Alessandro Cortini of Nine Inch Nails talks synths and sensibility with Jordan Reyes of Ono | Bleader

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Alessandro Cortini of Nine Inch Nails talks synths and sensibility with Jordan Reyes of Ono

Posted By on 10.23.18 at 12:42 PM

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click to enlarge Alessandro Cortini - PHOTO BY EMILIE ELIZABETH
  • Photo by Emilie Elizabeth
  • Alessandro Cortini

Alessandro Cortini has been working with Nine Inch Nails since 2004. At the time, he was teaching at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood (where he'd studied years before), and he saw a flyer announcing that the long-running industrial-rock band was looking for someone to handle synths, keyboards, and guitars. As he recalled in a 2017 Red Bull Music Academy interview, he auditioned with parts for "Closer" and "Wish" that he'd prepared for guitar and Nord Modular synth patches.

Ever since a fortuitous 2005 encounter with a Buchla 200e (a 21-century version of the famous synth maker's classic 1970s modular system), Cortini has also released several albums of drawn-out, melodic, synth-driven solo work, and in 2010 he launched a solo synth-pop project called Sonoio. He shares his contagious love for electronic instruments on his YouTube channel, which is good for a visit if you want to get seriously pumped about hardware.
Cortini has been in and out of Nine Inch Nails a couple times since 2004, but he's aboard for the current Cold and Black and Infinite tour, which comes to the Aragon for three sold-out shows Thursday through Saturday, October 25 through 27. This time he'll play more guitar and bass onstage, because he's splitting the electronics with Atticus Ross. I talked to him about how he reached this point in his career, how to push everything you can out of your gear, and how to deliver familiar material onstage but still have fun with it.

Jordan Reyes: I wanted to ask about getting into underground and electronic music—specifically the style you've arrived at. What has your journey been like?

Alessandro Cortini: It took me a fairly long time to come to terms with the idea that if something makes me feel good, it was good enough. The more I was surrounded by people in the scene like Dominick Fernow [who performs as Prurient and runs the label Hospital Productions] or John Brien at Important Records—two of the most helpful individuals in the release of my recordings—the more it confirmed this sort of approach for me. For the Sonno and Risveglio records, when Dominick heard them—recordings of things I had made on tour to help me fall asleep—he said he wanted to release them, and I think I said, "What do you mean release it? Release what? These are my own lullabies." He helped me understand, just like John at Important Records did, that there is no written rulebook. Music should be a manifestation of your emotions, or a way for emotions to be placated or dealt with.
Finding my voice was a long process. It's something that people with limited tools, limited gear, went through—buying an instrument you saved up for, realizing it's not what you thought it was, having to stick with it, and getting as much out of it as possible before trading it in. Now with a laptop, you can do so much right out of the box.

It's weird. One day, I woke up and felt old. "Fuck, I was the kid having fun with a laptop," and now I just want something small, and I'll try to push everything I can out of it. I do integrate more than one instrument when I write now, but the anxiety of having to use more gear just because you have more is a habit worth breaking. I like being able to explore one instrument to its limit, and then making an ensemble of instruments from that one voice. Each instrument is a different language. Like the same phrase in German is a little bit harsher than in French. In French, you can tell someone to fuck off, and it'll sound great. That's how I see instruments.

Makes sense. I know you have a Buchla 200e at your place—do you have older Buchla modules?

I have a bit from all Buchla periods. The Buchla 200e was the gateway. I remember we borrowed one to film a Nine Inch Nails video in 2005—"The Hand That Feeds"—and I fell in love with it. It was a two-day shoot, and because we were borrowing it, I didn't want to leave it on the shoot, so I said, "You know what, let me just set it up and play with it before I go to bed." I didn't go to bed at all. There had never been any instrument that engulfed me like that.

Two years later, I was able to put a down payment down for my first one, and from then on, I moved into the older stuff, denying any semblance of normal adulthood financially. I have some older pieces and some more recent digital instruments as well—different technologies, but all with Don [Buchla]'s soul in them.

You've obviously had to put a lot of work and time into learning your instruments and compositional practice. How do you feel about the way music and information are digested these days?

I think there's a lack of people taking the time to know their instrument. Gear is cheaper than it has ever been. You can sell one piece and buy another. I understand the entertainment value in these things—it's like a video game for your ears—but if you judge the situation from its online presence, you realize that there is a difference in quality of the material between the ones who really deepen their relationship with their instruments over time and the ones who simply exploit the myriad of built-in sonic capabilities they come with out of the box.

I've gotten back into guitar lessons while on tour. Downloaded tons of instructional material. I've signed up for online schools and done Skype lessons. But the other day I started setting time restrictions on my digital devices, in order to spend time in the real world and really practice instead of mining for more. It's easy to keep on searching and never sit down to learn, at least to me. I have a problem with managing online information and turning it into valuable, tangible knowledge.

If you don't take the time to be just you and a real thing, you accumulate all this information but don't use it correctly. I talked to two people about the latest information on global warming, and it's crazy how it's being treated. I hope it's leaving the same mark on other people as it did on me, but it doesn't seem to. It's gone from the news already. The medium is too volatile to leave a lasting mark, aside from the consequential damages of the medium itself.

On that note, I have to say, moving to Berlin and becoming part of that artistic world has been extremely rewarding from a human standpoint. It's been such a natural change. I think I'm better off there than in Los Angeles, because I can be myself both as a musician and a human being, and I'm able to make a living with not too much separation between the two. I'm very grateful when people resonate at the same frequency as me—that's a confirmation that I'm doing what I should be doing.

Totally.

The underground world is completely different from the pop-rock environment, though I love that stuff too. If you play a festival with experimental, underground music, everybody's playing at the same level, just at different times of the day. Everyone gets the same allotment of time, the same stage. There's no "15 minutes under the sun, playing to five people with beers" opening slots. Maybe an 18- to 28-year-old feels like they have to prove something, but I'm too tired, man. Not that I feel I've achieved enough already, but the only person you should make happy is yourself. It's very hard to build a career on satisfying other people, because everybody's taste is changing. So I said, "Fuck it—I'm not gonna do it."

Sounds like a pretty good model.

Well, I was very lucky. Obviously, working with Trent [Reznor] was a life-changing experience on several levels. From a professional point of view, I went from having to learn an instrument to learning every aspect of touring. I was also very privileged, because even though Trent is Nine Inch Nails, he left me carte blanche in the studio and live capacity, provided that he understood that everything I was doing was at the service of the band. My goal was to embellish the record, as opposed to doing things exactly as done in the studio.

Yeah, I was going to ask you about what it means to transport studio recordings into the live setting. I assume you can't bring your vintage gear on tour. You don't bring your Buchla synths with you?

No. When [my solo album] Forse came out, I traveled with the Buchla Music Easel, because most of the shows were based on variations of the same patch. But as time went by, I was playing more shows based on less-reliable instruments. I approach the live show as an excuse to have a second round of fun with whatever I've written, finding the perfect balance between responsible touring and spontaneity. I don't want to have a playback rig—showing up with a laptop and hitting play—but I also don't want to risk having a vintage synthesizer going down canceling the show.
With Nine Inch Nails, it's important for me to provide people with whatever they have come and paid for. When it comes to my solo music, everything is based on a record. The live performance is based on the current release, and I present pieces from it—or the whole release in its entirety, which is what I typically do for the Avanti sets. Avanti was recorded on an EMS Synthi AKS, which obviously I cannot bring. I mean, I could, but it's fragile.

So I had to find a solution, which was a four-track recorder—I'd used it with Nine Inch Nails live, and I still do. With Nine Inch Nails, I've always used my hands—playing with delays and modular synths. The four-track came into the frame while doing preproduction for the 2013 Nine Inch Nails tour. I started rearranging some songs, starting with "Hurt," which has a part comprised of four chords. It used to be four samples on a keyboard, but I came up with the idea of putting them on a four-track and fading them in. It worked very nicely. It allowed me to change the pitch, the volume, the panning, the EQ, in real time—approaching the four-track recorder as an instrument.

When it came time to do Avanti, it was perfect. The script, the score is always the same. I have four-track cassettes of the recording, but when I put them in, I can pick which track to start with, if a track is going to be bright and in-your-face, muffled through reverb, or with distortion. It's like if a voice is clean, you can change the emotional content with effects and equipment—a power chord on a guitar played on a classical nylon string, as opposed to a Gibson Les Paul and a stack of Marshalls. It's the same chord, but the way people react to it or the way you react to it while playing is completely different, emotionally.

The four-track and pedals used are just as important as the notes. That's sort of why I went away from the Buchla for a while. It's easy to get stuck into a specific label. It always has been, but it's getting easier and easier.

There's a need to keep the child in me alive, and move on to different toys—spending a ton of time with one toy, and when I don't feel creative with it, move on to the next one. I'm lucky that most of the time I end up getting a record out of one.

Are you going to check out anything specifically in Chicago?

Chicago Music Exchange, because we are very good friends with the guys there and the folks at Reverb. We've got a great relationship with them. We've done videos with them and more are coming. Great family and very cool people. I'll definitely spend a lot of time with them, whether it's at the store or just hanging out. And that's it—after that, I go back to Berlin for a few weeks. I'm excited to be home with my wife and my three cats, playing guitar on the couch. Then we start up again with NIN in mid-November.

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