Interview by Markus Kavka
Originally published in VIVA 2 Magazine on October 1, 1999
The first video on the show will be "The Perfect Drug", any memories of that?
It was the time between the Downward Spiral and The Fragile and it was right before I had to deal with the crisis in my life and get to business with doing The Fragile and I was looking for projects to distract me and make me feel like I was busy at the time. In retrospect I see that now and this song was a chance to work with one of my heroes, David Lynch and it was a challenge to write and mix a song to fit in a movie for a particular mood. In retrospect I'm a little unsure, this is probably not the strongest thing in my catalogue of music. I don't think it's that great but as far as the video goes I got to work with one of my favourite directors, Mark Romanek who did the Closer video for us. He then further challenged me by coming up with a treatment that was me as a character in a gothic situation... I wouldn't do it now, I did it then I'm not embarrassed by it. I don't think anything from what we did in this era is reflected on the new record and I think it's for the better.
Was it disturbing that everybody was trying to interpret this song as what the next record would sound like?
At the time I did this track I didn't know what the new record would sound like. And looking at my own work as an artist I realise at that time that I was listening to a lot of Drum 'n' Bass and Jungle and stuff. And I think that's the most I've ever seen external influence come out in my own music. And it was a transition period, that's what I want to stress, it was time when I was feeling out what I wanted to do artistically and given the liberation of working within the context of a soundtrack, it's not like a major work I always treated that as an area to be freer and try things, I'm glad it was in that context there was never any consideration to include that on the new record. It really was an area where I was feeling out the landscape to see what I wanted to do.
There were five years in between two records. When did you actually start doing this record?
The Downward Spiral came out at the end of '94 and we spent two years promoting that record by touring. The decision to do that was based on the fact that we didn't have any other concrete means of promoting the record, we didn't have radio, we didn't have MTV neccessarily so the only thing we could do was tour and I thought we did that well and I knew I could make the tour good on my own. We toured and toured and toured and the result of that was two long years on a tourbus where your world became a bit distorted and you're surrounded by people that kiss your ass. We started as a medium sized band in America, we ended up a big band and my head was spinning when I got off that tour and I allowed some external forces to shape my own personality and I became something I never said I would be, I turned into someone I didn't like that much. When we finished touring I went right into producing the Manson Antichrist Superstar record which took longer than we thought. After finishing that I found myself in this pretty bad place emotionally and spiritually, I was genuinley unhappy and I realised that as an artist I have to examine myself and try to understand why I feel the way I do about certain things and to have the courage to look into that mirror and see it, and now I look back to that time and I realised the last thing I wanted to was to do that, the last person I wanted to spend time with was myself so I did anything I could to avoid that. I took on projects like Lost Highway and Natural Born Killers, anything that made me think I was busy but I wasn't really addressing the situation and it took me getting to a place where I was at the bottom and really having the courage to face myself and say "You got everything you ever wanted in life and you're miserable" and that made me feel worse because I had no excuses.
I feel that every NIN record has a different focus, I felt different when I listened to Pretty Hate Machine, I felt completely different when I listened to The Downward Spiral and I feel different again when I listen to The Fragile, do you feel the same way?
I do. When I sit down to start a record one of the tasks I set myself is to be completely honest with where my brain is at the time I'm doing it and how I feel honestly about things. The thing is that when I did Pretty Hate Machine there were no expectations other than my own so I didn't judge anything about what I thought others might think. When I did The Downward Spiral I had a small degree of success so I was wondering what the people who got me here would think about what I'm doing right now and I realised then that that's a trap that artistically I don't want to fall into. I sleep well at night knowing what I've done is true to how I feel and it's the most honest way I could express myself at the time, but it gets trickier when there are expectations and people that got you to where you are and when I'm still in a delicate state and I hear that the record is the most anticipated record of the year before I even started it and I hear "please come save rock" and I didn't ask to do that and I don't really like rock and it's hard to have the discipline mentally to not pay attention to those thoughts because they all make you cater your music to something that isn't true. It helps that I live in New Orleans and I've lived a life of recluse for the past two years, this record took two years to make. It was two years of sleeping four hours a night and working 18 hour days every day to mine what was in my subconscious and go with what I really felt was my best instinct of what was right and what mattered to me, and I based it on I'm a fan of music I love music and I was the guy that was buying vinyl reading what was written on the inside. The whole thing mattered to me so I've always tried to apply that to what I do. When we finished this record I really wondered what the fans would think, I did question that but I allowed the real questioning to happen after it was done and it was trusting my instinct that got me this far and I put all my faith in that. Now the record's done and it's out I've had positive feedback and even if I didn't I still personally believe it's the best thing I've ever done and I'm surprised I finished it.
The next video coming up is "We're In This Together", who shot that?
Mark Pellington was the director. When I wrote that song it was one of the last songs for the record. I like the obviousness of the track but I was fearful of the obviousness of the track and in a record that I think is pretty dense and somewhat challenging to get through I didn't want a song that was too obviously the hit single. Of all the tracks on that album I think that was the hardest to arrange and mix because if it was mixed poorly it sounded too obvious in the context of the record and at this point we were very aware of the context of the record. So what I learnt from the process of doing that was the vocal track I would have thrown out that was out of tune and my voice was breaking up was the one that I needed to use because it added a desperation that made the whole mood of the song feel right. When I came to do the video for it I tried to make the song uglier than it would have been if you just heard it and the idea of a tragedy or situation where everything is happening too fast, you're not aware of where you're at until it's too late and you might be caught up in something you're not sure about but you're blindly embracing this comfort of security, that was the global idea for that. So I worked with Mark Pellington that I have a lot of respect for, we decided on a third world feel and filmed it in Guadalajara. There was good artistic communication until the very end when I got the edit back and got into a situation where what I saw in my head wasn't on the screen. It comes down to a bigger problem which is I've taken over every aspect of the recording process, I have my own studio I don't have to answer to anyone, the record label doesn't dare ask me what's going on they just get the final product, it's not negotiable. But in the world of video, I don't know how to do that yet, I haven't directed my own videos so I have to embrace another artists ideals and hope that they see my vision. On this particular one when I got to then end I realised his vision wasn't mine and we tried to reach a common ground and heads butted, and it amounted to me editing the video by myself. There's a slightly unpleasant taste in the whole process of that thing but it made me learn it's time to read the manual for my video camera and just do that too. (laughs)
But you are satisfied with what came out in the end?
It's the closest I've been to not knowing. I fought that song in the studio before it was ever going to be a video and then it was a two month battle in the video editing suite, I watch that now and I'm pissed off at that song, I wanna fight it. It's fought me every inch of the way. If I wasn't pleased with it you wouldn't have seen it because I'd have never put it out but at the same time there's open wounds on that field that I have to put in place.
There was one song that hit me both lyrically and musically and that was "I'm Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally" and it says in the booklet "for Clara" is there anything you could tell us about it.
That was one of the last songs we finished for the record and I think as the album devoloped I was more confident to explore vulnerable topics and that was a private thing I wanted to say without getting too heavy. I lost somebody who was very close to me in my life and it hit me when I was at the lowest point, before I started the record and I didn't deal with it properly and I felt the need through this process of redemption to find reason to the whole thing.
Did you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to cope with this loss and maybe you felt the need to write a song.
I did. The way that I couldn't cope with it was by not addressing it or having the courage to write anything. And it took that realisation to turn it around and by writing about it and expressing I felt better about it, I felt like I could see through it. The way out is through, that's where the song title came from because I thought that the way out was skirting the issue and walking on the curb. It's been a real healthy process for me, the experience of this album.
The final video on the show is " Closer", the video that caused a lot of problems with censorship etc... looking back is there anything you've done in this video that you regret?
That video's probably the the proudest thing I've done video wise where I felt that there was a real collaboration between me and the director. The thing that struck me about that was when I hear that song that video made it sound better to me. That I thought was an achievement and I give full credit to the director Mark Romanek. It was a great job because I think it's smart and I'm proud of the non- literal interpretation of the song where you as a listener or viewer fill in the blanks. I remember when I was having problems aside from nudity, the main complaint was the tone of it and the tone wasn't one of "take that scene out" the whole thing makes you think you might throw up and I give him full credit for executing that. That's also why I'm not directing my own videos now because I saw somebody that I think is really good at what they are doing and it makes me realise in an arena that's not my own, I don't want to take a miss-step when it's NIN's reputation on the line just so I can say I did it. It really enlightened me to how talented somebody can be and it sets the standard a little higher.
Transcribed by Keith Duemling