Robin Finck may not be as recognizable a name as the band with whom he plays - Nine Inch Nails - but it is the guitarist's unique mastery of both tone and performance that adds much to the industrial band's sweeping soundscape panoramas. In fact unless you're a hardcore Guns N' Roses fan you may not even realize that Finck was one of the main contributors to "Chinese Democracy," the long running Axl Rose album that was finally released in 2008. Because Robin has played in bands dominated by highly visible frontmen - Rose of course and NIN's Trent Reznor - he tends to get overlooked when the Best Guitarist lists get written. But he is a stunningly accomplished player (he was accepted to the Berklee School of Music but trashed that idea for an open audition with NIN) capable of playing everything from beautiful nylon-string acoustic strums on "Hurt" to insane whammy-inspired feedback freakout solos on "Piggy." He is also in the very early stages of his own solo album (and insists that it's still very early days yet) but once released will absolutely establish him as a major player in the world of electric guitar.
He is currently out with Nine Inch Nails on their 2013 Tension tour. It is an epic juggernaut that will take him through the end of the year and will include Australian and New Zealand dates in 2014 alongside Queens of the Stone Age. On a rare day off, Finck found an hour to talk about life as Axl Rose's guitar player and what it's been being a Nine Inch Nail.
UG: Tell us a little bit about your early days.
RF: I started when I was a very small person and really my fingers were too short for the nylon-stringed drugstore special that my dad was neglecting in the corner. I kinda started early and it didn't take. I let it go for what I thought I feared was gonna be the rest of my life.
You picked up the guitar again?
When I started high school, a bunch of other schools merged into one big school. There was a guy there with hair down past his collar that I met for the first time. He told me he had an electric guitar at his house
An electric guitar was much cooler than a nylon string guitar, right?
We walked to his home after school and he played the beginnings of some Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath songs. I thought, "Ah man, maybe it's not too late for me." Around that time in my life it was about 1984, 1985ish and MTV was really just devastating the homes of us in the 'burbs where I was growing up in New Jersey. I was gravitating towards a lot of heavy metal at the time and the current heavy metal then. It wasn't until I already kind of got into playing the guitar that I started to listen to other records like Santana or the Cure.
You were playing in some early bands with names like Sik Dik, Bat Your Lashes and Prowess. What kind of a Robin Finck would we have heard playing in those bands?
Oh, a ribby, shirtless, c-cky kind of guy pinging all over the place from here to there depending on what month of the year it was. Those titles you referenced was some old world stuff. That seems like another planet to me now.
I came up in Atlanta and spent a lot of time at a venue called the Masquerade. I played there a lot in 1990, '91 and '92. I just walked on with Gary Numan a couple of nights ago at the Masquerade and I hadn't been to that place in 18 years and it was a blast for me to be there after so much time.
The Impotent Sea Snakes was another band you played in way back when?
The Impotent Sea Snakes was happening before and after me. I had a stint and the first time I saw them I was terrified of what I was seeing and eventually warmed up to them. I ended up doing a couple of short runs from Atlanta and back for the better part of a year or so. That was manic. It was a shock appeal.
After you started checking out the guitar is when you really started listening to other guitarists?
I just kinda started to really listen to the sounds of other kinds of guitar-centric records. I was really into effects and textural guitar players - U2 records and the Cure. Even pointed and not so trans-dimensional but Bauhaus records and Bad Seeds albums and something that was really kind of loud and frantic. Lots of right-hand funny business. Yeah, honestly, I don't really have a go-to person or album that kinda did it for me really.
That makes sense because your playing seems to include so many different kinds of elements.
When I started playing with Nine Inch Nails certainly Trent had shaped the way I approached the guitar maybe more than anyone. Just working so closely with him with the songs and through so many tours. It's a very visceral approach and it's sometimes understated.
A lot of the guitar parts you play in NIN are very minimalistic.
It's more of like if you can't step it out into existence then it's probably too many notes kind of thing. And not really a lot of chords but more riffs and melodies.
How did you get involved with Guns N' Roses and the "Chinese Democracy" album?
I didn't know Axl. I was no longer playing with NIN at the time and I had jumped on a tour with a touring show from Cirque du Soleil, which at the time was not everywhere in Las Vegas like it is now. It was a North American tour under a blue and yellow big top (tent). What I'm telling you now is after this all happened. Axl had come to simply see the circus (laughs) and he and I had never met and he didn't know I was there. One of the guys Axl was with in the grandstands pointed and said (in hushed excited voice), "Axl, you see that guitar player down there? That's Robin from Nine Inch Nails."
The way you said that makes it sound like Axl did know who you were.
Axl was telling me this after the fact. And he just kind of scratched his head and was sitting there thinking, "What is he doing here?" Hah hah hah. At that time Axl was no longer playing with Slash but the rest of the original guys were still together. I was in my Oakwood apartment with the rest of the circus. This was before cellphones and I had the curly-cabled telephone hanging on the wall in the kitchen. It rang and someone said they were a representative of Axl Rose who wished to speak to me - "Would I be at the number in 15 minutes?"
Very official sounding.
It came out of the clear blue. I kinda jumped to all kinds of conclusions. I skipped holding hands and first kiss and went straight to making babies. I said to the guy, "Ahh, can I take your name and number and I'll call you back in 15 minutes." I kinda clammed up.
But you eventually talked to Axl?
We ended up talking that day and he invited me to play with he and the rest of the Guns N' Roses guys at the studio space they were kind of housed in. It was a welcomed opportunity just to play that one day. I was doing this circus thing for a year or more by then and that was a blast and I really enjoyed my time there. But I would have been over the moon if even an usher from the circus show told me, "Hey, I got a drumkit in my garage. You wanna go play some AC/DC?" I would have jumped at the opportunity. So the fact it was Axl and Guns N' Roses, I wasn't mad at that.
What was that like first playing with GNR?
I went and we played Guns songs and some cover songs and eventually I was bringing my ADAT tapes I was working on in my apartment.
You started bringing in your own music?
We started playing some of those songs. This was only on Mondays because Mondays were the dark days for the circus. The circus was only in town for I think four months or maybe it was three months. So eventually the circus was gonna pack up and go north and Axl said, "Don't go. Stay here. I wanna do a record. I wanna do a tour with Guns N' Roses." A few other details and that's eventually what we all intended to do. At that time I never ever would have dreamed it was how many years - 10 years on and off - in the making.
Was playing with Axl a completely different experience from working with Trent Reznor?
There was certainly more differences than similarities. It was a very different dynamic to the band; rehearsals were different; and it was like a whole other life I'm really grateful to have been able to experience two such vastly different music worlds. Sometimes we're playing in some of the same halls, same rooms, same arenas and that's kind of a trip.
You knew about Axl's history going in?
Sure, of course. One thing that was kind of present to me but I had to make a conscious choice not to allow it to direct me was not the fact I was playing with Axl but the fact I was playing with Axl and I wasn't Slash. That woulda been the death of any real play and any sense of fun or freedom.
You just tried to put that out of your mind?
Well, I wouldn't say I tried to ignore it. I just kinda let it be and I got to understand real well firsthand that the two of those guys presenting those songs to the world probably wasn't gonna happen (laughs). But sometimes it was difficult to be in that place - literally standing in that space - in front of a lot of other people who maybe didn't know how sincerely those two (felt about) probably not gonna playing these songs.
You talked about eventually bringing in your own song ideas. Did those ADATS full of ideas turn into songs like "Shackler's Revenge" and "Better?"
Umm, yeah. There were so many. Some of them were picked for parts and some of them were recorded to the finish line and still exist somewhere. I don't know where.
Some of the songs from "Chinese Democracy" like "Shackler's Revenge" do have an industrial feel. Was that your input?
Umm, not necessarily and not all the time. I think especially with Guns, I was more of a soul player than a soundscape artist. Playing the original catalog songs kind of directed me to what I thought I wanted to hear Axl sing over and so I probably wasn't alone in that. So that kind of directed me to present the material I did.
Axl worked with multiple guitarists - Buckethead, Ron 'Bumblefoot' Thal, Paul Tobias and Richard Fortus - at various times. Why did he want so many guitar players involved?
They came in waves and all those names were not present all at the same time. We did so much writing, rehearsing and recording before we ever played live as a group. It was like, hah hah hah, a bit of a circus. I sometimes had to just really let go of what it is I would have hoped this song or this presentation of a batch of songs would be. And just really get in the flow of what was happening because there was something bigger going on than anything I was going to direct. They're all great players though.
Amazing musicians. Was Axl looking for lots of guitar textures in the music?
Well the summation of so many guitar players happened through so many years that each kind of phase had its own organic necessity that had arisen. Maybe that was a bit wordy to say.
I know what you mean.
Guys came and went (laughs). Originally it was gonna be a two-guitar player group. I split forever so I thought and went back to Nine Inch Nails. In my absence they were looking to replace me and Josh Freese, the drummer at the time, had brought Buckethead in to essentially fill the slot I had left. They really liked him but he's kind of a stunt guitar player. He does a very specific thing and he has a real genius sensibility about him. But he rarely plays the same thing twice ever and when you're trying to cruise through "Nightrain" that just makes it a little (laughs) too different. So they needed someone to anchor the songs. They kept Buckethead to do what Buckethead does and they needed someone else to play alongside.
You played a great solo on Street of Dreams.
We had played that as a live and loud band. When I say live, I mean we had rehea-sed them (songs) in a room at top volume so many times and it was also the way it was recorded (laughs).
"Chinese Democracy" was recorded loud?
The recordings were loud and I was standing in the control room or in the live room. They (solos) kind of came pretty quick and then we'd just kind of hone in on what the first impression was and I don't know, kind of hammered away at it until we got it. I didn't really have a method.
Do you remember doing any of the solos on that album?
When I knew I was gonna go in and record one of the lead parts on "This I Love," I would listen a few times without playing. I would listen to the track without playing guitar and just kinda try to hear what comes natural as far as starting low or starting high or where to begin and where to end up. I've always liked guitar players that play in phrases maybe like a horn player who needs to take a breath. I don't think about it - I'm thinkin' about it more now because you've asked me than I have ever thought about it (laughs). There wasn't a lot of thinkin' going on to be honest.
What are your overall thoughts about working with Axl on the 'Chinese Democracy' album?
It's hard for me to summarize. It's happened over such a long period of time it's summarizing high school into college. Some of my favorite moments as a guitar player were some nights that didn't even make it to that record. I was tight with the recording team and tight with the band. We were a close knit bunch of guys and we just really had a blast. We didn't have a blast every night for nine or ten years but in hindsight those are the times I remember most.
You joined NIN initially in 1994 as part of the touring band?
Yeah, at the very end of '93 and we really started to take off in '94. I was living in Atlanta and I was literally living at that venue I referred to earlier called the Masquerade. I was living in the storage room full of stacks of drums, amps and other people's guitars. It wasn't pretty when I think about it but back then it suited me, hah hah ha. I'll say that.
It sounds like a real rock and roll story.
I showered et cetera in the dressing room when the club was open and I was there for almost a year. I'd seen so many bands play there being there every night of the week. I saw Nirvana play there and anybody who was touring that circuit in 1992. I was starting to hang out with some kind of weird people and I was scared that the next year was gonna be the same as the previous year and I knew that probably wasn't a very good trajectory for me. I wasn't sure what I was gonna do.
But you did know you were going to make a change.
I applied to the Berklee College of Music in desperation. I wasn't really jive about school in general at that time in my life but I knew I needed to do something different so I applied to the school. I thought, "Well, I'm just gonna give it all up and I'm gonna sit in a little room somewhere and just play the guitar for the rest of my life and see what happens." That was the all of my consideration at that time in my life. Of course I see things differently now.
The week I had received my acceptance letter and thought, "Oh man, there's real change coming,” I was wildly uncomfortable about it. The owner of the Masquerade (Dean Riopelle) who was also the singer in the Impotent Sea Snakes called me up to his office and told me he had just received a call from a rep from Nine Inch Nails. He made a telephone call to someone in four or five different cities - New York, L.A., Chicago, Atlanta and maybe somewhere else - saying there were looking for a guitar player. They weren't interested in a cattle call of all weekend seeing 1, 000 people. But if you knew anybody who might be of earnest interest, please let us know.
What were your thoughts about going to the audition?
He told me I should go. They were in California and at the time I had never been to California and I threw my hands up saying, "F--k, I just got accepted to this school. I had it all planned." Again understand they weren't saying they want me in the band. He just said, "I just think you should go meet the band." I really resisted it at first. This was '92 and before "The Downward Spiral" and my kneejerk reaction was, "Nine Inch Nails? Isn't that a lot of black hair and synthesizers? I'm really not sure where I'd fit in."
You did have second thoughts about checking out the audition?
In the interest of adventure, I borrowed $50 or $60 from just about everybody I knew and got a plane ticket to go meet them in San Francisco where they were. I played a few songs and they heard lots of other people who played that day as well.
Did you know any of those other guitar players?
No, I just saw 'em in the waiting chamber. It was like we were all getting ready to be thrown out of an airplane. The people I was sitting with were either really early or late for their time slot because I saw some people come and go. When it was my time I went in and plugged into an amp that was as tall as I was, which I had never done before.
You brought your own guitar?
Yeah, I brought a guitar and a gym bag with a broken zipper and a six-pack of beer, hah hah hah. Outfitted in red patent leather Doc Martens that were half a size too small for me. I don't know what the combination with all that was but I turned out to be the guy. That began to shape me in other directions I had never anticipated.
That must have felt incredibly satisfying to land the gig.
I was 22. We played clubs and then real fast went to theaters. The record ("The Downward Spiral") was really getting so much traction and the "Closer" video came out. At the time we played Woodstock and then the band just exploded and we were in arenas once and we came back through arenas again and that tour seemed to last forever.
Was the first recording you did with NIN the "Further Down the Spiral" remix record?
Yeah, I guess so. I don't know what it was called. For LPs, Trent wears all the hats. He has an engineer team of people he leans on but he's the one building the songs.
Does Trent come in with all the guitar parts and riffs already written?
With "The Slip," I had an opportunity to play a couple days in the studio as that album was nearing completion. They were pretty well demo'd by the time I had the opportunity to have my ears on it. Sometimes when I listen to it things are churned through the NIN-ometer to such a degree I'm not sure I could point at who's who.
Does Trent actually suggest specific guitar tones? Or say he wants a certain feel?
Not really. He shows by example. It's either, "I’m hearing it from a track I’m listening to” that he's done. Or in rehearsal for a tour when we're kind of bringing songs to flesh, we'll try new things, new arrangements and new parts. Some of 'em stick and some longer than others and some don't stick at all. So he pretty much shows by way of example. There's not a lot of referencing to bands or gear or whatnot. He's either very specific or just says, "I don't know. Try something."
NIN music sounds very complex. Do you have to be on your toes to play those songs?
Yeah. During the shows yes and certainly the rehearsal periods are really quick-paced. I have a three-ring binder that's alphabetized with all the lyrics and all my notes and the bpm's (beats per minute) and delay times and which notes are pre-sets. My entrance to the song and what I've tried and "Scratch that. Don't ever play that one again." Little mini-tabs of ideas. The reason is because when we get to rehearsal and especially these past few tours, there's such a large catalog of songs Trent wants to play with in rehearsals to cull from when he makes the setlists. We really cruise through at a clip. So we may touch upon 12 or 14 songs in a day but we'll play 'em each once or twice and then move on. Then the following day we'll play 'em again and kinda have to be on point what we had accomplished the previous day and not lapse back into and scratching our heads about, "What was that again?"
Which is where the three-ring binders come in.
So I've got audio notes for myself. Soundscaping the set is an enormous part of the gig because knowing where to put your hands is one thing. But if you're trying to play all these spots with a Les Paul through a Marshall start to finish is really not gonna sound like NIN. And we're all in the band kind of left to our own devices to either recreate those sounds or bring those parts to a level that gels with what else is played in the group.
Do you have to go back and listen to all the songs from the earlier albums and figure out all those guitar parts?
Oftentimes when we listen to the sessions, we'll have the stems from the album, which could be 5, 000 tracks and we'll decide individually which ones would be the most kind of fun and physical to present in the show. We'll build song-specific pre-sets and even parts-specific pre-sets from song to song to song so there's quite a bit of tweaking sound even today at soundcheck.
So the technology in terms of the soundscaping becomes just about as important as the actual playing?
Yeah, it certainly does. And sometimes make a decision or we'll have to discern that with one guy left and all the parts have been delegated but we still got this cloud noise and a mosquito and the sandpaper…
Riff that has to be on the outro. Who's gonna take that?
You're communicating with Alessandro Cortini (synthesist) in terms of what sounds he's playing and what patches and everything?
Yeah, exactly. Trent listens to rehearsal tapes or I guess not tapes anymore but playback. He comes back with notes and things he wants to hear and a different layer louder or quieter. We're just discussing the audio - the shows have a large visual production value to them. All those moves and scenes need to be well-orchestrated. The experience has directed me to play other instruments and sound sources than I have ever done as well. I play keyboards an awful lot and on this tour I'm playing a violin on its back on a tabletop and squeak out a few supporting pieces of music.
A real violin?
Umm yeah (laughs).
Do you know how to play violin?
No, I really do not. We were sitting around the jam box at rehearsal in the couch pit and Trent was kind of air playing parts as they were pa-sing by as we were listening. In verse two we heard a violin and Trent points to me and says, "That's you" and then moves on. Then I've got to review my notes with my tech and say, "Oh yeah, I've gotta play violin on this one song."
You actually went out and bought a violin?
He got me a student model violin and I couldn't make noise one out of it at first. It was just easier for me to lie it on the table. I took one of the strings off I didn't need and so I just played it that way.
Back in 2009, you signed with Schecter. What did you dig about their guitars?
I was looking to an alternative to the guitars I had, which were mostly Gibsons. I was thumbing around online and I saw a couple of things - I saw that Schecter had a breadth of different body styles that they already offered and they were in Burbank, California, which is basically near where I live. I was looking for something that had a split-coil pickup and the guitar they were offering already had that design built in. I eventually put a mini-humbucker in there but it's either humbucker or I could split it to single coil. I get lots of different sounds out of one guitar. It had a Bigsby and it was all quite natural. It was fun to play and I never had a guitar quite like this one. It was lighter and a little thinner and it had a Bigsby, which I never played before. It felt like real playtime so that was really fun for me and so I'm still playing that one.
Is there a basic amp rig you bring out on the road?
Every Nails tour I've done, there's been a different rig built. This one we're doing now (the Tension 2013 tour) there's no audio on the stage; it's just a midi-switcher. In the rack offstage is a Kemper Profiler and that's basically my amp source. I've got three drawers of pedals that live in the RJM switching system.
What two pedals could you not do without?
Hah hah hah, all my delays come from the Eventide TimeFactor and I use a lot of that. I have a Dunlop rack wah that doubles as a volume pedal. And I use a few different frequency settings, different wah settings that Chris - my tech offstage - kind of manipulates for me and switches for me from song to song. I have one gain pedal and a compressor and one fuzz pedal and a low pass filter. I really try to keep it simple because the fewer connections the better because there are fewer opportunities for meltdown both with the gear and with my personality. But as we get to playing song 56, 57 and 58, I find I really need this one thing so some of those things are kind of song-specific. But I definitely rely on something with presets because there's just too many different types of sounds even throughout just one record let alone 20 years' of songs.
You've been working on your own solo album?
Yeah. I was in the throes of that when Trent called me for this tour and so I'm looking to get into that when this tour lands at some point next year. I've really been woodshedding on my own and the songs are born on piano or guitar and building them up from there. But I have yet to introduce them to any wall of noise just yet.
This is going to be a vocal record?
Oh yeah and I'm singing them.
You sing with NIN so that's an aspect of the process you dig?
Yeah, I do. I really do. I've been playing and recording all the time through the years and I have yet to fashion my own coming out and it's been inevitable. I've been very blessed with other opportunities that were gonna go with or without me and I've enjoyed saying yes to those opportunities.
Interview by Steven Rosen