who the hell is john malm
and what is he doing at the beginning of h.j.'s interview with trent reznor of nine inch nails
Originally published in the new alternatives on December 1, 1989
jm (john malm): here's trent jack, unless you want to do a cover story on me?
hj: not this week.
tr: hi, jack
hj: me doing cover stories on john, hmmm...
hj: can you make an interesting cover story?
tr: how about the real story behind john malm...
hj: i'll have to give that one to jane. how about if we start this! start me with the origin of the act's name, because weren't the original demo tapes under the crown of thorns?
tr: yeah, that was one of the original ideas, but i didn't feel 100% great about it, but we needed something at the time to send the tapes out with so we used that. but it was quickly pointed out that somebody else was named that. nobody major label, but the here today gone tomorrow thing. which was just as well, because i didn't feel great about it. nine inch nails just popped into my head one day...
hj: from anyplace in particular? from reading anything?
tr: no, i was going through a bunch of a variety of sources and had a bunch of things down and mixed 50 names to go through and after realizing they were all shitty, that just kinda popped into my head. two weeks later i still liked it, so we just went with it. as far as any significance, i just like it because it looked good in print, pretty powerful and had a bit of, could be taken as a sexual overtone, or a religious overtone, which to me at the time was a theme the band was about.
hj: did somebody actually design the logo with the reverse "n"? is that part of the object too?
tr: a good friend of mine, gary talpas, whose been our art director from the start, he's been a friend of mine, and who also helped out in the studio in a variety of ways, during the demo era, the demo phase. he knew exactly where i was coming from and he submitted some ideas and we talked about a few things and he's done the artwork for the 12" and the album as well, and everything else we've done, t-shirts, etc.
hj: interesting thought with a number of college radio guys: their specific thing to a trent reznor as formerly having played in an exotic birds, and the music here, although electronic of a different nature, was all of this bottled up inside of you during that time?
tr: well, the exotic birds really was me playing keyboards for andy. that was his thing, that was his writing, entirely his project. and, the reason i had gotten involved in the first place was because i thought he could write some catchy pop music and at the time it was an easy thing for me to get involved with. and, it was never creatively from my end more than that, it was always his music, his thing. he made it pretty clear that that was the way it was going to stay. so rather than challenge that it became more exciting for me to do what i wanted to do in my own format and when it was time to do a new record, and i was going my direction, and there was no compatibility between the two ideas, that's when i left. it's not at all fair to compare anything about the birds to me.
hj: so you just played keyboards?
tr: that was what it was. that was my role in it. that's what i did for that.
hj: when you left the birds did you already have a lot of your own material or demos done?
tr: not a lot, but i was formulating an idea of where i wanted to take something. one thing to realize is that it is somewhat difficult when today with the aid of computers and things like that when it like "ok develop a band and personality to that band and a style" and you're the only person involved and you have available to you a studio and whatever instrumentation you want to use, go, write you first song and do it. so what i was working on first was getting a format and direction down, because i didn't want to write just what i could and see what would come out, like is it dance music or synth music and the most important element in nine inch nails has been, to me, the direction, conviction, sincerity, the attitude behind the project, moreso than the instrumentation or the fact that it is synth oriented or that it's hard or whatever. the demos came about during a period where i had been working at the right track with bart koster in a programming sense, not as an engineer, and i have to give a lot of credit to him for basically saying "work for me in exchange for which i'll let you have access to the studio to teach yourself engineering or if you want to do demos, go ahead." and, for him having the insight to having a music lovers potential and letting a person take advantage of it. he pretty much offered me that. and i'm grateful because i could get in there at 2:00 in the morning and stay all night and experiment with sounds and ideas. it was convenient. i've grown a lot from having...that's were nine inch nails kinda came into being was a series at the beginning of '88 there there were 5 songs done that was roughly in a format of a direction i wanted to take it or expand upon. and...
hj: what songs from that time period?
tr: the first song i'd ever written was "down in it." and a couple also have been axed since then, but "sanctified" was also in some vein that i wanted to expand upon. the next step was when it was congealed enough, here's a cool demo taped i'm pretty proud of a few songs, john malm and i, who had been working together since the demise of the birds, kind of had a vision of let's think out the best way to do what we wanted to do, which was get a record deal and eventually make a career of this. we went the back door. rather than any band i'd been involved with at this point, which was "let's get warner bros. and everybody else to come and see us and send tapes out," we thought, "let's see what people think of this." we sent 10 tapes out to small independent european labels, basically looking at the market as "name an american independent label other than wax trax that caters to electronic harder edge music" and you're hard pressed to find any. we sent to sub rosa and native and things like that...
tr: nettwerk eventually. but i just wanted to see what the idea was. we looked at it as if we could get something licensed and have someone pay to put a 12" out and distribute it, that's all the more ammo in out camp when we go the bigger boys and play that game. and it gives us a chance to develop outside of a major who says you have to work with this guy or have to do this because the project was very delicate at that point and with the strong outside influences, it could've gone in a direction i really didn't want it to go. this way, we would've put out something on out terms creatively doing what we wanted to do. the exciting thing was that it (nine inch nails) didn't cater to any trend, it was more experimental.
hj: don't you think the massive amount of press and word of mouth will be more to your advantage, as to were you want to take the project?
tr: right, definitely. after we decided to go with tvt and it was a bit of a chance, there is not a definite tvt artist. it's got the jangly guitar, it's got the house bullshit, it's got a variety of things. nothing like us. part of our job was educating them into what we wanted to do. so it make sense at the time and so far it's been the right decision and they've been very supportive of us and offered a sizable ad campaign and pushing the record quite well. to chronologically get up to date, after that happened i got rid of the band i was using at the time for a few reasons: i had to write more and focus the project, and the three of us were not unified in where it was going. so i set up a set of checks and balances, rules of limitations that i had to follow through the course of the record, so i decided if there was going to be keyboards, i was going to play them, if there was going to be guitars, i was going to play them, etc. i'm a shitty guitar player but it was the challenge of developing the style that fits the music that would give it a bit more uniqueness. so the album wasn't going to be based on great technique but rather as unique a style as i could get out of it at the time. i spent tree months writing the lining up the producers, following those rules.
hj: you started recording this record when?
tr: end of april of '89. with the album we started from scratch. we started recording with flood (pop will eat itself/nitzer ebb) who was to do the whole album, but his schedule got very much messed up by depeche mode whose album he is finishing right now in milan. it was enjoyable to talk to these people, finking producers, i never had to deal with anything like that and the label was like "who do you want to work with?" see if they are interested, proceed...make you decisions. actually the first thing that happened was the 12" that's out. i recorded that in cleveland myself and went to new york and collaborated with keith lablanc (tackhead). we did pre-production, those two, he and adrian sherwood (depeche mode/ministry) went to london and mixed there. i let adrian pretty much do what he wanted to do. i look at a 12" as someone else interpreting the way you want to do something, or expanding upon the original idea. the rest of the album was much more of me involved with everything. that started with flood with a few songs done in boston, and then i went to london and completed the record with john fryer (love&rockets/peter murphy). that was an unusual experience, being there working alone, and it was a heat wave, a very surreal experience. i returned home and we decided to do a few remixes so i called up keith lablanc again and we remixed a few more tracks. we hit it off pretty well, stayed at his place. it was nice establishing yourself with people you have had a lot of respect for and having them tell you "that's a great song" or "would you be interested in singing on my new album?" it was quite flattering. so hopefully that relationship will...
hj: blossom in a different way?
hj: with all of the varieties of people taking you tracks and then mixing in various capacities, is there somebody you were most happy with? was it keith? did each person have their own stamp that you liked?
tr: everybody was quite different. down the line, keith has some great ideas for what he does. i don't know if i'd want to do an entire album with him. well, that's not true, under the right circumstances, yes. but most of these were "he's leaving for london in a week, so let's go up right now and we can mix tree songs in tree days." the person i hit it off most with was flood as far as working with somebody who was incredibly creative and a "nice guy." he is the kind of guy that could be your best friend. and tentatively we're going to do the next record together. and do the whole thing in london with the right amount of time to do it. it was nice to collaborate with somebody and look forward to the ideas they were coming up with instead of knowing you are not going to like it. it was an enjoyable experience. john fryer, i picked him because he wasn't the obvious choice. the stuff that i liked that he's done was the stuff that was darker like this mortal coil and xymox. the total opposite direction of were i'm going. maybe by choosing somebody like this, it might take it in a direction that might be better than finding somebody that thinks like i do. and i theory it worked better than the realization of it, for there was times where there was some friction and near fist fights, but for the most part, it was pretty good. we didn't work the same way and we were opposite in personality as well. i have a difficult time backing away form things and saying "do what you wanna do."
hj: what about the new band? the new entity is to work on the road with the new sound, is it not?
tr: leading up to that, i was thinking of how this (nine inch nails) should be portrayed, how should i do this? the strength of the album is the emotion, sincerity, and a fairly rough "live" fell to it although a lot of it is very sequenced and programmed. all the vocals were on take and the guitar was as rough as it could possibly be of offset the precision of...
hj: the computers...
tr: exactly. i didn't want to get something that was very sterile, and i see people use computers so much now that it's much more common than it used to be. it's so easy to be perfect that everything ends up being perfect and i'm not an advocate of that. it's gotta have a "live" feel to it, gotta have live drummers and things like that, because i'm approaching the drum parts as how a drummer would play it, its sounds, that's the way it is. i'm not out to simulate live musicians, this is me and a computer and a sampler and whatever comes out, comes out. the album doesn't sound real clean, real polished to me, from the mixing to the overall fell. the vocals, guitars offset to give it that feel. carrying that over to getting a live together, i held auditions while i was in london and had hundreds of people call and talked to every one of them, met quite a few of them and realized i have incredibly competent musicians here who want to adapt to my style of what i want to do. but do i need the greatest drummer in the world to play these parts that i wrote? no, i don't. i need somebody who understands the philosophy behind the band. somebody who knows when to play and when not to play and understand less is more, that overused phrase.....yes the part is easy, but i want to convey the conviction and emotion of the song. that's what this band is about. plus i don't have a huge salary to pay you weekly, this is not a big major label expenditure with 0.00 a week pre dium budget and rehearsals at paisley park studios. this is from the ground level up. i came back to cleveland a bit disillusioned as far as what to do but made the decision to find some young guys that were in a position that they didn't need a lot of money to survive and willing to make some "life-type sacrifices." and who also understood where i was coming from, from an emotional point of view. so that it was a band that went out and conveyed that they were sincere in what they were doing versus "we're playing parts and i'm faking it." fresh guys. i've gotten chris vrenna (again) who's playing drums now, not keyboards, rich patrick who was with the act locally here, playing guitar. i play guitar, and just recently go nick rushe on keyboards who is from vermillion.
hj: is this the band that played the cat club in new york?
tr: yeah. this is the band that was assembled over the summer and is just coming to it's peak. the challenge of arranging the songs to be played live is that a lot of re-arranging had to be done. the act is quite a bit harder and more "live." i want to shatter that myth of all electronic bands coming across sterile like a janes addiction with synthesizers versus nitzer ebb. see what we've done, it's more intense. it's close to how i envisioned it being.
hj: what are they picking as the next track?
tr: tentatively, "head like a hole." and we're firming up video directors right now.
hj: the video for "down in it" was done where? did you pick the people to work on it?
tr: with video it's a scary subject for me. it's something i don't feel 100% comfortable with the medium, because i don't have control over it. if i'm in the studio, i know what i'm doing. with the video i'm now editing it, i'm not filming it, it worries me
hj: you don't know what the other guy is thinking?
tr: yeah. and there are so few videos that are worth doing. mtv repulses me with the ridiculous. so when we did our video it was "let's find some directors who are not coming for the mtv mold and we had a few big guys willing to do it very cheap, because they were interested in the song, but the idea of having tim pope do a video when he's done every cure video and every the the video and soft cell and psychedelic furs, and yes, he's a master of that genre but what he's gonna do is the classic "good video" for us that's not what we wanted to do. we chose h-gun, two guys from chicago that had done the ministry videos.
hj: any of the die warsau stuff?
tr: i don't think so. they also did revolting cocks and hangmen, which is a bad metal band from l.a. or some place. we had a bunch of people send treatments to us, and without any idea from me, asked for their ideas and if we were in the ball park i'd tell them if we were interested in working with them. we got the most ridiculous things you can imagine. trent is a mad scientist with robot women...ridiculous shit...i should put a book out of these things. but h-gun's was almost exactly what i had in mind...the original footage we had to cut because it was offensive
hj: are you pretty happy with everything that's been done so far?
tr: yeah because i've done most of it myself. i haven't lost control yet. the thing that i think will take people off guard is the direction that i'm taking and it's not going to be logical. the next video won't be like this. next album definitely won't be like this. not sure what it will be like. it won't be the same. it will be a series of contradictions.
hj: well thanks for the time. i'll try to do you proud with this...