Trent Reznor On Coil & Nine Inch Nails, Plus Recoiled Review
, February 27th, 2014 05:51
Trent Reznor tells John Doran about his love of Coil and relationship with Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson and Jhon Balance, and Harry Sword reviews Cold Spring's new issue of once-lost Coil NIN remixes.
Photograph via Brainwashed archive
The snarky critical narrative goes something like this: that while Coil produced work of pin drop subtlety, orchestral complexity, sexual magick and academically rigorous symbolism, NIN were responsible for steroid-pumped, arena boistin' industrial rawk - overwrought frat boys in eyeliner. It's a lazy reductionist reading – utter bobbins, in fact - and one that says nothing about the myriad subtleties present in the best of Reznor's substantial catalogue, one that contains dank funk, subterranean horrors and jackhammer kicks. Coil rather liked it, too.
Because although Coil went places that few other bands dared, or were capable of, NIN did share with them far more than a cursory glance may suggest, both thematically (altered states, unflinching analysis of the male psyche in crisis, dark sexuality) and also with a grip on the nuts and bolts of grandiose, lose-yourself-for-months studio dynamics at a time when electronic music technology – on the epic scale both projects operated in - was an infinitely more cloaked and complex world than now. Reznor himself is a huge Coil fan (his side project How To Destroy Angels is named after the 17-minute 1984 Coil epic of the same name) while Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson and Jhon Balance remixed NIN a number of times throughout the 90s. Indeed the five tracks that make up Recoiled all stem from the outtakes from NIN remix LPs Fixed, Closer To God and Further Down The Spiral. All are imbued with a cinematic bent and questing thrust entirely befitting of the originals.
'Gave Up (Open My Eyes)' sounds remarkably fresh, with Reznor's start-stop, whisper to a scream vocal pushed up hard in the mix alongside a barrage of cut-up drum edits – remember this was done in 1992, predating jungle by a year or so, the most useful frame of rhythmic reference for Christopherson and Balance's virtuoso break work. The simple three-chord guitar riff acts as an anchor for an increasing cacophony and Reznor's screams. Hard treble - so much hard treble in fact, a proper 80s style hokey cokey mix down. Still, it suits the harsh EBM of the source material. Close your eyes and you can smell the cider, fags and poppers at The Elektrowerkz circa, well, the 90s. Keep them open and get blinded by the strobe.
The 'Closer' remix is slightly less alluring. Perhaps because the original is one of the sleaziest and raunchiest tunes of the 90's – like Nitzer Ebb meeting Prince in Hamburg and getting him fucked on Lowenbrau and crap speed – or perhaps because the Coil version forsakes the 'walking' whacka bass and bum spank snares in favor of some rather timid 5:00am Bristolian coffee table vibes. Heavy rain soundtrack gear, present and correct, but no cigar.
Luckily, 'The Downward Spiral (A Guilded Sickness)' is a fascinating rework that utilises squalls, accelerating engines and infinity tension to fine effect. Heavy duty tribal drums wrap up a heady session. 'Eraser' is an even deeper prospect, and one that layers drone, sustain and feedback in rather nightmarish ways. The same track is remixed again on 'Eraser (Baby Alarm Remix)', this time adding the chugging riff and pile driving drums alongside Reznor's cut and processed vocals. It's exhilarating, driving and cinematic. Indeed, Recoiled offers succinct drama that will no doubt delight NIN and Coil completists: virtuoso grot of the basest order.
Trent Reznor Talks About His Relationship With Coil
At the end of a recent interview with Reznor, John Doran asked where his interest in the music of Sleazy and Jhon Balance stemmed from. He gave us a lot more than we bargained for, so we've included the full transcript here.
One of my most played records of this year so far has been the Cold Spring release of the full Coil remixes. When it came to stuff like this I always got the impression that you, unlike most of your peers, were a lot more open to the first wave of European industrial and power electronics groups. What was your first introduction to bands like Throbbing Gristle and Coil?
Trent Reznor: I think context is important here. I grew up in a shitty little town about an hour north of Pittsburg in Pennsylvania where we were outside the reach of college radio. This was pre-internet and pre-MTV. I heard music on the local rock FM station and read the reviews in Rolling Stone magazine. In high school I got a subscription to Village Voice and it felt like a pamphlet from another dimension. It was full of exotic culture that felt like it came from a million miles away. And I was completely outside of that sphere of influence. I was just on this island of a town where there was nothing to do but to daydream about how to get out.
Then I got out of high school and went to college briefly, and then I had access to college radio. And a few friends who grew up in New York would overwhelm me with not just one band I'd never heard of before but like 500 bands I'd never heard before. And up until then I had no idea that any of them had existed.
When was this?
This was in about '83 or '84 and during the synth pop explosion that was happening then, which was exciting to me at the time also. My main instrument was piano, and I was thrilled by the idea of electronics and synthesizers, but couldn't get access to one until I was in tenth grade. I got a Moog Prodigy. It was fantastic. I lived on that thing. Around that time I got a Commodore 64 that had a primitive sequencer built by Sequential Circuits, and the idea that you could compose on this computer, that could control these instruments - it blew my mind. I knew I had to do something. All of my interests were aligned. Electronics, science fiction, computers, keyboards, music; that explosion of synth pop ignited me into thinking, "Yes. The time is right."
But I didn't realise what the darker underpinnings to that sound were until I got to college and then I heard what the Human League had sounded like, originally. I heard Cabaret Voltaire. That led onto Test Department and Throbbing Gristle. It just blew my mind. I was very into the idea of sound design. And sound design as music. Noise can be music. Found sounds can be music. All of that kind of happened at the same time, and I was late to the party.
A few years after that, I finally realised that I didn't want to be a computer engineer, and after a couple of years fucking around I ended up living in Cleveland. And there's a fantastic music store there called Record Revolution, which was my first real access to a big city independent record shop, where I spent every spare dollar I didn't have to spend on import vinyl. I was fascinated by the world it opened up. And around that time I was formulating the idea of what would become Nine Inch Nails. We were clearly heavily influenced by Wax Trax and what they were doing. To be able to take the aggression of noise and aggressive guitar sounds and marry that to something that has rhythm in it. This music couldn't have been made five or ten years earlier because the technology didn't exist then, and that was very exciting to me.
To be honest, when I started making music I was very self-conscious to begin with. What I'm getting at is that when I started, pop songs started coming out. I wanted to make Test Department music, but a lifetime of growing up with AM radio pop and the idea of choruses, verses and hooks being instilled in me meant I couldn't help but think in terms of pop. I was intrigued by the idea of bringing in noise and using samples and found sounds, but through the blender and my style of writing, pop songs started coming out.
'The Downward Spiral (A Gilded Sickness)'
When did that change?
TR: Well if I look at my catalogue, I see Pretty Hate Machine, which is a pop album with bits of noise, and at the time felt quite daring to me. Broken was a reaction to that. You know: "I'm not a pussy! I'm not a pop guy!" Which probably lent an air of insincerity to it. In all honesty it was more reactive than coming from a place that was pure. But on Downward Spiral, that's where I found my footing and started to become more me, I think.
So how did you come to work with Coil then?
TR: I'm trying to think how that came about. I think it would have been in the context of hiring Peter as a video director.
For the Broken movie?
TR: Yeah, I think that was probably the first thing. [Coil's] 'Tainted Love' video remains one of the greatest music videos of all time. I was always more attracted to Coil than Throbbing Gristle; the darkness and the scatology really chimed with me. If it's not immediately obvious: Horse Rotorvator was deeply influential on me. What they did to your senses. What they could do with sound. What Jhonn was doing lyrically. The exotic darkness of them permeated their work. So I figured that if I hired [Sleazy] as a director then I could at least meet him and hang out for a bit. We established a friendship, and that friendship was very valuable to me. Making the Broken movie was a lot of fun. There was no label involvement or pressure from anyone, it was just he and I talking. "What if we built a framework around these songs, what if we took an approach where it really was scary, instead of a cop out horror movie nod to the camera. What if it felt real?"
Then he went off and filmed some stuff. And I had an interesting phone call where he said, "Ahh, well, we've done it and, er, I really don't know what to think." So I said, "What do you mean you don't know what to think? Do you mean it didn't turn out properly?" And he said, "No, I'm just not sure what to think. [laughs] I'm going to send it to you, but it's going to show up in a paper bag unmarked because there could be... I'm not sure I want the authorities knowing this came from me."
A few weeks later something came in the mail. And then I watched it. And it was like, "Holy fuck! Now I kind of get what you're talking about!" It felt like we'd crossed over into territory that was perhaps too far. And to be honest, at that point I was living in the Sharon Tate house recording Downward Spiral. And as stupid as it sounds now, that genuinely wasn't a case of, "What's the most ridiculously extreme thing I can do to get attention?" Flood and I were looking for a place in New Orleans to record in, but we couldn't find anywhere that was right. The only houses we could find that were cool were in residential areas, and we didn't want to spend ages soundproofing a house, and we knew we were going to be making loud music in the middle of the night. Jimmy Iovine from Interscope said, "Why don't you come over to LA? I'll set up ten houses for you to look at and you choose one." We hadn't really spent any time in LA so we went for it. We looked at eight or nine houses that day and that house was the perfect place. It had a beautiful view, it was up on a hill, it was a small ranch house. It had a cool vibe, honestly. I wasn't thinking about Charles Manson - I mean why would I be?
Anyway, that night I told a friend where we were thinking of renting, and he said, "You know - that's where those Manson murders took place." Like anyone else my age those murders had freaked me out when I was younger but I hadn't thought of them in years. He had a copy of a book on them at his house, so we started leafing through it. I thought, "Well, it kind of looks familiar." But then I saw a picture of a ladder leading up into the loft - the ladder I had just climbed that day to see what was up there. I was like, "Oh my God, that is that house." And when he asked if I was still going to rent the place I said, "Fuck yeah, we gotta rent that house." Not realising that it would be the narrative for the next 20 years.
Anyway, that's where I was living when this package turned up, and I thought, "Enough. I don't know that I need this kind of thing." With the house it felt too stunty, and Peter agreed. So we shelved it, but little did we know that the internet would come into existence, and it would find its home on there.
Peter was a lovely guy. We had a respectful relationship. Him and Jhonn came and stayed with me in New Orleans for a while. I was in a dark place at that time and those guys were too, to be honest. Three addicts basically trying to pretend that it was fine and it wasn't.
[PR asks us to wrap up the conversation]
TR: You were about to ask something, John? Go ahead.
When we spoke to Sleazy just before he died, he said you were the "perfect gentleman", referring to the fact that you asked him if he minded that you were going to call your recent project with your wife [Mariqueen Maandig] How To Destroy Angels. He also said that he was working on How To Destroy Angels material. Did you ever hear any of that, and is it likely to ever see the light of day?
TR: Around that time I reached out to him. iPads had just come out, and I sent him one [with the music on] because he was in Thailand and away from technology. I just wanted to make sure that he was ok with it, because clearly I wouldn't have done it without his blessing. He mentioned, "Hey, I've got some stuff that I'm working on which could be interesting [for How To Destroy Angels]... it could be interesting, but it could also be way outside the realms of anything that you'd be interested in. We could work together, and maybe under the umbrella of How To Destroy Angels." And I said, "Please do. Send whatever you have." And nothing ever showed up - he passed away not long after that. So sadly I didn't get to hear what he had planned.
To read our feature on Nine Inch Nails' upcoming UK tour, and what actually happened at the Grammys, keep your eyes on The Quietus next week