And Then There Was One...
to Trent Reznor, nu-metal is comical, alternative rock is dead and businessmen
are ruining music And don't even get the NINE INCH NAILS
frontman started on Creed...
TRENT REZNOR has a voice that is much deeper than you might imagine.
When he calls at 7pm in the evening on a freezing London night, he tells
you that he's at home in New Orleans, that life is good at the moment
and that his band is in good shape and in good heart. Nine Inch Nails
are about to release a new live album and DVD set, the provocatively
titled 'And All That Could Have Been', recorded on the last leg of the
'Fragility' tour over five dates in Northern California in 1999, and
Reznor seems keen to talk. About it. About everything. Tonight we have
45 minutes to play with, and not a moment more. But that, for Trent
Reznor, is not bad going. This interview was originally supposed to
happen a year ago in New Orleans, but the release date for 'And All...'
was held back and the talk was cancelled. Fine. Then the news came through
that the communication was to be by telephone, in December. Also scrapped.
Then we were told a date in January and an interview time of just 20
minutes. Nothing like enough for a cover story that stretches over five
whole pages. Eventually - finally - the date is changed again and, like
hagglers in a very polite bazaar, we ask for an hour and get three quarters
of that. It'll do. But still, there's a woman from Nine Inch Nails'
record company in New York who is going to come on the line and tell
me in London that Trent Reznor in New Orleans is all out of time. It
seems like scheduling an interview with royalty. And you can't help
but wonder: what the hell is he going to be like? "I hope when people
read this interview they get more of an idea of what I'm like as a person,"
he says. "About what makes me tick and about the place that I'm coming
from." Normally when Kerrang! interviews a band, or a member of a band,
we take what they say and we mix it up with our own words. We put it
into context, add a throw of colour, whatever setting might be to hand
and try to make it interesting. A little bit of what they say, a little
bit of what we think. And this usually works out fine. But Trent Reznor
has a way of dominating an interview. That is, he'll take a question
and bring it round to whatever ails him at the present. He doesn't do
this in a way that is arrogant or boisterous, it just seems, perhaps,
that things are on his mind and trouble lurks in his skies. Personally
things may be fine - better than they have been for a while, in fact
- but all the while outside forces scratch at the door and the environment
is darkening. And if what Trent Reznor has to say is worth hearing,
then it's worth hearing in full. So, with just a few cuts for purposes
of editing and space (and really nothing else), this is the state of
the creative mind that gave you Nine Inch Nails as this new year melts
Where exactly are Nine Inch Nails 'at' at the moment?
Trent Reznor: "When I'm asked what do I think of a lot of the nu-metal
bands that are out there, my response is usually that it seems really
insincere to me. 'I've had a really shitty childhood and I'm really
upset and I'm really ugly and I've put a lot of make-up on and I'm harder
and faster and my voice sounds more like the cookie monster's than yours
does'. To me it all comes across as being comical, as being a parody
of itself. I think that it's much more difficult to obtain intensity
through restraint, through space, through subtlety. There's nothing
wrong with a kick in the face every now and again, but repeated beatings
lead to numbness. And I think there are many other means of getting
my message across than repeated punchings in the face. So I guess that
is my main creative point of view at this moment."
How does this period of music contrast with the climate that bands like
Nine Inch Nails emerged into at the start of the '90s?
Trent: "At that time it was probably hard to say. But now - and I don't
mean to sound old - things are so bad that it makes me think that things
must have been really good then. Looking back into the early '90s and
bands like Jane's Addiction and Tool and Rage Against The Machine, it
seemed like it was a time of more freedom. The hair metal bands were
getting stabbed in the heart and it seemed like a time of great upheaval.
But what happened was that the major labels realised there was a marketing
label they could stick on all these bands and that term was 'alternative'.
And this would apply to everything from Nirvana to the Dead Kennedys
to the Barenaked Ladies. And everything became homogenised. So today
things have become very stale, and there are a number of reasons why
I think that is the case."
Could you run through them for us?
Trent: "Well, one of these reasons comes from me as a musician who's
signed to a record label; and what's happening in America is that in
the past five years all the record labels have merged into one big thing.
And what happens is this: I get signed to an independent label, TVT,
which sucked, let me make that clear. But they then sell me to Interscope,
which was a new label at that time, who had bands like Helmet, who were
great, but they also had some real stinkers, too. What happened is that
they placed themselves in that area to be an aggressive major label
and succeeded and are now very successful. So successful, in fact, that
they sold themselves to Universal. So I was on TVT, then I was on Interscope
and now I'm on Interscope/Universal, okay? But Universal has now sold
themselves to (French corporation) Vivendi, whoever the f**k that is."
MUSICIANS AND artists taking a pop at their employers is not necessarily
a new spin, but it is becoming increasingly rare. Maynard James Keenan
has spoken on this subject, but his band, Tool, have court business
to hand, that stops him speaking specifically about their own plight.
Courtney Love also has chewed and may be about spit out her paymasters
in a rancorous dispute over the fate of the excellent 'Celebrity Skin'
record, but no-one can really get near her, so each of her intentions
are currently in the realm of personal conjecture. Elsewhere, it's not
a happy sight. Businessmen such as Fred Durst speak only in terms of
greed and power, seemingly for its own sake. Papa Roach gush about imprint
labels with the wide-eyed wonder of the first-timer. Linkin Park trumpet
the company line in a way that makes their good music somehow sound
In a real sense, what do you see as the effect of this process?
Trent: "Well, let's say you're on a label that has 20 bands, and they
have a staff that pushes X amount of releases a month and that can handle
that many things. Suddenly that label is sold to a bigger label that
just bought 10 other labels just like yours. And the guy who used to
say yes or no to the album budgets that you had to answer to as a musician,
now he has to answer to the guy that's his new boss, who's an accountant
who doesn't know about music or care about music. What he does care
about is, 'What were our profits this quarter?'. So if that guy wants
to keep his job, then he's gonna punish the musician, the janitor of
the music business. When the guy who is pushing the pen says, 'Well,
Britney Spears made us this much money... wow, that's great. Sonic Youth?
Who are they? Lose 'em. Next'. All that matters today is what's making
money today. And if it's not making money, then get rid of them."
As a janitor, how does that make you feel?
Trent: "I find myself fighting a battle on almost every front now. I'm
making music and I'm under contract with a company that's selling my
music, and they're taking a lion's share of the profits to do that.
They're not doing me a favour. Now let me get this point out straight,
I got into music because I didn't have a choice, that's what I do. It
happened this way, but if I didn't have this then I would still be doing
this. Having success and money is nice, but it is not the main reason
why I started doing this. But now I'm with a company who sell my music,
and music has been so reduced down that it's now just product - because
it's all about how many you sold, how many units you moved to this or
that demographic - that when something comes up it just throws everything
into chaos. So I'm currently having an argument as to whether I can
have five colour printing on the cover of the album or not? And they're
saying, 'It doesn't matter to the kids, what the f**k do they care?'.
You're just a problematic musician. Well, I still look at music and
my music as being art. Maybe it shouldn't be on sale in a (US chainstore)
Walmart. But this stuff matters to me, and that's all I can base my
judgements on. But more and more it becomes about how many you sold.
And more and more you hear musicians complementing each other on their
bank accounts. Rather than, 'That was a great song. That moved me'."
People talk about 'The Fragile' not as a piece of music, but rather
as a commercial disappointment. How do you feel about that?
Trent: "Well the media jumps in on it as well, which is what happened
with 'The Fragile'. That's a record that I was very proud of and am
very proud of, and although it sold more than I thought it would it
didn't sell as many as the record company thought that it would. So
it's a failure. And now that seems to be the poster album for the rock-is-dead
Do you think the music you talk about as not liking has any effect
on the impact your music is allowed to make?
Trent: "I think it does because a whole precedent is set up where music
becomes disposable. In today's terms if you were to poll 100 people
outside of Virgin or Tower Records and say, 'On the average CD you buy,
how many good songs are there on it?', what would you think their answer
would be? Two songs? Three songs maybe. So what is an album? An album
is a way that record labels can sell a hit single at the inflated price
of an album. You sign a disposable artist that has one good song, fill
an album full of shit, send it out, sell it dummies and throw it away
next week. It's started a climate where everyone's attention span is
lessened. I don't think there's many people at record labels that look
at their artists as having careers in the long term. I was lucky enough
to get in at a time when it was possible to do that. So I hoped that
I would be around as long as a band such as The Cure or Depeche Mode,
bands who had been around for 10 or 15 years. I can't imagine bands
that I hear (now) that I would even remember who they were in five years
WHICH IS all well and good, apart from the fact that it's debatable
whether Nine Inch Nails have actually done their bit in arresting what
Trent Reznor describes as a slipping of the standard. Of all the bands
that emerged in the period he describes above, NIN are one of the few
outfits, along with Tool and Pearl Jam, still in any kind of health.
Nirvana are no more, Soundgarden are no more, Rage Against The Machine's
future is unclear and Jane's Addiction seemed to have hopped on the
nostalgia ticket with their reformation(s). But what of it? Nine Inch
Nails themselves have only released two studio albums in the last eight
years, 1994's 'The Downward Spiral' and 'The Fragile' five years later.
That's plenty of time for bad things to happen when Trent Reznor is
away from the watch. And many NIN fans may greet the arrival of a live
double album with a sort of hollow pleasure. As in: it's nice to have
you back, but is this really all you have to offer?
Do you think you could have done more to arrest the slide you describe
by releasing more music?
Trent: "That's hard to say. I wish I had released more music and I can
only really blame myself for that. Every time I've been approached by
the media to represent a group of people or a movement I've told them
not to look to me for that. But, yeah, I wish things had been slightly
different. But I have enough faith in the music-listening public that
they'll soon have had enough of look-a-like blonde Barbie doll singer
fluff music, or enough comic book scary bands, or enough f**king rap-metal,
or enough bland power rock bands. I mean with that last one, my f**king
God, what has happened there? Eddie Vedder should start suing these
people for sounding like him, for f**k's sake. "But myself as an artist,
if I don't have anything to say, then what is the point of saying anything?
And I would imagine that the guy from Bush (Gavin Rossdale) probably
never asked himself that question. 'Wow, I can sound a lot like Nirvana,
kick ass! We'll get a deal'. Unless he's that stupid that this never
occurred to him. But what's the point of imitation apart from the fact
that it begets more imitation? And you do have to wonder what is going
on in these people's heads."
But specifically the point of you not releasing enough music over
the years - could you address that?
Trent: "Well the eternal answer to why I haven't had more music out
is that I didn't ever sit down and say, 'Let me make a band that's about
this, where I'll write about this...'. It just came out. When I first
started making music I had no idea what I was going to write about.
I knew I liked the Clash but I didn't know shit about politics, so either
I could fake it or I could try and make it honest. So in the end I resorted
to journal entries that had almost been written as lyrics, stuff that
I thought I could never let people hear. But when I did it had a power
to it because it was so honest and I was saying things from the heart.
Even though I'm not particularly proud of what I'd said, it did have
a certain truth to it. But it got to the point where I was giving so
much of myself away that I could almost predict where I was going to
head, so I'd written an album about it before I'd even done it. And
that was basically despair, drug addiction, isolation, desolation and
suicide. And I began to wonder if this fatalistic approach was my destiny?
And all the while the band is getting bigger, so you think, 'Well, must
be doing something right'. And I wonder if that has been a little bit
Is there anything you do like, musically or otherwise, at the moment?
Trent: "Well, I'm doing a pretty good job of that all by myself! Well,
I've been listening to Spiritualized and Mercury Rev at the moment.
And a lot of Rush as well."
And those you don't like...
Trent: "Oh, there's plenty of those. I'm not saying I'm averse to a
good pop song, like something by Incubus, although I'm not going to
run out and buy their album or anything. But I'll sit with my mouth
open in front of the TV watching what gets played these days. And I
think people have been conditioned to this, and that's how bands of
extreme mediocrity rise to the top. People don't know that there's anything
better than this."
Extreme mediocrity? Do you mean a band like Creed?
Trent: "Oh my God, yes, exactly. But I don't even really take offence
at them because we're not doing the same thing. It's almost like we're
not the same species. I don't want to fight them, but I don't want to
listen to them, either."
IF YOU were to take Trent Reznor at his word, that music for him was
a necessity rather than a choice, then there is plenty of evidence to
support the supposition on 'All That Could Have Been'. There are parts
of the album that just burn with energy and turmoil, on songs such as
a rejuvenated 'Wish' or the echoing unfulfilment of 'Something I Can
Never Have'. But if 'All...' is not a backward-looking album, at best
all it manages to do is to take what has been and drag it into the present,
albeit with some conviction and purpose. As for the future, Trent Reznor
isn't really saying. He's involved in a couple of projects, some of
which have to do with Nine Inch Nails and some of which don't. As usual,
he'll let you know when he's ready. Until then, the subject matter is
very much all that could have been.
If Nine Inch Nails were starting out now, how do you feel this deterioration
in the standard of music might impact on what you were trying to do?
Trent: "That's impossible to answer, really. All I can say is that the
music that I've liked has been indicative of where I was at the time.
So if I was starting out now, I don't know how it would sound. But since
I'm on a bitching spree, I'll say this. Rock 'n' roll was originally
a black music that was assimilated by Elvis and the like. Now to me
that was just a story in a book, I wasn't around to see that. But you
can see it happening again with hip-hop and rap, that the white man
has taken over that as well. There's nothing wrong with synthesis or
with influence but what gets me is when you see the blatant appropriation
of a lifestyle lie. 'Where are you from? Oh, just down the street? So
not from the inner city at all?'. You know, I think all these bands
that have turntablists are doing nothing more than clambering aboard
the Titanic and sailing to their death. They are the spandex pants bands
of this generation."
Nine Inch Nails fans are a particularly intense and attentive collective.
Are you heartened by that?
Trent: "Well, I am surprised by that. When I started, my expectations
were that it wouldn't be a hundredth as big as it is now. In my wildest
dreams I wouldn't have thought that I would be here now doing what I'm
doing, and it surprised me that what at times I think of as a pretty
extreme message has touched so many people. But I think one of the dangers
of that is that I sometimes think that if I hadn't done a video for
'Closer', or if I hadn't written that song, or if we hadn't have done
Woodstock or Lollapalooza or any number of semi-chance-based things
that didn't allow us to tap into the pulse of what was going on, and
if we hadn't have sold this many records, would my music have been better
today because of that?"
And would it?
Trent: "Well, it's an impossible-to-answer question. Maybe it would
be, or maybe not. But the point of it is this, when you go from a medium
to a large-sized band you're rewarded for that. Suddenly you have a
nice house, you don't have to worry about money for this and that, you
have a studio and you're on a little firmer artistic ground with the
record label. All these little benefits that you've got from selling
records to people. So now it comes to doing a new record. Well, with
'The Fragile' I really made a conscious effort to not let concern about
sales affect what I was doing with the record. I tried my best - I can't
say I succeeded entirely - but as consciously as I could I didn't think
about whether the people that liked 'Closer' would like this or not.
There's a struggle to remind yourself as an artist to take care of your
voice, and by that I don't mean your singing voice. I mean your output.
And you need to protect it from things that might tarnish it."
Do you ever feel like a whore?
Trent: "I've done everything that I can do to avoid that. There's plenty
of things that come up that would easily add a couple of zeros to the
bank balance, but I'm just not happy doing that. I'm not happy doing
music for wrestling tournaments. Ten years ago bands wouldn't even consider
putting a song on a commercial for Nike, that would have been a stake
in the heart of integrity. But now nobody seems to care. They're selling
shit to the corporate man."
What would you like to think your legacy is like so far?
Trent: "Here's how I feel - and I feel a little pretentious even saying
this - when all is said and done, and I hope that's not today, I'd like
to see my career as being someone who put music out that didn't necessarily
fit in at the time it came out, but that contributed to the greater
good of treating music as art and as something that should be challenging.
When people say that 'The Fragile' was too challenging for the times,
all I can ask is what's the alternative? Should I have put something
that just caters to what I think are today's tastes, something that
might help my numbers? To be viewed as someone who made music in honesty
rather than for money, and made music for the right reasons would really
be all I could ask for."·
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is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.