Inch Nails industrial magnate Trent Reznor builds his "Downward Spiral"
with a little help from his old friend, Les Paul.)
Reznor doesn't look psychotic. Standing amid the cool blue and red geometry
of the Lobby at L.A.'s Le Mondrian hotel, he could easily pass for a member
of some pop band in town to do a bit of press--a trim little guy with his
hair dyed jet black. Dressed in jeans, work boots and a purple shell top,
Reznor is approachable, a bit ordinary even: he hardly resembles the yowling,
frayed hell- hound so memorable from Nine inch Nails concerts. Or the author
of masochistic lyrics like, "I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel.
I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real."
can such an apparently nice, regular guy be the source of such angst? "It's
all basically me," Trent assures me, speaking in that quiet, controlled
voice that always surprises people who only know his music. "It's all my
personality, but it's amplified in a certain direction. I get a lot of
people saying, 'Wow, you must be the most depressed person in the world!'
Well, I don't think I am. I'm not the happiest guy in the world either.
But when I'm writing songs, I deliberately try to explore incredibly black
emotions--combining personal experience with imaginative projection--to
see how far I can get. I often end up bumming myself out pretty good."
all have our dark sides--our demons. Trent Reznor has learned to harness
his to create some of the hardest- hitting post-industrial music to be
heard anywhere on the 1994 alternative rock scene. Trent Reznor, of course,
is Nine Inch Nails. He writes all the material, plays most of the instruments
and records much of it himself, often preferring the darkened lair of a
home studio to the corporate atmosphere of a commercial recording facility.
To music biz types, Reznor is the Man Who Put Industrial On The Map. His
production prowess and innate sense of melody landed Nine Inch Nails' debut,
"Pretty Hate Machine", right at the top of the alternative charts in 1990.
Reznor is an obsessive and harshly self-critical studio craftsman who can
take an ordinary guitar or keyboard track and mutate it 'til it starts
to sound like the Crack Of Doom. Yet he'll tell you that, for him, the
lyrics are the most important thing on NIN's records.
road thus far hasn't been an easy one for Reznor. As soon as his first
record became a success, he found himself embroiled in legal battles with
his then-record label, TVT. He embarked on two years of hard touring, which
included NIN's triumphant Lollapalooza stint. "We had to keep touring to
pay our legal costs," says Trent, "because the label hadn't paid us any
money for what we'd done." But even from this adversity there sprang some
good. Out on the road, NIN's sound became tougher and harder. A keyboardist
by training and disposition, Reznor discovered the power of madly overdriven
guitars. This discovery is reflected on "Broken", NIN's amped-up 1992 EP.
things are looking up for Reznor. He's got a new NIN album, "The Downward
Spiral", and his own new record label, called Nothing, which promises to
be anything but. Reznor has already signed veteran electro-post-modernists
Pop Will Eat Itself and Coil (the latter led by Peter Christopherson, formerly
of Throbbing Gristle, the band that coined the term and concept "Industrial
Music"). Trent has also scouted up some brand new talent in the form of
Prick and Marilyn Manson, proving that something substantial can indeed
come from Nothing.
for "The Downward Spiral", it's easily the most ambitious and intriguing
Nine Inch Nails record yet. Reznor has begun to splinter his unrelenting
slash-and-burn attack with moments of dark nihilism and black hole quietude.
He's learned that a whisper can be far more menacing than a scream as he
crawls inside a serial killer's psyche on the song "Piggy," barely moving
his lips to warn us, "Nothing can stop me now, 'cause I don't care." Maybe
it all has something to do with the fact that "The Downward Spiral" was
recorded at the Bel Air house where the Manson cult murders took place
not quite as overt as it was on "Broken", guitar still plays an important
role on "The Downward Spiral", taking an forms and colors that have never
been heard from the instrument before. Holed up in Sharon Tate's former
house with his longtime co-producer Flood (U2, Depeche Mode), Reznor was
determined to make a record that both shattered and expanded all pre-conceived
notions of what Nine Inch Nails might be. Along the way he enlisted the
aid of such handpicked collaborators as guitar guru Adrian Belew, Porno
for Pyros/Jane's Addiction drummer Steve Perkins, and mixer extraordinaire
Alan Moulder (Smashing Pumpkins, Swervedriver, etc.) But in the final analysis
"The Downward Spiral" is entirely the product of Trent Reznor's own dark
WORLD: What did you set out to achieve with "The Downward Spiral"?
REZNOR: I wanted it to be a departure from "Broken", where I wanted to
make a real hard-sounding record that was just one big blast of anger.
Not necessarily a well-rounded record--just one ultra-fast chunk of death.
This time I wanted to make an album that went in 10 different directions,
but was all united somehow. I didn't want to box Nine Inch Nails into a
corner, where everything would be faster and harder than the last record--where
every song had to say, "Look how tough we are." I don't think that's really
me... Or rather, there are lots of times when I'll come up with musical
ideas that don't fit that mold. On this record, I was more concerned with
mood, texture, restraint and subtlety, rather than getting punched in the
face 400 times. Also I was trying to make a record that followed an evolving
lyrical theme. I came up with a basic theme and said, "Okay, let's divide
that into 10 or 12 slots." But in trying to write songs to fill those slots,
a lot of the ideas, of course, got modified. Many times, what was meant
to be a down moment lyrically wound up going with music that was really
the opposite of that.
What was your initial theme?
The big overview was of somebody who systematically throws away every aspect
of his life and what's around him-- from personal relationships to religion.
This person is giving up to a certain degree, but also finding some peace
by getting rid of things that were bogging him down. The record also looks
at certain vices as being ways of trying to dull the pain of what this
person is hiding. Of course I'm talking about myself. So that was the general
theme. Not that that's any great leap for me, thematically. The reason
why I hope people like Nine Inch Nails is the lyrics. I think that's the
element I care about most on this record, in terms of honesty and nakedness
This album has been a long time in the making, hasn't it?
I tend to get bored when people start saying, "Where's the record already?"
Hey, I'm not fucking off in there. It just takes a long time. Nirvana may
be able to make a record in two weeks. That's great. We're not doing that.
To me, every song means reinventing the whole process. there are no constants,
except maybe that I'll sing it. But are the rhythm tracks going to be played
or sequenced? Are they going to be real, fake, machines, drums, sounds,
car doors slamming? It's not a simple matter of yelling out chords to someone
across the room and starting the tape machine. It's a different situation.
I'm not saying that makes my record any better than theirs. It's just a
different set of parameters.
Definitely. After all, you're not doing the old rock and roll.
Yeah. And I'm not saying anything to discredit that. But enough people
are doing that already. I don't feel I have anything to add to that.
What was the hardest song to write?
There's always one song per record--maybe two if you're real lucky--where
you work and work and work, and it just takes a hell of a long time for
the song to come together. On "Pretty Hate Machine", it was "Kinda I Want
To", which I still think sucks, and "That's What I Get." Those songs took
an unbelievable amount of work. Then you get into the trap of saying, "Well,
I spent so much time on this, it's gotta be good. I've gotta make it work."
It's usually one part that's fucking the whole thing up. And that's usually
the part that you think is really great. You'll hear a million playbacks
of the song and say, "Man that part is so fucking cool. Why is the song
not happening?" Then finally someone hits the mute button for that part
and the song's good. And you realize, "Oh fuck, it's that part I love so
Sometimes it's difficult to let go of songs like that.
Yeah. So on this record, "Ruiner" was the hardest song to write. I still
don't know if I got it right. I have such a bad vibe from that song now--from
it sucking in so many different ways. That was actually two different songs
Seems like that is your "record business resentment" song for this album.
That's not what I wrote it about. But it could apply to that. I often don't
consciously write about one particular thing. But then I realize, "That's
a perfect metaphor for what is happening with TVT [Reznor's former record
label]," or some other situation. But I don't set out to write songs about
record labels. Nothing could be more boring--with the possible exception
of writing about tour buses.
What's your take on guitar these days? What does it give you in an arrangement
that nothing else can?
Well, I'm not as intimidated by it as I was at one time. 'Cause I always
thought I wasn't very good. So if I wrote a guitar part, I would say to
myself, "Every guitar player in the world is going to hear this part and
think, 'Here's a real easy, stupid part.'" But nowadays i just find the
guitar much more expressive than the keyboard. Just because of the interface,
obviously--strings and randomness. I find it interesting to sample sounds
from a guitar track and then process them to the point where the performance
has randomness and expression, and the sound becomes something completely
I find your basic guitar through an amp with a mic in front of the speaker
incredibly boring. Every band in the world does it, so why bother? Someone
out there is gonna do it better than I ever will. Let them do it. I look
at things differently than someone like [Nirvana producer] Steve Albini,
who seems to think that the point of the studio is to record a band efficiently
with no frills, in its truest and most honest sense.
The documentary approach.
Yeah. And I don't think anything's wrong with that, but at the same time
I'm looking at the studio as a tool; why not use it? The challenge for
me is not to go so overboard that the music becomes Boston: soulless and
overproduced. Or Whittney Houston vocal performances, where every note
is exactly right. I'd rather retain some sort of humanity amidst machinery.
You created many of your drum loops by recording Porno for Pyros drummer
Steve Perkins live in the studio. Is that one way you've retained some
Yeah. He just played a bunch of beats. We recorded them and made some loops
of his playing. It's a great way to work. I don't really mind that most
people shy away from that stuff, because that just gives me an edge over
some guy who's too close-minded to accept that technology exists. He'll
get a cable-ready television set, but he won't get a DAT machine because
"Ooooh, that's digital recording. I heard Neil Young say that doesn't sound
good." Like Neil Young would know his ass from a hole in the ground about
digital recording. Nothing against Neil Young, but people get these archaic
It goes in cycles. In the early Eighties, people couldn't get enough high-tech
stuff on their records.
It ties in with a fear of change, which has brought about this current
wave of retro--whether it be Seventies disco or Pearl Jam, which to me
just sounds like a Seventies rock band. Or Lenny fucking Kravitz. He writes
good songs; you think, "Sounds good. Almost like I heard it before." I
think he does a good job at what he does, but I find it completely uninteresting.
That whole mentality of "real rock" and "back to out roots," or "Let's
get back to what's safe--to be a real band like the Who or Rolling Stones,
with two guitars, bass and drums." Some people find entering a new technological
era kind of scary and think, "Let's go back to what we liked when we were
kids." But when we were kids everyone thought Queen and Kiss were terrible.
Now they're a point of reference of "duh good old rock bands."
They were both in extreme critical disfavor.
Yeah. But having said that, probably the biggest influence on "The Downward
Spiral" was David Bowie's "Low" album. Actually, all his stuff from "Hunky
Dory" through "Scary Monsters." Plus old Lou Reed, Iggy Pop... stuff that
I'd never really heard before, because I was listening to New Wave at the
time. But you compare a record like "Low" to any assortment of the top
100 records at Tower right now, and the amount of craftsmanship and depth
are much higher. Everything is so product-oriented now. I was never a great
fan of vinyl, but it seems that around the time that vinyl died and CD
came to life, the quality of music went way down. Around the same time
MTV came into its own. And now there's very little that's genuinely dangerous,
rebellious or exciting about rock.
One of the greatest hooks on your new album is the chorus, "I want to fuck
you like an animal," in the song "Closer." It's brilliant how you set it
up with that very poppy change to the IV chord.
Yeah. The song started with that line. Everything else kind of got pieced
around that. I was trying to get a vibe something like the song "Nightclubbing,"
from Iggy Pop's album "The Idiot." I don't know what it sounded like when
it came out. But now it sounds like a real obvious, cheesy, almost disco,
song--but in a cool way. I actually sampled the drums off that song to
get a totally bad- sounding electronic drum effect. When I started doing
that and the Prince-like harmonies on the verse I thought, "How am I going
to be able to do this? I'm supposed to be tough. I gotta act tough." But
I'm having fun doing it, so I'm gonna do it. It's scarier to do that than
to do "Self Destruct" type songs. You try to do something light or bordering
on a forbidden genre of music, like dance music...
I've always thought that things like disco and pop are far more subversive
than some guy atonally bellowing "s**tf**kpisscockcunt"
Oh, when they're at their best. they are.
Because millions of people hear it.
Whenever I hear the chorus in "Closer," I have visions of people on dance
floors, joyously singing along.
"Music For Strip Clubs," by Nine Inch Nails. Maybe that should be the title
of our new album.
On your records, the guitar is often sampled from a guitar track you played
and then looped and manipulated via computer? Is that accurate?
Very often, yes. I'll do a few 20 or 25-minute sessions of me just playing
guitar. Then I'll listen back to it and say, "Around 10 minutes in i did
something cool." I'll cut that section out and put it aside. I'll cut maybe
20 parts out that way and put each one in the right space. It's not so
much avoiding having to play the whole song as it is a tool to flesh out
How do you do this? On digital tape? Analog?
On a hard disc recorder [the Digidesign Pro Tools system for the Mac] with
a Studio Vision sequencer. I use it to take parts that were played fairly
sloppy and loop it so that it repeats maybe every bar. The looping gives
it a weird kind of precision, yet the looseness of the playing makes it
sound a little "off." You'd have a very hard time achieving that kind of
result just by playing a keyboard into a sequencer. So, 99 percent of the
stuff we do--even vocals--is recorded into the computer [hard disk] first.
We get an arrangement together and then dump it to tape.
How did you hook up with Adrian Belew?
His name just popped into my head. I called my manager and two days later
he was here. As it turned out he was already in L.A., working on something
How far had your record progressed by the time Adrian entered the picture?
The songs were pretty much arranged, but we thought, "What would it be
like if we got someone in here who could really play his ass off? Let's
see what happens." We basically told Adrian, "Just play whatever you want
and we'll piece it together however we see fit. Maybe stuff from one song
will fit into another." We did about six or seven songs with four or five
passes each. One time we'd tell Adrian something like, "Concentrate on
a rhythmic part." Another time, "Think in terms of countermelody." Or,
"Think in terms of no pitch at all, just noise." He pulled out a bunch
of great sounds that he never gets to use.
and I were definitely intimidated when he first came up. We were sitting
in the living room of Sharon Tate's house--our studio--with this guy who's
played with Paul Simon and David Bowie. The first song we played him was
"Mr. Self Destruct"--the hardest-sounding one we had. I said, "Play whatever
you want." He said, "What key is it in?" And I had to say, "Uh, I don't
remember. It's probably in E." It's a real fast track. For a moment he
thought, "What the f**k?" Then he kicked in and it was just the most awesome
Had you admired his playing before?
Absolutely. For different reasons, obviously. I'm not someone who quotes
30 names as big guitar influences. Because I look at instruments in a different
way. I appreciate someone's being a virtuoso. But I'm not that concerned
with it. At one point I think I could have become a really good concert
pianist. But then I realized that I'm more concerned with composing--and
being able to serve the end on a bunch of instruments, rather than being
magnificent at one. I'm not saying that as an excuse. With Nine Inch Nails,
the focus has never been on magnificent soloing, or "Look how great I am
on this instrument," as much as on creating a mood and playing what's right
for the song.
Is that Adrian doing the thrash power chording on that song?
No, that's me. Ol' Lightning Fingers.
What kind of guitar gear do you use?
Almost everything was direct--there was almost no miking of cabinets. I
just don't like that sound very much. It sounds boring to me. So we ran
through a variety of preamps and speaker simulators. Our main preamp was
the new Marshall JMP-1. But I didn't use the speaker simulator in it. I
took the direct out of the Marshall into the Zoom 9030, employing just
the speaker simulator on that. I really like the sound of the speaker simulator
on the Zoom, but I don't like the preamp section. It sounds like what it
is: a little box. I also have a Demeter tube preamp that I used sometimes.
That one was totally direct, no simulator. It's the ultimate terrible sound.
But it works in the context of some of the songs. I also used some of the
little Zoom 9002, the old one--the one that clips on your belt. I just
used it straight. I like its sound sometimes.
Don't you also use that for vocals a lot?
Actually, the 9030 is the one I use a lot for the vocals. That and the
mic preamp from an old Neve board. that's the best distortion. It's not
the way the manufacturer thought it would be used. But all the vocals are
from that and the Zoom. We also went and got an old Mutron envelope filter.
The one that gives you the Bootsy [Collins] sound. Awesome. The one we
had would eat four nine-volt batteries in half an hour. It's awful. But
it sounds amazing when the batteries are dying. We did a lot through that.
in fact all the drums on "I Do Not Want This" was just one two-bar loop
that Steve Perkins played. We just ran it through every effect we had in
the studio--the Mutron, [Eventide] H3000 Harmonizers, a Digitech Whammy
Pedal... Flood and I just went crazy.
What kind of guitars do you play?
Mostly an Eighties' Les Paul Custom. I also used an Explorer, and a Jackson
I have, for which I just told the company, "Put the world's loudest pickup
in this." But to be honest, I process the guitar tracks so much that it
doesn't really matter what guitar I'm playing. Since the guitars are usually
recorded into the computer we import them into the Turbo Synth program
[Digidesign's signal processing software for the Mac], which totally turns
them into other things. I've come up with about four patented tricks that
I use in Turbo Synth, all of which are really dependant on the input sound.
If you process the sound on the bridge pickup versus the neck pickup, it'll
be totally different--not even remotely similar. Because the program finds
certain frequencies that it accentuates and distorts. A lot of the sounds
on "Mr. Self Destruct" that seem like guitar performances that no human
being ever played are actually real performances that have been processed
to unknown depths using Turbo Synth.
thing I'll sometimes do is play the guitars twice as fast as the song's
tempo, recording them at 30 ips [inches-per-second] on the multitrack.
Then I'll slow it down to 15 ips. I'll play the part an octave high, too,
so when I slow it down, it's in the right register and at the right speed.
But if you saturate the tape real hard when you record it at 30 ips, it
takes on a really clear, thick, warm, and bizarre quality when you slow
it down. The guitar on "Suck" [Broken]--which I think is the best guitar
sound I've ever gotten--was done that way.
I wanted to ask you about the solo in "Ruiner." How did you get that really
nasty, ultra-quantized sound?
Ah yes, the great, Pink Floyd-esque, Seventies- sounding section of the
song. That's just a preset on the Zoom. I think I accidentally called up
the wrong patch. I'm not a soloist. I was just laughing when I was playing
with this ridiculous sound, recording into the computer saying like, "This
is so cheesy," you know? I later realized that I basically tried to play
a "Comfortably Numb"-type solo with this sound. I played the song for Chris,
our drummer, and I was thinking, "He's going to start laughing. It's silly."
But he goes, "Man, that guitar section was fucking great."
So, what was the weirdest experience you had living in Sharon Tate's house,
where the Manson murders took place?
Actually, it's a really beautiful place. That's what people don't know
from reading the Manson books and seeing the T.V. specials and all. The
view from the front door is the best view of L.A. I've ever seen. It's
amazing how beautiful looking down into a smog pit can be. When I rented
the place I didn't even realize it was that house. When I found out I thought
it was kind of interesting. I didn't think, "Oh, it'll be spooky to tell
people that..." I don't idolize Charles Manson, and I don't condone murdering
people because you're a fucked-up hippie trying to make a statement. But
it's an interesting little chapter in American history that it was cool
to be a part of.
But you don't feel any vibes around the place?
The first night was terrifying. By then, I knew all about the place--I'd
read all the books about the Manson murders. So I walked in the place at
night and everything was dark, and I was like, "Holy Jesus, that's where
it happened." Scary, I jumped a mile at every sound--even if it was an
owl. I woke up in the middle of the night and there was a coyote looking
in the window at me. I thought, "I'm not gonna make it."
after about a month I realized that if there's any vibe up there at all,
it's one of sadness. It's not like spooky ghosts f**king with you or anything--although
we did have a million electrical disturbances. Things that shouldn't have
happened did happen. Eventually we'd just joke about it: "Oh, Sharon must
be here. The f**king tape machine just shut down."
World April 1994 - interviewer: Alan Di Perna
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