Trent Reznor: Death to Hootie

The Nine Inch Nails auteur makes a case for danger

Trent Reznor
Ke.Mazur/WireImage
Trent Reznor
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Some of the most wondrous moments in David Lynch's Lost Highway owe significantly to the aural genius of Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. His thick, ambient drones – during the film's mysterious video sequences – give the fated house where the film's two main characters, Fred and Renee, live a life all its own; it's as if the walls were breathing and murmuring, or trying to whisper horrid secrets. In his own way, Reznor has created a tense and powerful soundscape here that is as inventive (and likely to be as style defining) as Bernard Herrmann's orchestration for the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

Like Lynch, Reznor is one of the artists who is helping to change popular culture's mainstream sensibility. His 1994 album, The Downward Spiral, is among the most radical sound assemblies ever to become a multimillion seller, and also one of the most ingenious: It mixes violent textures with lovely melodies, all to frame a harrowing, deeply affecting story of one man's descent into his own abject soul. The effort made Reznor a major star – and a busy one. In the years since, he has toured with Nine Inch Nails, supported David Bowie on another big tour, produced the startling soundtrack for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and also helped produce three CDs for shock-rock fave Marilyn Manson, including Antichrist Superstar. Reznor also became a target for cultural moralists William Bennett and C. DeLores Tucker, who expressed outrage at what they viewed as his music's assault on decency. What Bennett and Tucker fail to comprehend is that there's more than one mainstream in America. There's also a mainstream in which people acknowledge and cope with pain and fear and anger. It's not a small one; if it were, there wouldn't be so much disturbing or so-called dangerous art that is also so popular. Reznor is a star not just because he makes great sounds or looks sexy; he's also a star because his audience likes and needs to hear what he has to say.

His new songs on the Lost Highway soundtrack (which also includes new music by the Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Lou Reed and David Bowie, among others) are the only things we'll be hearing from Reznor for a while. He's working simultaneously on two new records, but he isn't willing to say when they'll be released. I interviewed him twice – once in his Los Angeles hotel room and a second time during a late-night phone conversation. I found him to be a gentle-mannered, soft-spoken and steadily thoughtful man who isn't afraid to say strong things.

How did you come to work with David Lynch?
He was looking for somebody to provide some of the sound for Lost Highway, and a friend suggested he give me a call. I hadn't seen the film, but I'm a huge David Lynch fan – we used to hold up Nine Inch Nails shows just so we could watch the latest Twin Peaks. So we set up a weekend for him to come to my place in New Orleans. At first it was like the most high-pressure situation ever. It was literally one minute, "Hi, I'm David Lynch," and he's cooler than I even imagined he would be. Three minutes later, he's saying: "Well, let's go in the studio and get started." Then he'd describe a scene and say, "Here's what I want. Now, there's a police car chasing Fred down the highway, and I want you to picture this: There's a box, OK? And in this box there's snakes coming out; snakes whizzing past your face. So, what I want is the sound of that – the snakes whizzing out of the box – but it's got to be like impending doom." And he hadn't brought any footage with him. He says, "OK, OK, go ahead. Give me that sound."

He wasn't doing it to intimidate me. At the same time, I had to tell him, "David, I'm not a film-effects guy, I don't have ad clients, and I'm not used to being in this environment. I don't work that way, so respect that and understand that I just need a few moments to be alone, so that I know that when I suck, no one is knowing I'm sucking, and then I'll give you the good stuff." I'm thinking, "Boy, he must think I really suck now." But by the end it went cool. And then he turned over all the music that was in the film and asked me to make a CD out of it. So I've done my best to make the CD a fair representation of the film, because this isn't Mortal Kombat, you know. This is David's movie. To the person who hates pop music who buys this David Lynch soundtrack, they will get what they want out of it. At the same time, I want it to have some degree of accessibility for the 13-, 14-year-old kid who buys it because I have a new song on it; or for the Smashing Pumpkins fan who buys it for that. Anyway, I think the whole thing flows, and that's my main contribution to that project.

What was your estimation of the film?
When I saw the finished one, I thought, "Fuck, this is fantastic." It's abstract and bizarre, but it also has enough payoff. But there is that one weird night in the movie [when Fred transforms into Pete Dayton]. I wanted to know what the fuck happened that night.

There's no really easy closure in the movie. It's more like a Mobius-strip story than a beginning-to-end narrative. That may prove difficult for some viewers. . . .
But that's another reason to praise [Lynch], in the sense that he's not really catering to them. You get it or you don't. When I saw Blue Velvet, I walked out of the theater changed and very shaken. I talked to someone later, and they said, "Didn't you think that was funny?" I didn't think it was funny. I was terrified because, when I saw it, I realized I would have done exactly the same thing as Kyle MacLachlan's character. I would've tried to sneak in, I would've felt for her – I would've done it all. I also remember the Twin Peaks episode where Leland bashes Maddie's head against the wall, and then he's driving his car with the body in the back. I thought, "This is the scariest, most violent thing I've ever seen on television, ever. Fuckin'-A, someone got away with it." I could also see why people had a problem with it. It wasn't, you know, Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

I think that with that series, he was tapping into a consciousness of America that America wasn't quite ready to accept from its mass entertainment.
That reminds me of something David said to me one night. We drove past some billboard of some soon-to-be-playing movie. And he says, "You know, I kind of envy, in a way, someone like Steven Spielberg, who I think really does what they believe in 100 percent, and it just happens to jibe with the consciousness of America and its billion dollar-making movies. I don't think he's catering to the market so much as he's doing what he really believes in. I do what I believe in, which is all I can do, and it gets a slice of whatever." It struck me as an interesting way to look at things. I could see where, as a director, you could be bitter about the guys who have that success, but that isn't him. It impressed me, that sincerity, almost a naiveté.

Sometimes in my music, I'll try things, and I'll think, "No one's going to like this, but it's not fucking Bush." I'm not claiming it's the weirdest avant-garde contemporary piece ever, but hopefully it challenges you. Either you don't like it, or you think, "Fuck, that's cool – that makes me realize how shitty the stuff is that I've been listening to." I'm stretching it a bit here, patting myself on the back.

Years ago, Lynch told Rolling Stone that part of what he was trying to do with his films was "to make art popular." Does that in any way describe what you are trying to do with your music?
Well, it sounds pretentious to say that, but, yeah, I do look at it as art, not just as selling records or making a commercial product. I'd like to open people's eyes up to something a little bit different than the mainstream crap that's out there. I think I took a lot of the things I liked and kind of recycled and hopefully added something to them – maybe that hook that they didn't have before – and maybe that might reel in a listener who wasn't as in tune with that sort of sound. Maybe it opens their eyes to a new thing. That's the aspiration, anyway.

But because your work does well on the charts, doesn't that also make your music, in a sense, mainstream?
If you'd asked me years ago, when I started, I'd have said, "No, I'm not mainstream." But that's a blanket of protection you wear to avoid saying something that could be perceived negatively. Yeah, I think my music is mainstream. You can't sell that many records and still think that you're in the underground. I'm not saying you can't have that underground or alternative element to it, but the underground has infiltrated, to some degree, into the mainstream. But the reason I sleep well at night is because I know I didn't try to cater to the mainstream. Before The Downward Spiral came out, I said to the label, "Look – sorry, but I don't think there's a fucking single in here. I don't think it's going to sell for shit, but I had to make this record, because it's what I'm about right now; I believe in it 100 percent. I'm sorry, though, there's not something to justify the money you gave me to make it." Then "Closer" takes off, and the fucking record sells 2 or 3 million copies. It surprised me because – not to sound lofty, but I didn't think people would get it, you know?

Why is that?
Well, I made the first song on the record, "Mr. Self Destruct," sound like I wanted it to be: the shittiest sounding thing that, by the end, just deteriorates into noise. It is not fucking Michael Jackson. Then I followed it with a light, swinging jazz song – just the exact opposite of what you'd expect. And then with "Closer." . . . I wrote that song, and I was afraid to put it on the record. I thought I could make a whole album of noise with me screaming, and I'd be safe, at least with the people who liked Pretty Hate Machine. But instead, "Closer" is a song with a simple disco beat and a Prince kind of harmony vocal line. That, I thought, would open me up to a lot more criticism from the safe company of alternative people I'm supposed to be catering to. Then, when The Downward Spiral took off, I thought, "Fuck, this is what I want to do." It should be like that, you know?

The new stuff I'm working on is even more disparate than The Downward Spiral. I'm not afraid of trying things out. This next record: It will either be huge or a career stopper. It won't be safe, that's all.

You alluded to the purism of the alternative audience, which can sometimes prove pretty maddening. It's as if once you've made music that reaches a truly large audience, both you and your work become suspect.
I went through a phase where I thought we [Nine Inch Nails] were the cool thing that only a few people or critics knew about. And then our records started infiltrating suburban malls. And then little kid sisters started wearing Nine Inch Nails shirts. And then, suddenly, it's not as cool as it was before, even though it's the same music. And I had this knee-jerk reaction: "Fuck you, and now I'm more pissed off, so I'll make something even more unlistenable." But I wasn't being true to myself then. I was catering to an audience that I was trying to re-prove my credibility to. And some of those people are full of shit in the first place.

Let me tell you a story about something that really helped me out: I saw U2 for the first time, on their Zoo TV Tour. I was backstage with Marilyn Manson, sitting in a room, and Bono comes in. I'd never met him, but we knew of each other through Flood, the producer who worked on both our records. Bono sat down and talked with me for an hour, and we had this kind of drunken mind meld. I said: "I'll tell you what I'm going through now. We went from being underground-elite darlings to the point where we're getting shit on by those same people because now we sell records. And I know you guys have gone through the same thing." Bono says: "Fuck those people. That's like saying, 'You're cool enough to listen to my music, but you – you grew up in Wisconsin; you're not cool enough to listen to it.' That's a kind of fascism." He goes, "You do what you believe you have to do. That's what we've always done. You believe in yourself and don't worry about the people who don't like it because it's not the right fashion statement that they're trying to adhere to."

Now U2's not my favorite band, but I do respect them, and in the same way I respect Bowie: They change without fear of change. I left that night thinking, "He's right. Why am I concerned about some snotty-nosed college magazine that thinks I'm not cool because people liked the record and bought it?" After that, I got over that whole thing.

Well, there's a flip side to that. Because a lot of people like your music and seem to identify with what you're saying, some writers have said that – just like Kurt Cobain a few years ago or Bob Dylan a generation ago – you are now speaking to and for a certain generation and its sensibility or experience. Are you comfortable with that description?
It's an unwelcome statement because I don't consider myself that at all. I never have. I think that maybe what I'm saying, people of that generation picked up on and related to, but by no means do I think that. . . . Look, I just sat in my bedroom and wrote how I felt, why I was upset about things, filled up a piece of paper and sang it, and then people related to it. That's as far as it goes. There isn't anything lofty about it.

But you have also been criticized for being a bad influence on your audience. Your song "Big Man With a Gun" was cited by William Bennett and C. DeLores Tucker as being dangerous because of its violent imagery. Your music and that of Tupac Shakur and the Death Row gangsta-rap artists were a large part of why Bennett and Tucker demanded that Time Warner disavow its relationship with Interscope Records.
They don't have any idea what they're talking about. They called Nine Inch Nails a rap band. I think my music's more disturbing than Tupac's – or at least I thought some of the themes of The Downward Spiral were more disturbing on a deeper level – you know, issues about suicide and hating yourself and God and people and everything else. But I know that's not why they singled me out. They singled me out because I said fuck in a song, and said, "I got a big gun and a big dick."

Do you ever worry that some music could have a damaging influence on an audience? I remember, for example, Lou Reed once telling me that he'd stopped performing "Heroin" for a time because too many people told him that song had inspired them to shoot junk.
That song's a piece of art, though. The first and only time I ever tried heroin, I listened to that song. I was in a big Lou Reed phase, and heroin seemed like this whole glamorous . . . thing. Then I realized, "Hey, this is shitty." It wasn't really the song – it was my own decision and my own stupidity. You could say that song is dangerous, but it should be. If nothing else, it brings the subject to light, you know.

I did a song on Downward Spiral where I'm talking about killing myself. I dreamed it, and I thought it, and it was like, "Oh, God, I'm going to do this." So I wrote it into a poem, and I found it tied in with the theory of the record: that at the worst state the character goes into, suicide might be an option. But I think by just saying it and bringing it to light, maybe it helps. I've been so depressed about things, and then I'll hear a song, and I'll think, "Fuck, I can relate to that. Someone else feels that way." In its own way it becomes enlightening, and I feel release. When I'm onstage singing – screaming this primal scream – I look at the audience, and everyone else is screaming the lyrics back at me. Even though what I'm saying appears negative, the release of it becomes a positive kind of experience, I think, and provides some catharsis to other people.

In a way, that brings us back to the subject of the mainstream. Some of these same moralist critics say that what's bad about music like yours is that it assaults or offends mainstream values.
When I was growing up, rock & roll helped give me my sense of identity, but I had to search for it. I remember I loved the Clash, but I was an outcast because you were supposed to like Journey. Before that, I loved Kiss. The thing these bands gave me was invaluable – that whole spirit of rebellion. Rock & roll should be about rebellion. It should piss your parents off, and it should offer some element of taboo. It should be dangerous, you know? But I'm not sure it really is dangerous anymore. Now, thanks to MTV and radio, rock & roll gets pumped into your house every second of every day. Being a rock & roll star has become as legitimate a career option as being an astronaut or a policeman or a fireman. That's why I applaud – even helped create – bands like Marilyn Manson. The shock-rock value. I think it's necessary. Death to Hootie and the Blowfish, you know? It's safe. It's legitimate.

Look at Marilyn Manson: They have no qualms about taking that whole thing on. The scene needs that, you know? It doesn't need another Pearl Jam-rip-off band. It doesn't need the politically correct R.E.M.s telling us, "We don't eat meat." Fuck you to all that. We need someone who wants to say, "You know what? I jack off 10 times a night, and I fuck groupies." It's not considered safe to say that now, but rock shouldn't be safe. I'm not saying I adhere wholeheartedly to all that in my own lifestyle, but I think that's the aesthetic we need right now. There needs to be some element of anarchy or something that dares to be different.

But a lot of people would say that art – whether it be music, film or any other form – has an obligation to improve the world. Do you think art has any obligations?
I do in the sense that I think it might help somebody understand themselves better. It's like what we were talking about before. I write a song about killing myself. You hear it, and you go, "I'm not the only person who ever felt that way." You feel safer in knowing you're not the only person who ever thought that. And I think: "Mission accomplished." To me, that's the way art communicates to people, that's how it helps.

What about the art that addresses people who might want to kill somebody other than themselves?
There's a part of me that is intrigued by that. For example, I loved the Hannibal Lecter character in The Silence of the Lambs. The last person I want to see get hurt in that story is him. And I think, "Why do I look at him as a hero figure?" Because you respect him. Because he represents everything you wish you could be in a lawless, moralless society. I allow myself to think, "Yeah, if I could kill people without reprimand, maybe I would, you know?" I hate myself for thinking that, but there's an appeal to the idea, because it is a true freedom. Is it wrong? Yeah. But is there an appeal to that? Yeah. It's the ultimate taboo.

My awakening about all that stuff came from meeting Sharon Tate's sister. While I was working on Downward Spiral, I was living in the house where Sharon Tate was killed. Then one day I met her sister. It was a random thing, just a brief encounter. And she said: "Are you exploiting my sister's death by living in her house?" For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face. I said, "No, it's just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I'm in this place where a weird part of history occurred." I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don't want to support. When she was talking to me, I realized for the first time, "What if it was my sister?" I thought, "Fuck Charlie Manson." I don't want to be looked at as a guy who supports serial-killer bullshit.

I went home and cried that night. It made me see there's another side to things, you know? It's one thing to go around with your dick swinging in the wind, acting like it doesn't matter. But when you understand the repercussions that are felt . . . that's what sobered me up: realizing that what balances out the appeal of the lawlessness and the lack of morality and that whole thing is the other end of it, the victims who don't deserve that.

You've talked a lot in the past – and on Downward Spiral – about self-loathing. Would you say that you now like yourself better than you did before?
I've got more thanks and praise and more money than before. But from a self-esteem perspective, I've liked myself more. . . . I've lost friends. I've lost band members. I've lost a sense of self-worth in a way. And while I always wished I'd get to this place of success, once you get it, it's not that great. I'm not bitching about it. I mean, it is great in a million ways, but it's not self-affirming on every level, and you wish it was. I don't go to sleep thinking, "I'm Kevin Costner," you know, "I've done it!"

And the bigger you get in the rock arena, the more people want to fuck with you, to tear you down and criticize you. For example, you write a song that you think is dangerous to write because it says something that you're embarrassed to say. But because it's embarrassing, because it's extreme in its nature, then you've got everyone saying, "He doesn't mean it. He's just trying to cash in." You find yourself initially saying, "Yes, I did. I meant it. I am that bummed out."

I would only hope that maybe, in a world of insincere, bullshit, pop-music crap, this music might make a difference. And that's why I do it: I think it does. But at the same time, think how much easier it would be to be a bland rock band that doesn't mean anything and just make money.

What will the new music be like?
There will be two records that will probably come out around the same time. One will be with people I had with me in the live band. We're playing and writing together in a group called Tapeworm. That one will be a bit more like what you think industrial music is like now. The new Nine Inch Nails will be more like a funk hip-hop record. It will piss a lot of people off, and it's going to change the world at the same time, I hope. That's all I can aspire to. That and staying 10 steps ahead of Billy Corgan.

This story is from the March 6th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 755: March 6, 1997
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