Most rock shows are pretty lazy affairs," says Trent Reznor. "It's semi-familiar renditions of songs that sound better on the record, played loudly with out-of-tune vocals, and some asshole with his fucking phone in front of me." The Nine Inch Nails mastermind is standing in a cavernous warehouse in northern Los Angeles, getting ready for the live debut of his new band, How to Destroy Angels, in Pomona, California, a few days from now.
What Reznor has planned is very different from the lame scenario he just described. He's on a narrow 160-square-foot platform big enough for five musicians, surrounded by thousands of strands of surgical tubing. Nearby, a crew of visual-effects technicians from Montreal hunch over computers like they're running mission control for a moon shot. Reznor can't start rehearsal without his fellow musicians Atticus Ross and Alessandro Cortini — but they've decamped to Reznor's house to put together a new instrumental loop. That was three hours ago. "I'm at the cautiously-optimistic-yet-nervous stage," he says.
How to Destroy Angels' other members include Reznor's wife, Mariqueen Maandig; Ross, his collaborator on film scores; and visual mastermind Rob Sheridan. Reznor came to fame in 1989 as the one-man army howling, "I'd rather die than give you control," on NIN's "Head Like a Hole" — but now he's discovering the joys of collaboration. "Nine Inch Nails allowed me to micromanage every tiny aspect of it," he says. "Even when I didn't want to."
Reznor's experience doing movie scores with Ross got him an Oscar (for The Social Network) and many other offers for soundtrack work. "I'm not convinced that scoring is my true passion," Reznor says. "It might be, but there's a lot of films where the music isn't there for an artful reason." Nevertheless, the experience gave him enough of a buzz that he decided he enjoyed not being the boss: "It made me think it would be interesting to work in a less dictatorial state within a band."
Maandig is in a dressing room at the moment, having her makeup fixed — she spent half the day with her face painted jet-black, testing out an effect for the show. She was singing in the L.A. band West Indian Girl when they met; they got married in 2009 and now have two sons. "The relationship was new, exciting and compatible," says Reznor, who's famously protective of his private life. "She's a musician, I'm a musician — 'Hey, let's try something.'"
The newlyweds began working with Ross, taking inspiration from synth-pop acts like early Human League ("Before the stuff most people know") and Cabaret Voltaire. "Sequencers not quite in sync," Reznor says fondly. "You can hear the excitement of them discovering how to use this new equipment. That sound, of things not quite coming together, inspired us."
Maandig wrote the lyrics for their just-released debut, Welcome Oblivion, drawing on the idea of the Singularity — the theory that once computer systems become intelligent enough to improve themselves, technology will accelerate in weird and possibly cataclysmic ways. On the track "Ice Age," Maandig croons warmly enough to melt glaciers, and somebody plucks out a melody that's been patched together from about 50 different performances on real and virtual instruments.
At age 47, Reznor is no longer the tightly wound rock god of his youth, but his eyes still glint with focused intensity. He walks around the stage inspecting the surgical tubes, which have been rigged up front to form a semi-opaque projection screen for Sheridan's video art. How to Destroy Angels will be touring for just 13 shows — not much payoff for all the work in this warehouse. "We're never going to be the kind of band that gets in a van and tours for years at a time," Reznor says, "so let's make it more like an installation than a rock show."
It's a long way from the first Nine Inch Nails tour, when Reznor went out with "some green gels and a smoke machine." Reznor is gearing up to take Nine Inch Nails out on the road for the first time in four years this summer, with a reconfigured lineup that includes King Crimson's Adrian Belew on guitar and Jane's Addiction bassist Eric Avery. "It now feels like a privilege rather than a duty," Reznor says. "We've been thinking a lot about how to build a new engine: How can we make it feel current and vital?" Reznor's solution: "We're definitely going to put dubstep drops through pretty much every song," he says in a perfect deadpan.
Kidding aside, he wants this version of Nine Inch Nails to end up in the studio soon. "I hope we haven't crossed into nostalgia-act territory," he says. "But you never know."
Reznor put out the last two Nine Inch Nails albums by himself, but Welcome Oblivion is being released by a major label, Columbia. This is partly to make sure it reaches new listeners — his greatest fear is that old fans will write off the new project unheard. "'Oh, it's him and his wife,'" he imagines them saying. "Pffft."
Working with Maandig, Reznor learned that he needed "a new level of decorum." He would bluntly tell her that she hadn't sung a line well — only to realize that he really should have put that thought "through the spouse filter." He says their relationship remains happy, and hes looking forward to taking their kids on the road. "It's been pretty amazing to witness these blobs turning into little people," he says. That's as close as he gets to sentimentality.
The bandmates assemble on their cramped stage, dressed all in black — except Ross, who, in a daring experiment with color, is wearing a gray T-shirt. Reznor gets some gloves for the song where he'll play drums, and then makes sure that Maandig's synth controller is working properly. Maandig, wearing a floor-length skirt, prowls around the tubes, grabbing them and poking her head through them. On the lip of the stage, she practices placing her lithe body in angular postures.
They run through a dozen songs, and even without all the special effects working yet, the set is a hypnotic wonder. The music ripples like the tide, pulled by the gravitational force of Maandig's voice. Videos are projected on the surgical-tube scrim, ranging from abstract lunar landscapes to birds in flight; Sheridan makes the human beings onstage seem to be oscillating between higher and lower resolution. "The beginning is the end," the married couple chant. "And it keeps coming around again."