Jahr 2002

Danke, Nils!


Februar 2002

And There Was One...


Text: Ian Winwood

Fotos: Kevin Westenberg


According to Trent Reznor, nu-metal is comical, alternative rock is dead and businessmen are ruining music And don't even get the NINE INCH NAILS frontman started on Creed...

Words: Ian Winwood

Photos: Kevin Westenberg

Trent Reznor has a voice that is much deeper than you might imagine. When he calls at 7pm in the evening on a freezing London night, he tells you that he's at home in New Orleans, that life is good at the moment and that his band is in good shape and in good heart.

Nine Inch Nails are about to release a new live album and DVD set, the provocatively titled 'And All That Could Have Been', recorded on the last leg of the 'Fragility' tour over five dates in Northern California in 1999, and Reznor seems keen to talk. About it. About everything. Tonight we have 45 minutes to play with, and not a moment more. But that, for Trent Reznor, is not bad going. This interview was originally supposed to happen a year ago in New Orleans, but the release date for 'And All...' was held back and the talk was cancelled. Fine. Then the news came through that the communication was to be by telephone, in December. Also scrapped. Then we were told a date in January and an interview time of just 20 minutes. Nothing like enough for a cover story that stretches over five whole pages. Eventually - finally - the date is changed again and, like hagglers in a very polite bazaar, we ask for an hour and get three quarters of that. It'll do. But still, there's a woman from Nine Inch Nails' record company in New York who is going to come on the line and tell me in London that Trent Reznor in New Orleans is all out of time. It seems like scheduling an interview with royalty. And you can't help but wonder: what the hell is he going to be like? "I hope when people read this interview they get more of an idea of what I'm like as a person," he says. "About what makes me tick and about the place that I'm coming from." Normally when Kerrang! interviews a band, or a member of a band, we take what they say and we mix it up with our own words. We put it into context, add a throw of colour, whatever setting might be to hand and try to make it interesting. A little bit of what they say, a little bit of what we think. And this usually works out fine. But Trent Reznor has a way of dominating an interview. That is, he'll take a question and bring it round to whatever ails him at the present. He doesn't do this in a way that is arrogant or boisterous, it just seems, perhaps, that things are on his mind and trouble lurks in his skies. Personally things may be fine - better than they have been for a while, in fact - but all the while outside forces scratch at the door and the environment is darkening. And if what Trent Reznor has to say is worth hearing, then it's worth hearing in full. So, with just a few cuts for purposes of editing and space (and really nothing else), this is the state of the creative mind that gave you Nine Inch Nails as this new year melts into old.

Where exactly are Nine Inch Nails 'at' at the moment?

Trent Reznor: "When I'm asked what do I think of a lot of the nu-metal bands that are out there, my response is usually that it seems really insincere to me. 'I've had a really shitty childhood and I'm really upset and I'm really ugly and I've put a lot of make-up on and I'm harder and faster and my voice sounds more like the cookie monster's than yours does'. To me it all comes across as being comical, as being a parody of itself. I think that it's much more difficult to obtain intensity through restraint, through space, through subtlety. There's nothing wrong with a kick in the face every now and again, but repeated beatings lead to numbness. And I think there are many other means of getting my message across than repeated punchings in the face. So I guess that is my main creative point of view at this moment."

How does this period of music contrast with the climate that bands like Nine Inch Nails emerged into at the start of the '90s?

Trent: "At that time it was probably hard to say. But now - and I don't mean to sound old - things are so bad that it makes me think that things must have been really good then. Looking back into the early '90s and bands like Jane's Addiction and Tool and Rage Against The Machine, it seemed like it was a time of more freedom. The hair metal bands were getting stabbed in the heart and it seemed like a time of great upheaval. But what happened was that the major labels realised there was a marketing label they could stick on all these bands and that term was 'alternative'. And this would apply to everything from Nirvana to the Dead Kennedys to the Barenaked Ladies. And everything became homogenised. So today things have become very stale, and there are a number of reasons why I think that is the case."

Could you run through them for us?

Trent: "Well, one of these reasons comes from me as a musician who's signed to a record label; and what's happening in America is that in the past five years all the record labels have merged into one big thing. And what happens is this: I get signed to an independent label, TVT, which sucked, let me make that clear. But they then sell me to Interscope, which was a new label at that time, who had bands like Helmet, who were great, but they also had some real stinkers, too. What happened is that they placed themselves in that area to be an aggressive major label and succeeded and are now very successful. So successful, in fact, that they sold themselves to Universal. So I was on TVT, then I was on Interscope and now I'm on Interscope/Universal, okay? But Universal has now sold themselves to (French corporation) Vivendi, whoever the f**k that is."

Musicians and artists taking a pop at their employers is not necessarily a new spin, but it is becoming increasingly rare. Maynard James Keenan has spoken on this subject, but his band, Tool, have court business to hand, that stops him speaking specifically about their own plight. Courtney Love also has chewed and may be about spit out her paymasters in a rancorous dispute over the fate of the excellent 'Celebrity Skin' record, but no-one can really get near her, so each of her intentions are currently in the realm of personal conjecture. Elsewhere, it's not a happy sight. Businessmen such as Fred Durst speak only in terms of greed and power, seemingly for its own sake. Papa Roach gush about imprint labels with the wide-eyed wonder of the first-timer. Linkin Park trumpet the company line in a way that makes their good music somehow sound suspicious.

In a real sense, what do you see as the effect of this process?

Trent: "Well, let's say you're on a label that has 20 bands, and they have a staff that pushes X amount of releases a month and that can handle that many things. Suddenly that label is sold to a bigger label that just bought 10 other labels just like yours. And the guy who used to say yes or no to the album budgets that you had to answer to as a musician, now he has to answer to the guy that's his new boss, who's an accountant who doesn't know about music or care about music. What he does care about is, 'What were our profits this quarter?'. So if that guy wants to keep his job, then he's gonna punish the musician, the janitor of the music business. When the guy who is pushing the pen says, 'Well, Britney Spears made us this much money... wow, that's great. Sonic Youth? Who are they? Lose 'em. Next'. All that matters today is what's making money today. And if it's not making money, then get rid of them."

As a janitor, how does that make you feel?

Trent: "I find myself fighting a battle on almost every front now. I'm making music and I'm under contract with a company that's selling my music, and they're taking a lion's share of the profits to do that. They're not doing me a favour. Now let me get this point out straight, I got into music because I didn't have a choice, that's what I do. It happened this way, but if I didn't have this then I would still be doing this. Having success and money is nice, but it is not the main reason why I started doing this. But now I'm with a company who sell my music, and music has been so reduced down that it's now just product - because it's all about how many you sold, how many units you moved to this or that demographic - that when something comes up it just throws everything into chaos. So I'm currently having an argument as to whether I can have five colour printing on the cover of the album or not? And they're saying, 'It doesn't matter to the kids, what the f**k do they care?'. You're just a problematic musician. Well, I still look at music and my music as being art. Maybe it shouldn't be on sale in a (US chainstore) Walmart. But this stuff matters to me, and that's all I can base my judgements on. But more and more it becomes about how many you sold. And more and more you hear musicians complementing each other on their bank accounts. Rather than, 'That was a great song. That moved me'."

People talk about 'The Fragile' not as a piece of music, but rather as a commercial disappointment. How do you feel about that?

Trent: "Well the media jumps in on it as well, which is what happened with 'The Fragile'. That's a record that I was very proud of and am very proud of, and although it sold more than I thought it would it didn't sell as many as the record company thought that it would. So it's a failure. And now that seems to be the poster album for the rock-is-dead commercial failure."

Do you think the music you talk about as not liking has any effect on the impact your music is allowed to make?

Trent: "I think it does because a whole precedent is set up where music becomes disposable. In today's terms if you were to poll 100 people outside of Virgin or Tower Records and say, 'On the average CD you buy, how many good songs are there on it?', what would you think their answer would be? Two songs? Three songs maybe. So what is an album? An album is a way that record labels can sell a hit single at the inflated price of an album. You sign a disposable artist that has one good song, fill an album full of shit, send it out, sell it dummies and throw it away next week. It's started a climate where everyone's attention span is lessened. I don't think there's many people at record labels that look at their artists as having careers in the long term. I was lucky enough to get in at a time when it was possible to do that. So I hoped that I would be around as long as a band such as The Cure or Depeche Mode, bands who had been around for 10 or 15 years. I can't imagine bands that I hear (now) that I would even remember who they were in five years from now."

Which is all well and good, apart from the fact that it's debatable whether Nine Inch Nails have actually done their bit in arresting what Trent Reznor describes as a slipping of the standard. Of all the bands that emerged in the period he describes above, NIN are one of the few outfits, along with Tool and Pearl Jam, still in any kind of health. Nirvana are no more, Soundgarden are no more, Rage Against The Machine's future is unclear and Jane's Addiction seemed to have hopped on the nostalgia ticket with their reformation(s). But what of it? Nine Inch Nails themselves have only released two studio albums in the last eight years, 1994's 'The Downward Spiral' and 'The Fragile' five years later. That's plenty of time for bad things to happen when Trent Reznor is away from the watch. And many NIN fans may greet the arrival of a live double album with a sort of hollow pleasure. As in: it's nice to have you back, but is this really all you have to offer?

Do you think you could have done more to arrest the slide you describe by releasing more music?

Trent: "That's hard to say. I wish I had released more music and I can only really blame myself for that. Every time I've been approached by the media to represent a group of people or a movement I've told them not to look to me for that. But, yeah, I wish things had been slightly different. But I have enough faith in the music-listening public that they'll soon have had enough of look-a-like blonde Barbie doll singer fluff music, or enough comic book scary bands, or enough f**king rap-metal, or enough bland power rock bands. I mean with that last one, my f**king God, what has happened there? Eddie Vedder should start suing these people for sounding like him, for f**k's sake. "But myself as an artist, if I don't have anything to say, then what is the point of saying anything? And I would imagine that the guy from Bush (Gavin Rossdale) probably never asked himself that question. 'Wow, I can sound a lot like Nirvana, kick ass! We'll get a deal'. Unless he's that stupid that this never occurred to him. But what's the point of imitation apart from the fact that it begets more imitation? And you do have to wonder what is going on in these people's heads."

But specifically the point of you not releasing enough music over the years - could you address that?

Trent: "Well the eternal answer to why I haven't had more music out is that I didn't ever sit down and say, 'Let me make a band that's about this, where I'll write about this...'. It just came out. When I first started making music I had no idea what I was going to write about. I knew I liked the Clash but I didn't know shit about politics, so either I could fake it or I could try and make it honest. So in the end I resorted to journal entries that had almost been written as lyrics, stuff that I thought I could never let people hear. But when I did it had a power to it because it was so honest and I was saying things from the heart. Even though I'm not particularly proud of what I'd said, it did have a certain truth to it. But it got to the point where I was giving so much of myself away that I could almost predict where I was going to head, so I'd written an album about it before I'd even done it. And that was basically despair, drug addiction, isolation, desolation and suicide. And I began to wonder if this fatalistic approach was my destiny? And all the while the band is getting bigger, so you think, 'Well, must be doing something right'. And I wonder if that has been a little bit corrupting."

Is there anything you do like, musically or otherwise, at the moment?

Trent: "Well, I'm doing a pretty good job of that all by myself! Well, I've been listening to Spiritualized and Mercury Rev at the moment. And a lot of Rush as well."

And those you don't like...

Trent: "Oh, there's plenty of those. I'm not saying I'm averse to a good pop song, like something by Incubus, although I'm not going to run out and buy their album or anything. But I'll sit with my mouth open in front of the TV watching what gets played these days. And I think people have been conditioned to this, and that's how bands of extreme mediocrity rise to the top. People don't know that there's anything better than this."

Extreme mediocrity? Do you mean a band like Creed?

Trent: "Oh my God, yes, exactly. But I don't even really take offence at them because we're not doing the same thing. It's almost like we're not the same species. I don't want to fight them, but I don't want to listen to them, either."

If you were to take Trent Reznor at his word, that music for him was a necessity rather than a choice, then there is plenty of evidence to support the supposition on 'All That Could Have Been'. There are parts of the album that just burn with energy and turmoil, on songs such as a rejuvenated 'Wish' or the echoing unfulfilment of 'Something I Can Never Have'. But if 'All...' is not a backward-looking album, at best all it manages to do is to take what has been and drag it into the present, albeit with some conviction and purpose. As for the future, Trent Reznor isn't really saying. He's involved in a couple of projects, some of which have to do with Nine Inch Nails and some of which don't. As usual, he'll let you know when he's ready. Until then, the subject matter is very much all that could have been.

If Nine Inch Nails were starting out now, how do you feel this deterioration in the standard of music might impact on what you were trying to do?

Trent: "That's impossible to answer, really. All I can say is that the music that I've liked has been indicative of where I was at the time. So if I was starting out now, I don't know how it would sound. But since I'm on a bitching spree, I'll say this. Rock 'n' roll was originally a black music that was assimilated by Elvis and the like. Now to me that was just a story in a book, I wasn't around to see that. But you can see it happening again with hip-hop and rap, that the white man has taken over that as well. There's nothing wrong with synthesis or with influence but what gets me is when you see the blatant appropriation of a lifestyle lie. 'Where are you from? Oh, just down the street? So not from the inner city at all?'. You know, I think all these bands that have turntablists are doing nothing more than clambering aboard the Titanic and sailing to their death. They are the spandex pants bands of this generation."

Nine Inch Nails fans are a particularly intense and attentive collective. Are you heartened by that?

Trent: "Well, I am surprised by that. When I started, my expectations were that it wouldn't be a hundredth as big as it is now. In my wildest dreams I wouldn't have thought that I would be here now doing what I'm doing, and it surprised me that what at times I think of as a pretty extreme message has touched so many people. But I think one of the dangers of that is that I sometimes think that if I hadn't done a video for 'Closer', or if I hadn't written that song, or if we hadn't have done Woodstock or Lollapalooza or any number of semi-chance-based things that didn't allow us to tap into the pulse of what was going on, and if we hadn't have sold this many records, would my music have been better today because of that?"

And would it?

Trent: "Well, it's an impossible-to-answer question. Maybe it would be, or maybe not. But the point of it is this, when you go from a medium to a large-sized band you're rewarded for that. Suddenly you have a nice house, you don't have to worry about money for this and that, you have a studio and you're on a little firmer artistic ground with the record label. All these little benefits that you've got from selling records to people. So now it comes to doing a new record. Well, with 'The Fragile' I really made a conscious effort to not let concern about sales affect what I was doing with the record. I tried my best - I can't say I succeeded entirely - but as consciously as I could I didn't think about whether the people that liked 'Closer' would like this or not. There's a struggle to remind yourself as an artist to take care of your voice, and by that I don't mean your singing voice. I mean your output. And you need to protect it from things that might tarnish it."

Do you ever feel like a whore?

Trent: "I've done everything that I can do to avoid that. There's plenty of things that come up that would easily add a couple of zeros to the bank balance, but I'm just not happy doing that. I'm not happy doing music for wrestling tournaments. Ten years ago bands wouldn't even consider putting a song on a commercial for Nike, that would have been a stake in the heart of integrity. But now nobody seems to care. They're selling shit to the corporate man."

What would you like to think your legacy is like so far?

Trent: "Here's how I feel - and I feel a little pretentious even saying this - when all is said and done, and I hope that's not today, I'd like to see my career as being someone who put music out that didn't necessarily fit in at the time it came out, but that contributed to the greater good of treating music as art and as something that should be challenging. When people say that 'The Fragile' was too challenging for the times, all I can ask is what's the alternative? Should I have put something that just caters to what I think are today's tastes, something that might help my numbers? To be viewed as someone who made music in honesty rather than for money, and made music for the right reasons would really be all I could ask for."∑