Talking About Nothing with Trent Reznor

Originally published in Axcess Magazine on July 28, 1994

I pee standing up, just like everyone else. That's what I was doing when you knocked on the door. My gosh did I shake his hand? I can't remember... Trent Reznor insists he is a normal guy. He doesn't hang from the rafters dur- ing the daylight hours he spends them in a recording studio playing with musical instruments, electronics, and noises. Even so, he has an atypical persona, expressed first in his music, and then in the brutal and disturbing imagery of his videos and photos. His previous residence the now-demolished Tate mansion adds to his strange image. (He kept the front door as a souvenir.) Armed with these bits and pieces of the sole musician who makes up Nine Inch Nails, a person's imagination can go wild. The video for Happiness banned almost everywhere for its scenes of graphic mutilation his dark, brooding good looks his hair, clothing, and pale skin all make it obvious that he's not normal. He probably doesn't do everyday things like the rest of us. Eating and sleeping, for instance... let alone the business of his opening line... Although he is small in stature, Reznor is larger than life in music, on stage (the surprise hit of the first Lollapalooza) and to his fans. He is quite animated, and has a sarcastic wit. He takes his work quite seriously, though. For the new Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral, he worked again with co-producer Flood of U2 and Depeche Mode fame. Flood, who also copro- duced the first two NIN albums (Pretty Hate Machine and Broken), shares Reznor's work ethic. We really work, explains Reznor. It's not a party. He is a true fan and music tinkerer type person. Before the interview, Reznor suggested that I listen to The Downward Spiral at least five times, ...to let it digest properly. I must have listened to it ten times, and another twenty since, and it still hasn't completely digested. The Downward Spiral has many sonic textures and characteristics that industrial music and Trent Reznor aren't known for. He enlisted the talents of human musicians Adrian Belew on guitar and Stephen Perkins on drums for a track each. Uniqueness and risk-taking are very important to him, and he has taken chances with this album. The track A Warm Place has no vocals. While songs such as Heresy are as icy and electronic as ever, Hurt has a warmly human feel. Lyrically it is classic Reznor: I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel/I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real.... The Broken album was filled with the outrage that was generated over the course of several years of bitter legal battles with TVT Records, the first home of Nine Inch Nails. Although still filled with musical fury, Reznor seems much more content with his present situation. Listening to this album, I can understand why he likes and respects the musicians he has collaborated with and signed to his own label, nothing, and why his demeanor is so contented. Trent Reznor's third album is the upward spiral of pop music's most interesting tinkerer.

L: Where did the name Nine Inch Nails come from?

T: I don't know if you've ever tried to think of band names, but usually you think you have a great one and you look at it the next day and it's stupid. I had about 200 of those. Nine Inch Nails lasted the two week test, looked great in print, and could be abbreviated easily. It really doesn't have any literal meaning. It seemed kind of frightening. [In his best he-man voice] Tough and manly! It's a curse trying to come up with band names.

L: Is Nine Inch Nails the first band you've been in?

T: I played keyboards in some bands in Cleveland, but I didn't write any music.

L: You've been popping up in, I guess you could say, unusual places... like the new Tori Amos album.

T: We met on a friendship level. It was not like some mutual ass kissing thing. I really liked her first album, which is not the kind of thing I'd normally listen to. Someone had given it to me and said that it sounded like Sinead O'Connor. I fucking can't stand Sinead O'Connor, so I ignored it. Then I saw the video for Silent All These Years and it struck me in a way where I wasn't sure if I liked it or not. But it was interesting. I was pleasantly surprised to find someone who I thought was taking chances. Not playing it safe, and also writing good songs, melodies and really good lyrics. I thought that I should try and get in touch with her, just to try and say, not that I normally do this either, I think your record's really good. I relate to her work a lot, on some level, in an opposite of a Nine Inch Nails arrangement kind of way. I really think that it works. She approaches things with a totally different aesthetic than I do, but it's good.

L: Is TVT always going to have a piece of you?

T: Probably.

L: That sucks.

T: Well, as long as it's hidden from me and I don't have to deal with them. It disgusts me. It makes me sick to think that they still get money from me, but as long as I don't have to see them or deal with them.

L: Does TVT have any rights to anything the nothing label does?

T: Just Nine Inch Nails.

L: You have already signed some bands to nothing: Marilyn Manson, Pop Will Eat Itself, Prick, Coil, and Trust Obey. Do you do the A&R yourself?

T: Yeah. I don't like to say A&R, though. The whole thing I want to do right now is provide a shell to other bands where they can have the benefit of a major label without being fucked with creatively in any way. Let them do what they want to do, make them aware of the business side of things how the money is spent.

L: What do you look for in a band?

T: A band I like. A sense of originality. Having something to say, not being caught up in following the trend of the moment. Some sort of uniqueness that needs to be heard. And that uniqueness is the thing that I think is the most important and needs to be protected from meddling major labels. They tend to soften the edges to get it on the radio or to imitate who ever's at the top of the charts. And I think that most of what's on MTV right now is terrible. Radio I don't much like either. Why is that? Is it that human beings just aren't making interesting music anymore?

L: I read somewhere that you almost feel guilty or responsible for bringing industrial music into the mainstream.

T: I don't feel guilty. I don't think I've done that. There's a scene that has been flourishing for the past five years or more. Underground club oriented danceable music has been labeled industrial due to the lack of coming up with a new name. Nine Inch Nails/Industrial, Industrial/Nine Inch Nails. I'm so tired of thinking about it I can't even tell you. What was originally called industrial music was about 20 years ago Throbbing Gristle and Test Department. We have very little to do with it other than there is noise in my music and there is noise in theirs. I'm working in the context of a pop song structure whereas those bands didn't. And because someone didn't come up with a new name that separates those two somewhat unrelated genres, it tends to irritate all the old school fans waving their flags of alternativeness and obscurity. So, I'd say I've borrowed from certain styles and bands like that. Maybe I've made it more accessible. And maybe by making it more accessible it's less exclusive. I just make music that I want to make, that's interesting. That's extreme for what I want it to be extreme for and then I put it out and the media says it's this or it's that. I don't even know what I'm talking about anymore.

L: Selling lots of records isn't such a bad thing...

T: The problem is, if I would have made a record and set down and thought O.K. A lot of people liked `Head Like A Hole' yeah, maybe I'll write a song that sounds just like it. Okay, grunge is in maybe I'll grow a goatee. Yeah, that might be cool. But I need a big techno edge, `cause that's really popular right now so I'll have Moby remix it. and then I sold a shitload of records, I'd feel on thin ice. I'd never do that in the first place, but if I did, I'd feel uneasy because I basically sold out.

L: But don't you have a responsibility to yourself as a musician, let alone to your fans?

T: Absolutely I do. I'm saying if I did that I'd feel shitty about selling a lot of records. But I've made the records I've wanted to make. And if a lot of people want to buy them, then who am I to say they're not cool enough to buy my records. You're a nerd. You're from Pennsylvania, you can't buy this. I grew up there! I was one of those guys who wasn't cool enough. It's music. If you don't like it, the Pearl Jam record is right there on the shelf. Buy it! It's for people like you.

L: What do you listen to?

T: Pearl Jam.

L: Alright.

T: I fucking hate Pearl Jam.

L: O.K.

T: Everytime someone asks me that question I freeze up. I listen to a lot of old stuff. Old David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop. Stuff I didn't listen to that much when I was growing up.

L: What did you listen to?

T: Kiss. Just Kiss, nothing else. Partridge Family a little bit. Before Kiss, then Kiss. You know, Supertramp, Speedwagon thrown in. Just kidding about the Speedwagon.

L: Pretty Hate Machine had ten songs, Broken six. The Downward Spiral has fourteen. Is that because there was so much time between albums? Were some of those songs floating around during the last three years?

T: No. I mean there were no songs written before I started this album. I don't have a stockpile of hundreds of songs written, waiting to come out. With this record I reached a point where I knew I was done. There were a couple of songs that weren't quite done; they'll probably be on a twelve-inch or something. If I get them finished. I didn't really look at it in terms of songs. I didn't even know how many songs were there until the final stages of doing this and I realized, Christ. I've got 14 songs. Wow! That's a record! I was actually concerned about it being too long. It's a project to get through the record for the listener. It requires a certain amount of effort. Something that made it a bit more palatable was the arrangement of the songs.

L: The last five songs definitely bring a different mood.

T: The order was made to work as a climax and then go down a tube. That side has to work as a whole. It adds to the A/B nature. There were a few things I wanted to do with this album. Get away from the verse/chorus, verse/chorus, middle part, end structure. Which came from listening to Low by Bowie. Some of the songs don't seem that odd until you listen to a song and there wasn't any singing on it, but you didn't even realize it wasn't there. Odd structures and stuff. I doubt the average listener pays attention to it, but when you try to better the craft of song writing, you listen to those kinds of things. Also, to experiment with mood and put more effort into that than I had in the past. Music that might evoke visual images, not any specific ones. Perceptions.

L: Which four songs are going to be videos?

T: We are finishing up one for March of the Pigs, that hasn't been edited yet. That's the second video for that song. The first one didn't work out due to my fault, conceptually. It was average. I wouldn't put out a record like that so why put out a video?

L: Are they going to be videos that any of us are ever going to get to see?

T: No. I'm going to keep them for myself; show them only to my close friends.

L: You know what I mean.

T: The approach on this record was to work in the context of something that could be seen. I don't foresee four videos of reconstructive penis surgery. I think it's more challenging to work with something that's more accessible yet is interesting, different, subversive. I don't direct videos, so it's a challenge just to hook up with the right people. Work with more mainstream video directors, but take them out of context and experiment. I found all people that hadn't done videos before with mixed results and it ended up being a lot of hand holding. I don't have time for that right now. So, with the first one, Peter Christopherson who did the Wish video, and is in a band called Coil, who I've signed did March. We'll see what happens.

L: And the next three. Do you have any ideas?

T: The next one is going to be Closer, and I don't know what's going to happen video wise. I'd like Reptile to be a single. Probably the least bearable to get through. I think it's fairly grueling, but that's what I like about it. It's an ugly little track.

L: What about Eraser ?

T: I don't know. Those are more interesting to me than Heresy or Piggy. I'd be more excited to make a video for Eraser.

L: The last five songs are very sensual, which I don't think you've really done before.

T: Not as consciously or as successfully in my opinion. With Broken, the compass was pointing towards harder, meaner, faster, tough.

L: Well, you were pissed too. I mean that state of mind when you were writing.

T: Yes. I think that this record and Broken work together interestingly, because there was no touring between. I finished one and basically started up on the next one without delay. Broken wasn't physically easy to make, but direction wise, I knew what I wanted. This record had a less clear cut path. I wanted to make something that wasn't just hard songs.

L: Not that I want you to run right back in the studio, but is that how long it takes you between albums, three years?

T: People don't realize that it takes time to tour. I don't write albums when I'm on a tour bus. Maybe I should, but I don't. I'm not going to put out a half-assed record just because it's time to put out another record. When it's done, it's done.

L: Where will your tour start and what type of shows are you going to do?

T: You have to have little passes that say you are cool to get in. None of our mainstream fans are allowed in. You have to have tattoos and piercings.

L: Do you have any piercings or tattoos?

T: Just my ears. No tattoos. That's what makes me stand out today. I thought about getting branded, but I don't have the right kind of skin. I could lighten a dark room with the underside of my arms. I had my septum pierced for a year and a half, but when you're singing the mike hits, or your guitar strap pulls it when it goes over your head. Ouch. On stage it's chaos. Enough was enough. I didn't answer your question, though.

L: Sorry.

T: We're doing some warm up shows, then Australia for a couple of weeks, then to America for six. A couple of weeks off, then Europe, then America for twelve weeks, then Japan blah, blah, blah. The first wave through America we're going to play fairly small places.

L: Do you think some of those cool fans will be disappointed or feel a little bit betrayed?

T: I can't even begin to answer that. When I was recording this I started to think, Are people going to like this? It's just a creative trap to fall into. The person that liked that one thing I did before is there enough of that on this record? What I'm guessing they liked in the first place.

L: Like you were saying with Head Like A Hole.

T: Same exact thing. The other records I did were because that's what I wanted to do. In hindsight, I think that this is a record that doesn't have any real singles on it. I don't really see any of these songs being a big MTV video song. I really don't hear it as that type of a record. I'm sure there will be people that don't like this record just as I'm not so sure that there will be people that do like this record. I like it and that's all I can do. It will be interesting to see what happens.

L: Are you nervous a bit?

T: We have a modest expectation of the whole thing. I sound like Spinal Tap, Last time you were around, you were playing big venues, and this time...Well, our appeal has become more selective. I don't have any idea of how big we are.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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