COVER STORY : Natural Born Thriller : Trent Reznor is rock’s most compelling new antihero. It just goes to show what years of KISS, Bowie, Pink Floyd and horror movies can do to your head.
This world threw me away
This world never gave me a chance . . .
This world gonna have to pay.
--Lyrics by Trent Reznor
Forget, for a moment, all the talk about Trent Reznor’s eerie, mud-caked performance at Woodstock ’94 . . . or the self- loathing that made this year’s “The Downward Spiral” perhaps the darkest album ever to crack the national Top 10.
Never mind the inquiries about his bloodthirsty “Natural Born Killers” soundtrack album . . . or why he lived for a year in the Benedict Canyon house where Sharon Tate and others were murdered by Charles Manson followers.
Rock’s hottest new antihero will deal with all that and more later.
First, Reznor wants to talk about something that has been nagging him: questions, especially in the British press, about whether the rage that fuels his sometimes venomous music is genuine, and whether he isn’t just a tad too eager to be a rock star.
These suspicions about Reznor arise in the Nirvana-inspired age of the reluctant superstar and are an outgrowth of the punk-rock code that frowns on theatrics and sees mainstream popularity as a sign of artistic compromise.
But growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, Reznor liked being entertained, from the fire-breathing theatrics of KISS to horror movies, the scarier the better. He enjoys punctuating his concerts and videos with dramatic lighting and other effects.
“I had some kid come up to me recently after he read some things and he was all upset,” Reznor says, sitting in his hotel room here. “He said, ‘I just want to ask you one question: You do mean what you write about, don’t you?’ ”
Reznor pauses and shakes his head in exasperation.
“Yes,” he says forcefully--as if to answer anyone else who is wondering. “I’ve felt everything you hear in those songs. It’s all real.
“When I started writing, I did a couple of things that were just (expletive),” he says, smiling now at how bad it must have been. “At one point, I thought, ‘I like the Clash. I’ll write something like they would,’ and I came up with this half-assed thing.
“So as an experiment, I started putting down how I felt inside, very private things--depressing things that you’re not necessarily proud to say or that you want anyone else to hear. But it felt true, and it was amazing later when I’d look out and see people in the audience singing along.”
Reznor, whose West Coast tour begins a four-day stand Monday at the Universal Amphitheatre, is on a roll now. He’s got his boots propped up on a coffee table and he’s addressing the second issue--the one about just how he is reacting to his rapidly escalating stardom.
“I came out of this (industrial rock) scene where it wasn’t cool if too many people liked your band, and I started feeling uneasy around the time of the Lollapalooza tour (in 1991), when things started getting bigger,” he continues. “I went around asking, ‘Who are all these new fans? Why do they like our music? This isn’t for them.’
“But I realized that it’s stupid. It’s not up to me to stand at the door and say, ‘You are cool, you can come in, but you aren’t cool, so stay away.’
“For one thing, I realized that I would never have been allowed in under those rules, because when I was growing up, I was never one of the kids that anyone called cool. That’s where a lot of the anger started.”
If D. A. Pennebaker, the noted documentary filmmaker who captured Bob Dylan and David Bowie at critical moments in their careers, wanted to make a movie about a contemporary rock figure, Reznor would be the ideal choice. The 29-year-old Nine Inch Nails leader is at the absolute center of the sociology of today’s rock.
In his most powerful moments, he pushes the relatively polite alienation of most post-Nirvana bands to new levels of aggression.
Reznor, through the album “The Downward Spiral,” uses some of the grotesque images of horror films and old-fashioned heavy-metal music and weaves them into such personalized tales of self-destruction and self-loathing that they become uncomfortably lifelike.
Nothing in the world of Nine Inch Nails seems off-limits--and the most unsettling part is that Reznor accompanies the stories with such a seductive musical assault that it’s hard not to feel a certain visceral thrill when listening to it.
Like Bowie and Prince, Reznor senses a liberation in forcing an audience to confront its own sexual and social taboos. His videos are frequently filled with death, sadomasochism and perversion. In the 1992 video for “Happiness in Slavery,” a man is turned into ground meat by a machine. (MTV passed.)
“The truth is I’m not a big fan of videos, but if we are going to make them, let’s make them as interesting as possible,” he explains. “I like the idea of subversively communicating with people . . . so that you make people see things in different ways. The same way with the live show. . . . When we started playing live, it was us just trying to play the music as honestly as we could.
“But as we went along, anger became more of a source of inspiration or energy. It could be anger at an apathetic audience or it could be from thinking back to how I was feeling when I wrote the song. Turning the whole thing into rock theater was more interesting to me than watching five guys dressed like gas station attendants with their heads down.
“To me, rock music was never meant to be safe. I think there needs to be an element of intrigue, mystery, subversiveness. Your parents should hate it. If it pisses you off, that’s great. If you think I worship Satan because of something you see in the ‘Closer’ video, great.”
Yet the heart of Reznor’s artistry is his music. Beyond the shocking images of “The Downward Spiral"--the year’s most compelling album--there is an anguished cry for something to believe in at a time when government and religion and family no longer seem to provide answers.
It was Bowie’s “Low"--along with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall"--that Reznor listened to in the months he was writing and recording “Downward Spiral.” They are both icy, alienated works by which he measured his own feelings.
“I am the pusher, I am the whore . . . I am the need you have for more,” he declares in “Mr. Self Destruct,” describing an age in which obsessions and addictions have replaced morality and faith.
Interscope Records’ Jimmy Iovine, who has worked as engineer or producer with Bruce Springsteen and U2, was so excited by Reznor’s potential three years ago that he spent more than a year working out a Nine Inch Nails joint venture with TVT Records, which held the band’s contract.
“Sometimes when you are looking at somebody new, you feel 50% sure about their talent or maybe even 75%, but with Trent I was 1,000%,” Iovine says.
“A lot of people can play the guitar really well, and then there’s Jimi Hendrix. A lot of people write really well, and then there is Bono or Kurt Cobain or Bruce. . . . These are people who bring something extra to what they do, a vision that is wholly unique, and that’s Trent.”
Rick Rubin, who is head of American Records and a rival of Iovine in the search for exciting, cutting-edge bands, is equally lavish with his praise.
“Trent is the most exciting musician of his generation, no question,” says Rubin, who has produced records for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mick Jagger, Tom Petty and Slayer. “His whole vision blows me away.”
You can learn a lot about some one by talking to the people who work with him. All too often in the pop world, managers and agents are reluctant to speak on the record about their clients because of fear they’ll say something that will displease the star.
But Reznor manager John Malm Jr. and agent Gerry Gerrard are comfortable talking about their red-hot property.
They and others picture Reznor as someone who is totally devoted to his music and has endless creative energy. He produced the “Natural Born Killers” soundtrack album in a portable setup in his hotel room while on tour.
Given the mystery and provocation of his stage shows, videos and photos, you’d think Reznor always feels the need to play a role.
When the door opens to his hotel room, you half expect him to be waiting in the dark--the way Prince used to do interviews before he stopped talking to the press.
But sunshine fills the room and there’s no trace of the anger you hear in the music or see onstage. Reznor is wearing a plain black sweat shirt, jeans and boots. The only hint of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion is two modest earrings, one dangling from each lobe. The room is surprisingly tidy for a rocker on the road. A portable tape player and some tapes are the only items on the dresser.
Reznor speaks easily and at length, eventually skipping the sound check to make sure all the questions are answered. He is polite and unusually articulate. He’s not above flashes of temper, but they are no more frequent than those of most artists talking about the trials of their careers.
“I don’t think my persona in the media is accurate,” he says, picking up a cup of coffee from the table in front of him. “I’ll do interviews and I’ll talk to someone and I’ll read it and it’ll come out like I’m some vampire hanging in a corner--and I’m afraid that people will look at that and think that everything about me is a gimmick.”
Because he is in the late Kurt Cobain’s home state, the pressures of stardom come up. At the mention of Cobain, Reznor looks out the window and pauses.
“I wasn’t the biggest Nirvana fan in the world,” he says finally. “I have since realized that part of my negativity toward them was probably jealousy. Even after I realized they were a good band, there was no getting away from them. They were everywhere--on the radio, on MTV, in the papers. And when something hits me over the head constantly, my reaction is to want to get away from that.
“But when I heard that he killed himself, it was a sad feeling. Even at the level we are at, which is much lower than where Nirvana was, there are pressures that I have to deal with.”
Reznor looks again through the window and gathers his thoughts.
“It’s like I worked hard at something and I achieved more than I ever thought was possible,” he says. “At the same time, the price for me is a bit of normality. On a spiritual and human level, I still have a ways to go. There’s a whole world of living out there that I don’t know about. . . .
“I had a pretty serious relationship with someone that I realized I couldn’t have, because no person can deal with what I’m doing. It’s hard to have someone who understands that I’m going to be in the studio for the next six months, then I’ll be on tour for a year.
“I once thought that all this (success) would bring you happiness, turn you into the life of the party, but that’s all very immature. You get a taste of all that and you realize that’s not it. So you go on searching.”
Like millions of other kids, young Reznor was often told that he was just wasting his time listening to rock ‘n’ roll and watching horror movies--starting with “The Exorcist” and through all the Freddy and Jason shockers. But those are two of the influences that shaped his artistic vision.
The other, apparently, was life in tiny Mercer, Pa., near the Ohio border. One reason he is fascinated with life on the extreme, he says, is because he grew up in a place that was so conventional.
“There was nothing going on culturally. The place was much like the town in ‘Blue Velvet'--trees, cornfields,” he says, referring to the David Lynch film. “The rest of the world was a million miles away. It wasn’t bad, but it just instilled in me that I don’t want to end up here.
“I felt like an outsider because everything was based on things I didn’t care about, primarily athletics. If you were on the football team, you were a celebrity. If you were in the band or took art class, like me, you were an outsider.”
Reznor--who lived with his grandparents after his parents were divorced when he was 5--was raised Protestant and went to Sunday school for a while, but he eventually rebelled.
“The truth is it bored the life out of me and a lot of questions I had weren’t answered,” he says. “I also thought a lot of the members of my church were hypocrites, that the whole thing was a sham.”
After high school, he went to nearby Allegheny College, where he studied computer engineering for a year. He still felt like an outsider, and turned to music for comfort.
The good thing about college was discovering a new world of music--synthesizer-based bands, such as Kraftwerk and Einsturzende Neubauten that he never heard on the mainstream radio stations that he could pick up in Mercer.
“I liked technology and electronics. I liked the way it sounded . . . the idea that you could make a record with a machine,” Reznor recalls. “It was more interesting than guitar-bass-drum bands.”
After a year, he left college and moved to Cleveland, which was the closest rock scene to Mercer.
Reznor had no idea of how to get into the music business, so he started working at a Cleveland recording studio doing odd jobs--including cleaning the toilets.
More than the $200 a month salary, the job gave him a chance to learn the recording process. Whenever the studio wasn’t in use, he was given the run of the place.
The young keyboardist played in various groups but couldn’t find other musicians who were as serious as he was about music. Around that time, he met Malm, who would become his manager.
“Trent was very soft-spoken, quiet, but he stood out,” Malm recalls in a separate interview. “He was talented and very driven. One day he brought me a tape (that he made) and asked me to listen to it.”
Malm loved the tape--which included early versions of some of the songs that would be included on “Pretty Hate Machine,” the 1989 debut album that Reznor released under the stage name Nine Inch Nails. (Since then he has continued to make albums on his own, using a band only for live shows.)
Reznor remembers the tape as his moment of truth.
“I think my greatest fear after those years of dreaming about making music was to discover I really didn’t have anything to say . . . ,” he says. “I think the reason I was 23 before I ever wrote a song was that I was afraid of testing myself. What would I do if I discovered I didn’t have anything to say?”
T hings moved relatively fast for the new team. Reznor and Malm signed in 1989 with TVT Records, a small New York label that gave them a $45,000 recording budget. The key attraction, Malm says, was a promise of total artistic freedom.
But tensions surfaced early between Reznor and the label, Malm says. And they didn’t improve as “Pretty Hate Machine” became such an underground hit (about 250,000 copies sold) that Nine Inch Nails was invited to join the first Lollapalooza tour. The band ended up stealing the show and saw the sales of its album increase dramatically during the brief tour.
Asked about the source of the friction between him and TVT, Reznor says simply “everything.”
About Reznor, Steve Gottlieb, president of TVT Records, says: “Trent is a musical genius, and one of the most inspired artists of our time. In spite of our problematic working relationship, I have nothing but the utmost love and admiration of his creative output.”
Aware of Reznor’s potential, major labels raced forward to try to get the band away from TVT.
Jimmy Iovine, who had just started Interscope, was among those pursuing Nine Inch Nails. He worked out a complicated joint-venture agreement with TVT that assured Reznor the freedom he wanted.
Much of the anger from “The Downward Spiral” is a reflection of his depressions during the TVT days of uncertainty, Reznor says.
“When I started making ‘Downward Spiral,’ I was also very depressed and the theme of self-destruction was heavily on my mind,” he says, sitting in the hotel room. “I wanted to make a record that explored the feeling that makes you feel so isolated that you feel self-destructive about everything in your life. I even plotted out the different ways you can go about destroying yourself. It was my attempt to chip away at all the darkness inside.”
Reznor was thinking about recording the album in Los Angeles, which led him by accident in early 1993 to the Tate house. Looking for a place to live here, he drove around with a realtor one afternoon, looking at several houses, including one in Benedict Canyon that impressed him because of the isolation and the lovely view.
When plans fell through for an alternative recording site in New Orleans, where Reznor now lives, he decided to rent the Benedict Canyon house, whose history he had since learned.
“I didn’t rent it because someone had been murdered there or for publicity, and I certainly don’t give a (expletive) about Charles Manson,” Reznor says. “I just loved the view. If it affected the way the record sounded, it was simply because it was so isolated. I’d go for a week without leaving the place.”
The decision this year to play Woodstock was strictly for money, not for a stake in rock history. The Woodstock fee--a cool $250,000--would help finance Nine Inch Nails’ high touring costs.
“The first Woodstock meant nothing to me, historically or whatever, and I didn’t have any interest in being a spokesman for a generation or any of that crap,” he says. “The idea was just go in and play and leave the statements to the rest of the bands.”
But he got into the spirit of the weekend once he got to Woodstock and saw 300,000 people trying to have fun in the mud. So, on the way to the stage, he tripped his guitar player, who fell flat into the mud. The result was the whole band ended up in a mud match.
“It wasn’t like a calculated move, but it might have been some subconscious attempt to identify with the fans,” Reznor says. “One thing that kind of disturbed me about the whole weekend was the fans had all these horrible conditions, the rain and all--and the bands have a trailer and shower and nice place to sleep. The mud kind of made us all one.”
Nine Inch Nails’ Seattle show is at the Center Arena, which is next to the grounds on which the public memorial was held for Kurt Cobain in April.
“There was an honesty to both bands that I like, but Nirvana tended to look at things in a more positive way, while Nine Inch Nails tends to be darker, which is what I like because it’s closer to how I feel sometimes,” says Ben Beranek, an 18-year-old fan as he stands outside the arena, watching some girls pass by.
Unlike most hard-rock bands, Nine Inch Nails draws a high percentage of females--a sign of Reznor’s sex appeal.
“What can I say,” says Julie Torres, 18, of Seattle. “He’s sexy and scary.”
You watch some of the young faces and you can imagine the look on Reznor’s face the first time he saw “The Exorcist” back in Mercer.
In the audience during “Closer,” a boy, no more than 14, sings every word as aggressively as Reznor does onstage:
I want to (expletive) you like an animal.
My whole existence is flawed.
You get me closer to God.
Nine Inch Nails’ tour runs through February, but Reznor is already thinking about the future.
“I’m very much aware of the dangers of becoming a cliche . . . Mr. Anger, someone who gets meaner, angrier on record,” Reznor said earlier in the day in his hotel room. “When I don’t feel it, I won’t write about it anymore. I promise you that. I don’t care if no one buys a record ever again.”
But is there any happiness in Reznor’s life?
“On a career level, I feel very happy,” he says. “I’m so surprised that Woodstock turned out the way it did. It’s like we just stepped up another plateau. ‘Downward Spiral’ debuted at No. 2 on the charts. I’m happy about that. No reservations.
“That’s why I want to begin work immediately on another record as soon as the tour is over. I’ve never gone into the studio in this (frame of mind). . . . My goal for the next album is to make it anti-'Downward Spiral’ in terms of something that is not heavily produced.”
What about the themes?
“Well,” he says, with the flash of a smile, “don’t look for my ‘married and happy’ album yet.”