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NPR.org » Trent Reznor: 'I'm Not The Same Person I Was 20 Years Ago'


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Trent Reznor is known as a detail guy: a meticulous composer and manipulator of sound, layers upon layers of it. From his band's genesis 25 years ago, the leader of Nine Inch Nails has been known for songs of deep, menacing pain, rage and self-destruction. Today, Reznor's dark days of alcohol and drug abuse are behind him — and he finds himself, at 48, with a wife and two young kids.

The new Nine Inch Nails album, Hesitation Marks, ends a hiatus that Reznor announced in 2009 — and, as he tells NPR's Melissa Block, he sees the new record in part as a reaction to his earlier self. He recently spoke with Block about reacting to criticism, working with Lindsey Buckingham and the reasons he thinks opening for Guns N' Roses in Germany was a big mistake. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

I'm thinking about your new song "Everything," which starts with this really kind of triumphant declaration? What's the first line of that song?

" 'I survived everything.' I think? I haven't listened to it for a few days."

It absolutely is. And in the course of the song you say, "I've become something else."

"Yeah, I meant that song to feel kind of absurd. You know, it's an arrogant, bold statement that might appear defiant but is actually, in my opinion, kind of self-destructive. And by the end of the song, when it doesn't resolve as nice and rosy with me running through a field of dandelions, clouds come over and there's a sense of getting what you asked for.

"My life has been many examples of shortsighted goals that I thought would fix things. If there's something broken inside me, if there's a hole in there, I thought if I could just write a good song someday, then I'd be OK. You know, if I could just get a record deal, or if I could just be onstage in front of people I'd never seen before and be validated by them. I feel very fortunate that I've been able to achieve those things, and there have been moments of feeling good about it, but it didn't fix things, you know? It wasn't the solution to me feeling spiritually complete or whole."

This song does start out in such a sunny way, with all these joyful harmonies. I'm sure you know there was a disgruntled fan who thought this was entirely too poppy — maybe a softer, happier side of Trent Reznor — and put together an animated video of you riding a unicorn under a rainbow with birds flying by. You're saying, though, that's ignoring what's really going on in this song?

"That certainly wasn't anything that crossed my mind when I was working on this. You know, I still think in terms of album formats: collections of songs and how they relate to each other and how they integrate and tell a bigger story than what's contained in each little four-minute parcel. But when you've been around for a while and you've created, essentially, a brand, that has a certain level of expectation. And it encourages you to not color outside the lines if you pay too much attention to what you expect that fan base wants from you. I think many, many artists have suffered an artistic death by doing just that. I think we live in very dangerous times right now with the Internet and the feedback loop you can get from people who somehow feel their fingers are connected to an impulse — first second of hearing something, I need to write some reaction that gets blasted out to the world."

What did you think of the video?

"I saw about the first five seconds of it, and it lessened my faith that I am reaching an audience that is open-minded enough to understand what I'm trying to do. That's what I thought off the bat. And then I thought, 'I really don't care what you think.' We wouldn't be sitting here doing an interview, because my career would have been over 24 years ago, if I'd have listened to what I think people want to hear from me. [But] this is just my off-the-cuff thesis here. I'm sure it's riddled with holes that I'll be reminded of on the Internet any minute now."

If you choose to read it.

"When we started out, you would get feedback from fan mail, if you dared to read it. And I remember early versions of [online] bulletin boards, where it was exciting to see that somewhere, digitally, people were talking about your band in little chat rooms and things like that. When we got up to whenever Twitter came out, I took it upon myself to try to direct market to people. Myself, Rob Sheridan — my art director and collaborator on pretty much everything creative — we spent an enormous amount of time really studying the behavior of people: how people wanted to consume music, how they learned about music, what formats they liked, what felt insincere to them, what they felt the value of music might be. Really just watching. But it tuned us in to that feedback loop of commentary, and you can easily go down rabbit holes with niches of people that are unpleasable, regardless of what you could possibly do as an artist. My brain is wired to follow the negative down there and try to engage people and defend and fight, but that's an utter waste of time. I left that era of my life realizing that just because everybody now has the ability to be a self-publisher and broadcast every whim and thought to the world, it doesn't mean that that opinion is necessarily valid or needs to be consumed or listened to or paid attention to. I think — and I've said this recently in the press — as an artist it's an incredibly dangerous time to pay attention, too much, to what other people think. Because it inevitably leads to either homogenous, crowd-pleasing, meandering work, or it leads to something that's just as insincere — just to go against that."

You're known for really intricately composed, crafted, layered songs. Walk me through what's going on in the new song "Copy of A." It starts out with this repetitive synth pattern, right?

"Yeah, that's five 16th notes with a rest in there, so it's hard to tell where the downbeat is. I like the way it flips around and doesn't always land on the beat in an expected way. This song is really about repetition and starting to layer small elements of rhythm, percussion and treatment of vocal into something that is meant to feel hypnotic but slightly unnerving. Not comfortable, not EDM dance-tent, wave-your-hands-in-the-air, but more something that keeps you on the edge of your seat, that doesn't feel quite right."

So the intent is to be unsettling?

"In this particular song, yeah. It's about tension. It's about layers of complexity that don't feel showy, that don't feel like, 'Look at all the things I can put in here.' Things suddenly creep in. If you were to study this track or listen to the multitracks of what made it up, there's a lot more in there than what it sounds like. It's meant to feel understandable and minimal in its surface."

Good interview. But clearly no one is the same person they were 20 years ago. 

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