

Such are the thrilling perks, then, of owning your own indie record label, but Reznor appears to have had a change of mind regarding his present business partnership with the majors. Back in 2007, he says, the decision for NIN to part ways with Interscope (a division of Universal) was amicable.

“I felt that big record labels hadn’t figured out the new climate, that they’re looking at music fans as the enemy, trying to combat piracy by attacking the wrong people, and hesitant to embrace any new technology. At the end of the day, if you look at these things through the eyes of a consumer – which I often do, because first and foremost I’ve always been a fan – then you ask yourself what’s it like for the person who’s just a fan of the music? What do they experience? How do they get it? Are they being forced to buy something they don’t want? And so on.”

After a few years of working flat out with The Null Corporation label, of trying everything he could think of to make selling music online as viable as possible, Reznor came to the conclusion that solving these problems “is bigger than what one band can do. I don’t think the solution is to sign up to the new NIN record and pay me five dollars or 10 dollars a year and then you’ll get everything I do. Ditto with Radiohead, or anyone else.

“I realised, also, that I was devoting a hell of a lot of time and energy into – and let’s call it what it is – market research, how to engage consumers, and shit like that.”

Reznor sounds weary just talking about it; maybe it’s the time difference, the jetlag or the sheer exhaustion of trying to keep a foothold in an area of the music industry that appears to be rapidly dwindling.

“I’m just trying to figure out the best way to be a musician right now,” he offers. “What is right in the summer of 2013 isn’t what was right six months ago and it won’t be what’s right in six months time.”

Is the former hellraiser settling down? “Whoa, there. Even a hint of the word ‘settled’ would have been terrifying to me a few years ago – it would have felt like a death knell, but I feel like I’m okay with who I am right now: positive, able to tap into a truthfulness, an honesty in an accurate way, with integrity and authenticity.”

When he was 20, says Reznor, he thought being settled would be far too normal a state to attain. Now, it feels like it’s something he’s proud to have achieved. “I’m making a living, people are interested in what I’m doing, and I’m glad to be in that position. I’m not doing this because I need to make a down payment on something. I’m doing it because it still feels real to me.”

Nine Inch Nails play Belsonic, Belfast, on Wednesday August 21st. Hesitation Marks will be released through Polydor/Universal later this month

Belsonic Beats: Seven to watch in Belfast

Hands up - who would have thought almost 20 years ago that a pair of underground scenesters (Simon Ratcliffe, Felix Buxton) would surface as frequent transatlantic chart-toppers and Brit Award winners? Nope, we didn’t see that coming, either . . .
(Friday August 16th)

If you like Nick Drake as much as John Martyn, then Ben Howard is the sensitive, lighter-in- the-air guitar guy for you.
(Saturday, August 17th)

And you reckoned industrial noise/punk from Trent Reznor and friends was the most exciting bit of this event? Take that thought and stuff it, because local lads ASIWYFA (NIN’s special guests) have the fine art of sonic chaos well and truly wrapped up.
(Wednesday, August 21st)

Front porch Americana? Stomp-and-clap folk/pop? It’s all the rage these days – just ask Mumford & Sons. America’s Lumineers might balk at the comparison, but the fans don’t seem to mind.
(Thursday, August 22nd)

We tend to steer clear of young men with acoustic guitars, but Jake Bugg manages to sidestep the usual cliches by virtue of clear-sighted tales of bored, often misspent youth and rugged odes to love and emotion.
(Friday, August 23rd)

Honestly, it’s as if Britpop never went away, what with visits from Blur and this once whippet-thin lot with their tales of gasoline, grease and sleaze. Latest regrouped album, Bloodsports, is really quite good – so, welcome back.
(Saturday, August 24th)

It just goes to show: you can reach a point of creative equilibrium following an early career stint covering songs by Nirvana and Metallica. Heavy Metal. From Wales. You. Have. Been. Duly. Advised.
(Monday, August 26th)

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