What's it take to be named the Most Vital
Artist in Music Today? A singular vision, scores of imitators, and a
willingness to trash the competition. As Nell Strauss learns, Trent Reznor fits
the bill perfectly.
Eight years ago, Trent Reznor seemed like a
throwback, beating the dead horse of industrial rock. Today, he seems like a
visionary, the first rock star to make synthesizers cool for teenage
headbangers, paving the way to popularity not just for countless knock-off
industrial acts but also, to some degree, for the hyper-trendy beats of techno
Unlike many musicians, Reznor is savagely aware
of his place in the current strata of pop stars. He constantly compares himself
to other musicians, saying that he "can't write a thousand songs like
Billy Corgan," that he's "not as careerist as [Marilyn Manson],"
that he "can't sing about [his] big dick like David Lee Roth." It's
for this reason, in large part these intense feelings of self-consciousness and
competition that the most vital artist in music today has completed only one
new song in the past three years.
While cleaning off a place on the couch at
Reznor's cliff side house in Big Sur, where he's holed up writing the follow up to
1994's The Downward Spiral, I spot an envelope. Scrawled in black pen are the
words NEW SONGS. I don't open it. I do notice, however, that it's very thin.
SPIN: is it fair to say that you suffer from
Trent Reznor: I'm afraid to really push myself
and write because I'm afraid of failure. When I was doing The Downward Spiral,
I was kind of freaked out, and Rick Rubin, who's doing the new record with me,
was trying to talk to me. And I just wanted to kill myself. I hated music. I
was like, "I just want to get back on the road because I hate sitting in a
room trying to, trying to"—how do you say this?—"just scraping my
fucking soul." Exploring areas of your brain that you don't want to go to,
that's painful. You write something down and you go, "Fuck, I can't say
that. I don't want people to know that." It's so naked and honest that
you're scared to let it out. You're giving a part of your soul away, exposing
part of yourself. I avoid that. I hate that feeling of sending a tape out to
someone: "Here's my new song. I just cut my soul open. Check it out.
Let me ask you then: Why do you think SPIN
chose you as the most vital artist in music?
I don't know. I've no idea. I was pretty
shocked when I was told, "Hey, you're number one." I was like,
"Is this good?" Because I can already read the letters the next month
saying, "Fuck that, man. why didn't you choose so-and-so."
It's nice, though, to have some kind of mainstream-media
appreciation. I thought we'd always skirted super-attention. There are a
hundred books on Courtney Love in Waldenbooks and there's none on us. So it's
flattering. But, you know, I'm just a footnote in rock history, the guy that
had mud on at Woodstock. "Where Are They Now: The Nineties."
Do you ever wonder, "How am I going to
make sure I matter in the next decade?"
Jimmy Ovine of Interscope Records, who I
respect a lot, said to me at one point, "I'm president of Interscope and
not a producer anymore because I see guys like you and Dre come along, and I
can't compete on that level." When you think about the rock world, there's
a window of time where what you do has pertinence and meaning. I hope ten years
from now I'm making soundtracks or producing or something. I don't want to be
putting mud all over myself at the Sands in Las Vegas.
I'd love to think someday that I made a
difference, I changed something, I shifted the axis somewhat. But all I can do
is try to make the best music I can. Not go into it thinking, "I'm going
to change shit." It becomes calculated if you cater to the idea of
shifting things. I think we have in a subtle way, but, um, yeah, I'd love to be
remembered. [Sarcastically] Elvis, Lennon, Reznor.
Do you think that you helped pave the way for
the mainstream acceptance of techno and electronica?
Maybe. It starts sounding real egotistical if I
take any stance on that. But to answer your question, I think we definitely
took a certain element of harder-edged electronic music to the shopping mall.
You might say that my success was to take industrial music and add a melody to
it, add an element of pop to it. It connected with people in a way that we
How about these sort of one-hit-wonder
industrial bands like Stabbing Westward and Gravity Kills. Do you feel
responsible for them?
Look at it in terms of the music-industry
follow-the-leader approach: "Okay, Nirvana's big, let's sign every band
that sounds like them " I'm sure after Nine Inch Nails had some success, other
labels asked, "Who sounds like them?" Do I think that Stabbing
Westward and Gravity Kills were part of that? Yeah, I do. Were they ripping me
off? Yeah, I kind of see that, and then I think, "Do I whine like that? Am
I perceived as that?"
I think there's few innovators and many
imitators. It shocks me to see Bush go to No. 1. Not to single them out, but I
just can't respect them. Do they write good songs?
Yeah, they've written some good songs. But I
cannot respect or tolerate the lack of innovation.
Music is my life. I know everything I can know
about it. I know that it's not background. It's not stuff you put on in the car
to drive home from your job at IBM. It means something to me. And that's why I
hate when something so uninteresting can be so successful. But I'm going into
it with this purist attitude. I can see that Bush song as exactly this Nirvana
song. I can tell. Fuck them for doing that, you know? But it's also
well-written enough that a guy who comes home from work can say, "Yeah, that's
a good song. These guys rock.
Exactly. It may be good music but it's not
You've got a point there. From Stone Temple
Pilots on down the line, they've got some good songs give them credit but their
whole premise, the house they built, is ridiculous. They're not saying
anything. I don't mean to sound like "I am important." I rip people
off, too. People always say about our music, "Yeah they're just Ministry
songs. But if I started thinking, "Fuck, that's a good song. I should
write one that sounds just like it," or "I should cut my hair like
that, maybe then I'll be successful," I wouldn't have a soul.
Do you think people can tell the difference
between what's sincere and what's a pose?
I'd like to think they can. But the English
press gives me all this shit, "No one can be as depressed as this guy.
He's full of shit. He's just cashing in." But I am that depressed! My
head's just wrong. I'm not trying to be Mr. Tortured Artist Guy. I wish I could
be more content with the situation I've got. It's a complicated situation, and
I see contemporaries who are very happy in the situation they've got. But my
head doesn't work the same way.
But is being "content" something you
should necessarily strive for?
It's not about being content. It's about, What
if everything you ever wished for in your life and never thought you'd get, you
got? And it Still sucked. That's the thing I look at Oasis: dumb idiots just
living life. You know, ignorance is bliss. And there's a truth to that. I guess
I just don't want it.
So, do you ever feel you don't deserve to be a
I'll say one thing here. When Nine Inch Nails
first got signed I didn't know how to do interviews. I really still don't. I
talk too much and I say stupid things. At the time, my heroes were Jane's
Addiction, among others, and I'm reading where Perry's a male prostitute and
has this junkie lifestyle. And I'm like, I smoked pot when I was 18 once. I'm
boring. I'm not this icon. I love Kiss for the same reason. Gene Simmons had a
cow tongue grafted to his; that was the greatest shit. And I kind of made this
pact with myself that I would just be honest. I am 31. I grew up in Pennsylvania. I wasn't a male prostitute. I'm
not gay. My tongue is my own. It's not like a Marilyn Manson situation. I love
Manson, I respect him. He's about show biz and he knows what he wants to do.
And I think he's a good kick in the ass of that conservative Pearl Jam
pseudo-alternative integrity thing.
How much of what's going on pop-wise do you
view as competition?
I watch MTV and I think it sucks and I think
most videos are shitty. But I watch because I like knowing what's going on. I
want to know that the last No Doubt video sucked so I don't do it myself. Since
I'm aware of the business element of things, I get to feel a little competitive
For example, I like Beck now. But when he first came out, I felt that
"urrrrggghh,” just purely from a he's-the-competition point of view. Not
that we're doing the same thing. I felt stupid even feeling that. But I wanted
to not like him. And then I was like, "Your shit's good." Everyone
around me says he's great, he's great. And I think that last record is great.
But it's hard to not feel that sense of competition. It's a bullshit way to
think. And that's what's disturbing about that whole idea of "You're
number one." Well, why? Because I’m better than him? I try not to think
that way, but to be frank, there's a part of me that does feel that.
Have you considered doing something completely
different, like a record as Trent Reznor instead of Nine Inch Nails?
I've thought about that. I'd really like to get
into more film scoring. I think I'd be good at it. I also thought about doing a
record of instrumental piano, like This Mortal Coil-type mood music, music you
can put on when it's a rainy day. Or doing things like [the sounds on the
CD-ROM game] Quake.
Do you ever go to the game areas on the
Internet under an alias to post messages asking for help when you're stuck in a
Oh yeah, totally. I'm a cheater. And I'm a
videogame addict. I could have written 15 more records in the amount of time I
spent playing Doom.
Do you ever worry that something or someone is
going to cut short your life before you've said everything you have to say?
Through my own self-destructiveness, or through
a random act of violence?
There's the whole romantic notion of Ian
Curtis, or for that matter Kurt Cobain, burning out before they've said what
they've had to say. But I don't really think about it that much. I've got a
long way to go in terms of what I want to accomplish. I've got a lot more I
really want to say. I'd be sad if I were dead tomorrow, though [laughs].