Trent Reznor learns he can write sober-- an interview from Dimple Records
He Hurt Himself Today
By Gary Graff
It's been six years since Nine Inch Nails' last studio effort; suffice it to say, architect Trent Reznor didn't spend all of them making With Teeth. Much of the period after 1999's double album The Fragile was pretty bleak, in fact. Reznor-a Pennsylvania native who started recording under the Nine Inch Nails moniker in 1987-had gone through rehab to overcome substance abuse prior to that behemoth. It proved to be a stopgap measure.
"I wasn't ready to completely believe that I was an addict," Reznor reveals. "So The Fragile comes out, debuts at #1, and I feel that I'm cured, so I start having drinks. We immediately go on tour for a year, and it's the worst year of my life. I almost die several times. By the end of the tour, I come back utterly defeated, spirit broken, soul gone, hating myself. That lasted a couple more months until I finally had enough and did whatever it would take to get better or I was gonna die."
Reznor resolved to take time off in 2001 and returned to rehab with a new mission in mind. "I needed to figure out who I am, what my priorities are, what matters to me, and what doesn't," he explains. He would eventually change residences-from New Orleans to Los Angeles-and ditch his longtime manager and friend John Malm in an effort "to do everything on Earth I can do to stay healthy and get my brain out of the living hell that I'd put it in.
"It was the best move I think I've ever made," Reznor says now. "I spent a couple years learning, listening, realizing I'm not the smartest guy in the world and I'm not the only person in the world, that the world doesn't revolve around me. Maybe I do need other people. Other people actually can have good ideas. Maybe I do need love. Maybe I need help occasionally, and that's okay.
"Mostly I learned that my way wasn't working, so I needed to find a new one."
Reznor worked on music throughout that process of self-discovery, too, but his priority was healing, not recording. He dealt with not only his substance addictions but also their root causes, which included self-esteem alarmingly low for an artist with three multi-platinum albums and a reputation as a leading force in and beyond the industrial rock world.
"I hadn't ever realized how governed by fear I had been up to that point," he explains. "I could walk backstage at a show, into a party-for me-and feel like I don't belong there, or I wasn't good enough to be in that room.
"That had also crept into the studio and the music environment that I thought I was confident in. There was always a nagging self-doubt that was plaguing me."
By the time Reznor started writing in earnest for With Teeth in January 2004 he felt healthy-but there were different kinds of doubts. As he sings on the album, "I think I used to have a purpose/ Then again, it might have been a dream."
"I wasn't sure that I could do it," he explains. "I didn't know if I'd destroyed my brain or could write sober."
He didn't have to worry long. "I started with lyrics and ideas just poured out of me," Reznor recalls. "It was the most creative burst I've probably ever had in my life, and during that time I regained my confidence on a musical level."
With Teeth was written over a period of five months, Reznor says, during which he came up with about 50 concepts for songs, as well as a somewhat convoluted thematic thread for the album-"It had a number of pretentious elements to it," he acknowledges-that was eventually abandoned. Instead, he held on to the best ideas, some of which were recorded with chief Foo Fighter Dave Grohl on drums.
"It all kind of happened at once," Reznor says of the album. "It wasn't any one song that came out that I thought 'Hey, this is really good.' It was just a lot of ideas, and I'd prepared myself that no matter what I did, it was going to be okay and I'd just keep writing more until I was happy.
"When I thought about it, I'd never turned to drugs or alcohol or anything for inspiration. It was always just to try to not feel so bad."
Reznor still vents much of his tortured soul throughout With Teeth, but there are also moments of unconflicted happiness. And of new musical ambitions. The opening track, "All the Love in the World," begins with hushed, foreboding ambience and builds into soulful, almost gospel-style testifying over a buoyant piano pattern.
"I thought it was kind of daring, starting with a track that was probably the least like Nine Inch Nails, but it seemed like the right thing to do," Reznor says. "I realized that the ultimate criteria really should be what it always has been, which is do I like it, and is it great? Do I get goosebumps when I listen to it? Yes? Then, okay, that's what it is.
"I don't remember sessions going like that in the past. They seemed to be a lot more cerebral, a lot more chin-scratching and thinking and discussing. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but this was just a different feel. I like it a lot better now."