Nine Inch Nails' Tension tour isn't a typical arena rock show. Whereas most artists with a similar level of success and resources aim for spectacle, the execution tends to be very predictable – a few signature set pieces offset by a lot of basic lighting effects, half-hearted video elements on big screens, and maybe some pyrotechnics. In most cases, it's all purely functional, and simply places an emphasis on musical moments in the show. Nine Inch Nails' show, however, takes a more holistic approach, with the visual presentation constantly shifting to imply distinct environments for each song in the set while advancing an overall structure that's more like a film than a concert. Though other recent tours by Kanye West and Lady Gaga may have a bigger, bolder set design, the NIN show is far more visually versatile and more complete in its design, with all the dimensions of the stage serving as a canvas for digital art that would seem more at home at, say, MoMA or The New Museum, than a rock concert.
Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor told BuzzFeed he's motivated to put on this sort of elaborate show as a matter of artistic expression, but also out of a sense of responsibility to his audience. "My goal is that — I can usually see the audience because I'm lit from behind a lot — is that I want to keep you from looking at your phone," Reznor said. "I want to make you hold your pee because you don't want to miss something. We've thought about all this stuff, and want to make this experience something that was worth your time."
Tension is the result of a long term collaboration between Reznor and the band's art director, Rob Sheridan. The production follows the basic template of Lights in the Sky, a 2008 tour that Reznor and Sheridan agree was the pinnacle of the band's live presentation, and the culmination of nearly a decade of experimentation. "We accidentally came up with physical light structures and a template where we could milk a lot out of it, and by the end of it, we'd run out of time and resources to keep going and it never felt like we finished it," Reznor said of the Lights in the Sky tour. "We had these transparent screens that gave us a strange sense of depth and immersiveness, depending on what we put on it. We could turn the stage into something that felt more alive."
"It was really impressive, but it was also on the tail end of a long, long time of touring around North America, so it didn't have the hype and the impact we wished it would have when we got it out there," said Sheridan, who oversees the overall design for the Tension tour and has been working closely with Reznor since he was hired to design the band's official website when he was a teenager in the late '90s, having never picked up a camera or edited video in his life. "It was kinda only seen by really hardcore fans, so that became part of the impetus for going back to it, because we just want lots of people to see what we can do. You don't want to go out on tour with a production that's new for the sake of being new."
It's been a busy year for Reznor and Sheridan. In addition to creating the elaborate Tension tour, they also designed a striking minimalist presentation for Nine Inch Nails' spate of summer festival appearances. "As I finished this record, we had a few festival appearances booked before, and that went from it being a couple fields in Germany to some pretty high-profile worldwide broadcasts, and it would be the real reintroduction of the band into the public psyche," Reznor explained. "The challenges when you're in a festival situation, to present a band live, if you're not just walking out on stage and calling out songs, there's different production restrictions and a bunch of boring shit. We decided build a little mini-show that's made for festivals, that becomes governed by what you can and can't efficiently bring into a festival. So everything was on the floor. I was obsessed with [Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads concert movie] Stop Making Sense. I think it went well. It was an interesting way to present the band, but not what we were planning for the Tension tour."
Reznor's biggest challenge to his collaborators came when he decided just before production rehearsals to completely overhaul the show to focus heavily on the well-received new album Hesitation Marks and a newly expanded live band, featuring bass legend Pino Palladino and two backup singers. "He turned everything upside-down," Sheridan said. "Totally new setlist, totally new band, totally new structure. It was a really turbulent process."
Sheridan designed the Tension tour, which is built around a set of three custom-built screens – two of which are transparent – and a complex lighting rig, with the assistance of the band's longtime lighting designer Roy Bennett and the Montreal-based interactive design studio Moment Factory, based on direction by Reznor. Though the tour has been in the works for well over a year, Sheridan's team had to rework large portions of the show on the fly, and are constantly tweaking and creating visual elements to suit Reznor's ever-mutating setlist and musical direction. "I work on the visual elements on days off or when I'm on a bus, I edit and tweak it," Sheridan explained. "If you look at YouTube clips from night to night, you'll see that the production can change pretty radically because every day, I show up at soundcheck with a hard drive and say, 'Hey, load up the new files.'"
Sheridan keeps an eye on social media to get a sense of what aspects of the show are connecting with the audience. "I start to pay attention to, What are the things everyone Instagrams?" he said. "Why did everyone take a picture of this one thing? I've noticed there are different types of triggers that do it. It's either something that's really mind-blowing, and they try to capture something, like the 'Disappointed' thing with the spinning cube, or it's something where the set has become something that's just staying put that looks cool and they feel like they can capture that, to take the phone out and tap the focus button and get it."
A production on the scale of Lights in the Sky or Tension requires a huge investment, and Reznor pays for much of it out of his own pocket. "Economically, it's pretty stupid, and I'm being reminded of that right now," he said. "The bills are showing up while I'm trying to pull this shit off." As a result, the band is planning on a completely different and more streamlined production on upcoming legs around the world. "I can lose money, but I can't lose that much money. The other side of it — and I think this is something I think is pretty valid — is that if you make a presentation where, by its nature, it becomes very rigid, it's easy for it to become a bit tedious as a performer. Something that's keeping us all feel sane, though it ends up being more work, is to look at each leg of the tour as its own mini-tour. The festival tour was focused on aggression; this tour the focus, I would say, is the new album, deep-groove stuff. I think the next one is going to lean a bit more into electronics, and experiment with that a bit."
Reznor is willing to sacrifice some profit to make sure his show goes beyond typical expectations for an arena gig. "Today, if you're being troubled to come out and experience a show, I want that to be the best it can be," he said. "I want the experience to be the best, I want to challenge conventions. Who wants to see a show in an arena? Not me, usually. But fate has put me there, and there's no better option that I can come up with, given the size and the economics and every other thing. So if that's the place where you're going to go experience a rock show, what can I do to make it something that becomes as immersive and interesting for that space? The buildings are made for sporting events, generally. How can I make it sound better? How can I make it immersive and interesting, like an art project instead of just another band rolling through town? If I can figure that out, either by thinking harder or spending more time, then I'll do that."