Now I’m Nothing: Going Back Down the Bizarre Rabbit Hole of Trent Reznor's Vanity Label
April 25, 2018 | by Jeffrey Thiessen
From time to time I get asked how I got into music. If I’m feeling lazy (most of the time), I tell them it was my mom playing Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours around the house, and then eventually Led Zeppelin II. If I’m feeling a little more energetic (or drunk), I will go on to explain how my seventh grade teacher, who was a total music snob, took it upon himself to teach all six of us who didn’t participate in band while the rest were practicing the history of rock music, complete with flowcharts and sermons on how underrated The Kinks were. (If this all sounds very School of Rock-ish, you’re not wrong. He even sort of looked like Jack Black.) This was huge for me, and combined with the music played in my house growing up, along with the boom of alternative music blowing up stereos everywhere in the ‘90s, I set off on a course I never really strayed from. But the odd time I’m asked how I trained my ear to appreciate a wide variety of music, my answer is far less cool, although I would imagine it’s fairly unique. Two words: Nothing Records. No Zappa, no Steely Dan, no John Cage… nope. Trent Reznor’s vanity label he started in the early ‘90s.
By now, the story of Nothing’s creation is pretty well known — going into great detail in regard to its inception would be redundant for many readers, but here’s the long and short of it: Reznor had a god-awful experience with TVT as he was recording Broken, his follow up to Pretty Hate Machine, ended up finding a way to sneak off into the night and find Jimmy Iovine with Interscope, who assured him his creative process wouldn’t be fucked with if he joined the team. This assurance came in the form of Nothing Records, a subsidiary label within Interscope that basically ensured Reznor wouldn’t be bothered by Interscope suits. The break from TVT and subsequent migration to Iovine’s welcoming bosom is actually fairly high drama, and well worth a read if label scandals are the sort of thing that intrigues you.
Nothing Records beginnings were fairly innocuous as far as vanity labels go. Nine Inch Nails was obviously releasing some incredibly important music as the decade hit the midpoint, and then Reznor unleashed the Antichrist Superstar onto posters of pasty kids everywhere. After Manson’s breakthrough, the money began to roll right in, and that’s where things actually get interesting as far as Nothing goes. As a massive NIN fan, my interest in Nothing was simple: I just wanted to hear what Reznor was hearing/embracing, and maybe even find something that was as mind-blowing to me as The Downward Spiral or Broken. I didn’t find anything that could be considered a hidden, cooler version of TDS. But it did lead me down an incredibly wild and bizarre rabbit hole of releases, and I’m going to do my best here to articulate just how much of a trip going through the Nothing catalog really was to a teenager who thought Downward Spiral and Smells Like Children was an accurate indicator of what that label would bring.
Part 1: This Won’t Hurt at All
Yes, the journey down the Nothing catalog does get wonderfully bizarre for the naive listener, but to be clear, there were a few releases that were pretty much exactly what one would expect if they assumed Reznor’s label had no guts. 12 Rounds was Atticus Ross’s first mainstream project and released My Big Hero on the label, then essentially disbanded. Listening to it now, I have essentially the same muted reaction as I did then, but knowing now what we do about Reznor’s relationship with Ross, it can be listened to with a slightly heightened interest in regard to picking up his programming tendencies and aligning them with what he brings to the table now, as the only other official member of NIN besides Trent. But it still doesn’t bring a whole lot of musical value to the table on its own merits, as none of the tunes here really have much teeth and it’s pretty clear why the group disintegrated shortly after My Big Hero — there was nothing to build off of, and not even really a safety net formula to fall back on.
The other pretty by-the-numbers industrial fare release was PIG’s Sinsation. Awful title, but it’s the sort of thing you’d expect with Raymond Watts, who cut his teeth working extensively with KMFDM. And that’s really all you have to know about Sinsation, it’s KMFDM but soaked in a cheesed-out gothic tinge that’s almost impossible to take seriously. It’s actually not nearly as bad as I’m making it out to be; Watts does have a gift for tongue-in-cheek slimy theatrics. It does, however, stand as one of the more poorly dated relics of the industrial explosion we saw after NIN and Manson proved to record labels this genre actually has some legs to stand on in terms of moving units to disaffected teens who found themselves inexplicably shelling out top dollar for random releases on Metropolis and the aforementioned Wax Trax! label. Sinsation taught me a crucial lesson: There are lame industrial albums, a lesson I would apply to great effect with future visits to the genre’s section at my local music store (yes in 1998 NIN/Manson were so huge that many stores gave industrial music its own section, complete with a ton of incredibly obscure and depressing releases).
These two efforts were a welcome distraction from NIN and offered just enough different aspects to encourage me to move forward on the trek through Nothing’s catalog.
Part Two: 2wo Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die
One of the greatest tragedies in modern music is the general ignorance when it comes to 2wo’s Voyeurs album. How do more people not know about this abomination? Recorded during Rob Halford’s hiatus from Judas Priest in 1998, it featured him on vocals with John 5 (of Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie fame) on guitar. Production duties were mostly handled by Dave Ogilive, whom you might recognize from being Skinny Puppy’s unofficial member. Halford’s primal scream, one of metal’s truly divine instruments, is reduced to a techno dirge that is necessary for this sort of industrial metal effort to work on any of its intended levels. It’s probably supposed to be a stirring collision of Halford’s iconic vocals and a venomous sonic chug that’s not too far off from some of Ministry’s tamer stuff, but more often than not, Voyeurs almost comes off as a promotional tool for Nothing: “Hey, look what we made Rob Halford do! Seriously, you have to hear this!” I still don’t know what to make of Voyeurs, or its very existence in this world. It confused me then, and it really boggles my mind now. This is when I started to figure something was a little off in Nothing land. This was bat country.
Pop Will Eat Itself confirmed these suspicions. PWEI was always a weird band, This Is the Day…This Is the Hour…This Is This! made this abundantly clear, but Dos Dedos Mis Amigos (1994) streamlines things a tad more than that sprawling, but fascinating effort. The rubber-based, drum stomps and electrified disco grooves are still here, but they’re processed through an angry English sensibility, and the result is an incredibly unique and strangely accessible album. There are hints of more conventional industrial music that we’re accustomed to with NIN, but more than anything we get a tantalizing glimpse into frontman and primary songwriter Clint Mansell’s astounding jump into one of film’s most accomplished soundtrack arrangers (most notably doing Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain). Dos Dedos Mis Amigos is unlike anything else I’ve heard, and a true standout on Nothing. PWEI never got the attention they deserved, that was truly “alternative” music.
Prick’s self-titled release in 1995 was also an incredibly bizarre album. Prick, like NIN was, existed as a one-man project, essentially a Kevin McMahon solo venture. The overall aesthetic of Prick wasn’t reinventing the wheel. This was by-and-large an aggro-industrial album, bolstered by some pretty strong, purposeful songwriting. But instead of verbal screams worming around the noise or darting out between jagged guitar interjections — as is custom in the genre — McMahon’s voice is turned wayyyyyy up in the mix, with very little distortion as well. There are a few times where he shuts off everything but his microphone. Standing in the middle of the road hollering at passersby, ensnaring every word in his metered grasp, this is uncharted territory for anybody writing music that tends to rely hugely on the voice being an instrument of submission, shame even. Prick doesn’t always work, but it does work out a lot, and like PWEI, it’s very hard to compare anything to its sound.
I started to know I was onto something liberating when I would play these albums around friends and they would ask me what the fuck I was playing. Still, the strangest part of the tour was yet to come.
Part Three: Crazy Rhythms
The final four albums worth discussing here all come from enormously influential electronic artists. As brilliant as they are, the weirdness on Nothing does reach a fever pitch here and I found myself latching onto slices of music I never knew existed/could exist.
Meat Beat Manifesto have always been a very interesting act, combining trip-hop, samples, dub grooves, and a healthy dose of bass clarinet into a surprisingly accessible collage of busy noise, but MBM really did peak with their two releases on Nothing, Subliminal Sandwich and Actual Sounds + Voices. Subliminal Sandwich is a wonderfully weird, dark trip of a double album, and the most patient listeners will be rewarded heavily if they decide to invest in the whole thing in one sitting. Having said that, it suffers from the same thing nearly every double album suffers from, and of course that’s the clear realization it would’ve worked better as a single disc. Actual Sounds + Voices remedies this and builds an elaborate atmosphere of stoned head-gush.
MBM is basically Jack Dangers — here he allows other musicians into the studio and the result is a carefully crafted, yet live sound all built organically into the lunatic fringe that is Meat Beat Manifesto. Rhythm is never sacrificed, but all these musicians work beautifully together to fit as much as possible into every nook and cranny of every track. Actual Sounds matches the darkness of Subliminal’s first disc, and infuses some very discernible and welcome jazz elements that curb some of Dangers’ more indulgent impulses found on Subliminal Sandwich. The record also features MBM’s two best singles by far, “Prime Audio Soup” and “Acid Again.” Actual Sounds + Voices makes Endtroducing feel like coffee-house muzak.
Autechre’s LP5 moved us even further away from NIN; at this point, The Downward Spiral was just a flashing light in the distance I had to squint to see. LP5 is a challenging listen for many reasons, but the primary difficulty for many seems to be how transitional it was. It still did contain those warm, beautiful soundscapes seen on Amber, for example, but here they are spliced with cold, obstreperous noise that would become their signature sound. The dual nature of LP5 can be more than a little jarring, for adherents to both sides. Of course that’s precisely the album’s strength, and represents the two sides of Autechre absolutely perfectly, a synthesis they would never broach again.
And finally, we have reached the zenith of Nothing Records, the most towering achievement, and also the one that will either drive NIN fans directly back into that “March of the Pigs” mosh pit, or make them wonder what the hell they were doing in there in the first place. Squarepusher’s (Tom Jenkins) Music Is Rotted One Note is a severe departure from his previous, abrasive drum-and-bass efforts, but the left turn somehow works on almost every imaginable musical level. To quote Jenkins on this newly relaxed live sound that drew heavily from jazz and electroacoustic:
“There were also other principles at play at this time relating to harmonic content. One was that I was to abandon the overt usage of melody. This was because I had come to see it as a cheap way of getting people to like my music. It disgusted me that it was so easy to appeal to people and I thus introduced arbitrary rules to make it harder.”*
This quote treads dangerously close to a contempt of audience, something I usually reject instantly, in theory and principle, but I’m more than willing to let it go in this case. Music Is Rotted One Note may have sprouted from spite, but it grew into something strangely beautiful. The jazz/fusion takes the listener to Tompkins Square Park circa 1970’s, but packaged with the energy of a truly groundbreaking release in today’s world and with no reliance on cheap nostalgia. The difficulty and ambition of this project cannot be understated, and to this day Music Is Rotted One Note stands far above anything else Jenkins has released.
I certainly never expected a Nothing Records journey would take me to a bugged-out jazz fusion record, but as I looked back, the road behind me wasn’t obliterated, or even blurred. I didn’t lose interest in The Downward Spiral, nor did I end up caring one iota that Reznor liked all these albums. Instead I realized that, whether I knew it or not at the time, I was on a pretty whacked-out musical journey, one that I never would’ve embarked on if it wasn’t for that little Nothing logo on the back of my Further Down the Spiral case. It might not seem like a lot these days with streaming options and YouTube suggestions, but for a 14-year-old kid to go from NIN, to Rob Halford pairing up with sequencers and guitar crunch, to the composer from Requiem for a Dream rapping, to musique concrete, to free jazz electronica… well, that represented a hell of a musical education no matter how you cut it. I just didn’t expect Nothing would throw me that far out to sea without a lifejacket, but once I stopped fighting the current, I realized I didn’t have to try and find the beach where I started out. There were beaches everywhere. I just couldn’t see ‘em from shore.
Perhaps the coolest thing about this entire journey is this: It refused to come to a clean end after the initial marathon. Many years after I exhausted their catalog and allowed it to show me a different world, I discovered Coil’s The New Backwards, the aborted studio album they never could finish for Nothing. And despite me being very familiar with Coil’s work, that release did succeed in warping me to a very odd, uncomfortable place. And finally, just when I had begun to put Nothing Records out of my head, the full short film of Closure surfaced online, which had been removed from retail stores for years since the VHS copy was first released in the ‘90s (and for fairly obvious reasons when one watches it, it’s a horrific and surreal mock snuff film that isn’t quite as stomach-churning as Kuso, but it holds its own in that regard).
So it all ended where it began. That was my journey I never intentionally set out on, but it did forever alter my musical voyage. My intentions might have been lame, buying albums because a rock star liked them, but it did ensure I went into all them with a very open mind, and that proved to be one of the rare times in my life I went into an album totally blind, totally willing to surrender to whatever music was found. Not all of it was good, but that wasn’t exactly the point. The stumble into nothingness was the point, and I hope everyone finds their own accident.
*BBC Collective Interview 2008