Woodstock Sensation Nine Inch Nails The Hottest Rock Band At The Moment

By Gary Graff for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service on September 1, 1994

The sound you're hearing is nine inch nails hammering into the pop mainstream.

Since its celebrated, mud-caked performance at Woodstock '94, the lower-case-fixated group _ actually the nom de rock for performer-writer-producer-techno whiz Trent Reznor _ has turned its hot cult status into a multimedia, mass-appeal buzz.

It is the hottest rock band of the moment. After hitting No. 2 on the Billboard charts after its March release, nin's latest album, "The Downward Spiral," is again on the rise. Once a club-sized cult act, nin is now taking its visceral and violent stage show to 15,000-seat arenas and amphitheaters.

And the video for the single "Closer" is nominated for two MTV Music Video Awards.

Reznor, 29, is on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and David Letterman invoked nin's name almost every night for a week after Woodstock. Reznor's also affiliated with the hottest film of the moment; he produced the soundtrack album for Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers." The album, released on Reznor's own label, nothing, reveals a flowing sonic pastiche that mixes dialogue from the movie with the songs Stone used, including the new nin track "Burn." And then there's Playgirl magazine's proclamation earlier this year that Reznor is one of rock's 10 sexiest stars, which hasn't hampered record sales, either.

That's not bad for a guy who produces some of the darkest, most viscous and most provocative pop around. After all, you probably won't find lines such as "I focus on the pain/the only thing that's real" or the guttural war cry "I want to (bleep) you like an animal" in the Ace of Base songbook.

"They're not simple pop songs," says Reznor, whose favorite computer game at the moment is called "Doom." "The message of the music is not mass acceptance-type stuff. `The Downward Spiral' is essentially a noncommercial record. Regardless of what I do ... there's only so much exposure these songs will ever get."

Knowing that, Reznor says, it's easier to embrace his new spate of success.

"It's still kind of strange," he says, "but although we've become a fairly big band, it's been done outside the channels of the mainstream media. I really feel like I've done things on my own terms."

John Malm, Reznor's manager since 1987, says his client's goal _ as an artist or as a record company executive _ is simple. "He makes music to please himself," Malm says. "His whole position is if 10 people like it, great; if 10 million people like it, that's great, too."

Reznor says the anger that fuels his music goes back to childhood. His parents divorced when he was 5, and he was raised by his grandparents in rural western Pennsylvania. He focused on music, setting himself apart from the jock mentality of his peers.

Guilt plus alienation plus restlessness equals pain and artistic expression; it's an equation that's resulted in memorable rock music for more than just Reznor. By the time Reznor moved to Cleveland during the mid-'80s, his mind-set was well formed. "Pretty Hate Machine," the title of nin's debut in 1989, defines it.

"I base everything on the aesthetic that it comes from my own head and seems like the right thing at the time," Reznor explains. "When I did `Pretty Hate Machine,' I felt it expressed how I felt very honestly at that time in my life. When I look back now, I can remember who I was then and accept the expression of that."

Forming a touring band, Reznor played granite-hard performances on the first Lollapalooza tour; nin was also the tour's top T-shirt seller. Both the 1992 EP "Broken" and "The Downward Spiral" found Reznor crafting an even harder edge.

"I remember when I was making `Broken' thinking that `I'm going to bum out a lot of my fans, a lot of people who liked the lighter moments on `Pretty Hate Machine,' " he says. "I can't start to cater to that. I have to approach it with the same idea _ how do I feel about things."

In person, Reznor is hardly the bile-spewing demon his music suggests. "Probably because I don't bite heads off of pigeons, I'm going to disappoint some people," he says. He also acknowledges a certain amount of theatricality in what he does. "What we do is closer to Alice Cooper than Pearl Jam" he told Rolling Stone.

Veteran guitarist Adrian Belew, who played on "The Downward Spiral," found Reznor to be a "very sweet, intense, shy-sounding person. He does have a very personable side. He doesn't say much, though."

Reznor also possesses a wicked sense of humor. Manager Malm remembers one prank during a recent trip to look for real estate in New Orleans. Not much of an outdoorsman _ "I'm like Woody Allen when it comes to that stuff" _ Malm found himself paddling through some Louisiana swamps, ostensibly on his way to look at a site with Reznor and a real estate agent. "It was really just a nighttime swamp tour, a complete scam," Malm says. "But I didn't know that. It was horrifying."

Mr. Manson of Marilyn Manson, the first group besides nin released on Reznor's label, recalls a recent 6 a.m. food fight in Miami "that Trent orchestrated. There were Cokes and pancakes everywhere. All of us smelled like McDonald's."

The Woodstock mud-bath was Reznor's coup de grace, however. The band had been at the festival site for a while, enjoying the first night's rave and getting nervous about its performance. It didn't help that security had barred the musicians from bringing guests on their tour bus, or that a utility pole had fallen on the bus, forcing everyone to evacuate without touching the metal sides.

So while nin was walking towards the stage, Reznor decided to shove guitarist Robin Finck into the mud. Finck responded by tackling Reznor, who "realized it was too late to undo that. After that, we felt really good, all covered with mud. It ended up being a little painful after a while; the mud got in our eyes and stuff.

"That show certainly wasn't technically perfect, but we had a lot of fun and felt really good about being onstage."

It's important to remember that Reznor is no self-absorbed nihilist. Elsewhere on "The Downward Spiral," he sings "I want to know everything/I want to be everywhere ... I want to do something that matters.''

"He really knows what he's doing and what he wants to do," says Manson. "There's a vision there, but it's not something you can sum up easily." That's why Reznor is ensconced in nothing, recording bands such as Marilyn Manson and electronic acts such as Pop Will Eat Itself, Coil and Prick. After having their own bad experiences with record companies, he and Malm are trying to create a label Malm says "will put out records by people we like, not mess with them.''

It's also why Reznor, who has directed some of nin's videos, is contemplating a move into film, for directing and behind-the-scenes roles. "What is nice about what I've set up now is I've got a bunch of different things I can put creativity into,'' he says. "If get burned out on one, I can get into something else; there's always a hundred things to do, and I haven't even gotten to the point I want to get to.

"I do try to approach everything with some degree of integrity. I'd like to be a little oasis in that way. I'm not out to change the world. I want to make quality music, work with bands I feel are quality and in it for the right reason, and keep doing things that are challenging to me.

"That..." he says with a chuckle, "is my lofty ambition."


Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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