Portrait of a Nine Inch Nail

By Stacey Sanner for Alternative Press on July 1, 1990

Nine Inch Nailhead Trent Reznor offers his review of "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer", a brutal, graphic film about the gory murders of a sociopath. "I thought it was cool," he says, slouching on roommate/NIN drummer Chris Vrenna's bed, playing with his dyed-black dreadlocks. "It disturbed me and that's why I went there, to be disturbed."

Not a surprise coming from the artist whose debut album, PRETTY HATE MACHINE is a disturbing portrait of a man consumed by rage, despair and frustration.

The release has worked it's way into the psyche of thousands of listeners through extensive dance club play (the single, "down in it" reached number one on Rolling Stone's dance chart and the top 20 on Billboard's club charts), college radio airplay, and 150,000+ in sales (it hit 105 on billboard's list of the 200 top-selling albums in the country). Two national tours as opener for Jesus and Mary Chain and Peter Murphy have shoved Reznor into the faces of several thousand more. Intrigue over the record and the person behind it have led to features in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Musician, to name a few.

Reznor's life appears relatively changed by this success. While still waiting to reap the financial rewards of touring and royalties (recording ans touring expenses must be paid first), he rents a run down half-house with Vrenna "in the ghetto" of Cleveland, Ohio that's littered with empty beer bottles, plates and glasses, peanut butter jars, pizza and cookie boxes, clothes, shoes, NIN paraphernalia, magazines and fan mail. An open refrigerator door reveals more full and empty beer bottles and pizza boxes. Reznor's suitcase lies near the front door where he dropped it after returning from the Peter Murphy tour. He says that when he needs clothes, he walks out and picks something up off the floor. A phone message lies on the kitchen tile near the answering machine. When it's pointed out, Vrenna shrugs and says it's been there since December.

When we go to find a quiet place to do the interview away from Vrenna's and a friend's Nintendo game (clearly the only thing they have spent money on in this house is stereo and VCR equipment), the best bet appers to be Vrenna's room. Before plopping himself on the unmade bed, Reznor is kind enough to add the clothes and shoes stacked on the desk chair to the pile below it so I, too, can sit down. It soon becomes obvious that at the Reznor residence, quiet is relative. The music from the upstairs neighbors is loud, omnipresent and unceasing.

"We get harrassed because we don't look totally normal," Reznor says of his Cleveland neighbors. "Somebody up the street says they're going to get us because we're hippies. We get insulted pretty regularly."

Strong reactions to their looks are common and amusing. While running errands a few days earlier during a rehearsal break, Reznor, Vrenna, and guitarist Rich Patrick made a game of it. "Watch this guy look at Chris when he goes up there," says Reznor, indicating a video store customer who unfortunately doesn't notice the young man dressed in black leather, his shaved head garnished with a plot of blue hair. The trio are satisfied later, however, when Patrick gets out of the car at the gas station and an unassuming customer does a gratifying double take. At the checkout, three knee-high, blond-haired blue-eyed children stare up at Patrick; their eyes bulging and mouths agape. Towering over them with his black leather, army boots,long hair and stubbled skull, he must look like a figure from their nightmares.

In the car, Vrenna and Patrick try to figure out how they can fit the movie "Henry" into their rehearsal schedule. They suggest Thursday night, since they'll be done practicing by 5 p.m., but Reznor points out, that would mean missing Twin Peaks. "We can tape it and watch it when we get home," Vrenna suggests. Reznor refuses. "Then the rest of the country will know what happens before we do."

Vrenna and Patrick, who have been the only constants in the band (they've hired their third keyboard player, Lee Mars, for the up-coming NIN headlining tour), seem willing to let Reznor make the decisions on both a personal and proffesional level. That's because it's his show.

"It's not a band, " Reznor says without apology. "It's not, "Here's an idea for a song - let's all work on it." I would hope someday that it would be more of a collaboration, but it isn't right now. It's basically if you don't like what you're playing, come up with something better. If I like it, you can play it. If I don't, play what I did."

"Not to be a prick, but I have an idea of how I want things to come out and it's tough when you're in a situation where you're not quite sure of someone's direction. I'm not thinking guitar part; I'm thinking of the part that fits the big picture. If it's guitar, fine; if it's cowbell, fine. If it sucks, then I've got myself to blame. Some people mistake it for egotism. I'm not out to say I played every part and I edited every piece of tape, but it just works out that way."

"He wrote the music," Vrenna says without animosity."It's his thing."

In rehearsal the group work seriously, although not without taking time to suck down American beer and to catalogue computer disks of sampled movie/television conversations. Reznor's favorites are those with the most shock value: a woman's breathy voice talking about how her "pussy hair glistens in the sun" and a man questioning a woman's penis size preferences.

Back to business, Reznor patiently teaches the new keyboard player, Lee Mars, his parts and helps Patrick with a guitar solo for a new song, "Suck," penned by Reznor and Ministry drummers Martin Atkins and Bill Reiflin. Only when Patrick starts goofing around instead of listening to Reznor's instructions does Reznor show any frustration. When he notices the annoyance on Reznor's face, Patrick immediately becomes apologetic and attentive and says, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. What did you say?" and then listens to his instructions with the sincerest intent. When the night closes at 2:00 a.m., Reznor asks the 22-year old guitarist, "Am I going to hear a killer guitar solo for the new song tomorrow?" Patrick nods his head yes. Vrenna, who's known Reznor since his high school days in Mercer, Pennsylvania, beats his electric drum kit until his arms nearly fall off and knows when to offer suggestions. He good-naturedly jumps up from his stool when Reznor twice dives into and knocks down all the drums. With the road manager's help, Vrenna immediately repositions the equipment while Reznor, pleased as a bowler with a strike, resumes his spot at the mike. Told he's a pillar of patience, Vrenna laughs it off. "It's all part of it. If anything breaks, the band buys me a new one, " he says.

Over the past few months, Reznor's personal look has become more dramatic with the dreadlocks and shaved temples, and the live show has become more hostile and aggressive. According to Reznor, this follows his current goal to dispel Nine Inch Nail's previous synth-band image and establish an aggresive, live feel to the band's set. This also explains his association with Ministry's similarly minded Al Jourgensen.

"If anyone ever asks me about influences I always say Ministry. I'm not embarrassed of that, but I also don't want NIN to be the Ministry wanna-be band," Reznor says. "Al's been a hero of mine and it was just cool to walk in a room and have him go, "Trent, I gotta talk to you about a lotta shit, man." I was like, wow. I couldn't believe it. I have to admit before I met him I thought, "Is he going to fucking throw a bottle at me?" But he's a nice, intelligent guy. He's got that aggressive side to him, but it wasn't like he was an animal loose, peeing on people. He's got his shit together."

The evolution of the antagonistic stage show comes not from Jourgensen but from testing different approaches while touring as opener with the Jesus and Mary Chain and Peter Murphy, Reznor says.

"We've experimented with playing standing still and concentrating on how well we play our instruments," says Reznor. "Then we'll do a show where we can hardly stand up because we're so drunk and we're fucking up every song forgetting lyrics and I fall down or accidentally knock over the drums, the guitars, and the keyboards, and we're the fucking best band they've ever seen.

"Our show got much more anger-oriented, or just fucking frustration oriented rather than "we really want to do a fine job for everybody out there. Fuck you, like our music or we're going to fucking spit beer on you and insult you." When you do, they love you more and then that makes you have less respect for them. It just fuels itself to where you just turn into something else. It's a weird thing."

Sitting across the room from Reznor, it's hard to believe this is the same man who expresses himself so ferociously on record and stage. He's soft spoken, shy, and socially disinterested. He's intelligent, articulate, and polite. He's also smug, critical, and sarcastic. He smiles reluctantly as if it's uncomfortable.

He's also full of contradictions. Here's the man who through his lyrics reveals his deepest emotions, yet in conversation is much more reserved, talking about the details of his life but not how he feels about them. He matter-of-factly analyzes the burning anger on PRETTY HATE MACHINE as if it belongs to someone else.

Some of that anger is directed at God. In "Terrible Lie" he screams, "Hey God, why are you doing this to me...I'm all alone in a world you must despise/hey, God, I believed the promises, the promises and lies/terrible lie...you made me throw it all away/my morals left to decay/how many you betray."

"There are just some things that don't seem very fair in the world - like this fucking hypocrisy of organized religion. I just don't understand how people can blindly believe a buch of the shit they're fed, to believe it so that they don't think too hard about other issues. "Be a good boy and you'll go to heaven." If it works for you, fine, but it doesn't work for me and that pisses me off because I kind of wish it did. (I want so much to believe," he sings on "Lie")

"I just haven't found what the right thing for me is. I definately believe there's a God. The thought that he might be a kind God that cares about your problems is also a nice thought. But the idea of heaven and hell and what is right and wrong and was Jesus the Son of God? I don't know about all that."

Challenging pat answers is understandable for someone whose youth wasn't story-book typical. Not only did his parents divorce when he was young, but they also depended on Reznor's grandparents to raise him and his younger sister, Tera.

"It was just easier on my mother having my sister and me stay with my grandparents because they lived near each other. My grandparents are good people and good parents, but I feel like anybody does whose parents split up - kind of ripped off. I'm not going to make it out to be some big fucking kind of deal. Subconsciously, it may have some kind of effect, but it didn't seem to be that bad.You just realize you're not on Happy Days. It's the real world - you need to ignor what you are programmed by sitcoms to think your life should be. I don't really think about it and I don't put any blame on anybody. My parents were young. I would have done the same thing, I'm sure."

His dad, Mike Reznor, comes to many of the shows. Standing in the audience at the Cleveland NIN/Peter Murphy show, he looks more like a tour manager than Trent's dad. Apparantly in his early to mid 40's, thin, with short hair and a small pony-tail, he clearly enjoys watching the audience as much as the show. Backstage, he patiently waits for the line of well-wishers to diminish before he can get a word in with his son and be on his way back home to Pennsylvania.

"My dad and I are best friends. He's pretty much responsible for the way I turned out,"Reznor says. "He would provide a litle artisitic inspiration here and there in the form of a guitar, stuff like that. My family has always been supportive of what I do."

The success Reznor has reaped has been the result of not only talent,but also his monomaniacal drive and control over every aspect of NIN's incarnation.

In creating PHM he sacrificed all semblance of a "normal" life, dedicating all free time to working on his material after hours at the Right Track recording studio in Cleveland where he held a day job as engineer.

"Here's a guy that would come in and do a session until 2 in the morning and then start working on his own material until 8 a.m.," says Bart Koster, owner of The Right Track.

Months of isolation and despair resulted in a demo tape that grabbed the interest of 8 of the ten independent labels Reznor and NIN manager John Malm pursued. Once signed to TVT, the pressure closed in as Reznor's few demo songs had to be fleshed out into a body of polished work.

"I kicked into complete work mode. It was complete isolation every day. I figured I could round myself out when the record was finished. It weirded me out pretty much. I got to the point where I couldn't be around people. When I was I was weird and I knew I was weird, but I couldn't help it. I was just freaked out completely."

While the fab four producers-Adrian Sherwood, John Fryer, Keith LeBlanc and Flood - lent their skill in helping Reznor capture the sounds he heard in his head, the final hurdle of editing the sea of songs into a cohesive piece of work was his.

"That was a fuckload of work because I didn't want it to sound like 10 song from 10 different producers in 10 different countries and studios," he says. "Chris Vrenna helped me edit 15 versions of each song, cutting them together and splicing shit in between the songs so the record flowed."

Reznor's success also stems from his and John Malm's obsessive control over the packaging of NIN. Their touch is on everything; the logo, the record's graphics, band publicity photos, the videos, the band t-shirts, the stage show, and the young, moldable musicians. It's no mistake that Vrenna and Patrick also have the right attitude, look, and although Reznor's quick to downplay it, the talent to help him bring his technological music to life.

Reznor ultimately deserves the credit, however, for translating his studio project into a stage production that is as tight, effective and threatening as the recording, with minimal use of backing tapes.

All eyes now wait to see the follow-up to PHM. Reznor appears willing to release some of his obsessive control and consider collaboration on the next release.

Flood and I got along well on the last record, so tentatively he's going to work on the next record. The songs will be 70% done ahead of time [instead of 90% as they were with PHM, and then we'll have the creativity in the studio to go in different directions if I want."

Jourgensen could have a prominent role in the picture. Reznor's already recruited him and Ministry's Paul Barker to produce a cover of Queen's "Get Down Make Love," a song NIN have been performing in concert. It will be the B-side of the new "Sin" single, which will be produced by Adrian Sherwood.

"I'll record it here and then mix it up there [Chicago] and we'll just destroy it," Reznor laughs. "The studio for Al is a multi-levelexperience. It's not just recording. Some people work in the studio with just the artist, producer, an engineer. With Al, there could be 30 people there for [any kind of] party, you name it. The last time I was up there was the night before we shot the video. It was 2 a.m. and I just wanted to stop by for five minutes. I got home at about 8 in the morning. "Time to get up and shoot your new video!" Aaah, thanks, Al."

Reznor says that "Sanctified," which appears to be about Reznor's obsession for a woman, is actually "about a relationship with a cocaine pipe." "I knew it could be interpreted [as a relationship with a woman], but it was more about addiction." To the obvious follow uo question, Reznor answers "Let's just say it was partially fact and partailly fiction. The situation has been remedied."

This said, he matter-of-factly explains that he's not really into drugs. "i don't do many drugs because I can't handle themvery well, " he says. "But I know people that can handle them as much as you can handle drugs."

While avoiding being Ministry copy cats, Reznor does seem to use Jourgensen's work as a general guide in that Jourgensen a) does whatever he likes and b) doesn't stick to one format.

"I like the way Ministry has gone almost completely opposite of what it was. It's almost all guitar rock now that's still coming from a learned electronic background, which I think adds a cool slant to it. It was interesting with bands like Skinny Puppy and Ministry when they deteriorated into what they've deteriorated into, and I use that term in a flattering way, with their misuse of technology and having electronic music that's aggressive or more aggressive than the hardest music out. What's intersesting to me as well is that Jourgensen has always brought a catchiness to his songs that Einsturzende Neubauten or test Dept. or Throbbing Gristle, the classic industrial bands, don't. i find a lot of it unlistenable. ministry is like fucking good songs arranged in a way that could kick your ass using co-instrumentation and great production."

Even though his music is ofetn categorized as industrial, Reznor shows an affinity for any number of possible directions, from accessible hip-hop, to a more guitar-driven approach. Early versions of the PHM songs on file at the Right Track studio show a range of influences and abilities, indicating PHM only scratches the surface of Reznor's potential. The new song "Suck" may be an indication of the next Trek for NIN.

"'Suck' fills a void we didn't have before stylistically. It remains to be seen if it's an indication of the direction we're heading. It has a different feel to it because it's a juxtaposition of different styles like a weird funk loop and blues-metal guitar riffs that wouldn't normally make sense together. The general theory for the new record is to make better songs with better hooks, butarranged in a less conventional manner, and to run some styles together you wouldn't normally think would work that well. This will probably once again keep us off all commercial radio. but that's what I want to do."

How long he'll be happy with the limited level of success an alternative music genre can offer remains to be seen.

"I would have no problem with major success, so long as I feel I'm doing what I want to do, " reznor says. "I want people to like it, but I'm not going to theextreme of putting out shitty, bland, radio-oriented music to get people to say, "Oh, I like that." If I can bend radio's ear to fit what I'm doing, great. If they won't bend, I'm not going to pump out shit."

"On the next album there may be a track they can play on modern rock radio. Maybe there won't be. Idon't know, but it will be on my terms."

"The whole idea of NIN and the way it's going to evolve is it will be what I feel like and that's the justification for whatever it is. It has to be what I want to do and not "You have to make this fucking Top 40." That will never be the case - and if it is, don't buy the record. Teach me a lesson." of what I do is accidental. I luck into things. I think that due to laziness---not coming back and fixing things---they end up becoming more interesting. My instinct is to repair, edit. "I'll get to it later". But then I'll get so used to hearing it, I'll end up leaving it alone.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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