Nine Inch Nails

Nine Inch Nails Interviews

Trent Reznor Interview

Danny Scott of Future Music

FM: Were you always into electronic music?

TR: I grew up in Pennsylvania. Back then, if you had a band, it was a covers band. That's all there was. (Learned piano when I was a kid and I eventually started getting into keyboards, but all I was doing was filling in with other bands. Not even session work. I was just joining some band for a few gigs at a bar in some town somewhere.

I'd always been into computers because I was good at math, but the idea of actual 'electronic' music didn't really hit me till I bought a Moog Prodigy-that was when I was about 16 or 17. That thing just blew my mind. Initially, I thought I'd combine the math and the music. Maybe design synths or consoles or something like that. But, eventually, it dawned on me that, eventually though I was very good at calculus, J didn't actually like doing it. So, I decided to do something I did like. Music.

FM: What else did you have beside the Moog Prodigy?

TR: Well, first of all I moved away from home. To the nearest city, which was Cleveland. Luckily, I got a job in a keyboard shop, which kind of introduced me to this whole new world. This was back in the days just before the DX7... when you got things like the Kurzweil selling for 3,500 dollars. Getting a new piece of gear was a BIG deal!

I remember getting a Commodore 64 with the Sequential Circuits cartridge sequencer slotted into the back - it didn't even have quantize. And then I got a Linn 9000. Man, have you ever tried to program one of those things? But I was starting to build up my rig. I think the next thing 1 bought was a Prophet VS from the keyboard shop 1 worked at. I got it for cost, but the box was too big to fit in my car, so I threw the box away and put the keyboard in my car and drove off. Unfortunately, I stopped off at a friend's house on the way home and forgot that I'd left my window down. It started raining and the Prophet got soaked. I hadn't even got it home.

I dried it out the next day, but something must have happened to the VCA, because the sound started getting progressively weirder and weirder. I kinda ended up liking it that way. I've used that keyboard on every album since... and every album it gets a little bit more fucked up.

FM: So, what was in your studio by the time you came to record Pretty Hate Machine?

TR: The Linn, the Prophet, the Moog, an Oberheim Expander and an EMAX sampler, all running from a Mac Plus- one of those little self-contained models - with Performer for a sequencer. Looking back now, that was the last time I really had a limited set-up, but that meant I was forced to learn every Trick in the book. Sampling things an octave higher so you could maximize sample space .. things like that.

By the lime I got my record deal with TVT to release that first album, I was the definition of ready-to-go. Man, I was prepared. I had spent days and weeks and months on these songs. Everything was there. All the drums programmed. All had to do was add some guitars and redo the vocals. The deal didn't give me much money, but I did persuade them to give me enough to come over to the UK and work with John Fryer [who produced the likes of Depeche Mode, Cocteau Twins and had long relationship with the 4AD label]. I really admired Fryer's work, but we didn't hit it off. He was into experimenting in the studio, but I'd already experimented with these songs about 3,000 times. They were as finished as they were ever going to be. My money I' d got from TVT gave me about a month in the UK, which was about two days to record and mix each song. I just wanted to get the album finished.

FM: TVT didn't like it did they?

TR: The word they used was 'abortion'. They thought they were demos. They said, 'What you need to do is polish these up and make them sound like everything else on the radio.' Obviously, this wasn't a very comforting thing to hear when you've just recorded your first album, but I sat down and tried to really objectively listen to the songs. I felt that maybe two or three songs could benefit from another mix. Head Like A Hole was one of them and I gal another couple of grand out of TVT for a session with Keith LeBlanc in New York.

He helped to program a few more drums and livened things up a bit, but what actually came out was still pretty much me and my original demos. That whole first album was me in the studio, just messing around. Trying to find an identity. Trying to find out how I wanted to sound.

FM: It couldn't have been all that bad. You eventually sold over a million copies. Were you surprised when it became a hit?

TR: Surprised? Fuck, yeah! It was bigger than I'd ever dreamed. And the strange thing is that it all seems to happen in a whirlwind. You have no control over it. One day, you're over here, and the next day, you're way over here wondering what the hell is happening. I couldn't play the songs live. I didn't have a band. That's how unprepared l was.

When I did start putting the band together and we started playing some of the songs from Pretty Hate Machine, I think it really changed my mind about what I wanted to do in the studio. Out on tour, the songs sounded like these giant, ferocious... things. But when I put the album on, I thought, 'This is weak. This is light.' When I went back in to the studio to do Broken and The Downward Spiral, I think it was my attempt to recreate the aggression and the power of playing live. And, looking back, I think it was a bit of knee-jerk reaction to all those people who said Nine Inch Nails was pop music. At the time, that hurt me. My heroes didn't play pop music. My heroes were 242, Skinny Puppy, Ministry... the power of heavy metal, with out the schlock and the leather trousers.

FM: You talk about recreating that aggression and power of playing live, and it's fairly obvious that you found a new sound for Nine Inch Nails. If you lake something like Wish [from the Broken EP]. it's a million miles away from anything on Pretty Hate Machine.

TR: The difference was digital audio. Literally. That was what had changed. I think Pro Tools was out at the time, but I wasn't interested in the whole digital tape deck side of things. I wanted something that was grid-based. I needed a sequencer.

My world was Studio Vision. Their very first four-track digital audio package and a bit of Digidesign hardware. These days, it doesn't seem like much, but this gave me a whole new way of recording. I started to think about loops of audio. I could find the right drum loop and then I could jam over the top of that with bass or synth or guitar fat 20 minutes and then go back to find the best bits. To me, it was the most inspiring thing that had ever happened. I loved working on my own and this allowed me complete freedom.

There were no plug-ins or anything like that, but I did have a programme called Turbosynth, which was kind of a wave-shaper-type-thing. You could record something on Studio Vision, export it into Turbosynth and export it back out to Studio Vision. All the guitars on Broken were done like that. Which I guess is why they all sound so crazy.

FM: What about The Downward Spiral? Sounds like you had a bit of a laugh making that album.

TR: Oh, yeah. It was a riot. Happy happy times. Two hours of hard to listen to, dense, hard to understand... what do I call it? I suppose I thought it was art. But it was certainly not what people wanted to hear at the peak of the disposable grunge/metal single. When 1 handed it in to Interscope [Reznor signed with Interscope after the lengthy legal wrangles that followed the release of Pretty Hate Machine], I sent them an apology saying, 'This is not Head Like A Hole, but it's what I wanted to do. I love it, but I know you're going to have a tough time with it:

FM: The Interscope deal must have given you a bit more freedom with the recording budget.

TR: Definite]y. I was working with 16 tracks of audio and I got the Akai S1100 sampler, so I got stereo samples for the first time. I started using a portable DAT and a stereo microphone to go out and record things. My pallet had just got much larger.

I also had the money to put all that equipment into my first proper studio, which meant that I was able to spend more time on the songs. In fact, what did happen was that the whole demo, writing and recording process all melted into one. I would go into the he studio, work on ideas, and those ideas would turn into finished songs. There was no distinction between the demo process and the recording process as there had been before.

With the next album, Fragile, I just took the whole recording process one step further. It was a no-holds-barred version of what I had for Downward Spiral. I had 96 tracks of audio and every keyboard and sampler known to man. I didn't know where to start.

FM: It must have been awful for you.

TR: Sorry, I didn't mean to sound like I was complaining. It was amazing. I had the man to bring in good engineers to help me record vocals and drums ... I could afford someone to come in and mix.

But I began to think, 'Where do you go from here?' Because the equipment was getting better and getting cheaper, everyone was suddenly working on the same computer-based systems. Everyone could chop up the sound and everyone could fix things with a plug-in. It was easy to do things right and everyone was doing things right. The music all began to sound the same

FM: Nine Inch Nails, too?

TR: Let's put it this way ... when it came to recording With Teeth, I felt like I definitely needed a change.

FM: Back to the Commodore 64?

TR: Not quite, but I did go backwards. Like I said, everybody had discovered the 'right' way to do things. Every piece of music sounded perfect because there was always a piece of software to fix the problem. I remember when I first came across a download called Pluggo. For 79 fucking dollars, I could do in minutes what, in the past, would have taken me an un-Christly amount of time. And a programme like Live. You mean... the loop will always be in time? I can pitch up and down and it doesn't alter the speed? I wanted to grab hold of the people who'd invented that thing and say, 'Do you know what I went through? Do you know how much time I wasted trying to get loops in time?

It was only then that it dawned on me that I was actually lucky. I was lucky that I'd had to go through all that shit. I was able to think back to a time when there were mistakes in the music. when everything wasn't perfect. If you've only been making music in the last couple of years, you haven't had to sweat and worry. You haven't had to wonder how you're going to afford a Prophet VS. You haven't got it wet on the way home. It's almost like we've forgotten how to be human.

FM: Does that mean you're anti programmes like Reason or GarageBand?

TR: God, no! It's fucking great that software like that is out there. I've even put one of the new songs on GarageBand for people to download as a free multi-track. I love the idea that people everywhere are going to be able to mess around with it.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that you have to be very careful not to forget what music is about. Emotion. Feeling. It's like when I was looking for a programmer to work with on this new album. Richard Divine is an amazing programmer. He's done a lot of work with Native Instruments. Very cool guy. Hut when he came by to check out my rig, he had this really strange look on his face. I could see him staring at this row of about 10 Digidesign 192 interfaces... all hooked up to my big old SSL desk ... all with extra analogue outs. He said, 'You don't need all this stuff, Y'know. You can do all the mixing in the computer. Why do you want to fuck with what's in the computer?' And, of course, he's right. When he's working on Pro Tools, he only has a stereo pair faded up.

He doesn't understand how I work because he's from a new generation. And he looks at my studio and thinks that it's completely archaic. But those faders are there because I like faders. And I like knobs. And I like to really crank things up. That's what I grew up with and that allows me to stay in touch with what I'm doing. They remind me that the music does not live in the computer. It exists outside, as well.

FM: Did that really make such a huge difference to the new album?

TR: Totally. Remember what I was saying earlier about how I got to a point where there was no distinction between demos, writing and recording? This time, I vent back to just doing demos. I sat there with a piano and a drum machine and I worked on ideas. There was no strategy and no big plan. I just got about 25 songs together and waded through the results to flush out the bits that didn't work. The new album is a lot more songy.

FM: Does that mean that this is more of a band album? Dave Grohl plays on some of the songs, doesn't he?

TR: Yeah, Dave came in and played on about half of the songs and my drummer [Jerome Dillon] played on the other half, but the rest is purely me. I've never been good at that whole working together thing. And I don't think I ever will be.

The big difference was that I wasn't worrying about loops all the time. I wasn't searching for the perfect take and then looping it throughout the whole song. Take the bass lines. For the first time in years, I began to think about the bass line as a whole. How it worked with the whole song, not just four bars. We did fix some things, but this album has a lot more actual human performances. It has a lot more mistakes.

Transcribed by waltrex - 2005-06-25


The Upward Interview

— by Corey Moss

Trent Reznor is back where he belongs. Standing like a track star stretching his calf, sweat seeping from his face, hands choking a microphone, he stares far beyond the tens of thousands of fans in front of him.

Eleven years after his "holy sh--!" show at Woodstock, the mastermind of Nine Inch Nails is announcing his return on another festival's stage. There's no mud at Coachella, only windblown dust dancing with the palm trees behind him. The band is different, and he's bulkier than when we last saw him, but otherwise all the same elements seem to be there: The black hair draping his face. The piano trickling over deafening synthesizers. The angst. Definitely the angst.

On the inside, though, things have changed. The "Nothing can stop me now" line, from "Piggy," carries far more weight than it did in 1995. At Coachella, a little more than 24 hours before With Teeth, his first album in six years, will hit shelves, Reznor is finally feeling invincible.

"Working on this record made it very clear to me how governed by fear I've been working on other records, how concerned I've been about what other people think," Reznor explains, a week earlier and much less sweaty. "I would never have admitted it, but I can see now I did care a lot about those things and it kept Nine Inch Nails, maybe for the better, narrowed into a certain thing. I'm less concerned about keeping it [so focused] now and [more concerned with] trying to make it more truthful and honest."

Before Trent Reznor could become the confident, content (dare we say happy?) man he is today, he had to hit rock bottom. That moment came about four years ago, while touring behind The Fragile, when he woke up in a London hospital after overdosing on heroin.

"I had to come to terms about becoming an addict, which, for a long time, I lied to myself about the status of until I couldn't lie any more, 'cause I was either going to die or get better," he recalls now, in a rare on-camera interview. "I couldn't go forward. So a few years ago I did what I needed to do to get my life in order."

Reznor, who completed a rehab program after touring behind 1994's The Downward Spiral but relapsed while recording 1999's The Fragile, checked himself into a New Orleans treatment center. When he finished the program, he left no longer knowing who he was or what he wanted to do. He took some time off, started working out, mountain biking. He considered not returning to music.

"I had wound up in a terrible, terrible place and I wasn't sure what got me there," he says. "I had to figure a lot of things out. Most importantly, I had to figure out that I still loved music."

During the break, music started to become a separate thing from his career and all the pressures that came with it. "I realized that I really loved music, it's the backdrop and soundtrack to every bit of my life," he says in a speaking voice that is throaty and slightly accented from his years spent living in Louisiana.

Eventually, Reznor got the itch to start writing again. The problem was he couldn't. It'd been four years since The Fragile and a decade since his biggest hit, and he worried that too much time had elapsed.

"What was going through my head was really questioning my own relevance," he explains. "I was wondering if I had anything to say or was any good."

Around that time, Reznor received a call from his friend Rick Rubin, asking if Johnny Cash could cover The Downward Spiral's haunting "Hurt" for the latest in a series of covers albums Rubin was producing. Reznor was flattered but knew the two were working on hundreds of songs and thought it would probably never see the light of day. Then it arrived in the mail.

"I was in the middle of something else, kind of distracted. When I heard it, it surprised me that I felt a bit invaded, like his voice was in my song and it sounded funny to me," Reznor remembers. "Not long after that, I got the video in the mail and that's when [I got] goose bumps, wet eyes."

As bleak as director Mark Romanek's video is, Reznor found it comforting. "It was like a pat on the back in a way, like, 'You can do this. Go out there and write an album.' "

Suddenly, music became not just something the Nine Inch Nails singer enjoyed, but something he needed. Songwriting had always been a remedy, but never this necessary, and never so rewarding.

"It was incredibly therapeutic because I could actually think again," he says. "And I liked myself again and was more enthused about working than I'd ever been. I felt like I'm not anchored to this black cloud that's going to descend on me. I was taking certain chances and allowing something to sound a certain way because I felt more confident than I had. I felt good about things for a change. I'm not saying it's a happy record, [because] it's exploring a lot of things about coming out of that cloud and trying to figure out who I am and what I am with a lot of fresh terrible experiences to think about."

Michael Trent Reznor was born in rural Mercer, Pennsylvania, raised mostly by his grandparents. After dropping out of college to pursue music full-time, he moved to Cleveland, where he eventually started Nine Inch Nails. After famously recording The Downward Spiral in the Los Angeles house where Charles Manson's followers murdered actress Sharon Tate, he used his riches to buy a funeral home in New Orleans and convert it into a mansion and state-of-the-art recording studio.

There, he produced Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar, wrote and produced music for the "Natural Born Killers" and "Lost Highway" soundtracks, and oversaw several remixing projects, including one with his idol, David Bowie. He also recorded The Fragile there, shortly before coming to terms again with his alcohol and drug problems.

When he finally started what would become With Teeth, Reznor found himself haunted by the debauched memories of past recording sessions and decided to move to Los Angeles.

"I just needed a change of scenery," he says, scratching the stubble on his chin. "I also wanted to be around other people who do what I do. It's part of my nature to isolate, and I think living in New Orleans was a good way to hide from the world. And it worked for a while, but in the end I needed to get out of there."

Reznor insists he's not "the scene guy," but he does do a lot more mountain biking. "I've got more friends than I used to have," he adds. Most are sober.

Moving away from New Orleans also brought Reznor back to the method he used while writing 1989's Pretty Hate Machine.

"By the time I did Downward Spiral and The Fragile I had a studio to work in, so I would write in that environment," he explains. "What I found was that songwriting and the arranging and production and the sound design process became the same thing. A song would start with a drum loop or a visual and eventually a song would emerge out of it and that was the song. This time I got back to starting with lyrics and words and really separating the process into songwriting and arranging and production. And when I came out here I just set up a piano, drum machine and computer to record vocals into."

The result is an album with piano on nearly every track. "When it came time to pick the best of the best and arrange them in the studio, I found a lot of the space the piano took up sat nicely," says Reznor. "It was an odd sound with violent live drums and this cold, brittle environment of a piano to anchor everything together."

With Teeth sounds nothing like The Fragile, which Reznor thinks was too long, too "soundscapey," and in some ways, too ambitious. This time he forced himself to write two songs every 10 days, and he recorded them even more quickly.

"If I come up with rules or limitations it focuses me in a direction," he explains. "And those rules can change if you realize it's a dumb idea. You start to mutate it to see what fits best. In this case one of the early concepts was I wanted it to sound played. Not like a garage band, necessarily, but with computers it's easy to fix things and make everything perfect, and sometimes you can lose an element of humanity and imperfection. And the message emotionally was to be a bit frail and unsure of yourself, so we treated things as performances."

Reznor, as usual, played most of the music himself, but he also brought in and coached members of the latest incarnation of Nails. With drummer Jerome Dillon, he often found himself asking the percussionist to play like Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters frontman/former Nirvana drummer who's also sat behind the kit for Queens of the Stone Age and Garbage.

"Finally I thought, 'Why don't I just call Dave and see if he'd do it?' " says Reznor, who met Grohl at a festival in Australia years ago. "A few days later we were in the studio. It really was a great experience. Not only is he a really nice guy, but as a musician, he brought an understanding to the material.

"One of the reasons I wanted to use real drums on this record, as opposed to programming, was I know what programming is going to yield," he continues. "I've done it and I'll do it again. I want the excitement of when you have an exciting guy playing an instrument. It takes it up a notch."

Originally, With Teeth was going to be a concept album called Bleed Through.

"About five or six songs into writing it, the songs started to sound good on their own and they didn't need this framework to work together," Reznor says. "I took a moment to be editorial and say, 'I think it's an unnecessary idea,' and it wasn't out of laziness. It felt like this is going to be an album of a collection of songs that are friends with each other, but they don't have to rely on each other to make sense."

As with Nine Inch Nails' past albums, With Teeth is destined to be blasted from the stereos of men with relationship problems. Lyrics like "Why do you get all the love in the world?" and "Don't you f---ing know what you are?" are the perfect remedy for a bad breakup.

Reznor typically doesn't discuss what songs are about ("Books are better than movies because you design the set the way you want it to look," he offers as an analogy), but he cops to With Teeth being a relationship record, just not the kind you think.

"A lot of this was [about] my relationship with myself, the world at large, and where I might fit into that," he explains. "I learned in my life that I don't know everything. I'm not always the exception to the rule. Also [it's about] my relationship to a disease that's going to kill me if I don't deal with it, and I came very close to that. Hopefully disguised enough that it's not a terribly boring record about recovery and addiction and that nonsense."

When Reznor first started finishing songs for With Teeth he would send them to Rick Rubin, who produced one of the greatest recovery records in modern rock, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Reznor had always produced his own material in the past, however, and eventually he got enough confidence that Rubin's guidance became unnecessary.

"I felt like 'I just need to do this my way, I need to see it through, for better or for worse,' " Reznor says. "It wasn't against any ideas Rick had, it was just every cell in my body as an artist said do this record how you would do it, 'cause I didn't feel short of ideas and I felt like I had a plan and I don't need to approve it by anybody. And I talked to Rick about it and he was cool about it. It was just the natural progression of the record and I'm happy with how it turned out."

Along with the 13 tracks on With Teeth, the sessions yielded at least seven more songs Reznor hopes to eventually release. And since wrapping the album, he's already been writing the next one. "I haven't interrupted the writing process this time, and I feel energized," he says.

Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong recently said, "It's sexy to be an angry young man, but to be a bitter old bastard is another thing altogether." It's something Reznor's been thinking about lately. In a few weeks he turns 40.

"I feel like I've come out of a coma and thought, 'Wow, how did I get to be this age?' " he muses. "When I've sat down to write, I've always had the main criteria to be honest with myself about how I feel about whatever it is I'm writing about. As long as it feels valid to me and feels sincere, I'll do what I do under the moniker of Nine Inch Nails if it's appropriate. I would hate to think I would ever be in a position where I'm faking it to get a paycheck.

"Frankly, on that topic," he continues, "It's been four and a half years since we've toured and a big question for me was wondering if this is going to still seem valid and relevant. ... And as of right now, we've played a handful of shows and it felt real onstage. I don't feel like I'm playing a role that I used to be. It feels relevant and valid and I'm very happy that it feels that way. It feels good to be onstage."

Just where he belongs.


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