The lyrics in a rock song can be tantalizingly mysterious. Consider "Somewhat
Damaged," a track from nine inch nails'"The Fragile." One of its lines - "this machine is
obsolete" - could be just another brutally honest statement of self-examination common
to many of its songs.
Then again, it could just mean lead guitarist Trent Reznor needs a new 3D card. The idea
that Reznor likes video games probably seems about as far-fetched as alien abduction, but
it' true. Hell, even he has a hard time believing it himself. Then he reminds himself that
he did both the music and sound effects for the original "Quake" back in 1996 - before it
became trendy for rock bands to have their music in games. The more we think about it,
"Somewhat Damaged" may just be about an outdated PC after all.
Reznor is relatively new to PC games: He's a die-hard Mac man. "I was never aware of
what was going on in the PC world until someone showed me 'Castle Wolfenstein 3D',"
he admits. "I'd never gone near a PC; that's a bad word around the studio. We're all Mac
people, since most of the music software is written for Mac. But when I saw 'Wolfenstein'
I went out and bought whatever it was at the time, 386, 486, and we got hooked. The
sense of being immersed in the game really struck a chord with me. And when we were
rehearsing for "the downward spiral" tour, 'Doom' came out, and I was like, 'Oh my god.'
So now every six months a major [PC] upgrade goes on around here."
HOOKING UP WITH ID
Trent's love of "Doom" eventually led to him meeting the guys at id Software, which in
turn led him to do the music and sound effects for the original "Quake."
"I really did [the music for Quake] because I was into the game. 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 [creator] 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 'Hell,
yeah - that would be cool!'" recalls the edgy rocker, who had been looking for a
"Musically," he says, "it was fun to work outside of nine inch nails and make some cool
atmospheres." The fact that he was already addicted to the game made his decision to
help Carmack out a lot easier.
Trent wrote new music for the game, though he's quick to point out the "Quake" tunes
shouldn't be thought of as a lost nine inch nails album. "I remember when it came out," he
says, "and it said 'New nine inch nails music.' But I always thought that was an
inappropriate way to look at it. For what it was, it's good, but it's not meant to be listened
to on its own."
PRODUCTIVITY VIA DEATHMATCHES
Trent is such a fan of video games that when asked why there was a five-year gap
between "The Fragile" and it's predecessor, "The Downward Spiral", he jokes that "Quake
II" was to blame. But the truth, he says, is actually the opposite.
"What I've learned about creativity," he explains, leaning back into his easy chair, "is that
it's not anything you can force. Sometimes you need to get your mind off of what you're
working on. And video games are a healthy way of distracting your mind. I'll often reach
a brick wall, where I just can't find the right line or the right melody. But what we've done
here at the studio is create a bunch of distractions so you can step out of what you're
doing and change you head space. You can play a video game, then you can come back,
and often the problem has gone away."
For Trent, gaming isn't just a solitary love. Many of the other people who hang out with
him at his studio are also gamers, some worse than him. "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."
While recording "The Fragile" in their studio, the band set up a LAN and discovered the
world of online multiplayer deathmatches. "That," Reznor remembers, "was our downfall.
I'd need some guitar parts, so I'd sit and just play over a loop for two hours, and then go
away and come back with fresh ears. Of course, that buys you an hour to screw off, so
we'd go upstairs and play 'Weapons Factory', our favorite mod for 'Quake.' It's class-based
play, where you have to work with a team, and your team isn't the guys sitting next to
you. That's a pretty cool way to interact with people."
True Reznor followers may have noticed he hasn't done the music for any other video
games. "I've declined for a number of reasons," he says. "I was even asked to do 'Quake II'
and 'III', but the direction was to do music that could amp you up to play, and that doesn't
interest me that much. Nor do I want to be alongside band X, Y, and Z. I mean, how
many times did you play 'Crazy Taxi' before you said, 'Whoa, stop, turn the damn
Reznor hasn't ruled out game collaborations altogether, though. "If I were to do any more
in an interactive situation," he says, "it would have to be a project that had the same mood
and atmosphere. What I was hoping to achieve with the 'Quake' music was not so much
some adrenaline-pumping , 'let's go kick ass' kind of music, but more like the music in
films John Carpenter - the tension and uneasiness - or David Lynch, the dissonance or
sound as atmosphere enhancement. So if it was a game that had that same sensibility, I
could be swayed to do it when I had the time. That's been another factor of why I haven't
taken on others of these projects. I'd want to dedicate some time to it."
When Trent might find that time, though, is anyone's guess. He's currently playing games
on nine inch nails' American tour, and then he'll head overseas, where he'll play games at
some European festivals. And when he's not playing games, Trent will be working on the
next nine inch nails album.
"I'm bringing a rig with me," he says, "though it takes [a lot] of discipline to write on the
road. When you do have time off, you just want to sleep." His next album is still in the
planning stages, but Reznor knows one thing for sure: "It won't be much like 'The
Fragile.' It'll be a noisier album, less lush, more minimalistic - as of right now. I say
things and then it changes when I sit down and actually do it. But 'The Fragile' was about
no restrictions, and 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. But I
like tricking myself into thinking a different way. When I write, I write with the
computer. It's my pen and paper but it's also my arranger, and my brain thinks the way it
does. But the rig we're taking out to write on is a different way of approaching things. It's
more mixer-oriented, and will make me wrap my head around things in a different way.
And it's a welcome change."
Besides the next album, Trent also has two side projects he's working on. "One is the
band Tapeworm," he explains, "which is the guys in the live 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 towards 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.
"I've also been thinking about working with another vocalist, something 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, but with a more soulful approach. Someone like Sade, not the
female counterpart of me."
He continues, "I'm into the idea of synthesis through throwing in disparate ideas. But I
also need something to motivate me. The trouble with working by yourself is that all the
pressure's on you to inspire yourself."
FANS FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE
Regardless of what Trent does next - a new nine inch nails album, a side project, or the
music to a video game - he has established enough of a track record that he's assured
people will like it. But those fans would be surprised to learn that a particular sequence of
Reznor's tormented lyrics might not have been an anthem to pain, angst, and loss - it
might have just meant it was time for him to upgrade that 3D card again.