Geoff Rickly interviews Trent Reznor

By Geoff Rickly for Alternative Press on June 26, 2004

The first party I ever went to was an accurate litmus test for the way my life would unfold. I got to the party, didn't talk to anyone, and I went straight for the stereo system. The record that was playing was Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine. I was completely stunned by the sounds pouring out of the speakers. I went home and dreamt about that record. The next day, I walked to the record store and bought the album on cassette. Every record that came out afterward -even the singles- felt like a present made just for me. After reading all the articles and going to way too many NIN shows, I felt like I knew Trent, like we would be friends if we ever met. I used to dream up interview questions that I would ask Trent if I ever got the chance. Here are a few of those questions. -Geoff Rickly

Geoff Rickly: How did you feel the first time you heard Johnny' Cash's rendition of "Hurt"'? How did you feel when you realized it would be his last will as a musician?

Trent Reznor: Rick Rubin has been a friend for a long time, and he called me asking how I felt about Johnny covering "Hurt." I was flattered, but frankly, the idea sounded a bit gimmicky to me. I really didn't put much thought into it, as I was working on something at the time and was distracted. A few weeks later, a CD shows up with the track. Again, I'm in the middle of something and put it on and give it a cursory listen. It sounded... weird to me. That song in particular was straight from my soul, and it felt very strange hearing the highly identifiable voice of Johnny Cash singing it. It was a good version, and I certainly wasn't cringing or anything, but it felt like I was watching my girlfriend fuck somebody else. Or something like that. Anyway, a few weeks later, a videotape shows up with Mark Romanek's video on it. It's morning; I'm in the studio in New Orleans working on lack De La Rocha's record with him; I pop the video in, and... wow. Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps... Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore. Then it all made sense to me. It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. Some-fucking-how that winds up reinter-preted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning-dif-ferent, but every bit as pure. Things felt even stranger when he passed away. The song's pur-pose shifted again. It's incredibly flattering as a writer to have your song chosen by someone who�s a great writer and a great artist.

Rickly: As a lyricist, I've always been fascinated by the singularity of your narrative voice. Does it ever drive you crazy to be so alone in your lyrics?

Reznor: I think I always knew what I wanted to do with my life, but I seemed to have spent a lot of time governed by fear-in this context, fear of failure. Way back when, I'd played in a number of bands but avoided writing, because I knew what I liked but didn't know if I'd like what I could write. When I finally started, yes, it sucked. I was lyrically trying to be the Clash or Gang Of Four, and it was shitty. It read as insincere because it was. I was drawn to the pas-sion and sincerity of these artists and was attempting to emulate that, but what they were singing about were things that mattered to them-not so much me. It dawned on me that I'd been keeping a sort of journal-not daily events, but things I had to get It of my system for fear of exploding. These entries were written in almost a lyric-like form, so I tried an experiment of matching them up with some music. As little as I wanted anyone, let alone the world, to hear or read these, I realized there was power in there; I meant what I was saying and feeling, and I believe it came through.

RICKLY: One of the most haunting moments in a Nine Inch Nails song is when you momentarily bring another person into your world, in the line "Annie, hold a little tighter..." [from "The Becoming"]. Why does she appear? I'm not necessarily asking who she is; it's more about the decision to bring in another specific person.

Reznor: As I've written more, it's been hard for me to break away from that. I tend to write as me about how I'm feeling about something. When I stray too far out-side that, I feel like I'm getting into storytelling, and it feels less vital. With that said, I've acknowledged it and think it ultimately puts a finite timeline on nine inch nails. NIN will explore this path until it reaches the end, whatever that is. Oh, and "Annie" was abstractly referring to a college sweetheart/ heartbreak situation that, at the time I was writing that song, was a valid source of emotional pain to draw from. Her real name is Andrea Mulrain, and her phone number is [number deleted for privacy purposes. -Patriot Act Ed.]

RICKLY: Touring can be stressful. Was there ever a particularly dark time in your life on the road? Reznor: The entire tour for The Fragile was the worst time of my life. I was very sick, and my life was falling apart. I'd lost my way and didn't feel very good about the way we were playing, what we were doing, who we were doing it with, the vibe, and myself. I really am looking for-ward to the new material coming out, and most of all touring to promote it. I have a lot to prove to myself and am re-energized and never been more ready to kick some ass. At least that's how I feel right this second...

RICKLY: When I heard Pretty Hate Machine for the first time, it was unlike anything I had ever heard. It blew me away. What record did that to you, as a kid?

Reznor: Thank you. That's an honor. It really does mean a lot to hear things like that, because I can relate. For me, there were several that come to mind. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, long before MTV and far away from college radio's reach... way, way back then, it was the first album by the Eagles. Way back then, Kiss' Alive! and Pink Floyd's The Wall. Then, Ministry's Twitch and Jesus And Mary Chain's Psychocandy. Fairly recently, Radiohead's Kid A.

RICKLY: The Downward Spiral was released on my 15th birthday. It's still one of the best albums I've ever heard. Did you ever have the feeling that it was your masterpiece? What was it like, trying to write in the wake of an album like that?

Reznor: I remember The Downward Spiral being fair-ly easy to write and record. There was an experimental feel in the air, and there was no great commercial pres-sure or expectations at the time. When I handed the record into Inters cope, I recall apologizing to them because I thought it had no commercial, "single" potential. I loved the record, but I felt sorry for them having to try and sell it As soon as [lnterscope presi-dent] Jimmy Iovine heard "Closer," he said it was a hit. That's when I knew he was crazy, and it goes to show what I know. I also remember a lot of people/fans bitching because it wasn't Pretty Hate Machine Pt. 2. For some reason, I think the record is appreciated by other [people] more in the last few years than when it came out. As far as feeling like it was my masterpiece? I don't, really. I love the record and it very accurately portrays where I was back then-and even became a self-fulfilling prophecy-but I think it's flawed in some ways, and I've got some more tricks up my sleeve. If I didn't feel I had anything different or vital to say, I wouldn't continue. That's also why I don't put out records that frequently. Writing was held up after that record for a variety of reasons: two and-a-half years of touring, working on [Marilyn Manson's] Antichrist Superstar, and just being burned out.

Rickly: How do you feel when you hear members of younger bands that sound nothing like NIN cite you as a huge inspiration? I bought a fake ID so that I could come see you at Webster Hall in NYC.

Reznor: Once again, it's very flattering. Having some success and getting older are two very strange things. When we first got big, there were some acts that I could see pretty clearly were either signed by big major labels because they were categorized as being like us, or other acts that felt to me like generic imitations, to be frank. As time passed and the "industrial revolution" never hap-pened-just like "electronica" never lived up to it's poten-tial-it is interesting to see new and younger bands coming up citing NIN as an influence and being sometimes able to hear bits and pieces of that in a much truer, less imitative way. Let's face it: It feels good to be appreciated.

Rickly: What are your musical plans now?

Reznor: I am finishing the new record, assembling a new band, and I'm considering the best approach for presenting this music live. I have a number of other things floating around, but if I mention them, they'll fuck up, so I'm keeping quiet.

Rickly: What are you listening to?

Reznor: In recent weeks I've been listening to: The Bug, Pressure; The Icarus Line, Penance Soiree; TV On The Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (terrible name for the band and record, but some really interesting stuff); The Polyphonic Spree, Together We're Heavy (My "everything will be okay" music. I love these guys); Slipknot, Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses (heavy done heavy); Meat Beat Manifesto, ...In Dub (fucking fantastic; pisses me off that it's so well done); Cat Power, You Are Free (and I am not gay for loving this); Badfinger, The Very Best of Badfinger (unexplain-able); Wilco, A Ghost is Born (trying to like it, so far unsuccessfully).

Rickly: I've seen you play live over 30 times and every time, I experience a mixture of awe and terror unlike any-thing I've experienced since. What do you think a live performance should be? Can you remember a specific show that was above and beyond all the rest? What made it special?

Reznor: Thirty times? Hey... now I recognize you! I believe a lot of rock bands are lazy in their presentation The format of playing a show is a kind of accepted "thing" that everybody does because that's how you do it. Once you're above the club/theatre level, chances are you're playing in a venue that wasn't designed for music, so it sounds shitty. You're headed into your seats to endure an opening act you don't want to see. You then watch roadies fuck around for at least a half hour, seemingly doing nothing. You drink shitty beer. You piss in a trough. The band comes on, and it usually sounds terrible. They play all songs off the new record that nobody likes because they're "artists." You get bored. You start to watch things that don't matter, like the drummer. There's a hot girl in the fifth row that might show her tits. Sound familiar? Okay, I got a bit off the subject, but in a perfect world, shows should be more fun. You're paying to attend something that should be a special, memorable event, start to finish. That's what I aspire to do. I think we achieved that during the Self Destruct Tour of 1994-1995, except for the toilets part. On another note, I saw the Polyphonic Spree 0pen for David Bowie in New Orleans a while ago, and it was one of the best things I'd ever seen. I was exhausted and had been writing lyrics, which always makes me a bit... sensitive. Anyway, when I walked in the theatre I saw 300 people on stage really meaning it... That was a really touching, powerful thing. I stayed in a good mood for a whole 24-36 hours after that! OCR'd by Nayl_Girl on Perfect Isolation