Is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails the messiah of gloom or just another middle-class
brat? Jason Fine joins him on the road to find out.
Ten minutes into the first of two sold out shows at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco,
Trent Reznor is stomping and writhing across the stage like a spoiled child. Wearing
cut-off fatigues, leather boots and long black gloves, the volatile, anguished leader of
Nine Inch Nails slams into his keyboard, kicks over a mike stand, then picks it up and
hurls it over the drum riser. Drummer Chris Vrenna doesn't see the 25 pound hunk of
metal coming. Nor does he see the blood oozing down his face until he wipes his
forehead with a towel someone passes from backstage. That's when Vrenna remembers
starting to feel woozy. And that's when the sound cuts out, the stage lights go dark and the
band shuffles off stage, apparently leaving the largely teenage crowd more dazzled by the
spectacle than angered by the sudden interruption.
It's a sweaty, uncomfortable half hour before Nine Inch Nails returns. Vrenna has a crude
bandage wrapped around the hole in his head. Reznor has an apology to make. "That was
my fault," he says, momentarily humbled. "I'm sorry...I'm just a fucking asshole."
Trent Reznor, it seems, can do no wrong. Since he exploded onto the scene in 1989 with
the first Nine Inch Nails album Pretty Hate Machine, the 28-year-old small town
Pennsylvania native has become one of rock's most celebrated anti-heroes.
During a three year hiatus from touring, Reznor released the vitriolic, Grammy-winning
EP Broken ("Wish" took honours for best heavy metal song) and moved his base of
operations from Cleveland to LA - keeping his name in the press by taking up residence
at the spooky Benedict Canyon estate where Charles Manson's cohorts murdered Sharon
Tate. He recently assembled a new band to tour in support of his second full-length
album, The Downward Spiral. Written, performed and produced mostly by Reznor alone,
in a studio built into the living room where Tate's friend Voytek Fykowski was stabbed
51 times, the album is a dense and richly nuanced collage, blending elements of
industrial, techno and guitar rock to create a music of startling and sophisticated power.
So far Reznor has not been able to translate the power and dynamics of The Downward
Spiral to the stage. Using a mix of live instrumentation - two keyboards, guitar, bass and
drums with samples and tape loops, he replaces musical subtlery with a well-designed
stage show and lots of choreographed, in-your-face aggression. And Reznor himself
seems more interested in elevating himself above the crowd than reaching out to make
any direct contact. During NIN's San Francisco stint he behaved at times like an actor in a
grand drama; screeching, clutching his head in his hands, crouching in the corner of the
stage behind blinding stage lights and a bank of fog. He repeated the same manoeuvres -
with the exception of hurling his mic stand - at the same moments of the same songs
during essentially the same set two nights in a row. Reznor is powerful, no doubt. But
there is also something cynical and calculating in his raging on about alienation and his
innermost fears before 2000 screaming fans, while never straying from practical gestures
or revealing some naked, unrehearsed soul.
The Downward Spiral shot to No.1 on the Billboard charts the week it was released. Yet
Reznor claims he thought the album was doomed for "commercial failure." And despite
the fact that Nine Inch Nails is just a few dates into a sold-out USA tour, the superstar is,
predictably, in a sombre mood. Aside from the unfortunate incident with his drummer,
Reznor almost cancelled NIN's second San Francisco date because he had a sore throat
that even a backstage visit from an acupuncturist couldn't fix. Performing in Los Angeles
a few night's later, he ralied at the L.A. Times for a mildly critical review of the previous
night's performance. And though, he rehearsed with his band for four months, created a
sophisticated stage and lighting set that he says is "costing a shitload of money," and is
employing a touring crew the size of a small army, the tour's array of minor technical
mishaps - not counting Vrenna's 17 stiches - is just the latest thing getting Trent Reznor
Backstage before the first San Francisco show, road manager Mark O'Shea types out the
guest list on his portable Macintosh. He and a few others are cramped in a tiny room full
of NIN gear boxes marked "FIRST AID, CANDLES," "VINYL, PVC CLOTHES," and
"NYLONS AND SUCH." Meanwhile, Reznor is in soundcheck, working through his
current single "March Of The Pigs." Every few minutes the music stops, and a Nine Inch
Nails manager, roadie, or bandmate bursts into the room with a request from the boss:
"Trent wants a Throat Coat." "Trent wants some Advil." "Trent needs some water." When
Reznor himself appears in the doorway and asks where the bathroom is, you almost
expect those present to jump up and offer to go for him. All communications between
Reznor and outsiders takes place through his handlers - including his decision to cancel
an interview after keeping a writer waiting for two hours. "I'm sorry. Trent can't do the
interview," O'Shea sobelry announces, "He's in a bad mood. He thinks he's gonna suck
O'Shea reschedules the interview for the next day, but Reznor cancels that as well.
Frequently his commitments are secondary to his whims, regardless of how others might
be putout. Reznor later flies his regular make-up artist from NY to LA to prepare him for
a photo-shoot, the photographer waits in a studio full of rented equipment for three days,
and the make-up woman cools her heels, but by the time NIN leaves LA, the pictures
have not been taken.
The following week, riding on the NIN tour bus from LA to the group's gig in San Diego,
I spend the first hour talking with Reznor's bandmates about their new tattoos, and
watching various managers bark into palm-sized cellular phones and pore over
spreadsheets on two portable computers. Reznor according to one of his bandmates, is
playing DOOM in the back lounge.
When Reznor finally emerges, he bears little resemblance to the tormented raving stage
actor. Dressed in faded Levi's and a thin black T-shirt that hangs loosely on his gaunt
frame, he looks fragile, boyish. Stretching out on a couch amid videotapes, video games
and loose CD's, sharp rays of sunshine glance across his ghost-like face and a cool breeze
rustles his brittle, overly dyed black hair. Unlike the desperate and insecure alter-ego of
his songs, he is articulate, quick witted and savvy, brimming with the kind of earnest
self-assurance that makes you wonder if he's confiding in you or trying to sell you
something. Whether bemoaning his as what one magazine called "The Guru of Gloom" or
despairing over his inability to find satisfaction even in fame, Reznor seems acutely
aware that his anguished disclosures only stroke the fire of his success. If his problems
sound contrived, his solutions are just as calculated. "I've got to get my shit together or
I'm not going to want to keep going," he confides. "It's like, do a record and by the end it's
not fun anymore. Then I think I want to go on tour and it's not fun either. My life is totally
out of balance right now. Nine Inch Nails is 99.999 per cent of what I'm doing. Trent -
whoever the fuck he is, or was - is lost. The other day I was freaking out about how much
stupid bullshit is going on behind the scenes here, just getting the tour on the road, and I
thought, "What would happen if I just fucking leave, just fuckin' leave take off and let
these fuckin' guys do whatever? I could just take off, fuckin' go down the street, get a car
and disappear. I wondered where could I go?" He pauses, looking out the window at the
shimmering Pacific Ocean. "And I couldn't think of anywhere. Maybe drive out in the
desert somewhere, yeah," he pauses again laughing. "There I am. Then what?"
Trent Reznor's past is the stuff of rock and roll mythology. He was raised by his
grandparents in Mercer, Pennsylvania, a place he calls "a fuckin' piece of shit town in the
middle of nowhere." He studied classical piano as a kid and coasted through school with
good grades and a bad attitude. His parents - who split up when Reznor was five, and
with whom he remains friendly - encouraged him to go to college, so he enrolled as a
computer engineering major at Allegheny College in nearby Meadville.
"No one in my family's ever finished school," he says. "I thought, "Okay, in High School I
was a fuckin loser, I didn't fit in." So I thought, 'In college I'm going to make some
friends, try to fit in.' But I was banished. I felt like a misfit."
"Misfit" is a word Reznor is fond of, and he uses it to describe his feelings of alienation
both from his small-town roots and from his current fast-lane reality. Even though he is
promoted by a major record company and is performing nightly for thousands, Reznor
pretends the rock and roll establishment treats him like he doesn't belong. "When I go into
an interview on MTV I don't kick into the David Lee Roth,
joke-around-be-a-rock-fuckhead like they want you to be," he says. "When you're on tour
you're expected to act a certain way and you're encouraged to act a certain way, and when
you don't they don't know what to do with you. It makes me feel like a fucking misfit
because okay, I didn't fit into anything my whole life and now I'm doing this thing and I
don't fit into that either."
Reznor dropped out of college after his first year, moved 90 minutes drive west of
Mercer, and got a job in a music store. He played keyboards in various local bands and
after a year landed a job cleaning toilets in a recording studio. Late at night, when the
place was empty, Reznor taught himself to use the equipment and started putting together
his own songs. "I heard stuff other people were recording and I always thought, 'This stuff
sucks.' I thought I could do better, but for a long time I wasn't doing anything about it. I
was arranging other people's music. I was playing keyboards on other people's bullshit
demos. I was playing live, taking drugs and being a fucking idiot - fooling myself that I
was doing something when I really wasn't. Then when I got into that studio I realised that
there was an opportunity here, I could make it happen."
He tried to enlist other local musicians to work with him, but says it was hard to find
anyone interested in working from 3am till 8am without pay, so he decided to play all the
instruments himself. "I had this romantic notion that, well, Prince did it himself, and I
fully respected him for that. So I just started to do it. I was intimidated by guitars because
I always liked them but couldn't play them worth shit. I thought if I could come up with a
guitar part, every guitar palyer in the world would say, "That's easy, anyone could do
that." And then I realized who the fuck cares?"
Ten of Reznor's earliest songs wound up on Pretty Hate Machine, the left field smash that
catapulted NIN into the 1991 Lollapalooza spotlight. Despite canned, monotonous
rhythms and his affected vocal delivery, the rich personality of his music made an
intriguing break from the heavy detachment of groups like Ministry and Nitzer Ebb.
Mixing hard industrial sounds with a clear pop bent, Reznor says he was surprised at the
album's sweeping success, and more than a little uncomfortable with the crossover it
"It was a situation where we come from a little pocket of subgenre music that a lot of
people hold dear to them. The record comes out and it's embraced by those people, but
then suddenly it starts to sell more records and suddenly the same album that everyone
thought was cool, it's like, 'Uh-oh, now some asshole at school's wearing a T-shirt. Okay,
these guys suck.' Where we're coming from, there's only a handful of bands in that world.
I started feeling real guilty that people liked the band. I'm sure Nirvana felt that too."
Yet where the members of Nirvana adamantly refused to play the rock star game, Reznor
seems cut out for the role. Posing for photographs bound in barbed wire or clutching his
face in his hands with an expression of perfectly frozen agony, he appears to revel in the
image of pain that has brought him stardom. In interviews he often dwells on his inability
to live a normal, healthy life, or the disparaging irony of sharing his most intimate secrets
with an audience of complete strangers. The bigger Reznor becomes, the more alienated
he feels. And the more alienated he feels, the bigger he becomes.
"I remember when we were just starting out we were opening for other bands and nobody
knew who the fuck we were and MTV didn't give a shit about us and radio didn't really
give a shit about us," he says. "I remember the first time I looked down and I could see
people singing words back at me, and it really seemed like they meant it. They're fucking
yelling back at me and I'm yelling back at them and suddenly it seemed like it's starting to
be worth it now. The fact that someone can relate to something that you, in an intimate
moment, jotted down, just blew me away." The feeling was fleeting.
"As soon as the show's over and you're backstage and someone says, 'Hey, you want to go
and have a drink?'' and suddenly 500 people are around you - everyone's like, 'Can you
sign this?' 'Your music means so much to me' - then you realise that you're not human
anymore, and it's not you they want. There's nothing more empty than that. A certain ten
seconds is flattering and then there's no way to get past it. They're treating you like what
you aren't. They are trying to be cool, but they're making me feel even more like a fuckin
Following his first flush of success, Reznor moved to LA in 1992 and set about creating
The Downward Spiral. With co-producer Flood (Depeche Mode, U2), and guest
musicians including guitarist Adrian Belew, Reznor remained in solitude at the former
Tate house for over a year, letting the music simmer to maturity. The Downward Spiral
has neither the simplistic sheen of Pretty Hate Machine nor the catastrophic edge of
Broken. It's power is derived from the song's tremendous subtlety and depth. Pretty hooks
dangle on chopped-up rhythms. Piercing screams fade off into distant whispers. Industrial
fuzz gives way to tender acoustic guitar chords. Even in the most wildly synthesised,
alien sounding moments there is a brislting, relentless, unmistakable human energy that
sucks you in.
Reznor is a brilliant sonic architect and an even better media manipulator who has made a
career out of transforming his own neurotic preoccupations into a musical persona of
dark, brooding grandeur. Like Madonna, every stage and video move, every magazine
cover pose, every media appearance is set up, rehearsed and executed strictly on his
terms. Yet where Madonna constantly reinvents herself inroles that are meant to shock,
titillate or make you laugh, Reznor peddles only his own dark soul. His songs are
calculatedly confessional, gleaned from drunken diary entries and self-wallowing
memoirs of relationships gone sour. Screaming out from behind his massive fortress of
sound like a scared little Wizard of Oz, he twists even mundane expressions of alienation
and self-torment into epic symphonies of despair. His music makes angst sexy, and for
mixed-up adolescants across the world, that is a major part of NIN's appeal.
As the Nine Inch Nails tour bus purrs along past golf courses and the whitewashed,
stucco condo-land that line up the freeway into San Diego, Reznor slouches gradually
lower on the couch to avoid the sun's glare, and rarely looks out the window. Resting his
loosely laced black boots on a pile of pillows, he explains how Oliver Stone approached
him backstage at NIN's concert in Hollywood at the beginning of the year and asked him
to put together the soundtrack for Natural Born Killers.
He talks excitedly about the project, even though itmeant turning this bus lounge into a
mobile recording studio and working during the band's off days to make the deadline. As
the bus winds off the freeway toward downtown San Diego and the conversation shifts
from Natural Born Killers to Reznor's public image, the performer turns unexpectedly
defensive - even though critics have generally swallowed his well-publicised schtick.
Despite the fact that he demands complete control and final approval over photo shoots,
and is savvy enough to charm even sceptical reporters, the star insists he gets a bum rap,
saying he used to try and combat his image as rock's most miserable icon, but now, well,
he just doesn't care.
"I've come to the point where I don't give a shit, really. Everyone's like, 'Oh, Mr. Gloom'
and all this. Fine," he says s the bus pulls into the tiled parking lot of the posh Doubletree
Inn. "That's me, but it's not all me. It's not really me. It's just who you want me to be.
"So here I am," he concludes. "project me to be the biggest fucking cunt in the world, if
you want. It's fine with me."