Globe Newspaper April 2000

Trent Reznor hammers out his own turf

Thumbing through a recent Billboard magazine proved to be a real downer for Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Reznor has never been known as rock's resident optimist, but he was genuinely depressed upon seeing the number of mindless, lowest-common-denominator rock bands and teen acts that rule the top of the charts.

''It really is a terrible situation right now,'' says Reznor, whose continued effort to bring an artistic sensibility to rock 'n' roll comes at a time when artlessness is king.

''I don't mean to sound like the bitter, crotchety guy whose record didn't sell as well as somebody projected it would,'' says Reznor, ''but the lack of intelligent music or challenging music or anything that is risk-taking is really frustrating, aside from the occasional hip-hop track that is inventive, then is ripped off by everybody else.

''I can't think of anything in rock that has excited me lately,'' he adds. ''The bands that are somewhat exciting seem to be playing it safe and repeating themselves. I'd say Rage Against the Machine is an example of that. They're a really good band, but they keep writing the same song. I hold them in high regard, but I don't hear anything that's really making people think.'' ''And, sadly, the business climate that bands have to deal with now is horrible for creativity. Creativity is not encouraged and it's certainly not rewarded. It's all about finding your niche in the demographic of the people that you're going to sell your product to. It has nothing to do with art or integrity.''

And then comes this verbal coup de grace:

''If the public likes what's on MTV and on the charts right now, then I don't want to appeal to those people,'' says Reznor. ''That's not the demographic that I care to ship units to. I want to appeal to people who demand and expect more.''

Appealing to a smaller mass

Reznor's art/industrial rock machine, Nine Inch Nails, is still selling concert tickets in high numbers - witness a sold-out date at the Worcester Centrum Centre this Tuesday. But its record sales have tapered off with ''The Fragile,'' a stunning, if sometimes confusing, double album that has sold less than a million copies, versus the 4 million of NIN's previous disc, ''The Downward Spiral'' (1994), and 3 million of its debut, ''Pretty Hate Machine'' (1989).

Critics have generally embraced ''The Fragile'' - Spin magazine dubbed it the album of the year in 1999 - but many consumers have been standoffish. They are apparently unwilling to wade into the dark despair of some of Reznor's musings, even though the lyrics, overall, are more positive than on the wrenching ''Downward Spiral.'' While there are songs like ''The Big Come Down'' and ''Into the Void'' (''tried to save myself but my self kept slipping away''), there also are rays of hope in the single, ''We're in This Together'' (''we will make it though somehow''), and the title track, which declares, ''I won't let you fall apart.''

''I know as a person I was in a much better, healthier mind space than I was when I did `Downward Spiral,''' says Reznor, speaking from a tour stop in Grand Rapids, Mich. ''Every record has just been a mirror of where I've been at the time I've done it.''

The 35-year-old Reznor, who grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania but now lives in New Orleans, where he operates his famed Nothing Studio, realizes that some people might find him to be a ''pretentious ass.'' He admits, ''I struggled with that when I was finishing `Fragile.' I thought, `Is this palatable? Is this intriguing? Will someone give it a chance? Or is it just a load of self-indulgent crap?' I was trying to check myself on that. I'll let others be the judge on how well I've succeeded.''

Regardless, Reznor sticks by his instincts. When asked if it might have been wise to shorten the record to a single album instead of a double album, he refuses to budge.

''If I could do it again, I would keep it the way it is,'' he says. ''There is an argument that could be made that a more concise record that is more focused and more song-oriented rather than spatial may have been easier for a short-attention-span public to bite into. But that's not what I chose to do.''

The Pink link

Some observers have maintained that ''The Fragile,'' with its grand, techno-rock sweep balanced by heart-piercing ballads and instrumental interludes, was Reznor's attempt to update Pink Floyd's ''The Wall'' for the new millennium. He even brought in producer Bob Ezrin, who had worked with Pink Floyd, to sequence the tracks.

''Obviously, Pink Floyd has been an influence,'' he says. ''To me, `The Wall' was kind of the blueprint for the concept album. And people are still interested in that record because it had a pretty cohesive and interesting plot. But with `Fragile,' I really went at it from a purely subconscious level and that's what flowed out of me. `The Downward Spiral' was more of an attempt to make a plot-line album, a concept album.

''But `Fragile' was more sprawling. I wanted to see what was in me and let it come out. But it was Ezrin who said, `Oh, by the way, there is a narrative to a degree going on here - and here are some themes that you keep repeating.' It was interesting to be analyzed that way.''
Reznor is now grappling with how many songs from ''The Fragile'' to include in NIN's live show. ''We're doing a pretty good chunk of it - I'd say seven, eight, or nine songs. But I now have to judge `Fragile' from its commercial performance. I have to think, `OK, do people want to hear stuff from this album or should it be a greatest-hits show?' But, really, I love this album and it's the reason I'm out touring right now.

''We learned every song on the record and really could perform it, but there are a lot of songs in the same tempo range that wouldn't work in a live environment. I'm just trying to figure out how much to do, because I've also been a fan who goes to see shows and thinks of the band, `Oh, God, more stuff off the new album? I want to hear your old favorites.' So I try to make it a satisfying balance for all.''

A well-known studio perfectionist, Reznor tries to translate that same work ethic to NIN's concerts. The set design was done by Mark Brickman, who has also worked with Pink Floyd, though it was completed by Roy Bennett, who worked on NIN's ''Downward Spiral'' tour. ''We've had some personnel changes,'' admits Reznor. ''Brickman is a talented guy, but his sensibility was in sharp contrast to mine.''

The visual highlights of the show, for Reznor, are the mid-set videos done by Bill Viola, an acclaimed figure who does not do rock videos, but instead specializes in video installations in museums and art galleries. This is his first partnership with a rock band.

''I'd just like to elevate the concept of a rock performance, rather than have it be the same thing all the time in a venue designed for sporting events,'' says Reznor. ''I'm just trying to notch up the intellect a couple of levels. That's what appeals to me.''