Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor reflected on the making of his debut album Pretty Hate Machine, which turned 30 in October, in a new interview. And it seems he has a new perspective on his past.
“It’s funny ’cause now I look back and it was not the best years, but it was a good era,” Reznor, who previously described making the record as “the darkest period in my life,” told Rolling Stone. “As you kind of put rose-colored glasses on and think back about the excitement of finally be able to maybe put a record out, have a band, have someone show up that you don’t know in a different city, it felt like the beginning of something. We didn’t know what it was, it was terrifying and it didn’t feel like a secure position, but it felt exciting that we might have a chance to be heard.”
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According to Reznor, his band’s synth-driven debut was initially inspired by his desire to emulate late ’70s British punk icons the Clash.
“I started out trying to imitate the Clash—shitily. I’m not the Clash; I didn’t have anything smart to say politically, back then—or now for that matter,” Reznor admitted. “But when I turned to my journal and I realized I was writing song lyrics anyway, once I got over the hump of, ‘I could never say that out loud to other people,’ there was an authenticity there and truthfulness that I think resonated. And I could tell when I played it for some people around me, I’d have to leave the room, but I could tell that affected them in some way. It started to form the basis of what I hoped would be an album.”
Reznor described the process of making Pretty Hate Machine as “tinkering around in the studio at night” while trying to figure out exactly who he was as an artist and what he had to say. “Terrible Lie,” and “Something I Can Never Have” were along the first songs he wrote and recorded for the record, but along the way, he found himself indulging a need to “break the guitars out and be a bit more aggressive” and outlet in which to channel his burgeoning disillusionment with the music industry. From there, “Head Like a Hole” was born.
“Some songs feel like months of tinkering, and other ones seem like an afternoon and it’s done, and that was one of those songs that just kind of fell out,” Reznor told the magazine. “And it was starting to get clear that the record label we signed with was not our friend. I think that kind of all worked into the mix. I had no idea that was going to be what it went on to be, though.”
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According to Reznor, producer Keith LeBlanc amped up the tracks aggression in the version that the band ended up releasing. “By the time anyone heard it, it had the influence of, ‘OK, maybe no one will ever hear this because our label hates it and they told me it sucks, so, fuck you, here it is,’” Reznor said.
That “fuck you, here it is” prerogative seems to have served Reznor well throughout the course of his career. As Cold Cave’s Wesley Eisold told SPIN, “I had never heard vocals so clear, biting, sinister, and forward until this. I remember guitar people starting to buy drum machines. Beginning your debut LP with ‘Head Like a Hole’ was just a glimpse of everything that would come to represent Nine Inch Nails.”