Tent Reznor emerged
from Woodstock ’94, mud-caked and seething, as the spokesman for Generation Angst. Trent is the band. The other musicians exist solely to support his
“What a nice, polite audience,“ Trent Reznor
says, halting a Nine Inch Nails concert to berate the gathered throng. “You
want us to turn it down a little?“
Six months ago when Nine Inch Nails played Los
Angeles it was at Hollywood‘s dark and spooky Palace Theatre, to a thicket of
dark and spooky goth moshers. Reznor surveyed the Universal Amphitheater (home
away from home for Barry Manilow and Julio Iglesias) with total disgust.
Thousands of whitebread toetappers, wrapped in J. Crew and T-shirts hearing
Reznor‘s name, have come to see who‘s next in rock & roll.
The Nine-Inch-Nails- On-Ice reception is
symptomatic of the superstardom Trent Reznor has achieved since emerging from Woodstock ‘94, mud-caked and seething, as the
spokesman for Generation Angst.
Undeniable indicators that the once club-sized
appeal of Nine Inch Nails has grown into a vast presence in the mass psyche
include the concurrent sales of the group‘s Downward
Spiral (a #2 Billboard debut) and Reznor‘s Natural Born Killers album; the
Rolling Stone cover treatment; and a week of Reznor jokes from Letterman in the
wake of Woodstock.
Judging from all the mainstream acceptance,
misery loves company. Yet this 29-year-old Machiavellian auteur - whose lyrics
deal with vivisection, bondage and isolation - doesn‘t seem in a “new people“
kind of mood tonight.
“Are the lights alright?“ Reznor badgers,
biting the fans that feed him. “You comfortable?“
A grenade burst of white noise explodes,
followed by guitar shrapnel and the ever popular curious sucking noises. From
underneath this nails-against-chalkboard whir emerges a bruised vocal, like
someone gargling with broken glass into a megaphone.
Oh so sick I am
And maybe I don’t have
And maybe that is all
And maybe this is a
cry for help
Trent alternates between a standing fetal
position - as if being stabbed - and thrashing about the stage like a tortured
animal. Is it Kabuki for the popcorn crowd? Behind him, movie screens advertise
images of torture, execution and rot ting animal corpses.
Autistic individuals are said to withdraw from
the world because the slightest sound, light or touch overloads their senses.
Lacking a perceptual filter, they receive all stimuli in a simultaneous painful
gush - like they‘re watching every television channel at once. Witnessing a
Nine Inch Nails concert, you know how the autistic person feels.
Even the lighting is rigged for maximum sensory
harassment: Trent is lit not from above but behind. Through a fog of dry ice, a Close Encounter-like grid of alien
landing lights beams directly onto the shrunken corneas of the audience.
Backlighting casts Reznor in a glowing shadow: The negative image of the modern
rock star personified.
In this era of “don‘t focus on me“ cool, Trent
dares to languish in the full focus of the media‘s eye. While Eddie Vedder
argues that he‘s just a guy in a band, Trent isn‘t ashamed to admit that he is
the band. Reznor writes and performs every inch of NIN‘s music himself in the
studio. His touring musicians - currently Robin Finck (guitar), Danny Lohner
(keyboards, guitar and bass), James Wooley (keyboards) and Chris Vrenna (drums)
- exist solely to support his vision.
Trent also flys in the face of rock‘s current
“more music/less flash“ rule by flaunting theatrics, dramatics, aesthetics and all
the other “-ic“ words eschewed by the current rash of grunge non-icons. Horror
writer/artist/director Clive Barker, for example, is acknowledged before Jane‘s
Addiction ‚and Prince on the liner notes of Pretty
Hate Machine. Any student of NIN videos can guess why. (The video for “Closer“
features crucified monkeys. “Happiness In Slavery“ depicts a man slowly being
ground into hamburger meat.)
Such taboo (and quintessentially Barker-like)
imagery is a perfect backdrop for the rock genre known as industrial, so named
for its sonic similarity to a busy steel factory. Industrial extends hack a
decade to the death-disco of cult bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy. Within
its neural mainstream the line between tone and texture is blurred - keyboards
share percussion duties with drums, for example. Unexpectedness itself becomes
a musical instrument, with sudden periods of silence or loudness appearing
randomly throughout a song.
The industrial music of Nine Inch Nails is
unusually eclectic, since Reznor takes nearly all his childhood references - no
matter how contradictory - and expels them in undigested aural chunks into the
mix. Saturday Night Fever disco, Cure
goth, Prince soul, even rap - they‘re all there, identifiable either by overt
reference or covert sampling. “March of the Pigs“ from Downward Spiral, for
example, is a Motorhead-speed cranker that pauses for a piano-y Beatles chorus
sweet enough to frost Captain Crunch.
“If you‘re not ready for it, it‘s terrible,
it‘s noise,“ Trent told USA Today
recently. “On a couple of listenings, if you get that far, you bear through the
distractions and find a beauty under the surface ugliness.“
I hurt myself today, to
see if I still feel
Most Nine Inch Nails songs express some degree
of obsession with pain, even the love songs. In “Something I Can Never Have“
(from Pretty Hate Machine), the woman
of Trent‘s dreams is merely someone who can “make all this go away.“ Pain in
Trent‘s songs is used as an agent of power, sex, life affirmation.
Reznor‘s second full album, The Downward Spiral, is about a man‘s
systematic self-destruction. (No doubt the locale where it was recorded
provided inspiration: Trent cut it in the secluded Beverly Hills house where
Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson in 1969.)
At the root of Trent‘s pain may be the nasty
divorce of his parents - an artist and a housewife. He had to endure this when
he was five years old. NIN lyrics frequently mimic what a child yells at his
parents during a tantrum:
I‘d rather die than
give you control/
You don’t hurt me/
You’re gonna get what
Don’t you tell me how
Trent doesn‘t talk much about this
sensitive period, but according to most armchair psychoanalysts, the hyper-violent
misanthrope is emotionally reeling. Many children of divorce interminably blame
themselves for breaking up the household.
After the divorce, Trent and his sister Tera
were relegated to their grandparents‘ home and raised according to the
conservative mores of the Depression era.
“There was nothing going on but cornfields,“ Trent has said of Mercer, Pennsylvania (pop. 2,444). It‘s the kind of town
people drive trough on their way to someplace else. “My life experience came
from watching movies, watching TV and reading books and looking at magazines.
You‘re bombarded with images that seem cool, places that seem interesting,
people who have jobs and careers and opportunities. None of that happened where
I was. You‘re almost taught to realize it‘s not for you.“
Somewhere along the route to either Sunday
school or his classical piano lessons, Trent discovered an outlet for all his
welling frustration. Armed with his first synthesizer, he banged away in a
plethora of different rock bands while attending Mercer High School. For a while his fire was stoked by
the music of Kiss, David Bowie and Lou Reed, but then Trent went ape-dung over a new type of
dance music propelled exclusively by the synthesizer. With synth-pop -
pioneered by Kraftwerk and Einsturzende Neubauten in the underground and Gary
Numan and the Human League at ground level - Reznor at last heard his true
“I liked technology and electronics,“ Trent says. “I liked the way it sounded,
the idea that you could make a record with a machine. It was more interesting than
After graduating high school, Trent did a year at nearby Allegheny College, studying computer engineering. Amassing
just enough training for his aural assault upon the unsuspecting world, Reznor
dropped out of Allegheny and turned up in Cleveland - the closest honest-to-God
rock town to Mercer.
Clueless about how to break into “the biz,“ he
landed work at the Right Track recording studio, scrubbing toilets and
assisting the engineer. Whenever the gear wasn‘t in use, Trent grabbed the opportunity to craft his
first demo tape. That tape made the rounds, eventually reaching New York label exec Steve Gottleib, who
signed Nine Inch Nails to TVT Records and issued Pretty Hate Machine in 1989.
“Head Like A Hole“ became the “Smells Like Teen
Spirit“ of industrial. And Trent, with all his workboots, rubber
jumpsuits and fishnets, became a cult icon. A support slot with Lollapalooza
sent Pretty Hate Machine on an upward spiral past platinum, but it wasn‘t until
Woodstock ‘94 that your grandma first heard
the name Nine Inch Nails.
Reznor‘s career-defining performance was
essentially a big accident. That Reznor would appear on stage covered with mud
was interpreted as an act of solidarity with the crowd, who had been wallowing
in it for two days. But the truth is, while walking towards the stage from the
tour bus, Reznor shoved guitarist Robin Finck into the mud. Then Finck tackled
Reznor and a mudfight broke out.
“It wasn‘t like a calculated move,“ Reznor
confided to the L.A. Times, “but it might have been some subconscious attempt
to identify with the fans.“
Still, Reznor, on tour for nearly a year in support
of Spiral, has found his legions
growing exponentially in number since Woodstock.
But fame does have its upside. Recently Reznor
was able to start his own record company, Nothing. Based out of Cleveland, the
label‘s roster features Marilyn Manson, Pop Will Fat Itself, Price, Coil and
Trust Obey, some of Trent‘s favorite bands. When the current tour winds down
(sometime in January), Reznor is said to be eager to delve further into the
world of cinema, beyond just doing soundtrack albums. You guessed it: He wants
to direct movies. If they‘re anything like the ones he shows in concert, don‘t
sit too close to the screen. You‘re liable to wind up with angst all over your