Jahr 1990




April 1990


Nine Inch Nails –

Trent Reznor hits college radio on the head with a tough, sharp solo album


Words: By Robert L. Doerschuk





For 45 minutes before the Jesus And Mary Chain take over, the stage be longs to Trent Reznor. Twenty-four years old, a former music store salesman with a home-brew recording habit, he finds himself facing a roomful of rowdies, many of them already familiar with his slashing lyrics and steely synth-based music. But most are waiting for Jesus, and Reznor knows it.

So when he, drummer Chris Vrenna, guitarist Richard Patrick, and Emax player Dave Haynes crowd onto the segment of the stage that isn‘t cluttered with the closing act‘s gear, they bring with them a definite attitude. They kick—hard—into “Terrible Lie.“ Haynes jerks his head backward to the opening beat, shaking what look like billows of dust into the stage lights. Vrenna shirtless, his hair irrigated into razor slash patterns, pounds ambitextrous electronic fills against the taped rhythm track. Out front, Reznor sheds his leather jacket, revealing a black tank-top with “God Squad“ emblazoned in front.

Black hair glistening, wiry frame spazzing to the industrial beat, Reznor yells, “Hey, God, why are you doing this to me? Am I not living up to what I‘m supposed to be? Why am I seething with this animosity? Hey, God, think you owe me a great big apology.... Terrible Lie!“ As the song reaches its climax, he suddenly hurls himself against Patrick and catapults backward. As he hits the floor, the tape abruptly ends. Lights of dust into the stage lights. Vrenna, cut to black.

And the audience whoops... politely.

Such is the plight faced by opening acts - even such dynamite groups as Nine Inch Nails, the soubriquet used by Reznor for his solo projects and four-piece performances. Onstage and on disk, NIN is tight, aggressive, lyrically incisive, and even tuneful. Like a demon chemist, Reznor mixes volatile elements in explosive combinations; the synth and sample textures on his debut album, Pretty Hate Machine [ TVT Records, 59 W. 19th St., New York, NY 100111], seem to gnaw through the speakers and burrow into some dark corner of the brain, where prima I night-mares and suppressed taboos lurk. It‘s scary, impressive, and danceable-ideal college playlist material.

Even so, the crowd at San Francisco‘s Warfield Theatre comes around with maddening slowness. Two people, sometimes three, dance in the balcony. On the dance floor, Jesus And Mary freaks stand still, watching curiously as Reznor douses Patrick with a few beers and falls down again once or twice. After exactly 40 minutes, they finish their closing number, the viciously accusatory “Head like a Hole,“ and make a fast exit.

Backstage, flopped on a couch in the closet-like dressing room shared by the entire group, Reznor muses, “I‘m unsure as to the challenge of opening for a band that‘s not like you at all. Normally, we‘d play our slow song second or third, just to show people that this isn‘t going to be a disco set, and challenge them to pay attention. We‘d push them as far as we can without forcing them to revolt against us. In the opening situation, though, you don‘t normally have that opportunity on your side. Plus, you can hear everybody. It gets disturbing when things are real quiet and you can hear a hundred people say, ‘This sucks.’“

So how does he cope with it? Reznor smiles wearily. “We just keep our monitors loud.“

For the time being, NIN lingers in that purgatory known to all who have escaped from the rock inferno into the light of wider recognition. Their industrial rhythms and violent electronic sound are only beginning to win over the mass audience. But with this much passion and talent at his command, Reznor should by all rights break out of the dues-paying routine soon and have his shot at shaking up the establishment. All he needs is time... and maybe a break from the main stream press.

When you recorded Pretty Hate Machine, did you anticipate that you would eventually be playing it live?

Not at all. Before I did the record, we went on tour with Skinny Puppy. That was the first time I played these songs live. It was a somewhat bad experience. In a lot of ways, I was restricted, because of the arrangement. So I got rid of the band I had, wrote some new songs, reprogrammed the old stuff, and that‘s pretty much what the album is. In the back of my mind, I was keeping the aggressiveness that I knew would translate well live, but I wasn‘t thinking of the instrumental arrangement. That‘s where the challenge was in putting a new band together after the record was over, and discovering that there was no real drum part on this song, no real keyboard part on that one.

Did you make many changes in the samples and sounds you used on the album in doing concert arrangements?

I had to redo certain songs. Generally, all the samples are the same. I had to resequence and mix all of “Sin”, because it just wasn‘t fast enough. When we recorded the album, most of the stuff went from sequence to 24-track, so it was just there. I didn‘t have to remix, taking 600 keyboards and trying to re member what patch was up. It also freed up a lot of equipment to use over again. I pretty much put the tapes up on the 24-track and went from that in making a four-track on cassette for live. The bad thing was that a couple of tracks had a lot of loops going, so when I sped up the tempo I had 20 loops that had to speed up proportionately.

What went onto the four-track cassette you run during your show?

We use one track for a dick that the drummer plays with. The bass is on another track. Then there‘s everything else.

How did you decide what not to put on the tape?

The first phase is what would be good in terms of arrangement. There wasn‘t much guitar on the album -just a touch here and there for effect. So I wrote some new guitar parts. Since the bass parts were unplayable, I thought we‘d put them on the tape, for the sound man‘s ease. Then we had the unplayable percussion stuff and the real sequency sixteenth-note stuff. The pressure is on the drummer to play with the tape. We‘re about 80 percent there right now.

What still needs work?

Well, we had a major tape deck problem. We bought a brand new tape deck, and on our first job it shut oft on the second song a couple of times. We replaced it, and the new one did the same thing. Now we‘re on tape deck number three. Aside from that, it‘s just tightening up as a band, playing with the dick, that sort of thing. I have to get everybody into a very aggressive frame of mind before the show. Our drummer is especially guilty: If he‘s not in the right mood, he‘ll play a crappy night, because he won‘t be thinking aggressively. So have to whip him into shape. I really want to emphasize being visually exciting. It makes up for the computer oriented sterility of the music.

To make room for the live drums, did you have to drop some of the drum parts from the tape?

I dropped pretty much all of the kick, snare, and hi-hat. I tried to rearrange the rhythm so there‘s more of a straight drum beat; a lot of stuff on the album was just loops and samples. I rocked it up a bit more.

On some of the songs in your show, there doesn‘t seem to be much tape backup at all; it‘s practically live.

Yeah, and there are other songs where more than you might suspect is on tape. Initially, I thought about doing one or two songs completely live. Then we debated whether it would be better to go out with a minimal approach - everybody plays his one part and that‘s it - or load the tape with a bunch of crap like what‘s on the album. We ended up going with the fuller thing. I don‘t know if that was a good idea, but that‘s the path we chose.

The only keyboard visible onstage is the E-mu Emax. Is it MIDIed to anything offstage?

No. We just use the Emax hard disk; that‘s what I used when I wrote the songs. All the loops had to fit in a bank, so we have a different bank for each song. I didn‘t want to be concerned with a situation where we‘ve got a computer and 15 keyboards and -uh oh! - something‘s wrong, so I‘m under the computer, checking out MIDI cables. That‘s why we chose tape over sequencing. So there wasn‘t any need to MIDI anything; I kept that in mind as we did the live tape.

Did the album stem from a single concept, or was it a compilation of things that you had done over a period of years?

I started off doing some demos around the beginning of ‘88 in this studio in Cleveland, where I‘m located at the moment. I didn‘t have a focused idea as to what the project was going to be. it was basically me and the computer, coming up with different ideas, bits of songs, things like that. Eventually, after a couple of songs were written, I realized that the strength of this music was its emotional intensity. It was emotion-based rather than technique-based.

Technique in what sense?

In the sense of great playing. Also, being in Cleveland, there was nobody to really collaborate with. If there was going to be a guitar on the record, I would have to play it. Same sort of thing with the bass. And I‘m not a guitar player. Basically, I‘m a keyboard player. So the challenge was to come up with a style that would fit the music.

The common denominator, though, was emotion.

I tried to make it that way. I didn‘t want it to sound like a collection of songs; I wanted it to be one big work. One factor working against it was that I was originally going to do the whole album with Flood [British producer of Depeche Mode and Erasure], but his schedule didn‘t permit it, so I ended up in four different studios with four different guys mixing. I spent a lot of time editing, picking parts of different mixes and splicing them together, to give the impression of continuity.

What computer did you use?

I work everything on the Macintosh. For sequencing, I use [Mark of the Unicorn] Performer. I‘ve stuck with Performer since the beginning because I know it works. I‘m not saying it‘s any better than anything else, but I‘m geared to how it works. I‘ve never run into the problem of wishing it would do something that it doesn‘t, with the exception of Swing quantization, which it‘s not too good at.

What about the keyboard parts?

I‘ve always had E-mu products. I had an Emulator II for a while, but I got rid oft right before I did the album. Almost every sound is an Emax. I like it because it has a slightly brighter sound than the Emulator. And I really love its crummy clock noise when you trans pose down. That‘s the secret to a lot of the sounds on Pretty Hate Machine: Get a cool sound, then transpose it down three octaves to get that great grainy high-end buzz. In the studio, we have an Akai S950, which probably sounds better, but it gets duller as you transpose down. I use Turbosynth a lot, in a kind of half knowing what everything does and half I‘m-not-sure-what-this-does, I‘m just-gonna-mess-around-with-it-for-an-hour until-something-cool-comes-out way.

Does your interest in gritty sound mean that you‘re not interested in really high-end gear?

That would depend on what I‘m using it for. We have an Emulator Three at the studio in Cleveland, and I work on it a lot. I‘ve never worked on anything above that, but assuming the EIII is the high-end world, I think it‘s great to have something truncate a sample for you and normalize it in ten seconds, as opposed to bouncing it to an editor. There are definitely uses for high-end stuff.

How much real-time playing did you do on the record?

I can play. I was classically trained. I have technique at my disposal. But over the past five or six years, I‘ve kind of abandoned technique and tried to approach music more from a by-ear method or by impulse rather than by theory. I played pretty much everything into the sequencer, but to offset the perfectly quantized drums and bass, I tried to use the elements of vocals and guitar as totally rough, usually on the first take, so that the record didn‘t feel too perfect.

By avoiding any display of keyboard chops, were you trying to show off a different kind of chops on the Mac?

It was more that I enjoy working by myself and I hadn‘t found anyone I really wanted to collaborate with. Rather than whine about not having musicians at my disposal, it was a challenge to figure out what I could do myself. I‘ve always composed on the Computer; I don‘t know how to do it any other way.

Was there something about your classical training that seemed insufficiently emotional or spontaneous?

Maybe. It got to the point in high school or Junior high where it was like, “Why don‘t you take fewer classes in school, and study with this nun, and practice ten hours a day?“ To sacrifice a normal life to become a concert pianist really had no appeal to me. There‘s a beauty in being able to play back someone else‘s music with incredible technique, but in another sense you‘re limited to, “You shouldn‘t play that with rubato because it wasn‘t written that way.“ I began asking myself, Why am I playing this Instrument? Is it to excel in technique? To me, that‘s a bit stifling. Rather than be great at one Instrument, I‘d rather have a general knowledge of a few, and work in a more composition-oriented environment. Also, I had that teenage rebellious streak, so it was like, forget it. I didn‘t look at another piece of music. I started approaching things differently. I could lay my fingers on the keys, and if I thought about it, I could figure out what that chord would be. But I started trying to go more from instinct: “I know what it‘s gonna sound like without thinking about what it is.“

Did you draw any inspiration to explore new approaches to music from listening to more experimental bands?

Keyboard-wise, I was really into the Cars. The way they approached synthesizers, melding them with the guitar, was cool. That‘s about the level of alternativeness I was into. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I didn‘t have access to the true underground. There was no great college radio around there, and no bands. You had to find outside influences through osmosis. So I grew up liking Kiss and bands like that. Those are my roots, shallow as they may seem.

Where did you get the samples that you used on the album?

A couple of people helped me. I‘d say, “if you hear anything cool in a movie or any place else, just throw it onto cassette, and I‘ll dump it into the sampler.“ Of course, they were all hot to do it for a couple of days, then their interest waned and their output stopped. But every drum sound on Pretty Hate Machine is off of somebody else‘s record. I‘d just gotten the Emax but I hated the factory sounds, and I didn‘t have anything transferred over from the Emulator. So I got a couple of albums out - Front 242, Scritti Politti, a bunch of things - and nicked sounds from here and there. Then 1 sequenced the songs, and took them into the studio, thinking, “Okay, if I‘m gonna do it for real with a producer, let‘s get some real drum sounds.“ But the ones I had were pretty cool. We just EQued them, and that‘s it.

Did you take any original industrial noise samples?

Most of those sounds I got from other sources. Part of it was laziness. But another part was, “That‘s a cool sound. “I‘d Turbosynth it, or put it in Alchemy and EQ it until it came out as a weird new sound. I was tempted to lay in more of other people‘s stuff, but I thought that would lend a real dated quality to the record, seeing where that has gone the way it has in hip-hop. I didn‘t go out with a DAT machine and record any thing. That‘s something I want to do for the next album - maybe dedicate a month to ac cumulating good sounds. But I had so much work heaped on me that I didn‘t have time to do that sort of thing. When you‘re in the world of independent labels, you don‘t have four weeks to mix two tracks.

What are some of the more memorable samples on your album?

On the last chorus of “Sanctified,“ you‘ll hear a weird little beat; that‘s kind of an obvious one. At the end of the last song on the album, “Ringfinger,“ the idea was to get as many loops playing at the same time as possible. We got about 12 before we ran out of channels. For a lot of weird percussion things, I would cheat: I‘d get a track up, and if I couldn‘t find something that would make a groove, I‘d take, say, a Public Enemy two-bar loop, turn it backwards, modulate it through Turbosynth with an oscillator tuned to the pitch of the song, and get this weird flanging-type thing that‘s in key. No one would guess that‘s actually another song playing. Every drum fill on “Terrible Lie“ is lifted intact from some where. There are six other songs playing through that cut, recorded on tape, in and out, depending on where they worked.

“Terrible Lie“ also features a very provocative dissonant theme right after the false ending.

That sound has quite an interesting history. It started out as a woodblock. I ran it through a distortion pedal, sampled it, then did my Emax trick by dropping it down a couple of octaves. Then I chopped off the beginning of it. I might also have put an envelope on it with Turbosynth. That‘s probably my favorite sound on the record.

What was the source of the piano sound on “Something I Can Never Have“?

That‘s the one song I kind of backed away from. I did that in London, with John Fryer. He‘s done a lot of things on the 4.A.D. label, like Cocteau Twins, System Event, Xymox. There‘s a dreamy quality to a lot of the stuff that he produces, so that track lent itself to him. It ended up being some sample oft an [Akai] S900 with the filter way, way down. He‘s the reverb master, so it was buried in the AMS reverb. All the weird stuff in the background is from a project he does called This Mortal Coil, which is a collaboration of 4.A.D. artists. He had a bunch of half-inch tapes that they had done for backing tracks, with bass guitars slowed down. I was listening to them while he was mixing other things on the tape, checking out what was there, and accidentally brought this up in the mix. We recorded it on a couple of tracks of 24- track. Somehow it worked perfectly.

“That‘s What I Get“ followed an unusual arrangement pattern, with a really big intro, after which the tune gradually diminished to nothing

Initially, I didn‘t intend that track to be on the album. It was supposed to be a B side or something like that. Lyrically, it didn‘t fit the flow of the record. So I figured I‘d approach it in a different way, rather than in the Nine Inch Nails formula of small, big, small, big, big, small -verse, chorus, etc. We had kind of run out of arrangement ideas, so we just threw up some loops and things. The percussion on it wasn‘t ten different parts; it was one loop that John had from something else, and it worked. He‘s got 600 disks of weird things I‘ve never heard of.

There doesn‘t seem to be a lot of synth on the album.

Actually, there was. I used a Prophet-VS, an Oberheim Xpander, and a little bit of Minimoog, which was down more than up in the studio. I‘ve had the Xpander since it came out. I‘ve always considered it a great analog machine. It‘s the only thing I‘ve ever owned that‘s never let me down. But I‘d gotten to the point where it was cumbersome to pro gram. I had the same ten sounds I always thought were great in lt. Then, when I worked with Flood, he breathed new life into it for me. He‘s absolutely a master of programming the Xpander. We really got into the FM section, doing some weird modulation things I‘d never attempted and coming up with very strange, non-analog sounds. That ended up being a big part of what we did for a lot of weird modulating sounds. “Terrible Lie“ was all Oberheim.

What about the VS?

I got the VS right when Sequential quit making them. At one time I had a PPG, which I really liked but had to dump because I was in financial trouble. I looked at the VS as possibly a PPG replacement.

Was the Minimoog used in its classic bass line context?

Pretty much so. We also tried to do some things with the Minimoog filter on vocal processing, but for some mysterious reason it wasn‘t working.

Still, it‘s nice to tap into some older gear as fresh sound sources.

With some work, you can get some great sounds out of ‘em. I learned from messing around on those older synths. In fact, the Moog Prodigy got me into pre-programmed synths. I‘m glad I had to learn the lesson: “New sound. Five hundred knobs to change.“ I even studied computer engineering in college for a short time, thinking that maybe I‘d lead a legitimate life, be a designer of synthesizers or something like that. But then I realized that it‘s a lot more calculus than creativity, and that what 1 wanted to do was music.

So what do you think of current trends in keyboard instrument design?

I‘ve totally ignored what‘s happened in the past year. I‘ll go into stores and look around, but nothing seems exciting. It seems that since synthesizers and technology became affordable, everybody abandoned the upper-end synths. There aren‘t many Matrix 12s or even Prophet-VSs coming out now. I instead, it‘s just all-in-one workstations-shitty sounds with shitty sequencers - or affordable things. I have no use for that. I don‘t need something to sound like a piano. I don‘t need a bass guitar replacement. I wish there was more emphasis on hard-core, “let‘s-get-in there-and-program“ synths, rather than the “it‘s-got-a-great-piano-patch“ mentality.

Maybe that decline in programmability partly explains the rising popularity of samplers.

That‘s true. I‘m now working on a Mac IIx with an EIII; I‘m replacing that great upper end synthesizer with sampling and messing around with Turbosynth. Sounds are in some ways more unlimited in the sampling environment.

Your press packet repeats media characterizations of your album as angry, bitter, and so forth. Is there something in the expectations of current audiences that makes them especially receptive to hearing these emotions expressed through music?

I think so. In some respect, it‘s an aware ness of universal problems that young people have while growing up: waking up, seeing that it‘s not all as you were trained to think it would be, grasping that you‘re not part of the perfect yuppie world - a universal post-punk mentality. You see a lot of bands in the industrial movement - bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy, the Wax Trax scene - who seem to play upon this personal alienation and also get into the environmental issues that go hand-in-hand with it. Some of it is legitimate, but a lot of it is following the leader, even though these guys don‘t truly know what they‘re talking about or what they believe in. I’m trying to distance myself from that mentality. Nine Inch Nails is not here to change the world. I‘m not out to make any great statement about politics, or “Don‘t put plastic on the cover of Keyboard.“ Really, it‘s about personal angst: My music is a way for me to get it out of my system.