Originally published in Beat Magazine on March 23, 1994
NINE INCH NAILS make music that's not exactly easy to describe-and as a result they've long been given a tag the outfit's main brain Trent Reznor thinks is hardly appropriate. That label-industrial rock-implies welding massive guitars, doesn't it? Nine Inch Nails in reality, as Reznor tells NAOMI DINNEN, are more likely to be found throwing keyboards and samplers around.
Last month Nine Inch Nails released a new album The Downward Spiral, single March Of The Pigs and embarked on a tour that will bring them to Australia for the first time. For Trent touring means leaving behind the rigours of promoting a new album, but it also means taking time out from his newly established label, Nothing. While Nine Inch Nails don't go through Nothing (they're now on Interscope) Trent and his crew have already signed on Pop Will Eat Itself and Coil for America. That, more than anything, implied the wavelength Trent is on.
How does touring for a year affect the label and your other projects?
There's a sharing of responsibility within the Nine Inch Nails organisation and we'll still be working on that all the time. And I haven't done it yet to know how diluted my intention is going to become once I'm on the road, but trying to have the discipline to put energy into touring, the label and also still writing music.
What's your criteria for signing other acts?
Bands that I think are self-sufficient and have a strong vision and don't need a lot of hand-holding. I'm basing this on my own experience with Nine Inch Nails when we were on a shitty label in America, before Interscope, and we were constantly being fucked with. And I know what it's like to constantly have your art interfered with and if I see a band that primarily I like and I believe in, secondly I feel that have a unique enough vision that it could be destroyed by the idiocy of major labels and most of the people that work at them-most, not all-that would be somebody I'd go after.
Do you see your music as art?
When I started working on music the stuff that seemed to be the strongest material and what seemed to make sense was the most naked honest thoughts and emotions even though it would be kind of embarrassing: It would be a stronger statement than cliched lyrics and things that I don't really know or care or believe in. When that seemed to work and I realised that I'd made a record-this is Pretty Hate Machine that I'm talking about-that struck a chord in enough people, that made me realise that's what the forte of Nine Inch Nails was going to be. It's trying to be as honest as possible yet challenging to myself so that I'm hopefully not repeating myself time and time again. But within the realms of acceptability.
I like the fact that the ultimate record I could make would be one that you might hear one time and not be sure about it but you have a desire to hear it again, the second time it makes a little more sense, by the fifth time you understand it and like it. There's enough in it that it's hummable or a bit catchy here and there but it also challenges you the listener to maybe something you haven't heard before, or maybe there's a subversive message that's snuck in.
There's a certain amount of shock value in your songs-Is it a conscious element?
I'm aware when it's coming out-I can't say that it's calculated, like well, I should say 'fuck' in this song, it's the one I didn't say it in yet. But I've tried to be as honest as I can.
I feel very confident that I think it's a good album and I'm proud of it, but I'm really interested to see what's going to happen cos I don't know if people are going to like it or not. I'm curious but my reason for being in music primarily is to make music that I think is interesting and good, the best that I can do, and the side benefit is making money and a degree of popularity. But that's the way I approached it when it started. I think I'm trying to look at Nine Inch Nails as a long term thing.
You worked with Flood (U2, Depeche Mode) on The Downward Spiral...what did he bring to the album?
Well, I've worked with Flood to varying degrees on all of my records, he did a couple of songs on Pretty Hate Machine.. Then on this one he was initially going to be involved in the whole thing, but about half way through other commitments had arisen and he had to leave, so what Flood bought on this record in particular I'd say was he gave me some more confidence cos he did like the stuff and that made me think 'ok cool, one other person likes it', and it's a person whose opinion I respect. And eh was more involved in the song aspect of it more than the programming aspect. I try to listen to my music as if I'd never heard it before and it's hard to do that. But with that said, if I was to play you the original demos before Flood and the ones after they're not radically different. The music itself sounds like you have a broader background than just 'industrial rock'....
A lot of my taste comes from the fact that where I grew up in Pennsylvania, in a very rural area, there wasn't any big cities nearby, there wasn't any college radio, there wasn't MTV, and most of what filtered through was stuff you read about in magazines, you'd take a chance in a record store and buy. And in a lot of ways I missed out on a lot of what was really cutting edge stuff that was happening, and in the last two years I've spent time going back and finding stuff that I never even knew about.
When I got the about age 18 and escaped from Pennsylvania and was suddenly in a situation where I had access to independent record stores and college radio and realised that there was a whole world of really interesting stuff. I was always into electronic music because primarily I'm a keyboard player and also interested in computers and technology it just seemed like the perfect thing. I was actually going to go to college to be a computer engineer hoping to work on integrating computers and music and some sort of bullshit... I realised that was all calculus and that was the end of that. But I listen to the things that would filter through to where I was would be from anywhere from Devo to the whole synth pop explosion round '83 to Human League and Gang Of Four to some degree-that level of stuff.
I'd never heard Test Department or anything until I was 18 or 19 years old. Then I discovered this whole other world of Cabaret Voltaire and that sort of thing that I just didn't know existed and it freaked me out. I'm someone who is concentrating of electronic stuff. interested in the pop synth crap and waiting for something cooler, and when I stumbled across Skinny Puppy and old Ministry-stuff that was harder edge electronic stuff, Wax Trax, that I realised I was really interested in-it was the stuff that I'd been noodling around at home was almost accidentally in that vein, that added confidence and maybe an influence to incorporate. So recently I'd say that I find most of the music that's out now fairly uninteresting. I don't know if it's cos I'm getting older or more jaded..
So is this industrial rock label appropriate?
I think to put that in context I've never gone out anywhere and said yeah, we're an industrial band. But in America that label would apply to a band like us, like Nitzer Ebb, Ministry-older rather than newer, Front 242, any band that was basically rooted in electronics with a slightly harder edge, flavour to it. Now I realise the origins of that term being the Throbbing Gristle, Can, Test Department world, that I feel that Nine Inch Nails has not a lot to do with-I'm fully aware of that. However, due to lack of a new term ever coming up in the media and they need to pigeonhole you as something, and that got stuck on us and we became the definitive industrial band in America which I think is ridiculous personally. I find it irritating, but more irritating cos it comes across like I'm preaching this like it gives me some sort of credibility which is not at all the case. I don't know what we are and I'm not worried about it.
So how do you translate the complexity of what you do in the studio to a live performance?
It's a five piece band, I pretty much play guitar, there's two other guys that play keys and guitar and one dedicated key player-What I found with the new record, trying to translate the stuff like there is some songs where you could have 25 guitar players and still not have all the parts being played. And there are others where there aren't any.
Do you use samplers, computers, tape, etc?
There are three samplers on stage and we play with tape with some of the stuff rather than take a computer out, we just dump it down onto tape. But the element of a live band playing exists and it will seem probably more aggressive and a lot more raw and some of the older stuff will change pretty dramatically. In fact last time we were touring it was not uncommon to have someone come up to me and say 'man I saw you guys live and you were fucking great, and then I went out and picked up your album and it sucked, it was all like fucking synth, faggot music.' Turn it up really loud it will sound better...(laughs).
Transcribed by Gaby Boffa