“Trent would play it in the car and we’d drive round New Orleans”: Nine Inch Nails producer Alan Moulder on the record that reminds him of making The Fragile

Trent Reznor in 1999
(Image credit: Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect)

Nine Inch Nails’ third album The Fragile has grown in stature since the mixed reception that greeted its release in 1999, a dense one hour and 45 minutes of atmospheric soundscapes, uneasy electronica alongside bursts of industrial-rock that needed time for its genius to be fully appreciated. There was method in its murkiness. Trent Reznor was determined to break new ground and not replicate the tricks that had made The Downward Spiral so huge, that desire giving The Fragile its feeling of opaque uncertainty, music that is great to get lost in but doesn’t sound like it was much fun to make. Speaking to this writer a few years ago, though, co-producer Alan Moulder presented a very different picture of the recording process.

Homing in on a record that he associates with the period, he said that he and Reznor got fully immersed in the inventive 1996 hip-hop record Dr. Octagonecologyst. “It’s the rapper Kool Keith and it’s a science-fiction hip-hop concept album,” Moulder explained. “I was working in New Orleans for about two years with Nine Inch Nails and Trent used to play it in the car and we used to drive around New Orleans listening to it. It’s insane but there’s a lot of music in it that I think is great.”

It was emblematic, Moulder stated, of the music the pair would listen to for inspiration at the time. “We were listening to hip-hop for the drum beats at that time, in 97/98, listening to a lot of stuff like that rather than listening to your peers,” Moulder said. “We loved that track Blue Flowers. It seemed to suit the atmosphere of the city and the heat. It’s got a mood that just makes me smile and reminds me of great times driving round New Orleans. We were listening to hip-hop for the drum beats at that time, in 97/98, listening to a lot of stuff like that rather than listening to your peers.”

Those sunny drives around The Big Easy might not have made their way into The Fragile’s dark sonic realm but the sense of Reznor trying to expand his sound palette definitely did. A record that turns 25 later this year, it was an album that dramatically expanded where Nine Inch Nails could go with their music.

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.