The Rock and Rage of Trent Reznor

Originally published in USA Today on August 1, 1994

NEW YORK - "I'm still cleaning the mud out of my ears," Trent Reznor says. The architect of Nine Inch Nails is recalling the thrill and terror of Woodstock '94, where he and his four sidemen, coated in mud, strafed 350,000 fans (and about 250,000 pay-per-viewers) with dizzying tech-noise and assaultive discourses on hate and hopelessness. The pre-show mud wallow eased Reznor's stage jitters but complicated his most pivotal performance since NIN wowed audiences on Lollapalooza's 1990 maiden voyage. "I couldn't see. Every time I turned my head, my hair would slap mud in my eye. There was mud on the guitar strings. It wasn't conducive to technical greatness." Yet the singer/songwriter and company (drummer Chris Vrenna, keyboardist James Woolley, guitarist Robin Finck and bassist Danny Lohner) did steal the day from household names like Metallica and Aerosmith. In the aftermath, NIN's current album, The Downward Spiral, which sank in Billboard after premiering at No. 2 last spring, rebounded to No. 24 this week, sending Reznor's career in an upward spiral. NIN's dazzling, disturbing Closer video is up for two MTV awards. He produced, on his Nothing label, the soundtrack for Oliver Stone's new satiric bloodfest Natural Born Killers. Sales are brisk for a tour starting tonight in Cleveland. Cause for celebration? "There's always the danger of whoredom," says Reznor, more familiar with black clouds than silver linings. Long an underground darling, he's wary of the deafening buzz and mainstream expectations. "There are vultures waiting to tear you apart when you make the inevitable mistake," says the lean and pale Reznor, 29, his vampiric good looks accentuated by the dim lighting in a recording studio lounge. Socially awkward and ill-equipped to cope with fame, Reznor sees himself as a misfit among rock's clown princes. The uninitiated tend to misread his shyness as arrogance and his musical exorcisms as theatrics. "I wanna kill people who say this is a formula," he says of the bleak internal landscape he exposes on record. "When I first did interviews, I considered pretending to be someone else. But I couldn't lie. I was embarrassed that I didn't have the barrier of a character, like Alice Cooper. I'm not proud to say I hate myself and I don't like what I am." Reznor's dark muse has etched pain and malice in howling, densely textured electronic parametal, a sound widely labeled "industrial," although a better term is uneasy listening. Computerized clangor, anguished vocals, organic sounds from bee swarms to human screams and an unexpected melodic grace meld on Downward, "the most uncommercial record that's ever been in the top 50," Reznor says. "If you're not ready for it, it's terrible, it's noise. On a couple listenings, if you get that far, you hear through the distractions and find a beauty under the surface ugliness." Reznor struggles to explain his fascination with hyperviolence, gore, sadomasochism, taboos and the limits of human experience, interests evident in his lyrics and videos, especially the MTV-rejected Happiness in Slavery, depicting a man eviscerated by a clawed machine. "This is armchair psychoanalysis," Reznor says, "but maybe my obsessive desire to find extremes has to do with growing up where nothing ever happened." His parents, an artist and a housewife, divorced early and Reznor was reared by his grandparents in Mercer, Pa., where "there was no city, no scene, no trends, no drugs, nothing to be a part of, except the mindlessness of athletics." He studied piano as a child and computer engineering during a year in college. Isolation punctured by media images of an exciting existence beyond the cornfield "programmed a lot of rural America to believe there's a world you don't have access to," Reznor says. "I didn't want to accept that my destiny was to pump gas down the street. I don't mean to be condescending. A lot of people are happy in that environment, my family included. My friends stayed, and they're happier than I am. But I wanted out." He moved to Cleveland, where he sang and played keyboards for mediocre bands before resolving to follow his own drum machine. Ironically, after escaping isolation in Mercer, he embraced it in a studio, where he cleaned toilets for 0 a month and toiled on demos at night. That led to a record contract and 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, the one-man NIN debut that recounts, partly from journal entries, Reznor's deep despair and bitterness. On Terrible Lie, he sings: Hey God, there's nothing left for me to hide, I lost my ignorance, security and pride, I'm all alone in a world you must despise. "It seemed abstract to me that all these secret, intimate feelings would be in a store for people to buy and hear," says Reznor, still stunned that Pretty sold 1 million copies. Broken, which broke the top 10 in 1992 and spawned the Grammy-winning Wish single, oozes furious self-loathing, a theme that devolves into self-destruction on Downward. Although Reznor has cheerful moments, a recurring depression drives his art. Consequently, he prefers to purge his demons in music rather than turn to conventional therapy. "I did reach a point where I thought I needed to get help," he says. "I couldn't turn my brain off. I talked to some friends who described exactly how I was feeling. They got on Prozac, but the idea of going on a drug that would shut my brain off doesn't appeal to me. My strategy of working things out of my system is not to ignore them, but to explore them, to shed light on them." A spotlight, in fact. Unleashing his cathartic confessions onstage with no regard for entertainment value, Reznor noticed growing throngs yelling along to his lyrics, connecting with his personal hell. "As the shows became more self-destructive and chaotic, I wondered, what am I leading to ultimately? Killing myself? I was being truthful, but it was based on hate, anger, my own disappointment and sense of loss." Bum-mer. Or was it? Reznor feels purified by each performance and fans clearly leave fulfilled. "Maybe in an odd way, there is a real human communication that ends up being positive even though everything being said is negative," he says. His tortured outlook may parallel the pre-suicide state of Kurt Cobain, but Reznor is on safer ground. "One difference is I'm not a heroin addict - I have a clarity he was lacking," says Reznor, who's experimented with drugs, to a point. "I've hit lows in my life, but fortunately it hasn't involved putting a needle in my arm and bottoming out." Describing himself as moody, controlling and perfectionistic, Reznor devotes every waking hour to work, even though it exacerbates his sense of alienation and inhibits any opportunity for lasting romance or roots. "I never allowed myself to really get in a totally serious relationship," Reznor says. "For one thing, I was so poor I was ashamed of it." He stops himself. "That's not a real reason. The real reason is I wanted to do what I'm doing and I didn't want anything to hold me back. When things started happening (in music), every other element in my life was pushed to the back burner. I was excited by the work, but the price I paid was a sense of normality, a community of friends and a successful relationship." Why the sacrifice? "I decided I should try to do the best I can while I have the opportunity. Then I decided I'm miserable and lonely. I'm still in that mode, so I'm putting more effort into being a human being."

On tour Cleveland Today, Tuesday Detroit Friday Chicago Saturday St. Paul, Minn. Sept. 5 Milwaukee Sept. 7 Muncie, Ind. Sept. 10 St. Louis Sept. 11 Nashville Sept. 13 Memphis Sept. 14 Springfield, Mo. Sept. 16 Kansas City, Kan. Sept. 17 Seattle Sept. 24

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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