I'm Just Trying To Make The Best Music I Can

Originally published in Circus Magazine on July 1, 1998

Flowing in Trent Reznor's stormy mind is a critical stance on the relevance of rock music in the late '90s. This long-beckoned question is something the Nine Inch Nails mastermind has constantly debated about. Talking to Circus Magazine a few years back, he felt the sound was at a standstill.

"I think it's in bad shape. That's a very global statement, but it seems to me rock has become very homogenized, so incredibly safe and politically correct for the most part, and whatever danger might have existed at its inception has been packaged, labeled, marketed and sold as product."

This is what Michael Trent Reznor has long avoided. With an ever-changing carousel of collaborators he calls Nine Inch Nails, he cranks out a daring, complex synth-led sound that transcends many terrains of experimental possibilities. His two full-length albums, Pretty Hate Machine (TVT, 1990) and The Downward Spiral (nothing, 1994). plus two EP's are revealing with semi-autobiographical, aggressive lyrics, and his melodies are oddly penetrating. This unconventional approach helped land NIN on the map and the industrial sub-genre into the mainstream. Combine that with NIN's catalog of graphic videos (crucified monkeys in "Closer", bloodsmearing and genitalia piercing in "Sin", sadomasochism in "Happiness Is Slavery") and you get a leading act willing to cross any relative boundaries of outrageousness. Following in the tradition of one of Reznor's childhood heroes, KISS, NIN shun all that seems conservative and agreeable, and reach for the throat with its smarting synth-generated riffs and white noise.

Few people in the industry could speak as an authority on today's music as Reznor. His knowledge of the art has equally impressed his followers and peers. "Trent is almost a walking, talking musical encyclopedia," said his former collaborator Rob Halford about the producer of his latest album, Voyeurs. "He seems to know everything there is to know about music, starting from Beethoven to Godknows-who."

A record label mogul, a recording studio owner, a busy musical collaborator and a frequent soundtrack producer/contributor, Reznor is, known as a prestigious "working man's musician." He's spearheaded some of today's hottest acts like shock-rockers Marilyn Manson and through his nothing label, has generated a mass audience for extremely alternative acts like Rob Halford's current project, two, Prick, Coil and Pop Will Eat Itself. Nine Inch Nails were shelved temporarily over the last few years so he could work on material with Marilyn Manson, his idol (and 1994 tour coheadliner) David Bowie, and most recently, techno wiz; Josh Wink and hip-hop's Puff Daddy.

But for now, Reznor has finally devoted full-time to NIN for the overdue follow-up to the multi-platinum The Downward Spiral. With tossedaround working titles as "Impossible Pain" and "The Fragile," the album will depart from the in-your-face, rampant industrial noise that has inspired his audiences world-wide. Rather, it's to be just as intriguing, but using a different yet contradictory approach. "The new album is going to have rhythm `n� blues and funk elements," Reznor revealed last year. "It might sound just like your stereo�s exploding ... who knows? I don�t think that it will be guitar-orientated, even if I play a lot of guitar lately, I think it will be something far more electronical." According to various reports, the NIN mastermind has also become absorbed in hip-hop and Erykah Badu, elements of which may be reflected on the album, which is set for release in the latter part of 1998.

Soft-spoken and articulate, Reznor has a reputation of being a fulltime visionary of the dark. Some of his tendencies do not make him appear that cheery. For studio purposes, he rented a mansion in Los Angeles that once belonged to actress Sharon Tate, one of the victims who died in the hands of mass murderer Charles Manson and his Family (though he claims he didn't know until after). His current New Orleans house/recording studio is a converted funeral home. The sadness and pain compressed in an album's worth of NIN lyrics is enough to last a lifetime for some listeners.

Not too many realize he uses songwriting as a way to vent his personal demons. He often attacks the corporate . world ("Head Like A Hole"), hypocrisy of religion ("Terrible Lie" and throughout The Downward Spiral) and even loss of identity ("Happiness Is Slavery") in his songs. His music may have political slants, but the lyrics are always based on his perception of what's around him, while the issues take secondary precedence.

For Reznor, music is a positive release, and he is all for sharing the healing power of his songs with others. "Some people might feel that they're weird, that there's something wrong with them," said Reznor. "Then they realize that they're not the only ones who feel that way, that they're not freaks, that there are others who feel the same way and it helps.

"If I'm talking about suicide in a song, then it doesn't mean I'm suicidal," he added. "It doesn't mean you'll do it, but you've thought about it and I'm just drawing the subject into the light." Sure enough, his powerful statements of escapism and desperation are compounded by his trademark slinkering noise, angry arrangements.

Some cynics could chalk up his gloomy aura to his upbringing, but they would be straining hard. His parents divorced when he was about six years old, and he and his younger sister, Tera, were raised by their maternal grandparents. Yet Reznor seemed to be the average Mideastern boy who, according to close family members, didn't portray any characteristics of a traumatized victim. Like many boys his age, Reznor was very physical in his spare time; in addition to being a skateboarding fanatic, he used to fish with his grandfather and construct model planes. According to People Weekly, he was even exceptional in his drama class - an invaluable asset that came in handy with his portrayals of deranged or angry characters in his videos.

Music has been a mainstay in Reznor's lifestyle for practically all of his 33 years. Born May 17, 1965 in Mercer, Pennsylvania, Reznor began learning classical piano at a mere five years old and by the time he played in his high school band, Option 30, Reznor was equally skilled on the tenor sax and tuba. His musical tastes were always diversified even as an impressionable kid in the town located just north of Pittsburgh; his first concert was the Eagles with Fleetwood Mac and Boz Scaggs, and he stayed up late Friday evenings watching the biggest groups of his era. When he became older, he started digging New Wave, but it wasn't until the making of The Downward Spiral that he began appreciating early Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Pink Floyd.

Reznor may have been proficient on many instruments, but his first love has always been keyboards. His parents, who divorced in the early '70s, were pushed by their son - buy him a cheap moog synthesizer so that he could emulate the catchy riffs in the Cars' smash hit "Just What I Needed." Before being employed at a musical instrument store in Cleveland, Ohio, he majored in computer engineering at Allegheny College. Unlike many kids who merely learn music in school for credit, Reznor embraced his acquired skills wholeheartedly and took them around with him from then on.

While working as a janitor in Right Track Studios in Cleveland, Reznor played in a long succession of bar bands. His first gig was keyboarding for the locally-based Innocent, and Reznor managed to appear on their album Livin' On The Streets. After two other stints, Reznor joined the group. Problems which appeared in the 1987 movie "Light Of Day" and played in a band by one of his musician friends, Kevin McMahon (who eventually fronted Prick). By 1988, he decided to form Nine Inch Nails, and on the strength of three demo tracks he taped at Right Track Studios during his offtime, Reznor was signed up to the New York-based label, TVT Records.

His relationship with TVT was stormy from the start. The label's honcho, Steve Gottleib, passed up Reznor's full-length debut effort, "Industrial Nation," an uncompromising, chaotic work that would eventually be filtered into his later works. The band was also asked to step down from an opening slot with Skinny Puppy, but later, they forged a successful path on their own touring-wise, traveling along with the likes of post-punk legends Jesus & Mary Chain and ex-Bauhaus vocalist Peter Murphy. As early as 1990, the band - then featuring high school buddy/roommate, drummer Chris Vrenna and guitarist Richard Patrick (who, along with a later NIN member would form Filter) - had their aggressive, hormone-swept live act firmly in place. As his fellow musicians donned generous layers of goth makeup, it wasn't uncommon for Reznor to hang onto his mic stand for dear life or to foray into some decidedly wild dancing.

Their first album, Pretty Hate Machine churned with the despairing allure of Land Of Rape And Honey by Ministry, which are one of Reznor's all-time influential bands. Its first single, "Down In It", Reznor's first-ever composition, was played heavily on the radio (it peaked at #28 on the Billboard Modern Rock radio charts) and gained many new fans of Nine Inch Nails. The band engaged on its first headlining tour in 1990 and along with their provocative videos for "Head Like A Hole" and "Sin," helped Machine reach 975 on the Billboards.

Reznor's dispute with TVT Records reached an all-time climax. Unable to record his next album (but taping his "Broken" EP in secret), he and his manager John A. Malin Jr. felt the only way for new NIN music to be heard was to start a new record label. Distributed by Interscope, Nothing Records was essentially Trent's baby and everything released under its domain were and still are dominantly controlled by he and Malin. Because of legal proceedings, future Nine Inch Nails releases boasted the TVT logo.

Nineteen ninety-three was almost a quiet year on the NIN front, aside from winning a Grammy for Best Metal Performance for "Wish." The band (Reznor, Charlie Clouser, Vrenna), along with studio whizzes Flood and Alan Moulder spent the year taping Spiral. By then, the appetites of NIN fans were whetted by the "Broken" EP (proclaimed by Reznor in one interview as "one big blast of anger") and expectations were towering, to say the very least. Indeed, with the buzz of the techno-driven "March Of The Pigs" and its pulsing follow-up "Closer," the album debuted at #2. The momentum of record sales was boosted when the band committed mayhem amidst destroying instruments and mud pit diving at Woodstock '94. Even its stopgap follow-up, Further Down The Spiral (an hour-long remix EP) went up to as high as #23.

In the end, however, it's always the process of invention and re-invention that keeps Reznor feeling useful in the music biz. Judging by the drum 'n bass dabbling of "The Perfect Drug," NIN's most recent song from last year's soundtrack, "The Lost Highway" and the innumerable directions of the soundtrack itself (it was produced by Reznor), his future seems promising. Along with a side project called Tapeworm (with current NIN members Clouser and Danny Lohner), the description Reznor would probably like best is unpredictable.

"I'm just trying to make the best music I can," Reznor told Circus late last year, describing his ideal consequence of his music. "I don't try to change anything, but somewhere in the back of my mind there's always the thought that it would be nice to know someday - I've made a difference."

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

View the NIN Hotline article index