In recording Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails’ first album in five years, Trent Reznor opened his wallet just a bit more than normal. “We splurged on some new, high-quality speakers in the studio,” he tells Rolling Stone. “So it’s mixed almost like a hip-hop record, with a lot of attention to the low end and how different levels of sound interact.” He’s now bringing that grandiose sound to arena stages, as Nine Inch Nails recently kicked off their “Tension 2013” tour in Minneapolis earlier this month. Reznor expects to be on the road for most of the next year (accompanied by his wife and his two sons, who are now two and three years old). We discussed how he started preparing for the tour: by listening to his back catalog. “I tend to not listen to my own music when I’m not working on it,” he says. “No real reason other than it’s nice to get away from it.”
When playing your old albums, did anything surprise you?
Yeah, I was kind of freaked out at how weird the last record [The Slip] sounds. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but listening to it, I was saying “What the fuck?”
How did you decide what songs would make the cut for the set list?
First, I think about what kind of tour it is. I toyed with the idea of deconstructing Nine Inch Nails into something akin to what I did at the Bridge School Benefit [in 2006, when he played with a string quartet]: reinterpret it in a way that feels interesting and a bit dangerous for me, flip it on its head, and present that in a theater-type environment. Well, that’s not the tour that was getting booked — it was Nine Inch Nails in headlining festival slots. And if I were to do something that was more obtuse, I’d want to make sure that it was clearly explained, avoiding as much disappointment as possible. I’ve attended many concerts where I felt let down and I was wishing it would be something else. Not that it’s their duty to please me, but at the same time I think a lot about what it’s like through the eyes of the consumer, the fan. I want not to pander to the audience, but to be aware of them.
On the other end of the transaction, what do you think people want out of Nine Inch Nails at this point?
That’s a good question — I don’t know. What I’m trying to do is be as pure as when I started. In the process of writing those first songs I realized that the only thing I can do well is express who I am truthfully. That has the most power. When I return to the writing process after being away from it for a while, the first part of it always is being honest with myself: What am I into right now? Is it rock bands and guitars, is it noise, is it dance beats and electronics? Is it space, is it clutter? And secondly, when it comes time to put pen to paper and express feelings, who am I right now? What do I, as a forty-seven or forty-eight-year-old man, have to say about anything? It takes time to rediscover that — in my day-to-day normal life I tend to not sit down and really think about how I feel. I’m not in therapy or in an AA meeting.
What was the spark behind “Came Back Haunted”?
We started with the bass groove over the drums. I played it on a cheap little Korg: not a keyboard but a touch pad, so it was kind of approximating where the notes would be. It came out not quite right — it felt uneasy, and interesting. I’d rather not get into what I’m talking about lyrically. I think it’s impossible not to demystify a song when saying what it’s about. Music and art can be damaged severely by too much information; I say that as somebody that has participated in that.
Is that why you pulled back from Twitter?
That’s the main reason, yeah. I was experimenting with it when I was on tour and in search of constant stimulus. People saw “Oh, he might have a sense of humor and he’s not living in a coffin.” That didn’t fit into the mold of what either the press or myself had built up over the years. But Twitter, more than any other form of social media, can be at its most destructive when you’re paying too much attention to what people are saying. Lots of people say, “I don’t read reviews.” I’ve said that and I’ve been lying through my teeth, because I can’t wait to read every fucking word. But in the last few years, I’ve stopped reading all of it. There’s power in just shutting down — there’s too much information in the world. This culture we live in, whether it’s Instagramming your salad or putting out a sex tape, it’s kind of vulgar.
Do you see aspects of your own personality in your sons?
It’s natural to project that onto them, but I’m not sure how much of that is accurate. I can see a real sense of independence in both of them. And tantrum throwing, okay, clearly that’s my wife. [Laughs.] The whole parenting thing is strange — everything that I tuned out in all the years of people talking about their kids, I realized there was a lot of truth to all that shit that I wasn’t listening to. You hear those same phrases coming out of your own mouth. The same thing happens when you get sober. The bullshit that you’ve been hearing from people, you realize they’re talking about it because there’s truth to it.
Has anyone pointed out to you that you’re eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year?
I feel neutral about it. It just seems so freaky. Being honest with you, the Oscar experience changed me. I’ve won Grammys in the past and it always felt like they didn’t mean anything. I got them for stupid fucking things like Best Metal Performance. If I’d won something I actually care about, like Best Packaging, that would’ve made me thought someone with taste was involved in the process. The experience of winning the Oscar for Social Network … I’m sure there are some bullshit aspects to that whole organization, but getting a glimpse into the film world as opposed to the music world, I was immediately impressed by how much more they care about things. It felt like it had some weight to it, and I was flattered. Then I thought, “Am I just being an asshole about the Grammys?” I don’t spend all day allowing myself to feel good about anything, generally. Once in a while, it’s okay to pause and say, “I felt like I did a good job and people agree, so that was nice.”