Sooty was kind enough to share this article she transcribed from the current issue of Total Guitar. Enjoy!
Interview with Aaron North from Total Guitar, Issue 163, June 2007
Nine Inch Nails
It’s no secret that musical genius Trent Reznor created every filth-driven riff and guitar stab on the new Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero. But when it comes to touring guitarists there’s only one man Reznor deems fit for the job: Meet NIN “shitty-looking” axeman, Aaron North…
Since the band’s early conception, Nine Inch Nails have revolved mostly around one person: the spectacularly talented and often intimidating Trent Reznor. The only ‘official’ member of NIN, frontman/guitarist Reznor formed the band way back in 1988 and has been at the helm of every album the band have recorded since. Mixing metal, industrial and electronica with elements of hard rock and grind, NIN are one of the few bands that have transcended countless genres and remained on the front line.
Reznor is a skilled studio sensei with expert knowledge of sculpting mental guitar tones and off-the-wall arrangements, so it’s no wonder he knows exactly what he’s looking for when choosing a touring guitarist. Described by Reznor as “shitty looking” and with “junk equipment,” Aaron North is not someone you’d immediately pair up with NIN…until he gets onstage. Hurtling his axe around like a demented butcher and coaxing out the most unhinged riffs you’ll ever hear, North was the undeniable choice as Reznor’s co-axeman when he jammed with him in 2005. And with expectations running at an all-time high for the new NIN album, Year Zero – an uncompromising collection of tracks that reigns vitriol down upon the US Government (“As an American, I’m appalled by the behaviour of our government, the direction it’s taken everyone else in the world, and its arrogances,” said Reznor) – TG thought it high-time that we pinned down Aaron North and got to the bottom of his guitar-peddling ways…
SO AARON, HOW DID YOU GET THE JOB WITH NINE INCH NAILS?
They asked, we jammed, it worked. That’s the short and simple answer. The long and boring one is that I knew Trent through a mutual friend called Alan Moulder, the engineer/mixer/producer extraordinaire who
worked on a bunch of Nine Inch Nails records, as well as my old band’s [The Icarus Line] last record. That was the initial connection, and I met Trent after he moved out to LA from New Orleans and we became friendly. I knew Jeordie [White, bassist, A Perfect Circle/Marilyn Manson] from when my old band supported A Perfect Circle, and I met
Josh Freese [drummer] on that tour as well.
With Nails, there seemed to be an immediate connection with us musically. That sounds like a real cliché, but I don’t mean it in a way where MIT types would picture me and Jeordie dual soloing with each other like in an Iron Maiden video and having in depth conversations with Trent about Phrygian dominant scales and music theory. I mean, when we played together as a band the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
I’m the first to admit that I’m not the most technically proficient guitar player – I couldn’t care less about any of that stuff – but because NIN are so heavily textured sonically, it just gelled when we played music together and it felt like I added another texture to the canvas.
WHAT MADE YOU CHOOSE TO PLAY GUITAR IN THE FIRST PLACE?
I loved rock’n’roll as a kid, hearing my dad’s Beatles records, watching TV. I loved Slash, Metallica and all that kind of music, but I always thought that being in a band was limited to those granted with some sort of divine musical inspiration and knowledge as a birthright. It didn’t occur to me until I discovered punk rock as a teenager that
‘normal’ people could play guitar too. Black Flag was a huge part of that for me. Not only because I could actually play along to their songs, but being from my hometown they were singing about places I hung out at, things I was experiencing myself. They looked like normal dudes too, not a bunch of dorks in spandex with ridiculous hair, being driven around in limousines and constantly flashing off their finger-tapping skills.
SO YOU’RE A TOTALLY SELF-TAUGHT GUITARIST THEN?
I have never taken guitar lessons. After discovering punk rock it was suddenly unimportant that I couldn’t read music or hadn’t bothered to learn proper chords. I still haven’t, ‘cos it still doesn’t matter. I’ve never had anyone show me how to play. Even if my playing has been wrong, no-one’s every corrected me.
WHO ARE YOUR ALL-TIME FAVOURITE GUITARISTS?
Pete Townshend of The Who and Ron Asheton from The Stooges, and I’ve met both of them. I said to Ron, ‘What guitar stuff do you know?’ I was thinking he’d tell me all this crazy theory stuff but he said, ‘I can play this chord and this scale, and that’s it!’ The same thing happened when we were touring with Primal Scream, who had Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine playing with them at the time. He said he could do ‘this and this and this,’ and that was it! I was like, ‘Are you serious?’
NINE INCH NAILS HAVE TRULY UNIQUE GUITAR SOUND. HOW DO YOU ACHIEVE IT?
Well, I don’t really have a particular technique. I’m a terrible guitar player really. I’m a total hack! I can’t read music or any of that stuff. I could probably play you a G if you really wanted me to, but I never had guitar lessons because I thought it would stunt my growth as a guitar player. I was listening to punk when I was tarting out, and when I say punk I don’t mean Green Day or Blink 182, I mean The Exploited, Discharge, Black Flag and Minor Threat. Once I had learned how to play a powerchord I said to myself, ‘That’s it, I don’t wanna learn anything else!’
SO HOW DO YOU PLAY WITH MUSICIANS OF TRENT’S CALIBRE IF YOUR AXE THEORY IS LIMITED?
Well, if they want me to play an old Nine Inch Nails song I just learn it by ear. If it’s a new song, though, Trent will say, ‘Do whatever you want,’ and I just figure something out. Trent has always encouraged me to come up with my own thing, whether it be a chord progression, a lick or whatever. And I never practice! My chops stay up just from playing shows. I think that if I practice too much I’ll lose the soul of my playing. I know a few scales, I guess, and I can solo. I don’t care about the technical side of guitar playing or if people hit a sour note.
Also, my hands are fuckin’ huge. My thumb comes right over the back of the guitar neck because my fingers are super-long and skinny, so it has
nowhere else to go. I use my thumb to mute a lot of strings, which is how I can move the guitar around onstage. I only realised that when someone said to me that if I was holding the guitar properly, I’d drop it! My thumb is so big that I get away with all of that.
IS THERE ANY SORT OF CONFLICT BETWEEN YOUR GUITAR STYLE AND TRENT’S?
No, Trent comes from a different place. If proper guitar players looked at us they’d probably laugh. Before me, I think Trent previously played
with metal guys who had humbuckers and everything. I’ve never chugged like [hums Slayer style triple-picking riff]. For the most part I do whatever I want as long as it’s appropriate within the context of the song. Like, on one of our singles, ‘Only’ [from previous album With Teeth], Trent didn’t want to play it himself and he asked me to come up with a riff that would work through the entire song. So I did what I always do and reached into my bag of ripped-off Stooges and Primal Scream riffs.
OK, NOW TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR GEAR SET-UP…
I switch between all kinds of different guitars. I play Hagstroms, Fenders and weird stuff pretty much evenly. I also have a retarded number of guitars. There are about 26 or 27 just out here on tour with me, let alone at home, just because of all the different tunings I need. I also need a backup guitar for each one, as well as versions with singlecoils and humbuckers. My guitar tech’s job is insane. And a lot of the guitars are old, so if you put the strings on wrong you’ll fuck up the neck, so you gotta know how to handle them. The way I explain having so many guitars is that, you don’t wanna eat the same
thing every day, right?
DO YOU USE ANY EFFECTS WHEN YOU’RE ONSTAGE?
The pedals I use most often are probably Zevex and Lovetone. I have a Swollen Pickle pedal too, which is like an octave fuzz pedal that I combine with a wah to get a cool sweeping tone. Most of my tones are combinations of three different pedals. I also have a special kill switch on my rig which creates a full-on ‘wall of sound’ noise. The amp itself is an old-school Fender Twin Reverb. It can’t be improved upon
if you ask me; it’s sound is so wide open.
I have a MIDI controller onstage to turn on all the pedals at once, rather than do the ‘dance’ where you step on each pedal one by one. I have all my pedals off-stage because they’d get trashed otherwise. I do have a $1,000 Fulltone analogue tape echo with me onstage, though. I worry about it! It’s very durable, but I guess the designed at Fulltone weren’t expecting people to be throwing mic stands at it. I got them to design me a special case so I can get my fingers into it.
So, I’m not a complete dunce when it comes to guitar effects, but then again I’m not a total geek either. You can be the best guitar player in the world, but who cares if you just play one generic guitar with just one generic tone? It’s all about experimenting and finding different colours and adding tones to the sound you produce.
FINALLY, HAVE YOU EVER HAD ANY AXE CASUALTIES ON TOUR?
Man, I fuckin’ destroyed an old Les Paul Goldtop by pulling one of the strings out really hard. I thought if I just pulled it, then it would be OK, but the whole middle of the body collapsed inwards. It was really weird; it just cracked like balsa wood. It was really horrible. It made me wanna cry!
North’s Brush with Death: How Aaron nearly got hung from a tree in Texas after “dissing” Stevie Ray Vaughan…
There are some things you just don’t do in Texas. Whipping Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar out of its case in a Hard Rock Café and proceeding to play the shit out of it is just one of them. Unfortunately for Aaron North, he didn’t know until it was too late… “At the time I had no idea whose guitar it was. I pulled it down off the wall and all of a sudden there were 10 huge security guys onstage with me. I got absolutely hundreds of death threats after that. Everyone tried to make it into this really big thing like I was trying to make a statement abut Stevie Ray’s music, but at the time I hadn’t even heard the guy’s records!”