SPIN interview: TRENT REZNOR - The Devil Said to Me
By Jeff Rotter for Spin on January 1, 1997
SPIN: Hello, hello, hello... Where am I calling?
Trent Reznor: I'm in L.A. right now.
SPIN: What's going on?
TR: We just finished shooting the video for a new song off the David Lynch soundtrack. And some miscellaneous publicity-type crap that you have to do. It's a necessary evil.
SPIN: Our main topic today is your protege, Marilyn Manson. What is your relationship to Manson and his band?
TR: I've been friends with Brian for quite a long time, and I think he looked at me as a sounding board with an honest opinion. Not that it's always a great opinion, but at least it's no-bullshit. If something's bad, I'll say I think this is bad. On the Portrait album, they worked with a different producer, and they'd done this whole series of mixes. After it was done, he played it for me, and I listened and listened overnight. I went to him the next day and said, "I know you don't want to hear this, but I'm saying this as a fan, I don't think this is as good as it could be. Whatever was raw and good about the demos got lost in the polish." He thought about it and said, "You're right. I've been trying to convince myself that it's good, and it's not."
SPIN: So, you took on the reconstruction of Portrait. Antichrist Superstar, which you coproduced from the beginning, is a much more mature record and a riskier production job.
TR: When he started on this record, Brian considered a lot of older producers who did more bombastic, over-the-top production. But he came back to me and said, "Would you like to do this with Dave Ogilvie?" (Dave and I had been working on some live David Bowie mixes.) So, we took the project on.
SPIN: How do you define your role as producer?
TR: Brian--er,Manson--has a pretty good idea of what he wants, and he's a really hard worker. And he's learned a lot from when I first met him. He's gone from not knowing how to get the sound he has in his head to pretty much having a grip on how the studio works. My role in this record was to create an environment where I kept the flow going. There were some internal problems with getting rid of the guitar player. There was such an animosity between the camps that, on one hand, I was playing counselor, using a lot of stuff I learned from working with (U2 producer) Flood. When I got a short fuse in the studio working on my own stuff, he'd say, "Go read a book. Go ride your bike." When you get stuck, know that you're stuck, don't try to break the wall down. And also, I was the organizer. When we started the whole thing, I said, from hearing the demos, let's get over the dread of saying "concept record." All these songs seem to fit into a story. I layed out what I thought the order would be before we recorded one note of music.
SPIN: Just based on the demos?
TR: Yeah. Because the band broke down into Twiggy, Pogo, and Manson doing everything, they were more open to trying different things. There were times when we were all sitting down with guitars, trying stuff together. What I wanted to do was show that the band had some scope. It wasn't all just guitar-bass-drums rock. I thought one song should sound like it was recorded on a Walkman and the next would have a Queen level of overproduction. They said, "But we want it to be tough." The thing I learned with my own music is if you make a whole album of 200 b.p.m. songs, after about three minutes it's not that scary anymore. You need to break it up and develop some tension. I wanted to embrace production on this record rather than strip it down.
SPIN: Yeah, it's interesting that you took them on because they suffered from overproduction, but Antichrist is clearly a producer's record. Was there resistance to your suggestion that this be a concept record?
TR: Well, I said, "We don't have to tell anyone that that's what we thought at this point." They were always open. It was the first time that I ever had that level of interaction as a producer. I was in there from the start. It got me away from Nine Inch Nails for a while, too, which is something I wanted.
SPIN: Do you plan to tour together again?
TR: We'll be on opposite tour schedules for a while. Plus, I don't think it would be beneficial for them to open up for us at this point, or vice-versa. They're big boys now.
SPIN: They seem to finally be working to their potential on this album. You must be very proud.
TR: Well, it's just nice to hear somebody do something different. I mean, Bush? Christ. Enough already.
SPIN: How did you handle the band differently on this record?
TR: Well, it's a different band. I think there are some good songs on Portrait, but I'm not particularly proud of the record as a whole. I think the main difference in the band from then to now is that Daisy, the old guitar player, actively wrote the music. On this record, Twiggy, who joined after Portrait, and Brian worked on most of the stuff together.
SPIN: What was the source of Daisy and Manson's falling out?
TR: Things had deteriorated on tour. Brian didn't respect him, he didn't respect Brian. It got into that kind of vibe. If you put a bunch of guys together in a tin can and send them down the road for two years, these weird character distortions take place.
SPIN: There are a lot of interesting rumors about how you kept the band entertained during Portrait: male strippers, etc.
TR: I think "rumors" is the key. I read some things like, I mix with a Quiet Riot helmet on, shit like that.
SPIN: Is there any truth to the stories we read about the atmosphere in the studio during Antichrist?
TR: A lot of ridiculous stuff went down. The first rule was we all had to grow mustaches. My beard comes in this horrible color of red for some reason. When we'd grown them, we all laughed, except for Twiggy. He's too fucking vain. There was a show coming he wanted to go to so he shaved. But we got to the point where we looked so stupid. You'd run into somebody and forget you had it on. Then you'd try to explain: "This is a joke." Manson and I joked about getting spotted at Tower Records, and instantly our records get returned. You know, "Those guys aren't cool anymore." I have some great photos of Manson in his Journey t-shirt. Pretty classic.
SPIN: What's on your agenda now?
TR: I'm about to go to Big Sur for a couple of months and sit with the piano and write my new record. That'll take me out of the loop for quite some time. I'm also working on a new band called Tapeworm, which is the other guys in my band, with them more active in the music-writing department. It's fun. Even though it's the same camp of people, we've changed people's roles.
SPIN: Is the music different?
TR: It doesn't sound like Nine Inch Nails to me, other than my voice. It's a bit more obvious. I have such high standards for Nine Inch Nails. Everything has to be a big leap ahead on every level. I don't know if that sounds incredibly pretentious. I have songs that aren't right for what I think the next Nine Inch Nails thing is going to be, and they fit with Tapeworm. Here the pressure is off, so the songs get a chance to get better. Sometimes I put the weight of the world on my shoulders, and I psyche myself out. It's a little mental trick I have.
SPIN: Do you generally write with the piano?
TR: No, but I'm trying to make myself this time. I think the only song I ever wrote sitting at a piano was "Hurt." And it's one of my better melodic structures. I really like Tom Petty. He writes a good song with three simple chords, but there's always something about it that's cool. I appreciate a well-written song, and I aspire to become a better songwriter.
SPIN: You are known as a "studio wizard," aren't you? You rarely ever get called a great singer/songwriter. Do you think stripping away the studio technology will improve your songcraft?
TR: Yeah. The easy part is getting it to sound cool, dressing it up. Plus, I want to get back to playing piano. I want to get back to being good at something. I'm average at a lot of things.
Transcribed by Keith Duemling