Trent Reznor's big break-through
By Mark Holan for Scene on December 21, 1989
Trent Reznor has a problem with the Cleveland music scene, and he's been trying to go up against the powers-that-be ever since coming here three years ago. There haev been many twists and turns in Reznor's musical journey, but now with Nine Inch Nails, his brainchild and solo project, he's enjoying his big breakthrough.
PRETTY HATE MACHINE, Nine Inch Nails' debut album, has already been lauded by critics and alternative trade publications as one of the finest albums of the turn-of-the-decade. The album and its first single, the desperate-sounding "Down In It," have been nestled high up on Rockpool's Dance Chart for weeks now, and Reznor and his backup band have already played a number of highly successful East Coast dates. On Friday, Dec. 29, NIN will perform at the Phantasy Nite Club in what will probably be the hottest show of the holiday season, national or international acts notwithstanding.
If PRETTY HATE MACHINE is a triumph of the will for Trent Reznor, you would have never guessed it from talking to him, which SCENE did a month ago. Dressed all in black and bundled up in an over-sized coat, Reznor was the picture of the tortured artist as he spoke about the origins of the project and his battle to keep himself "up above it."
Originally from Mercer, Pennsylvania, a town between Erie and Pittsburgh, Reznor played with various area outfits before landing a "big gig" with a group called the Urge, which made a little noise between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Moving to Cleveland about three years ago, Reznor worked at Pi Keyboards and began spending more and more time at the Right Track, the downtown recording s tudio owned by an affable gentleman by the name of Bart Koster. Whenever there weren't any scheduled sessions going on at the Right Track, Koster gave Reznor the run of the studio. In return, Reznor would work on other people's sessions, performing the duties of an apprentice engineer.
"Bart said, 'If you want to come in at night and mess around, go ahead,'" Reznor recalled. "So I pretty much taught myself engineering for what I needed to know, anything to do with computers. If someone came in with a drum set, I didn't know what I was doing."
During that early period in Cleveland, Reznor joined one of the versions of the Exotic Birds, but it was clear to all parties involved that Reznor had his own musical ideas to pursue. Nine Inch Nails grew out of Reznor's feeling of musical isolation.
"It started as me wishing I had a band but didn't," he explained. "That's a pretty difficult prospect in this area, with no recognition whatsoever and an unknown project. It's hard to get people who are willing to put the amount of time and sacrifice into something that's not going to make money right away. It's basically just a lot of work.
"There's that aspect of it," Reznor continued, "and also the aspect of me not really being able to collaborate with many people due to... when I work, I want to work, and if you're not cutting it, I don't want to deal with it. I'd rather do it myself."
The genesis of what eventually became Nine Inch Nails began in early 1988. "I just started doing some demos," Reznor recalled, "and I gradually perfected them into something that was cohesive, that had a direction to it and that I felt strongly about.
"It's somewhat difficult when it's just you and a computer," he continued. "I feel you have to find some kind of style to mold it into, so it wasn't unfocused. The challenge of this record was making it choesive as a whole. That was some work doing that."
The result is an album that pulsates withelectronic rhyhtms and shocks you with lyrics detailing failed relationships and interpersonal tension. PRETTY HATE MACHINE is not a pretty sounding album, but then again, life isn't always pretty either.
At this past summer's New Music Seminar in New York City, Reznor and his manager, John Malm, passed out packages of condoms with the NIN logo and the words "Get F**cked" on them. Malm and Reznor have taken their time putting NIN together and getting a record deal, and their attention to the little things that make a successful recording project has proven to be the right formular. Instead of waiting around for the major American labels to sign them, they sent demos to the small, independent labels, especially European labels.
"The illusion," Reznor said, "was never ot be a major label superstar band. Eventually, with some sort of base and some sort of direction solidified, perhaps, but not right away."
To that end, Reznor and Malm decided to sign with TVT Records, a small label that had been formed to market TV theme songs to the masses. They felt that TVT's philosophy dove-tailed with theirs.
"The reason we went with TVT, which I'd never heard of before they approached us," Reznor explaiend, "was that it had an independent philosophy of 'Let's not rack up a huge bill, so it's that much sooner that you're going to make money.'
"A lot of people don't realize that, with your half-million dollar album budget, it's that much longer before you're going to see a penny of it because you've got to pay that back. It's not a gift."
Although Reznor worked with different producers on various album tracks, he retained creative control over his project. Reznor's first choice to produce the album was Flood, who has produced Depeche Mode, early Erasure, Nick Cave and Wolfgang Press. Flood was to produce the whole album, but prior comitments prevented him from completing the project. In stepped John Fryer.
"He had just done the new Love and Rockets' album, which I hate, and he hates," Reznor said.
"The reason I liked him was that he had a good sort of darkness to all the stuff that he's done; Xymox and This Mortal Coil. And it's not all from the direction that I was coming from, so I thought that him not being an obvious choice, it might be a bit more interesting. That worked to some extent, and to another extent, it didn't. We didn't get along too well."
Although all of the sounds on PRETTY HATE MACHINE were made by Reznor, he assembled a live band to recreate the songs onstage. Guitarist Rich PAtrick was formerly with the Akt, and drummer Chris Vrenna played with the Exotic Birds when Reznor was also in that group. Keyboardist Nick Rushe is a relative newcomer to the Cleveland music scene.
All in all, Trent Reznor has done pretty well for himself with his first album, especially when you consider that these are the first songs he's ever written in his life. "I read where Prince has a catalog of over 500 songs," he said. "Well, I have a catalog of ten, maybe twelve."
Less is more, indeed.