Political opportunists may have branded Trent
Reznor morally epugnant, but you brended him Spin’s artist of the year. Senior
Editor Eric Weisbard journeys to Reznor’s adopted home, New Orleans, for a one-on-one with Rock’s
reigning king of pain.
TRENT REZNOR is running victory laps these
days. I meet him just as he's finished an American tour with David Bowie: NINE
INCH NAILS, though technically the opener, provided the commercial clout to fill
stadiums and amphitheaters. Now, purely to satisfy a nostalgic craving for
NIN's early years, when their constant touring metamorphosed the agitated
synth-pop of "Head Like a Hole" and "Terrible Lie" into a
clomping rock'n'roll animal, Reznor is taking his band through the South for a
series of club dates. After that, he plans to return here to New Orleans, finish remodeling a two story
mansion in the Garden District, hook up the boards and wires in his almost
equally large personal recording studio on Magazine Street, and comfortably begin the process
of recording a sequel to The Downward Spiral.
That new album will undoubtedly debut at the
top of Billboard charts; Reznor has money to burn right now, and he wouldn't be
Trent Reznor if he didn't throw himself into the fun. Our first encounter comes
at Nola, an upscale restaurant in New Orlean's French Quarter.
In honor of the tour hitting Reznor's adopted
city, 16 or so band members, roadies, security guards, bus drivers, publicists,
road managers, and an allegedly transsexual girlfriend of the keyboard player
join Reznor for turtle soup and belts of a toxic tequila variant. The dinner
stretches on for over two hours, the conversation purple enough to arouse
people for whom partying is just another day at the office. Accordingly, Reznor
genially recalls for me an earlier tour, where the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow
accompanied NIN and held vicious after-show feasts; one time, three groupies
ate fruit loops out of a bowl on the ground, submitted to enemas, and were then
matched up in a shit-stream competition.
Oh, great. Is it too late to join up with C.
DeLores Tucker and Bill Bennett in the campaign to remove sick weeds like
Reznor from our culture? Does Reznor realize that he and his crew are
recreating every tired cliché of rock guys on the road? And how do such retro
tendencies fit with his music, which has done more to import the aggression of
rock into the age of synthesizers and computer, which is to say the future,
than anyone else's?
Well, maybe there's a touch of the groupie in
me too, because I'm not as bothered as I should be-Reznor has seduced me with
his smile. It really is remarkable, a beam of approval he turns on people that
says forget my celebrity, I'm working harder to please you than you are to
please me. Some rock stars have enough off-stage charisma to hold your
attention no matter how big the crowd; as I sit next to Trent Reznor my eyes
dart all over the room. He's not exactly "one of the guys"-more the
sort to surround himself with people weirder and crazier than he is, knowing
he'll keep alive by trying to keep up.
So while it's certainly reasonable to disagree
with Reznor's cruder perversities, his enthusiasm for life belies any simple
charge of pandering. After dinner, Reznor's longtime friend (and NIN drummer)
Chris Vrenna drives us to see Reznor's new home. (En route, Reznor plays around
with the car's CD changer; he calls up "Nightclubbing" off The Idiot,
the album David Bowie produced for Iggy Pop, and points out the opening beats:
"I stole that for 'Closer'") A spacious Greek Revival, his new digs
feature foyer walls colored with what looks like speckled blood, a
soon-to-be-downstairs entertainment complex (supplied as a gift by his label,
Interscope), balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows ringing the second floor,
and a bathroom of the master bedroom bigger than many Manhattan apartments.
Still, unlike more reclusive celebrities, Reznor will live on a residential
block, with other homes across the street and next door. The local New Orleans newspaper rewarded this bit of
humility by running a photo of the house, naming the street, even, on their
Sunday front page.
We talked from one A.M. until four that first night. Two
days later, following a surprisingly limber club date by NIN-all the anthems
the Bowie tour omitted, all sorts of funky
little outros and revamps, and a Queen cover-we finished the conversation in
Reznor's new studio complex. The second-floor office is right nest to an area
that houses Reznor's collection of vintage video arcade games (he's also a big
fan of the computer game Doom, and is writing the music for it's sequel,
Quake), a Kiss pinball machine, and the torture chair from the "Happiness
in Slavery" video.
SPIN: Hanging around you and your entourage, I
felt like I was watching a throwback version of the rock'n'roll lifestyle.
Trent Reznor: I'm the guy, if someone calls me
at three in the morning, "Hey come do something." "No."
"Come on." "All right." Why not? I'd like to bow out
thinking, hey, I did that. I tried that. I experienced that. I wasn't afraid.
Rather than sit in the back room with a fucking towel over my head, I want to
be around it, consume.When I get off the road, I'm not good at making tons of
friends. When I'm doing a record, I don't ever go out. The real me gets up at a
regular kind of schedule, writes music, and doesn't party all the time. On the
road, I adopt a certain kind of mentality. A lot of it is juvenile, but it's
also about staying sane in an insane situation.
It's politically incorrect in the alternative
world to indulge and have fun in a touring situation. Certain camps, like
Courtney Love's, like to say we're a horrible ridiculous throwback to cock-rock
bullshit. That's not what we're about. But at the same time, if there's fun to
be had, why not? Nobody gets hurt. And I'm not going to be doing this forever.
One thing you told me that horrified me was
that story about the Jim Rose after-show party. Women competing in enema
contests, and such. You can say that's not different from wanting to stay late
and party, but are people drawn to be around celebrities at any cost really
Remember, you've got to put this in context of
what's going on. It's not ten guys waiting to date-rape drunk groupies. That is
not at all the situation. Lifto [from the Jim Rose Circus]-he can't do his
lift-an-iron-with-his-dick onstage, so he can't wait to it for me backstage.
He's walking around with his dick, that long. Naked. There's 20 drunk people
sitting in the room. It's a party atmosphere. I was walk in, and they've got
this stun-gun out. Pretty soon, 20 girls are getting shocked in the butt. And
another guy gets his dick ring shocked with it. Retarded. That's the kind of
vibe that we're talking about. Outperform the performance artists. That's where
it turns into the dare of "who's going to get more gross than the next
Where does that leave you? It doesn't seem,
from your personality and your behavior, that you're one of the participants.
I'm not getting shocked. It wasn't me sitting
over a bowl of Froot Loops. I'm much more a voyuer. It's more fun than riding
the bus back to the hotel. Or sitting in a bar with 500 people wanting your
autograph while you're trying to relax.
On the Bowie tour, his band hung out in our dressing
room all the time. They didn't want to sit around, reading poetry and talking
about fucking German art movies. They wanted to hang out.
How did you go from being a kid in rural Pennsylvania to the party option on a David
Bowie tour? What was the musical process?
When I was five, I got forced into taking piano
lessons. And it came really naturally to me. Knowing that I was good at
something played an important role in my confidence. I was always shy,
uncomfortable around people. I slipped by. But with the music, I didn't. I got
into bands. I studied trumpet and saxaphone a little bit. It got to the point
where my teacher was like, you can be a concert pianist. But the last thing I
wanted to hear at 15 is, well, you're not fitting in now, how about dropping
out of school, studying all the time and becoming a concert pianist? It sounds
like "penis." Even Earlier, Kiss had changed my world. It seemed evil
and scary-the embodiment of rebelliousness when you're age 12 and starting to
get hair on your balls.Also, my dad, who I'd not lived with since I was 5, got
me an electric piano. He had a little music store that sold acoustic
instruments in the back room, where me and a couple other guys started jamming
in terrible garage bands. I realized that music wasn't all about learning a
piece on the piano.
You never felt snobbery towards rock?
No. On piano, I had a fairly knowledgeable
database of theory. But I started fucking around with guitar, and I was never
very good at guitar. I'm still not good at it. I took lessons off my dad for a
couple months, and then said, Look, I'd rather just fuck around on it, and not
know." I still only know two bar chords. But I don't care. The nïaveté
with which you approach an instrument can lead to interesting results, versus
the schooled "You can't do that.
Was punk an influence even then?
No. You have to understand, I was in a
geographical area where by the time I heard something it was already dead.
There was no college radio. There were no alternative record stores. There was
no independent anything. There was no MTV. There was nothing. My world was
comic books and science-fiction shit. Scary movies. Whatever I could absorb.
And it kind of ingrained in me this idea of escape from Pennsylvania.
What was the first real rock band you ever
Option Thirty. That was actually about
one-third originals, two-thirds covers, from Elvis Costello to Wang Chung. For
what it's worth, Wang Chung put a record out before the "Dance Hall
Days" record, when they spelled their name differently, H-U-A-N-G Chung.
All guitar-base-drums. Still a real good record.
When did you start playing synthesizers?
When I was in high school, I begged my parents
to get a cheap Moog. Now I could play "Just What I Need."
Whoo-oo-whoo-oo. [whistles synth line from the Cars song.] When that kind of
explosion of synth music came around in the early 80's, it really was exciting;
sequencers were just coming out. I was going to college for computer
engineering and I thought, I love music, I love keyboard instruments-maybe I
can get into synthesizer design. The excitement of hearing a Human League track
and thinking, that's all machines, there's no drummer. That was my calling. It
wasn't the Sex Pistols.
What's the lowest point of music has led you
When I dropped out of college, which would have
been the year of '84, I spent a year doing nothing. I lived with my dad out in
the woods. And I was playing with cover bands. Three hundred bucks a week. It
was the most whorish part of my career so far. I played keyboards and sang. My
destiny was lounge bands.
So how did you break away?
I moved to Cleveland, because the band I was playing in
was there a lot. There was a music store that had all the high-tech
synthesizers and sequencers that were coming out. I was there all the time.
They offered me a job. Ten to six, every day. Hearing 20 people bang on drum
One of the guys that also worked in this store
was in a synth-poppy, all original band called Exotic Birds. I got a job with
them as a keyboard player. The band eventually became me playing all the
keyboards, the main guy writing the songs, singing and playing guitar, and
Chris Vrenna, my current drummer, playing drums. That's also when I met my
manager, John Malm.
Had you written a single song, at that point?
No, I hadn't written anything. Ever. I'd never
written a song. I was afraid. I always had an excuse not to do it. One day I
woke up and said, "You're twenty-fucking-three years old, what the fuck
are you doing? Shit or get off the pot." So I quit Exotic Birds and got
this job doing odds and ends at a studio. And I made a pact with myself. I'd
been getting high a lot. I was turning into what I'd never wanted to be. So I
started this experiment: What would happen if every ounce of energy went into
something? Because I'd never busted my ass.
I eventually had no excuse for not actually
trying to write something. My very first song was "Down In It." At
the time, I was really into Ministry and Skinny Puppy-in fact Skinny Puppy's
"Dig It" was the impetus for "Down In It," I'm not ashamed
to admit it. Finally I was hearing bands that were using electronics, and they
didn't sound like Howard Jones or Reflex. They had all this fucking aggression
and tension that the hardest of heavy metal or punk had. But they were using
tools I understood. And it seemed more interesting, because this music couldn't
have been made five years ago, let alone 20. It was based on tools that were
But unlike bands like Ministry or Skinny Puppy,
your lyrics were confessional-you sounded like a rock from the beginning.
It was all stuff out of my journal. This wasn't
character singing lyrics. This was my guts in a song. I still think about that
sometimes. Now, Pretty Hate Machine has sold a ton of copies, and I'm dismissed
by some as a caricature or cartoon. But when I wrote this thing, that wasn't a
character singing. And I didn't know if I wanted people to know that much about
Talk about the recording of Pretty Hate Machine
We had one month in England to do piratically the whole album.
John Fryer, the producer, and I didn't hit it off. We didn't work on weekends,
because he's "a normal guy." So by the second week there I was
dreading weekends. I didn't know one person in England. And I'm not the kind of guy who
would ever go to a club in another country by myself. I started getting bummed
out, thinking, I've got two more days of nothing to do, I'm staying in this
shitty little flat, it's cold.
Here is the fucking icing on the cake. Before I
decided I was going to stop my life and do this, I had this really great
ex-girlfriend-let's call her Patti. Right before I left to go do this record, I
saw her at a club, and she looked better than I ever remembered. We had a nice
little talk. So the whole time I'm gone, while there was nothing else to think
about, I started thinking about her. When I get back, I've got to make this
So, it's a Friday, and I've got a full weekend
ahead of me, and I'm ready to tell John [Malm] hey, try to get her number,
because I need to talk to her. In the middle of the conversation he goes,
"Oh, by the way, I saw Patti last night." "Oh, you did? How is
she?" He said, "Man, you'll never guess what." "What?"
"She's pregnant, and she's getting married." I literally thought
"God, fuck you. You got me, you fucker."
And then I get back to the States, and the
label tells me hey, by the way, this record is a piece of shit.
Ultimately, Nine Inch Nails established it's
reputation as a touring band, with manic live shows, which is also unusual for
I was from the Todd Rundgren school. The studio
is an instrument. Manipulate it, don't go in thinking it's got to sound like my
band. When I got done with Pretty Hate Machine,i realized, "Holy fuck, how
am I going to play this live?" I knew I didn't want to go out and do a
Nitzer Ebb, two guys standing there kicking pads. I like electronic music, and
I hate that sort of thing. I also didn't want the record to be one nerd with a
synthesizer, but live for there to be a David Bowie-type backup band, 15 people
and a horn section. I use electronics because I want to-not as a compromise for
So, after much experimentation, and trying to
find the right people, I thought, we'll get a drummer, guitar player, keyboard
player. And I'll plat the occasional guitar. Put the bass on tape. Or
sequenced. And sequence some of the loops, in the background, stuff that's
unplayable anyway. That, ideally, will maintain the mechanical element that's
in there. But maybe it will come to life with real people playing.
It's almost like there's a contest going on
between humanity and the machine.
Yes. As it was when I did the record-Pretty
Hate Machine was about juxtaposing human imperfections against very rigid,
sterile, cold arrangements. You can't just have icy vocals over icy music. If
the music is very precise, make a vocal tape that's less perfect, so you've got
this meshing of man versus machine.
Much to my pleasure, after a few months of
touring, it really started to work. The songs started to take on a new life.
those were probably the best times of my life, when we first started touring.
At that time, it was Chris Vrenna on drums, me playing guitar a little bit,
this keyboard player, and Richard Patrick, who's now in Filter, playing guitar.
Was it strange when Patrick made that Filter
record, and a Nine Inch Nails-sounding record at that?
Rich was this friend, and he played in the band
for awhile. A pretty good guy. We were going to work on Downward Spiral
together. But he wanted to be the guy that got recognized for writing the songs
and singing. I didn't realize his real agenda was to have a way out to L.A. to get a record deal for himself.
There hasn't been any reconciliation?
There's been a drunken phone call to me to say
hello. And then asking an ex-girlfriend of mine out on a date. Those guys. In
their minds, they're stars.
Anyhow, we started in January of '90, opening
for The Jesus and Mary Chain. Toured with them for six weeks. Right after that,
we went right to Peter Murphy. Two headliners that weren't difficult to blow
off the stage. And then it took over. This wierd fucking energy and negative
energy release, this purging exorcism that takes place onstage.
Who is the creature you become onstage?
That's the me that's allowed to act. Offstage,
I'm always trying to be nice to everyone, trying not to be - lets say you
really respect somebody, and finally, you get the chance to talk with them and
they're a dick. I'm so aware of that, and I overcompensate. I know what it's like
to be a fan. But it's not really how I want to act, you know what I mean? I've
just finished a fucking show. I don't care that you want to kill yourself. I'm
sorry. Too bad. No, don't give me your poetry. And no, I don't want to go and
But the you onstage doesn't have to be nice?
No. He can do whatever he wants. There's this
wierd kind of energy that just pops up when we do a show. There's a level of
connection that starts to happen. Something about looking out and seeing a
bunch of kids screaming back a lyric at you that at one point meant everything
to you. Pink Floyd's The Wall changed my life when I was growing up. Even if I
didn't have any idea of what they were really talking about. I've probably
listened to that record a million times. Even now. The alienation factor. Man,
someone else went through that. I think I see some of that vibe in people with
our stuff. And that makes me feel pretty good.
What you do live hasn't changed as much as your
I agree. The three records have different focal
points, or viewpoints: Broken's central theme is self loathing; on Downward
Spiral I'm searching for some kind of self-awareness; and on Pretty Hate
Machine I'm depressed by everything around me, but I still like myself. on Broken,
I've lost myself; nothing's better, and I want to die. Downward Spiral was
searching for the core, by stripping away all the different layers. But live,
the lines aren't as clear cut.
How did playing on the first Lollapalooza
affect Nine Inch Nails?
The entertainment factor of our show got proven
at Lollapalooza. We'd filtered into mall culture a little bit. For awhile it
was trendy to like our band. Then that quickly got dismissed, because the
little sister of the trendy person started wearing a NIN T-shirt, and then we
weren't cool anymore.
In retrospect, was it fun to be part of that
Aside from Henry Rollins deciding he hated me,
it was real cool. Particularly as a fan of Jane's Addiction-I'd seen them when
they first started touring on Nothing's Shocking, in small clubs in Cleveland.
And I could not believe how good it was. It kicked my ass.
It must have been new to you to have other
musicians as peers.
I was real freaked out by it. What do I really
have to talk to Siouxsie about? Like the Jane's Addiction guys. Perry had too
many people's heads up his ass to ever really communicate with him. But the
other guys are really nice, sweet guys that I could have formed good
friendships with. But I always felt nervous around them. I still remembered
that club show.
Has it evolved, now, to where you're
comfortable in those kinds of settings?
More so. But on this tour with Bowie, I found
myself kind of hoping thta he wouldn't be sitting there, so I wouldn't have to
talk to him. Not that I didn't like him. But I felt like I had to Impress him.
I had to impress his band. I couldn't just let my hair down.
Who are some of the musicians who you've come
to think of as friends?
An odd bunch of people. I think the guys from
Pantera are cool. Everyone from Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe to Adrian Belew. I met
the guys in the band Live because we were playing at festivals in Australia.
All of them are people I wouldn't hesitate to say, let's work on something.
Like you did with Tori Amos.
Tori would be another example. She called me to
do this vocal track. It wasn't that big a deal. Her first album was permanently
in my car's CD changer. It really struck me as well written, in a similar vein
to what I was doing-from a different point of view, but the same kind of addicting,
pouring out, gushing, baring, naked kind of song. Other people put their
fingers in the pie, and they kind of messed up a friendship. We're not that
close now. Some malicious meddling on the part of Courtney Love. But I still
feel the same feelings for Tori.
How did the success of Pretty Hate Machine and
your Lollapalooza tour produce a tormented record like Broken?
On a personal level, I was coming out of a
wierd relationship. I really fell in love with someone and we lived together
for six or eight months. But it went from being the best to the worst. Plus, I
hadn't spoken to the label since before Lollapalooza. We made it very clear we
were not doing another record for TVT. But they made it pretty clear they
weren't ready to sell. So I felt like, well, I've finally got this thing going
but it's dead. Flood and I had to record Broken under a different band name,
because if TVT found out we were recording, they could confiscate all our shit
and release it.
Jimmy Iovine got involved with Interscope, and
we kind of got slave-traded. It wasn't my doing. I didn't know anything about
Interscope. And I was real pissed off at him at first because it was going from
one bad situation to potentially another one. But Interscope went into it like
they really wanted to know what I wanted. It was good, after I put my raving
lunatic act on.
Is Broken, then, the summation of your personal
problems, or is its noisiness a spit at the Lollapalooza crowd?
I wanted to be tough. I was so concerned about
staying "alternative," that indie bullshit mentality. After
Lollapalooza, I had this snotty, elitist mentality-you're not cool enough to
like my band, don't buy my records. I wanted to make a "fuck you"
record. It was also a bit of a knee-jerk, "I'm not a pussy,"
"I'm not a sellout" attitude.
After it came out, I wanted to start work right
away on a real album. I had been working on the idea of Downward Spiral in my
head for a while without writing any songs, just a concept. Originally, my
pretentious aspirations were to make the dreaded concept record with a film
that went with it. Derek Jarman was interested in doing something. Again, you
could maybe hark back to The Wall as my inspiration.
What was the crude, stick-figure version of
Downward Spiral before you'd ever written the songs?
Well, I wrote down a bunch of topics I wanted
to address. And key events in my life. A mom and dad getting married because
she's pregnant-like Patti, when I was in London doing the record. Wierd little
displaced memories that conjure up emotions. Not always upsetting or unhappy. I
remember walking home from piano lessons at age 10, 12, a weird, euphoric
feeling. Life is good. So in my notebook there was this huge page of stuff.
Let me ask you about Downward Spiral's
"Big Man With A Gun." I'm sure you've heard the story of C. Delores
Tucker going to the Time/Warner people and saying 'Could you read these lyrics
out loud?" And they refused. They are crude lyrics.
Absolutely. The record was nearing completion.
I had written those lyrics pretty quickly and I didn't know if I was going to
use them or not. To me, Downward Spiral builds to a certain degree of madness,
then it changes. That would be the last stage of delirium. So the original
point of "Big Man With A Gun" was madness. But it was also making fun
of the whole misogynistic gangsta-rap bullshit.
Really! The song was a satire of gangsta rap?
In a way. I listen to a lot of it, and I enjoy
it. But I could do without the the degree of misogyny and hatred of women and
abuse. Then, my song got misinterpreted as exactly that. It was probably a lack
of being able to write. I've been taken out of context,and it's ridiculous.
C. Delores Tucker, I think, would be stunned to
hear that to some extent she has an ally.
Well, she's a fucking idiot. But I think The
Downward Spiral actually could be harmful, through implying and subliminally
suggesting a lot of things, whereas a lot of the hardcore rap becomes
cartoonish-it's real to youngsters.but it's so over the top. From an artistic
point of view, if I'd had a couple more months to look back on everything, I
probably would not have put that song on the record. Just 'cause I don't think
it's that good a song, not because I got spanked for it.
But the sickest lyrics you could come up with
might now be the commercially best-selling. So where does the issue of
responsibility come in? Like the Amok Press T-shirt you're wearing, and their
slogan "the extremes of information in print." This notion that
something that's the most extreme is best. Is that sensible?
Growing up, I so wanted to get the fuck out of
where I was, away from the mediocrity and mundaneness of rural life. Anything
extreme caught my attention. I was intrigued with the limit, the movie that
scared the shit out of me, the book-I had a huge collection of scary comic
books when I was a kid. What's the next step beyond? What's beyond Steven King?
Clive Barker. What's beyond that?
Nine Inch Nails deals with that addictive part
of my personality. How many mushrooms can you take? What happens then? WHat
about mushrooms and DMT? Nine Inch Nails offers me the chance to do what I want
to do. I want a show, a spectacle. I'm allowed to look stupid. And I want to.
You did the soundtrack for Natural Born
Killers, a movie about America's fascination with the edge. Is Nine Inch Nails
part of the America that Oliver Stone is seeing? Is it outside of that?
Probably not. If that did not exist, we
probably wouldn't exist. But I don't think we're just shock and carnage for
shock-and-carnage's sake. I thin there's more to Nine Inch Nails than looking
at the wreck on the Interstate. You want to turn your head and look, and
hopefully see blood. There's an element of that fascination that has been
worked into the imagery that I surround myself with, in music. It fascinates
me, to a degree. I still watch Cops.
At what point does this stuff get boring? I
mean, if you've read your James Ellroy novels and you've seen Henry: Portrait
of a Serial Killer, at what point is this ideal of finding the most transgressive
thing out there conformist in itself?
It's just something that interests me. There's
probably a psychological reason. I see it coming up in different things I do.
Even sitting in the studio, I think about what's the most fucked up, slowest,
and loudest song I can possibly record. Pushing boundaries, doing things you're
not supposed to do. Incorporating shock value so you end up saying "I want
to fuck you like an animal," and the chorus of the song is not subtle.
It's a mechanism.
Is it possible that, when you're working
musically, you wind up with more nuanced, ambiguous, complicated work, because
you're so schooled in music, but when you're writing lyrics or doing something
theatrical you're not quite at the same level as an artist?
That's a fair thing to say. Musically, I'm
always striving to go a little deeper. Playing mental games. Like when I wrote
"Sanctified," I thought, "Can I do a song that only has one bass
line and never changes through the whole thing?" My idea for the next
record is to build more in the song format, instead of starting with a noise or
a drumbeat. I'll do things like use a different sequencer to write, so I won't
know how to work it as quick and it slows me down.
On Downward Spiral I got to explore making an
electronic record that doesn't sound electronic for some parts of it. We did
things with drums that I don't know if anyone has really done. We sampled drums
in stereo with stereo mics and discovered if you play them on keyboard it
sounds like you're sitting behind the drums for real. On "March of the
Pigs," "Eraser," and those songs, there's no live drums, but it
alluded to being real because it didn't sound like a machine. No way someone
could play that like that. It further added a kind of mind-fuck to it. Instead
of falling into a Ministry-type trap of how can I make things harder and
harder, it's scarier to have something creep up on you.
What was it like being the poster boy for
Woodstock II? We got there the night before, and that rave was going on. I'm
glad I saw it. We slept on the bus. The next day, a power line had fallen on
the bus and there was voltage going through the bus while we were on it. I went
back to the bunks: "Guys, don't panic, but try not to touch any metal.
There is a lot of voltage going through the bus right now." I walk to the
front of the bus, and i see fucking Crosby, Stills, and Nash looking in, and a
sea of cameras, seeing me in my underpants. Hi everybody! That was the most
nerve-wracking day of my life. But that changed things for us a lot, in terms
of brand-name recognition.
Did you feel like, hey, I've entered this other
The only time I felt like that was when
Courtney Love wanted to date me. That meant I must be a star. It's a
prerequisite, isn't it?
For the last two years, SPIN readers have voted
you their favorite artist and Pearl Jam their favorite band. Which must mean
the same people like both you guys. That's a long way from where you started.
Is it strange to be part of the rock pantheon now?
I don't know that I deserve to be there. I
don't know that I want to be there. Downward Spiral is pretty
anticommercial-sounding compared to what's usually at the top of the charts. If
ten percent of the people that bought it go "that's pretty cool,"
then it opens them up to realize that there is more than Candlebox to the
fucking world. There is something other than guitar rock.
Pushing rock sonically into the future, away
from grunge and flannel revivalism, is a real mission with you.
It is. I have a chip on my shoulder. Maybe it's
from being keyboard-oriented. Not that bringing the keyboard to the forefront
is one of my main goals.
The spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis. And Billy Joel
And don't forget Liberace. Seriously, the point
is more just to bring people out of complacency. Sonically, lyrically - your
parents should hate it. Bob Dole should have a fucking problem with it. That's
what's best about what I'm told rock'n'roll was, at one time. I could make
music that I find interesting, that's experimental, instrumental noise records,
and I may do that sometime. But I'm more interested, now that fate has dealt me
that card that people are interested in what I'm doing, to see how far I can
push. Take the "Closer" video. I thought, fuck it, instead of the
Super 8 video directors we've used in the past, underground people, let's go
with Mr. Fucking Gloss, Mark Romanek, who just did that Michael Jackson piece
of shit. But he could do a beautiful shot, Stanley Kubrick-like in its
attention to detail. So we decided to spend some money and go to ridiculous
lengths to recreate works of artists that we liked, from Joel-Peter Witkin to
Man Ray, Brothers Quay, this hodgepodge of stuff. That video was great, it was
cool-as-fuck-looking. Right away, MTV said, "Can't have that, can't have
that." Now okay, there was naked pussy. We knew that was going to get cut.
And then we got complaints that people still found the video disturbing.
"Well, why?" "Well, we don't know why, but it seems satanic and
evil." And then I thought, great, we did it.
So, there's almost a double mission. Pulling
rock away from the Rolling Stones tradition and bringing into the mainstream
these elements of fringe culture.
Right. I think popular music sucks today. For
the most part, I cannot fucking stand the shit that's at the top of the charts.
Now, I'm not saying my sole mission is to turn people on to other music. But
maybe I can change things a bit.
Any current bands you're proselytizing for?
In the electronic world, most people have gone
the techno kind of route, which I never was that interested in. I like some of
the sounds of it. It didn't hold my attention: a whole genre based on one song.
However, of that genre I think Aphex Twin is a fucking genius. He's got my top
billing and respect. Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 is a better Brian Eno record
that Eno's ever made. I think that's a fucking masterpiece.
What about using your visibility to champion
The idea of politics is just so uninteresting
to me - I've never paid much attention to it. I don't believe things can really
change. It doesn't matter who's president. Nothing really gets resolved. I
don't know. I guess that's not the right attitude to take.
It's kind of the attitude of Downward Spiral.
There's a real I-versus-all-of-you in that record. And not much of a we. A lot
of large, impersonal forces - maybe in your music in general.
That's a fair assessment. Generally, I've
always aspired to become a part of something. But I just never felt like it -
it hasn't really happened. It's odd, because I have my big club, now, and I'm
president. It's not like I'm a part of it, though. When I went to college, I
thought that all I wanted to do was just disappear and see what it's like to
have friends, be in a group. Two months later, I was like, fuck this. I'm not
like you. I don't want to lose my identity, my independence, by being around a
bunch of other people who are also scared, doing the same thing. Hiding behind
something printed on a T-shirt that gives you a sense of who you are.
Despite your loner reputation, you seem to
develop strong personal loyalties, including a group of people, from your
manager to Gary Talpas who doesn your artwork, who go back to the early
It's been nice to see the people who started
off on a lower level kind of rise. We use the same manager, the same booking
agent we had from the first tour, the same road manager (up to this tour). The
same soundman, since the beginning. Even if it's sometimes gotten us fucked
over, because everyone else in the business is bullshit, I'd rather be around
straight-up, no-bullshit guys like [manager] John [Malm]. Personally, though,
I'm still a mess.
Yeah? You promise that for everyone out there?