July 25, 2013
Nine Inch Nails Is Back Onstage, With a Vengeance
By JON PARELES
LOS ANGELES — Trent Reznor was not happy. Sitting ramrod straight, dressed in a black T-shirt and black shorts, he was staring with grim concentration as his band, Nine Inch Nails, worked through their set in a full-scale production rehearsal at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Smoke, strobe lights and video screens on wheels restlessly reconfigured themselves as the band performed, without Mr. Reznor’s lead vocals and instruments. Through song after song, his glare and scowl barely wavered; he’d look away only to tap notes into his laptop. After the band ran through the full set, he convened the musicians and technicians in a back room, well away from a visiting journalist.
“I don’t like having to yell at people,” he said the next day. “But I was letting them know the severity of the situation.” A lot had to shape up, and very soon.
In the course of a daylong tech rehearsal, some of it would. Powerful stage lights would no longer wash out video screens; the speed and density of interactive displays featuring cascades of virtual particles would be adjusted; the “chaos” and “turbulence” Mr. Reznor and his art director, Rob Sheridan, wanted to arise in each song would be calibrated to their specifications.
In 10 days Nine Inch Nails would be on tour for the first time since 2009, when Mr. Reznor had his band “disappear for a while,” as he wrote on the band’s Web site. “Hesitation Marks” (Columbia), a new Nine Inch Nails album that sounds radically different from the guitar-driven blasts of aggression that the band released before the hiatus, is due for release on Sept. 3.
“Hesitation Marks” — the term for the self-inflicted wounds of people contemplating suicide — veers toward the electronic and the pointillistic, and it reveals its anxieties and longings more subtly than much of the Nine Inch Nails catalog. It looks back, from a distance of two decades, on “The Downward Spiral,” Mr. Reznor’s 1994 masterpiece that contemplated self-destruction and suicide during a period of personal and career turmoil; it became Nine Inch Nails’ musical and commercial breakthrough. It also, in the long run, will test how fans respond to a more grown-up Nine Inch Nails. “I’m proud of it,” Mr. Reznor said. “What fear I had — of ‘What does Nine Inch Nails have to say in 2013?’ — this is it. I don’t feel like it’s trying to force something into the wrong container.”
The band is introducing a few of the new songs before the album’s release as it plays headlining slots at 14 summer festivals worldwide, including Lollapalooza in Chicago on Friday, Outside Lands in San Francisco on Aug. 10 and Made in America in Philadelphia on Sept. 1. It released a single, “Came Back Haunted,” in June, with a video clip directed by David Lynch.
Mr. Reznor isn’t easing back into performing. Most bands play festivals with a bare-bones production, for quick setup on a shared stage. His is making a far more elaborate comeback. The show brings dizzying visual effects to an idea borrowed, Mr. Reznor freely admits, from the 1983 Talking Heads tour, filmed as “Stop Making Sense.” Mr. Reznor starts out onstage alone, and the band gradually assembles around him. From there, the visuals escalate. “We’re always pushing the envelope,” said Roy Bennett, the band’s longtime lighting and production designer. “We’ve always tried to make people think and keep them on edge and keep them wondering what’s going on.”
The trajectories of lights and video screens, pushed around by the road crew, are so complex that the tour has them choreographed — with time-code cues — to avoid collisions and tangled power cords. (But the band, Mr. Reznor pledged, has “no dance moves.”)
After the festival shows, Nine Inch Nails will mount an entirely different production with three weeks of rehearsals in September, to headline arenas through much of the next year. “The fact that we’re doing all this only for these few shows, and then we have to do it over again, throwing all this out to do a completely new thing, with new things that won’t work,” Mr. Reznor said, “that feels a little insane.”
But he was determined to make the return of Nine Inch Nails memorable. “O.K. is not acceptable,” he said. “Strangely, we’re bigger now than we were ever before. When we put the single out, and we put tickets on sale, the question mark was answered. This is the biggest it’s ever been. Maybe it’s scarcity or time away.”
Mr. Reznor, 48, has been a taboo-smashing songwriter with music that meticulously blends melody and abrasion, ferocity and detail. Since 1989, when Nine Inch Nails released its debut album, “Pretty Hate Machine,” Mr. Reznor has been recording songs that exorcise pain, fear and rage as they embrace extremes. In the 1990s, he melded styles that had segregated themselves — electronica, punk, metal, pop melody — to give voice to bitter alienation and self-lacerating fury, the urge to annihilate himself or the world. His music can be ominous, brutal, danceable, noisy and still, amid the fray, tuneful. In the studio, the band is largely Mr. Reznor on his own; for tours, he hires band members to rework his meticulous productions as visceral live rock.
“My incentive originally for making music was just a way to cathartically get this out,” Mr. Reznor said. “Then I discovered, in the process of doing it, that some ugliness led to some element of beauty. And the process made me feel better. And then when I saw people responded to it and could relate to it — I’m projecting here, but they may have felt less alone.”
But the pressures Mr. Reznor put on himself in his 20s were overwhelming. As he was making albums that would influence a generation of musicians, he succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse until, in 2001, he went through rehab and sobered up. It was, he said, “threat of death, gun to your head — do this or you’re going to die.”
He was more levelheaded, and less tormented, when he re-emerged in 2005 and released the aptly titled “With Teeth,” and returned to touring and recording. Newly prolific, Mr. Reznor made another two albums during that decade — “Year Zero,” a concept album about a dystopian future, in 2007, and “The Slip” in 2008 — as well as a 2008 collection of three-dozen instrumentals, “Ghosts I-IV.” When he made “The Slip” available free online — “This one’s on me,” he wrote on the Web site — 2.4 million copies were downloaded, while a deluxe physical package sold another quarter of a million copies. Clearly, fans still cared.
But onstage in mid-June of 2009, at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, Mr. Reznor suddenly announced that Nine Inch Nails’ set there would be its “last show ever in the United States.” He added: “Don’t be sad. I’ll keep going. But I think I’m going to lose my” — an emphatic word — “mind if I keep doing this, and I have to stop.” Nine Inch Nails went on to tour Europe and played a final concert in Los Angeles, then lay low.
“After several years in a row of pretty consistently touring, I felt kind of burned out,” Mr. Reznor said at the arena. “I felt tired of the format. It was starting to feel stale to me.”
He married the singer Mariqueen Maandig in October 2009, and they now have two sons, Lazarus and Balthazar; he’s taking the entire family on tour with him. (His dressing room at the arena held two playpens.)
His plans to set music aside briefly for other pursuits didn’t last. The director David Fincher had used some of the “Ghosts” instrumentals as temporary scoring for scenes from “The Social Network,” and he persuaded Mr. Reznor — collaborating with his co-producer and studio wizard Atticus Ross — to write a full new score for the film. That music won an Academy Award; by then, Mr. Reznor and Mr. Ross had signed on to score Mr. Fincher’s next film, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
Film scoring was in some way a relief, Mr. Reznor said. “It was nice being treated respectfully and being in service to something that, at the end of the day, it isn’t mine,” Mr. Reznor said. “It’s his worry.”
But songwriting beckoned. Mr. Reznor resumed in 2010 with How to Destroy Angels, a collaboration with Ms. Maandig, Mr. Ross and Mr. Sheridan, that ended up touring this spring with its own eye-popping production. He was also writing and recording new Nine Inch Nails songs.
Mr. Reznor said he had “The Downward Spiral” in mind as he was working on the lyrics and tone of “Hesitation Marks.” (Russell Mills, an artist fascinated by natural processes like erosion and decay, ended up creating the album covers for both.) “I felt very aware that it’s 20 years later, and I’m still that guy,” he said. “I know that guy, and I feel for him. I don’t resent him, I don’t miss him. But how would things feel on the other side of that now, in a much more stable life place, mentally and physically, and with a new family?”
He added: “The incentive has changed. It’s not about, ‘I’m going to kill myself if I don’t get this out of my head.’ But the excavation and the architecture behind it, the motivation behind it, is similar.”
“Hesitation Marks” was a year of patient effort. Mr. Reznor composed music on his laptop, using it largely as a drum machine and coming up with austere, brittle, sneakily evolving grooves. “It feels sparse, and it feels minimal,” he said. “It’s hard for me to do that. I’ve realized over the years that if I have 100 tracks, I’ll use 110 tracks. This was really about economy. It was just a weird puzzle of grooves.”
And in the context of the Nine Inch Nails catalog, where a whisper tends to lead, sooner or later, to a scream, Mr. Reznor found himself following other impulses. “It didn’t dawn on me until I was almost done with the record that I don’t really even raise my voice on this album that much,” Mr. Reznor added. “The mechanism of screaming choruses doesn’t exist here. And that wasn’t by design.”
He said: “I don’t think it’s a gentle record. I do think it’s more subversive in how it gets you. It’s not about everything being at 11 and the pyrotechnics of sound and scare tactics, which I’ve definitely used in the past. But it doesn’t feel like the middle-aged, I’ve-given-up record either.”
Early in the recording process, Mr. Reznor brought in collaborators from outside the usual sphere. He recorded extensively with the guitarist Adrian Belew, who had worked with David Bowie and King Crimson and played with Talking Heads in the early 1980s. (Mr. Belew joined, then left, the tour rehearsals. “It didn’t work,” he wrote on Facebook.) Mr. Reznor also did sessions with the bassist Pino Palladino, who had helped construct the slinky grooves on D’Angelo’s album “Voodoo,” and with Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac’s guitarist.
Mr. Buckingham and Mr. Reznor spent one day in the studio, with Mr. Buckingham jamming on multiple tracks; his playing ended up in three songs. “There was a bit of a kindred spirit there even though the styles were different,” Mr. Buckingham said by telephone from Hawaii. “His process was something like a painting process like I work, where you’re slopping colors around and looking for clues, and it becomes a subconscious process in which the work reveals itself to you.”
As the album took shape, surprising songs emerged. One, “Find My Way,” is an overt prayer. And the album’s final song with words, “While I’m Still Here,” faces up to mortality yet ends up with thoughts not of apocalypse or alienation, but of quiet connection: “Stay with me, hold me near, while I’m still here,” Mr. Reznor sings.
He thought hard about how that would fit the Nine Inch Nails canon. “To include it as the final emotional ending point of the record, that ties things together — that’s daring for me,” he said. “It would be safe if I made it uglier and noisier. It’s not safe. So I think that maybe it’s the right thing to do.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 26, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated when Adrian Belew played guitar with Talking Heads. He played with the band in the early 1980s, but was not with the Heads when the concert film “Stop Making Sense” was filmed in 1983.