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.
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