Trent Reznor, the man behind Nine Inch Nails, talks to Adam Sweeting.
News Unlimited November 1999

He's gloomy, obsessive and almost had a breakdown. No wonder teenagers love him.

The opening track on Nine Inch Nails' latest album, The Fragile, is called Somewhat Damaged. Building from a simple cluster of ascending notes, it grows into a shrieking metal juggernaut of palpitating bass lines, roaring robot percussion and bellowing vocals. It could be a perfect description of its creator, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor.

On a fleeting visit to London to plug the album and trail his band's forthcoming tour, Reznor in person is entirely at odds with the brooding and vaguely satanic Reznor of industrial-techno-rock legend ("the most vital artist in music today", according to the excitable Spin magazine). Somewhat damaged from a cold, probably not quite sure which European capital he's in today, Reznor slips into the room like a man who'd prefer to remain anonymous. Gone are the shoulder-length hair and the wizard's goatee of yesteryear. Pale, short-haired, wearing a battered black leather jacket and scuffed boots, he could be any old Goth.

Until he starts talking, that is. Reznor doesn't do interviews, exactly; he delivers a carefully prepared monologue about the conception, gestation and laborious birth of The Fragile, then segues into a comprehensive survey of the difficulties involved in translating such multi-layered, complicated music into something that can be played on-stage by a small band of musicians. From time to time, the interviewer's attempts to jump in with a question seem to remind him that he's babbling like one of the endless drum-loops on his album. "I'll just blab for a second, then you can direct me into whatever blanks I didn't fill in," he offers helpfully.

If one were feeling uncharitable, one could categorise Reznor as a nerdish egomaniac incapable of seeing beyond his catalogue of private obsessions. After all, this is a guy who doesn't just play the game Quake on his computer, he writes music for it too. But that wouldn't explain the astonishingly broad appeal of his gloomy but frequently majestic music, with 1994's The Downward Spiral selling 5m copies and its predecessor, Pretty Hate Machine, logging a satisfactory 3m. Nor would it suggest the vulnerability that is probably what makes him keep talking in order to fend off awkward questions.

Where many would see Reznor's career as a spectacular success story, he tends to view it as a gruelling saga of struggle and near-failure. He makes the story of how Downward Spiral boosted him to superstardom sound almost tragic.

"I really expected Downward Spiral to fail critically and commercially, because I almost apologised when I handed it over to the record company," he remembers mournfully. Instead, it was a monster hit, and Reznor found himself touring the Spiral material for the next two years. Naturally, he wasn't happy.

"I realised something had happened with me. My brain had kinda changed, and I'd fallen into believing the hype a little bit. Also I was making music that had an extreme emotional content to it, and I was out there every night screaming my guts out explaining some pain I'd had in me. Then I was reading about myself in the press and my self-image became distorted by what I read. I can understand why I'm pigeonholed into this character, this doom-and-gloom guy and this self-destructive guy, because I've painted that picture to some degree. But after the tour was over, I was trying to hide the fact that I was generally unhappy about my whole life. I realised there was this big hole inside me that was unfulfilled."

A combination of music-making and professional therapy helped him to work through his problems. "I'd forgotten that I loved making music, and in all the bullshit surrounding it I'd lost track of why it mattered to me. I went into therapy at that point, because I found myself at the can't-get-out-of-bed stage and it wasn't fun. I'd always flirted with depression a little bit and it motivated me to write, but it got to the point where it was scary. Therapy helped me, and it gave me a few reasons why I'd behaved in a certain way. It gave me the courage to sit down and allow myself to fail at writing. Once I did, everything gushed out, and it gave me the feeling that, OK, I do have worth, and I have something valuable to say."

Trent Reznor's emotional fragility has been crucial to his reputation. In an America of lost and lonely teenagers, where some go missing and some go nuts and indulge in psychotic shooting-sprees, Reznor has become a last-gasp safety net. In the same way that country music's yarns about death, divorce and drunkenness have traditionally comforted blue-collar America, Reznor's dark, pulverising music is perversely reassuring.

Hence he was the perfect choice to assemble the soundtrack album for Oliver Stone's movie Natural Born Killers. Although he had to drive himself to the limits to get the job finished, locking himself away in his hotel room with his computers in the middle of a Nine Inch Nails tour, Reznor seized the opportunity to create a swirling, multi-layered collage of sounds that seemed to echo the film's themes of motiveless murder and self-destruction. "It was a pain in the ass to do it," he reflects now, "but all in all it was a cool experience, and probably affected me in terms of the layering of sounds and the juxtaposition of sounds."

Reznor's solitary mastery of studio technology further endears him to a generation who often find their friends in internet chat-rooms rather than in clubs or cafes. The making of The Fragile duly found him rearranging his whole life around a non-stop recording routine in his own Nothing Studios in New Orleans.

"I established a new lifestyle routine of being in the studio all the time. This record took two solid years of being in the studio every day. When I started the album, I didn't feel emotionally ready. I didn't feel tough enough to take on a project, because I was beat down to almost breakdown stage. Once it started, for the first time in my creative experience I had too much material to deal with."

Reznor was happy with his creative partnership with producer Alan Moulder, and when he compared his new music with his previous efforts he realised he'd reached new levels of sophistication. But he also realised he didn't have a clue how to arrange and sequence his stockpile of tracks. Even after deciding to risk the "potentially pretentious" decision of making a double CD, he couldn't make everything fit. He decided to send for veteran producer Bob Ezrin, who collaborated with Alice Cooper and worked on one of Reznor's favourite albums, Pink Floyd's The Wall.

"He was a very smart guy. It was like having a professor grade your paper. He was what I'd always thought a producer should be, teaching you things, and he'd tell stories about how he got Alice Cooper to sing in front of a full-length mirror and then he'd get a good performance - just shit like that."

After several attempts, Ezrin finally concocted a running order that made everything tick along like thermonuclear clockwork. Reznor could hardly believe it. "I called him into the room, tried not to have him read my face, and said, 'Bob - you did it, man.' He said 'I know.' He gave me a hug and said, 'I have a flight to catch. See you later.' "

So that was the record finished. All Reznor had to do next was work out how to convert his multi-tracked sequencers, computers, synthesisers and "Freddie Mercury-style stacked vocals" into something performable on-stage. Since Nine Inch Nails are preparing to blitzkrieg this country, we'll see how well he managed it.

Nine Inch Nails play the Brixton Academy, London SW9, on November 29 and December 1. Box office: 0171-771 2000. A new single, We Are Together, is out next month.