under the influence: notes on the becoming of nine 
inch nails

There's a classic New Yorker cartoon picturing a bunch of big shaggy monsters at a cocktail party. One of them asks the one in the middle, "So, we were wondering...where do you get your ideas?"

The joke, of course, is that no artist can truly respond to such an absurd cliché. So it was not without horror that, when I asked Trent Reznor that question (in so many words), I could practically feel that slimy query crawl out of my mouth. But it was too late. I had already asked the question -- out loud! -- and it had to be answered. To Reznor's great credit, he didn't say "Well, they fall out of my ass," nor did he pimp-slap me on the spot. He actually (gasp!) answered the question, and therein lies my tale.

Let me arrange a little set & setting for you: It was a dark and not-so-stormy night, six years ago. February 11, 1990, to be exact, on the patio of a notorious shithole dive called Lola's in Houston, Texas. Reznor had just finished a soundcheck at a rather small (formerly gay) disco called Numbers; "Down In It" had just cracked the pop charts, and Nine Inch Nails were in the midst of their first real tour. A couple of local music critics and I had cornered him at the club, and he amicably agreed to let us drive him over to Lola's (where we proceeded to get faced, and he didn't drink at all). After we (not Trent) got good and toasted, we turned on the microcassette recorders and let an interview ensue. Part of it went like this:

how did you get so big?

Q: You've come up with an album that seems awfully substantial and weighty as a debut. Who are your contemporaries, or what kind of ground were you trying to work?

Trent Reznor: Well, I'd always been a keyboard player primarily, so it was gonna have some sort of electronic feel to it, and I like electronic music. But I like more aggressive electronic music, à la Ministry / Skinny Puppy-type stuff. It gets this "industrial" tag now, which is not entirely accurate, for them or me. Some people have this impression that I'm living in a factory or something ridiculous like that. It's just that, to get aggressive sounds on a synthesizer, a lot of times you go to metallic sounds or distorted sounds...the equivalent of a metal guitar in rock music, you know."

Q: Well, you know where they get the "factory," it's the "Factory" bands, the New Orders...are there any British influences at all in your music?"

TR: (Slightly irritated) Yeah, like...I get asked often, you know, "What's your influence?" and "Who do you listen to when you write?" It's like, I know who I'm listening to, and I know who I'm ripping off idea-wise and stuff, but I think a lot of people don't want to admit to somebody that's out now as being a big reference, you know? My influences are not The Beatles or The Doors or any of those fuckers; man, I hate 'em, I'm sick of 'em, they're dead, they're gone, it's over with. Skinny Puppy: Yes, an influence. Ministry: Yeah, they've been an influence. The The, Matt Johnson's lyrics, definitely have been an influence.

Q: Maybe the first two Human League albums?

TR: Yeah...I mean, I like...

Q: Before they went pop.

TR: Yeah...yeah, in a sense, yeah. I mean, I've listened to all of it, so subconsciously it's in there....

Your humble narrator must interject at this point that the Human League reference was a loaded question. At that time I was fronting a synthpop band playing local clubs...and we were heavily influenced by The Human League. As the singer, it never occurred to me to ditch the Philip Oakey (Human League) British-style crooning and adopt a "Dig It" (Skinny Puppy), menacing sort of stance. But when Pretty Hate Machine hit the stands, it pretty much blew our thinking wide open. I mean, here was a cat tapping the best of both of these worlds. Gary Numan had shone light on the path of hard guitar mixed with synthesizers a decade earlier; New York's own Suicide proved that synths could be punk; Ministry demonstrated the effectiveness of taking hardcore metal and sampling/looping the shit out of it on top of a disco beat. But, with the debut of Nine Inch Nails, the Final Solution was finally clear: Vulnerable, introspective intelligence, married to pop hooks and edgy synths. Toss in some guitar crunch for familiarity, and you're listening to The Future.

But back to the past: My impressions of seeing NIN that evening are still quite vivid. Dressed like any other hardcore Cleveland band of the day (obligatory all black, leather jackets, combat boots), the visuals were unremarkable. But a peculiar aspect of NIN was their relative timelessness: It wasn't unthinkable that, if one were to walk into one of the chatsubo bars of William Gibson's gritty cyberpunk novels in the year 2020, NIN would be the band on stage. There was a sincerely futuristic aura about NIN that I hadn't felt since the earliest days of The Human League: none of your poncy, costumey Gary Numan shtick. Void of the overindulgent posturings of Ministry or the mock-horror dramatics of Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails struck a strangely familiar chord. I loved early Human League. I loved Nine Inch Nails.

So when I read the February 1996 SPIN interview with Reznor ["Sympathy For The Devil"], in which he mentions the Human League without prompting, I almost fell off my chair. "The excitement of hearing a Human League track," recalls Trent, "and thinking, that's all machines, there's no drummer. That was my calling."

at the heart of it all

The vast majority of Gentle Readers will equate the Human League with "Don't You Want Me" teenybopper fodder. But, just as there was a time when Adam Ant (adamant, geddit?) was cool (before the now-embarrassing Pirate phase), so too were the Human League, before they added the chicks for eye candy and were abandoned by their real keyboard players. The Human League began as punk flourished in 1977, but they rebelled by experimenting with instrumental electronic music. It's difficult to remember today how inventive and innovative the Human League were...particularly in light of their current pop/dance status.

That said, allow me to reference two (now obscure) Human League releases as points of Nine Inch Interest: their first two albums, Reproduction (1979) and Travelogue (1980). These are both seminal synthesizer classics, reissued on CD in 1988 [and more recently available as imports]. In hindsight, and listening to them now, the similarities between NIN and the Human League are quite startling. The same-ness isn't as superficial as, say, comparisons to Skinny Puppy's shock treatments, or Ministry's hard-edged pounding. Rather, it's the use of a cool, sometimes Kraftwerk-like detachment...the juxtaposition of emotions and intellect with synthetics and harshness...and using that dichotomy to display (or illustrate) a certain alienation, a certain angst. That's the most obvious of Human League influences upon Reznor's compositions. Also undoubtedly influential was the Human League's avoidance of the downbeat, funk flavor of the day, favoring the same half-tempo, dirgelike, mother's-heartbeat sort of repetition that's also found in most NIN tracks. As Kraftwerk or even Joy Division have shown, an almost erotic futurism may be exploited that way.

Writing about music, as one wag once put it, is like dancing about architecture. But there are some purely lyrical similarities that, as Trent said, may be subconsciously "in there": a sort of educated angst that permeates and bridges NIN with early Human League. From Travelogue's "Life Kills": "You know you feel you might be dying, as the breath rasps in and out of your burning throat," Phil Oakey warbles; "No one's awake to tell you life kills." Or from "Crow And A Baby": "Now I want all the fathers dead / Find the fathers of this world; treat them as a fatal foe / Put them in the deepest hole, then cover the pit with snow / I'm just trying to tell you what you'll come up against if you venture from my side / If you think you're so mature, you will end up in a field / You will be someone's manure, mushrooms growing from your back, feeding some damn carrion bird / Do you want to contribute to the corruption of the world?" NIN-ish indeed.

But the stunning similarities come into play when examining the music itself. The first giveaway, on both Reproduction and Travelogue, is the quirky, eerie track intros...definitely NIN-ish. Even when remembering that this music is edging toward twenty years old, tracks like "Being Boiled" and "Dreams of Leaving" are obvious precursors to NIN. The former track is unquestionably an embryonic "Down In It"; the latter, with its percolating synth and a stab of sawtooth noise for effect (and where Oakey sings of "the currency of pain"), mines the same territory. Or consider "The Black Hit of Space," which bears the same dissonance and distortion as anything on The Downward Spiral. To be sure, Phil Oakey's somewhat pretentious, rigid vocals have nothing to do with Reznor's style. But conceptually and musically, even without allowing for the aural generation gap in between, few of these tracks would be out of place on any NIN effort. (In fact, one rare Human League instrumental release, The Dignity of Labour Pts. 1-4 from 1979, eerily predates the moody, ambient underpinnings found on Further Down The Spiral. Here, too, the ancestral origin of that which is NIN is quite clear).

human league photo

The Human League in 1979: Adrian Wright, Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh, and Philip Oakey

This Human League material I've referenced will prove nearly impossible to locate; I've included some sound snippets from Travelogue (below) just so you can get the gist of the influence. (Warning: Purchasing the early Human League oeuvre will not produce the same empathetic reaction as Sister Machine Gun or Stabbing Westward; it's good music, but dated, so don't expect to dig it offhand.) In short, though, I found Trent's acknowledgment of the group to be of great interest...if only because there were pivotal moments and aspects of the Human League that fired my own musical muse. Inside the more fertile mind of a Trent Reznor, and colorized by better technologies, this Human League influence was profoundly fused with the industrial/punk Wax Trax mindset of the late '80s. And thus evolved the Nine Inch Nails sound that all these nutty kids are going gaga for today. Isn't it kind of funny how everything works out?


Early Human League releases referenced here (these are import only):

THE DIGNITY OF LABOUR PTS. 1-4 Fast Product FAST10 06/79 [12" EP]

REPRODUCTION   Virgin  V2133    10/79  [LP] 
REPRODUCTION   Virgin  OVED114  10/84  [LP] [mid-price reissue] 
REPRODUCTION   Virgin  CDV2160  10/88  [CD] [with extra tracks] 
REPRODUCTION   Virgin  VJCP2316 01/95  [CD] [Japanese re-issue]

TRAVELOGUE   Virgin  V2160      05/80 [LP] 
TRAVELOGUE   Virgin  OVED115    10/84 [LP] [mid-price reissue] 
TRAVELOGUE   Virgin  CDV2160    10/84 [CD] [with extra tracks]
TRAVELOGUE   Virgin  VJCP2317   01/95 [CD] [Japanese re-issue]

Sound samples from 1980's Travelogue LP: Sun .au format, 7.4kHz, approximately 30 seconds each (editor's note: set to "2's Comp" in SoundMachine -- use the last button in the first row of buttons on the right):

"Being Boiled" (edit), 380K. Sort of a primordial "Down In It"?

"Dreams of Leaving," 330K. Very Reznor-ish instrumentation here.

"The Black Hit of Space," 270K. the art of self destruction, part zero?

Some additional notes and observations:

1. Trent loves pointing out that the intro beat to "Closer" was lifted from Iggy Pop's "Nightclubbing" (off the David Bowie-produced 1977 LP The Idiot); I've read that in at least four interviews. Interestingly enough, the Human League first covered "Nightclubbing" on their Holiday 80 EP (which also appears on the Travelogue CD).

2. Witness PHM's liner notes, where Trent lists Jane's Addiction, Prince (formally credited only on the Australian "Head Like A Hole" single), Public Enemy, This Mortal Coil, and Success (Screaming Trees U.K.). [who?!]

3. Have you heard the early PHM demos? Some of those versions (particularly the unreleased "Maybe Just Once") are extremely close to later Human League material...and also demonstrate how available technology (or the limits of it) influences different artists in similar ways. Get ahold of Purest Feeling and Demos & Remixes bootleg CDs for this must-have stuff.

4. I found Trent's Matt Johnson reference enlightening. I mean, consider PHM's "The Only Time"...the best song The The never recorded! Musically, and especially lyrically, it's pure Infected-era Matt Johnson.

5. Tuck Remington's Nine Inch Nails photobook (Omnibus Press, 1995) has an interesting paragraph: "Human League's Billboard No. 1 'Don't You Want Me Baby' [sic] in 1982 paled for [Reznor] when compared to the cold and remote attraction of their earlier experimental and arcane material written by the original line-up. This harder-edged electronic music captivated Reznor and, in his own words, 'suddenly music started to make sense.'"

6. By the way, a trio of Human League-related sites have recently appeared: a veddy Briddish one, an official one, and a FAQ-y one.

7. Oh, and that club Numbers that NIN played at back in '90? Trent pulled the band back there on December 2 last year, having just come off the Outside tour with Bowie...and treated about 700 of us to one hell of a good show before returning home to his new digs in New Orleans.

i beat my machine...

Alex Anespy (alex7@neosoft.com) is a freelance graphic designer and digital illustrator in Houston, and has more NIN CDs than you do, so pfft. This article is Copyright ©1996 by Alex Anespy for the exclusive publication of Hope and Vaseline and may not be reproduced elsewhere. Well, okay, you can reproduce it elsewhere, what the hell. You had to covet what was mine, didn't you? DIDN'T YOU?!

Top Photo: Trent Reznor, in the process of actually giving birth to a new idea.

further down front
hope and vaseline -- hnv@nin.net