Trent Reznor, d.b.a. Nine Inch Nails, caused
quite a stir in the music world with the release of his 1990 debut album
« Pretty Hate Machine. A victim of “Industrial” labelling, the album was
scoffed at by die-hard industrialists as a genre heist, and hailed by the
overall alternative music press as a solid example of new music for the
Nineties. Trent is not ashamed of the fact that he makes pop music – why should he be?
Pretty Hate Machine is pop dance music at its best – fast, fresh – even
emotionally deep. Which is a lot more than can be said for most of the
retro-psychedelic- house-rap-metal-syntho smarm that’s being cranked out these days.
His live show, with a full band, is another trip altogether. It’s intense
(almost hardcore) and unpredictable – music that gets in your face and under
Welcome To The Machine
Mondo 2000: How did
you originally get involved in music, and specifically, the kind of
industrial-influenced music that you do?
TRENT REZNOR: I grew up with lots of music and
instruments around the house. I was trained on the piano starting at five, My
dad was into electronic devices and had an electric piano. When I got my first
synthesizer, though, my piano playing came to an abrupt halt. Synthesizers
seemed so much more than an instrument. I was also very into computers,
electronics and video - so it all seemed to fit. I got serious about writing music
about the time that MIDIs and sequencers hit the scene. So, right from the
start I was composing on computer and sequencer. I can‘t imagine composing on a
guitar or a conventional instrument.
Structures with Industrial Power Tools
TR: When I was in the process of writing Pretty
Hate Machine, I took an inventory of all the music that I liked. I wanted to
formulate an idea what makes a powerful record. What it boiled down to was
honesty - a sense of integrity in what was being said. I used that as a base in
working with my ideas. Since I was a big fan of the American industrial
movement -basically be it as electronic - it made sense for me to use this
form. I had always been into electronic music, but I didn‘t feel it had much
emotional intensity compared to rock ‘n‘ roll. Then industrial came along. It
as electronic, but it delivered as much power and intensity as any other
musical form. It also represents the total misuse of technology, which really
appealed to me. [Laughter]
The best hip-hop—the stuff produced by The Bomb
Squad from Public Enemy, is a totally novel use of sampling. It‘s using it as
an instrument, instead of a simulation of a drum, or a piano.
From a songwriting point of view, I like
anybody who‘s writing good material. I think XTC is a great band and writes
M2: Hear, hear! [Trent
scores big points having just intoned the interviewer‘s other favorite band]
TR: Their lyrics are so intelligent, with good
choruses. I‘m basically a Pop structure kind of guy. In that sense, I‘m not
very experimental in terms of songwriting. A lot of industrial stuff is much
more free-form. I like to have that hook and that structure.
In terms of arrangement, however, I‘m much less
traditional. I‘m totally bored with guitar-bass-drums. I‘m more into using
different things - basically anything I can find that gets the sound I‘m
looking for. A lot of what I‘m doing now may sound organic - it may sound like
real drums, and at one time, it was - but they‘ve been looped and sampled and
processed in strange ways.
I cut and paste, plucking things off of other
people‘s records - you become a kind of god of your own musical environment.
M2: I want to go back
to what you were saying about honesty being very important in music. I think
that‘s what impressed me about Pretty Hate Machine. That raw sincerity really
came through. Although the overall mood is dark and negative, there is a real
beauty to it that I found uplifting. There‘s a real sense of heart, flesh, and
blood amongst all the loud electronics. Are there other electronic musicians
who you think have a lot of heart in their music?
TR: That‘s an interesting question. I was
definitely aware of that in doing my album - that juxtaposition of humanity
amidst all that machinery - not only lyrically or in terms of the arrangement,
but just in terms of communicating that concept. Sometimes I would pit the
harshest electronic textures against a particularly raw human vocal or a real
I had a rule with myself during the recording
that I would only do two takes of the vocals. I‘d sing it once and it would
usually suck, and then the second take I would use - good or bad. Even if the
pitch or intonation was off. The only exception was if I sang the wrong words.
I wanted to express a kind of vulnerability—the idea that I was a person trying
to keep my head above water, living in this machine which was moving forward.
As for other bands, I like Ministry. They
basically established industrial music in America. They put the anger and aggression
element into electronic music. I mean, the first electronic music that I got
into wasn‘t Throbbing Gristle. It was more like Human League and Devo. Then you
had the people who developed electronic personalities because their music was
electronic - Gary Numan, Kraftwerk - very emotionless.
Today, you have people who just want to follow
the technology rather than innovate with it. The people who arrange Paula Abdul
or Madonna - they just buy the gear, read the manual and make the sounds it
tells them they can make. That‘s why all the dance club bits sound the same.
M2: Let‘s talk more
about “the ghost in the machine.“ I‘m interested in cybemetics—the sustainable
relationship between humans and machines. I think there‘s a soulfulness and a
dynamic on your first album which can only arise from a give-and-take
relationship between humans and electronics. What other goals did you have for
this first record?
TR: Basically to suck in a lot of people - get
their attention. [Laughter] I had well-known
producers - Adrian Sherwood (Cabaret Voltaire and Ministry), Flood (Nitzer Ebb,
Depeche Mode), Keith LeBlanc (Tackhead), John Fryer (Cocteau Twins). That
helped. I think a lot of people who bought the record were surprised that these
people were involved with a project that was different than most stuff in the
genre. Our live shows are very different from the records. I could have just
gone out with tape machines or fifty keyboards and recreated the sound of the
record. But I‘m more interested in the challenge of having four musicians
interpret what was initially composed by one person on a computer. That way I‘m
not bored, there‘s a lot of interaction, and it‘s a unique interpretation of my
music. The record is me at home masturbating into a computer; the shows are me
masturbating into an audience. [Laughter]
M2: [Sarcastically] Oh, what fun!
Everybody bring your raincoat.
Whipped Cream &
M2: I want to read you something about your
show from an industrial music topic I started on a computer network. Since I‘ve
never seen you live, I asked if anyone had and what it was like. Here‘s what
one women said:
“Hard to describe. Intense. Very intense. It
lasted an hour but that was plenty. Lights. Volume. He threw cornstarch and
chocolate syrup on the band members and the audience. Many members of the
audience stage-dove. The set was like a jungle gym and he clambered and wound himself
around various parts of it. The songs all sound torturous, anyway, and he wrung
them out of his body. I expected blood, really.“
TR: [Laughs] Well, that‘s a flattering
M2: What‘s with the cornstarch and chocolate
TR: When we started out and needed to get press
photos taken, we knew we didn‘t want to pose like pretty boys. We got this
photographer - Jeffrey Silverthorne from Ohio—who was doing pictures of people
covered in cornstarch. They‘re photographed really high contrast so they look
almost corpse-like. Most of his work is of nudes. There‘s something really
disturbing about them. Eerie. So, as a result of working with him, I just came
out with this box of cornstarch for our first show and doused everybody. We
looked really creepy and stupid, but we seemed to pull it off. It looks great
under the lights, grungy - a sort of anti-Bon Jovi thing. Towards the end of
the tour, it started getting progressively more ridiculous: you know, “How can
we outdo the night before?“ We were breaking things on stage.
One night I was in a 7-11 before the show and I
saw this big thing of chocolate syrup and I got an idea. During a certain point
in the show, I always molest the guitar player in some fashion. I said to him
“Rich, tonight I‘ve got a surprise for you, don‘t worry, it‘ll be cool.“ He
says, “What is it? You‘re going to make me look like an idiot and my brother‘s
going to be there.“ This point in the show is when things lighten up a bit;
there‘s a break from the violent intensity. I pulled out two things of
chocolate syrup and started pouring them over his head. It looked cooler than I
could‘ve possibly imagined. It totally dripped all over his guitar, everywhere.
The roadies are saying: [deep, gruff voice] “Fuck this! This isn‘t in my
So, of course, it had to go even farther. The
next night, in LA, there was a wall of security guys in front of the stage so
that I couldn‘t see the audience and the audience couldn‘t see me. At one point
I stopped the show and said “What the fuck are you doing? Does anyone here
wanna see these fuckin‘ guys?“ At the end of the show, I found out that there
was this big hump in the dance floor that they were trying to keep people from
walking onto. So I apologized to them and we became good friends. The next
night (at the same place) the security guys brought out ten heavy naked girls,
and my road manager covered them with whipped cream. It was totally bizarre and
M2: Where did the
naked women come from?
TR: Apparently they were stripper friends of
the security people. Did you see the Hard Copy interview with us? They did a
story on us because of that whole video scandal. They ran this totally
ridiculous story. I think they may have been there filming that night, but I
don‘t think they got the part with the nude women. [During the filming of NIN‘s video for “Down in It,“ the filmmakers tied
a camera onto a helium balloon to film Trent lying on the ground covered with
cornstarch. The balloon camera got away and ended up landing in a farmer‘s
field. People thought they had found a tape showing some sort of ritual murder
and all media hell broke loose.]
Blood & Chocolate
M2: Speaking of
extremes, how extreme are you willing to get in your quest for release? That
comment above, “I expected blood. Really.“ Are you going to continue to raise
TR: When I‘m on stage some thing else takes
over and I do things that I know I shouldn‘t do. Not in terms of hurting myself
or anyone, but smashing things. I mean, I‘m not interested in slicing myself
open like Iggy Pop, if that‘s what you‘re asking.
M2: Well, I was just
reading an interview with Al Jourgensen (Ministry) and Nivek Ogre (Skinny
Puppy) and they were talking about bloodletting on stage.
What!? I hadn‘t heard that. What does the audience do - wear rubber gloves and
stuff to protect themselves?
M2: Oh, that‘s right. It better be safe
bloodletting. The entire audience dressed in rubber and PVC. [Laughter]