May 2000
Trent Reznor : Beyond the Frail

Given his forward-thinking, electronic music, it's no surprise that Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor likes computers. But did you also know he likes computer games? To kick off our week-long series of video game music features, Paul Semel spoke with Reznor about his pretty Quake machines.

incite: It took you a while to finish your new album, the fragile. How much was your addiction to Quake a factor in all that?

Reznor: It's something I joked about with people. Like I joked to the id Software people, "Thanks for putting out Quake II, it delayed the last album." But it's just a hobby, it's not one that overtakes my life.

The way it is around here at the studio, quite a few people are video game addicts, but it's mainly just a hobby. And it's a somewhat healthy way of getting your mind out of what you're working on. What I've learned about creativity is that it's not something you can force. Often, I'll be sitting in this room with a notebook and a microcassette recorder trying to come up with a lyric or a part or something, and I'll reach a brick wall where I just can't find the right line or the right melody. So what we've done here at the studio is try to create a bunch of distractions so you can step out of what you're doing and change your head space. You can play a video game, you can watch a movie, there's a gym, and then you can come back and look at your problem, and often it's gone. And if it isn't, you can go fuck around some more.

At the same time, yeah, you can waste time [playing games]. We've definitely done that, but it's more just a hobby. Instead of talking what engines are in our cars, we talk about what graphics cards are in our PCs. Sometimes I think, "I stare at a computer monitor all day, making music, and then for recreation, I go stare at a different computer monitor."

So I don't think that really was the catalyst of why the fragile took a long time. I say that in jest sometimes, but it was more that I was in the space that I needed to sort my head out, and it wasn't spent playing Quake all the time.

incite: When you were distracting yourself, were you playing Quake, Quake II, or Quake III: Arena?

Reznor: That depends on what era we're talking about. I'll tell you a little history. Video games have always been a soft spot for me. I remember when the first arcade machines came out. One of the most fun times I had was stealing quarters out of grandmother's jar to go play Space Invaders.
Trent on Gaming: 'I stare at a monitor all day, and then for recreation, I go stare at a different monitor.' Now I always stayed interested in it, but I got kind of rekindled in it when I saw Wolfenstein 3D. I'd never gone near a PC that's a bad word around the studio, 'cause we're all Mac people. But Macs always had shitty games, never had an open architecture, though I was never aware of what was going on in the PC world until someone showed me Wolfenstein. So I went out and bought whatever it was at the time, 386, 486, and we got hooked hardcore. That sense being immersed in the game really struck a chord with me. And when Doom came out, we were rehearsing for the downward spiral tour, and I was like, "Oh my god. It's politically incorrect, it's gory, it's satanic this company is pretty cool." I just appreciated the fact that a game had come out and changed the industry but hadn't come from Microsoft. In fact, it couldn't have come from Microsoft, it had to come from a kind of rag-tag, not-a-hundred-people-to-approve it, kind of company.

incite: I'm guessing this is how you wound up doing the music for Quake.

Reznor: Yeah. I met those guys at a show, they're big fans, so I went and checked out their offices. And me being a fan of what they do, it was cool to see, "Oh, your job is to make skins." They were working on Quake, so we started talking about my getting involved in that. Now they weren't sure if the music would be streaming off the CD or in MIDI, but I told them I wasn't interested in doing it if it was MIDI.

When it started, they weren't sure if it was going to be in space or medieval or whatever, so they made a list of sound effects. I had never done foley work before, and I thought it was interesting, but they handed me a list of about a thousand sounds: armor walking on stone, armor walking on wood, head being split open. So I called up some guys I know in L.A. who are foley guys. I can't stab anybody and get away with it, probably, so I asked them how to do it. "Take a head of lettuce and smash it on the floor with a knife." "Oh, okay."

We spent unbelievable amount of time on this. This all went down when I was doing Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar album, and I remember me and Twiggy from Manson's band upstairs in a room with a DAT machine, going, "Ugh," "Ugh." And you almost throw up because you've done it a hundred times in a row. It's fun to do, but it's an awful amount of work.

Trent on Quake: 'We spent unbelievable amount of time on this.' The music came about because there was only a couple weeks left, and they called up and said, "Hey, we're going to stream the music off the CD. Can you come up with some music for the game?" "Oh, you're kidding me, how much do you need?" "As much as you can give us."

incite: Did you ever do anything else with the music? Did it wind up leading to other songs?

Reznor: No, that was for that, so I just let it be. I remember when it came out I saw it at the Virgin Megastore, "new Nine Inch Nails music...." But I always thought that was an inappropriate way to look at it. For what it is, it's good, but it's not meant to be listened to on it's own. What I was hoping to achieve with it was not so much some adrenaline-pumping, let's-go-kick-ass, Rob Zombie kind of music, but more like the music in films by John Carpenter, the tension and uneasiness, or David Lynch, the dissonance or sound as atmosphere enhancement.

incite: Why is it that you wrote new music for Quake, but when you did the soundtracks to the films Natural Born Killers and Lost Highway, you just assembled collections of songs?

Reznor: When I was approached to do Natural Born Killers, I watched a screening of the movie, and really liked it it was a different cut than what came out; it was a bit more over the top. But what I really liked about it was the collage of sound. [Oliver Stone] had put in a lot of songs over each other, and I really thought that worked because the music complimented the way the movie was shot in different formats and had a real collision of pop culture all at once. So it didn't lend itself to write a score.

For Lost Highway, what [David Lynch] asked me to do wasn't to score the film, but to write a couple songs and to put together an album to sell. But I wouldn't do that again. Once Hollywood realized that if they put together soundtrack albums that are just compilation albums, they realized that they can then make videos for the songs which will be like commercials on MTV. So commerce overtakes art once again, and you get collections of songs with the name of a movie stamped on top.

incite: How much money is there in doing the soundtrack to games? I assume you've been asked to do some since Quake.
Reznor: Yeah, and I've declined for a number of reasons. I was even asked to do Quake II and III, but then their direction was to do music that would amp you up, and that didn't interest me that much, nor did I want to be alongside band X, Y, and Z.

Trent on Soundtracks: 'Commerce overtakes art, and you get collections of songs with a movie stamped on top.' As far as money, I don't know what it is now, but back then it was nothing. I don't know if, at that time, the idea was to put all the money into the game and throw some music in, but it may be different now. There's a lot of money in doing music for movies, I don't know if that's carried over yet.

incite: Well, you were one of the first big musicians to do the music for a game. Though, like with movies, it is just more about a collection of songs.

Reznor: And I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, but I have no interest in it. How many times did you play Crazy Taxi before you said, "Whoa, stop, turn the fuckin' Offspring off, where's the music controls in this thing?"

incite: What do you think of the music in most games?

Reznor: I think it's pretty bad. Of course, I'm probably paying more attention to it than the average player. I see a lot of films, and I don't go in there with the agenda of "I'm going to listen to the music." But when the music is really bad, it really stands out. Or when it's really good. I was watching Shawshank Redemption the other day, and it really struck me how the score to the film really enhanced the movie.

But with games, I'm usually irritated when it's pop music blasting out at me. I don't want to hear four shitty bands who were desperate enough to put their music on a game. But that's just me being a snob.

incite: Did doing the music for Quake have any effect on your career?

Reznor: I really did it because I was into it. It wasn't for the money, because I didn't make anything, really, and it wasn't because I wanted to appeal to some new demographic. When John Carmack said, "Hey, one of the new weapons is a nail gun, what if the ammo packs had the Nine Inch Nails logo on it," I was like, "Fuck yeah, that would be cool." I didn't really think about what that means. Musically it was fun to work outside of Nine Inch Nails and make some cool atmospheres.

incite: Were there any provisions for when the game got ported over to PlayStation and Nintendo?

Reznor: I don't remember the specifics. For Nintendo there is no CD, so they didn't use the music, and they took the logo off. There may have been some stipulations, but most of my dealings with them were me saying to John Carmack, "What do you want me to do?" As far as sound effects, I heard them in Quake II on the foley side.

Trent on Game Music: 'I don't want to hear four shitty bands who were desperate enough to put their music on a game. But that's just me being a snob.'

incite: Do you play other kinds of computer games?

Reznor: On the PC, that's the main focus. I think consoles are pretty bad for first-person games; I've never seen one that was worthwhile. I don't know if that's a frame-rate thing or the controls, but the ports of first-person stuff always seems really shitty.

incite: The music you did for Quake is obviously different from Nine Inch Nails stuff: There are no lyrics, and it's more soundtrack-oriented instead of songs. Were there any restrictions in what you could do? Were you limited to a certain number of instruments?

Reznor: Nine Inch Nails is about not having restrictions. Anything I feel like doing, I can pursue with myself as the judge and jury. With the music of Quake, there was the approach that it's dark, depressing, dingy, kill everything, tense. Okay, what films have that same sense of dread? The decision on my part was not to make it amped up, so I kept everything subtle, so you wouldn't get sick of it the second time you play the game, but it would set up elements of tension. And because it was off the CD, we could use as many instruments as I wanted. It could be an orchestra, it could be one thing. That was a huge relief. Though they always leaned toward gameplay, having the shotgun sound in stereo. But then, they should be the game is about playing the game.

incite: What did you think of Quake II and Quake III?

Reznor: When Quake II hit, I wasn't in video game mode that much, so I didn't really have the time to sit down and really experience it. But ID has always had the best engines to base games on, I strongly believe that. It just takes playing other first-person shooters to see how much they suck, how they're not responsive.

I also thought it was smart how they did Quake III. I think they focused on what they do best: make an engine that's two years ahead of what everyone else is doing.

incite: Have you played it online at all?

Reznor: When we were doing the fragile, we had the full network in the studio set-up, and that turned us onto the world of online, multi-player gaming. That was our downfall.
Trent on id: 'id has always had the best engines to base games on.' You see, we record everything digitally onto a hard drive. So let's say a song need some guitar parts. I'll sit for two hours and just play over a loop, and forty guitar parts will come out, and I'll nod where the good parts are, so at the end there'll be this huge audio file for someone to sort through. And I've found that it's best for me to have someone else find the best parts, and for me to go away for an hour and come back with fresh ears and hear everything objectively. Of course, that buys you an hour to fuck off, so we'd go upstairs and play Weapons Factor, our favorite MOD for Quake. But time goes by like that (snaps fingers). "What, you're done already?" Class-based play, where you have to work with a team, and you're team isn't the guys sitting next to you, that's a pretty cool way to interact with people. So yeah, we go online quite a bit.

incite: Did you have a name for your clan?

Reznor: Yeah, we'd make up funny names like Clan Pud. We realized a lot of the names had a fecal overtone or a rectal overtone. So we took that to extremes.

incite: When you were initially doing interviews about the fragile, you mentioned wanting to form another band, but one with a female singer. What's happening with that?

Reznor: That's still in motion. Right now we're sorting through tapes, and there seems to be a lot of potential in there. But we're taking a full-on recording rig on the road with us. There's two things I'm working on. One is the band Tapeworm that we've been fucking around with. That is the other guys in the band and me working as a democracy. What's good about that is that all the weight isn't on my shoulders, and I can take a more casual approach toward it. Which is not to say it's not important, but I don't agonize over every minute detail. And it's a chance for other people to speak up.

The female vocalist thing came from having a lot of music that we cut from the fragile. Not because it wasn't good enough, but because it wasn't the right thing for the album. So I thought about working with a vocalist, where I would do the music and they could take the lyrics in a different direction. And what I've been leaning towards is female, with a more soulful approach, not the female counterpart of me, someone like Sade. But I also need something to motivate me. The trouble with working by yourself is that all the pressures is on you to inspire yourself.

incite: Besides the tour, what else do you have planned for Nine Inch Nails?

Trent on Composing: 'I like tricking myself into thinking a different way.'

Reznor: I'd actually like to go right back in and start a new album, which is part of the reason I'm bringing that rig on the road. It takes a fuckload of discipline to write on the road. When you do have time off, you just want to sleep. But I'm looking forward to getting back to the safety of this studio. I have a pretty rough concept of the next album, and it won't be much like the fragile. As of right now, I say things and then it changes when I sit down and actually do it. But today, it will be a noisier album, less lush, more minimalistic.

the fragile was about no restrictions. If you have any idea, take it as far as it can logically go. "What if we had a marching band? In fact, how would you make one?" But I think what would be healthy for me right now would be to make an album with limitations, like every song has to be done in two days. And if it sucks, no one has to hear it. I like tricking myself into thinking a different way.

When I write, I write with the computer, it's my pen and paper, it's also my arranger, and my brain thinks the way it does. I know how to adapt to it, and I don't have to fight my way through this and that. It's easier for me to put it in there than to sing it into a tape recorder. But the rig we're taking out to write on is a lot different from the one I wrote on here. It's more mixer-oriented than sequencer-oriented, and will make me wrap my head around things in a different way. It's not second nature to me, what I'm using right now, but it makes me work a little bit differently. And it's a welcome change.

incite: How much stuff do you have written already?

Reznor: There's a good ten tracks that I really like that I didn't use on the fragile, I'll probably use that as a starting point to see if any of them are real pertinent, or if they are the B-list. Maybe they'll get farmed into one of the other projects I'm working on. So it's not total scratch, but I don't have twenty songs ready to go tomorrow.

incite: Do you have any plans to release a compilation of all the songs you've done for soundtracks or the flip sides of singles?

Reznor: There's no concrete plans right now. I've thought about the possibility of an Internet download situation. But I don't want to rip people off. I've always been concerned with value for your money. The "greatest hits package with an extra remix" that shit sucks. But there might be a time when a retrospective makes sense. I still remember the days when I had $10 for the rest of the week and I was like, "Okay, I can eat, or I can get this import Swans 12" on vinyl." But then you get it and it sucks. "Oh, I have this song on another 12-inch."

incite: Your music obviously attracts many like-minded people, but it also seems to attract some people you wouldn't expect. Melissa Joan Hart, for example, is a big fan of yours. Are you ever surprised by who your fans are?

the fragile: NIN's new masterpiece, and heartily recommended.

Reznor: When we started out on a little shitty label, TVT, I went into it...not defeated, but I never thought I was going to be Michael Jackson. My peers were Skinny Puppy and Ministry, and if you sold a hundred thousand albums you were on the upper echelon of that tier. I never thought about what was above that, and I never cared about it. The album came out, we toured for about two years, and then did Lollapalooza, and something happened. I'd kind of gone through the personality distortion of going on tour and people liking your music, that's a weird thing to come to terms with. But by the end of that thing, we'd go to a mall in suburbia and see people wearing our shirts that aren't cool. "Wait a second."

But when I realized that what I had put out had permeated beyond the core scene, I realized what an asshole, asshole way to look at things that was. What gives me the right to say, "This is not right for you"? That's a stupid way to think, and a juvenile way to think. I've since then realized that I'm fortunate in the sense that I've made music that was uncompromising and was, artistically, the best I could do. And somehow, it broke through.

For more with Trent, check out issue No. 7 of incite PC Gaming, issue No. 8 of incite Video Gaming, and his web site,