|Revolver issue 3, 11.2000- In the Flesh|
Trent Reznor meets Roger Waters
Roger Waters is waiting for Trent Reznor. "Presumably, they have to rouse him from a drug-induced coma," Waters remarks dryly. "These young rock stars..." Just then Reznor turns up, and, far from being comatose, he seems well-rested and sharp. In fact, anticipation has driven him from bed at an hour most unbeceoming a rock star. "I woke up at 7:30 this morning," he confides. "I was going 'God, I'm gonna talk to Roger Waters today!'"
Revolver: Trent, what role has Roger's music played in your own life and work?
Trent Reznor: I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania. Not to sound too kiss-ass, but when The Wall came out, it was a turning porint for me. I was in high school at the time, and I remember that music had always been my friend- a companion, the brother I didn't have, or whatever. I came from a broken home. I was alone a lot as a child. And when The Wall came out, that record seemed very personal to me, even though I was in a completely different lifestyle, place and situation than Roger would have been in at that time. I'd never heard music that had that sort of naked, honest emotion. I had that sense of, "Wow, I'm not the only person who feels this way." When it came to start writing my own music, after some failed attempts at generic lyrics, I realized that if I went inward and took journal entries and turned them into songs, it seemed to strike a chord in others.
And then I made my second album, The Downward Spiral, I aspired to start with a story. I tried to write songs that fit into the slots in the plot line. I soon realized how hard that is. I tried to abandon it. But when I got toward the end of the record, I realized I had kind of done that anyway- what I thought I couldn't do.
Roger Waters: Forgive me, Trent. I don't know your work. I tend not to listen to rock and roll very much - if at all. But it sounds to me as if what you're doing fulfills all the functions that you've described in my work. So there are still those kids on farms in the middle of Pennsylvania yearning to find some meaning in thier own lives and discovering it - some of them at least - in music that could be descibed as underground, or at least not in the mainstream of popular culture.
Revolver: Both of you have adopted the full-length concept album as your main medium. You tend to make large statements about the human condition in your work. What is it like to do that in the current musical climate, so characterized by disposability, one-off hit singles, and short attention spans?
Reznor: It's very difficult, as I've discovered with my most recent record, The Fragile. It's a double album, and its pretty dense. It takes about five or ten listenings to really get into it. As a fan, that's what I want when I buy a record- to dig in and go several layers deep. That's the thing about your work, Roger. If you look deeper you find things.
Waters: But not everybody wants to go that deep.
Reznor: I fully understand that, too. And I think there's something to be said for a nice, appealing surface. But when you want to go looking for a deeper meaning, it out to be there too. But nobody seems to have the time for that anymore. I guess from hiding in my studio for the past five years, making The Fragile, I wasn't quite aware of how disposable the scene had become. It's a tough blow to withstand - just the way commercialism has turned music into more of a product than art. You're judged immediately by the first three weeks of your sales. And if it isn't what somebody at the record label said it would be, then its a failure.
Waters: But don't you think it was always that way? All record companies are profit-oriented. The holy grail for them is to discover the motherlode of popular taste, in order that they should move hugh numbers of the product. And they were always that way, in my view. Ahmet Ertgen* or anybody else. You know, there are these mystic kind of figures from the early days, like Sam Phillips. But Sam Phillips wouldn't have stuck with Elvis if people hadn't bought the records!
Reznor: But are the record companies really catering to what the public taste is? Or do they, to a degree dictate that taste to the public? MTV pumps out their boy bands and generic blonde teenage icons to the mases. And I wonder how much of that public is saying, "What are we supposed to be like?" And they're bombarded by that.
Waters: I'm sure you're right. MTV is pure Big Brother. It's pure Brave New World. And there's no question but that those who make decisions about the way society works become the arbiters of of the quality of human life. In North America, the general trend has been this: You find a piece of wilderness. If there are people or animals living on it, you kill them. Then you build a strip mall that contains a number of the most obiviously successful and recognizable icons of the culture you're trying to spread over the land. So, inevitably, theres a McDonald's, Sam Goody and all those other things. I assume the reason for this is that it's convenient for the policy makers. It provides them with a system where theres plenty of cream floating around the top to be skimmed off. And I suppose the reason the human race goes along with it is that, as yet, we don't know any better. That seems to be enough for most human beings. Although, if you ask most people, they don't actually feel a great sense of satisfaction in thier lives, buying that dream.
It's interesting, Trent, that you should be voicing these concerns about this kind of stuff. I find myself not caring about that, really, or about the way the record industry is or what's going to happen to it. Maybe that's very selfish of me. But it may be that that wall of unconcern is almost necessary to some of the rest of us, in order that we should have a reference point to develop against.
Revolver: Speaking of the demands of the marketplace, you are both in the midst of preparing DVDs of your recent tours. What is it like to encapsulate something like a rock and roll tour in this new medium?
Reznor: Roger, is your DVD basically your live show?
Waters: Yeah, its the live show - and a documentary, if we can get it all on. Well, actually, we can't get it all on. So I'm trying at the moment to persuade the record company to give the documentary away with the rest of the stuff. This particular DVD can only be two and a half hours long, and our show is two and a half hours long. So I'm under alot of pressure to edit it, take stuff out.
Reznor: Make your product more appealing to the market place.
Waters: Yeah, exactly. We were under the pressure with the live album of the shows, as well. "you should really put this out as a single CD, because it's more marketable." And I confess I did have a look at editing. I wrote a few song lists and thought, "I can't do this, This is ridiculous." So we persuaded the record company to sell a double CD at a reasonable price. I think the live albums should be much less expensive than studio albums. The costs of making a live album are minimal compared to a studio album. You just take a mobile or two three gigs, record them, than choose the best bits.
Revolver: Are you taking the same approach to your DVD, Trent - a straight document of the show itself?
Reznor: That's the focus of this one. And I'm takin a very hands-on approach. In the past I've made the mistake of hiring "the guys who really know how to do this." What happens is your concert footage ends up looking just like everyone else's. So for this one, we just got seven good digital cameras and filmed the last 10 shows of the tour from seven different perspectives - some locked-off shots, some hand-held, a lot from the audience - to give a sense of what it was like to be there, in a non-professional kind of way. We adopted that same kind of attitude in post-production too. We thought we would edit it here in my studio on a Mac in Final Cut Pro. That led to, "Maybe we could adapt our studio for 5.1 surround sound," which we ended up diong. There have been alot of hassles, but it's also been very educational.
Waters: You're lucky enough to be in a position where you can make those choices, which is great.
Reznor: Well, the timeline might be running out on that, given the sales of my last record. But I'm trying to keep as much in-house as possible. You see, I had a really bad experienec with my first record label I was signed to. And when I finally got out of that situation and onto a new label, I said "Here's the deal. You give me a chunk of money and I'll give you a record. I don't want A&R. I don't want any of your interference. I'll give you magazine ads. I'll give you a video. I don't want your help." So that provided me with an in-house situation where I could do what I want without meddling fingers from record label strangers.
And now I'm trying to get this DVD done to meet what is a pretty unrealistic deadline. And trying to get my head around the fact that almost nobody is ever going to listen to this with the right setup. Most people can't set a stereo up, let alone six speakers with the right level balance and the right distance between speakers.
Waters: I actually think you're fighting a losing battle, trying to recreate anything like the experience of being at a rock and roll show with a DVD. Basically, they're home movies. I regret not having made home movies of the Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking and Radio KAOS tours. And so I'm glad I will have a home movie of 2000 In The Flesh tour. I want to have it to put in a cupboard somewhere and maybe show it to my grandchildren. But I don't know if it's something that interests me that much, I have to say. I don't really care about it. Frankly, I'd rather be fishing. Or reading. But you know, I'm 56 years old. How old are you?
Waters: So it's kind of relative. There's 21 years' difference. I might have cared more when I was 35. Not that I'm saying you will eventually achieve fishing.
Reznor: I'm looking forward to it, actually.
Waters: But from the tenor of this conversation, it sounds like you're more involved with this stuff than I am.
Reznor: I suppose I can't help it. My first record came out 10 years ago. It unexpectedly touched a nerve. The second record got 10 times bigger than we ever expected it. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It propelled us 20 levels higher than we should have been, really.
Waters: You mean 20 levels more popular.
Reznor: Yeah. You find yourself being referenced by popular culture now.
Waters: Well, you do. But you can either choose to reference yourself like that, or not. And we all chose to do that, to a certain extent. If you're in rock and roll, you have to accept that part of the reason why you're there is because you like being patted on the back. Probably didn't get enough of it when you were a kid. That's certainly true of me. If we didn't have those needs we couldn't be in rock and roll anyway.
Reznor: That's true. But I disappeared for five years to get my brain staightened out. I came back with a really dense double album that I think is the best I can do. But it's substantially different from what I've done in the past. It's not as obvious. And it sold well, but it didn't sell great. So now I'm settling into this... When I first started out, I'd ride around the country in a van 10 times if I needed to. I'd do interviews all day if I needed to...
Waters: But you sound confused by this, slightly.
Reznor: Well, I'm getting over teh hump of realizing that I'm settling into what is right for me, artistically. But i might not be as accessable for mass consumption.
Waters: Well, okay. So it's not. So you've recognized that. All you need to do is recognize that and then forget about it. Because it's controllable. I think the one thing you have to understand is that you can't go chasing the audience. That would be a living death for anyone who is serious about what they do. It sounds like you're agonzing about this stuff. And this is now me being wise after the event. I've been through the same agonies but at the end of the day, I've had to understand that all you can do is your work. Maybe nobody will buy any of it. That could happen. You might make a record five years down the road and four people will buy it, you know?
Waters: Modigliani never sold any pictures. Van Gogh peddled his pictures for a bowl of soup. Some of these geniuses never got any reward at all in thier lifetimes. Except the reward that comes from doing your work and understanding your connection with the mathematics of life, or God, or whatever you want to call it.
Reznor: That's obvious to me. But its really nice to hear you say that.
Waters: I've been through some of the same things, clearly. I've had a couple of big hit singles in my life, when I was with Pink Floyd. And I feel good about the work that I've done since then, particularly Amused to Death. I've sold a few records. Not big numbers, but thats just the way it is. The cool thing in the moment when you put that last brush stroke to the painting, stand back and go "Ahhh." You know you've done good work. That's all you can expect.
Revolver: All these concerns about how your work is received by the public - do they become more acute, more stressful, when you're touring?
Waters: Not any more for me. On my last tour the audiences were ages 15 through 50. But more 20 year olds than anything else, as far as I could see. And they knew the songs. They like them. The songs have meaning to them. It was kind of a warm, touchy-feely experience for me. And I'm ashamed to say that I loved it. I'm now in a state emotionally where I can recognize, absorb, and enjoy that connection with the audience. Whereas maybe 10 or 15 years ago, I couldn't. Because I was still essentially the tall guy in black, standing in the corner scowling at everyone: "Stay away. Leave me alone"
Reznor: I know that guy.