An Interview with Trent Reznor
Eric: Considering all the resources at your disposal, how does somebody who wants to do what you're doing start?
Trent: What I asked myself was, "What do I want to do? What is my end result?" My end result would be to get myself into a situation where I don't have to worry about a day job, my job can be making music. I'd like to be as successful as I can at that on my terms. How do I get there? I get a record contract. How do I get a record contract? Well, living in Cleveland, every poor fool thinks you go out and play in bars and some idiot's going to see you. It doesn't happen. It doesn't happen there anyway. So I thought make a tape that's the best I can make and people have to know it's good and get excited. How do you do that? Well, I didn't have a band, and the only means necessary was electronics. Pretty Hate Machine was recorded on an old school Mac (which was about fifteen hundred bucks then), a sequencing program and one sampler that you could buy in the paper for $300 bucks right now (which was then about two grand). A sampler, I think, is the coolest thing, because anything you hear can become anything else. If you wanted a drum to be a car door slamming, that's what it is. Everyone's got these all-in-one boxes that have every sound in the world in them and it's all preset. They're good arrangement tools, but they're so generic, every sound in the world...And it's just like that guy and just like that guy.
Josh: There's a definite difference between what you record and what you do live. Since you create most of your music in the studio, how do you work with people so that they get the same kind of gratification out of it?
Trent: I can't speak for them. But, I didn't want to tour by myself because that would suck. And I didn't want to have it all be taped or sequenced. The idea of getting a band together that plays stuff live was interesting, but I thought "Will this music work with people playing it live versus a computer?" It was a choice to use computers in the first place. I like the sound that they make more than people in some cases. I was trying to strike the right balance between what was live and what was sequenced and still trying to maintain the electronic feel. So I looked for some people I thought could understand where I was coming from and I think I found them.
Josh: In what ways do they participate in the creative process?
Trent: I set up the framework and I explain to them what Nine Inch Nails is all about. I'm pretty heavy-handed at first, to make sure everyone understands what we're trying to be. It's not about playing perfect every night. It's about just understanding the message of the songs, whatever they might mean to you. And getting that point across. That speaks a lot louder than a cool haircut or a virtuoso guitar solo. I think the guys I've got are good players. But I didn't get them because they were the best players. They had an understanding of what I was trying to say. Once I saw they were getting it, then it was, "Okay, now make it your own." Live, we don't sound like the record. I don't care, I don't want to sound like the record. When we were playing Lollapalooza, and were playing in front of a mainly rock audience, I had a lot of people come up to me and actually say, "I heard your fuckin' band. I'd never heard you guys, you were awesome. I went out and got your record. What's all this faggoty synth shit?" I just had to laugh. You know? Sorry.
Eric: It seems most of the music you write is working through personal issues, problems, traumas, whatever. How do you keep up the energy to walk out on stage and expose your naked emotions to people day after day?
Trent: Sometimes it's great and sometimes it sucks. I don't know. It's a weird feeling...It seems different to me than your typical "go see a rock band" thing. I'm trying not to sound pretentious by saying these things, but I hope that our show is more honest. It gets people at a level that's... I don't know how to answer that question. It's a bizarre feeling to be in front of people you've never seen before, never will see again, and they're singing words back to you that came from inside. And they look like they mean it, but they have no idea what I am talking about. I know they don't, but it means something to them and that's cool. When it works, there's a feeling of having communicated in a really strange, intimate but distant way. I meet people and they think they know me because they've read an interview with me or they've read lyrics: "Man, I know how you feel." You might know some of how I feel. You see that a lot with the Kurt Cobain situation. "What did he have to kill himself for? blah blah blah." You don't know Kurt fuckin' Cobain. You read his lyrics, you've seen him on TV; that's a whole other world. Who knows what the fuck he was going through?
Josh: Who could possibly know why anyone would do that?
Trent: Exactly. Obviously there's a whole lot of shit going on with that person. When someone says "Hey may, what does he have to be sad about? He's a rich rock star..." Someone who says that is someone who has never attained any goals that they've set for themselves. When you do, you start to realize that "This is cool but it's not exactly like I'd dreamed." I'm not the most content person in the world just because someone bought my record. There is more to it than that.
Josh: Let's talk about Beavis and Butt-head. They're really into your video, apparently. How do you feel about corporations appropriating material that you've created in order to essentially promote themselves?
Trent: I watch MTV because I am morbidly fascinated with how bad most of what I'm seeing is. Occasionally, something will sneak out that's all right. What I think could have been a unique new art form has become a series of 3-minute commericals for products. This one might be for Bon Jovi and that one for Pearl Jam and that one for Close-Up tooth polish or whatever. It's interchangable. Just look how corporate and unchallenging the whole genre of rock video has become. I think that someone realized a while ago that one channel that goes everywhere in the country is much more important than any radio station. "If we get on there we're going to sell *this* many records. So we want something that looks like *this* to do *this* and it imitates *that* one which lucked into something that got big, so we'll make a million things like it." When someone asks me what I listen to these days, what new bands I like, I'm thinking. Ten seconds later I'm still thinking. I've been listening to something that's ten years old. I'm listening to my favorite album from five years ago. I can't think of any new bands, if I thought a while I might come up with a few bands that are decent, but generally why is music so shitty today? Look at the top hundred albums. How did Counting Crows get there? Where the fuck did those guys come from? Who is responsible for subjecting us to that?
Josh: A lot of it is marketing.
Trent: A lot of it is marketing. MTV is telling you this is what is cool. Listen to what is cool. I think that the whole situation has made music less art-y and put more emphasis on music as a product. If you buy an album today and it has two good songs on it, it's okay. Before, if you bought an album and it had two bad songs on it, well...it's still an okay album. You got your money's worth. I can't tell you how many CDs we get from bands who want to open for us, you've never heard of them so you put it on and the first song is not bad. Then, well, that one sounds like the same song, sounds like that song...with CDs you can instantly hit that little button and skip to the next track. Albums, at least, you had to go to the trouble of moving the needle. With an album you had this big piece of art, something on the inside and the vinyl. You know, it was a cool thing. CDs are ugly little pieces of shit; art's gone. What really made me think about this was discovering a few records I hadn't really listened to, like: Bowie's Low album, or Hunky Dory, Iggy Pop stuff I had missed. You take a record like Low, or Hunky Dory where every song, to me, is awesome, different and challenging. I wish I could write one song that is as good as any song on that album. Then you compare it to what is out today. I hate to think in a retro mindset. You know, "the Beatles were the best thing.." Fuck the Beatles, I hated people who were always going on about the fuckin' Beatles. They're dead. They're ugly now. Get them out of my sight. There isn't much coming out, it seems to me, that has much depth. It's based a lot on what the trend of the second is. And I realize that we are dangerously close to that same thing. Whatever.
Eric: Soon there will be soda commercials featuring some studio guy making bad imitations of your music.
Trent: Well, there was a Gatorade commercial. I had a hundred people say "Why did you do that Gatorade commercial?" I was like, "What are you talking about?" I hadn't seen it. I finally got a copy. It was "Down In It". The beat's a little bit different. The singing has got a little bit of distortion, exactly the same kind of thing as my voice. So I looked into how we can sue these fuckheads. I don't want money. I just don't want them using my song. Well, they changed it a little bit. I remember hearing a commercial and I thought, "Joe Jackson, I thought he was cool, and now he's done a fuckin' commercial for something shitty." It was that song, "Stepping Out". Someting almost exactly like that, but it wasn't him singing. I remember in an interview he said, "They approached me to do this commercial, and I said 'absolutely no way'. And they said, 'Well, we're just going to get someone who sounds like you to do it.'" Well, fuck you. And they did it. And everyone in the world thought it was him.
Josh: What are your thoughts on sampling, within the definition of copyright laws and the restrictions therein?
Trent: I think that sound is sound. If somebody sampled a bit of something in an album of mine, that's cool. I don't give a shit about that. I think it's interesting how rap groups piece together things into new sounds. I'm into that. I do think that it's totally out of control now. Asshole major label lawyers are getting in on it, and realizing they can make money by ripping people off. If M.C. Hammer looped "Head Like a Hole" and did a rap over it, it'd piss me off, and I think I should be compensated because it's my song. I think at a certain point there should be some degree of compensation. When it's at *that* level. Like some of these assholes: Vanilla Ice, where it's another whole song with someone talking over it. Or Dr. Dre singing Funkadelic. I've used a lot of samples, but I don't tell anyone where I got them. It's not identifiable. I'm not just looping someone else's music. I'm more interested in textures than the novelty of who or what I've appropriated.
Josh: You bury your samples. If they were taken from a song, I would never be able to recognize it.
Trent: I just produced another band, Marilyn Manson, from my label, and they have a bunch of weird obscure samples, like Charles Nelson Reilly from Lidsville, some bizarre little excerpt from one sentence and the lawyers say "Did you get permission to use that?" This is just one of fifty things on the record.
Josh: Where do you draw the line?
Trent: Well, labels now are so afraid to put a record out. There are people at major labels whose job is just to clear samples, to listen for samples and start the whole thing up. So we made a list of all the different samples that were on this thing, from that song that goes (deep voice) "I bring you fire." You know which one I'm talking about, he's got makeup on. I don't remember the name of it. Just "I bring y..." Not even that much, and it's tuned down, but everyone was terrified. Some album came out, it might have been De La Soul, I forget which rap group. They didn't clear a couple samples and got sued like a motherfucker. They had to recall the album, it cost the label millions. So everyone's terrified now. We had to call Charles Nelson Reilly's peole to see if it was okay: "Yeah, but he'd like to have five hundred dollars for that sample." It's like, "Fuck you!" You know? You would never even know that existed.
Josh: It kind of takes away from the spontaneity.
Eric: So, it's not all right for you to sample Charles Nelson Reilly, but it's okay for some corporation to take your music. Even if you alter Charles Nelson Reilly, you have to pay, but they can alter your stuff and not pay you for it?
Trent: Everything is set up to protect everyone but the artist. You'd be surprised at things that are in record contracts. Who writes up a record contract? The record company. Who is it looking after? Not the artist. We're on the worst label in the world.
Josh: They have distribution.
Trent: They're holding the cards. For now. I think that in the next ten years you'll see that turn around. Did you hear about this device that they have made, but you won't see anywhere? Imagine walking through a record store, and there's a database of everything that's ever been put out, from obscure imports to Bon Jovi. You tell them which one you want, you pay with a credit card, and with high speed it downloads onto a digital cassette. You put your order in and ten minutes later, here's your CD quality cassette. Your artwork gets mailed to you and shows up the next day. What does that do? It eliminates retail altogether. No more Tower Records (though you can see how they could stick around). But the main thing record companies have been holding over people's heads is distribution. I could say that I'm going to start up a record label and drive my records to the stores, but at some point, I will have to go to bigger distribution houses to insure that I can get it out and get paid for it. Because all those people fuck you over on that level too. If you don't have a big account, you're the last to get paid. That takes them out.
Eric: Is most of the talk of technology freeing the little guy B.S. to you? Government and media are always talking about "In the future the Information Superhighway or the National Information Infrastructure (whatever you want to call it) is going to make it so everyone's got a museum and a library in their own home." Do you think it's empowering people or is it just collecting power in the hands of the people that own the media centers?
Trent: No, I think it will be a good situation when it gets together. It depends...As MTV has done to the video world, I'm sure there will be something to fuck up what could be amazing. It'll turn out to be something controlled. I kind of wish I was born a hundred years later to see. Although I think it is an interesting time right now. My grandfather--the car was being invented. Now--I find myself bitching about hard disk access time, and I can do a whole album on computer. It will be interesting to see what happens,but I think we will only benefit from access to information. It's a good thing, though it will be misused.
Eric: All right. I hope this isn't going to go off the deep end, but... (Trent and Josh laugh) A philospher once said that once a piece of art is created, it no longer belongs to the artist, but that the reality of the art exists between the perceiver and the piece perceived. This goes back to an earlier statement in which you said people are singing back your own lyrics to you but it doesn't mean to them what it means to you.
Trent: I don't like to talk about song lyrics when I do interviews because it lessens and cheapens someone else's impression of the song. That's happened to me. I read an interview and whoever wrote [this song] is bitching: "All these people think I'm talking about this. I'm talking about blah blah blah. These people are full of shit!" Well, I'm one of those people. I realize that once it is in the store it is other people's domain to interpret. That is what is interesting about this as a medium of communications. Unless it is something I feel really strong about that is being misinterpreted. For instance, I have been accused of misogyny and shit like that. I think, "You're not getting the point." Like "Big Man With a Gun", "Oh, you're advocating..." Should I even have to comment on that?
Josh: About two years ago I read a Mondo 2000 interview, where you called industrial music "the misuse of technology". Could you elaborate on that?
Trent: Well, I probably did say that. I don't think I meant it in that context. I think I was describing some elements in what today is called industrial music, whatever that really means, that use technology in different ways than it was designed to be used. From an engineering standpoint; electronic instruments, recording devices, things like that. Being a programmer I find it more interesting to find how these machines can do things they weren't meant to do. Usually that is a lot more rewarding than plugging something in, reading the manual and doing just what you're told and it sounds like a Janet Jackson record.
Plazm 1994 / Questions by Joshua Berger and Eric Lengvenis