Interview: Trent Reznor

By Dustin Burg for Joystiq on September 24, 2009

Wait. What? Trent Reznor? As in "Mr. I'll Give Away My Music," "Mr. Brutal Honesty," Mr. NINE INCH NAILS? What's he doing on Joystiq?

Prior to taking the concert stage this month, The Trent Reznor, along with NIN Creative Director Rob Sheridan, opened up to us about their gaming pasts, the direction they see the industry headed in, and whether or not Trent will have a role in shaping that future.

Continue reading for Joystiq's first-ever NINterview ...

Let's start off with an easy question: What kind of gamer are you?

Trent: I am old, so I was there from the beginning. You know, from the first Pong machine. Rob and I are both avid gamers and our friendship kind of grew out from it. We worked with each other for years and had a lot of space in our studio, so we collected a lot of arcade games. We tried to get all the classics like Metroid, Space Invaders, Robotron and others from that era. I've stayed with gaming throughout the years and have all the current systems and, yes, I still get excited about release day. That said, I've become disillusioned in the last few years with the types of games the big studios put out. They're the same game over and over again just skinned differently. I'm not a believer that everyone wants to necessary play a movie, where game play is overlooked for flashy graphics. That's a disturbing trend.

So, you're big into classic arcade gaming?

Trent: Every time we to go to a different country we try to see if there are still arcades left. The modern Japanese arcade is not the same, because they're all about these weird resource management, horse racing, car games that nobody can figure out what the fuck is happening. Unless you're Japanese, of course. I had a lot of great times in arcades and I miss that experience. I know things move forward, but there's something about discovering an arcade, the aesthetics, the cool cabinet that was built specifically for that game. The first time I saw Tempest, for example, I was like, "What the fuck is this?" It looked like some sort of 2001 thing, it had weird, abstract graphics and sounded cool. I realize times have changed, but I miss having those three minutes where it's you versus that machine, sweating like crazy in this finite countdown to death scenario. A game like Robotron ... that separates the men from the boys.

You previously mentioned that you came up with a video game idea and pitched it to big publishers. Tell us about that game.

Trent: Rob and I have some things on the side that we've been working on and one of the things we've been talking about doing is publishing or developing video games. A few years ago we took that idea to a few of the main publishers, Midway, Activision, etc. And as first time people in a pitch meeting, it was kind of depressing. Depressing to see that the people in control of those studios and publishers are much the same as the people sitting at record companies.

In a record company, they aren't musicians or people who love music, they're people who want to sell plastic discs. They think they have a formula where if they can eliminate the artist from that equation, even better. You see that in the case of the Pussycat Dolls and some of the other fabricated crap that's out there. What we tended to notice in the video game meetings was that it didn't seem that there were gamers there. It's business guys who want to turn the company into a profit making machine. They look at it in terms of numbers, like a Hollywood studio. If it costs "X" amount to make a game, to compete, then it has to be a proven franchise or it has to be similar enough to something they know is going to sell. They don't want to take the risk.

Can you give us specifics about the game you were trying to pitch?

Trent: Yeah ... I'll let Rob talk about that, because it's primarily his idea.

Rob: No ... I don't think we should reveal our trade secrets just yet.

Trent: Let's just say this. It's a simple idea. It's kind of dumb and obvious, but could be fun. It'd be something I would buy and is an idea that takes a chance and bends a few rules. Some of which have been bent since our initial pitch. The idea has a juvenile, kind of fun smartass-ness to it, but was ultimately just too risky for a big company that's more interested in "Spider-Man 11" or "Madden: This Year."

Would you be interested in completely funding a game for distribution through cheaper channels like Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network?

Trent: We're working on some things that will start to come into fruition post Nine Inch Nails and post our tour. That's one of the reasons I'm stopping the tour, because there are all these other things that I've been wanting to do that are outside playing shows. While I enjoy doing Nine Inch Nails and touring, I've done it enough where there are a lot of other things I'd like to get into. One of those things ... well, I'm probably saying too much, because if it doesn't happen then I'll have to answer questions about it for the next five years. Let's just say that one of the things that's highest priority for me and Rob is the development of some entertainment-based video game–type stuff.

Do you see any similarities between the indie video game and indie music industries? If so, what advice could you give to those who want to get noticed in the market?

Trent: From a business perspective, in looking at the video game world, I haven't applied myself to learning the obstacles or knowing if it's a bad deal to sell yourself to companies like Activision or not. I just don't know the details of that. Video games are a fairly new form of maturing entertainment that really are art forms. The success of the industry as an art form and a form of entertainment will be if it can rediscover itself and to allow for the redefining of what a video game is. Not necessarily targeting it towards just kids or grandparents or whatever. The goal is always to keep a level of entertainment, excitement and innovation.

Again, it seems like games have gone from the golden age -- like Robotron, which was only a few kilobytes -- to the era of Wolfenstein and Doom, where a boutique shop of just ten guys could create an in-depth, quality game in six months to a year. Now we're at an era of needing hundreds of guys and millions of dollars and several years to compete with other A-list titles to attract the big publisher that wasn't as big of a deal years ago.

The publisher equates to the record label and now you have an ecosystem where, if you want to compete with EA or Activision, you have to have a mainstream enough title, which turns into a blockbuster movie scenario.

This, again, is the same thing you see with films where a lot of generic, big films come out of Hollywood. Things like G.I. Joe and Transformers, where you know what you're getting, they aren't redefining anything, but they'll make "X" amount of money, because "X" amount of people -- including us -- will see it. But every once in a while, something different comes along, like a Quentin Tarantino who'll blow the doors off things and turns the industry on its head. All because it was exciting, innovative and it came from way over there.

I like what I'm seeing from Xbox where they're providing a place to get indie games and you don't have to hack your system or fight updates to get those games on it. Again, the iPhone is another platform that's inspiring and allows developers to make a game in a reasonable amount of time, with little money and allows for the possibility of something cool. Innovation is the key. I'd like to say, from a music side, that the indie world guarantees more innovation, but that isn't necessarily true. The indie world is trying to be the major label. The people I know on indie labels are dealing with the same corrupt, broken structures. Indie implies there's a greater creative atmosphere, but that isn't necessarily true.

What's your take on Microsoft and Sony entering the motion-controlled market?

Trent: Me and Rob are both big Nintendo fans for a number of reasons. Nintendo approaches gaming from a prospective where Super Mario Bros. is still a classic and doesn't look dated. Look at any game on the PlayStation 1 that tries to exceed past the terrible 3D graphics, with their look alike, sound alike franchise attempts.

With Nintendo, there's this kind of aesthetic that they bring to their in-house games that makes them feel like art. Where they aren't trying to be something else, where they have their own place and are just what they are. I've talked with Rob about this, about why that kind of game is cool, has a timelessness to it and isn't trying to be more than what it is. If I were going to make a video game today I would not put in rendered, 3D characters that try to look human. You know, where when they talk their lips are out of sync and have this weird aliased thing going on. There's that Shadow Complex game, which does looks cool. Every cut scene has the eyes rendered pretty well, but there's that terrible voice acting and the characters look like Fembots.

Rob: The characters usually look better stylized in a way where it lends itself to the media as opposed to trying to look like the latest 3D-animated movie, which can create things super-realistically. When it's done only half way ... well, it's just kind of weird.

Trent: How that applies to Nintendo, and I'm not saying they haven't fucked up a few times too, but they have this sense of here's this game, we're aware of the limitations, but we're going to make the game great with taste and integrity. Being honest, I'm not a huge fan of Sony. Their entire strategy behind the PlayStation is to focus on gaming as an experience last and getting a Blu-ray player in your living room comes first. Now, three years later they're trying to release a motion controller that's a little bit better than the Wii's.

Are you fans of Rock Band or Guitar Hero?

Rob: I suck at those games. Pure and simple -- I just suck.

Trent: I dabble around in them and I actually think those games are fun. As a gamer, it's interesting, fun and surprisingly rewarding when you get it right. As a musician, who's watching the record industry look at these games as a type of salvation ... it's laughable. That's just desperate people in the record business thinking. "Man, we finally have a way to turn people onto music."

In a good way, a friend of mine who is my age, he has a couple kids under ten years old who now really like AC/DC and other classic music. Music they may not have discovered at their age. It's kind of fun to walk into Best Buy and hear people get excited about trying to play a Beck song and I don't think that's a bad thing. I'm kind of excited to see how they did on Beatles: Rock Band. I read about that in Wired, and it sounds like they did an A-list job in creating the depth of the experience.

How are your Rock Band skills?

Trent: I'm not bad, but to be honest with you, I haven't allowed myself go too deep down the path of perfection.

If I were to set up a rock-off, a game of Rock Band between you and a band like ... say, Coldplay. Who would win?

Trent: I don't know, but if it descended into physical violence, we'd probably win. Those guys strike me as having a lot of time on the bus tweaking or stringing some riffs together. [Laughs.]

I'll tell you one thing I can't do that just amazes me is watching the masters of the Dance Dance Revolution game while I was in Japan. I got to see some asian kid, where his feet are moving faster than I can see shit coming down the screen. That's amazing.

Will we be seeing anymore Nine Inch Nails DLC releases for Rock Band or Guitar Hero by year's end?

Trent: No.

Is there a reason?

Trent: I just really never thought about it. When Rock Band first came out there were a couple songs involved and they asked for more in a content pack. I just said pick some of the hardest material we have, like "The Perfect Drug," which has some difficult drums. Then I asked them to make it as hard as they could possibly make it. That led to me seeing a couple YouTube videos of people getting high scores and, well ... that's really it. I feel we did all we needed to do with it.

What do you think of the upcoming Rock Band Network? Will you support the service?

Trent: I think that's an interesting idea, but I'd have to think about it some more. Would I do it for Nine Inch Nails? No -- and I'll tell you why.

At the end of the day, I don't mind putting my song in a movie I like. Something like where JJ Abrams calls asking to use a song in "Fringe." I say, "I like what you do, I know it'll be used tastefully."

If someone hears it in that context, well, okay, that's cool. Again, at the end of the day, my concern is to write music and that's what it is. Music isn't a game, it's supposed to be an emotional kind of experience.

When I heard about Rock Band and was asked to put some music on it, I did that. Then I thought, what if, with our next record, we release it on Rock Band first? The entire album. But then I thought about it some more and decided no, because I don't want people remembering it that way. I want it to be an album, a piece of music and not a game. There's a balance there, but music should have its own place, because it is not just about how many people can get it in whatever form.

Activision released special band-specific Guitar Hero games, like Metallica and Aerosmith. Have you ever been approached about a NIN edition?

Trent: Not that I know of. I'm not saying this to be modest, but we aren't in the same demographic or audience size as those bands. NIN doesn't really fit that mold, because there is no guitar in a third of our songs and, to be honest with you, I wouldn't want to do that anyway.

If you had to pick one video game character to identify with, who would it be?

Trent: Umm, that's a tough one. [Long pause.]

I really can't think of shit right now. Rob, you got one, I know you do. You're thinking Samus, but she's a chick and you don't want to say that. [Laughs.]

It's that or Link.

Rob: Yeah, I'd go with Link, actually. That's a good one, because I was the loner kid who just wanted everyone to leave me alone so I could play Zelda. It's that lone person experience that kind of defined who I am.

Trent: Yeah and I can't think of anything.

What about Mario? You said you liked Nintendo.

Trent: No, he's too common. Too bourgeois.

Well, now that you're moving on from NIN, do you have any interest in putting your creative energy into video games? Whether it be development or creating a soundtrack for a game?

Trent: Yeah, again, Rob and I are working on a project together that's moving forward and focuses on the creation of content from a developer's perspective. Would I do music for an everyday game? Meh. I'm not thrilled about the idea, but if someone cool came to me and had this great game, then I'd consider it. Just like if a great director came to me and said, "I'm doing a film would you want to do the music?" I'd consider it.

That's not my dream job, to be honest with you. The idea of making a cool game or making a cool software platform, now that's wildly exciting to me! Content creation is where me and Rob are headed.

That's sort of a direct result of what we did with Year Zero, in terms of the ARG and presenting it. That was, from my perspective, the most rewarding creative experience, musical or not. Being able to take this world and present it to people in a creative way. It wasn't a game, it wasn't a website, it was kind of all those things in one. It was an experience where it was fun to use all the different kinds of mediums that are available now and, in the end, kind of creep into people's minds.

I like playing shows, and I can play shows. I've played big shows and I've played shitty shows. I've played where people show up and played where people don't show. But what excites me is working on stuff like the Year Zero project more than my current thing. I could keep doing shows. I'm pretty good at it, but I want to fucking start something that I might suck at and try that. You know, to see what it's like to suck for once.

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