Singer, keyboardist, record company executive
When he was 23 years old, Trent Reznor formed the electronic, machine-driven, industrial music project that would launch his career to superstardom. Nine Inch Nails, the name Reznor attached to his creative endeavor, would also completely change his life in a matter of a few short years. “It’s a convenient fiction for me to work under,” Reznor told Musician when asked why he decided against incorporating his own name with that of the band. Nine Inch Nails—Reznor’s “convenient fiction”—would become musical fact by 1989 when it launched the previously underground industrial music genre into mainstream popularity.
Reznor grew up in Mercer, Pennsylvania, where he was raised by his grandparents after his parents divorced. His grandparents forced him to take piano lessons as a child. “I’d get into trouble because the way I played pieces was not the strict way you were meant to play them,” Reznor told RIP. “I’d add inflections to. it, play around with it, and you weren’t meant to do that.… I realized that it was a really expressive instrument. There came that moment when I realized how I felt through a musical instrument; I was around 12 or 13 when it struck me.”
As a teenager, Reznor joined his first band, the Innocence, where he played mostly covers of songs by Journey and the Fixx. After high school, he moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, where he played for a few months with a new wave band called Urge. He spent a year at Allegheny College studying computer engineering before moving again, this time to Cleveland, Ohio. While working a series of other odd jobs, Reznor got work as an assistant at Cleveland’s Right Track recording studios, where he began to work on the foundation of Nine Inch Nails (NIN, which uses a backward second N in its graphic design) during his off hours. Reznor also played in a variety of other bands including the Exotic Birds, Slam Bamboo, Lucky Pierre, and the fictional band Problems, whose only appearance took place at the end of the 1987 movie Light of Day.
Despite his other projects, Reznor continued to develop and promote his own aggressive, industrial music. Nettwerk Records first expressed interest in signing NIN, and sent Reznor and a hired live band on tour with Skinny Puppy. However, Nettwerk couldn’t offer Reznor a record contract at the time because of the label’s financial position. In the late 1980s, Reznor sent a demo of his music to Tee Vee Toons Records (TVT) in New York. The independent label’s greatest success had come from compilations of television theme songs, but
For the Record…
Born c. 1965; raised in Mercer, PA. Education: Attended Allegheny College.
Joined band the Urge in Erie, PA, following high school; moved to Cleveland, OH; played in bands, including the Exotic Birds, Slam Bamboo, Lucky Pierre, and the Problems; created concept for Nine Inch Nails, c. 1988; signed with TVT Records and released debut album Pretty Hate Machine, 1989; performed on Lollapalooza festival tour, 1991; signed with Interscope Records and formed own label, Nothing Records, 1991; mixed soundtrack LP for Oliver Stone’s film Natural Born Killers, 1994; featured artist at Woodstock II, 1994.
Awards: Grammy Award for best metal performance with vocal, 1993, for Broken.
Addresses: Record company —Nothing Records, 2337 West 11th St., Suite 7, Cleveland, OH 44113; or TVT/Interscope Records, 10900 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1230, Los Angeles, CA 90024. Management —Formula Public Relations, 225 Lafayette St., Suite 603, New York, NY 10012.
TVT owner Steve Gottlieb believed in Reznor’s music—and in the NIN project—enough to sign him to the label.
In 1989, TVT released NIN’s first album, Pretty Hate Machine, which Reznor wrote and co-produced, and on which he performed all instrumental and vocal tracks. The album’s first singles, “Down in It” and “Head Like a Hole,” sparked interest in the band and were huge club hits; they were followed by the release of the single “Sin.” As critic Vic Garbarini of Musician noted of Reznor, “Though often painted as some bitter, lost soul, his music suggests deeper yearnings toward faith, hope, even charity.” After the release of Pretty Hate Machine, NIN went on tour, opening for such acts as the Jesus and Mary Chain and Peter Murphy.
Recognition and press attention increased quickly for Reznor and NIN. “I lived a fairly average, anonymous, small-town life till I got the idea to do Nine Inch Nails,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Then, I locked myself in a studio for a year, and then got off the tour bus two years after that, and I didn’t know who I’d turned into.” In 1990 some misplaced footage from the video for “Down in It” landed in the hands of the FBI. The video showed a half-naked man being thrown from a building, and the FBI thought they had stumbled across a videotape of an actual murder. They quickly launched an investigation, only to discover that the half-naked man was Reznor, whom they found very much alive, on tour with the Jesus and Mary Chain. The FBI ended up with an embarrassing situation, while Reznor gained even more publicity.
As the success of Pretty Hate Machine grew, Reznor and his touring version of NIN were asked to play the first annual Lollapalooza festival tour of alternative music bands. Lollapalooza sent Reznor’s debut album soaring to platinum status and he garnered heavy video rotation on MTV with “Head Like a Hole.” But once the profits rolled in, Reznor and TVT saw different directionsfor NIN’s next recording. According to Reznor, TVT and Gottlieb tried to force him toward more commercial accessibility. Reznor argued with the label over videos, singles, and tour support and insisted that TVT had not paid him the royalties he had earned. Attempting to sever his contract with the label, he ended up involved in a lawsuit. Several other record labels wanted to purchase Reznor’s contract, but TVT wouldn’t sell.
Reznor kept NIN touring for two years after the release of Pretty Hate Machine just to keep up with legal costs. Finally, he decided to return to the long-missed recording studio to work on a new NIN album. Reznor and his producer checked into recording studios using fake band names such as the Stunt Popes, because if the name NIN appeared on anything, TVT would have legally owned the sessions.
Interscope Records, determined to get NIN on their label, negotiated a joint venture with TVT. Contractually, Reznor would strictly deal with Interscope, but TVT would still get a percentage of the profits. When the ink dried, Reznor presented his next effort to Interscope, a six-song EP with two bonus tracks titled Broken. Most of the songs on the EP lyrically express Reznor’s anger toward TVT and how the whole situation had affected him. “Broken was a hard recording to make,” Reznor wrote in his bio for the EP. “Broken is an ugly record made during an ugly time in my life. Broken marks phase three of Nine Inch Nails: the becoming.”
Reznor recorded two cover versions of songs as the unlisted bonus tracks on Broken, industrial band Pig-face’s “Suck” and post-punker Adam Ant’s “Physical.” Released under his own newly formed Nothing label—in conjunction with Interscope and TVT—the EP reached Number Seven on the Billboard charts. In 1993, it earned Reznor a Grammy Award for best metal performance with vocal. That same year, Reznor released a limited-edition CD of various remixes of tracks from Broken. The CD, titled Fixed, displays the interpretation of the material through the ears of members of bands like Foetus and Coil. Interscope/Nothing/TVT released only 50,000 copies in the United States.
Following the release of Broken, Reznor moved to Los Angeles to start work on the 1994 release The Downward Spiral. He recorded the album in his own Le Pig studios in the Sharon Tate mansion, where actress Tate and others had been brutally murdered by the Charles Manson family in 1969. Reznor would be the last person to live in the house before its destruction.
Reznor adopted a new musical approach on The Downward Spiral. As he described it to Musician, “The starting point [on Broken ] was to make a dense record. We approached the new one from the opposite point of view—a record with holes everywhere.” The Downward Spiral, which debuted on the Billboard charts at Number Two, was written as a concept album about someone who systematically examines himself and everything around him—from comfort to delusion—to discover his own identity and purpose. “I think the very act of wanting to discover and uncover unpleasantries is itself positive,” Reznor told Guy Garcia of Time. “The act of trying to rid yourself of these demons, to prepare yourself for the worst, is a positive thing.”
Together with bass player Lohner, guitarist Robin Finck, keyboardist James Woolley, and longtime friend and drummer Vrenna, Reznor’s stage shows—like his heavily censored videos for MTV—reflect the violence and sexual imagery around which he builds his music. “I think Nine Inch Nails are big enough and mainstream enough to gently lead people into the back room a little bit,” he told Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Gold. “I think that back room could represent anything that an individual might consider taboo yet intriguing, anything we’re conditioned to abhor. Why do you watch horror films? Why do you look at an accident when you drive past, secretly hoping that you see some gore?”
Reznor defends the theatricality of his musical persona. “I’m not trying to hide,” he explained to Gold. “Or make up for a lack of songs, but essentially Nine Inch Nails are theater. What we do is closer to Alice Cooper than Pearl Jam.” Though sometimes accused of “putting on” the trappings of a bizarre personality for his fan’s benefit, Reznor admits to honest bouts of depression. “When I think back as far as I can remember, I’ve always had an element of melancholy that I should probably have therapy for,” Reznor admitted in Alternative Press. “But I’m making a career of it. I’m intensely afraid of people, and I don’t like to be in social situations. I feel uncomfortable, and I think my shyness and quietness is often misinterpreted as standoffishness.… I’m not trying to be a rock god. I have a multitude of split personalities.”
In this assessment, noted film director Oliver Stone would probably agree. Commenting on both Reznor and rap artist Dr. Dre—whose work Stone chose as musical accompaniment to his 1994 film Natural Born Killers —the director told Steve Hochman of the Los Angeles Times: “I admire both artists very much. They’re young and obviously troubled people and their lyrics and music reflect that.… There’s something going on in our world.… It’s a violent society, violent system, and corrupt—the system, the media, the government.” Stone had so much respect for Reznor’s musical ideas that he chose him to put together the film’s soundtrack album.
“I’m not any more happy or content with my life than I was 10 years ago,” Reznor told Musician in 1994. “I got everything I wanted in my life … except I don’t really have a life now.… I’ve turned myself into this music-creation-performance machine.” As long as his melancholy and multiple personalities inspire him to continue writing music that breaks the boundaries of commercially successful hits, Reznor will continue to flood the senses of whoever will listen with his industrial brand of aggression known as Nine Inch Nails.
Pretty Hate Machine (includes “Down in It,” “Head Like A Hole,” “Terrible Lie,” and “Sin,”) TVT, 1989.
Broken (EP), Nothing/Interscope/TVT, 1992.
Fixed (maxi CD single), Nothing/lnterscope/TVT, 1993.
The Downward Spiral, Nothing/Interscope/TV, 1994.
Alternative Press, April 1994.
Billboard, March 19, 1994; April 2, 1994.
B-Side, June 1990; February 1994.
Chaos Control, issue 1.
CMJ New Music Report, February 28, 1994.
Creem, May 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, March 18, 1994.
Guitar Player, April 1994.
Guitar World, April 1994.
Keyboard, March 1994.
Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1994; August 14, 1994.
Melody Maker, December 5, 1992; March 12, 1994; March 26, 1994.
Musician, November 1992; January 1993; March 1994.
Request, April 1994.
RIP, April 1993; June 1994.
Rolling Stone, January 21, 1993; March 24, 1994; September 8, 1994.
Spin, March 1992; December 1992; May 1994.
Time, April 25, 1994.
Village Voice, April 5, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Formula Public Relations press material, 1992 and 1994.
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