Nailing Down the Sound
Explaining the genesis of Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile
By Alan Sculley
May 2000 from: spectator online

Trent Reznor
The man behind Nine Inch Nails

When fans last saw Nine Inch Nails, the band had reached a commercial peak few could have anticipated. Having helped pioneer and popularize the industrial rock sound with the the 1989 debut CD, Pretty Hate Machine, frontman Trent Reznor and company had blasted into the mainstream behind the '94's The Downward Spiral. That summer, the band stole the thunder from heavyweight acts like Metallica and Aerosmith at Woodstock '94 with a searing, mud-soaked performance that generated a torrent of publicity for the band. A lengthy, full-scale tour further accelerated the momentum, and by the time Nine Inch Nails completed their ride, sales of The Downward Spiral had hit five million worldwide.

But the group's long-awaited follow-up The Fragile, has failed to make the same kind of tidal wave splash. The double CD did debut at No. 1 upon its release last fall, but it quickly retreated down the charts.

Though sales of the CD have passed the one million mark, the lead single, "We're In This Together," didn't catch fire on radio. This hasn't come as a shock to anyone in the Nine Inch Nails camp, according to Danny Lohner, bassist in the touring lineup of the band and one of only two group members (keyboardist Charlie Clouser was the other) who assisted Reznor in the recording of the CD.

"I knew it wasn't going to be easy," says Lohner. And according to the bassist, neither did Reznor. "He just doesn't care. He just wants to make [a CD] like what he would have thought was cool when he was a kid," explains Lohner.

Indeed, it's not hard to understand how a CD like The Fragile - even with Nine Inch Nail's name recognition - could struggle in today's music market. When The Downward Spiral was released, grunge had become the big trend in rock, and the brooding, tortured lyrics and sonic landscape of Nine Inch Nails fit with the raw and emotionally charged music of popular groups like Nirvana and Alice In Chains.

By contrast, The Fragile is quite different from the frothy teen pop that has taken over the charts in the past year.

While guitars play a larger role than on past records, programmed rhythms and dense, buzzing computer-generated tones still typify the sound. The album is filled with plenty of lyrical turbulence. The songs do little to reveal the stories behind the lyrics, but general themes of emotional decay, disillusionment, self-doubt, depression and desperation ring throughout the two CDs worth of music.

It is the culmination of four years of emotional and creative upheaval for Reznor.

Coming off the tour behind The Downward Spiral Reznor found himself needing some serious emotional readjustment. He told Rolling Stone recently that he felt spiritually empty and had lost his musical passion.

Hoping a change of scenery would help ignite the creative fires, he left his adopted home base of New Orleans and retreated to a house in California's Big Sur. Instead, the isolation only created a sense of loneliness and continued his bout of writer's block.

Things got even darker when Reznor's grandmother - the woman who had raised him after his parents split when he was 5 - died. There was also an ugly split with Marilyn Manson whose debut album Reznor had co-produced.

Against this emotionally charred backdrop, Reznor returned to New Orleans and began pouring out musical ideas. Soon the songs were piling up.

"Trent didn't know what direction he wanted to go so he was working on a lot of different directions," Lohner says.

In fact, a year into the project Reznor had what he described to Rolling Stone as an "abstract blob" of a CD. To try to make some sort of sense of the volume of material, Reznor brought in Bob Ezrin, the veteran producer known for his work with Kiss and Pink Floyd's The Wall, to try and find a coherent song sequence.

With Ezrin's help, The Fragile began to take shape as a double CD - even though there were concerns that even this might be more music than many fans wanted.

"I'm proud to have been involved in it," says Lohner. "But if it was my decision, I would have done some stuff differently. I would have made it a shorter album, and I would have put some of the songs [that were left off] on."

An interesting sidenote to The Fragile is that the project didn't start out to be such a typically self-contained creation of Reznor. The original thought for the next Nine Inch Nails recording was that it would be more of a collaborative effort. During the tour behind The Downward Spiral, Reznor had toyed with having the band members (Lohner, Clouser, guitarist Robin Finck and drummer Jerome Dillon) join him in doing the next CD.

That never got off the ground, but initially Lohner expected to be more involved in the songwriting. Lohner had co-written the song "The Perfect Drug" for the soundtrack to the film The Lost Highway. This marked the first time Reznor had collaborated with a band member on a song. Reznor then asked Lohner to begin working on music for the next record.

"When he was busy [producing] Marilyn Manson, I made tons and tons of demos," Lohner states. "What we were supposed to do basically, was turn in song beds and see if he wanted to use them to turn them into full songs or not. [But] he started to work on his ideas and he got so many of them so quick that boom, we never went back to mine."

In the end Lohner co-wrote the CD's lead track, "Somewhat Damaged," played guitar on several tracks and had musical ideas incorporated into a few other songs. Still, that's more involvement than Reznor usually allows for other musicians. But Lohner thinks he knows why he has earned a degree of Reznor's trust since joining the touring lineup prior to The Downward Spiral shows.

"We're very different people, but I think the reason we get along so well is I'm a dependable person and he appreciates that," opines Lohner. "I don't even drink or anything. He appreciates that I'm a solid guy he knows will be there when he needs something done. He knows that I understand the vibe. I've proven myself to him that I understand where he's coming from and he has no hassles about that, so I think it works out."

Nine Inch Nails appear Saturday, May 13, 8 p.m., at Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek, 3801 Rock Quarry Road., Raleigh. $46-$31. 834-4000.