Nine Inch Nails have
taken eighties electronic body music and reintroduced guitar and drums; they‘ve
then mixed it with elements of an MTV oriented indie-pop, a sense of the austere,
a grandiose pomp-rock attitude, and the melancholia of lyrics that conjure up
images as dark and brooding as any Joy Division ever established. The product
that emerges has been described variously as an avant -garde industrial for the
nineties and a cynical, designer hybrid of various popular styles, cleverly disguised
and called “alternative‘ Whatever the case is, and regardless of our own
opinions, there can be no denying the phenomenal rise of Nine Inch Nails since
1989. Throughout that time the outspoken Trent Reznor has remained at the helm,
but the old adage that behind every successful frontman there is a drummer
rings true - lurking in the shadows throughout NIN ‘s career has been the
master percussionist himself, Chris Vrenna...
Andrez - Chris, I‘m aware that you‘re the
drummer with Nine Inch Nails, but what other roles do you fulfil in the band?
Chris - Oh my god... Well... let’s see... (he
laughs) Well, I do interviews!
Andrez - Wow, elaborate!
Chris - Oh yeah! ...When were off the road, so
much of our work is done on computers that Trent and I do a lot of stuff in the
studio. So a lot of times there’ll be two or three of us in the studio working
away. There‘s always things to do.
Andrez - I suppose one of the more obvious and
immediate things to ask you is how you feel working with Trent Reznor himself...
Chris - Well, I‘ve known him for a long, long time! (he chuckles to himself,
perhaps recalling a couple of incidents along the way). We grew up in Pennsylvania together, and I‘ve known Trent for eight or nine years - something
like that. We did a couple of local band things together in Cleveland, before Nine Inch Nails was ever
dreamed up. He’s my best friend; I‘ve known him for a long time.
Andrez - Right... Chris, a lot of N.I.N.’s
lyrics have much to gripe about, and seem to paint a picture of being at pain
with the world. The lyrics on “Pretty Hate Machine“ reflect this, and your most
recent album “The Downward Spiral“ is no exception - you know, stuff like “I
drag you down and use you up“ on “Mr Self Destruct“, “God is dead‘, “I wanna
fuck you like an animal“, and all that. Trent writes all those lyrics. Is he as
miserable as he sounds?
Chris - Well, um... not always! (we both
laugh). His lyrics are the most personal part of him that I know of. The two of
us were living in Los Angeles doing “Downward Spiral“, and like we were living
in the house with the video in the living room, and we recorded the entire record in that living room.
But when it came to the lyrics, he would literally lock himself up in the house
by himself, often for days at a time, and just write. When he felt comfortable
with the lyrics had written, it was only then that he‘d come out and let me or
Flood or whoever was there have a read. I think that’s his way of venting all
those negative sides that I think everyone kind of has a little bit of inside
Andrez - Do you think Trent would be capable of writing about
all those joyful things in life...?
Chris - Umm... (pauses to think about it) Quite
possibly, I suppose - I doubt it, but maybe! (he laughs again). I guess the
music and the band itself is such a release mechanism for all of us that we
tend to save up all the negative stuff, and so the band becomes a sort of tool
for everybody when we‘re playing live on tour or even recording. It’s only when
we get away from it that we really become normal.
Andrez - Because Nine Inch Nails is therefore
such a focus for negativity, do you think it‘s a positive experience for the
audience to unleash things in basically such a selfish way?
Chris - Oh, absolutely, especially live. Our
shows are very cathartic, because they so emotionally draining and also
emotionally charged. We get a big buzz out of the crowd, and they all scream
the lyrics along with us, sometimes louder than we’re playing; it just feeds back
and forth off each other. It becomes a very physical and violent sort of a
show, within ourselves and within the crowd and everything, and when it‘s all
over, yeah, I think everybody feels better. The biggest compliment the band
ever got and luckily this hasn‘t happened too many tines - is that people who
say they were going through a very bad time, like trying to kill themselves or
overdose or something like this, have listened to Nine Inch Nails and it‘s
really helped them out because they can relate with certain lyrics. I guess that’s
the ultimate compliment if someone says your song has quite literally saved
that person‘s life.
Andrez - I guess so. Chris, in your own opinion
how would you say N.I.N. has developed since “Pretty Hate Machine“?
Chris - Well, like anybody I suppose we matured
a lot. The songs on ‘Pretty Hate Machine“ were really good Pop songs, and much
more pop-oriented. Instrumentally, they probably a little light now, looking
back on them. We tried to rehearse some of those songs for this tour, but just
decided that there‘s no way we could ever play them live again. We‘ve grown
beyond them, in away. “Downward Spiral“ was a definite change. Trent really wanted to focus more on
moods on this record, even more so than other things, and so lyrically it gets
really dark and really down at points. But, on a whole, I think there‘s a
sensation of constant change and progression that we go through with the band.
Trent hates to repeat himself - its
probably the foremost thing that he will never, ever do - so, to do another
record like “Broken“, which you know was very guitar and drums and heavy sounding,
would be impossible for him now. Just like he’ll never do another record like “The
Downward Spiral” again. It puts pressure on us, individually, to always grow
beyond what we just did, and to try something completely different.
Andrez - I was speaking to Bill Leeb of Front
Line Assembly recently about his new album, “Millennium“, which ironically
sounds more like N.I.N. I think than old Front Line stuff...
Chris - Yeah, yeah... It‘s really heavy! I’ve actually
heard it too; it’s really different
Andrez - Yeah, I was quite surprised by it.
Anyway, one of the things Bull and I talked about was Trents comments about Front Line Assembly
in Spin magazine in ‘92...
Chris - Ah...
Andrez - ...And, of course, the whole furore
that resulted from that article. Bill seems to be pretty happy about the outcome
these days, but the question remains - how do you feel about Front Line Assembly?
Chris - Well, yeah, it’s been fine and its
cleared up. Trent felt really bad about the whole thing, because it ended up being highly
misconstrued. You know, people have their own personal tastes when it comes to
music, and somehow that whole thing ended up being blown out; Trent felt really
bad about it, so he tried to send a letter to Bill saying “look, there‘s an
article coming out and it doesn’t sound too good, but...” - and you know how
things get blown out of proportion...
Andrez - So, how would you react if Nine Inch Nails‘
music was described as ‘notorious. boring, uninspired bullshit“?
Chris (laughs) ...Well... (he laughs again) You
Andrez - I guess it‘s another label!
Chris Yeah, and everybody has their own
Andrez - Yeah, exactly. Well, don‘t relax yet
because I‘ve got another one to throw at you! Nine Inch Nails seem to be a band
that’s either loved or loathed, and N.I.N.‘s music was once described here in
Australia, and I quote, as “grand standing, MTV rebellion, cock-rock bullshit“...
Chris - (laughs) Wow!
Andrez - So how do you feel about that kind of
Chris - (still laughing) ...well... I don‘t
know! We do get bad press - the
English press doesn’t like us much. They still call Trent a spoiled, snotty, snivelling
Andrez - That sounds familiar...
Chris - That kind of stuff, but you get used to
it. I guess we all go through phases where you hate being labelled and you
constantly fight it; then you just give up and think “oh well…” Everybody needs
to label something. Industrial is pretty much dead, but if any heavy metal band
uses one sample somewhere then they‘re called industrial. All the monikers are
pretty useless now, but in our case we do have our roots in electronic things,
and we do what we‘d like to do. And, yeah, the songs are written with a pop
sense - that was the thing that Trent and the rest of us have grown up with, so
we like to write from a pop framework. Even though it may be heavy and
“industrial” or whatever, there’s still some sort of hook there and still some
sort of melody, and overall some sort of pop song beneath. I guess it all kind
Andrez - So
what was the kind of music you both grew up with?
Chris - Um, for me heavy metal - like the bad heavy metal of the ‘80s, Black
Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult, and all that...
Andrez - What‘s bad about that?
Chris - I don’t know... I guess its okay, but I
know some people would say its not Slayer or Pantera and all that stuff that we
now know as metal. But I do still listen to Sabbath, and I was also into a lot
of New Wave - early Depeche Mode and Yazoo and Thomas Dolby and all that junk. Pretty
much anything with a drum machine!
Andrez - (laughs) Yeah... Well, anyway,
N.I.N.‘s appearance at Lollapalooza in many ways kick-started the band‘s career
in the ‘States, and it‘s snow-balled from there. How has the whole experience
been like for you personally?
Chris - Interesting... (another of his chuckles
comes across the telephone line). I mean, the first record came out in 1989,
and that Lollapalooza was in 91, so for a couple of years there the band had
been kind of slowly bubbling over in the club scene - and, yeah, that Lollapalooza
appearance did kick things along a bit. It was funny, because we made a video
for “Head Like A Hole“ right back at the beginning of 1990, when we did the
remix for it and the single was released, and MTV would never play it... Then
all of a sudden along comes Lollapalooza, and suddenly it‘s like the buzz-word
- people saying “hot new band Nine Inch Nails”. It‘s kind of like what are you
talking about? What do you mean “hot new
band“? ...you know? Lollapalooza was kind of odd, too, because that was
actually the end of Nine Inch Nails for awhile. The tour we‘re on now, which
started in February ‘94, is in fact the first tour we‘ve done since then. There
was a huge gap while Trent was getting off TVT and signing to Interscope, and
there was almost as big a gap between the release of “Pretty Hate Machine“ and
“Broken“, and another big gap between “Broken“ and “The Downward Spiral“. You
could say that just as the band started to get well known, the band itself went
away for a long time. But it‘s kind of good, and Woodstock did the same again
for us last year.
Andrez - Did you enjoy that experience?
Chris - Yeah, Woodstock was a really good time. It was also
interesting, because we played just after Crosby, Stills & Nash and right
before Metallica! That’s kind of an odd line-up of bands on stage one after the
other, but it worked really well and the crowd was really great. We were already
on a pretty successful tour, but that really
took our name out there again. Since then, in the ‘States we‘ve had to increase
the size of the venues where we play, and our videos get a lot more airtime.
Andrez - Where did you get the album title “The
Downward Spiral“? ...Because apparently the term “downwardly spiralling vinyl
torture“ was mentioned in a review of “Pretty Hate Machine“ that appeared in
Siren magazine — is it related to that at all?
Chris - No, no... But that‘s an odd coincidence!
Trent‘s idea for ‘The Downward Spiral‘ was to utilize the ‘70s idea of a
concept album - not just to write ten songs, put them together on a CD, and
call it an album. Instead, he wanted to have a definite starting point and a definite
end. So the album starts with “Mr Self Destruct“; where “Broken“ was hard, fast
and heavy, “Mr Self Destruct“ is harder, faster and heavier. That track starts
as the high point, and from there the rest of the album is written not so much
as a regression, but as a complete collapse of certain things - especially on
an emotional and spiritual level - right down to the last song, which really is
‘The Downward Spiral“ and is basically a suicide song. The whole record is
geared to lead to that point, downwardly spiralling to the very end.
Andrez - “The Downward Spiral“ was, as you
mentioned earlier, mostly recorded at Le Pig, where some of the Charles Manson
atrocities took place - I think Sharon Tate was one of the victims there...
Chris - Yeah.
Andrez - In the lead up to the release of the
album, much was made of this fact in advertising and promotion. How do you personally
feel about such an approach to “selling“ the album?
Chris - Yeah... it was an interesting novelty
at first, but... (Chris pauses to reflect). Well, when we first moved out
there, that wasn‘t the reason the
house was chosen; it was chosen because it was in a perfect location where we
didn‘t have neighbours dose by. Since we were putting a recording studio in the
living room, we had to have a house that was the right size as well as
secluded, so we wouldn‘t get into trouble for making loud music all night every
night. It was also centrally located, the rent fitted our budget, and apart
from the main house there was a small guest house back behind in the yard,
where I was staying. (he again pauses). Yeah, the house was an interesting
piece of American history, and given the fact that Nine Inch Nails have always
been considered a dark and moody band, it kind of fit... Honestly speaking,
though, it did get out of hand. People still ask me “Was it scary to live
there‘, and the answer is no, it wasn‘t at all – it’s just a house! (he
Andrez - So there‘s no ghost of Sharon Tate
stalking the stairs?
Chris - No, there‘s no ghost and the walls
don‘t bleed! Nothing like that. I read “Helter Skelter“ just before I moved in
there, mainly out of curiosity because I didn‘t know anything about the Manson
Family murders. For the first few days it was interesting to check out parts of
the house that were in the photos with bodies and all that, but after awhile it
wore off. It was an unfortunate incident, and it was still a beautiful house.
Andrez - I‘ve heard that at live performances
Trent likes to throw corn flour all over himself and the other band members in
order to achieve a more grungy look.
Chris - Yeah, that‘s actually something we’ve
been doing since the very beginning. We still do it occasionally.
Andrez - Why don’t you just get a vacuum cleaner
and put it on reverse?
Chris - Well, I guess it’s just something we‘ve
done all along. One of our first photo shoots was done with an art
photographer, and one of his things was that he would cover his models - who
were usually nude - in corn starch or whatever. It created this ghastly kind of
dead-looking image that was really effective. So when we were first playing
live, even before “Pretty Hate Machine“ came out, we would do this to ourselves
just to recreate that image. It‘s kind of stuck as one of our little things,
even after all these years, and it’s still fun to do!
Andrez - You guys were supposed to tour Australia in 1994 but it was cancelled at the
Chris - Yeah.
Andrez - We heard a couple of interesting
rumours, as per the norm - one of them was that you were beaten up by Trent,
and that‘s why you didn‘t tour.
Chris - (laughs) Well, that actually happened after the fact, yeah, I was!
Andrez - Yeah?
Chris - Yeah - not a literal beating up,
though. We tend to get a little violent on stage - as I said, it’s a bit of a
cathartic release for ourselves and the crowd - and things sometimes get out of
hand. We were doing some warm-up dates at smaller clubs before we went out to Australia, and we suffered two hospital
injuries that occurred during those warm-up dates...
Andrez - What, did Trent hit you with a big sack of corn
flour, or something?
Chris - (laughs) ...No…! Actually, our guitar player broke his hand on
stage one night, and then a couple of nights later I started developing a really
weird problem - all of a sudden I thought “my god, my groin hurts”, and it
turned out I’d somehow given myself a hernia.
Andrez - Maybe it was lifting those sacks of
Chris – Possibly! But, between a guitar player
with a broken hand and me laid out for over a week, we just decided it would be
bester if we postponed things and started from scratch. (Chris chuckles to himself
for a bit). After that, when we started the real U.S. tour two or three weeks later,
during a song when we were performing in San Francisco Trent whipped around
with his mike stand, and it had one of those big steel bases, and it went right
over my drums and split my head right open...
Andrez - Ouch. Fantastic.
Chris - So, um, that pretty much stopped the
show for a few minutes, while I got taped up, and then I had to head off to the
hospital for something like 18 stitches.
Andrez - With corn flour in the wound, and
Chris – Yeah! That was not one of our better nights.
Nine Inch Nails may
tour Australia in 1995, and they will commence recording their next album later this
year. Thanks to Warner and Chris at PBS-FM for arranging the interview, and
also thanks to Steve and his article in “Vivisect” for some background stuff.