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Jahr 1993

 

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Januar 1993

 

 Driving Nine Inch Nails

 

  Words: Bill Flanagan

 

 

 

 

Trent Reznor sits in the corner of a dark room, looks at the floor and says, „I think my main problem was, my whole life’s goal was to attain where I was last year. I never thought I’d get there. I always thought I’d be happy if I got to that stage. I’m probably more fucked up and miserable, in a way. Okay, now my job is making music. Great, I don’t have to worry about working in a music store or something. But it wasn’t his fulfillment. The wind got out of the sails because right while this was happening the bottom fell out of the business side. It didn’t give me any moment to enjoy it. Which is probably good artistically in the long run.” The sad thing is, Reznor’s probably right. While a musician with his vision could probably make something worth hearing out if any mood, artistic misery has served Nine Inch Nails well. And Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails.

Here‘s his story for those who came in late. In the late ‘80s Reznor sent a demo of his self-made music to TVT Records in New York, an indie label whose great success had been with compilations of television theme songs (“ Gilligan‘s Island,“ “Mr. Ed“ etc. TVT stands for “TV Toons“). TVT owner Steve Gottlieb signed the one-man band, though, according to Reznor, Gottlieb proceeded to object to everything Reznor wanted his album to be, from the title, Pretty Hate Machine, on. Nonetheless, the album generated positive word of mouth and began slowly selling. From 1989 until 1992, Pretty Hate Machine became a fixture on the Billboard charts, eventually selling dose to a million copies. That‘s why last year should have been the best time in Reznor‘s life.

The reason it wasn‘t is the reason Reznor was horrified this afternoon when he realized Musician had scheduled his interview and photo shoot for a studio located upstairs from TVT‘s Greenwich Village headquarters. Just coincidence, but when Reznor says that if he bumps into Gottlieb in the elevator he‘ll kill him, it‘s only half a joke. To make a very long story short, Reznor came to mistrust every aspect of TVT‘s operation, from their creative ideas to their bookkeeping. After a series of escalating arguments, Reznor exploded when TVT withdrew permission for him to make an uncredited guest appearance on a one-off recording by Ministry‘s Al Jourgensen. Reznor wanted off TVT, and a lot of big labels wanted Reznor. But there was no way in hell Gottlieb was going to let his cash cow go. Thus began the Bat of Nine Inch Nails. Reznor refused to give TVT another album and kept a touring version of Nine Inch Nails on the road (including the 1991 Lollapalooza Tour) to pay his lawyers.

“People have been on my shit for milking Pretty Hate Machine for so many years,“ Reznor says. “Which isn‘t all any fault. I couldn‘t put a record out. It was a terrible thing because on one hand your career‘s taking off, people like you. On the other hand, you‘re chained to a bad record deal and not able to do anything. Pretty soon we‘d just fade out of people‘s eyes and be in the Where Are They Now category.“

Enter Jimmy Iovine, legendary record producer and—these days—president of Interscope Records. Iovine was determined to sign Nine Inch Nails, but so were a lot of other record executives. When it became clear that Gottlieb would not let go of his prize, lovine got the idea of Interscope buying TVT to get the band. During months of bi-coastal negotiation, other Interscope executives began to question Iovine‘s obsession with landing Nine Inch Nails. Iovine would tell them, “Listen—they‘re another U2,“ and get back on the plane.

Actually, Iovine was not the only big shot to have the brain storm of acquiring financial interest in TVT in get Trent Reznor. The trouble, as a rival label president explained, was that any other record executive would be seen by Reznor as an ally of Gottlieb. Iovine—an acclaimed record maker who had stood with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty through similar legal wars—could win Reznor‘s trust because he could make a convincing case for being an ally of the musician against Gottlieb.

“They kicked the door open,“ Reznor says of Iovine and Interscope. “They joined forces with TVT, which initially made us think they were the enemy. But upon calming down I realized that all our plans had in shift. And they have been totally cool in me. I deliver them a record mastered, finished. I deliver them whatever 12-inch singles we want to put out, I deliver them videos. It cuts this third wheel that always caused problems out of the loop.“

So recently, when the last hands were shaken and the last agreements signed, Reznor told Interscope he had a surprise for them—a new Nine Inch Nails EP to put out immediately (an album will follow in spring of ‘93). If there was one final test of Interscope‘s good intentions, that EP was it. Broken is a harsh, screaming assault from start to finish. Reznor unleashes all his pent-up fury through four proper songs, two instrumental bridges and—just when you think it‘s safe to put the crystal back on the shelf—two unlisted bonus tracks.

“On this Broken EP,“ Reznor says of himself and his co-producer, “Flood and I kind of went crazy. We were both in foul moods and wanted to make a record that was pretty difficult to listen to. It became difficult to do it, and to listen to the songs all day long created ear fatigue and tension. And where we did it was horribly depressing. We recorded up in Lake Geneva, a resort town outside of Chicago. It was like The Shining.

“Arrangement-wise, we would start with what I thought was a good song—let‘s say ‘Gave Up,‘ the last song, which is probably my favorite. I had a good guitar riff, a vocal that I liked and a good chorus. Then we just ruined it by arranging it in such a fashion that... it‘s still there but it‘s not. If it was in Pretty Hate Machine‘s world the vocals would be way up on top, all the little bits that are juicy would be right where you could get at them. Instead, they‘re about 10 levels in. The hook‘s there, but the guitar sound is so fucked up that you can‘t even hear what it‘s playing unless you fill in the blanks with your mind. The lyrics are fairly indecipherable, the vocals are back three notches instead of on top. And that carried through the whole EP. I guess it was kind of a test. I don‘t know. It was me flexing a muscle.

“I wrote the songs on guitar instead of keyboards to give myself a new challenge. I realized if I sat down at the drum machine I would churn out more songs that resemble what I‘ve done in the past. When Flood and I started in arrange and program, my original idea went from being a very straightforward guitar/bass/drum thing to sort of psychotically adding part upon part upon part. Both of us were in a shitty mood and we were in a horrible studio in the middle of nowhere, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. The end result I think is fairly indigestible the first couple of times around. But if you give it a chance, I think there‘s some stuff in there.“

He‘s right, there is some stuff in there. Although Broken‘s sheer aural audacity will break any lease, the more you hear it, the more the songs emerge from the stew, and the better those songs sound. Thematically, Reznor has moved from being mad with the world (the general attitude of Pretty Hate Machine) in being mad with the world and himself. There‘s a lot less anger at the silence of God and stupidity of authority, and a lot more exploration of how often one‘s real enemy is oneself. On Pretty Hate Machine‘s “Head Like a Hole“ Reznor screamed, “I‘d rather die than give you control.“ On Broken‘s “Happiness in Slavery“ he wakes up in the fact that he‘s been giving people control over his life since he was born.

Any Pretty Hate fans who are stunned by Broken (and there must be a lot of them—the EP debuted at number seven on the charts and immediately started falling) probably did not see the live band version of Nine Inch Nails, which occupied Reznor‘s energy during the years he was on strike against TVT. Under that group‘s nightly assault the Pretty Hate Machine songs were ripped open and their guts exposed. The live, unrecorded Nine Inch Nails was the missing link between the alone-in-the-darkness of Pretty Hate Machine and the screaming-in-the-fire of Broken. “I look at Broken as the third step in Nine Inch Nails,“ Reznor says.

Still, Reznor says that none of the touring band were under any illusion that they would have a part to play in the studio. The idea of Nine Inch Nails as a band was for public consumption; it was never a reality. “I want to give the impression that it is a band,“ Reznor says, “‘Cause I like to hide behind that. But I never worked with those people on songwriting. I need the control, I have to get the thing out the way I want it to be. But at the same time, I miss the camaraderie of a band. I have my own studio now which allows me the time to get a guitar player and drummer together and play for a week on some ideas, and if it works, record it and that will be incorporated into the record. But to say, ‘Okay, we‘re a democracy now, let‘s all join in...‘ I‘ve just found that anytime I start to share responsibilities I am ultimately disappointed. I don‘t know if I expect too much. I‘m the closest one to Nine Inch Nails. I‘ve put the most work into it. It‘s not that I want the credit, I don‘t care about that. Honestly. But I do care about it enough that I want it to be done right. I can‘t just say, ‘Let‘s all dick around with the songs and then vote on it.“

Sure, but other bandleaders, from Ray Davies to Bob Mould, find a road between democracy and working alone. Reznor nods. “I think a lot of other bands have an advantage on me of an experience I don‘t have—of interaction with people. I‘m trying to figure out how it works. In some ways it‘s good we weren‘t on the typical band schedule of put a record out, tour, second record, tour. There was a time about a year after Pretty Hate Machine came out when people started liking it, when I honestly didn‘t know what I‘d do next. Because I didn‘t know why they liked it. I went through that thing: ‘I like it but I don‘t understand. What was good about that? Well, I should probably incorporate those good elements into...‘ Since I had plenty of time to think, I realized that when I did that record it was really honest to me. That was the thing I wanted to keep for anything Nine Inch Nails does in die future, whether people like it or not. I didn‘t expect them to like the first one.

“The record I‘m working on now is going to turn out a lot differently than Broken. It‘s not necessarily going to be harder, meaner, but I think a lot less polished. I decided to start this new record by myself. I wanted to get a studio in a house to make myself learn the engineering side of it, which I think will make a less polished sounding record, but possibly more interesting and unusual-sounding, which in turn will probably limit the commercial appeal further because it sounds less conventional. Of course, that‘s also one more thing on the pile of responsibility. It may slow things down, we‘ll see, but so far it‘s going all right. If I get stuck and I think it sucks, I‘ll call for help.“

Reznor has set himself a series of rules for this new album. Some are thematic—he wants the record to follow a sequence and he‘s writing songs to fit the overall arch. “Musically,“ he says, “I want to use other people—possibly no drum machine, we‘ll see. I don‘t want to get away from electronics. I don‘t think it‘s cool to discard everything like that just because it‘s out of fashion now. 1 want to be tougher, sol want real drums on everything.“

Grateful as he is to be free of record company wars and able to make his music again, Reznor always has new problems to face. Some record stores are charging album prices for the Broken EP, leading Nine Inch Nails fans to think they‘re buying a hill album and leaving them disappointed. Things may get further confused with the release of Fixed, a collection of Broken tracks remixed by some of Reznor‘s favorite producers. When the new album is finally finished, Nine Inch Nails will head out on tour for what Reznor hopes will be a long-delayed catharsis. He needs the visceral release of shouting at his audience and seeing them shout back. He needs the camaraderie of a band. Trent Reznor needs to get some positive feedback. He is hurt by underground rock fans who now consider Nine Inch Nails too popular to be hip.

“If you‘re in that alternative world,“ Reznor says, “with record sales which cap oft at about one to two hundred thousand, and you haven‘t been embraced by MTV and radio, it‘s easy to stay at that level and maintain your integrity and fans still like you. You get big and your base collapses because they all feel betrayed. I was guilty of that as a consumer, but it‘s weird to see we‘re now at that level where people that put you up there are die first to be catching the next train out, because people that aren‘t that cool are learning about you. It‘s kind of disheartening. I would assume Nirvana are going through that, too.

“There‘s a troubling climate with MTV right now. If your number comes up on the roulette wheel, that‘s good—but is it good? Where does Pearl Jam go from here? The thrill of it‘s gone, I think. For example, who wants to go see INXS live, when every 10 minutes their video‘s on TV? I‘m like, STOP, you know? I don‘t think anything on Broken would be able to do that anyway, but my biggest fear would be getting into that sort of mass overload where people go, ‘I used in like the song but I‘m sick of it, it‘s on every five minutes.‘ To make sure that won‘t happen we‘ve done some things in make sure we don‘t get played. We just did a video for ‘Happiness in Slavery‘ that won‘t get shown on MTV. There‘s no chance.”

That‘s the understatement of the week. The video shows a naked man strapped to a torture machine being systematically dismembered. Nice close-ups of metal claws tearingins nipples and testicles. Talk about testing Interscope‘s dedication!

“It‘s extreme,“ Reznor says, “but if I saw that I‘d say, ‘Yeah!‘ It doesn‘t stop even at the point of good taste. It goes over. When you saw Madonna‘s ‘Erotica‘ video you were let down. After all that [hype] when I saw her Sex book, I wanted in see come shots, I wanted to see bestiality.“

Reznor smiles, sighs and looks up. “I threw my life out of balance when I started doing this,“ he says, “as I‘m sure all musicians do. I‘m not very well-rounded and I can‘t maintain a personal life very actively and try to make a record that takes every waking minute of my consciousness. I‘ve just been trying to figure out what I really want in do and coming to terms with realizing that I can‘t be well-rounded for several years. I want to dedicate the next x number of years of my life in pushing it in the ultimate extreme of what I can do musically, and then at some point say, ‘I can‘t stand it any more, I‘m going in shift gears.‘

“There‘s a lot of fun things,“ he adds, “a lot of  cool things, but I can‘t say I feel totally fulfilled in life. I‘m now envious of my friends who have normal lives, who are envious of me because I‘m on a magazine somewhere. I‘m not bitching, I‘m just coming to terms.“

Broken Equipment

Making Broken, Trent Reznor relied most on a Macintosh Quadra with Opcode‘s Studio Vision. “Studio Vision is the ultimate recording tool for me,“ Reznor says. “It changed the way I write “ Also in Reznor‘s quiver are two Akai S-1100 samplers, a Mini Moog, a Prophet VS, “a lot of Oberheim Expander,“ a Sequential Circuits Pm-1 and an Arp 2600. On his guitars Reznor uses a Zoom 9030, which he also uses to record his voice (“It‘s the secret to all my vocals“). And which guitar might that be, Trent? A Gibson Explorer through a Demeter tube preamp (“also great for vocals“) and a Marshall 9000 series amp. Reznor‘s strings are GHS Boomers. His main vocal mike is an AKG 414. He also has a Fender Precision bass which he runs through  “a Demeter tube direct thing.“ Okay, what are we forgetting? Trent sits back and lets his mind wander through his studio. He sees an Eventide H3500, Digidesign Pro-Tools, an Opcode Studio 5 and Turbo Synth software. Reznor‘s latest purchase is an AMEC Mozart Console.

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