Back with a
retrospective live album, Nine Inch Nails have returned to sully our senses.
Tommy Udo talked to industrial icon Trent Reznor about the new project and the
band‘s uneasy future...
Live Albums stink. Half-assed cruddy sounding
sub-standard bum-note laden toss, cynical contractual obligations that only the
most cloth-eared or anal-retentive collector would ever actually want to own.
Live albums (and by extension live videos/DVDs) have neither the raw excitement
of a great gig or the hard hewn perfectionism of a great studio song.
There are exceptions: AC/DCs ‘IfYou Want Blood,
You‘ve Got It‘, Hawkwind‘s ‘Space Ritual‘ and The MC5‘s ‘Kick Out The Jams‘ are
as good as or better than any of their studio records. But mostly they‘re cheap
and shoddy cashins designed to milk the last few bucks from the diminishing fan
base of washed up bands on the road back to nowhere.
That Might Have Been‘ is one of the rare exceptions: a live audio and DVD video
retrospective of the first decade of Nine Inch Nails caught on The Fragile
tour, it perfectly conveys the same madness, the beautiful destructiveness that
is NIN onstage.
The DVD package, filmed on tour using digital
video and mixed in surroundsound even brings a new dimension to the usual lame
NIN in the studio and NIN onstage are two
completely different entities, and it was as a control-freak studio boffin,
playing all the instruments himself, that Trent Reznor moulded the sound. But
history will judge the NIN line-up here: Robin Finck and Reznor on guitars and
keyboards, Danny Lohner on bass and keyboards, Charlie Clouser on keyboards and
theremin, and Jerome Dillon on drums — as one of ‘the‘ classic live acts of the
past decade. ‘Head Like A Hole‘ and ‘Closer‘ still retain the visceral punch in
the gut power that they have when played live.
It‘s not the usual live album second-best
version of the studio recordings: it‘s a worthy addition to them, an
interpretation that enhances them.
Live albums are usually a watershed in a band‘s
career. For Trent Reznor, ‘And All That Might Have Been‘ is a full stop to over
a decade of apocalyptic noise. It also marks the beginning of the next phase of
NIN which will be radically different to anything that went before.
‘We were nearing the end of the tour supporting
‘The Fragile‘ and I’m standing onstage one day and not that I do this that
often I was congratulating myself on getting the tour together,“ says Reznor. “I
was very proud of it and feeling that a lot of effort had paid oft, the co-ordination
of the production, the whole presentation. And I also realised that in a good
and bad way that the tour was kind of a retrospective of everything I’ve done.
I thought then, ‘Well I don’t think I’m gonna do this again I remember that with
the band we learned pretty much every song I’ve ever written and whittled it
down to what the folks want to hear as opposed to what wed like to play. I
based that decision on the fact that I’ve gone to enough shows as a fan where I
generally want to hear a well-rounded collection of music that I love as
opposed to the entire new album. I was torn whether to do what I wanted to do
or a more crowd-pleasing show which is what it turned out to be. I wanted to
document that we had did this and to act as a kind of look at what we had done
up until that point as a way to move away from it into the future.
From the release of ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ in
the early 90s through its follow up ‘The Downward Spiral’ to ‘The Fragile’,
Reznor has always been unsatisfied always pushing the work a little bit
further. Even when he has finished a song he keeps going back to it reworking
and remixing. It’s as if there’s no definitive version of a Nine Inch Nails
song, as though the version he releases on record is only the latest one, and
that others - equally good - preceded it and will follow it. That he is now
looking at a drastic overhaul of the very concept of Nine Inch Nails itself -
which has been everything from Trent playing all the instruments in the studio
to the fully fledged proper‘ band who went on the road with ‘The Fragile‘ - is
hardly a surprise.
Trent sounds comparatively upbeat; the
man who has been the ultimate miserable goth icon for the past decade often
lived up to his image, going through phases of sullen pique and monosyllabic
mutterings in interviews. The idea that he would play a live set as a crowd
pleaser - and admit that that‘s what he had done - would have been anathema to
the younger Reznor. But as he repeatedly makes clear, this album is the end of an
era, the end of Nine Inch Nails as we know Nine Inch Nails and maybe its this
process of laying to rest a lot about what Nine Inch Nails stood fort hat has
filled him with optimism.
‘I need to risk failure to move into whatever
is next. The whole format of the band needs to evolve,“ he says.
Does that imply personnel changes?
“Personnel will probably change to fit whatever
the new format is. It needs to be a bit more fresh and daring from my
When you say failure do you mean commercial or
“Say I decided to go out and play with an
acoustic piano on the next tour. That may be risking failure because I know
that if I get this band that I have and we splatter ourselves in corn starch
and play Head Like A Hole‘, people are gonna like it. I pretty much know that
that will happen because I‘ve been doing it for 10 years. So the idea of - not
only in the studio- trying to reinvent and try new things and push myself. I
wouldn‘t mind trying some new things.“ Going on tour with an acoustic piano is
actually one of the possibilities that Trent is looking at. On the bonus CD
Still that accompanies the live album, Trent ‘deconstructs‘ songs from The
Fragile‘, performing them at a piano in a live setting.
“In the middle of The Fragility tour I had new
resources that I didn’t have before. The new drummer Jerome Dillon is
excellent... the musicianship level in the band is higher than it has ever
been. We messed around at soundchecks and took songs that we enjoyed playing
but that for one reason or another didn’t fit with the live set and somebody
asked us to do a radio show that was deconstructed - I don’t want to say ‘unplugged’
- where I played piano, there was no drum kit, where it wasn’t a big rock
production. And I wanted to be sure that this live album had value when it
wasn‘t part of the DVD set, so we remixed the stuff and felt that these tracks
showed a different side to the band. A sort of rainy day melodies that showed a
more melancholy side to counterpoint the live show. It‘s the hangover for the
next day... it‘s not all forks in the eyeballs!“
Reznor‘s adamant that ‘Still‘ is a little
curiosity rather than a signpost to the future direction that NIN will take and
that while an acoustic club tour is on the cards, it‘s not necessarily the only
path that Reznor will take in future.
“My favourite venues are clubs, where you can see
the audience and the audience can see you without 30 feet of security barriers in
between,“ he says. “At the same time the other things I’d love to do would be
to actually score a movie.“
Reznor‘s involvement in the soundtracks for
both Oliver Stone‘s Natural Born Killers and David Lynch‘s Lost Highway, both
for the NIN contributions and the other artists that he brought in - most
notably Marilyn Manson who actually appeared at the end of Lost Highway - was
instrumental in the way that movie soundtracks began to change in the 90s, at
best standing as entities in themselves (and at worst as spurious cash-ins
bearing only a tenuous relationship to the songs that you actually heard on the
“Actually my big dream is that David Cronenberg
calls me up and tells me that he’s got a project that he wants me to work on
from start tp finish‘ admits Trent. “I’d love him to say I‘ve got an uneasy
film and I need same uneasy music to go with it. I’m not saying that this would
replace what I want to do with Nine Inch Nails, but I’d like to go in and find
out what I don’t like about it!“
If you see Trent Reznor only as some missing
link between Al Jourgensen and Marilyn Manson, the results may be quite
shocking. For fans reared on the frothing at the mouth cyberpunk of ‘Pretty
Hate Machine‘ and the deep negativity of ‘The Downward Spiral’, it may even
smack of betrayal and heresy (and you should never forget that Reznor‘s first
stage appearance was as Judas in the school production of Jesus Christ Superstar!). There‘s an obvious comparison to be made
between the nine songs an Still‘ and the stark, atonal minimalism of
Radiohead‘s Kid A‘ and Björk‘s recent ‘Vespertine. It‘s the sort of record that
must have had all the high ranking label bods cancelling Christmas the moment
they heard it.
‘The Fragile‘, released in ‘00, was Trent
Reznor‘s most ambitious work: at nearly two hours, it required the sort of
commitment that you give when you sit down to read Crime And Punishment. But in a dumbed down post-dotcom age when the
corporate marketing chimps have trouble reading their own nametags never mind
Dostoyevsky, Nine Inch Nails made an album that his record company Interscope
(all NIN releases are an Trent‘s Nothing imprint bat distribution is handled by
Interscope) simply couldn‘t understand or deal with. Despite entering the
Billboard album charts at Number One, the album is still perceived ass
monumental commercial failure.
“I knew it was a pretty difficult record in a
disposable climate but I guess I’m more disappointed in the fact that the media
seem to equate commercial success with things being good. I have to admit that
I get defensive when that starts coming up because it‘s an album that I loved
and I still love. If you‘d asked me when I put out ‘The Downward Spiral‘, I’d
never have thought then that it would even sells tenth of what it did and I
think in the long run the success of that album was damaging to career in a way
in that now the stakes have gone up. As a musician you‘re put into this
competitive race to see who sells more record in the first week than the other
guy. And that‘s not a good thing if you‘re in music for the reasons that I’m in
it. My anger at the distributor sterns from their inability to understand what
they‘re trying to sell. When you push my record through the same hole that
Eminem goes through, it doesn‘t fit and when it started to not fit, it was left
to die on the floor.“
Trent is also understandably pissed off that
Radiohead‘s ‘Kid A‘, an album as musically ‘difficult‘ in every way as ‘The
Fragile‘, is perceived as being a success.
“I love Radiohead and this isn‘t anything
against them. Those albums ‘Kid A‘ and ‘Amnesiac‘ were two of my favourite
records of last year,“ he says. “With the distributors I have, if they had
tried to understand or put a little more thought into presenting it to the
right people. On that label alone, the Radiohead machinery, the people behind
them, succeeded, our machinery failed. Radiohead‘s team
of people that sold you that record also sold you the perception that it
worked, it was a success. The actual numbers would challenge that (FYI: ‘The
Fragile‘ actually sold more than ‘Kid A‘, shifting 800,000 double albums in the
US to Radiohead‘s 300,000) but it didn‘t matter. They won, you didn‘t question it.
Interscope dropped the ball. And it‘s not like they’re doing me a favour with
this album because they are still taking the lion‘s share.“
Tellingly, Interscope did not understand why
Reznor wanted to include ‘Still‘- which contains new songs - as a bonus disc in
the package and wanted to promote it as the ‘new‘ NIN album. And speaking of
which, It took two years in the studio before ‘The Fragile‘ saw the light of day.
Other projects - like the long mooted Tapeworm collaboration involving Trent,
Charlie Clouser from NIN, Maynard James Keenan from Tool/A Perfect Circle,
Danny Lohner, Phil Anselmo, various members of Prong and Helmet — isn‘t about
to arrive any time soon. Are we gonna be drawing our pensions when the next NIN
studio album hits?
“Actually I’m writing a lot at the moment. I‘ve
got a notebook full of stuff and quite a bit of semi finished music waiting to
be worked an. I’m still in the process of editorial, deciding what makes sense for
NIN proper, but in my head right now I feel like I’ve unloaded a lot of baggage
that‘s made me a lot more appreciative of my life and my reason for making
music. My enthusiasm level is high right now,“ he laughs. “I’m just ready to
get beat back down again!“
As to what the next level of NIN will actually
sound like, we can only speculate based on the evidence of ‘The Fragile‘s more
out-there moments and the stripped down approach on ‘Stift Asked what he‘s
listening to he mentions Radiohead, Julian Cope‘s ‘Autogeddon‘ and ‘20
Mothers‘, Spiritualized, and Beethoven‘s Piano Sonatas. Clue or red herring?
When can we expect this?
“In a perfect world... well, I’m starting on it
now. 2008 or something? No, I’d love for it to be completed by the summer.
That‘s my goal.“