Reznor's Grand Plan

By P.J. Merkle for Hit Parader on January 1, 2000

Up until just a few months ago, there were some within the contemporary music community who believed that Trent Reznor had finally done it-- he had turned his back completely on the rock and roll scene. After all, four years had passed since Nine Inch Nails' previous disc, The Downward Spiral, had transformed NIN from a highly-regarded by commercially marginal unit into a dominant force on the mid-90s rock scene-- the process turning Mr. Reznor into the Patron Saint of his generation. But then for the next four years nothing was heard from or about Reznor except a scattering of rumors and innuendo that continually filtered through the rock underground. Then finally, in September, NIN's long-awaited new disc The Fragile arrived once again cement the reputations of both Reznor and Nine Inch Nails as true rock and roll visionaries.

It seems that once every decade-- give or take a few years-- a performer or group comes along that through a combination of luck, fortitude and design, manages to totally change the rock and roll landscape. Back in the '50s that guy was hip-shakin' Elvis Presley. In the '60s it was the guitar maestro, Jimi Hendrix. In the '70s Van Halen put his pedal to the metal. And in the '80s the decade's most influential band was Metallica. Each of these artists had a significant and lasting impact on the style, sound and attitude of their generation-- an influence that usurped the impact of any other performer of their time.

Whether he liked it or not-- and odds are he was never practically thrilled about it-- in the post-Cobain mid-'90s Trent Reznor was clearly his generation's most potent musical force. In addition to virtually single-handedly creating such platinum-selling masterworks as The Downward Spiral, NIN's main man emerged as the driving force behind an entire branch of the alternate rock family tree. The brilliant but occasionally unpredictable Reznor forged a musical persona so strong and so pervasive that his influence, whether direct or inferred, touched the artistic souls of just about every new performer then inhabiting the rock jungle. From musical descendents such as Marilyn Manson-- who enjoyed his greatest success under Reznor's hands-on production efforts-- to a generation of bands that grew up under his all-encompassing musical perspectives, this charismatic, black-haired visionary blossomed into his era's most influential and inspiring rock and roll guiding light.

"My songs are so personal, they come from deep inside me," Reznor stated at the time. "I started writing down my thoughts-- usually very dark, depressing thoughts-- and those eventually became the lyrics to my songs. I am surprised that what's going on in my head has been accepted by so many. I always believed my work was too dark, and far too personal to be accepted the way it has."

Growing up in the rural Pennsylvania town of Mercer, Reznor always sensed that he never fit in with the small town values that his parents embraced so passionately. While studying piano at the tender ago of five, young Trent began to become aware that he possessed a special gift-- one that his sports-loving school mates failed to understand. He was encouraged to focus virtually all of his attentions on his music, foregoing a variety of social activities that he now admits may have made him "a little normal." But after practicing for eight hours a day, six days a week, for the better part of the next decade, something magical happened-- Reznor discovered rock and roll, Kiss in particular, and his life was changed forever.

"When your world has basically consisted of being trained to be a classical pianist by a nun, he idea of standing on a stage breathing fire, spurting blood and playing loud rock and roll was incredibly exciting to me," Reznor said. "I began to realize that rock and roll could take me places that classical music never could."

Despite his strong inclination to drop everything else and immediately begin pursuing a career as a rock and roll musician, for a while Reznor's life followed a much more predictable and safe path. He continued studying piano, and eventually went off to Allegheny College where he geeked out on computer technology. However, rather than turning into a Bill Gates-styled computer wizard, Reznor began wondering how he could apply his technological knowledge to his love of music. After hearing the instantly forgettable Human League/Flock Of Seagulls brand of synthesizer-inspired rock of the early '80s, Reznor felt he had discovered his answer.

"It was an interesting time, not so much for the music that was being made, but because synthesizers were finally reaching the point that the average musician could afford them," he said. I went out and got a sequencer that I could attach to my computer, and that opened up a whole new world for me. A lot of the things that I had wanted to express, but had never felt comfortable doing, were finally beginning to come out. It all began to make sense to me."

It wasn't long before Reznor turned his back on higher education, moved to Cleveland and began working in a local recording studio. During the days Reznor would listen to as much music as possible, then late at night, just before the studio would shut down, he'd go in and fool around with the equipment, familiarizing himself with as many studio techniques and recording quirks as possible. Inspired by the likes of Kraftwork , Reznor soon began to develop his own hard-edged style that incorporated his understanding of technology with his love of basic rock and roll. It was an exciting time of discovery, a period that laid the foundation or what would soon emerge as the beginnings of Nine Inch Nails.

"Making music was a dream to me," he said. "It was also my greatest fear. I had spent most of my life playing pieces by classical composers-- now I wanted to write my own music. That was very intimidating; it was a great achievement for me when I wrote me first song at the age of 23. I just decided to put my feelings and emotions into every song, and just go for it. I didn't know where it was going, and I didn't care. I felt totally free for the first time in my life."

That freedom soon led to the creation of demo tapes that by 1988 had made the rounds and been passed on by most of the major labels. Finally a small indie label decided to give Reznor a few bucks and allow him to record the first NIN disc, Pretty Hate Machine, a hard, confusing and all-together cynical view of the world that surrounded Reznor. Critics either loved or hated it-- but few ignored it. Reznor followed up that initial success with the two EPs, Broken and Fixed both of which further employed his unique blend of technology and metal to present a totally unique musical amalgam. Though he attempted to hide behind the Nine Inch Nails band name (though for all intents and purposes he was the entire band), and he failed to even show his face of the album covers, Reznor's sound soon became one of the most recognizable in the rock sphere. And when The Downward Spiral soared past double platinum in 1995 there was no doubt left in anyone's mind that this guy was more than a successful rock musician, he was a true musical visionary. Now, with the release of The Fragile-- a disc that may well prove to be an apocalyptic event in terms of its media coverage and commercial impact-- Trent Reznor truly has become the voice of his generation, a dark, brooding, eminently disturbing voice fit to speak the troubles of his time.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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