Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile Balance between Industry and Artistry
Ask Trent Reznor and he'll tell you: A lot of the music out there right now "just plain sucks." But unlike the majority of folks who hurl foul invective at MTV or scramble to a talk station at the first whiff of Ricky Martin, Reznor's in a position to do something about it. With his latest sonic opus, The Fragile, he strives to institute change by returning to the public the former glory of -- get this -- album rock. And he just may have accomplished it; alongside Reznor's patented industrial dance-metal skull-crushers stand grandiose, beautifully arranged (and deranged) pieces that eschew the icy synthesizer noise of Nails past in favor of traditional strings: cellos, guitars, even ukuleles.
Even more important, for Reznor The Fragile represents his ability to get up, stand up, and get the job done -- after dropping to a personal nadir. And that's no mean feat for a man who equates making a recording with gut-wrenching "soul excavation" -- especially when that recording is one of the most eagerly anticipated records of the year.
Whether or not this bold new Nails "takes a shit" commercially, as Reznor delicately puts it, remains to be seen. What the man did point out, sitting in a break room at his massive Nothing Studios complex in New Orleans, is this: All that matters is he's pleased.
Guitar.com: You've been tagged one of the "25 most influential people in America" by Time Magazine. You've also made enough money to buy your own studio. And bad reviews of your work are nearly as rare as the dodo. What is there left to prove?
Trent Reznor: That's a good question. Success and money and things like that do change you, and anyone who says they don't is full of shit. But I do very much feel there's something to prove. And it's that I think honest music played well with integrity can and still matters. And as we're getting into a climate of shallowness -- not that this is high art and everything else isn't -- but I feel every time I turn the TV on I got something to prove. Not to sound like just another guy bitching about it; I can do that or I can put out music that I think is as good as I can make, and that the world needs to hear. It's not so much about selling more records this time around as much as in my heart and my soul I creatively [pause] owe it to people to show, "Hey, check out what I can do and what can happen here." And make things better. And quit bitching about stuff.
Guitar.com: So there aren't a lot of modern artists influencing you?
Reznor: There honestly hasn't been a lot of stuff that I'm overly enthused about. I don't mean there's nothing new, but it seems like there's a general lack of substance in a lot of what's coming out and that's I think a result of climate and what radio and MTV plays. I think it's a more singles-oriented climate. I think it's a little less conducive to art, maybe, to sound pretentious. But I can't say that I'm real inspired or moved by any sound that's out there. As I've gotten better as a musician, I've just found things that draw me to the songwriters: I'm trying to write better -- or write differently. I'm trying to get away from verse-chorus/verse-chorus pop structure.
Guitar.com: The Fragile makes use of more traditional, stringed instruments than your previous work, and it also seems to utilize fewer synthesizers.
Reznor: This record is mostly guitar -- but it doesn't necessarily sound like it. I needed an expressive way to voice a sense of fragility, of everything not all fitting nicely. So I chose guitars or string instruments because by nature they're imperfect. Every guitar sounds a little bit different; you can bend a string, there's fret buzz, it's out of tune. With a synth, it's more controlled, there's less randomness. When you play a key, it presses a contact, and it plays a note based on a computer program.
There's The Guitar Insider Solidifying The Fragile
Guitar.com: (Trent Reznor's) Nothing Studios looks more like a NASA control room than a rock 'n' roll haven. The place is filled with computer and digital tape recording equipment, mammoth mixing boards, high-tech effects racks, dozens of low-tech effects pedals. And that doesn't even include the three other adjacent studios all linked to the mainframe.
Reznor: To me synthesizers, keyboards and samplers in the studio are all pretty much the same thing; they're tools to record music. And that was another thing this record ended up being about; it wasn't gonna be guitar/bass/drum rock album, it was gonna be about using the tools that are our resources. And during the course of recording this, we moved from using tape like we always have, to having every note of everything being recorded on the computer. And that was a pain in the ass, but it gave us freedom to try all kinds of things. And overall, there are not nearly as many icy landscapes now as there were on, say, The Downward Spiral. The new stuff is an exploration of a lot of different moods and feels and tensions -- without sledge-hammering your skull against a wall the whole time.
Guitar.com: Do you think this could alienate your fanbase?
Reznor: Well, you reach this kind of dilemma, and I think it might be amplified by the situation I'm in, where I am the band pretty much -- I don't have the benefit of people around me to help shape it, it just comes out of me pretty much. So with the ability to change as much as I like, limited only by my imagination and creativity, I came in here really wanting push myself on every level, sonically, musically, songwriting-wise, outlook-wise, and I want be true to who I am now, like I was true to me when I did every record I've done. But at times you wonder if you're abandoning things that didn't need abandoning. There are things I think I did well -- It's not like I never want to do them; just because I wrote a song that has a guitar in the chorus I can't ever do that again? But when you fail, you ask yourself, "Well, maybe all I can do well is what I did?"
Guitar.com: You mentioned that this was more of an "album" -- it was meant to be listened to as a whole, not as individual, say singles. Correct?
Reznor: What I've always been about is trying to make an album as a full experience, more than, "Here's a good song, here's some shit where we just randomly threw together." But nowadays it seems like there's a more media-gratification kind of audience. If you really want the Cliff Notes version, there's the single. But when you're ready to fuckin' go for a ride, give the whole thing a chance. Someone once asked Clive Barker, "Now that you have some success do you feel more pressure to write something that your larger fanbase is gonna stick with?" And he's like, "No. I feel more like the people I've appealed to hopefully are open-minded enough that I can lead them down a little path that they may not initially have wanted to travel but their faith in me will get them a little more inclined." That's kind of a pretentious thing to say or remember, but for whatever reasons we hit a nerve with people and got a larger audience, and hopefully there's some intelligence in that audience that would be into a new challenge. And here it is.