thing you need to know about Nine Inch Nails, the guitar / synth army that
blew massive holes in the heads of audiences on the first Lollapalooza
tour, the innovative, darkly intense cyborgs whose "Broken" EP found its
way onto critics' top ten lists last year via its genre-shattering Sex
Pistols-Crash-Through-"The Dark Side of the Moon" cyber-punk ferocity,
is that they don't really exist.
a convenient fiction for me to work under, that's all," says Trent Reznor,
the tech wizard pulling the strings from behind the curtain. We're talking
in a dimly lit alcove in L. A. Record Plant, a gloomy Reznor-like biosphere
where he sits, lotus-like, a veritable guru of gloom, relaxing between
mixes of his groundbreaking new album, "The Downward Spiral". Bathing in
the eerie melancholy of music by his friends Coil (who sound like congenitally
depressed Tibetan monks from Neptune), Reznor runs his hands through hs
raven-black hair and murmurs, "I guess I have a real affinity for working
with machines in certain ways. It's like they're my friends." He looks
up, grinning. "I mean, I have *real* friends, too."
yeah, like Uncle Festus, and the Thing, and Cousin It... Reznor chuckles,
a rare event. "Actually, a lot of people who meet me wonder where the cape
and fangs are." Thin, handsome---he could pass for Andy Garcia's younger
brother---Reznor has the air of a man who is bravely attempting to bear
up under bad news. And he is. For Reznor, that great sucking sound you
hear is God and the Universe abandoning us, drawing us into the void. On
Nine Inch Nails' debut, PHM (quasi-industrial synth-pop) and the EP "Broken"
(more machine-driven, more raw guitar punk), he railed against the dissolution
of his inner and outer universes with a laser-like ferocity at once chilling
and a bit over the top. Indeed, the first thing you notice about Reznor
up close and personal is the absence of any malice in his mien. Though
often painted as some bitter lost soul, his music suggests deeper yearnings
towards faith, hope, even charity. He also made the most repulsive video
you've never seen for "Broken", Happiness in Slavery, featuring a naked
man being mechanically eviscerated and castrated. Small-town geniuses seem
partial to castration fantasies.
better to externalize it, "to get it out and feel purged", as Reznor puts
it, than to cut off your ear a la Van Gogh. One of the hallmarks of Nine
Inch Nails' music is a sense of catharsis, of toxins being purged and cleared,
rather than the impacted whining and wallowing in the mire of bands that
blindly celebrate their pain. In that regard, Reznor is less pop's Dracula
than its Edward Scissorhands, the gentle, wounded Prince of Disorder, struggling
against his isolation to reconnect with a greater whole. One listen to
"TDS" will change the way you think about electronic and industrial music
forever. Combining technique and institution, Reznor has made machine music
which carries the human pulse in ways that astonish. Even the guitars,
processed through a virtual wall of electronic mirrors, sound like everything
you've ever loved and nothing you've ever heard before. The child of divorced
parents, he was raised by grandparents in Mercer, Pennsylvania, whose bleak
cultural landscape echoed Grant Wood's "American Gothic". Reznor's back
door literally overlooked a cornfield. Every child of divorce blames him
or herself on some level---the mind may forget or rationalize such traumas,
but the emotional impact can resonate through a lifetime. For Reznor, classical
piano lessons and Kiss fandom eventually suggested a creative outlet via
to Cleveland led to a contract with TVT and 1989's "PHM", which spawned
two semi hits, "HLAH" and "Terrible Lie". But TVT was expecting more of
a pretty hit machine, and two painful years of litigation ensued when Reznor
found more compatible quarters at Interscope Records. His 1991 EP "Broken"
was, as Reznor puts it, "The kind of record that sounds like a real band
playing but upon further investigation there's something definitely wrong
with it." Layering tracks beyond the assimilative power of the human ear
("if we had 48 tracks we wanted to bury 48 riffs that were meant to come
out with repeated listenings"), manipulating raw sounds through intricate
machinery, Reznor succeeded in creating an overall effect at once primal
and complex. "The starting point there was to make a dense record," he
observes with some understatement. "We approached the new one from the
opposite point of view---a record with holes everywhere."
"TDS" marks another quantum leap musically for Reznor, even featuring other
humanoids, including some Mobius strip guitar work by Adrian Belew. Lyrically,
songs like "Mr. Self Destruct" and "Reptile" are as cheery as ever. But
Reznor is not Lucifer with a drum machine; he's more like the suffering
Job crossed with the raging Jeremiah, tearing down the false in a desperate,
oddly confident search for higher reconciling truths. Over the course of
two lengthy conversations, we attempted to do just that, going beyond the
how of his music into the "why". He struggled to answer questions he'd
never articulated, perhaps even to himself, but which are very much at
the root of his artistry. We even got him to laugh once or twice...okay,
There's a political correctness creeping into alternative music lately
that tries to define punk, or alternative legitimacy, according to an unspoken
set of rules. As if being raw and abrasive automatically means you have
integrity. They must go crazy trying to pigeonhole you.
It seems like the media demand everything be categorized and labeled to
be understood, yeah. That became really apparent when we went to England.
This guy comes in to do an interview and he's really pissed at me. What
have I done? And he's fuming. [imitates his anger] "Well, what kind of
music do you guys play? Are you electronic? Then why the guitars? And your
show was bordering on being theatrical---what's going on?" I said, "You're
the one who's making up the names, I just do what I do. I'm sorry I don't
fit into your retro-all sythesizer-cyberpunk-category bullshit." I'm watching
him struggle with "I want to like this...but I can't because I don't know
what I'm liking." If I told him it was electronic, he'd still be pissed
off because it wasn't pure electronic: "Wait, you're a synth band but you
use guitars!" Well, blow me.
The new album goes beyond blending genres. The machines sound so warm and
human, while the vocals sound eerily mechanical. As if the two have switched
I'm flattered you say that. I think I was setting out to make a record
that you might not realize is mostly synthetic. When you sit down behind
a drum machine and a computer, there's a very obvious way to use it, and
if you read the instructions, the music comes out a certain way. A lot
of people reject that because they don't want a Janet Jackson or Gary Numan
sounding record. It's dismissed as unfashionable. And I was at a point
where I'm thinking, maybe there's a reason every rock band has guitars,
drums, real people playing them. So I started this album on the computer
or keyboards, then I fleshed them out by bringing in some guitar. Because
of my classical training, I feel more competent on keyboards. As soon as
I put my hands on the piano the chord is far richer than the E or A barre
chord when I naively play guitar. I know where that added bit of harmonic
depth is on keyboard, and that's one thing I wanted to expand on with this
album. The organic thing is true on a number of levels. This album focuses
on decay, and I chose to use a lot more organic sounds, from real instruments
to swarms of bees. I hired a guy whose job was to do nothing but sample
those sounds. So there were these new textures. But the guitar is a more
expressive instrument in many ways, you can get nuances that are very hard
to simulate on keyboards, and especially samplers.
I think Pete Townshend once said he wished he could play like Larry Carlton
early on. But if he had that facility then, he probably wouldn't have been
Yeah, there's a transcription of "Wish" in some guitar magazine, and the
best part was where they said, "This middle section is virtually untranscribable."
All right, success! Now, that main riff has got to be the simplest thing
in the world for any real guitar player. But a lot of them ask me how the
hell I got that sound. The answer is, Don't read the instruction book!
Fiddle around. The studio itself became a real instrument for me. I didn't
really know how it worked, but that's where the naivete factor kicks in.
You do something "wrong" and think, "Wow, that sounds cool, why not try
this instead?" Just like my guitar revelation. Everyone mikes the speaker.
Why not plug the amp right into the board? That sounds crazy to some people,
it's not technically a "good sound". Who cares? What some players might
initially think was a godawful sound was inspiring to me and it fit what
the track needed. You have to get past the barriers that come with training.
I have a hard time working with other engineers, Flood excepted, because
they'll try to undo everything I've made sound a certain way because "drums
or guitar don't sound that way." Now with computers I can create guitar
parts that I couldn't sit down and play.
So we're talking about a kind of "virtual reality" approach to music?
I try to avoid any word that defines the process, but it's a really unique
sound. On this album and "Broken" I played stuff right into the board and
then into the computer, and manipulated it with programs that don't work
in real time. Once it's in there, you can do things to it that have no
equivalency in the real world. Like analyze the frequency and flip it upside-down.
It takes maybe 10 minutes for the Macintosh to process that cut, and you
wind up with sounds that are different from anything you could get otherwise.
I like the idea that there are guitar players out there trying to figure
them out. Hopefully, that'll cause some misery.
Thematically, the lyrics and vocals have the opposite effect: They're so
cold, miserable and mechanical. "The Becoming" seems to be this hilling
metaphor of a person literally losing their humanity, becoming machine-like.
I'm afraid some of this stuff is pretty intense, and I can see how it can
be dismissed as calculating and theatrical. But it's real, to me. When
I think about the state I'm in I feel like a fucking loser because I've
got things I really should be glad about. I'm aware that I'm fortunate
to live in this house and do what I've always wanted to do. And be one
of the few who got the record deal. I hear myself bitching about how "it
sucks to be popular", then I have to just stop because that's bullshit
to say so. By the same token, I'm not more happy or content with my life
than I was ten years ago. I got everything I wanted in my life... except
I don't really have a life right now. I don't have any real friends, any
relationships that mean anything to me, and I've turned myself into this
music-creation-performance machine. When I got off the road after the PHM
and Lollapalooza tours, I didn't write a note of music and I wasn't sure
I wanted to do it anymore, to be honest with you. But we had this horrible
fucking lawsuit hanging over our heads in order to get off our old label,
TVT. "PHM" was written from the point of view of someone who felt that
the world may suck, but I like myself as a person and I can fight my way
out of this bullshit. "Broken" introduced self-loathing, which is not a
popular topic with anybody, especially in a song.
But it doesn't feel like you're wallowing in the pain and betrayal. There's
an urge for healing in the howling, a purging of all these emotional toxins.
I absolutely feel that it's a positive release. Like, some of the songs
hit home to where, this sounds idiotic, but honestly, tears just... "Terrible
Lie" is one that always kicks into gear. Maybe the first minute I'm adjusting
to technically what's wrong onstage, the monitor is feeding back, but by
the end of the song it's taken you over and you mean what you say. You
can't fake that, people can tell. There's a feeling of elation and a strong
sense of calmness. Suddenly, I don't really have a desire to go out and
fight people anymore. I've gotten something out of my system, and when
you do that four or five times a week for a couple of years that's enough.
I didn't need to be around alcohol, drugs, backstage scenarios, adulation.
Then there's that weird juxtaposition of singing to audiences of being
isolated and not being able to fit into anything or relate to anybody.
To find a little niche you can just disappear into and be normal. To not
have pain, and have the path laid out for you, which is something I long
for at times. And you're onstage with 1,000 people grabbing at you, do
you know what I mean?
We're with you in your isolation. All of us.
Yeah, and you're meaning what you're singing and looking down at these
subhuman things going, Take a shit on my head, spit on me, anything. That
fucks up anybody after a while. I've learned these little ploys where when
the audience isn't into it I'd ram it down their throats and get them to
hate us. But often by the end of the show when the last thing you feel
like doing is going onstage, and your throat's sore and at some point you
look out on the crowd and they know the words and they're shouting them
back at you, and they're having a real experience of flushing it out of
their systems--- it's probably the best feeling of my life.
Did that influence the sound on "Broken?"
Definitely. When we played the songs live they mutated, they got heavier
and more rock oriented because of the live drums and guitars and the sound
began to take on a life of its own. A lot of people had seen us live and
said we were great--- then they went, "God, I bought your record and it
sucks, man! It's like some synth shit or something." After hearing that
so many times you start getting macho about it: "I'm gonna make the hardest-sounding
record I can."
Offstage, do you get feedback from your fans that your music is helpful
or purgative for them?
I don't know what kind of mail a mainstream rock band gets but we get about
one letter out of 1,000 that says, "Your music is the only thing that keeps
me going." And then, "I totally relate to what you're saying, however..."
Insert horrible situation: "My parents beat me, I'm gonna run away; I'm
a drug addict; I've tried to kill myself...and if you get this please just
call me and respond...you don't know how much it would mean...that would
keep me going." I didn't know what to do. I could call this person up,
but I'm inevitably going to let them down. I can't talk to you 100 times
a day. And if I write a little note, you get one back the next day and
another the day after.
You probably would eventually hurt them by trying to help them.
Yeah, the world fucked them and then I did too, by inaction. I felt shitty
about this for four or five days, and after talking to some people I thought
the best thing was not to, because I did exchange letters with a woman
once and she wanted tickets and she showed up with this, "Hi, we're engaged
to be married" scenario. I try to make a point of not being a dick to anyone
who comes up to me, and believe me there are many times when you don't
want someone on your bus fucking with you. I always try to think about
if I were meeting someone I respected... Prince was in the studio here
the first day I came in, and somebody said, "Hey, Prince likes your stuff,
he had your "Broken" CD in the car and he later actually told his people
to mix their tracks harder and it might have been due to hearing Broken
". I thought they were kidding, 'cause this is a guy whose work I respect
immensely. Figured it might just be cool to say "hi" if I ran into him
around the studio. Then I find myself at one end of a big long hallway
and he's at the other end walking towards me. So I simply said "hi" and
waited for him to make eye contact. He just turned away. That strikes a
wrong chord in my Midwestern upbringing regarding simple human decency.
I don't mean to sound judgmental, but I've no great desire to meet Bowie
now, because in my mind, I'd rather think of him as this cool guy.
Is that why you chose Adrian Belew for "TDS"? And how was it working with
a live musician in the studio for the first time? Any control issues come
No, he was an inspiration. To be honest, I've been listening to a ot of
music I avoided when I grew up --- like Led Zeppelin-- because people who
I didn't like liked them. Flood and I have been on a big Bowie kick, "Low/Heroes"
era, "Hunky Dory" --- stuff that I never heard growing up in rural western
PA. But we were infatuated with that whole "Low"/Belew style of playing,
and we wondered if he'd be into doing it. It happened he was in LA, and
agreed to come up to the house the next day, so our bluff was called and
we were intimidated. What are we going to do? We figured we'd just put
on six songs and have him play through them. So Adrian shows up, totally
nice guy, no attitude. But I could tell he was thinking, "What am I doing
here?" We were in the living room where Sharon Tate was murdered, the vibes
started...what's going on here? So we rolled the tapes and just asked him
to play. He's "Do you want rhythm stuff?" I said, "Anything you feel like
doing." "Well, what key is it in?" "Uh, I'm not sure, probably E, see what
happens, don't worry about it."
This is exactly what Fripp says Bowie and Eno did to him on the "Heroes"
session, incidentally. Go on...
He said something about just doing something with Paul Simon, and we said
okay, this is the anti-Paul Simon. This totally fast machine thing kicks
in, he stops for a minute and just starts playing and immediately all of
our mouths drop open. Just to see someone who can play that well and tasteful.
We stopped the tape and he thought we were mad at him or something. And
I said, "No, it's worth paying you just to watch you play, man." Next round,
we told him to just make some noise, come up with some riffs. Later we
cut up the tape and dropped it in where it fit. The end of "Mr. Self Destruct"
was all loops and his playing straight in the middle.
Earlier you talked about almost giving up music after Lollapalooza and
your tour with Guns n' Roses. Was there a part of you expecting not to
be liked? You talked about wanting to almost alienate people at times.
I think it was the insecurity of heavily overstepped boundaries. With Lollapalooza,
we were still an up-and-coming thing. The biggest show we'd ever played
was 200 people. Now we're in front of this scary, potentially hostile audience
of 25,000. I was afraid the other bands might be into this star thing,
"I want catering!" But everybody, with the exception of Henry Rollins,
was totally friendly. I remember Ice-T playing guitar with us on "HLAH",
totally cool guy, very talented. But it was a soul destroyer in terms of
the technical problems we were having. My performance started revolving
around dealing with what was fucking up rather than communicating with
the audience. Plus this is the tail end of about 2 1/2 years of touring,
compounded by the fact that my drummer had a heroin problem and... now
he's dead. And other band members had traumas and I felt beaten up to the
point where I was hiding, I couldn't deal with it. The lyrics from "Broken"
started to form around then. Then Axl Rose made contact with us. He was
a fan, and wanted to help out. We were going to Europe to do a tour, and
we figured out what better way to confuse people than to open for GN'R?
So we did, and the audience hated us. We were terrified to start with,
and then we're talking onstage in front of 65,000 people in Germany. The
first song goes okay. Second song people realize we're not Skid Row, who
came on after us. Third song they'd confirmed the fact that they've heard
a synthesizer and it's time to *attack*. There's something about the sight
of every single person flipping you off in a giant stadium that makes you
go instantly numb. I started laughing, then insulted them with anything
I could think of. At that moment I see this fucking link sausage come flying
up onstage and I thought, okay, Germany, link sausage, you got us. So that
was a penis shrinker. Then I looked into the audience and about 20 rows
back there's some poor fucking kid holding up a NIN shirt, and I gave him
a quick thumbs up. Suddenly there was this scuffle and he was *gone*. Never
to be seen again. That night we got the figures for our t-shirt sales.
Out of 65,000 people, how many did we sell? Three. Now, I know I saw one
of them myself. You would think, just in the general confusion, some folks
might have thought, Oh, that's a cool GN'R shirt.
Chaos theory would support that assumption, yes.
I thought we would have done at least double digits. Twenty, maybe. That
was amazing. The TVT thing is nearing litigation, a two-year process, we're
told. I've got to stop doing this for a while. Then some idiot booked us
on the stupidest tour of all time, opening for The Wonder Stuff. Were they
throwing fucking darts, or what? And those guys were egomaniac fuckheads.
I started drinking, which we never do when we play. And I couldn't get
this stuff we were talking about out of my system onstage. Then I knew
I had to get out but I couldn't. The only way out was through the crowd
back to the dressing room, and I struggled but people kept putting me back
on stage. I looked down and our road manager's mouth was a bloody mess.
I asked what happened, and he said, "You punched me four times in the mouth!"
I freaked, had to get away from that scene, and everything onstage was
broken. It was just too much shit to deal with.
Which led to "Broken", and the notorious video for "HiS", featuring castration
and other gruesomeness. You knew it wouldn't get airplay. People ask, why
spend all that money?
We're not defiantly doing it so it won't get played. We did it because
the director and I were both into gore movies. We're both into feeling
repulsed, the feeling of pushing limits, of seeing something that makes
Why? Because you've been numbed by the world and you need to jolt yourself
to get what you really feel?
I don't know why. No---I can tell you why. Because I grew up in rural PA
where it felt like the world happened five hours away in a place where
I could never get to. I can see a bit of it on TV, but I can't have access
to it. And nobody's doing what I would like to do here. I don't know how
to do what I want, and I feel crushed because I have this shitty education.
There's a lot of things I wish I knew about, like Eastern religions. My
scope of travel was maybe a half-hour radius, and every little town had
the same K-Mart and Cineplex playing the same five movies, all Sylvester
Stallone. It's hard for people who've grown up in cities to understand
that, to have an endless cornfield for your backyard. But that's what a
lot of America is---it's not dodging gunfire from gangs. I know what I
*don't* believe in. I don't have my own life together, really. I don't
wake up in the morning feeling spiritually whole, or great about nature
or God or the universe. And I've been on a quest instead of finding a way
to start a life.
But even Stephen King doesn't get that much horror and hurt from a cornfield.
We're all screwed up, but twentysomething artists saw the accelerated collapse
of many of your inner and outer supports---religion, government, educational
institutions, and a 40% divorce rate among your parents. It's hard for
our minds to understand, or even see, what that can do to our memotions.
It's not the only factor, but a therapist friend told me that in 20 years
of practice, he's never seen the child of a divorce who doesn't blame himself
or herself. Mom and Dad, the sole source of security to a child, have come
apart. Unconsciously, it's like the kids' trust bone is shattered, which
cripples all your relationships until it heals. Cobain, Vedder, both come
from broken homes...
The stuff you're saying makes a lot of sense. [pause] Yes, my parents broke
up when I was five. I grew up with my grandparents. It wasn't bad. I love
my parents and I'm friends with both of them. I don't blame them at all,
because they were really young and I would have done the same thing...
Of course. It's not about blame or guilt. But those emotional scars, the
sense of separation, of not being able to trust, is still flushing out,
healing up. Looking back, do you sense any of that in your art and life?
I know I haven't come to terms with all that shit. I just felt sort of...off
to the side. I hated school...I fucking hated it. The fact that it revolved
around something you didn't have access to. If you weren't on the football
team, if you were in the band, you were a leper. When people say those
were the best years of our lives, I want to scream. But my parents allowed
me to do things that my friends weren't allowed to do. I smoked pot with
my dad the first time. I didn't have to be in by midnight. It was an open
environment. And when I moved away I didn't completely fuck myself up or
become a drug addict, like some of my friends who had a more oppressive
home life. But I remember seeing "The Exorcist" when I was 11 or 12. It
fucked me up permanently because it was the most terrifying thing I could
ever imagine. I couldn't discredit it like I could "The Alien". Because
I'd been fed all this bullshit by Christianity that said yes, this could
So your parents encouraged your freedom of expression and experimentation,
which you use in your music in creative ways to deal with your shit.
Maybe all this comes down to me seeing "The Exorcist". But at least I had
that liberating, questioning environment, too. We did this long-form video
around "Broken" and a lot of people thought I'd become fascinated with
serial killers, which I'm not. It's more about questioning my own motives---do
I have it in me where I could do that? Like in "Silence of the Lambs" or
"Red Dragon", where the scariest thing is when the detective realizes that
he has this side of his brain where he could figure out what the killer
could be doing. Because he has part of that in him. Facing that. Not that
I'd go out and kill somebody...
Yeah, the more you're conscious of where your pain or fears actually come
from, the less they come up as complexes or demons...
Well, I actually thought I was the Antichrist after I saw "The Omen" when
I was 13.
That explains a lot of your lyrics, plus those funny marks on your forehead.
[laughter] One last question. There's a piece on the new album called "A
Warm Place" that is unlike anything you've ever done before. It has a lot
I wanted to make a little spot in the context of the record where there
was a break in the action. In the midst of this build-up of these ever-growing,
terrible machines, I just wanted to remember that there is somewhere...else.
<< Previous Page