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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISAPPOINTED")

BLOCK: Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, defies the rock musician stereotype - first, by scheduling our interview for the early morning and then, by showing up 15 minutes early.

TRENT REZNOR: It's a promptness. It's a thing of mine.

BLOCK: Trent Reznor is known as a detail guy: a meticulous composer and manipulator of sound - lots of sound, layers upon layers of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISAPPOINTED")

REZNOR: (Singing) If I were you, I wouldn't trust a single word I say.

BLOCK: From the start of Nine Inch Nails 25 years ago, Trent Reznor has been known for songs of deep, menacing pain; rage; and self-destruction. Now, his dark days of alcohol and drug abuse are behind him. And he finds himself, at 48, with a wife and two young kids. Reznor told me he sees his latest album, "Hesitation Marks," as a response to that earlier self and how he's changed.

REZNOR: I felt like I was achieving honesty, you know, and just trying to be as truthful as I could be. The process of reflecting back on a younger version of me provided more insight to who I think I am now. And the writing process felt fairly effortless and refreshing, and I felt inspired because I didn't feel like I was - it wasn't forced. It just kind of came from a place that felt truthful.

BLOCK: You know, I'm thinking about your new song "Everything," which starts with this really - kind of triumphant declaration, right? What's the first line of this song?

REZNOR: I survived everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING")

REZNOR: (Singing) I feel bad, everything. I have tried everything...

BLOCK: And in the course of this song, you say, "I've become something else."

REZNOR: Yeah, I meant that song to feel kind of absurd - you know, as an arrogant, bold statement that might appear defiant but is actually, in my opinion, kind of self-destructive. And it's a sense of, you know, getting what you asked for, you know? My life has been many examples of shortsighted goals that I thought would fix things. You know, if there's something broken inside me, if there's a hole in there, I thought: If I could just write a good song someday, then I'd be OK. You know, if I could just be on stage in front of people I'd never seen before and be validated by them. I feel very fortunate I've been able to achieve those things. And it's been moments of feeling good about it, but it didn't fix things, you know? It wasn't the solution to me feeling spiritually complete or whole.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING")

BLOCK: This song does start out in such a sunny way, with all these joyful harmonies. And you know that there was a disgruntled fan, I guess, who thought this was entirely too poppy, maybe a softer, happier side of Trent Reznor; and put together a video of you, an animated you riding a unicorn under a rainbow, with birds flying by. You're saying, though, that's ignoring what's really going on in this song.

REZNOR: That certainly wasn't anything that crossed my mind when I was working on this. But again, you've been around for a while and you've created a - essentially, a brand - right? - that has a certain level of expectation. And it encourages you to not color outside the lines, if you pay too much attention to what you expect that fan base wants from you. You know, I think many, many artists have suffered an artistic death by doing just that.

BLOCK: I'm talking with Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails. You're known for really intricately composed, crafted, layered songs. And let's take a listen to the song "Copy of A."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COPY OF A")

REZNOR: (Singing) I am just a copy of a copy of a copy...

BLOCK: And let's just walk through what's going on here - because it starts out with this repetitive synth pattern, right?

REZNOR: Yeah, that's five 16th notes with a rest in there, so it's hard to tell where the downbeat is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COPY OF A")

REZNOR: (Singing) Assembled into something into something into something...

BLOCK: Are you trying to sort of be destabilizing with that, with playing with rhythm here?

REZNOR: Yeah. I like the way it flips around and doesn't always land on the beat in an expected way.

BLOCK: And what's being added as we listen here?

REZNOR: Well, this song is really about just repetition, and hypnotically starting to layer small elements of rhythm, percussion and treatment of vocal into something that is meant to feel hypnotic but slightly unnerving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COPY OF A")

REZNOR: (Singing) You need to play your part, a copy of a copy of a. Look what you gone and done. Well, that doesn't sound like fun. See, I'm not the only one, a copy of a copy of a...

BLOCK: And somewhere in here, there is - on guitar - Lindsey Buckingham, of Fleetwood Mac.

REZNOR: Yeah. He's playing this part right now, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COPY OF A")

BLOCK: I bet that there are lots of things in these songs - tucked-away sounds that you're really, really pleased by - that are layered so deep in that we may not really hear them, but you know they're there. And I bet you love that.

REZNOR: I aspire to make a record that sounds better 10 listens in than it does after two and still, at 50 listens, you're picking out things that add a depth and a thoughtfulness to it; there's enough in there that you can still be extracting pieces out of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COPY OF A")

REZNOR: (Singing) So I'm not the only one, a copy of a copy of a...

BLOCK: When you're on stage now and you're doing old Nine Inch Nails songs from the dark days - right? songs full of hurt and pain and anger - how do you pull that off? I mean, does it feel very different from where you are now; and that it's painful in a really visceral way, like peeling off a scab?

REZNOR: You know, I've kind of watched with amusement as the press has latched onto, oh Reznor, now 48, happily married with two kids and Oscar winner; as if I can be summed up as that now. I'm not the same person I was 20-some years ago, and I'm happy to not be that person. When I'm on stage, the songs that we've chosen to play from the back catalog are things that still resonate with me, and matter to me. And the songs that I couldn't be a part of, we don't play anymore.

BLOCK: You mentioned your two kids - very young kids, your sons. Are they on the road with you, when you go out on these tours?

REZNOR: Yep.

BLOCK: What's that like?

REZNOR: So far - I mean, we're just at the beginning of it, but so far, it's been great. I said I wasn't going to tour if it meant missing them growing up, and I mean that. To be able to wake up and hang out with your family, and be around that sense of emotional, normal aspect of living - and be present for them, that's really what it is, is being present for these guys. And that matters. I find that quite centering. You know, it adds to an interesting duality where then I can kind of switch that off and kick into, now it's show mode and I'm - you know, several hours before the show; I'm gearing up for the show. And it kind of keeps things, so far, feeling kind of sane. Ask me in a few months, and we'll see what the answer is.

BLOCK: Trent Reznor, thanks so much. It's been fun to talk to you.

REZNOR: Thank you.

BLOCK: Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails. His new album is "Hesitation Marks."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIND MY WAY")

REZNOR: (Singing) I'm just trying to find my way...

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