Jahr 1991


Melody Maker


28. September 1991


Hard as Nails


  Autor: Tony Hopkins

Pic: Simon Camper



When it comes to smashing up the best that music technology can supply ‘Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor is an expert. Tom Doyle gets some tips.

„As soon as something f***s up on stage, all the people who are a little sceptical of electronic music are like, ‘Ha ha ha‘. But we‘re not Led Zeppelin, some of the stuff is pre-recorded, y‘know? If you leave the show feeling ripped-off, then I‘ll give you your money back, but I don‘t think people leave the shows saying, ‘F*** that, the bass was on tape’.“

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails can‘t tolerate people who have the old anti-electronic “keep music live“ attitude. It makes him angry. And sitting here in a Bayswater hotel on the afternoon of Nine Inch Nails‘ show at the London Astoria, his muscly arms a mass of tiny scars (the result of some of his more energetic performances when he‘s smashed up ear that ‘wasn‘t particularly “user friendly“), Trent doesn‘t look like the sort of bloke you‘d like to cross when he‘s angry. It was at the end of 1989 that American audiences first became aware of Nine Inch Nails‘ debut album, “Pretty Hate Machine“, a concoction of hard industrial beats, gritty guitars and Reznor‘s talent for a memorable hook. But it‘s token this long for the album to be released in Britain on the back of a (near) hit single “Head Like A Hole“, and for the last two years the band have toured constantly. Strangely enough, though, when the album was recorded, there was no band anyway - just Trent and his computer.

“I didn‘t have anyone else to work with at that time. I experimented with a bunch of people and found that I couldn‘t get the right ones. At first I didn‘t really have the confidence to think I could do it myself, but I just tried it, and I guess it worked.“

Perhaps surprisingly, Trent was trained in classical piano as a kid, and was such a prodigy that his parents offered him the chance to cut down on normal school, practice eight hours a day and become a professional concert pianist. But he preferred electronics and became interested in keyboards and samplers. His first synth was a Moog Prodigy (“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world“), and he became a frantic collector of gear after landing a job in a music store in the early Eighties.

“I went through a chain of bad synths, some crummy Korg stuff, but the coolest synth I ever had was a PPG Wave. They were so expensive in the States, but I somehow managed to get one and then I was completely broke, so I had to sell it to get my money back!“

He soon became a programmer in a local Cleveland studio and was something of a wizard with the Apple Mac computer, which is the American studio standard, as opposed to the Atari in Europe.

“I’ve seen the Atari and it just seems a cheap, cost cutting simulation of the Mac. I’ve yet to see any software that really rivals the user-interface of some of the Mac stuff, sequencer-wise or anything else. It does the same thing but it‘s just how elegantly it does it. For the album, I used Performer software and Sound Designer to dump samples bock and forth, which is totally cool, y‘know? You take a sample of something basic, manipulate it through there –distort it, stretch it, whatever - and it sounds really cool. I sampled with the Emax - it‘s real ugly and it‘s got a real gritty, hard kind of sound to it, and if you take a sample and transpose it way down, it sounds real shitty and cool.

“Recently I told the record label, ‘Look, I’ve smashed up every piece of gear I have or it‘s out of date or my keyboards are shiny‘, so now I’ve got some great stuff; a couple of Akai S1100s, a new Mac 2FX with a SampleCell card in it, and I’ve switched softwares to StudioVision, which you can record multi-track into as well as sequence on it.“

Most of the “Pretty Hate Machine“ LP was recorded in London at Blackwing and Konk after Trent, in his search for a producer, had flicked through his record collection and discovered certain names cropping up- people like John Fryer (Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil), Flood (Wolfgang Press, Nitzer Ebb) and Keith Le Blanc (Tackhead). In retrospect, some of it worked, reckons Trent, and some of it didn‘t. Possibly some of the problems, he says, may have been caused by his awkward temperament.

‘When I’m working, I‘m working. I‘m in the studio, it‘s not really a party - let‘s work, let‘s go. I get frustrated easily and I’ve little patience. I usually reach a point when I‘m so tired that I don‘t care anymore, so it‘s nice when I can work with someone who motivates me to get my shit back together and vice versa. I suppose I worked best with Flood, so we‘re going to do the next album together - I’m going to pretty much do it all myself and then get him in at the end.

“I‘d rather spend as much time out of the studio, working at home. When I’m in the studio, it’s not time to say, ‘OK, I wonder what lyric I should sing here?‘ - it’s got to be ready to go. I like to get everything totally done, so what we can just listen to it and edit it and change things here and there.“

At the moment Trent‘s building a studio in his house so that he doesn‘t have to depend on his record company to let him go into the studio. He plans to record every thing - from guitars to vocals - digitally straight to computer, so that by the time he gets to the studio everything will already be recorded, and it‘ll just b ea matter of mixing the tracks.

“I‘ve got a portable DAT machine and a couple of decent stereo ambient mikes, so I‘ve been trying to go out and record ambient atmospheres to sample. Like, I live in New Orleans and if you hang out in the French Quarter, there‘ll be a Dixieland band playing down the street and someone playing a saxophone round the corner and there‘s weird crowd noses... So I’m trying to get different backgrounds and ambiences and lay them under tracks to see what happens.“

Live, he describes Nine Inch Nails‘ set-up as “low-tech“. After the album was released, he hastily assembled o touring band -on drums is Jeff Ward (Lard, Revolting Cocks), on guitars are Richard Patrick and Trent himself, and James Wooley (ex-Die Warsaw) plays keyboards.

“No bass player! I had a problem when I first started getting the band together to play this music I’d created on computer, because the way I’d approached making the record was not thinking in terms of a band, it was just a chunk of sound - some songs didn‘t really have bass, some songs had no guitar, some drums were all just loops of other stuff and there was no one actually playing. There was also the problem that I didn‘t want to go out with an all-electronic show where you start the sequencer and there‘s two guys faking it and me singing, because I always feel kind of bored when I see those shows. Then the other side of the coin is when you see an electronic band arrange their songs for real drums, real bass, two guitars and a keyboard player, and it loses what was cool about the electronic side of it.

“I like machinery meshing with real vocals and bad guitar and stuff, but for live I didn‘t want to use a computer on stage because you know what‘s going to happen with that, and I don‘t want to say, ‘Oh, excuse me everybody!‘, while I’m crawling under the drum rig plugging in MIDI cables because I’m the only one who knows how to fix it. So I‘d seen Nitzer Ebb use a four-track cassette deck and it sounded great, so I sort of ripped off the idea from them. The way we run it is that two tracks are a stereo mix of loops and keyboard stuff, the third track is bass and the fourth track is the click that the drummer listens to in his headphones. That‘s one way to do it. With a band like The Revolting Cocks, who play with loops going through the whole song, they just trigger from the keyboard, the drummer listens to that loop and plays to it.“

So after a couple of years of constant touring, is their tape deck really more reliable than a live sequencer?

“Sure, it‘s definitely a lot more reliable. Lots more things can break in a computer sequencing set-up - disk drives, cables – but with a tape deck it’s either the tape or the machine. But we had our share of problems when we came over to Europe with the voltage conversion thing. I don‘t understand electricity very well but it’s running at 50 amps instead of 60, which is what we use, and it’s fine for things like guitar amps. But for very sensitive electronic equipment it matters, so we‘ve had a lot of trouble with it just stopping in die middle of the song – a real pleasant experience too, I might add. You just have to hope it‘s fixed and start the next song. But it still beats a bass-player because they usually stand there looking like an idiot anyway.

“We also spent a fortune in samplers because they kept on getting knocked over, before someone came up with the idea of getting a long MIDI cable from the keyboard and keeping the samplers safely off stage. It cost us about $ 10,000 before we came up with that idea!“

As for guitar equipment, Trent likes it loud, cheap and nasty. He uses a Gibson Explorer and a Marshall stack. At home he has 10 different preamps that are designed for guitars which supply him with an array of dirty sounds which go straight to tape, so his stock never gets plugged in and his neighbours are reasonably happy. He doesn‘t see the point in recording conventionally and likes to distort und flange everything in his path.

“It‘s lust that from working in a keyboard store, you get to the point where you know what every keyboard sounds like, and sadly the whole developing of synthesizers has gone in such a commercial way - everyone is so concerned with making all in-one boxes or little keyboards that do everything – no one is making any synths you can experiment wish. But if you‘ve got one of these synth modules und you use the presets, just effect them or distort them through the desk until they’re smoking, because otherwise that sound is just going to sound exactly the same as it does on someone else‘s record.“

But perhaps the burning question is, what are the best bits of gear to trash on stage when you‘re in one of your more exuberant moods?

“Anything expensive of course, ha ha, but watch that you don‘t trash anything you like too much! On stage in the streets one night with Guns N‘ Roses, we were getting a really shitty time from the audience, y‘know, 85,000 people waving their thumbs down at you, so I trashed my favourite Explorer und it didn‘t survive the fatal blow I dealt it. So I‘m standing there thinking, ‘Maybe I should cool this down‘...“