Trent Reznor's pretty hate machines

A geek before geeks were cool, the high-tech musician explains why he had to reclaim his programming roots for his next album.

By David Kushner for Salon.com on September 11, 2002

Sept. 17, 2002 | Trent Reznor is not only a critically acclaimed rock star -- he's also Pooper Sniffer. That's the alias he uses while engaging in his other lifelong passion: computer games. Almost every night in his New Orleans studio, Reznor leaves his work on the upcoming Nine Inch Nails album (which he cheekily refers to as "More Songs About Oppression and Slavery") for the Nazi shoot-'em-up game Return to Castle Wolfenstein. For the 36-year-old, games and gadgetry aren't just diversions; they're a vital means of artistic exploration.

"I'm interested in using the computer as a creative tool, as a recording tool, as a musical instrument tool," he says, while nursing some carrot juice in a stylish hotel on a recent jaunt to New York. "I'm not interested in using the computer in the way the manual says to do it, not in the clean way, but to add a collision of humanity and electronics." He pauses, then adds with a smirk: "There's not always this peaceful coexistence."

That's putting it mildly. From his recent live CD and DVD, "And All That Could Have Been," back to his debut "Pretty Hate Machine," Reznor has pursued the sonic conflicts of dissonance and harmony, darkness and light, tension and release, to the point of obsession -- not to mention epic delays. But now as he decides which of the 40 songs he's written this past year will be recorded for his next Nine Inch Nails album, Reznor says he might have tamed his inner geek. "So far this record seems more lyric-oriented and musically far less dense: spatial and kind of brutal and open and less filled-up tracks," he says. "But once you let me in the studio," he laughs. "I have to restrict myself so I don't go overboard."

Reznor's tempestuous relationship with machines began in, of all places, a Howard Johnson's restaurant. This was the early 1980s and Reznor was a forlorn teenager washing dishes at a HoJo in Mercer, Pa.; his only reprieve was an Asteroids machine in the lobby.

One night as he was leaving the kitchen, he noticed the back panel of the Asteroids machine slightly ajar. Reznor instinctively pried it open. "I remember looking inside at all the points and settings," he recalls, "and thinking, whoa, I'm not allowed to see this thing!" It was the first glimpse of what would become the predominant theme of his music: the dark worlds that thrive behind life's curtains.

Reznor had other shadows in his life at the time. His parents had divorced, leaving him to be raised by his grandmother. Music was his first escape. He began studying piano at the age of 5. But as he became a teenager, he found more identifiable inspiration in the form of Kiss and began playing in bands of his own. "When your world has basically consisted of being trained to be a classical pianist by a nun," he once said, "the idea of standing on a stage breathing fire, spurting blood, and playing loud rock 'n' roll was incredibly exciting to me. I began to realize that rock 'n' roll could take me places that classical music never could."

Video games, which had just exploded onto the entertainment scene, went hand-in-hand with his newfound passion for bleeding eardrums. "There was something punk rock about them," Reznor says, "that idea of rule breaking and this hasn't been done before. It really struck a chord with me."

Reznor got himself an Atari 2600 home gaming console and spent long afternoons at the house of a friend who had a coveted color RadioShack computer. Soon enough, he had his very own Commodore 64 and began teaching himself to program. He went on to study computer science at Allegheny College and worked briefly as an engineer until he decided the time was right to pursue his dreams. "When you could use computers to make music," he says, "I wanted to be right in there."

With little money, the 23-year-old holed himself up in a room in Cleveland with a Macintosh computer, three keyboards, a cheap sampler, and a four-track cassette recorder. His plan was to record an entire demo himself, playing all the parts, and then, if he sold it, to re-record with a full band. The dream came only half true. He got the record deal, but decided to simply release the demo itself in 1989 as his debut record, "Pretty Hate Machine."

He recalls, "I was like, 'No, I don't think the idea should be to fix this stuff. This sounds cool like it is and why be ashamed of this? It's a drum machine and why not?' That took a little courage at the time to do it. And I was pleased with that. Instead of looking at it as a limitation, it was like, 'OK, this is a machine.'"

Listeners agreed, helping the album sell more than a million copies on the strength of intricately layered industrial songs, including "Head Like a Hole" and "Down in It." But despite his success, Reznor found that not everyone shared his respect for music machines. There were still plenty of critics and peers who felt that songs were meant to come through flesh and blood, not wires and knobs. They viewed artists like Reznor, who toured with live musicians but incorporated prerecorded tape loops, as somehow less legit. "We'd get that 'You're not a real band' thing," he says, "but you know, 'Fuck you. If that's a real band, you're right. We're not one. Don't come see us. Stay home.'"

"Super politically incorrect demons and all kinds of cool stuff"

For his next two records, "Broken" and "The Downward Spiral," the technology became something of an obsession, something to play with, something to deconstruct. It was in the spirit of artists like Jimi Hendrix who lit their guitars on fire or smashed them into amps to find new sounds. "I had a whole new tool chest of things that no one had ruined yet," Reznor says. "No one had figured out the wrong way to do it or the interesting way to do it."

This was best achieved, he decided, by throwing away the manual and experimenting as he would with a new videogame, pressing random buttons and veering off beyond the screen to see what would happen next. In the song "March of Pigs," for example, he purposefully recorded an out-of-tune sample of a drum kit, then played it back through a keyboard to create a sound that was at once robotic and organic.

But his explorations soon bore surprises of their own. The software Reznor was using became so unreliable that he would come back the night after recording to find the computer spitting out undistinguishable sounds. Instead of starting over, he decided to record the weird output, to capture the spontaneity of this strange new collaboration. Computers were no longer just tools for Nine Inch Nails, he says: They were "musical companions."

The companions, however, soon began to conspire against him. While completing "The Downward Spiral" in 1994, Reznor downloaded Doom, the new first-person shooter from id Software. Reznor, who had lost many nights to id's previous game, Wolfenstein 3-D, saw production grind to a halt once again. "I just could not believe the great action, super politically incorrect demons and all kinds of cool stuff," he recalls. "We lost our minds."

Reznor became so addicted to the game that he even brought a desktop PC for his tour bus so that he could keep playing. On a stop in Dallas, he invited the creators at id Software to come backstage to his show. "They reminded me of my best friends I had in high school who sat in the computer lab all day," he says. "It was very cool. I was like in awe of them." Reznor ended up composing the sound effects for their next game, Quake.

By the time he was ready to record his next album, Reznor felt that maybe he'd had enough of computers for the time being. He thought it was a good moment to bring a real live carbon-based band of collaborators into the studio once and for all. To prepare, Reznor rented a house by the ocean in Big Sur and began writing songs at a grand piano. The results, he quickly decided, sucked. "Once I start sounding like Willie Nelson," he says, "then I'm like, OK, I have to get back to the computer."

He returned to machines with a vengeance to record 1999's "The Fragile." Everything at this point could be composed on the computer. A new world had arrived filled with virtual instruments that could sound as good as, if not better than, real ones, all the way down to "the badness of them," Reznor says, "the buzzes and the rattles." He could have an entire studio of guitars and amps reduced to one little chip. It was literally too good to be true. Reznor became overwhelmed by the possibilities. Suddenly, there were dozens of tracks to manage, files to organize, programs to debug. Everything, he felt, was falling apart. "We're at a crisis point," he told his crew. "We can't continue this record."

To save the process, Reznor backed away from the machines for the first time in his life. He let someone else do the programming. Though the album was completed, Reznor found parts of the experience frustrating. He felt unable to express himself as fluidly as he did when he knew exactly what he could get from the computers.

Today as he prepares to record his next album and compose the soundtrack for the Doom III game, he has arrived at this necessary, though not entirely happy, medium. "I just spent the last month reading software manuals every day," he says with a sigh. "I learned that I don't want to relinquish that [programming] duty to others. I will day to day. But I need to be able to sit down and do what I want to do if I want to do it."

The result, he suggests, might owe as much to Hank Williams as to Nine Inch Nails. Reznor says he's been listening to country greats like Williams, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash on his iPod MP3 player while walking his dog around town. "I'm not going to be singing blues in a country format," he assures me, "but this music has been making me appreciate simplicity and directness."

He's even been contemplating a tour in Europe with a string quartet. It's another way to challenge himself to not lose sight of his craft. "Just because you can buy a box of software now for a couple hundred bucks that can make a great-sounding album," he says, "that doesn't mean you're going to make a great record. What matters are the songs."

View the NIN Hotline article index