Nine Inch Nails: Once Bitten
Originally printed in Guitar World, September 2005
After a heroin addiction that nearly cost him his career, Trent Reznor returns wiser but no less willful with a new Ninch Inch Nails album, the lean and mean With Teeth.
When last heard from, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor had released The Fragile, a 1999 album with the aura of a would-be masterpiece and the sales of a star on a downward spiral. The singer and multiinstrumentalist acknowledges he became addicted to heroin and bottomed out while on tour in 2001. Four years later, a rehabbed Reznor is back with a simpler, harder-hitting studio album, With Teeth (Interscope), and a new perspective on his future.
GUITAR WORLD Six years is a long interval between albums. Were you concerned that anyone would still care?
TRENT REZNOR There is something to be said about that. But my situation was, You’re going to die if you don’t get better right now. I was out of second chances; I was out of rescues. My nine lives were up. It was such a terrifying and unpleasant place to be that I had no interest in bending the rules anymore. I realized that I don’t know everything; that maybe I do need help, I do need friends, I can’t run the world, and maybe the world doesn’t revolve around me; maybe I’m full of shit; maybe I’m not smarter than anyone else.
These were things that seemed impossible for me to comprehend up to that point. I had tried rehab before, and it didn’t work. I knew that I had been hiding behind the career, behind working on music…to avoid life. Even if I lost whatever career I had left, being alive and healthy was more important to me than that.
GW What role did music play in your recovery?
REZNOR I had forgotten in that whole process that I loved music. Music had become interchangeable with chart positions, competition and career and stuff that seemed to be bringing me nothing but misery. I came to realize that I didn’t get into music to be rich or famous but because I think music is why I’m here on earth. I almost began to fear that I couldn’t write music. I’d think, What if I can’t write sober or I don’t have anything to say or I destroyed my brain in the process of getting here? I finally found the courage to answer those questions last year. I sat down in a disciplined environment and was amazed at how much stuff was ready to come out.
GW Was it your intent to make With Teeth a less fuzzy, more direct record?
REZNOR Those were the rough parameters. It was a reaction to The Fragile: I’ve done a record where everything and the kitchen sink is in it, so let me try to go the other way. In the process of making it, I went back to creating demos. I realized that The Fragile and [1994’s] The Downward Spiral had essentially been written in the studio, and as a result the songwriting hadn’t really been separate from the arranging and production and sound. A song would start with a sound or a loop, a lyric or a drumbeat, and I would keep adding things until I had a song.
This time around I wanted to start with words and melody. I was in Los Angeles at the time. I’d sit down at the piano with a drum machine and a computer to record vocals into. After four or five months, I had about 25 songs. Then I went back to New Orleans, to a “real” studio, and I found out that I couldn’t really beat the demos. A lot of it sounded good stripped down. I was feeling more confident, confident enough to say maybe it doesn’t mean to be layered, and maybe that vocal I sang where you can hear a TV in the background has an emotional quality that can’t be bettered. It was an unexpected process and led to the record being more song oriented.
GW Did the old perfectionist tendencies ever kick in?
REZNOR There was a point about five or six songs in that I came up with the idea of having a theme. I had an elaborate plotline, similar to The Downward Spiral—a script, kind of, with a starting point, an end point and a progression with song titles that could be peppered in. I drew a graph in a notebook showing the sequence of events, with time as the horizontal axis. I started writing the songs to fit that, but after a while it felt forced, unnecessary. I was coming up with good songs that could stand on their own, that didn’t need to graft onto this heavy-handed storyline. I had the courage to say that's okay.
I don’t have to hide myself behind the storyline, or the music, for that matter. I was always turning my vocal down in the studio. [Coproducer Alan Moulder] would say, “Quit punching the board!” That’s where the layering came from: it was like my blanket to hide under. It felt different this time around.
GW For the first time, your music really swings. Why did you decide to work with Dave Grohl and [Nine Inch Nails tour drummer] Jerome Dillon on drums instead of programmed beats?
REZNOR I’ve been listening to a lot of old Killing Joke, Flowers of Romance–era Public Image Ltd. stuff, where the drums have a
tribal quality. I had a newfound appreciation of performance. I thought, Let’s put a new engine on this record. Start with drums and arrange the voice around them. I wanted the record to be performed rather than cut and pasted. I was reacting to the sterility of a lot of music that is out now, that I think sounds like it was done on a computer. It used to be hard to make a perfect-sounding record in the world of tape. Now it’s almost harder to make a human-sounding record.