The Art of Making Mistakes

Originally published in Gaffa on December 1, 1999

The industrial metal guru Trent Reznor sells records, is praised by critics and has been a huge influence on the musical scene of the 90's. GAFFA went through his career with him in Barcelona.

Trent Reznor, synonymous with the one-man band Nine Inch Nails, is not particularly tall. Nor is he very tanned (rather pale as death). Old haircut. As he is sitting there dressed in military boots, a worn green army jacket, black jeans and a ditto T-shirt, he doesn't look like a man with an album on the top of the US hitlist. And he is hard to recognize a few hours later when he is standing as the center of attention in a spectacular live show, which shows that he can not only match the idols Pink Floyd musically, but also visually. The first Nine Inch Nails-show in four years knocks the dumbfounded Spanish audience of their feet. The show is a tour through the one-man-band's almost ten year old career, with emphasis on the current album The Fragile, which has been on the way for five years. The career started with Pretty Hate Machine from '89 and the hit Head Like A Hole. An album, which sounded mostly, like a rock-version of Depeche Mode.

The Forerunner
"When I made Pretty Hate Machine I was discovering what Nine Inch Nails should be and what it should sound like. Many of my sources of inspiration were British bands. In the early 90's there was Wax Trax in the USA, who released Ministry, Front 242 - and Skinny Puppy were also a part of this scene. They were bands who really inspired and motivated me. Bands I thought were really cool. I didn't notice what was going on in the American rock scene at that time. Jane's Addiction came at that time. That was the only one of importance, but it wasn't what I was working with. When alternative music started selling to a larger audience, bands like Jane's Addiction and Nirvana ended Guns N'Roses and such, made them look out of place. The fact that we were performing at the first Lollapolooza-tour in USA at the same time also made people take an interest in us. We were cripples in Europe since the shitty company we were signed with in America, TVT, wouldn't license us until we were bigger. So we were two years behind. It's funny, because when Pretty Hate Machine was released the radio wouldn't play it. They said it was too hard. And now it seems tame but not necessarily out of place. The times have changed. And after touring with that material for two years it is suddenly on MTV: 'New music here! First!' And it has been out for two damn years, and you wouldn't play it. I would like to believe that we have moved people towards a direction to be more open-minded, accumulates Trent who characterizes the debut album as 'charming in its naivete'."

The Industrial Metal Rock
It wasn't until the EP Broken that Nine Inch Nails found the more mature rock expression and developed the industrial rock/metal, which have since been copied by dozens of bands. When you listen to Broken it's not hard to hear where Gravity Kills, Stabbing Westward and Marilyn Manson (who Trent Reznor also produced two albums for) have found their inspiration. The song Wish from the EP received a Grammy and were followed by Fixed. One of the first remix-albums in the world of rock. "The concept with Fixed was to throw Broken into a blender. Have all my friends, whom I respected, destroy it even more and see what happened. I did the same with Further Down The Spiral. It's fun for me as an artist, because it is less straining. I can have more fun. But it's also a bit pretentious."

Many artists have adopted the remix idea. "The difference is when I hear one of those remix-albums, e.g. White Zombie, they want to make all the songs into dance-hits. 'Let's make some people mix this and turn it into a dance thing.' To me that's selling out. I feel that if you should reinterpret something, then let's really fuck it up. Not calculate every song. 'Oh no, this is not hot in the club scene. Let's change that.' That doesn't appeal to me at all," Reznor firmly declares.

The Spiral and the Fragile
In 1994 The Downward Spiral followed. An album so dark and gloomy, so self destructive and nihilistic that it repelled most of the press when it was released. With the result of a lot of bad reviews. It has since been reevaluated and is now considered to be a masterpiece. "I also found that interesting. Because when the album was released it got lousy reviews in Europe, and it got good but not great reviews in USA. But now with the new album being released I read: 'The classic '94-Downward Spiral-masterpiece.' And it gets votes for best album of the decade. And I think: 'If I remember correctly that wasn't what you were saying when it was released,'" Reznor says with a laugh. - "But it's better then if it was the other way around. When I look back I believe it's finding it's rightful place in proportion to what we did. I remember when The Downward Spiral was released and it went straight to second place, and I thought: 'There's nothing that sounds anything similar to this at this end of the list.' I can say the same for The Fragile, which went straight to no. 1. Look at what it's surrounded by: Backstreet Boys and so on. It's a little like this: 'See what record doesn't fit in.' The type of record I like best is the kind that's transient; you don't get it the first time. But there's something about that makes you give it another chance. After the second time listening, it makes more sense. By the fifth it makes perfect sense. By the tenth it's your favorite. Rather that than a record that sounds great the first time, but you're getting tired of it by the third time," says Trent while shifting between eye contact and staring at the floor.

First Came the Word
About The Downward Spiral you said: "I hope the reason people like my music is the lyrics." Do you still feel this way? (Long pause). "I put a lot into the lyrics. They're always the hardest to do. To be honest: (Long pause) When I was writing The Fragile I suffered from a very bad depression. And I didn't want to write lyrics. I didn't wish to look for what was going on inside of me. I think my lack of trust in the lyrics makes this album less lyrically intense, as perhaps some of the previous stuff has been. I'm not saying that I don't like them. My head was just in a different place when I made this album. The music became more expressive. It was more interesting for me to focus on the music this time. I don't hope it will continue to be this way. If I had to start an album today I would wish to solely concentrate on the lyrics. I think I was leaning too much against the music this time and I did it because I was afraid of being honest."

What song lyric is your favorite from The Fragile? "Probably the song 'Even Deeper.' I like where it's going and it�s confessing character. I think the line: 'For once in my life I feel complete and I still want to ruin it' is a reoccurring theme in my life and I just stumbled over it. It makes a lot of sense to me."

You also said that you wanted to get away from the very depressing. "That didn't happen (laughing). I have learned that I can sit and talk about what I want to do, but when I'm in the middle of it, it has to be where my head and heart is at that time."

Reznor's Ambition
It's very clear that there is an idea and notion to everything Reznor does and through it all shines the will not to compromise. He knows only the difficult and hard way to get a result that's why it is so time-consuming to make a NIN-album. Reznor characterizes the majority of today's music as either perishable pop or retro-fixated and is vexed that so few look to the future instead of the past. Trents own search originated in the latest technological conquests. But he is careful not to lose the coincidental and human touch in the music, despite of the many machines used.

"To have emotional quality is the strength in my music. To have a feeling or humanity to it. This time it was recorded on computers, but it was real instruments being manipulated and that meant it had flaws. It was played in a strange way or on defective instruments. Then when it's processed by a computer it can sometimes sound very mechanical, but most of the times it won't. Some music should be perfect and some has beauty in the imperfection. When you're working with computers it's easy to make it too perfect. Then it gets boring and cold. When you're working with a media where you can just push a button and then everything will be perfect, then it's hard to keep it coincidental and fragile."

Since the break with TVT and the start of Nothing (Reznor's own record company) all of Nine Inch Nails' albums have been blessed with an exclusive and sensational wrapping. And that's certainly not a coincidence. Trent is very interested in getting the artwork and music to compliment each other: "I'm the type of fan that when vinyl was the only thing, I would go out and buy the Swans 12" import version at the price of 15$ and it was awful, but it looked great. Or from companies like 4AD where the wrapping added another layer. Where the wrapping helps the music become art and treats music as art. David Carson�s name came up when we were doing artwork for this album. I played the CD to him and he almost got sick. He said, "That's weird, nothing seems to be in its right place on it." The whole idea of taking pictures either close to or from a distance, the half logo, that everything was out of proportions. That was a good experience. It costs more to make a good wrapping, but that's not what matters. When you see the artwork, the album has a frame and the songs can live in this spectrum of colors and suddenly it makes more sense to me."

On Marilyn Manson
"I would like to produce more when NIN doesn't take up all of my time. To work with Manson's Antichrist Superstar was very rewarding. I also produced the first, but that wasn't where we did it right. It was a group of guys, who were very close and had some ideas, and I felt that I was capable of helping them carry out these ideas. Help them be as ridiculous or threatening, or however they wanted it to be. At one point we had a talk and they said: 'We wanna be cool'. So my response was: 'Fuck being cool. Let's make it ridiculous, let's exaggerate it.'"

On Soundtracks
"Natural Born Killers was a pleasure to work with, cos I really liked the movie and was very involved. There were some very creative people working on it. It was something away from NIN, with no pressure. On Lost Highway I had the possibility of working with David Lynch and he is one of my heroes. To sit in a room with him, that moment was worth all the work. I see them as minor projects, not insanely important. If I should make another soundtrack, then I would write the music from the start, not just pop- or rock songs."

On Atari Teenage Riot
"I like the collision of technology and pure hardcore. Right in the face. I like the anger, the ridiculous and exaggeration about it. It could be fun to form such a band, but they do it better than I would. I think they're inspiring."

- Denmark

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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