Trent Reznor interviewed during the making of the Nine Inch Nails album "The Downward Spiral"
By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 1992
In 1992, as I was starting up Chaos Control as a hypercard-based zine, I met Trent Reznor over the Prodigy online service. The Nine Inch Nails “Broken” EP had recently come out, and he was in the studio working on “The Downward Spiral.” Naturally, I asked him if I could interview him for my new publication. He agreed on the condition that it only run in Chaos Control, as he wasn’t really doing press at the time and didn’t want it ending up in a major publication. After confirming that it actually was Trent, I did a phone interview that ran in article form in the debut issue of Chaos Control. Presented here is the full transcript of that interview, which had never been published in its entirety. Reznor talks about the beginnings of Nine Inch Nails, his problems with TVT Records, the ‘industrial’ label, and more.
Why did you go for a less electronic sound on the “Broken” ep?
Well, it may be obviously less electronic-sounding. It may seem that way, but in reality it’s probably as much or more so. I just got different equipment, for one thing, and what appears to be guitar, bass and drums is really just a computer. It might have started off as a guitar, but then I really fucked around with the sound and got it quite altered from what it started off to be.
And, secondly, I guess my tastes have changed in the last few years since I did “Pretty Hate Machine” and things that I listened to that influenced me at that time I find to be a bit dated now. I’m not as stimulated by traditional electronic music as I was when I when I did that one. I’m not turning my back on electronics, because that is my instrument. Also, I wrote the songs on guitar.
Why did you choose to do ep instead of a full length album?
A couple of reasons. One was the way that the ep was recorded. It was done during a time when I had to be secretive about when and where I was recording, because the deal was not complete with Interscope. And it forced the way that it was recorded to be a small chunk of time here, a small chunk of time there. Flood and my working relationship was a good one but we decided that enough was enough. Those songs were done, with the exception of “Slavery”, and I didn’t want to make a whole album that sounded like that. It was hard to make and it was an unpleasant experience throughout the whole thing. I wanted it to sound that way and I didn’t want to bog down a whole record of that sound.
Why are there extra tracks at the end of the cd not listed on the sleeve?
Those two tracks–a cover of an Adam Ant song and “Suck”–were a couple of songs that we’d been floating around and playing live. We first played “Physical,” the Adam Ant song, when we did Lollapallooza and it ended up being kind of a fun song to play and we wanted to put that out as a twelve-inch when we were doing Lollapallooza. We couldn’t, of course, because of our record label. So I had these songs and I just had some extra time when I was doing the ep and I remixed them and re-recorded some elements, not really sure if I was going to use it or not. Because thematically, it didn’t fit with what I was currently working on. However, they were never going to fit in the future, so it was just kind of a way to get them about.
The first 200,000 copies of the ep have a small 3 inch disc that has those songs on it, and, not to rip the people off, there rest of the copies have it at the end. It was a way to distance them from the other music because it wasn’t part of the same mind set. It‘s kind of disposable. I like my version of “Suck” a lot better than the Pigface one, but it didn’t fit in with what I was currently working on. I just wanted to kind of say ‘here, if you like them, here they are, or you can just throw them out.‘ Unfortunately, the risk involved is with radio being as conservative as it is, I knew they would jump on “Physical” or “Suck” because they’re a bit more digestible than the other stuff, so I’ve tried to make them as obscure as possible.
What were the problems with TVT?
When we first signed with them, they signed us under the misconception of what they thought we were going to be versus what we really were. And it’s a label that has no idea of what integrity means and they thought we were a nice pop band. So when I delivered the record they hated it because it wasn’t as radio friendly as they would have hoped. And every decision from that point on, any idea that I had would have to go through a whole series of approvals by people that wanted a different thing. They wanted a very commercial, easily digestible, disposable product that would sell a lot, make them a lot of money right away and then who cares if they’re around in a couple of years. And I was more interested in doing what I thought was artistically correct, hopefully maintaining some integrity.
So, when it became unbearable, I decided that there’s no way I could make another record for these people because I have to deal with things like them putting my music in bad movies and buying advertising time during “David Letterman” for a record that’s two years old. I’m the one that had to answer to my fans for that and it’s not me doing it and I have no control over it. It was a really bad situation and personally we hated each other. But it finally ended and now we’re on lnterscope and they‘ve been really cool.
What made you decide on Interscope? Did you have other offers?
We had offers from every label you could dream of. The problem was TVT was not willing to let us go. Interscope kind of came in through the back door and they honestly wouldn’t have been my first choice because I wasn’t really familiar with what they were all about. However, getting to know them was a pleasant experience and everything’s cool with them.
Why did Nine Inch Nails do such extensive touring after the release of “Pretty Hate Machine”?
A number of reasons. Initially, I think that touring and solely touring broke the band. MTV wouldn’t play the videos at first, radio wouldn’t touch them. We started touring and suddenly l think the live band was pretty good and it got people interested who were on the fence and never heard of us. We opened for a couple of bands that were easy to blow away – Jesus and Mary Chain, Peter Murphy. It worked to our benefit. Suddenly, MTV started to play our videos and suddenly certain commercial, alternative radio stations that had said ‘we can’t play any of this‘ started playing it. It started to take off. That takes us about a year into it. We tried a headlining tour and that went well. The question of Lollapallooza came up and that was when things had soured so badly with TVT that I knew that we were done with them, and the basic premise of Lollapallooza was that we could make enough money to hopefully be able to fight a law suit to get off that label. I realized, however, that was really pushing, some would say milking, but for us that was a way to stay alive for another year or two because then a record would be coming out soon. We got a lot of people bitching at me ‘get more material out, record an album more often’. I’m like ‘look, when I’m ready to make a record that I feel is worth making. I’ll make it. I owe you nothing as a fan except what I think is good material on a good tour and everything’s of quality.’ And I’m not going to put out a record that I write in a month just so that I can get back on the road. That would inevitably do more harm to us. And, when you’re touring, that takes time and when I’m touring I’m not writing songs and not sitting at home on a computer working on drum samples. I’m touring and that takes a lot of energy. One guy doing everything, and every time I write a song I have to try to reinvent how I’m writing it, the sounds I’m using, the process of writing it, the style of writing. I’m trying to break that up and that takes time. It’s not as simple as getting together with three or four other guys and saying ‘okay, here’s the chord and the melody’, not that there’s anything wrong with that but I chose not to do that.
Has the extensive touring had an effect on your songwriting in terms of coming up with things that will adapt to the live setting?
It has. We’d never really played before “Pretty Hate Machine,” or recorded, I should say. Obviously, from playing for two and a half years, I just have more tools in my arsenal. I like the sounds of real drums on certain things, I like the sounds of other things. And I didn’t know or have access to those when I did the first record. That obviously changed a lot. Also, I try not to get too bogged down when I’m writing, thinking ‘well, will this go over live,‘ but sometimes that element enters into it.
Did adapting those songs from “Pretty hate Machine“ to the live setting pose a problem?
Yes. The main reason was that I don’t really like electronic hands when they simply lip sync to a DAT or there‘s one guy playing pads or something. It’s a cop out. I think that most people, with the exception of the elite few electronic purists, think that sucks. And I thought that the music was strong enough that it could lend itself to a different adaptation but not one that was a cop out like ‘okay, we’re afraid to play electronic music live, we‘ll have a full rock band,‘ because I think that sucks too. It was a question of arranging the songs so that they would be fun to play live for the band and interesting. They would be able to mutate into whatever they wanted to mutate into so that a lot of that was live, but also maintaining the integrity of the electronic sounds. The only way, after much experimentation, was to use tape on stage and have live drums, live guitars, live vocals, and mostly live keyboards. The bass was on tape and we had some loops and unplayable kinds of effects on tape that nobody would miss watching somebody play. But the second you mention tape on stage, everyone yells Milli \/annilli and Janet Jackson. My whole point is this – if someone leaves our show and feels ripped off, fuck you, you can have your money back. That was the way to make it sound the best and have the most energy and sound live, but also sound electronic at the same time.
Do you think that you’ll continue to do all the music yourself or do you see yourself working with other people?
I’d like someday to have it be more of a democracy with people that I trust because it would lighten the load quite substantially. However, at the moment obviously the first two I did myself. The one I’m working on now I think it will be mostly me, but I will have other people playing stuff to add a little life to it and maybe open the door up to writing with someone else and definitely playing. Especially guitar players and drummers–not my strongest hand.
Since it was just you in the beginning, why did you record as Nine Inch Nails and not just Trent Reznor?
Because it was more interesting. It was a way for me to hide behind a name and I think it’s a lot cooler name than Trent Reznor. Because it did turn into a band, it wasn‘t such a megalomaniac type thing to do.
A lot of people use the term “industrial” to describe your music, even though it’s very different from the industrial stuff that emerged in the 70’s. What do you think of it?
I’ve been labeled that through the media. Mainstream America needs some sort of name, so fine, you can use that. In most of mainstream America, I would assume that Nine Inch Nails name comes mind if you said that word. To the people in the know that are familiar with that word’s origins musically, I think we have very little in common with that besides the abrasive nature and some of the sound. Obviously, I’m not trying to be Throbbing Gristle, although I respect that band and they‘ve been an influence. The only problem I have is when you get the purist, underground people whose sensibilities are so offended by the fact that a pop band, or a band that actually has lyrics that you can understand or possibly could be played on the radio is labelled ‘’industrial‘‘ and they’re like ‘that’s not industrial, goddammit’. Okay, you’re right. But who’s telling you that? Me? No, so if you want to bitch at somebody, bitch at Spin Magazine. That gets to be a bit old. We are a target right now, like any band that you would label “industrial” today – the Nitzer Ebbs and the KMFDMs, who are about as industrial as we are. We are a good target because we‘ve sold the most records, we’re the most visible, so if someone wants to point a finger, we‘re a good target because people can say ‘oh, they’re a pop band‘, said in a negative light. The whole point is this – I’ve seen the very base of our fans–the first people that were there–become a bit weary, and they were the people saying ‘oh, you’re milking it‘ and everything else, unaware of the legal nightmare we were involved in with the record label. The only reason we were in that is so that we wouldn‘t be forced to sell out by something out of my control happening. When those people start to slightly turn on you–not because you’ve put out bad music–not because you’ve sold out, but because a lot of people like you, it’s kind of a disturbing thing to think about, through the phase where it was like I wish these people didn’t like me because you don’t understand where the fuck I’m coming from. I don’t want to be a big band, and I don’t want to sell a shitload of records and would rather be playing 500 seat clubs with my fans there instead of poseur idiots, fuckheads who just show up because you’re supposed to like this–frat boys, and that kind of shit. But I catch myself realizing what a fucking elitist stupid, fascist thing to think that is, where, okay, you’re allowed to like it because you’re cool, but you’re not allowed to like it because you’re not cool. Well, fuck that. I understand people make music their own, and suddenly when it’s a big thing, a lot of people seem to turn on that and they look for the other things that are now obscure that they can make their own again. Nothing is going to change that, but when you really think about it, it is kind of a silly way to act. I personally don’t feel that compromised in my music, and if I wanted to I could have just put out a record that would have sold a lot more copies than “Broken” might do.
Could you explain how you came to start up Nine inch Nails?
I’d basically reached a point in my life where I realized what I wanted to do and I had not really done it because I’m lazy inherently and kind of afraid to challenge myself. I was working at a studio as a kind of a programmer / assistant engineer, basically for nothing so I could work at night on my own stuff, which I did for about a year and got some demos done. Instead of starting with the biggest labels in the world, seeing if anybody wants you and then trickling down, I started at the very bottom and went up a few levels. I just wanted to find an independent deal or something with a real small European label where they might give me a few thousand to put a twelve inch out or something, kind of hone my craft. Because Nine Inch Nails was very valuable at that time, I didn’t want to get into a big deal where I had to make big decisions that would possibly affect the way Nine Inch Nails would come out by making bad choices initially. I sent it out to a few labels, including Nettwerk, who eventually became interested and then dropped the ball because they didn’t have any money. They sent us on tour with Skinny Puppy for a few dates, which we totally, totally sucked at. A label in New York saw us and signed us up, TVT, and we did the record end everything got shitty.
What advice would you give to new bands to avoid the problems you experienced with TVT?
Basically, if you’re doing something that you like, that’s key. You don’t base your shit on what anyone else thinks or what you think someone else will think is accessible or commercial or signable or anything else. Secondly, put some faith in independent labels, even though I had a very bad experience with one. I think that was the exception to the rule. The most important thing is if you get a label interested in you, don’t–and I repeat don’t–jump at the first thing they throw at you. Because labels realize that most bands are desperate to get a contract, so it’s not in them to automatically offer you the best thing, and that doesn’t always equal a lot of money. It equals creative control or equals publishing. Publishing is a thing most musicians don’t seem to know too much about. My biggest labels I did and I lost a lot of money due to that decision I made a while ago because I didn’t know. Secondly, have a manager and have a lawyer and don’t make rash decisions as much as you are dying to do that. And, if you’re looking for a deal, a surefire way to not get one is sound exactly like another band. I probably got 200 demo tapes on the first few tours we were on, 180 of which sounded exactly like Skinny Puppy and that’s such an identifiable sound that nobody wants to sign a band that is just a rip-off of something else. If you do get a deal, that’s the beginning, not the end of success. That’s when you can at least play the game, but that’s when the real work and pressure starts.
Are there any particular bands that influenced you to get into electronic music?
Where I grew up it was kind of isolated, so I wasn’t exposed to a lot of underground stuff until later in life. I’d always been a keyboard player, piano player, and I’d always been into computers and when they kind of melded together in the late 70’s it was a hobby of mine. Using drum machines was always interesting to me.
Do you have any formal musical training?
I studied piano for about ten years, and l probably couldn’t play my way out of a paper bag now if you made me. But I’m glad that I have that theory and it was nice to actually play an instrument and feel good about it.
How do you approach the basic songwriting? How much of it do you actually do on the computer?
I try to break it up. “Pretty Hate Machine” was all a sequencer, “Broken“ was all done on guitar, except for “Slavery.” I know it will turn out different if I do it a different way. My fear with “Broken” was if I started writing on sequencer again, it was going to sound just like “Pretty Hate Machine,“ or elements of it would sound that way. So there’s no set way, I still don’t have a formula as to how I write a song and that’s probably good.
Where do you get the sounds from? Do you tend to use sampling or do you come up with them yourself on synthesizers?
On the first record, the drums were off other people’s records or an E-Max sampler. On the new record, every sound I made myself. I dedicated a lot of time to going with a portable DAT machine to record shit on a stereo mic and a lot of time on the computer just dissecting and trying to come up with interesting sounds. But the trap of that can be forgetting to write songs and just having a bunch of nice sounds. I hear a lot of bands that are sonically excellent but don’t have any sort of emotional impact. There’s no sort of tension or song there. That might be what they’re going for, but I’m more concerned about pretty much traditional songwriting arranged in a sonically interesting way.
What is your response to people who say music done with electronics is not real music?
If you think about that statement, if answers itself. That’s the words of an idiot. I completely rebel against the idea that for it to be music it’s got to be done with a fucking guitar and traditional instruments. That’s ridiculous, totally, utterly ridiculous. It does irritate me although it’s so stupid and I don’t try to pay attention to it.
How is the new album that you’re working on going?
Slow, but it’s getting started.
How will the sound on it differ from the “Broken” ep?
The prediction is that it will be less dense. It will be more demo sounding and less produced. You can bog yourself down with overproduction. “Broken” was overproduced. Too much thought went into that, too many layers of things went in. A lot people may say ‘oh, I don’t like it as good as “Pretty Hate Machine” because it’s not as accessible, or it’s not as pretty, or it’s not as sad, or whatever the fuck they might say.‘ That was meant to be a flexing muscle, it was meant to be an abrasive, hard-to-listen to thing, and lyrically it changed viewpoints. Because where “Pretty Hate Machine’s” viewpoint was kind of like, things might suck, but I still care about myself and I still want things to be cool trying to fix them, “Broken“ was things suck, and I suck, and I don’t fucking care about anything, including myself. And that’s not as positive a statement to make, or yell, and a lot of people I don’t think want to hear that statement and that’s a specific statement for a specific mood for people. Sonically, I purposely made everything that was accessible back up a bit. Whereas on “Pretty Hate Machine” the vocals would be up front and the vocals would be intelligible, hooks you could distinguish after a listen of two, on all those things were there and more but it’s buried in the groves. And it takes and requires a lot of work on the part of the listener. It may be pretentious for me to say, but I wanted to make a record that the first time you hear it you don’t like it, but you might want to hear it again, but by the third time it’s pretty cool. By the fifth time, you really like it and possibly by the tenth time you’re not sick of it and now it all makes sense. Now, I don’t know if I’ve achieved that, but on some levels I think I have. I know there’s a good song in there, but it’s not nearly as obvious as it used to be. With the new record I’m working on now, I hope to incorporate that same philosophy because I think that’s what makes a record have some longevity to it and more depth. For me, if I hear a song and love it the first time I hear it, I’m usually sick of it by the fifth time. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would be a great example of that. That’s a fucking great song, but I could live another five life times without hearing it again.
Will this change in direction have any effect on that way the old songs will sound when you tour in support of the album?
It will be based on the new record and obviously that’s going to change the way some of the old stuff is done. But I wouldn’t imagine it would be incredibly, radically different than it was on Lollapallooza, and Lollapallooza was a lot more aggressive than the record was. Just a note on tour plans, we’re always going to play small places, always. Because I do not like big venues. I do not like to see bands in them, I don’t think it’s fair to the fans, and I fucking hate playing them. I’d rather play a couple of nights in each city instead of Madison Square Garden.
What’s going on with your production deal with Sire?
That happened about a year and a half ago, and it was kind of a way to bail us out and give us some money to fight a lawsuit when things didn’t work out. Sire’s cool, and when they get something that works with my schedule and that I’m into doing, I’d be happy to do stuff with them. They’re a cool label.
Are you going to be involved with Pigface anymore in the future?
No, I wasn’t incredibly pleased with the way the first one went. I felt a bit used in the sense that the first tour they did, they promoted it as me being at every show, when they knew well in advance that I wasn’t. And then every night there’s a story about how I’m sick and I can’t come to the show. That was slightly offensive to me. I think it‘s the kind of thing that it could be fun to be involved in except I haven’t had the time to really do it and there’s just some difference in opinion on a few issues that will prevent me from working with them again. I didn’t think it was that great when it was out and that’s no commentary on the people in the band, because I like everybody involved with that. I just have to be cautious of the way that Nine Inch Nails is handled and I wasn’t able to or I didn’t have time to put enough energy into that for me to feel really good about doing it. I don’t want to have to make excuses for what I do.
When do you think the new Nine Inch Nails album will be out?
I would hope it will be out by the summer, but that depends on a lot of things.See all interviews →