Nine Inch Nails
By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 1992
In late 1989, Nine Inch Nails came out of nowhere and proved to be a driving force in the “industrial dance” scene that was quickly emerging from the underground. Essentially a solo project of 27 year old programmer/musician Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails was fleshed out to a full band and toured extensively in support of the debut album, “Pretty Hate Machine,” proving once and for all that electronic music could be adapted to the live setting. Nine Inch Nails toured for two years straight, gaining wider exposure but leaving fans yearning for more material. People began to wonder is Reznor would ever come up with a follow-up to his stunning debut.
The silence has been ended with “Broken,” an eight-song EP that marks the beginning of a new era for Nine Inch Nails. The group has ended its turbulent relationship with TVT Records after a bitter legal battle and moved on to Interscope. Musically, the disc is very different than its predecessor. Fans of the clean, high-tech sound of “Pretty Hate Machine” may be shocked to hear the noisy, guitar-oriented music on “Broken.” Nine Inch Nails’ music was always aggressive, but the new EP takes it to the extreme. Reznor has chosen not to tour in support of “Broken” and is currently working on a new full-length album, tentatively scheduled for an early summer release.
Though the sound of “Broken” makes it seem that Reznor is getting away from using heavy electronics in music, that is not the case. “It may seem that way, but in reality it’s probably as much or more so,” he explains. “I just got different equipment for one thing, and what appears to be guitar, bass and drums is really just a computer.”
Musically, Reznor says that his tastes have changed since doing “Pretty Hate Machine” and that he is not as stimulated by traditional electronic music as he was. Reznor says that he is not turning his back on electronic music, since that is his instrument, but was simply changing the way he went about creating it. For instance, the music on “Broken” was originally written on guitar.
The recording of”Broken” had to be done in secret, since at the time the deal with Interscope had not yet been finalized. Reznor says that the whole ordeal was an unpleasant experience, and he wanted to make the music reflect that. But because he didn’t want to bog down an entire album with that sound, he chose to make the project an EP. The resulting product is a dark, abrasive collection of songs that is a far cry from the synthetic dance sound of” Pretty Hate Machine.”
“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,” says Reznor. “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.”
Although technically an EP, “Broken” contains as much music as some LPs, due to the two bonus tracks that are not in the song listing.
“Those two tracks, a cover of an Adam Ant song [“Physical”] and “Suck” were a couple of songs that we’d been floating around and playing live,” explains Reznor. “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 12 inch when we were doing Lollapallooza, but we couldn’t, of course, because of our record label.”
Though these songs didn’t really fit in with “Broken,” Reznor did not see them fitting in the future and just wanted to get them out. The first 200,000 copies of the EP contained the songs on a bonus three- inch cd, while future pressings had them at the end of the disc, not listed on the track listing. “It was a way to distance them from the other music because it wasn’t part of the same mind set,” says Reznor. ‘”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.”
Reznor says that the troubles with TVT stemmed from the label misconception that NIN was “a nice pop band.” He says that when he delivered “Pretty Hate Machine,” the label hated it because it wasn’t as radio-friendly as they hoped. Ultimately, Reznor found it unbearable dealing with the label and having to get the approval of people that wanted NIN to be something it wasn’t.
“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,” says Reznor. “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 Interscope and they’ve been really cool.”
Reznor feels that the extensive touring that the group did after “Pretty Hate Machine” was what broke the band. At first, not many radio stations (and certainly not MTV) were playing Nine Inch Nails. But after getting exposure touring first with The Jesus and Mary Chain and then with Peter Murphy (both of whom Reznor says were “easy to blow away”), people began to take notice. A successful headlining tour followed and then came to question of Lollapallooza.
Reznor says that doing the tour was an attempt to earn enough money to fight a successful lawsuit to get off TVT. But while it proved to be a good way for the band to stay alive during a difficult period, fans stated to think that Reznor was just milking it.
“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’,” explains Reznor. “Secondly, 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 shitty 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 I’m not sitting at home on a computer working on drum samples. I’m touring and that takes a lot of energy. It’s 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.”
In transferring the songs of “Pretty Hate Machine” to the live setting, Reznor was faced with the challenge of making totally computerized music interesting to see performed. Reznor believes it to be a “cop out” to simply sing along to DATs, as many electronic bands do. But he also feels it’s a cop out to take electronic music and try to translate it to full rock band format. The solution was to use live guitars, drums and keyboards, but also have all the bass and any unreproducable noises on tape, as Reznor does not think anyone will miss watching someone play them.
“The second you mention tape on stage, everyone yells Milli Vanilli and Janet Jackson,” says Reznor. “My whole point it 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.”
NIN had its beginning when Reznor was working in a studio and recorded demos during off-hours. He adopted the name Nine Inch Nails because “it’s a lot cooler name than Trent Reznor.” Though he was originally only looking for a 12-inch deal so he could hone his craft, he ended up signing with TVT.
While its touring incarnation is a full band, on record NIN is still pretty much all Trent Reznor. However, Reznor is starting to have other people play on his music “to add a little life to it” and does not rule out the possibility of collaborating on actual songwriting sometime in the future.
The fact that NIN have been labeled “industrial” by the media has led to a backlash from the “true” industrial fans who argue that the music bears little resemblance to such industrial pioneers as Throbbing Gristle. But Reznor stresses that it is the media that has given him that label.
“Mainstream America needs some sort of name, so fine, you can use that. In most of mainstream America, I would assume that Nine Inch Nail’s name would to mind if you said that word,” says Reznor. “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 labeled “industrial” and they’re like ‘that’s not industrial, god dammit!’. Okay, you’re right. But who’s telling you that? Me? No, so if want to bitch at somebody, bitch at Spin Magazine.”
Since NIN has emerged out from the underground to become a commercial success, Reznor is also faced with the dreaded scenario of having the people who liked NIN back when nobody had heard of them suddenly accuse him of “selling out.”
“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,” explains Reznor. “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 shit-load of records and I’d 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.”
Reznor is currently in the studio working on a new LP, which is tentatively scheduled for a summer release. He says the music will sound less dense and produced, as he feels too much thought and too many layers of sound went into the creation of “Broken.” Reznor says he purposely made “Broken” less accessible in order to make it more interesting for the listener and this idea will carry over to the new album.
“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,” explains Reznor. “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 … 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.”
The way Broken ended up sounding also has a lot to do with the type of sounds it uses. On “Pretty Hate Machine”, all the drums were sampled from other people’s records using an E-Max. But this time around, Reznor went out with a portable DAT machine and recorded his own sounds, later dissecting them on the computer to create the instruments heard on “Broken.”
In addition to working as Nine Inch Nails, Reznor also has a production deal with Sire, though nothing has come out of it yet. “When they get something that works with my schedule and that I’m into doing, I’d be happy to do stuff with them,” he says. “They’re a cool label.”
But Reznor says that he will not be working with Pigface again, as he was not happy with the project the first time around.” According to Reznor, many shows were promoted as it he was supposed to be appearing, even though it was known well in advance that he wasn’t. “Then every night there’s a story about how I’m sick and I can’t come to the show,” says Reznor.
“I think it’s the kind of thing that 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 issue 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.”See all interviews →