Welcome to the Machine
Originally published in Industrial Introspection on June 1, 1991
M2: So, Trent...what have you been up to recently? Is the new album going to be out soon?
Trent: Yeah, I'm working on it right now. For the last several months, I've been working on some outside projects which I'd rather not talk about 'cause my record company will want to sue me. I'm also getting a studio together in my house so I can finish the next record there - the mixing. I'm getting my computer and studio gear together.
M2: Are you still living in Cleveland?
TR: No, I've moved to New Orleans. I just had to escape from the mid-West. When I got off tour, my apartment had been broken into, and that was it...I had to GET OUT OF CLEVELAND! Not that it's totally bad or anything, it's just, with what I'm doing, I can be based anywhere. I can just go anywhere - get out the map, see what looks good.
M2: How did you originally get involved in music, and specifically, the kind of industrial-influenced music that you do?
TR: I grew up with lots of music and instruments around and I was trained on the piano starting at 5. My dad was into electronic devices and had an electric piano. When I got my first synthesizer, my piano playing came to an abrupt halt. Synthesizers seemed so much more than an instrument. I can't really explain it, but it had a mysterious hold over me. It was this big, cool toy that could make all these incredible sounds. I was also very into computers and electronics and video, so it all seemed to fit for me. I got serious about writing music about the time that MIDIs and sequencers hit the scene, so right from the beginning I was composing on computer and sequencer. I can't imagine composing on say a guitar or a conventional instrument. The idea is foreign to me.
M2: So, you've always had a comfortable relationship with high technology?
TR: Yes, definitely. After high school, because I thought I wanted a legitimate career to fall back on, I went to college to study computer engineering. I was interested in getting involved in the design of high-end computer music systems, which at that time was the Fairlight and things like that. I knew that this was all going to take off - digital multi-track recording, computerized studios. You can imagine what this type of environment will be like five years from now. Anyway, as I got into the engineering, I realized that it was all mathematics and mechanics, rather than the creative applications. I was more interested in being the person who says: "I want it to do such and such." I found out that the possibilities of what this technology could do was more important to me than the mechanics of how it was done. At the same time I realized I didn't want to compete with the people whose lives revolved around engineering - it was just a part of what I wanted to do. My true vocation was music. So I dropped out and fucked around for a couple of years trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I ended up working in a computer music store in Cleveland and was able to master a lot of the different computer systems, MIDIs, and sequencers. From there I got a job in a recording studio as a programmer - people would come in and need a bad drum beat, or whatever. I taught myself studio engineering there. I worked for next to nothing, but I could come in at night and use the studio. It was around this time that I read an article about Prince and how he used to stay up all night cranking out demo tapes. This sounded like a romantic idea, so I decided that's what I would do...and here I am.
M2: So, what hardware are you going to have in your new studio?
TR: I've got a couple of Akai S1100 samplers, a Macintosh IIFX loaded up with all the latest software. I'm waiting for this 16-track digital recording package which is supposed to be released in the next few months. It will allow me to record real instruments at home, then drop them into the studio for mixing. That's pretty exciting to me. Instead of sinking 0-200 into a studio every time you go in to record, why not invest it in yourself and do the work yourself.
M2: Are you talking about Digidesign?
TR: Yeah, that's the company.
M2: I just got "Freak Show," the new release from The Residents, and apparently that was done entirely in Digidesign. It sounds great. I think it's one of the best things they've done in a while.
TR: Yeah, that's cool. I've always been a fan of The Residents. Building Pop Structures with Industrial Power Tools
M2: Who else do you like, both within so-called industrial music and in general?
TR: Well, when I was in the process of writing Pretty Hate Machine, I sort of took an inventory of all the music that I liked, both what I listened to when I was growing up and what I like currently. I wanted to really formulate an idea of what makes a powerful record, what had really clicked for me. One of the things that it seemed to boil down to was honesty, a sense of integrity in what was being said. Sincerity. I used that as a base in working with my ideas. When it came to the music, since I was a big fan of the American Industrial movement, basically because it was electronic, it made sense to me to use this form. I had always been into electronic music, but I didn't feel like it had much intensity, as compared to rock and roll. Industrial was also electronic, but it delivers as much power and intensity as any other musical form. And, it basically represents the total misuse of technology which really appealed to me (laughter). It's using modern musical technology - the computer and the sampler - in a totally new way. Today, the best of the hip-hop music, which I would say is the stuff that's produced by The Bomb Squad, from Public Enemy, is a totally new use of sampling. It's using it as an instrument, instead of a simulation of something else - a drum, or piano, or whatever. It's a stand-alone instrument. That's what I find very interesting. So, anything that those guys are producing I respect from a musical point of view. Also, from a songwriting point of view, I like anybody who's writing good material. I think XTC is a great band and writes excellent songs.
M2: Here, here! (Trent scores big points having just intoned the interviewer's OTHER favorite band)
TR: Their lyrics are so intelligent with good choruses. Ya know, I'm basically a pop structure kind of guy. A lot of industrial stuff is much more of a free-form groove, which I don't have any problem with, but for me, I like to have that hook and that structure. I guess in that sense, I'm not very experimental in terms of songwriting. I like to give people what they expect. In terms of arrangement, on the other hand, I'm becoming much less traditional. I'm totally bored with every band in the world using the same combinations of guitar-bass-drums which goes all the way back to The Beatles and the Stones. I'm more into using different things, basically anything I can find that gets the sound I'm looking for. A lot of what I'm doing now may sound organic, like it may sound like real drums, and at one time, it was, but they've been looped and sampled and processed in strange ways but you can still hear an element of that live instrument - "hey, that sounds like a drum" - but then you realize it's been processed in some unique way. I now have a situation at home where I have lots of loops of friends playing drums, or bass lines I have done and I can arrange these to make my music, take this piece here and that part there, repitch them lower to fit the key, add this guitar part - I cut and paste like that till I come up with something interesting. So, instead of your typical Mini-Moog synthesizer composition, you're swiping different sounds from other places, plucking things off other people's records, you become a kind of god of your own musical environment.
M2: I want to go back to what you were saying about the honesty being very important in music "that clicks." I think that's what impressed me the most about Pretty Hate Machine when I first heard it. That raw sincerity really came through. And, although the over all mood is dark and negative, there is a real beauty to it which I found uplifting. There's a real sense of heart, flesh, and blood in amongst all the loud electronics. Are there other electronic musicians who you think have a lot of heart in their music?
TR: That's an interesting question. I guess I haven't thought about it on those terms. I was definitely aware of that in doing my album, that juxtaposition of humanity amidst all that machinery, not only lyrically or in terms of the arrangement, but just in terms of communicating that concept. Sometimes I would pit the most harsh electronic textures against a very raw human vocal or a real guitar part. I had a rule with myself during the recording that I would only do two takes of the vocals. I'd sing it once and it would usually suck and then the second take of the entire vocal I would use - good or bad. Even if pitch was off, or intonation. The only exception was if I sang the wrong words. I wanted to express a kind of vulnerability and the idea that I was a person trying to keep my head above water living in this machine which was moving forward. As far as other bands, I like Ministry, who was more so than they are now, industrial. They pretty much established industrial music in America. They definitely put the anger and aggression element into electronic music. I mean, the first electronic music that I got into wasn't stuff like Throbbing Gristle - it was more like Human League and Devo and other less experimental things that made their way into Pennsylvania, which is where I was living at the time. Then you had the people who developed electronic personalities because their music was electronic - Gary Neuman, Kraftwerk - very emotionless. There wasn't any humanity in it. Today, you have people who just want to follow the technology rather than innovate with it. The people who arrange Paula Abdul or Madonna - they just buy the gear, read the manual and make the sounds it tells them they can make. That's why every dance club hit sounds the same, they're all programming the sounds by the book. God, I forgot the question - we're talking about ten different things at once.
M2: (laughter) Well, that's the way I like to do things. Let's talk more about "the ghost in the machine." I mean, I like to explore the extremes, so I've spent my time with the raw emotionalism of punk and the automatism of Kraftwerk, Devo and some of the early industrial stuff, but ultimately what I'm interested in is cybernetics - the sustainable relationship between humans and machines. I think there's a soulfullness and a dynamic on your first album which can only arise from a give and take relationship between humans and electronics. What other goals did you have for this first record?
TR: Basically to suck in a lot of people (laughter), to get their attention. I had well- known producers Q Adrian Sherwood (Cabaret Voltaire and Ministry), Flood (Nitzer Ebb, Depeche Mode), Keith LeBlanc (Tack>Head), John Fryer (Cocteau Twins) Q which helped. I mean, I wasn't just out for record sales, but I think a lot of people may have gotten the record and been surprised that they had something that was a little different than most stuff in the genre. A lot of people came to us through our live shows and then went out and bought the record. Our live shows are pretty different than the records. I could have just gone out with tape machines or 50 keyboards or whatever and recreated the sound of the record, but I'm much more interested in the challenge of having 4 musicians interpret what was initially composed by one person on a computer. This way, I'm not bored, there's a lot of interaction and it's a unique interpretation of my music. The record and the shows are quite different. The record is me at home masturbating into a computer and the shows are me masturbating into an audience (laughter).
M2: (sarcastically) Oh, what fun!
TR: Everybody bring your raincoat.
M2: When Pretty Hate Machine first came out, it got a lot of heat from die-hard industrial fans who said: "This isn't industrial music, this is pop music! Ooh ick."
TR: And they were absolutely correct. That album is not pure anything. If I hear, say a Skinny Puppy record, it has a very unique sound, it defines a certain musical territory. You can say without a shadow of a doubt, "That's an industrial album." It's real noisy, it's unintelligible (for the most part), it's dance-oriented - none of which is bad - I mean Puppy is definitely an influence on me. While I didn't want to end up as the Vanilla Ice of industrial (laughter), I did want to toss a few more things into the mix. I wanted to take what I liked from industrial music. What I don't like about industrial is that not much of it is among my all-time favorite music. I don't listen to it over and over again. I mean lyrically a lot of it is vacuous and they're basically communicating one emotion which is snarling ferociousness. What I wanted to do was take that anger part of it, (real anger, not poser anger) and add other emotions, vulnerabilities, frailty and to put some effort into the lyrics, instead of chanting the same thing over and over again. So, it starts to depend on how you look at it. Am I taking a pop song and arranging it in an industrial fashion to fool people into thinking we're an industrial band, or are we an industrial band that pays more attention to lyrics and, by bastardizing the genre a little bit, turned more people on to it. We've sold more records than the average industrial band, and while I don't care much about numbers, perhaps that's because we've given people more to grab on to. A problem I have with Skinny Puppy, for instance, is that while they do something well - all the anger and the snarling and the meanness - I don't want to hear that for a whole album with nothing else, after a while it really starts to bore me. Give it up!
M2: I know what you mean, exactly. And I think at a certain point you're just saturated with it and there's no emotional response anymore - you're back to white noise and cold electronics. On Pretty Hate Machine I found a great sense of liberation among all the angst. Do you have an underlying sense of optimism lurking beneath your music, or is what I experienced just the side-effect of connecting with the honesty- the fact that you're hitting the nail on the head, so to speak.
TR: Well, what you just said was exactly what I was trying to get across. During the recording process, I just followed my instincts, but when it was done, I sat down and listened to it with as much objectivity as possible (which granted is hard when you've been responsible for every single sound), and I realized that basically I'm a depressed person and look back on the events of my life with a certain kind of melancholy...ah...well...I can't really explain it. [sounding rather serious] I think I probably need therapy or some counseling. Now that I'm at this point...I mean what were my life goals? I wanted to write music, record it, do "the rock thing", I wanted to know that people listened to my music and appreciated it, that somewhere in the world someone was listening to my songs and saying, "oh man, I can relate to that," or "I'm really pissed off, I think I'll put this record on." I wanted to give people what I got out of music when I was growing up. If I was feeling bad, I'd put on a certain record that would make me feel much better. I guess that could be thought of as an optimistic thing, using music to feel better. I was really into Pink Floyd's "The Wall." I could be the most bummed out suicidal person in the world and I'd say "fuck it, I'll listen to The Wall," and somehow, through its depression, it would lift my spirits. I guess the reason that I'm yelling about things so loudly is that I want to fix them, make them better. This I think is an optimistic point of view.
Please Release Me
M2: Does your music serve as therapy for you the way that other people's music does? I've heard your shows are intense cathartic experiences for the audience. Are they therapeutic to you as well?
TR: Yes, very much so. I'm incredibly pleased with the success of our live shows which I was very concerned about when we started - how the music would go over live with a new band. Well, the crowd response has been really great. There's people stage diving and people just doing whatever they want to do, which some people may interpret as violent or out of control. We've had some problems with the security people. At the beginning of every show I have to give a speech where I say, "Look, people are going to be having fun out there. They're not hurting each other, so don't stop them. No one is out there to hurt anybody. We're about fun and letting people get it out of their systems." You have to understand where security people are at, you know, little brains, big muscles, small dicks.
M2: As Max Headroom says: "Security people are the most insecure people in the world."
TR: (laughs) Exactly. So this is basically their chance to get tough and beat people up. We've played shows where someone incredibly harmless jumps up on stage for a minute and jumps back off and security will grab 'em and just start beatin' on 'em while carrying them off the stage. We stop the show and say, "hey, the only people who are getting hurt are the ones you're beating up on, you're causing the problem." And then articles come out saying that we don't allow stage diving. It's not us. Like on the upcoming Lalapalooza tour, we're going to be in these big venues. I'd rather be in clubs where people can do whatever they want. This music releases a lot of energy so you should have the freedom to do what you you have to do - stand on your chair and scream, jump up on stage with me, whatever, I don't care. The big challenge on this tour is going to be trying to create that feeling with a) lots of people who've never seen our shows, b) giant day-time venues. That's my challenge for the next months.
M2: I want to read you something about your show from an Industrial Music topic I started on a computer network. Since I've never seen you live, I asked if anyone had and what it was like. Here's what one women said:
"Hard to describe. Intense. Very intense. It lasted an hour but that was plenty. Lights. Volume. He threw cornstarch and chocolate syrup on the band members and the audience. Many members of the audience stage-dove. The set was like a jungle gym and he clambered and wound himself around various parts of it. The songs all sound torturous, anyway, and he wrung them out of his body. I expected blood, really."
TR: (laughs) Well, that's a flattering interpretation. That's cool.
M2: So, what's with the cornstarch and chocolate syrup?
TR: When we started out and needed to get press photos taken, we knew we didn't want to pose like pretty boys. We got this photographer Jeffrey Silverthorne from Ohio who was doing these really neat pictures of people covered in cornstarch. They're photographed really high contrast so they look almost corpse-like. The picture on the inside of the record was done this way. Most of his work is of nudes. There's something really disturbing about them. Very eerie. So, after working with him, before we did our first show, I just came out with this box of cornstarch and doused everybody. I said "fuck it, let's just try it and see what happens." We looked so creepy and stupid, but we seemed to pull it off. It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti- Bon Jovi and the whole glamor thing. That just escalated into the silliness of the tour that she described. Do you know was that San Francisco? (yes) Certain things like that just seem to develop when you're on the road, out of the insanity of it all. You're always tired and hung over. Our shows are incredibly exhausting, I mean I'm not a big partier, we drank once in a while, but I had to cut all that out, 'cause if I drank the night before, the next day I just couldn't do as good a show. But, towards the end of the tour - the west coast dates - it just started getting progressively more ridiculous, ya know - how can we outdo the night before? We were breaking things on stage and stuff like that. It got to the point where it was a complete situation of chaos. One night I was in a 7-11 before the show and I saw this big thing of chocolate syrup and I got this idea. During a certain point in the show, I always molest the guitar player in some fashion. I said to him "Rich, tonight I've got a surprise for you, don't worry it'll be cool." He's like: "What is it? What is it!? You're going to make me look like an idiot and my brother's going to be there." The point in the show is when things lighten up a bit, there's a break from the violent intensity. I pulled out two things of chocolate syrup and start pouring them over his head. It looked cooler than I could have possibly imagined - it was just amazing. It totally dripped all over his guitar, everywhere. The roadies are saying [deep gruffy voice]: "fuck this, this isn't in my contract" (cleaning chocolate syrup off off strings and guitar parts). So, of course this had to go even farther. The next night in LA there was this wall of security guys in front of the stage so that I couldn't see the audience and the audience couldn't see me. At one point I just stopped the show and said "What the fuck are you doing? Does anyone here wanna see these fuckin' guys?" Well, at the end of the show, I found out that there was this big hump in the dance floor that they were trying to keep people from walking onto. So I apologized to them and we became "good friends." The next night (at the same place) the security guys bring out 6-10 heavy naked girls and my road manager starts covering them in whipped creme. It was totally bizarre and silly.
M2: Where did the naked women come from?
TR: Apparently they were strippers friends of the security people, or something like that. It was real stupid. (laughter) Did you see the Hard Copy interview with us? (no) They did a story on us because of that whole video scandal* They ran this totally ridiculous story. I think they may have been there filming that night, but I don't think they got the part with the nude women.
*(footnote) During the filming of NIN's video for "Down in It," the film makers tied a camera onto a helium balloon to film a shot of Trent lying on the ground covered in cornstarch. The balloon camera got away and ended up landing in a farmer's field. People thought they had found a tape showing some sort of ritual murder and all media hell broke loose.
M2: Speaking of extremes, how extreme are you willing to get in your quest for release? That comment above "I expected blood. Really." Are you going to continue to raise the stakes?
TR: It's true that when I'm on stage something else takes over and I can do things that I know I shouldn't do. Not in terms of hurting myself or anyone, but smashing things - like smashing up my favorite guitar 'cause after having just gotten it fixed it still doesn't hold a tuning. I mean, I'm not interested in slicing myself open like Iggy Pop, if that's what you're asking.
M2: Well, I was just reading an interview with Al Jourgensen (Ministry) and Nivek Ogre (Skinny Puppy) and they were talking about blood-letting on stage.
TR: (laughs) What!? I hadn't heard that. What does the audience do - wear rubber gloves and stuff to protect themselves?
M2: Oh, that's right. It better be safe blood-letting. The entire audience dressed in rubber and PVC. (laughter) What about performance art and other fringe art? Are you interested in any of that?
TR: There's definitely a big gap in my knowledge of things like performance art. I've never lived anywhere that had a thriving scene for that.
M2: How about mainstream art, movies, books?
TR: I love movies! I would go to a movie every day if I could. I especially like things in the science fiction and horror genres. My dream is to get David Cronenberg to direct my next video. I know I shouldn't say that because it won't happen and I'll look foolish. Actually, I really hate videos. I think they've ruined a lot of music. What could have been an interesting and experimental format for short film has become basically a commercial for the songs. It could be Coke or it could be Bon Jovi. There's no difference. Unfortunately, MTV won't play anything that doesn't fit the mold. We had a hard time getting both of our videos on because of their alleged "violent content." Ministry has had the same problem. It's OK for us to see Cher and Madonna nude and Warrant in a silly shoot out or in "Cherry Pie" - that's what it's all about on MTV - but our videos are unacceptable.
M2: You mentioned David Cronenberg as first choice for a director. I take it you're a fan of his movies?
TR: Very much so. Dead Ringers is one of my favorite movies of all time.
M2: Oh man, mine too! (another big score for the Trentmeister) Isn't it unbelievable? I'm so into that movie and I try to talk to people about it and they just didn't get it. Have you ever read or seen an interview with him? (no) He's a real fascinating, intelligent guy. His movies are laden with theory and metaphor. He's really interested in Marshall McLuhan's ideas and in various conflicts between competing systems: the mind vs. the body, technology vs. biology. I see a lot of his films (It Came from Within, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers) as post-modern mystery plays. He's exploring the nature and effects of mutation way before anyone else. Speaking of mutants, what's this I hear about David Lynch directing something for you?
TR: That was totally made up by our record company. The problem with the record company is that they won't leave me alone. All I want to do is have them give me the money to make the record, they put it out and they can then make money from it. Boom! But no, they want to be involved in everything. [Trent assumes dumb record exec. voice:] "Who's going to be directing the video? [Trent, bored:] "This guy" [Exec:] Why do you want him, what other videos has he done?" [Trent:] "This one" [Exec:] "But we don't like that one, it's not heavy on MTV. How about...ah...er...him?" [Trent excited:] "I don't give a shit about MTV! I don't want that guy, I want this guy, I like his work." It just goes on and on and on. [more brain-dead exec:] "And, who's going to be doing the photographs?" [Trent, bored again:] "This guy" [Exec:] Well, we don't like that guy, how about...ah...THIS guy?" [Trent, angry and frustrated:] "I don't want that fuckin' guy, I want THIS fuckin' guy, or forget it!! (laughter) So, when we were looking around for a director for "Head like a Hole," they said "who do you want?" I gave them a list with like David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Federico Fillini. "You get me one of those guys and I'll do your fuckin' video." A couple of weeks later I get a call back and they say [weasely exec:] "Guess who's going to do your next video? David Lynch. We're talking to his agent, and he's willing to do it, he just wants...a hundred thousand dollars. We're going to offer him twenty." I'm speechless at this point! Months go by and I call and ask [bored]: "what's happening with Lynch." "We're still workin' on him." Of course, in the meantime they send out a fucking press release saying that we're negotiating with Lynch, so since then, every interview I've done, they bring up David Lynch. I do like David Lynch very much, especially the stuff he was doing before he got so overexposed.
M2: Going back to blood-letting and neo-primitivism, are you familiar with the Re/Search publications such as the Industrial Culture Handbook and Modern Primitives?
TR: Yes, definitely.
M2: Were you aware of the Industrial Culture Handbook when it came out in the early eighties? Was that an influence on you?
TR: I always feel stupid talking about this, 'cause at that time, living in rural Pennsylvania, we were listening to Kiss and Queen and shit like that. Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire...I missed all that. There was no college radio there. I mean, my idea of REALLY progressive music was The Clash. So when I did discover all this other stuff going on, it was like a whole new world opened up. At that point I got the Re/Search books and checked them out. I find that whole scene really fascinating, although I'm not really a part of it. Like Modern Primitives, that is some amazing shit, it completely fascinates me. One shortcoming in my life, to date, is that because of where I'm from, I haven't had a change to socialize with people whose work really fascinates me. I'd love to know someone like Genesis P. Orridge. One thing that our level of success has offered me is that I have begun to hang out with people that I admire, like Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker of Ministry and the Wax Trax people. I've worked on some side projects with various people which has been interesting. I worked with Al on a single for 1000 Homo DJ's, but we had to cut my vocals out when my record company threatened to sue me. Martin Atkins from Killing Joke, who is now our drummer, also got me involved in the Pigface project. M2: What's the deal with Al Jourgensen - is he totally nuts or what?
TR: Oh yeah, he's absolutely out of his mind, but deep down inside there's this really nice guy. I realize that in this business people put up a lot of barriers and defenses- everybody wants something from you. When I meet someone, I can genuinely sense whether they're going to be a good friend. I meet a lot of people and I don't often get this immediate instinct that I want to maintain a relationship with that person. Al was one of those people. I'm not a big partier and he is, so we don't have that in common, but I think he's a genuinely good person.
M2: Well, Trent, it's been fun. I think I'll let you go now. I had a splitting headache when we started, but I think we've talked it out.
TR: That's good. Yeah, this has been a real pleasure for me too. I had another interview before you and the guy was really into grilling me. He reminded me how much I hate doing interviews, but this one was different. Thanks.
Transcribed by Keith Duemling