Trent Reznor is ready to sing. Bent slightly at the waist, tightly gripping the microphone as if he's about to wring its little metallic neck, Reznor closes his eyes – shutting out the winking lights and splashy computer graphics around him in the main control room at Nothing Studios in New Orleans and waits for the music to roll in his headphones.
When it does, Reznor sounds like he's bellowing from deep inside a shaken id. "I've become impossible/Holding on to when/ Everything seemed to matter more," he rages over the martial crunch of "We're in This Together," one of more than two dozen songs on Nine Inch Nails' new album, The Fragile, tentatively set for release in September as a double CD. In fact, Reznor – who is Nine Inch Nails; who has written, produced and, save a few odd licks, played every note on The Fragile – is cool, collected and utterly in control.
Take after take breaks down. Reznor's voice veers out of tune; he hasn't written enough words; in midverse, a computer program abruptly quits. Disappointed, Reznor takes a fast dinner break, then has another prolonged crack at the song. For two hours, he plays over a loop of the first verse of "We're in This Together," zipping through various keyboard and guitar effects: glacial synth howls; Kraftwerkian bleeps; greasy slide guitar; wah-wah; what Reznor gleefully calls "Jesus and Mary Chain distortion." "We're not getting anywhere," he says to Keith Hillebrandt, an in-house programmer at Nothing, and ex-Skinny Puppy producer Dave Ogilvie, who's also doing production work on the album. "Let's just fuck around and see what comes."
When Reznor calls it quits at midnight to attend to other new album business (he is in the thick of album-cover and video matters even though he is still recording), "We're in This Together" is far from done. Reznor does not have any new, keeper parts – nothing he is ecstatic about, anyway. But he's got a lot of ideas preserved on hard drive (and backed up on digital tape) for further study.
"The important thing is to keep tape rolling," says Hillebrandt, waving a yellow legal pad full of notes detailing what Reznor has just played. "You never know when Trent's going to do something that he wants to use later on. This whole song started from something he actually played at the end of another track. He wrote it up into an entirely new song."
"It's been madness," Reznor admits, earlier in the day, of the nearly two years he has taken to make The Fragile. He gestures at the armory of guitars and keyboards to one side of the control room, at the more than seventy effects pedals strewn across the floor here in the nerve center of Nothing Studios, a former funeral home in New Orleans that Reznor purchased in April 1995. "Ninety-five percent of this record was written in this room," he says. "Which is not the way to quickly make albums."
Reznor, who recently turned thirty-four, does not look worse for the wear. He is clean-shaven, his jet-black hair cut short. In a gray-green shirt, black pants and sneakers, he seems fit, focused, ready for serious labor. "This record," he says, "has been about going off on tangents – about starting in one spot, the feather floats over to another spot, then starts to go this way. The next song picks up where that left off, and moves that way."
To illustrate his point, he plays the final mix of the album's initial single, "The Day the World Went Away." One part has massed, Black Sabbath-like guitars suspended in echo with discreet electronics and a slightly askew acoustic guitar that proves to be a ukulele. Another section is even more airy – somber piano, acoustic bass, a clean, intimate Reznor vocal, a mere eight lines of lyrics. Compared with the violent density of Nine Inch Nails' 1992 EP, Broken, and the '94 smash The Downward Spiral, "The Day the World Went Away" is buoyant, spacey menace – with no drums whatsoever.
Reznor plays a couple of electrometal bruisers – "The Wretched" and "Starfuckers, Inc.," the latter the B side of "The Day the World Went Away" – that are viciously, unmistakably Nine Inch Nails. But he seems proudest of, and most nervous about, detours like "La Mer" and "Into the Void." "La Mer" is built on a circular piano melody ("My Debussy nod," says Reznor) that, when outfitted with drums and electronics in "Into the Void," turns into sleazy machine funk: Prince crossbred with Kiss and Einsturzende Neubauten.
"It's real hard for me to have any degree of objectivity," Reznor says of The Fragile. "People say, 'What's it sound like?' I don't fucking know. I like it. It is by far the best record I've ever done. But it appears to be one of those records that doesn't jump out of the speakers, that announces it's at the top of the charts, right from the first song. Nor was it intended to be that."
Reznor's intentions for The Fragile – the first Nine Inch Nails studio album in five years – underwent several seismic shifts before he and engineer/co-producer Alan Moulder formally set to work in September 1997. Reznor briefly entertained the notion of recording with a full band before reverting to his mostly one-man-combo ways. (Guest contributors to The Fragile include David Bowie pianist Mike Garson, guitarist Adrian Belew and Ministry drummer William Rieflin.) "When I get ideas, I'll get twenty of them at once," Reznor says. "It's hard for me, trying to wait for someone to catch up."
At the suggestion of his friend, producer Rick Rubin, Reznor also went into classic rock-songwriter isolation for two and a half months – with a tape recorder and a grand piano in a house in Big Sur, on the Northern California coast. "This sprang from Rick and I talking," Reznor explains. "Is a good song a melody over a series of chord changes and meaningful lyrics? If so, how many of your songs can you play with an acoustic guitar in front of a campfire? 'OK, I'll show you. I'll sit at the piano and write Billy Joel songs.' But I'm singing out there, thinking, 'This sucks.'" One piece of music Reznor salvaged from the escapade was "La Met."
"There was time-wasting involved in this whole thing; I won't lie to you," Reznor concedes. Nor will he deny that he blew a lot of time on a crisis of confidence, a near total loss of conviction in what he had to say and the music through which he said it. In 1997, Reznor's grandmother died at age eighty-five. When Reznor was five, his parents separated and his grandmother raised him. "I didn't deal with it," he says quietly of her passing. "I just tried to pretend that it didn't happen."
And, Reznor adds pointedly, "my best friends turned on me." Asked who those "friends" were, he replies, "A group of people I spent some time with, recorded an album with, and their name has two words in it and they start with the letter M" – a thinly veiled reference to former protegés Marilyn Manson.
"I took time to get my head straight," Reznor goes on. "Ironically, it was doing this record that fixed me. Because that's what always fixed me in the past. I was just too stupid to realize it." Moulder, who was also the mixing engineer on The Downward Spiral, attests to the volatile mix of ambition and insecurity in Reznor's working methods: "He gets frustrated with himself – if he's got an idea and he can't play it on guitar as well as he wants. But he likes setting himself big tasks. He'll never back down from a challenge. The best thing that could happen to a song is, I'd say, 'It's not cutting it.' He will then be determined to make it work."
Reznor says Nine Inch Nails will definitely tour in support of the new record: "Not like we did before, but a fair amount. Ten times around Arkansas – I don't think that's going to happen this time." He estimates he'll need about 700 singers in the band, "because I put a full-on Freddie Mercury tribute on some of these songs." But even before he hits the road, Reznor plans to keep recording once he's finished The Fragile for another project – a collaboration with hip-hop auteur Dr. Dre. "He worked on the mix of one of the tracks for the record," Reznor explains. "I got to see how he works, and it seemed very different – far less knobs," he notes, laughing. "I think meeting him halfway would be interesting. He's never seen recording the way we do it, which can get unnecessarily complicated. 'This song has four hard drives and tape backup' – all that bullshit. I'm interested in downscaling, being a little more efficient."
But not too efficient. One example of the indulgence Reznor allowed himself on The Fragile comes near the end of "Pilgrimage," a vigorous stomp with spooky, choral vocals, Arabic-flavored guitar and, near the end, what sounds like a big, university-strength marching band.
"It shouldn't have taken place," Reznor says sheepishly. "The track was done. But at the end, I said, 'That's such a bizarre theme. What would it sound like played by a marching band going down the street?' A week later" – he nods in the direction of one of the studio's king-size Macintosh computers – "there's a band marching through the song. It's all on synthesizer."
New Orleans, of course, is a city full of marching bands. "It would have been easier to get a band than it was to do it the way I did," Reznor admits, grinning. "And it started with, 'Give me two hours.' If I ever say that, order Domino's and get the coffee on. We're gonna be here for a while."
This story is from the July 8th 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.