How did the proponents of a critically despised
genre keep their album on the charts for over a year and put a T-shirt on the
back every other Lollapaloozer? Trent Reznor, wild-eyed CEO of industrial superpower
Nine Inch Nails, debriefs Jim Geer.
New Orleans, city of institutionalized decay,
seems at first an odd place for industrial music's leading light to call home.
You'd think the practitioner of a noise so forward-looking, energetic, and
technocentric would pick somewhere less nostalgia-bound, lazy, and decrepit to
hang his computer cables. But driving around in Trent Reznor's decidedly high
tech Sony 2600ZM (or whatever), past the gracefully crumbling verandas of the
Garden District ("There's Anne Rice's house - and there's the carriage
house where the Vampire Lestat lived") and on into the vibrant French
Quarter, you get a sense of the town's dark, almost gothic appeal. And even
though Reznor's not quite the self obsessed, tormented poet type he's at times
been depicted as, this side of New Orleans suits him. There's a deeply warm,
life-affirming quality to the city - surprising amid all that decay - which
also finds an analog in Trent's character. As well as his music. Which is not
something I came here expecting to find out.
But then I'm not really sure what I did expect.
I was looking for the hidden motor that drives the phenomenon of industrial
music, which, however loosely (and inappropriately) defined, is currently
threatening heavy metal and rap for musical dominance - and cultural relevance
- in suburban neighborhoods across the country. It's not yet there, wherever
'there' is, but incrementally and almost without notice in the mainstream
media, industrial has become the music of choice for an increasingly
disaffected stratum of middle-American youth. It's gone without notice partly
because it's not an urban phenomenon, and partly because the genre has in the
past been largely written off as worthless by mainstream critics like, well,
Which I guess was not a good idea, huh? To me
it's always promising for any form of music when it becomes popular despite
lack of critical attention, and that's precisely what's happened to industrial
in general. And especially to Nine Inch Nails. Twenty-six-year-old Reznor's
one-man project (fleshed out onstage by hired guns) is the most successful
industrial act in the world right now. The band has one LP out, 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, which has currently
sold somewhere on the order of half a million - astounding for a band on an
independent label. But when Pretty Hate Machine
came out, we didn't review it in SPIN, I'd never even seen the band play live
until Lollapalooza, at which time I was formally converted to Naildom, or
whatever they'll eventually call it. With their genuinely unhinged rock'n'roll
futurism, NIN blew away every other act in the festival, including headliners
Jane's Addiction. Older audience members were moved to awestruck comparisons
with the Stooges or the early Who - the under-30's just realized this stuff
So you'd have to figure Reznor would have some
insight into the process by which this happened. I mean, what kinds of people
are buying his records, what type of person is into industrial music these
days? Look at the way the moshers at Lollapalooza punched the air and shouted
along with "Head like a hole / Black as your soul / I'd rather die than
give you control!" It's the new heavy metal, isn't it?
"I see what you're saying," says
Reznor thoughtfully, slowly guzzling a Bud, "and in some ways I agree that
the buzz of this little sub-genre is getting bigger. I think people look at
Nine Inch Nails as the pop forefront of that - the doorway into the m ore
legitimate or obscure industrial bands. But I don't think the genre as a whole
is solidified enough; I don't think there're enough good industrial bands right
now to start up a big thing. If I look at all the bands that influenced me at
the time I w as doing the record - like Ministry - they either don't exist or they
mutated into something else. Which I think is cool, but it's far from what
stimulated me into wanting to do this."
Any discussion of the music's shortcomings,
though, is dependent on the individual's definition of the ambiguous term
"Have you noticed that when you call a
band 'industrial' a lot of them will cringe?" asks Trent, grinning slyly. Uh, yeah.
"Well, I don't mind the term applied to
us, but I think the reason people cringe is what it connotes - Throbbing
Gristle, Test Dept. - bands NIN has very little in common with. What is
industrial, then? I'd basically define it as dance music that's a b it harder,
a bit tougher, definitely with a drum machine, maybe some distorted vocals. I
was a fan of that stuff. I was a Wax Trax record buyer when I was making Pretty Hate Machine. I always like stuff
that was computer-based, where you can tie in t he technology with music. It
was a fresh, new thing that couldn't have happened before.
"And I still like it even though now it's
become mainstream and you can buy a drum machine for a hundred bucks, and
everybody in the world has a computer and a sequencer. Because I think that
there are still a lot of avenues that haven't been explored that are - I don't
know to say this - a way of doing this new thing that I'm into, and that
obviously a lot of people are into.
"I mean, I'm really into old David Bowie
stuff for what it was, I'm really into Led Zeppelin or whatever. But I'm not
going to have a band that tries to sound like that because it's been done. I
never liked the Beatles. If you're going to have a band that is guitar, bass,
drum, and vocal, try to do something different with it instead of trying to
sound like every other band that uses the same equipment and plays the same
"I think my affiliation with so-called
industrial bands now is, I like the energy. I always liked the fact that it was
electronic, but it wasn't Thompson Twins. It wasn't where Devo went with it. It
was something that was kind of cool."
Granted that the sort of industrial music Nine
Inch Nails produces isn't nearly the impersonal, dehumanized, microchip-groove
stuff that drives most industrial detractors back to their Creedence records,
it bears enough superficial similarities to standard grade, Wax Trax-issue
industrial that you can call it that without getting, like, shot. But it's
certainly true that what was initially labeled "industrial" - the
heavy, experimental, nondance-oriented work of party animals like Throbbing
Gristle, Test Dept., and SPK - has mutated to the point where today, as Trent
says, "If you ask an average concertgoer to name an industrial band, it
won't be Throbbing Gristle. It'll be Ministry, Front 242, Meat Beat Manifesto,
us." And even within these fairly narrow parameters, generalization can be
dangerous. While a great deal of cross- pollination does seem to go on -
members of one outfit forming a side project with those of another ("Hey
guys, I brought my disc - let's jam!") - the frontiers of what is
considered industrial are constantly being pushed.
The industrial scene is atomizing at a rate,
and with a degree of innovation, not uncommon in an ascendant culture. By now
there are countless groups who could conceivably be called industrial - anyone,
really, who uses instruments Jimi Hendrix wouldn't recognize - and almost none
who want to be. 'Industrial' has become the kind of meaningless catch-all term
that new wave once was; but the very process of diversification has broadened
the appeal of the music and, if anything, strengthened its identity. "Any
genre has to broaden itself and sort of bastardize into new forms if it's going
to stay healthy," says Reznor.
So how, given all this rampant health, and the
now-too-big-to-ignore popular appeal, and the musical innovation involved, did
the mainstream media manage to miss the train?
"It think there are several blows against
it to start with," comments Reznor. "One is, electronic music in
general has never been legitimate. I live that down every time we do a show.
What the fuck is the problem? You get this mentality of, 'It's bad.' Well, on
the other hand, a lot of electronic music _is_ bad.
"For every band that I think has something
to say, like Ministry, or Meat Beat Manifesto, there's twice as many that have
realized the formula for industrial music: repetitive 16th-note bass lines,
snarling vocals - usually unintelligible screaming about the horrible condition
of the planet or some kind of doomsday message about how shitty things are.
'Cool, we're there.'
"Front Line Assembly is a textbook case of
a band that - I can't listen to a fucking song, let alone an album. Just
monotonous, boring, uninspired bullshit. And they're far more traditional and
far more exemplary of 'industrial' than NIN is."
Another reason for the lack of mainstream
recognition is probably the makeup of industrial's audience. The worship of
this music takes place far from the temple of the media, and therefore, as far
as those temple' keepers are concerned, its disciples might as well not exist.
"Yeah," concurs Reznor, "oddly
enough our popularity doesn't revolve around urban centers. One of our biggest
areas is Salt Lake City. Who the fuck would think anybody's out there? We're
like Bon Jovi in Salt Lake City.
"My theory on that whole thing, and I
could be completely wrong, is that when you take an area like Salt Lake City or
Tulsa or someplace out in the middle of nowhere, I've found the people I've met
there to be more truly weird than anyone I've met in New York or L.A. or San
Francisco. Because there's nothing to do and they, it's - I think when they
find some way to rebel they go full out at it, you know, because their Mormon
parents or whatever the fuck the situation is, are stifling them. Isolationism,
being nowhere - people get really weird. We've run into weird Devil-cult shit
and everything else out there. Not anywhere else."
Um, "weird Devil-cult shit"?
"Well, it's weird when you play a show
somewhere and there's a disproportionate number of people backstage talking
about how they're witches. And that there's a cool place to go - 'Hey, you guys
want to go out tonight after the show?' 'Yeah, where?' ' Well, there's a great
place. There's this old abandoned church that these satanic cults hang out at.'
It's not, 'Let's go down to the bar.' It's like, 'Let's go out and slaughter a
cow.' What the fuck? It's the last thing you're expecting.
"And they assume that you must be into
that. I've got someone coming up to me saying, 'The promoter is telling
everyone you're a warlock.' I think a lot of spare time breeds incredible
weirdness. They're looking for some way to rebel. I don't know."
Is that what industrial music gives them?
"Well, yeah, I think because it's not
legitimate and by legitimate I mean SPIN and Rolling Stone have not embraced
it, so, 'This is cool.'"
So we're killing it right now.
"Perhaps. Maybe I've been the worst
culprit in that. Taking it to a major tour, giving it out to the people and
making it not their private little possession anymore."
Almost directly after Lollapalooza, Reznor took
up new fan Axl Rose's offer to open for Guns N' Roses at a couple of stadium
shows in Europe. The experience turned out to be "one in a long history of
miscalculations I've made with this band," according to Reznor. The
differences between traditional heavy metal audiences and the industrial
audience were painfully spelled out for him on this sorry venture.
"People were just starting to hear of us
over there 'cause our record just came out. Our American label did not license
the music over there until about two years after it came out. I'd kind of gone
into it, like, 'Well, we did Lollapalooza and that worked out okay and in the
big picture it benefited us and, well, what's the difference?' Well, it was a
_big_ difference. It was the worst of situations. It was us, Skid Row, Guns N'
Roses. I like Guns N' Roses for what they do. Skid Row, however, is the epitome
of what I don't like about spandex rock. Poseur toughness, bullshit. I hate
"So we open up. First song, people are,
like, 'Yeah, there's a band onstage,' and they're slowly realizing that we're
not Skid Row. Second song, 'Okay, these guys are not Skid Row and I _think_ i
hear a synthesizer.' Third song, 'We definitely hear a synthesizer - this is
bullshit. These guys suck, they're faggots, let's kick their ass.' There is
something about the feeling of standing in front of 65,000 people giving you
the finger ... An intense terror took over. In a word, it sucks."
From there, things went rapidly downhill ...
"I decided just to make it the worst half
hour of this crowd's life. The point when it actually became humorous was when
I saw a sausage flying up onstage at the show in Germany. A link sausage. But
we got off the stage with our lives. Another sad moment at that date was toward
the end of the set I actually saw one poor fucker with a NIN shirt, holding it
up. Seconds later, I just saw a scuffling and no more NIN shirt."
Maybe that's because they all wanted it.
"We did somehow sell eight T-shirts that
night. Eight out of sixty-five thousand, that's not a bad ratio. It also made
me realize that I'm not trying to be all things to all people."
But isn't Nine Inch Nails becoming more things
to more people, regardless?
"Yeah, and a lot of the new fans I just
can't relate to. And the people that you meet at shows tend to be ignorant.
Every day you meet somebody out there that's like, 'Dude, man, I know what
you're talking about. On "Down in It", you're talking about taking
acid, dude, I feel exactly the same way!' It's like, what am I doing? But I
realize that those people are out there.
"The only that that's disheartening about
that is that I know where this band is going and I know how much harder we're
getting. When I put out Pretty Hate Machine
I thought it was a pretty bold record at the time; I listen to it now and it
seems really light. It seems real sterile. I've interpreted the songs a million
times onstage and if I did that record now it would probably sound a lot
different. But I didn't, and I just want to put it behind me. Now, I see a lot
of our newest fans are attaching themselves to a side of NIN that doesn't exist
Someone suggested to me that the NIN phenomenon
comes from Depeche Mode fans looking for something harder. Reznor has no truck
with this glib theory, but he seems vaguely idealistic as to the roots of his
bands powerful allure.
"I would like to think if you took a cross
section of my fans and asked them why they like my music and you took a cross
section of Skid Row fans and asked them why they liked their music, I'd like to
think that my fans have much more integrity."
But where's the "integrity" in liking
a band? Whether it's Color Me Bad or Slayer, surely you just like them because
you like them, whatever the reasons.
"I would rather that someone likes Nine
Inch Nails because it connected with them in some way. 'I really like that
song,' rather than 'You're so fuckin' pretty' or 'His hair is so nice.' I
thought that when I looked at the G N' R audience. It was like , lowest common denominator.
Every burn-out guy from high school was at that concert. They're wearing their
Van Halen 1979 three-quarter-sleeve tour T-shirts, you know? They're still
there, even in Germany, they're still smoking pot, you know. That's not
anything against G N' R but that whole bulk of people, I tend to think their
minds are so close."
But as Nine Inch Nails gets more popular -
you're moving into the mainstream - it must be appealing to some of those same
kids. What about the music appeals to even burn-out kid in a Van Halen T-shirt?
"I was one of them at one point. I know
that mentality. I'm sure a lot of people are into the band because it seems
like it's the cool little trend to be into. Probably if you're suburban, Nine
Inch Nails or that ilk of electronic music is cool to like, and it's safe. It's
not fuckin' hardcore. It's accessible. There's something to grasp onto."
Later that evening, sitting in one of the few
quiet French Quarter bars to be found on a Saturday night, Trent and I discuss
our mutual love for Queen ("I was more affected by Freddie Mercury's death
than by John Lennon's," quoth Reznor), his new pal Rick Rubin, the
indisputable fact that dogs are cooler than cats, and Nine Inch Nails' record
company woes. There may be a new NIN record out by the fall of this year, but,
well, relations with TVT Records are strained to say the least. Not surprising,
since Trent claims that when he delivered Pretty
Hate Machine he waited two weeks before the company told him the record was
a "complete abortion."
As I grew progressively wiser, or at least
drunker (hell, he was buying), it occurred to me that Trent Reznor was a
sweetheart of an ex-classic rocker from Cleveland who ended up with a hit
record and a lot of unwanted critical analysis of his "place" in the
industrial music "spectrum." Ha ha, too bad for him. And, further,
that was exactly why he was the man for the job as spokesman for the industrial
revolution - his reluctance lent credence to his observations. Having come to
this brilliant conclusion, Trent and I headed back to his car. We decided to
climb a fence to get there and I ripped a big-as-frig hole in my new jeans. Ha
ha, too bad for me.