Trent Reznor talks uncertainty, changing music world for 1999 cover
The artist offered a confessional and honest take on his career ahead of his classic album, 'The Fragile.'August 18, 2021
For the cover story of our September 1999 issue (#134), AltPress interviewed Trent Reznor. At the time, Nine Inch Nails was just on the eve of releasing their classic album The Fragile. At the time, five years had passed since the group’s landmark album The Downward Spiral. Reznor was uncertain, not only about his own future, but also the future of rock music more generally. Little did readers know at the time that the musician would continue to play a pivotal role in music at large, recording over a dozen albums and film soundtracks. This content has been modified and adjusted to meet the standards of Alternative Press’ digital platform.
Are the fans still going to be there when the new record comes out?
We’re trying to be realistic about the climate, and the climate has changed. It’s been a while since our record’s been out. It’s been longer than I wish it had been. Another way to look at it: Maybe it’s good because we’ve avoided a big shit stain—I don’t think there has been much good music in the last few years, really. In certain genres, anyway.
Do you think a record this fundamentally different from your previous work will alienate fans?
I don’t really know. I can say this, though: I’ve thought that I would [alienate fans] every time I’ve put a record out. But I’m a different person now than I was a year ago, let alone five years ago…
Is it gonna piss some people off? Am I gonna lose some fans? Probably. At one point, I thought this record was so different from everything I’ve done that maybe I’ve fucked myself up by trying. Then there’s other times I listen to it where I think, “It sounds like Nine Inch Nails. Is that good or bad?” I’ve approached this in my head the right way… because it’s true to what I am right now, and that’s the only criteria I’ve had in the past. And it works.
Is there a chance for radio play? Could it possibly gain you new fans?
I really don’t know what’s going on. I can guess what people might still think I’m like, or how interested they are, but there’s been a sizable amount of time. Rock has evaporated its presence a bit in the meantime. I could go mad thinking about it. I think I’ve made a good, complex album that is rewarding and very challenging at the same time. And that’s all I can hope for. I like it. And I’m not saying that like, “Oh, I like it, really. I think I do.” I fuckin’ think it’s the best thing I’ve done—and it isn’t for lack of trying on the fucker! [Laughs.]
I didn’t notice much synth noise, and this is by far your warmest-sounding album—any relation?
This record is mostly guitar, but it doesn’t necessarily sound like it. I knew this record was going to be about systems failing, about things falling apart, about things being broken along the way. And just when a song’s about to be right, something’s fuckin’ up and spinning out of control, and you’re trying to piece it together like you’re finishing the sentence of the song, but it doesn’t let that happen. Sometimes maddening, but generally just showing a sense of fragility and not all fitting nicely. So I chose guitar or stringed instruments because by nature they’re imperfect.
I switched up instrumentation quite a bit. And a lot of it’s made with computers, but I’m not using that many synths. If I hear a melody line, instead of instantly reaching for what I would normally use, this was more about trying it on a real instrument and then processing it. What would come from that would be an organic, distressed quality. And we started realizing that we’d get more sounds out of like ukuleles and slide guitars and stuff I don’t really know how to play. But I could get sounds out of them that were interesting; it was like getting a cello and figuring out how to make sound on it.
Even though you had been releasing music that you were proud of?
Well, that hit when I wasn’t putting out anything. I just went through a phase of not feeling that worthy. And it was getting my ass around to doing this record that made it go away and made me realize again what’s going on. When you’re in touring mode and Closure-video mode, it’s a way of running away, of not facing what really is the hardest thing in life, which is writing and working on music. It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do; it’s the biggest fuckin’ thing to chew off because I don’t go at it half-assed.
I realized that I had a point, and part of putting off this record was not wanting to face going back and challenging myself. I didn’t know if I was mentally ready, so the longer I could stay away from it, the less I had to deal with it, the more insecure I got about doing it. That feeds itself. I was like, “I’m not happy doing it anyway—so has anyone ever just stopped?”
I don’t know what I’d do, maybe get into computer programming because I think that’s really creative in a different way, and it’s not your face in a fuckin’ magazine, and it’s not people talking about you, and it’s not getting fucked with all the time. And then I just woke up one day and said, “What the fuck am I doing? I’m a coward, and I need to turn this around.” So I did.
How did that happen—the loss of drive?
I think that what kind of happened was that we went from being a relatively small band to being pretty big—or bigger than I thought we’d be. The same old story: It changes you. Having some money changes you. Being treated differently by everybody changes you.
Put it this way: It was a lot more fun opening for bands when no one knew who you were and you played a show and you kicked ass. You had almost no cares in the world, and you had one bag with the same clothes you wore every day, and you learned to sleep on the floor of a fuckin’ van driving all night to the next city. And it was a great time. It was—minus the lawsuits and just everything that comes with the good things you think you want. And then you get ’em, and it’s like, “Holy Christ! I didn’t think…”
I’m not bitching about it. But you start to see that on the way up, it’s easy. You start getting to the top, and there’s just this whole line of people—the same ones that put you up there—that just cannot wait to pull you back down, humble you, destroy you. And it might’ve been the surroundings I placed myself in, but the whole competitive, backbiting nature of the music business… I mean, I didn’t get in it to make money. I did it because I love music, and I’ve never had a question of what I wanna do; it’s this.
Somehow it didn’t seem like it was very rewarding; it didn’t fulfill me as a human being. And I foolishly thought that if I just made it, then everything would be OK. And it wasn’t OK. If anything, it was more hollow. I never, ever thought this would happen. Not that there weren’t great times, but there’s also a real shallowness about it, and I kind of went, “What have I got to bitch about? And I’m still miserable. What the fuck’s wrong with me?”
What was driving all that negativity?
I found out I’m depressed for real. I’m not just saying that as a joke, which I’ve done my whole life.
A clinical depression?
Yeah. I think even just knowing that and accepting it explains a lot of things, you know? A lot of my behavior makes more sense to me now that there may be some explanation. If you found out you’ve acted or felt a certain way and there is actually a clinical reason, it’s not just that you’re a piece of shit or you don’t have any friends and you don’t want any friends and you never stay in a relationship. You realize, “All right, there is a reason I’ve felt this way, and I’m not a bad person.” I feel like I’m more equipped to deal with the situation, although I’ve opted not to deal with medication or anything like that.
Is it something you maybe embrace a bit—like a source of artistic inspiration?
I’ve been down that path. I’ve thought of it as a resource, as a way of forcing you to deal with things because you can’t pave them over. But when you keep doing it and it’s still there, that’s when it’s not that romantic [of] a notion. Another rainy day when you feel like just feeling shitty and watching another sad movie, that’s all well and good occasionally.
But when it’s there all the time, suddenly it’s not as fun to flirt with; it’s not as romantic. It’s dangerous. It’s like thinking you’re getting through something and there’s always light at the end of the tunnel, and there isn’t. You get to the end of the tunnel, and it’s still dim. There’s no light anymore; you don’t even know where you’re going. That, and I had to deal with some shit. An important person in my life died.
Yeah… It was a catalyst that kinda made me—[pauses] shit or get off the pot. It was either figure out what’s going on in your head or, you know, exterminate. Not to say that I’ve got all my shit figured out and every day is great now, but I’ve got a newfound energy to go at things. And a positivity—no, I don’t wanna say positivity. Blech! I can see records returning in droves! “Oh, no!” No, I just spiritually feel better about where I’m at right now. That can all change later today, but generally I’ve got my head on a bit straighter.
Can you elaborate? What’s your philosophical take now?
Well, I don’t have any concrete system that I adhere to now, as far as what I believe in. And there are things I’d like to research when the pressure of saving all of music isn’t on my head. [Chuckles.] I don’t wanna sound hippie or anything; there’s just a sense of purpose that I’ve had from time to time that I have my own personal views on. It helps me feel like there’s some sense and order to the chaos.
Not like I’ve got it figured out, but I do feel a lot better than I used to. And that’s not from anyone sitting me down and training me to think a certain way. It’s just from getting a good look at the bottom and realizing with better self-esteem and a better sense about me that… there is reason behind the… I don’t know how to explain this well. Hit me again with this tomorrow. I’ll memorize an answer. ALT