Nine Inch Nails: An Interview With Trent Reznor
In a society that cannot function without its pedantic little slots for
every one of us to fit into, this interview can be stereotypically
labeled "infotainment". I am now a marketable commodity, a
percentage point in a poll. De(in)flate me. Validate me. As Trent
Reznor calmly admits to being yet another "latest trend", we must ask
ourselves why. Why these systems of quick and easy commercial
indoctrination? Why do we act and interact within these paradigms?
Are we unable to disentangle and digest information, art, viewpoints
in any other fashion? Are we unable to develop a critique which, to
paraphrase Barbara Kruger, is systematic as opposed to
substitutional? It is not the singer, but the song.
Eric: Considering all the resources at your disposal, how does
somebody who wants to do what you're doing start?
Trent: What I asked myself was, "What do I want to do? What is my
end result?" My end result would be to get myself into a situation
where I don't have to worry about a day job, my job can be making
music. I'd like to be as successful as I can at that on my terms. How
do I get there? I get a record contract. How do I get a record
contract? Well, living in Cleveland, every poor fool thinks you go out
and play in bars and some idiot's going to see you. It doesn't happen.
It doesn't happen there anyway. So I thought make a tape that's the
best I can make and people have to know it's good and get excited.
How do you do that? Well, I didn't have a band, and the only means
necessary was electronics. _Pretty Hate Machine_ was recorded on
an old school Mac (which was about fifteen hundred bucks then), a
sequencing program and one sampler that you could buy in the paper
for $300 bucks right now (which was then about two grand). A
sampler, I think, is the coolest thing, because anything you hear can
become anything else. If you wanted a drum to be a car door
slamming, that's what it is. Everyone's got these all-in-one boxes that
have every sound in the world in them and it's all preset. They're
good arrangement tools, but they're so generic, every sound in the
world...And it's just like that guy and just like that guy.
Josh: There's a definite difference between what you record and
what you do live. Since you create most of your music in the studio,
how do you work with people so that they get the same kind of
gratification out of it?
Trent: I can't speak for them. But, I didn't want to tour by myself
because that would suck. And I didn't want to have it all be taped or
sequenced. The idea of getting a band together that plays stuff live
was interesting, but I thought "Will this music work with people
playing it live versus a computer?" It was a choice to use computers
in the first place. I like the sound that they make more than people in
some cases. I was trying to strike the right balance between what
was live and what was sequenced and still trying to maintain the
electronic feel. So I looked for some people I thought could
understand where I was coming from and I think I found them.
Josh: In what ways do they participate in the creative process?
Trent: I set up the framework and I explain to them what Nine Inch
Nails is all about. I'm pretty heavy-handed at first, to make sure
everyone under- stands what we're trying to be. It's not about
playing perfect every night. It's about just understanding the
message of the songs, whatever they might mean to you. And getting
that point across. That speaks a lot louder than a cool haircut or a
virtuoso guitar solo. I think the guys I've got are good players. But I
didn't get them because they were the best players. They had an
understanding of what I was trying to say. Once I saw they were
getting it, then it was, "Okay, now make it your own." Live, we don't
sound like the record. I don't care, I don't want to sound like the
record. When we were playing Lollapalooza, and were playing in front
of a mainly rock audience, I had a lot of people come up to me and
actually say, "I heard your fuckin' band. I'd never heard you guys,
you were awesome. I went out and got your record. What's all this
faggoty synth shit?" I just had to laugh. You know? Sorry.
Eric: It seems most of the music you write is working through
personal issues, problems, traumas, whatever. How do you keep up
the energy to walk out on stage and expose your naked emotions to
people day after day?
Trent: Sometimes it's great and sometimes it sucks. I don't know. It's
a weird feeling...It seems different to me than your typical "go see a
rock band" thing. I'm trying not to sound pretentious by saying these
things, but I hope that our show is more honest. It gets people at a
level that's... I don't know how to answer that question. It's a bizarre
feeling to be in front of people you've never seen before, never will
see again, and they're singing words back to you that came from
inside. And they look like they mean it, but they have no idea what I
am talking about. I know they don't, but it means something to them
and that's cool. When it works, there's a feeling of having
communicated in a really strange, intimate but distant way. I meet
people and they think they know me because they've read an
interview with me or they've read lyrics: "Man, I know how you feel."
You might know some of how I feel. You see that a lot with the Kurt
Cobain situation. "What did he have to kill himself for? blah blah blah."
You don't know Kurt fuckin' Cobain. You read his lyrics, you've seen
him on TV; that's a whole other world. Who knows what the fuck he
was going through?
Josh: Who could possibly know why anyone would do that?
Trent: Exactly. Obviously there's a whole lot of shit going on with
that person. When someone says "Hey man, what does he have to be
sad about? He's a rich rock star..." Someone who says that is
someone who has never attained any goals that they've set for
themselves. When you do, you start to realize that "This is cool but
it's not exactly like I'd dreamed." I'm not the most content person in
the world just because someone bought my record. There is more to
it than that.
Josh: Let's talk about Beavis and Butt-head. They're really into your
video, apparently. How do you feel about corporations appropriating
material that you've created in order to essentially promote
Trent: I watch MTV because I am morbidly fascinated with how bad
most of what I'm seeing is. Occasionally, something will sneak out
that's all right. What I think could have been a unique new art form
has become a series of 3-minute commericals for products. This one
might be for Bon Jovi and that one for Pearl Jam and that one for
Close-Up tooth polish or whatever. It's interchangable. Just look how
corporate and unchallenging the whole genre of rock video has
become. I think that someone realized a while ago that one channel
that goes everywhere in the country is much more important than
any radio station. "If we get on there we're going to sell *this* many
records. So we want something that looks like *this* to do *this*
and it imitates *that* one which lucked into something that got big,
so we'll make a million things like it." When someone asks me what I
listen to these days, what new bands I like, I'm thinking. Ten seconds
later I'm still thinking. I've been listening to something that's ten
years old. I'm listening to my favorite album from five years ago. I
can't think of any new bands, if I thought a while I might come up
with a few bands that are decent, but generally why is music so
shitty today? Look at the top hundred albums. How did Counting
Crows get there? Where the fuck did those guys come from? Who is
responsible for subjecting us to that?
Josh: A lot of it is marketing.
Trent: A lot of it is marketing. MTV is telling you this is what is cool.
Listen to what is cool. I think that the whole situation has made
music less art-y and put more emphasis on music as a product. If you
buy an album today and it has two good songs on it, it's okay.
Before, if you bought an album and it had two bad songs on it,
well...it's still an okay album. You got your money's worth. I can't tell
you how many CDs we get from bands who want to open for us,
you've never heard of them so you put it on and the first song is not
bad. Then, well, that one sounds like the same song, sounds like that
song...with CDs you can instantly hit that little button and skip to the
next track. Albums, at least, you had to go to the trouble of moving
the needle. With an album you had this big piece of art, something on
the inside and the vinyl. You know, it was a cool thing. CDs are ugly
little pieces of shit; art's gone. What really made me think about this
was discovering a few records I hadn't really listened to, like: Bowie's
_Low_ album, or _Hunky Dory_, Iggy Pop stuff I had missed. You take
a record like _Low_, or _Hunky Dory_ where every song, to me, is
awesome, different and challenging. I wish I could write one song
that is as good as any song on that album. Then you compare it to
what is out today. I hate to think in a retro mindset. You know, "the
Beatles were the best thing.." Fuck the Beatles, I hated people who
were always going on about the fuckin' Beatles. They're dead. They're
ugly now. Get them out of my sight. There isn't much coming out, it
seems to me, that has much depth. It's based a lot on what the
trend of the second is. And I realize that we are dangerously close to
that same thing. Whatever.
Eric: Soon there will be soda commercials featuring some studio guy
making bad imitations of your music.
Trent: Well, there was a Gatorade commercial. I had a hundred
people say "Why did you do that Gatorade commercial?" I was like,
"What are you talking about?" I hadn't seen it. I finally got a copy. It
was "Down In It". The beat's a little bit different. The singing has got
a little bit of distortion, exactly the same kind of thing as my voice.
So I looked into how we can sue these fuckheads. I don't want
money. I just don't want them using my song. Well, they changed it a
little bit. I remember hearing a commercial and I thought, "Joe
Jackson, I thought he was cool, and now he's done a fuckin'
commercial for something shitty." It was that song, "Stepping Out".
Something almost exactly like that, but it wasn't him singing. I
remember in an interview he said, "They approached me to do this
commercial, and I said 'absolutely no way'. And they said, 'Well, we're
just going to get someone who sounds like you to do it.'" Well, fuck
you. And they did it. And everyone in the world thought it was him.
Josh: What are your thoughts on sampling, within the definition of
copyright laws and the restrictions therein?
Trent: I think that sound is sound. If somebody sampled a bit of
something in an album of mine, that's cool. I don't give a shit about
that. I think it's interesting how rap groups piece together things into
new sounds. I'm into that. I do think that it's totally out of control
now. Asshole major label lawyers are getting in on it, and realizing
they can make money by ripping people off. If M.C. Hammer looped
"Head Like a Hole" and did a rap over it, it'd piss me off, and I think I
should be compensated because it's my song. I think at a certain
point there should be some degree of compen- sation. When it's at
*that* level. Like some of these assholes: Vanilla Ice, where it's
another whole song with someone talking over it. Or Dr. Dre singing
Funkadelic. I've used a lot of samples, but I don't tell anyone where I
got them. It's not identifiable. I'm not just looping someone else's
music. I'm more interested in textures than the novelty off who or
what I've appropriated.
Josh: You bury your samples. If they were taken from a song, I would
never be able to recognize it.
Trent: I just produced another band, Marilyn Manson, from my label,
and they have a bunch of weird obscure samples, like Charles Nelson
Reilly from Lidsville, some bizarre little excerpt from one sentence and
the lawyers say "Did you get permission to use that?" This is just one
of fifty things on the record.
Josh: Where do you draw the line?
Trent: Well, labels now are so afraid to put a record out. There are
people at major labels whose job is just to clear samples, to listen for
samples and start the whole thing up. So we made a list of all the
different samples that were on this thing, from that song that goes
(deep voice) "I bring you fire." You know which one I'm talking about,
he's got makeup on. I don't remember the name of it. Just "I bring
y..." Not even that much, and it's tuned down, but everyone was
terrified. Some album came out, it might have been De La Soul, I
forget which rap group. They didn't clear a couple samples and got
sued like a motherfucker. They had to recall the album, it cost the
label millions. So everyone's terrified now. We had to call Charles
Nelson Reilly's peole to see if it was okay: "Yeah, but he'd like to have
five hundred dollars for that sample." It's like, "Fuck you!" You know?
You would never even know that existed.
Josh: It kind of takes away from the spontaneity.
Eric: So, it's not all right for you to sample Charles Nelson Reilly, but
it's okay for some corporation to take your music. Even if you alter
Charles Nelson Reilly, you have to pay, but they can alter your stuff
and not pay you for it?
Trent: Everything is set up to protect everyone but the artist. You'd
be surprised at things that are in record contracts. Who writes up a
record contract? The record company. Who is it looking after? Not
the artist. We're on the worst label in the world.
Josh: They have distribution.
Trent: They're holding the cards. For now. I think that in the next ten
years you'll see that turn around. Did you hear about this device that
they have made, but you won't see anywhere? Imagine walking
through a record store, and there's a database of everything that's
ever been put out, from obscure imports to Bon Jovi. You tell them
which one you want, you pay with a credit card, and with high speed
it downloads onto a digital cassette. You put your order in and ten
minutes later, here's your CD quality cassette. Your artwork gets
mailed to you and shows up the next day. What does that do? It
eliminates retail altogether. No more Tower Records (though you can
see how they could stick around). But the main thing record
companies have been holding over people's heads is distribution. I
could say that I'm going to start up a record label and drive my
records to the stores, but at some point, I will have to go to bigger
distribution houses to insure that I can get it out and get paid for it.
Because all those people fuck you over on that level too. If you don't
have a big account, you're the last to get paid. That takes them out.
Eric: Is most of the talk of technology freeing the little guy B.S. to
you? Government and media are always talking about "In the future
the Information Superhighway or the National Information
Infrastructure (whatever you want to call it) is going to make it so
everyone's got a museum and a library in their own home." Do you
think it's empowering people or is it just collecting power in the hands
of the people that own the media centers?
Trent: No, I think it will be a good situation when it gets together. It
depends...As MTV has done to the video world, I'm sure there will be
something to fuck up what could be amazing. It'll turn out to be
something controlled. I kind of wish I was born a hundred years later
to see. Although I think it is an interesting time right now. My
grandfather--the car was being invented. Now--I find myself bitching
about hard disk access time, and I can do a whole album on
computer. It will be interesting to see what happens,but I think we
will only benefit from access to information. It's a good thing, though
it will be misused.
Eric: All right. I hope this isn't going to go off the deep end, but...
(Trent and Josh laugh) A philospher once said that once a piece of
art is created, it no longer belongs to the artist, but that the reality
of the art exists between the perceiver and the piece perceived. This
goes back to an earlier statement in which you said people are singing
back your own lyrics to you but it doesn't mean to them what it
means to you.
Trent: I don't like to talk about song lyrics when I do interviews
because it lessens and cheapens someone else's impression of the
song. That's happened to me. I read an interview and whoever wrote
[this song] is bitching: "All these people think I'm talking about this.
I'm talking about blah blah blah. These people are full of shit!" Well,
I'm one of those people. I realize that once it is in the store it is other
people's domain to interpret. That is what is interesting about this as
a medium of communications. Unless it is something I feel really
strong about that is being misinterpreted. For instance, I have been
accused of misogyny and shit like that. I think, "You're not getting
the point." Like "Big Man With a Gun", "Oh, you're advocating..."
Should I even have to comment on that?
Josh: About two years ago I read a _Mondo 2000_ interview, where
you called industrial music "the misuse of technology". Could you
elaborate on that?
Trent: Well, I probably did say that. I don't think I meant it in that
context. I think I was describing some elements in what today is
called industrial music, whatever that really means, that use
technology in different ways than it was designed to be used. From
an engineering standpoint; electronic instruments, recording devices,
things like that. Being a programmer I find it more interesting to find
how these machines can do things they weren't meant to do. Usually
that is a lot more rewarding than plugging something in, reading the
manual and doing just what you're told and it sounds like a Janet
Josh: I'd like to know how you view your own artwork. Do you see
your music as an attempt to confront the chaos of the world we live
in, or is it the culmination of it?
Trent: I think...I don't really sit down and analyze my music. But
afterwards, I am forced to because I have to answer questions. Then
I have to say, "I haven't thought about that". I am not trying to just
bitch, or say that the world sucks. I don't see any point in doing that.
But I am trying to come to terms with my own head in a world that is
chaotic and doesn't make sense. I'm trying to deal with my own
thoughts and recycle them into something that I feel better about
myself by expressing. And then, I guess that if others can read their
own things into. That's a good feeling. If someone says, "I know what
you're talking about, I feel the same way." That's the best...You can't
get a better compliment than that. And that's when it was worth
sitting in that studio, or fighting with our lighting director, or doing
interviews every day. That is the best reward. I'm a public servant.
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is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.