The Fragile Side of Nine Inch Nails
By Greg Kot
CDNOW Contributing Writer

Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor spent two years crafting one of the most richly layered rock albums ever made, the 1999 double-CD The Fragile. He blended instruments and sounds in previously untested combinations: using cardboard boxes and bicycle chains as a drum kit, tinkering with detuned mandolins and rusted synthesizers to conjure new sounds, and subverting even traditional instruments such as guitars and pianos until they sounded like alien intruders.

But whereas Nine Inch Nails' previous album, 1994's The Downward Spiral, turned into one of the last decade's defining works on its way to more than 3 million in sales, The Fragile has already sunk off The Billboard 200 after debuting at No. 1 last fall. The commercial setback has not gone unnoticed by Reznor, who, in a recent interview, discussed the state of a pop culture that clearly prefers Kid Rock and Britney Spears to his more emotionally complex brand of music.

CDNOW: Did you think the commercial climate for your work would change so radically?

Nine Inch Nails

Trent Reznor: When I went back in the studio, I started at ground zero, emotionally and artistically. I had to rebuild everything, rethink, expand, and get out of the corner I was walling myself into. The album mirrored what I was going through as a human being, trying to mature and awaken. I was aware it took a long time and the marketplace would change. But when it actually happens, the album starts at No. 1 and then falls into the hundreds in a few weeks; it's a weird sensation.

I was lucky with The Downward Spiral. It hit a nerve in popular culture. Now I don't know if I'm becoming obsolete or if the generation I came from doesn't exist anymore. It was a generation of music lovers who wanted some depth, who treated the music as art. But if you put a gun to my head and said name 10 great bands that have come out in the last five years, you'd be wiping my brains off the wall.

The climate right now supports disposability. There are less people who love music in the business and more people who want to make money from it, and treat it as product, disposable fluff. Without trying to sound too pretentious, I am trying to put out fine art, but I'm competing with things that are sculpted as product, and I am tremendously let down by that.

"Now I don't know if I'm becoming obsolete or if the generation I came from doesn't exist anymore."

What you once called ''easy sensationalism'' can help sell records, the myth of the dark, sinister, outrageous cartoon character that was created around you. What made you want to move on?

Coming out of Pretty Hate Machine, I put my diary out for people to look at. I told myself that was OK to do that, because no one would hear it anyway. It was sort of embarrassing, but it was also the best thing I could make at the time, and it meant something, because it had a truthfulness to it. I got success, which was unexpected, and I found myself learning about myself through how I was portrayed in the media. I didn't start out with this concept of an alter ego or a character, or an amplification of myself. It was me trying to tell the truth.

But around the Downward Spiral era the stakes went higher, and more people got involved, and there were more magazine covers and more myths to be created -- I was living in the Sharon Tate house and getting Marilyn Manson on his feet. The attitude was ''How could anyone be this depressed?'' I was the poster boy for angst. By the end of the tour for that album, I realized I'd succumbed to a lot of the things I never thought I'd turn into.

Trent Reznor

With The Fragile, I wanted to slow the train down, get off, and think about who I was, and what I wanted to do artistically. It's a more mature work and reflects how I've tried to grow as a person. But I realize that maybe I've let some people down, because it wasn't more extreme, more dark, and excessively evil, and I didn't come out with fangs and wake up in a coffin. That was then. This is who I am now.

Does it concern you that becoming a more stable person could adversely affect your ability to write cathartic rock songs?

There was a time when I wondered, ''What if I do find what I'm looking for? Will I have anything to say and will it matter?'' But what I learned in making The Fragile is that coming from a more stable platform I can still create. I felt less desperate in a sense, and more free. All the ideas don't come from being depressed and suicidal. I regained a confidence in myself.

You've to a degree modeled yourself after artists like David Bowie and Roger Waters, who made albums that weren't always appreciated in their time, but have grown in stature over the years. Is that where you see The Fragile fitting in?

I'd love it if 20 years from now, one of my records is referenced like [Talking Heads'] Remain in Light or [Bowie's] Low. But the troubling aspect to me is that in the '70s music was still looked at more as art than as just product. The only thing I can do about it as a musician is make music I think matters to me and inspires me, and motivates me. I hope, if nothing else, somebody puts on my record and goes, ''What the hell is that?'' That would be great, because I got a reaction. It wasn't like a fast-food cheeseburger.

"I was the poster boy for angst I realized I'd succumbed to a lot of the things I never thought I'd turn into."

The Fragile is an album about having the discipline to pull yourself together against debilitating odds. How much of that is personal?

Nine Inch Nails was an experiment with me in discipline. I realized when I was 23 that I had never really tried anything. Schoolwork came easy to me. I learned to play piano effortlessly. I was coasting. I realized that I was afraid to really, really try something, 100 percent, because I had never reached true failure. I knew I liked music, but I didn't know if whatever I made would be good, so it was easier to not do it. That same fear is what stalled me from working on this record.

After The Downward Spiral period, I was finished emotionally. And I didn't want to deal with the question of what if I don't have anything to say anymore? What if I get stuck? So I kept putting it off. I even spent a week rearranging my studio, because I was afraid to open the notebook and see what was inside. For me, what was special about The Fragile was chronicling that whole period of self-repair. I haven't emerged out of it unscathed, but I've put the pieces back together and made a stronger foundation to stand on.