Cleveland Free Time April 2000


Synthetic mammaries make the world go 'round. At least the mainstream music world. For now. Five years ago Britney Spears was a flat-chested Star Search casualty. Now she and her betesticled counterparts rule the charts with the iron fists of pubescent pop Stalins. The inexplicable rise of Stridex pop to record-smashing omnipotence is truly one of the great mysteries of the universe, right up there with the Bermuda Triangle, the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa's cadaver and how the butt-faced Kid Rock manages to get laid. What, then, is a 34-year-old industrial rock iconoclast to do?

"Maybe I'm obsolete," Trent Reznor says in the wake of his five-year hiatus from releasing records. "But I still expect a lot from music, I still love music. I've always read the liner notes, I want to listen to a song 100 times to find the hidden meaning and look for the depth and follow the artist's career if I'm interested in them. I'd like to think that there are still people that have that passion for music."

But it's a bit much to ask the masses to be passionate about something that itself is so bereft of emotion, which is why Reznor has returned to the fold, to crack open mainstream music's chest and parade around the gore to prove that a heart still beats within.

Blood is sex -or so it seems in this world of peeled skin and screaming sores. Misery hangs heavy in the air, as does the body. The subject is bound, arms above head. The masked captor is visibly aroused. Eyes widened in anticipation are mirrored in the gleam of the blade. Capillaries burst. Wounds cry rivers. Teeth are extracted, genitals severed. Death comes; the corpse is raped. The marriage of agony and ecstasy is consummated.

Much like the arena in which he toils, Trent Reznor is somewhat damaged.

The scenes from this astoundingly horrific mock snuff film demonstrate this. Set to the metallic throb of Nine Inch Nails' Grammy-winning Broken EP, the video was meant to accompany that album's release, but was wisely deemed far too graphic for public consumption and never made available. What it provides is a 30-minute glimpse into the depths of Reznor's notoriously grim persona, ironically shedding light on the man through impenetrable darkness.

Perhaps the biggest thorn in Reznor's side on his rise to platinum preeminence is the question of how genuine his angst really is. He proffers it up so readily, perpetually clad in black and often disconsolate in the rare interviews he grants, that he has become the poster boy of melancholia. So much so, in fact, that it has caused some critics to dismiss Reznor as a terminally depressed window-dresser whose exaggerated misery has caused him to become a caricature of himself. Reznor's detractors, however, need spend but half an hour in the company of the aforementioned video for proof positive of the authenticity of Reznor's dark side. Anyone that would give their seal of approval to such a profoundly unsettling piece of work has issues -but then again, so does everyone with a pulse.

No heart beats in the breast of a signal processor. The fact that Reznor would choose electronic music - based on the precision and perfection of mechanics -to express his very imperfect emotions makes little sense. But so what? Emotions have little to do with cognition or logic; they're instinctive, intuitive -expressly human. By blending introspection with machinery, Reznor took hard electronic music and attached a human face to its steely facade. He created a new form of mechanical emotiveness, one that mated the dour moodiness of synth pop pioneers like New Order and Depeche Mode with the icy-veined aggressiveness of industrial front-runners Skinny Puppy and Ministry to create a more humanistic form of electronic music.

And he did it in Cleveland. Born in the small western Pennsylvania town of Mercer, Reznor moved to Cleveland in the mid-'80s after dropping out of Allegheny College, where he studied computer engineering. After spending time in Top 40 cover band the Urge, Reznor joined the Innocent, a mainstream rock act in which he sang and played keyboards, and which landed some opening dates for Bryan Adams at one point. After his tenure in the Innocent ended, Reznor worked at Pi Keyboards and Audio and spent time in local acts the Exotic Birds and Slam Bam Boo, while also playing with Lucky Pierre (fronted by Kevin McMahon, whose band, Prick, Reznor would later sign to his Nothing Records). Reznor then secured a position as an engineer at Right Track Studios, where he doubled as janitor to get free recording time.

"He did all kinds of menial tasks as he learned how to engineer," says Bart Koster, the former owner of Right Track Studios who hired Reznor. "He became a good engineer because he had his own agenda, he wanted to do his own music, which he did. I let him have the studio time for free. He worked at nights after he got done doing sessions during the day or mopping the floor."

Reznor used this time to create the demo that he would shop around, eventually landing a deal with TVT Records, which resulted in Nine Inch Nails' debut, Pretty Hate Machine.

"I remembered we all gathered in the studio and listened to the final master tapes once they got them back from the mastering plant," Koster says. "Anybody would say that I'm going to be biased, but I'm not going to compliment somebody unless they deserve it, and I thought that album was as significant for its time as Remain In Light by the Talking Heads was in its day. I think it had that much of an impact, probably even more of an impact. Every commercial you hear these days has a Nine Inch Nails-derivative sound.

"I have to say," continues Koster, "the guy was truly driven and they knew what they were doing; they were seriously researching the marketplace. In hindsight I can say by what I watched them doing and the things he showed interest in -he'd be talking about obscure bands at the time, Ministry, etc. -that I really think he had his finger on the pulse of where it was going to go, and I don't think he even realized he was going to be making it go that direction."

"It was magical," says former Nine Inch Nails tour manager Mark O'Shea, who worked with the band from 1989 through 1995.

"Magical in several things: the fact that it was a different sound, the fact that everyone involved in the organization put their heart and soul into it, and the only reason we did that was because we knew that the person we were working for was putting his heart and soul into it. I think everyone that was involved in the early days was a perfectionist, and Trent's a perfectionist, and none of those guys wouldn't ask you to do something if he wouldn't do it himself. That's why I admired him."

While Reznor's attention to detail and technical expertise paid dividends in the studio, onstage it was another story, as Reznor struggled at first to make Nine Inch Nails work in a live setting.

"Ultimately what happened was he put out a great record and then when he actually went to do the initial live thing, it was pretty much a failure, because he couldn't properly execute what he did in the studio himself within the context of a live band with players and band interaction and band dynamics at first," says Jason Pettigrew, senior editor of Alternative Press magazine, which has featured Reznor on its cover five times.
But with the addition of Richard Patrick's propulsive guitar, heating the band beyond its boiling point, the Nails would finally develop their legs onstage -the better to kick in toothy grins with -and it was the band's volatile live shows that were instrumental in developing their following, which would see them slowly go platinum.

"It was new for all of us, really," says Lee Mars, chief audio engineer at Beachwood Studios and keyboard player for the first Nine Inch Nails headlining tours. "I had never been on the road before. Those guys had been on the road opening for groups, but it was the first time the Nails were headlining. People were coming to see the Nails as opposed to coming see Peter Murphy and 'Oh, OK, who's this opening band?' You knew people were coming to see you and they were psyched to be there. It was a very tight and powerful, aggressive show, and that's the way Trent wanted it. He wanted it to be impactful. He wanted people to get slammed, hit in the face, and walk out of there going 'Wow!' And I think he achieved that."

After extended touring, Reznor would build on his early success with the bruising Broken EP, which foreshadowed a violent turning away from the dancefloor-friendly Pretty Hate Machine toward the bleak electronic nihilism that would manifest itself on 1994's The Downward Spiral. A 65-minute sonic suicide note, The Downward Spiral assaulted eardrums with what initially sounded like close-range gunfire sending fatal bullets into Reznor's sales prospects. Instead it sold five million copies worldwide en route to becoming one of the most noncommercial-sounding smash albums ever made.

But after Reznor's greatest triumph came setbacks. After over a year on the road, Reznor went into the studio to produce Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar, a harrowing process that would begin to sever Manson and Reznor's friendship as Reznor found himself at an emotional low point. When he finally returned to work on the much-anticipated follow-up to The Downward Spiral, Reznor encountered an extended period of writer's block. Thus it would be over five years, a full two of which were spent in the recording studio, before Reznor would finally deliver another Nine Inch Nails record in the form of The Fragile.

Monolithic and cement dense, The Fragile is Reznor's most richly textured and expansive effort yet. With touches of guarded optimism, Reznor begins to paint a fuller picture of himself, and starts inching away from the pervasive pessimism that saturated The Downward Spiral. And while it's certainly not difficult to find examples of artists in the electronic realm who push the parameters of the genre to a greater extent than Reznor does, the fact that Reznor works within the rather narrow confines of mainstream music makes his forward-thinking all the more impressive, as it's done in an environment where growth often is commercially disastrous.

But Reznor may finally be paying the consequences of having ambition in a medium that generally frowns upon such a thing. After debuting at number one on the Billboard Top 200 last September and selling close to 800,000 copies thus far, The Fragile has fallen off the charts quicker than industry prognosticators expected. And while the album will likely attain double platinum status (being a double record, each disc is counted for sales certification), in the wake of the much more successful The Downward Spiral, there is evidence of an ebb in Nine Inch Nails' fan base. At least part of The Fragile's modest sales thus far is likely due to the band's absence from American shores since the album's release. Nine Inch Nails have been touring Europe, Japan and, most recently, Australia, as part of that country's Big Day Out festival.

"I was pleasantly surprised to see that the audiences were really into it," Reznor says. "It was a nice reintroduction to going back on the road. We didn't know what to expect, but the experiences were good and it made us look forward to doing the kind of show we think is right for America. The tour we did in Europe, Australia and Japan was a bit more well-rounded, a greatest-hits-style package. I feel that the American audiences are more scrutinizing. We've restructured every element of the show to the point where I wouldn't take out projections this time because we had already done that here [on the last tour]. Even though somebody who is 15 now would have been 10 the last time we played, I don't want to repeat myself."

Their lack of presence stateside in recent months notwithstanding, Nine Inch Nails' decline in terms of commercial wherewithal is more of a commentary on the dilapidated state of mainstream music than a reflection of the quality of the band's output. With mainstream rock currently in a period of unparalleled banality at the hands of Creed and Limp Bizkit -where hybridization (rap/rock, blues/electronica) has supplanted innovation -Nine Inch Nails is one of the few acts even attempting to push the envelope in popular music.

"The music lover in me says it has to get better; I hope to Christ it can't get worse," Reznor says. "It's a sad state for music on a bunch of levels. I've experienced it myself firsthand as the kind of act that isn't easily marketed. I'm getting resistance every step of the way. I think what's creeped up with all these mergers is that what was promised to a lot of different artists was 'Oh, nothing is going to change, it's just a different financial structure.' Now it's trickled down to the bean-counters who are solely concerned with quarterly profits. Any band that doesn't show giant financial potential is written off. The climate right now would not support bands like Jane's Addiction, the Pixies or Nirvana. What it does support is disposable, immediate turn-around. If it's not hot today, so what, there's something else that's going to be there in place of that. And I think that's reduced peoples' expectations of music.

"A lot of artists -including myself -are getting squeezed and it's not about art anymore, but about being on Total Request Live and being shiny and golden, wearing the right clothes and kissing the right ass. I got D'Angelo's record the other day, because I like some of what he does. I read the liner notes, and he's kinda just ranting, but he's got some good points in there. You're complimented much more on your business affairs than on your talent."
For all his efforts at keeping mainstream music at least semi-interesting, Reznor has gone largely unheralded in the city where he got his start. While he's one of the most prominent musicians ever to come out of Cleveland, he's certainly not accorded favorite son status. In Chicago, the first of two upcoming Nine Inch Nails shows sold out in 12 minutes, but in Cleveland tickets were still available for the band's tour-opening performance three weeks after having gone on sale. And while Reznor will perform in front of a sold-out crowd, this town's acknowledgment of him is almost begrudging.

Cleveland is good at paying lip service to its self-anointed status as the "birthplace of rock and roll." For credibility, we point to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -an institution that's located in Cleveland not so much for the town's musical heritage but because this city simply outbid others for it -yet ignore our most noteworthy contribution to rock in decades. While this town certainly wasn't rock and roll's birthplace, rock music has received many facelifts here, most recently at Reznor's hands. He's had as much an influence on mainstream rock in the past 10 years as any artist who doesn't sleep with angels. So why the cold shoulder?

"People who live here, they don't really understand what I do; they don't understand what Trent does," says Mars of Beachwood Studios. "It's sort of like the idea of having musicians here in Cleveland, that you can be a musician or an engineer or work in film or video; most people don't get it, they have no concept of what an artist is in Cleveland. That's been my experience."

Others view Reznor's relatively low profile in Cleveland as little more than petty resentment over Nine Inch Nails' success and the way Reznor went about achieving it.

"This town is big on ego and short on geography," Pettigrew says. "He didn't want to do the typical 'I'm gonna play down at the Euclid Tavern on the weekend' thing. He decided he was just going to make the most creative, strong artistic statement -write good songs, rehearse them, try out studio techniques -and he was interested in making a really good piece of work as opposed to just doing all that dues-paying bullshit.

"There's a lot of people in this town who are small who think, 'Why him? I've been playing in my band for 14 years now and I still can't make more than \$100 on a weekend.' It's just a lot of that type of thing, really."

Because of this situation, Reznor has always had an on-again/off-again relationship with Cleveland. Though the seeds of his success were sown in Cleveland -he started his label here, which still has an office in Rocky River -Reznor abandoned the city long ago, moving to L.A., then New Orleans, where he currently resides. And though he's launching his first American tour in five years here, it turns out to be strictly for logistical reasons.
"I had nothing to do with that!" Reznor says with a laugh. "It was all routing. I thought that we were originally starting the tour two weeks earlier in Colorado. The way it was routed was contingent upon who was playing the areas at the time and the kind of venues that were available. And I am really over my dislike of Cleveland; I have fond memories of the place. But I haven't been there that much lately."

Too bad the same thing can't be said of the Backstreet Boys.

Some material in this story was provided by Jason Pettigrew.

Published April 12 - 18, 2000 - by Jason Bracelin