Demon Seed

In 1996, I started seventh grade. I’d spent the last year at a private Christian school, and in my mind I was delving back into the secular cesspit of public education – just another face in the unwashed masses of cigarette-smoking swear-word-using pornography-addicted heathens.

As you can imagine, even in the ‘religulous’ deep South, this was not a world view that made me particularly popular. What most ostracized me was my taste in music. In addition to radio-friendly hits of the fifties and sixties as selected by the local “Oldies” station, I listened to a bunch of Christian punk bands that no one outside of a Baptist book store had ever heard of. But even I knew what that “NIN” (with the backwards ‘N’) scratched in white-out on everyone else’s Jansport backpack meant.

In a gesture that was either genuine good will or just an effort to freak out the weird kid, a classmate dubbed me a tape of Further Down the Spiral. I remember putting it on in the stereo in my room with the volume down low so my parents wouldn’t hear it (why didn’t I use my walkman? I don’t know). If my classmate’s goal was to shock me, it worked. Not even from the standpoint of lyrical content – I’ll be honest, I don’t remember my impressions of the lyrics at all – but musically it was unlike anything I’d ever heard. The closest my twelve-year-old ears had yet come to industrial music was a Tooth and Nail Records band called kLaNK. This was angry, and bizarre. Like if John Lennon came back as a vengeful ghost with unfinished business involving the weirdest parts of The White Album. The dynamics were like a roller coaster – huge and loud and fast, and then the floor drops out and you’re in a pitch black room with nothing but a mellotron and a madman at the keys, whispering to no one in particular. I felt like somebody’d thrown a microphone down a pit into Hell itself. I was amazed, but more than a little scared.

Remix albums tend to be even more experimental and less accessible than the LPs that precede them. Further was no exception, and at that point my Dad’s old Pink Floyd records were as avant garde as my tastes got. So in retrospect I’m not really surprised pieces like The Art of Self Destruction, Part One struck me as incomprehensible. At that tender age, I was still a long way off from my musique concrète phrase, developing an appreciation for The Residents, or plugging a pawn shop drum machine into a cranked-up half-stack just to see what happens. I wonder sometimes, though, if any of that would’ve happened if not for that pirated copy of a Nine Inch Nails album.

By 2001, my evangelical rigidity had relaxed quite a bit, and I was well on my way to becoming an edgy teenage narcissist. Among some other bands that all kind of got crowded under the umbrella of ‘industrial’ or ‘goth rock’ at the time, I’d have considered myself a Nine Inch Nails fan. As a musician, I found Trent Reznor particularly inspiring, as a producer and multi-instrumentalist. He wasn’t the first recording-studio one-man-band, but other than certain tracks by Lennon and McCartney in the later days of the Beatles, he was one of the first I knew about. It’s what encouraged me to push the microphone from the family Windows 98 PC into the grille of my Gorilla GG-20 practice amp and try to record a song with a shareware copy of Fruity Loops.

My 2001 take on Sweet Dreams. My 2018 attempt is on SoundCloud.

Over time, I really developed a love for mixing and recording. There was a joy to me in layering parts, piecing them together like a puzzle, and I’ve never really lost it. My dream as a teenager was to grow up to be Charlie Clouser – musician, engineer, composer, and noted remixer. The time I’ve spent playing and recording in bands with other living, breathing people was vital to my development as a musician, but even now, almost 20 years later, getting a few hours to lock myself alone in a room with a DAW, a couple of guitars, and a MIDI controller is just like Christmas.

In the post-Fragile era, NIN was on and off my radar. In 2006, the With Teeth tour stopped in Shreveport (okay, Bossier) and I went – it was a good show, but I didn’t care much for the new songs. I was a lot more impressed with the concept and marketing of Year Zero than I was the album itself. I don’t know that even to this day I’ve ever listened to all of Ghosts. But in April 2008, the first and only single from The Slip was released as a download on the Nine Inch Nails website. It generated buzz as a ‘return to form’, revisiting the stomping grounds of albums like Spiral and Pretty Hate Machine. That drew my attention. Compounding my anticipation was the fact I was aware Reznor had taken to releasing the multitracks of his albums for free, and a community was set up on the NIN website for fans to upload their remixes. Here was my chance to play Charlie Clouser for a day.

Perhaps inspired by Richard D. James’ (Aphex Twin) comments about his contributions to Further Down the Spiral (“I never heard the originals, I still haven’t. I don’t want to either”), I had the idea that when The Slip was released, I was going to remix a track before I’d ever listened to the original. I pounced on the multitracks as soon as they were available, and nine days later, I uploaded “Demon Seed (Corruption M!x)” to remix.nin.com before I’d ever downloaded the album itself.

That’s been eleven years ago now, and I don’t remember a lot about the mixing process. I do know in 2008 I was still using FL Studio; I didn’t switch to Ableton until sometime in 2014. I don’t know now why I picked Demon Seed – I suspect I just liked the name. I do recall that the drum track didn’t make any sense to me – I couldn’t figure out how it was supposed to fit with the vocals or any of the other instruments. I kind of expected that – what made me want to try this process was that I’d hear the ‘puzzle pieces’ in isolation, and I’d hopefully find a way to fit them together that I wouldn’t have ever considered if I’d been influenced by the intended arrangement first. Listening to the original mix now, I can see why it wasn’t obvious, Demon Seed has a lot of unusual syncopation. I resorted to mostly slicing the drum track into its individual components and using a step sequencer to make my own patterns out of it. While there’s an argument to be made that some valuable character of the original was stripped away in my doing that, it lead me to slicing bits from other tracks and using them as percussion (most notably fricatives and plosives from the vocals) which ended up being one of the things about it I was most pleased with.

When I uploaded it, I secretly hoped it’d burn up the website’s leaderboard, be featured on an official remix album (Slip Further?), and rocket me into a career of video game sound design and industrial rock production. Instead it got a couple of comments, a handful of listens, and was then trampled by the herd of other submissions. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst – at least it wasn’t universally reviled, and I enjoyed the process of seeing the way Trent Reznor lays out his tracks, and getting to play with someone else’s toys.

Earlier this summer, Nine Inch Nails was listed among the artists who had original master tapes destroyed in the 2008 UMG archive fire. At this point, UMG is still quibbling over what is and isn’t truly lost, but suffice to say if the damage was as extensive as the NYT’s exposé would suggest, it qualifies as a real tragedy in the history of American music. To me, though, it also seems like it could be a good argument in favor of that “open source” approach to music that Reznor experimented with a decade ago. It’ll take more than a warehouse fire to get rid of The Slip‘s masters. That juxtaposition of “master tapes” and “Nine Inch Nails” conjured up a memory of remix.nin.com, though, and I got curious whatever happened to it.

I discovered the subdomain itself is dead. A little internet archaeology suggests it went offline, unannounced and without warning, sometime in November of 2016. While it doesn’t appear there was ever any official word on why it was taken down or if it will ever return, the launch back in 2007 was fraught with copyright concerns from Universal, and the website almost never happened at all. If I were to speculate, I’d guess that after almost ten years, a lot of new legal precedents regarding digitized audio, intellectual property, and the internet, and numbers that suggest waning interest and participation, it reached some tipping point where it just wasn’t worth fighting the battle to keep it online anymore. I can see why Mr. Reznor wouldn’t relish announcing that, but frankly, I appreciate that he worked so hard to make it ever happen at all. Maybe the world isn’t ready for open source music – or at least the music industry isn’t.

However, in that research binge, I also discovered that as early as the following month, an altruistic soul known only as “Risk_Taka” had set to work making sure as many of the works as possible were preserved at archive.org. Just over twenty-five thousand songs were collected. And I was fortunate enough that one of them was mine. I’m so grateful that someone saw it as worth the time to rescue.

Listening to it now, it’s what I remember. Sometimes you go back to something you’ve made years before and feel a little bit of embarrassment about it, but I don’t think twenty-four-year-old me did such a bad job at playing Charlie Clouser for a day.

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