Getting Down In It

Originally published in Alternative Press on March 1, 1990

In spite of the hype mongers attempting to define Trent Reznor's mental state, the embellishers groping for hidden messages in his sometimes cryptic lyrics, or the skeptics seeking to unravel Reznor's influences, the music of his one man studio project, Nine Inch Nails has rapidly captured the attention of more than your usual adolescent synthesizer fanatic.

Whether it was his intention or not, Trent Reznor created an intensely personal and introspective debut album, to create Pretty Hate Machine, he worked by himself - either late at night during non-working hours in the local studio where he was employed, or in his basement at home. He taught himself the MIDI computer applications necessary to sample, develop and refine various sounds. He chose to use sounds that were both grating and soothing, obscure and familiar, mixing them with guitar and drums and varying the intensity of emotion as he progressed.

This type of environment gave him the freedom to work without the constraints of fellow bandmates' interference. It also allowed him to thoroghly immerse himself in his songs emotionally. He wrote about what was on his mind at the time, but not necessarily on his STATE of mind. The end result is a technologically updated form of self expression, and its success thrives on his audience's need to hear someone else reveal feelings in a way that they wouldn't otherwise express

"I needed some kind of input for songs that could have some sort of impact," he says, sitting in his apartment on the night of the confirmation of the upcoming tour with the Jesus and Mary Chain. "I elaborated on what was bugging me. Things that irritate me are more likely to motivate me than things I'm completely content and happy with."

"I've always worked that way, alone. It's pretty normal to me. I don't really like working with other people yet, because if I come up with a cool idea, it's an hour away from becoming great, an hour of me just fuckin' around, just doing terrible things until it's developed."

Against a wealth of bands who take modern studio-applied technology and either invent new techniques or over use them to the point of redundancy, Reznor knew it was important to set himself apart. He had a basic idea of how to develop and expose his music, but he let the inherent strength of his material guide him along the way.

"At the very beginning, during the summer of '88, we were just going to put a 12-inch out on some European label, figuring that if we can make enough money to do that, see what happens. Maybe a year or two later after we get a better idea of what the band is going to be like, we would approach a bigger label, major or decent-sized independent. At that time, I didn't know; Nine Inch Nails was three songs. I wasn't sure what direction it was going to go. I didn't want to get involved in a label where it was, "Hey, that's good, but let's smooth it out here and there, make that pop" or whatever."

"We got approached by a bunch of smaller independent labels. We sent out bout ten tapes and got them all back with deals. Eventually, we realized that we didn't have to put out a 12-inch on a nothing label. I had my shit together by then. We did some dates with Skinny Puppy on their last tour. It was scary opening up fot them, and we were a tenth as intense as we are now. I realized it was not what I wanted to do. So I got rid of those guys, and wrote the rest of the album, and redid everything, and put a new band together this past summer."

That band now consists of Reznor, Richard Patrick on guitar, Chris Vrenna on drums, plus newcomer David Haymes on keyboards for the current tour.

"I didn't want to go out with Depeche Mode or Nitzer Ebb. I'd rather go out with Jane's Addiction or something ridiculous where we have our work cut out for ourselves to sell a crowd that's not there for that kind of music." Indeed, Nine Inch Nails opened for the Jesus and Mary Chain tour starting in late January and continued with them until mid-March. The band then hops on with Peter Murphy in the middle of April. "I look forward to it because you reach a point where you cannot look at a computer anymore." A wry grin appears on his face. His apprehension to talk about himself is often broken up by his sarcasm. It's obvious that he doesn't take himself as seriously as he does his music. "I'll look forward to rehearsing in a no heating environment, with people you don't like, singing songs you're sick of...I can't wait for that, y'know?"

Originally, Reznor was going to audition people for his band in England, and even considered moving there to remove himself from the local Cleveland scene. He put an ad in Melody Maker and some other magazines, and about one hundred people contacted him, most of them wanna-be's who needed an escape, proclaiming the usual line, "Yeah, I'm into it," Reznor says.

Instead, he came back to the U.S. and decided to use young musicians and "mold them into whatever I wanted to use them for, instead of polished, great musicians who would come in with an attitude of 'It should be like this...'"

"The music wasn't created with a guitar part, drum part thing in mind," he continues. "Live, there are just some things that just can't be played evenly. I just got some guys that I knew around here, who had the right ATTITUDE."

So far so good. Yet along the way, he learned he had to compromise when it came to resorting to the usual methods of exposing his music. The video for his first single, "Down In It," had to go through the usual screening process at MTV and the ending was chopped as a result. This could have been anticipated since it was produced by H-Gun, the same Chicago group who has shot Ministry's latest videos and the Revoliting Cocks' video for "Stainless Steel Providers."

"Our video was edited because I'm lying dead at the end of it. I can see that on a soap opera in the middle of the day. It's nothing mortifying like I'm riddled with bullets or falling from a building. I'm just lying on the ground. That implies suicide, and we can't have that on MTV," he says sarcastically, "but we can have Cher's naked ass."

Also, the original mix of "Down In It" did not appear on his album as he had planned. Instead, the mix produced by Adrian Sherwood was substituted.

"I've always wanted to work with him in some context. He's expensive, so I just wanted to do a 12' with him - let him take one of my songs, fuck with it, and do whatever he wants to do. I called him up and he listened to it, and he was into doing it. That's when we were doing the deal with TVT. He did that first. I recorded it all in Cleveland myself, then Keith LeBlanc did some pre-production in New York. And then Adrian mixed it in London without me. So I never met him face to face. We just talked on the phone. Then he just sent it back and I heard it. I had no idea what to expect. It was radically different from my version. I didn't want to put that on the album, but the forces that be...The original version may show up somewhere."

"I think he's great at what he does. I think he tends to smother who he's working with. But I can't complain. My only complaint is that my version could have shown up somewhere. It's much more rap-hip-hoppy. It's real tiny. More emotional, not as linear. They could have complimented each other very well."

Something which the media has immediately jumped on is the number of producers this album contains. Sherwood (Ministry, Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode, KMFDM, On-U Sound Label artists), John Fryer (Love &Rockets, He Said, Wire, Cocteau Twins), Keith LeBlanc (Tackhead, Fats Comet, Barmy Army, Maffia), and Flood (Nitzer Ebb, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Crime & the City Solution) all have resumes longer than the list of reporters who have asked Reznor if he ever had any bad relationships. Yet, he originally only wanted Flood to produce.

"I liked Flood because he's the opposite of Sherwood. He's very transparent. You don't say, "Hey, that sounds like Flood." Unfortunately, his schedule was messed up by Depeche Mode. So I called up Fryer instead. I didn't intend it to be this way. The album itself was supposed to be only Flood. I wasn't into some of the mixing Fryer was into, so I went into the studio with Keith LeBlanc in New York to add yet another studio and sound to the list. Consequently, I had the task of trying to fit that into some sort of cohesive mix of songs, fading them in and out, putting material in between them, which took a long time. Flood couldn't believe it when he heard it. So, mission accomplished."

"Flood is the type of producer who says, "Well, I don't care about the status of the band I'm working with. I don't care about money," which is cool because we didn't have a huge budget to work with. We became good friends and we're going to do the next record together, tentatively next summer."

Although Depeche Mode did indirectly interfere with the production of his own record, at one point Reznor was able to briefly seize some of their time in the spotlight.

"They were in New York," Trent explains, "when I was starting to record the album in Boston with Flood, when he was working with Depeche Mode and Nitzer Ebb. Flood and I went to the Ritz and we met [Mute Records owner] Daniel Miller and Depeche Mode there. They were in town for the screening of 101. We hung out and I was a star for an evening and all. The best thing was standing in the back of the Ritz. There was the singer for DM, me, Daniel Miller, Flood, and the keyboard player for DM. But two kids came up to ME, and said,"Aren't you in Nine Inch Nails? We saw you with Skinny Puppy last year."

And to answer any questions about Reznor's admiration of the aforementioned group in his music, he simply replies with his usual laid back sarcasm, "Nah. Hey, they're cool for what they do, but that's not who I'm rippin' off. I mean, I KNOW who I'm rippin' off."

"I've already started work on the new album. It's just going to be me and Flood, mor like a collaboration between producer and me. Not necessarily like a traditional band, just whatever I stumble across on the computer. Hopefully better songs. We'll see how it comes out. It should be quite different than this one, sonically. Outlookwise, I don't know. We'll see how bummed out I am when I write," he smirks.

"I'm basically going to write the next one myself again because I'm not out of ideas yet. If at the end of that I see I need to collaborate, fine. I get tired of listening to 600 African albums to find cool samples. That gets a bit dull."

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

View the NIN Hotline article index