Considering all the resources at your disposal, how does somebody who wants
to do what you're doing start?
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
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?
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
In what ways do they participate in the creative process?
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.
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?
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
Who could possibly know why anyone would do that?
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.
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?
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?
A lot of it is marketing.
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.
Soon there will be soda commercials featuring some studio guy making bad
imitations of your music.
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.
What are your thoughts on sampling, within the definition of copyright
laws and the restrictions therein?
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
You bury your samples. If they were taken from a song, I would never be
able to recognize it.
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
Where do you draw the line?
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.
It kind of takes away from the spontaneity.
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?
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.
They have distribution.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
About two years ago I read a Mondo 2000 interview, where you called industrial
music "the misuse of technology". Could you elaborate on that?
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.
1994 / Questions by Joshua Berger and Eric Lengvenis
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