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Raised to the sound of isolation, he enjoyed the "hell"of being a studio janitor. Then came superstardom, self‑destruction and paranoia. So how the hell did Trent Reznor become "Mr Internet Genius?"
Interview by GEOFF BOUCHER • Portrait by ROSS HALFIN
TRENT REZNOR LIVES HIGH ON A CREST IN the Hollywood Hills, in a stately, modern house of bright light, hushed brown colours and wide windows that look down on the smog-wrapped citadels of downtown Los Angeles. There's not a coffin in sight. And instead of vials of cocaine, it's gourmet cupcakes with sprinkles that are lined up on the immaculate kitchen countertop while an espresso machine nearby burbles quietly and birds chirp outside.
It's all a bit disappointing for anyone expecting to encounter the dark, brooding presence portrayed by Reznor in the nightmarish music videos he made with Nine Inch Nails, the band that for two decades have pushed the boundaries of industrial music with songs of confession and primal desperation. Reznor chuckles when asked why he doesn't live in a dungeon. "That was the old house," he said, referring to the New Orleans
manse where, in the 1990s, he dove into a drug darkness that matched his music. "I had the vampire crypt before. That's also where I lost my mind. It was good for what it was, when it was, but I'm out of the crypt now"
Now, drug-clean, brawny and clear-eyed, Reznor continues to make vital music, but he says he believes he is at a crossroads. Unlike a good number of his peers, Reznor has got to grips with the fact that traditional models of the music industry are obsolete or close to it.
"It wasn't easy for me, but I have always enjoyed computers and I've come around to seeing the opportunities instead of dwelling on the things that have been lost," he states.
Reznor is packing for a US tour (underway by the time you read this) with Jane's Addiction, followed by a run of European dates. He describes the shows in terms of a soft farewell — he wouldn't say
he was giving up the road for good but he does expect to set touring aside for a good decade or more so he can work on a major studio album and his varied tech-savvy artistic pursuits.
Reznor's multi-layered approach to the relationship between his music and technology is typified by 2007's Year Zero, a dystopian fantasy that was realised as an album, a video game, an on-line scavenger hunt and may yet end up as a television series (the BBC and HBO have both pursued the idea). He also hints that, after many years in isolation, at the age of 44 he is enthused by this new life of connection, whether it be his sardonic missives on Twitter, his recent creation of the Nine Inch Nails iPhone application, or his home life with his girlfriend and rescued greyhounds from Mexico.
"I've always been a strong believer in `leave it to the imagination', but the internet gives you the ability to expose yourself way too much, and it's interesting for me to see where things go. The modern artist needs to resist that," he states. "Art is important, it's not just here for advertising. Music has value. As Nine Inch Nails goes away for a while,
I want people to check out what we're doing technologically
"Thank God for Trent," says producer Bob Ezrin.
"Trent Reznor is a true visionary. He's an intensely determined person,aware and on top of everything that happens in his name, from his music to his marketing.Thank God for Trent, and for all the others like him who will not compromise and will fight to realise their vision.ln the end, they might save us all."
Reznor explains that he wants to be a leader for peers through example and believes the most interesting way to do that right now is on-line, not on-stage. Then he laughs at the pretentious sound of this statement. "I'm not an idiot, I swear. I'm not some fucking Axle Rose!" he smiles. Clearly, the man who wrote Hurt is feeling pretty good. "It's happy guy now," he agrees as we begin to talk...
You're on tour with Jane's Addiction and then you're taking a break from Nine Inch Nails.There's a certain symmetry between this tour and the early 1990s when Jane's took you under their wing...
That's right, they gave me a big break on the first Lollapalooza, bringing us in to play in 1991. Then, they were breaking up and we were starting out. Now, we're stopping and they're coming back and trying to keep it going. For me, it's added a lot of weight to the everyday things.These days, there's always an incentive to tour, because that's where the money is in the music business now, but as I get older it's tedious and repetitive.The pages on the calendar start flying off, too. My buddy who just got married, wait, now he's got a four-year-old kid and what I have done? I sang Head Like A Hole 600 times. I always want to make sure Nine Inch Nails feels precious and respected. Right now it feels like it needs to go away and be missed.There will be a record, I suspect, in the next couple of years but no touring. I'm interested in the technology stuff right now, that's what's grabbing me. I have the courage to do that right now...
Looking back on your youth in Mercer, Pennsylvania, how did it shape your music?
I grew up in a rural environment. It was the middle of nowhere and it was the opposite of today; it wasn't information overload, it was no
information at all.The town was two traffic lights, a little town square with mom and pop shops that got shut down when the Wal-Mart opened.The big event was they got a McDonald's the year I graduated from high school. It was near the steel-mill towns, near Youngstown and other towns that were
suffering and depressed with the steel industry downturn. Amish-Dutch country is nearby.' hated it when I was there.There was never any fucking thing to do.There weren't even any drugs, at least that I knew of. You had a lot of time to think about things and you had to be self-sufficient, self-contained in some ways. I felt like the things you saw on TV were in another world, a place of privilege and excitement. There seemed to be no way to get on the other side of that screen. My dad got me an electric piano when I was 10.That altered the trajectory of my life from being a classical pianist to doing something where you could meet girls.You know how bands are described in the press as coming from a certain place and their sound echoes that? I never felt like mine did. But in retrospect I think that it echoes the limited exposure of my early Iife,the sound of isolation.
What were you listening to at the time?
There was no college radio, this was pre-internet, pre-MTV even, and I was really only
exposed to Top 40 and the most boring definition of classic rock.Trying to find stuff that was interesting was a challenge. I remember I subscribed to The Village Voice when I was a junior in high school because it felt like a pamphlet from another planet filled with exotic things. Musically,The Clash was about as edgy as it got for me then, which was a cool thing but that was the outer frontier. Pink Floyd's The Wall was a huge record for me. I liked The Police, I thought they had good songs. But I had never been in an independent record store. I had never seen the range of what music could be.
When I look at how my trajectory has gone, I think all those early years of being exposed to
Top 40 radio - the choruses and melodies - it stuck. For something I create to be a rewarding listen, it tends to have some sort of melodic, traditional pop song structure or elements of that. I don't say that from a place of embarrassment. I've always been drawn to some sort of hook. And theatrical things, a sense of art direction: Gene Simmons was a big influence.
I am truly embarrassed to say that now, with what he's become. He's a corny, jive, ridiculous person who embodies everything that I despise in the music industry. It's not about art or even quality, it's all about product for sale.
You went to Allegheny College, which wasn't that far from your hometown but must have seemed cosmopolitan in contrast...
There was the new wave explosion in the '80s and I remember not having enough cassette tapes to record all the music from everybody's collections, all these bands that I missed.Joy Division was already gone and I had never even heard it. And on top of it there was new stuff coming out that felt exciting to me as someone who was a keyboard player and someone who was into computers and melding technology. Sequencing was born around that time.That was a time of finding Bauhaus, XTC's catalogue, the Buzzcocks... It was dizzying, like discovering 20 new authors but each has 20 books you have to read. I dropped out of college after about a year because I was in rooms full of people who loved doing calculus, and I could do it but I sure didn't love it. No one in my family had gone to college before and it was hard to tell my grandparents - who were paying for school - that I was going to drop out and be a fuck-up and try to do the one thing I did love, which was music.
After you dropped out of college, you went to Cleveland, a hardscrabble place.There your music started to get more industrial...
If you were stretching it, yeah, You could call it
the industrial wasteland. Cleveland sucks. And where I lived in Cleveland really sucks. It was burned-out factories but that's not why I liked the sound of that stuff. I didn't fall asleep listening to factories and think about making it into music. It's just happened to be where I was living. Romantically, looking back, it would be nice to say.When I write my memoir I'll make up shit about how it was exactly that, though, just like everyone else.
You finally made it into a recording studio in Cleveland. As a janitor...
Let's just say it was an entry-level position! I had been working at a music store selling
keyboards to assholes, guys who would come in and play Jump by Van Halen. And
always a little bit wrong, too. It was hell. Then I heard that Prince had started with a job in a studio and worked on his own shit his own way. No one in Cleveland wanted to make the music I wanted to make, so I got a job in a studio cleaning toilets and wiping Jheri curl off of headphones. At night, if no one was there, I got to work on my own stuff. I started writing songs for the first time, I was 23.Those songs became Pretty Hate Machine.
The music on that album is harrowing, the lyrics desperate.There was a lot of honesty in songs like Down In It, Head Like A Hole,Terrible Lie and Something I Can Never Have.
Well, there were failed attempts at writing Clash songs, something that sounds cool and politically active.Then I listened to it, and I didn't even believe it, I knew I was bullshitting. Then I realised that my journal entries were lyrics, even in the way they were written. But it was hard. How can I say that? That's my guts. It's naked, ugly things. But it became clear that was the only thing I could say that had integrity. I stumbled into the practice of songwriting that felt like it had truth behind it.
A lot of attention is focused on the sound of that album, but it's the vocals - and their flexibility - that make Machine distinctive...
It's funny, I was just talking about this to my girlfriend [West Indian Girl vocalist Mariqueen Maandig]. I went to the vocal doctor today to get checked out for the tour and I was telling her I always wished I was born with the same equipment that David Bowie had at birth. Some people were dealt a hand that other people don't get.! think I have to work harder because I don't have what others have. I'm the swimmer who was born 4ft tall with short arms. In the basement as a teenager, the shit everyone was trying to sing was Rod Stewart and Foreigner and everybody had no nuts. How do you sing that? Luckily I heard Joe Jackson and said,"OK, I can sing in that range."
Pretty Hate Machine, one of the few indie records to go platinum, spent more than 100 weeks on the Billboard charts and landed you on MTV. How did your life change?
I felt like we had won the lottery. It was the best couple years of life up until recently, simply because the impossible had happened. We had a record deal with TVT Records, even though it was a terrible label and shitty deal.The label hated the record,they had heard the demos and they thought these strange and loud songs would be warmed up and the anger would be turned down and the songs would-be turned into FineYoung Cannibals songs, literally.The label president, Steve Gottlieb, told me the album was an abortion. He told me I had ruined my career before it started. He asked me why I was so angry. I was upset and took it hard but then I decided he was wrong and it was great. We went on tour and just worked and worked and worked.There were tour offers to open for people I respected. I remember sitting in a van on tour opening for Peter Murphy and The Jesus And Mary Chain and just being overwhelmed by this excitement. In January of 1990, the first tour, no one knew who we were.Then you start noticing people singing along in places you've never been. I've never been to Tulsa, how do they know who I am? Seeing these people shout back words that came from my bedroom, it was overwhelming.
For all the success on-stage, you were dealing with one of the nastier business battles in the music industry at the time.
It didn't get better with the label.The album was the biggest thing they ever had but Gottlieb still didn't get it. He said the next album could sell four times as much if we made the right video. He told me to pick a girl out of the book,"Look at the tits on this one." I realised that this meddling guy who has no idea what made the art good is in charge of how it's marketed and presented –
it's only a matter of time until there's a Nine Inch Nail breakfast cereal.That led to us eventually getting on Interscope and things got a lot better. But still those first couple of years were magical,just the way things kept ramping up.
We opened for Meat Beat Manifesto in 1989 and they opened for us in the June of the next year. It was weird and great. It's strange to become a cultural point of reference, too. David Letterman mentions you or The Simpsons.It's weird,though,when it all starts happening while you're on a two-and-half-year tour that starts in theatres and ends in sold-out arenas. That's when I turned to getting drunk and fucked up to deal with it.
A lot of people presume you were a heroin user because of the lyrics to Hurt, on 1994's The Downward Spiral:"The needle tears a hole/The old familiar sting/Try to kill it all away/But I remember everything." But you were more a tequila and cocaine guy...
That's right, that's the story of my life.I don't start off thinking I want to do cocaine but after a couple of drinks it becomes the focus.The coke becomes the obvious way to get right after drinking too much,too.Until it's 9am and you're searching the floor to see if you dropped any and then reaching for the phone to get more.That's what it was in New Orleans.The sky is purple, the girl next to you is ugly, the drugs are gone and the hot, cheesy vomit in every alley is baking in morning sun.
You recorded The Downward Spiral in Los Angeles at the Cielo Drive mansion where the 1969 Manson Family murders took place. Did the macabre theatrics, along with the party life, start to undermine your sense of yourself?
I was thrust into a place where I felt I had to be larger than life.What happened internally is, being insecure in general and having social anxiety, I became pretty lost.I made the mistake in 1994 of packing up all my stuff, putting it in storage and having, literally, no home.lt was an indefinite tour and I wanted to ride it out.Two and half years on the road and when there's a month off, I would dread it.Where am I going to go? There was the sensationalism in the press, too, because it was extreme music and it wasn't hidden behind a manufactured character like Marilyn Manson.There was no mask, it was just me.I would look at sinister photos of me and think,"OK, I have to be this guy."That doesn't end well.You feel like everyone is looking at you and one reason is the paranoia but the other part is the fact that they are looking at you. Living outside the rules and embracing this sense of freedom, it felt like it had purpose. But really it was cowardice. And I had this fear that I didn't deserve all of it, too, and it paralysed me as far as being creative.
Is that why your next album, The Fragile, was five years in the making?
Yes, precisely. My work was suffering and that's why Fragile took so long and it's an unfocused kind of blob. Other shit came out in that time but nothing of importance. Some remix bullshit and the Natural Born Killers soundtrack.They weren't in the area that I care about, which is looking in the mirror and making honest music. I had always had faith in myself and liked myself and could find pride in the work I did, but all of that got stripped away from me.I hated myself and wanted to die.I checked into a psych ward in New Orleans - which I don't recommend if you're trying to feel good about yourself-then came a rehab program through the summer.
You mentioned Marilyn Manson.You were a vital part of his success as a producer and a platform.Then came the infamous feud. What does the new, happy Trent Reznor see when he looks back on that?
It doesn't trouble me much now. I went back recently and listened to [the Reznor-produced Manson album] Antichrist Superstar and it brought back a flood of memories. It's one of the proudest things musically that I've ever done.lt felt like the right people and the right time doing the right thing. I had a lot of fucking fun doing a lot of stupid things, but that was then.I had a lot of fun at my birthday party when I was eight but I wouldn't want that same party now.
As far as Manson goes, during the Spiral tour we propped them up to get our audience turned on to them and at that time a lot of the people in my circle were pretty far down the road as alcoholics. Not Manson. His drive for success and self-preservation was so high, he pretended to be fucked up a lot when he wasn't. He resented when he was up in the morning and wanted to work.Things got shitty between us and I'm not blameless.The majority of it though was coming from a resentment guy who finally got out from under the master's umbrella and was able to stab him in the back. He is a malicious guy and will step on anyone's face to succeed and cross any line of decency. Seeing him now, drugs and alcohol now rule his life and he's become a dopey clown. He used to be the smartest guy in the room. Getting high deprives you of your creativity and, as a fan of his talents, I hope he gets his shit together.
In 2005, you released With Teeth, led with the single The Hand That Feeds.The reviews were mixed. What was it like putting together an album while sober?
It was fun, for a change. I didn't feel that every song had to be the best song ever.I could write more and do it with a greater sense of security. The only thing that marred that is, in my optimism, I involved the record label's opinion. I popped that album up a bit.I know the difference it makes when a song gets on the radio and with that in mind I smoothed a few edges.There are some things on there I wouldn't put on there today.
Two years later, you released Year Zero, an apocalyptic concept album with themes of bio-terrorism and government oppression. After years of looking in the mirror, you
created this fictional tapestry. Was that because there was less angst in your life?
Pretty Hate Machine and up through to The Fragile I was making 'I' records. Part of that was my anxiety that I was living my life as a joke and was intent on cutting through the posturing to get to honesty in my music, at Ieast.Then, in recent years, I'm more nterscope,1994to try new things.I look at Tom Petty and Paul McCartney and their storytelling range and ability to extend themselves into lyrics about other things. I never went to songwriting school.ljust learned to carve in the woodshed, making my little turd trinkets.1 never worked with marble, you know? That was a terrible analogy...
Over the past year, your name is back in the mix as a cultural reference point but it seems less about music and persona and more about technology and marketplace models.
It's nice. Not long ago I went out for the first time in a long time, to see My Bloody Valentine at the El Rey Theatre. Five different guys said to me:"Hey, nice app man."At first I thought they were saying "nice ass': What? Then I got it.The application we did for 'Phone. But, yeah, as you say,through the music we've given away and the way we've done it, it's exciting. We put out the album Year Zero in 2007 on Interscope and then owed them one more contract... They wanted us to take less than was in the contract and we said no because, well, when the albums were selling shitloads they didn't come and give us more money.That's the contract and we're not changing it. So let us out. But it put a gun to my head: what do you do now? It's the Wild West now. I've learned a Iot.You don't need record labels now, the last stranglehold, distribution, is gone.You don't need a record label to get on iTunes and you can record albums on your laptop.Things are coming at everyone differently. Where did you hear about the last band you love? The radio? No. MTV? Fuck no.You can spend a year making a record now and the second you put it out it wilschool.l justand you will make no money. But do you really hate the ttrinkets.Ies your music so much that he stole it?
You put out Ghost I-IV last year as well as The Slip, which you initially gave away for free. They felt like quick exercises in the nimble nature of this new digital scene you enjoy. When you do put out another album, what will be your compass point for it?
The last few albums were fast, they were fun challenges.I wouldn't do that again.The next thing would be a more thought-out songwriting-based album. Now that I'm Mr Internet Genius I want people to hear the next record and say,"Man, that's a fucking well-written song."That's really all I've ever wanted to do.
Nine Inch Nails play Manchester's M.E.N. Aera on July 14 and London's O2 on July 15, with Jane's Addiction and Mew.