The Fragile World of Trent Reznor

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"I thought Big Sur would be a nice break," he says and smiles. "It was sheer terror. Isolation on the side of a mountain, an hour from the nearest grocery store. I really didn't want to be by myself. I wasn't prepared for it."

Reznor's loneliness was deepened by the loss of his grandmother and his split with Marilyn Manson. The two went from trusted friends to bitter rivals; reportedly, the final straw came when Reznor heard that Manson wanted David Bowie to produce the Antichrist follow-up, Mechanical Animals. "I don't want to get into a 'he said, he said,'" Reznor says about Manson, "but to sum that scene up, I think fame and power distort people's personalities. He and I are two strong personalities that could coexist for a while, but things changed. I'm not pointing fingers at him 100 percent, but some lines were crossed that really hurt me when I was down – real down. He was a best friend, and it was a shitty way to lose him." Reznor gets up and looks at the door. "It's hard. It makes you rethink a lot of things you thought were special: Were you blind to them the whole time? How stupid was I? Listen, I don't really want to talk about this – that's all I want to say. I've got to take a piss." And off he goes. It won't be the last time. When our talks turn too personal, Reznor is quick to end them by politely and firmly leaving the room.

Trent Reznor is a network of balanced contradictions – and all the richer for it. His music can be as abrasive as chain saws or as melodious as birds – often in the same four minutes. Until The Fragile, he worked almost exclusively with machines but expertly wrung earthy warmth from their chips and bits. As much as his music screams "Fuck you," it whispers "Love me." It can sound simple, but it is meticulously crafted and complexly programmed. Reznor uncorks chaos but has the intelligence to harness it. As industrial, distorted and thrashing as Nine Inch Nails are, there is an inherent groove to the music that can't be learned – like Prince, like Sly Stone.

Reznor's lyrics, he says, come from his gut. They are culled from journal entries and are intensely personal yet tell us little of him. He engages in microscopic self-editing and self-analysis, but he will be the first to tell you he runs from his problems. Above all, Reznor is driven, a man possessed of a vision only he can fully see. He is the type who is most inspired when his back is against the wall. "I came to realize," says Alan Moulder, producer of Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, engineer for My Bloody Valentine and engineer/co-producer of The Fragile, "that the best thing to tell Trent is that you don't think a song is working. If he thinks something's beating him, he won't stop until he's beaten it." Moulder should know. He spent two years with Reznor on this album, watching it grow from unfocused instrumental snippets into a two-hour sonic journey – serving as a collaborator as much as a producer.

The two began with the bits Reznor had compiled, some ideas from Big Sur, most from afterward. "I wanted to let what felt right come out without allowing myself to think about where it was going," Reznor says. "That's also what made the record difficult." The experiments were unlimited: No clock was running. Reznor, who is classically trained on piano and well-versed in synth, found himself drawn to guitars. "It's typical of him," Moulder says. "You know people saying 'Rock is dead.' Everybody else is hanging guitars up, and he decides to do a guitar record with solos and everything. He's as good as anybody I've worked with at conveying emotion with his playing. He's always looking for an angle you'd never think of taking."

"I'm pretty studied in keyboard instruments," Reznor says, "but I don't understand the guitar very well. There's an imperfection to it that helped me get a more. emotional connection to the music: You strum it with your hand or bang it; it can go out of tune; certain notes buzz. Not to get super literal, but it gives the album a more fragile feet."

As the volume of material grew, the pair devised a grid of influences to keep track of things. There were category headings like Tom Waits, Bone Machine; Organic Funk; and Atari Teenage Riot. It was a way to set sonic goals. "Nothing was ever suggested and not done," Moulder says. "The unwritten rule was, 'We'll try everything.' We'd spend a day getting a load of cardboard boxes and a metal barrel. We'd mike them up and he'd play on them. The marching sound on 'Pilgrimage' is actually bits of stuff in a box being shaken."

At the end of a year's time, Reznor had nothing but "an abstract blob" of a record. He hadn't started this album with a story line, as he had The Downward Spiral. Now he needed someone to find one. Reznor and Moulder sent for Bob Ezrin, producer of The Wall, a constant Reznor touchstone. Ezrin, who has worked with everyone from Alice Cooper to Berlin, flew to New Orleans for one week and powered through three or four different sequences until he nailed it. "The most important thing about a continuous listening experience," Ezrin says, living up to his Seventies rock legacy, "is defining the four corners of the album first – the beginnings and endings of the first and second acts – while staying true to the journey. It was important to fail two or three times. The last failure opened so many doors that it fell into place in a matter of hours."

There is a journey at the center of The Fragile, one laden with dreamlike (and nightmarish) imagery and unexpected twists. It begins ominously and ends uncertainly, with a sense that space has been traveled but no destination reached. The ocean is a recurring theme – sinking beneath it, rising from it, looking to it for something or someone. Overall, it is an album to keep a psychiatrist (or an armchair one) pretty busy: Is this a quest for self-discovery? A map of the subconscious? A diary of a co-dependent relationship? It could be all of them, and it could be none of them.

After he completes an album, long before it is on sale, Trent Reznor gives a copy to each of his parents. Considering the subject matter – suicide, sex, bondage – it must be squirmy. "It's always a little awkward," he says. "You know, like, 'I'm OK, I'm OK. Don't worry about it.'" This album is different. "It's more about a sense of purity or morality and a preservation of that. It's about the search. And you don't arrive at a nice tidy conclusion."

The wind is pinning Trent Reznor's hair down and lifting his black T-shirt almost over his head. He is sitting in the front of a forty-foot powerboat, skipping over the waves off Nassau, in the Bahamas. After five days of nonstop rehearsals here, he and his band are heading for a day off on a private island where the boat's captain will cook up grouper stew and spiced rice for the band, crew and road managers. Reznor is gnarled into the same posture he assumes onstage: shoulders rolled forward, arm gripping a bar in front of him. But he is smiling, laughing and gleefully looking around as the boat repeatedly jumps out of the water. Behind him, keyboard player-programmer Charlie Clouser and guitarist Robin Finck clown around, letting the wind catch their lips and distort their faces.

They aren't the same crazed crypt keepers who left a trail of smashed keyboards across the country four years ago. They will be quick to tell you they've changed – and that they needed to. It wasn't just Reznor who tried to live up to the tour's name: The Self-Destruct Tour. Finck also had to find his way back to earth. After spending a lost year in New Orleans, he joined Cirque de Soleil for a year as its guitarist. "It was exactly what I needed – a 180-degree, polar-opposite change," he says. Finck then spent time working with Guns n' Roses, a project he may return to after the upcoming Nine Inch Nails tour. "I was with Axl for a little over two years," he says, "and we recorded dozens of songs together. I'm really proud of what we did as a band. I'm anxious to see how it's completed." Well, will it be? "Oh, yes," Finck says, grinning. "You may depend on it."

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