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COVER STORY : Natural Born Thriller : Trent Reznor is rock's most compelling new antihero. It just goes to show what years of KISS, Bowie, Pink Floyd and horror movies can do to your head.

October 02, 1994|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

SEATTLE — This world threw me away

This world never gave me a chance . . .

This world gonna have to pay.

--Lyrics by Trent Reznor

*

Forget, for a moment, all the talk about Trent Reznor's eerie, mud-caked performance at Woodstock '94 . . . or the self- loathing that made this year's "The Downward Spiral" perhaps the darkest album ever to crack the national Top 10.

Never mind the inquiries about his bloodthirsty "Natural Born Killers" soundtrack album . . . or why he lived for a year in the Benedict Canyon house where Sharon Tate and others were murdered by Charles Manson followers.

Rock's hottest new antihero will deal with all that and more later.

First, Reznor wants to talk about something that has been nagging him: questions, especially in the British press, about whether the rage that fuels his sometimes venomous music is genuine, and whether he isn't just a tad too eager to be a rock star.

These suspicions about Reznor arise in the Nirvana-inspired age of the reluctant superstar and are an outgrowth of the punk-rock code that frowns on theatrics and sees mainstream popularity as a sign of artistic compromise.

But growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, Reznor liked being entertained, from the fire-breathing theatrics of KISS to horror movies, the scarier the better. He enjoys punctuating his concerts and videos with dramatic lighting and other effects.

"I had some kid come up to me recently after he read some things and he was all upset," Reznor says, sitting in his hotel room here. "He said, 'I just want to ask you one question: You do mean what you write about, don't you?' "

Reznor pauses and shakes his head in exasperation.

"Yes," he says forcefully--as if to answer anyone else who is wondering. "I've felt everything you hear in those songs. It's all real.

"When I started writing, I did a couple of things that were just (expletive)," he says, smiling now at how bad it must have been. "At one point, I thought, 'I like the Clash. I'll write something like they would,' and I came up with this half-assed thing.

"So as an experiment, I started putting down how I felt inside, very private things--depressing things that you're not necessarily proud to say or that you want anyone else to hear. But it felt true, and it was amazing later when I'd look out and see people in the audience singing along."

Reznor, whose West Coast tour begins a four-day stand Monday at the Universal Amphitheatre, is on a roll now. He's got his boots propped up on a coffee table and he's addressing the second issue--the one about just how he is reacting to his rapidly escalating stardom.

"I came out of this (industrial rock) scene where it wasn't cool if too many people liked your band, and I started feeling uneasy around the time of the Lollapalooza tour (in 1991), when things started getting bigger," he continues. "I went around asking, 'Who are all these new fans? Why do they like our music? This isn't for them.'

"But I realized that it's stupid. It's not up to me to stand at the door and say, 'You are cool, you can come in, but you aren't cool, so stay away.'

"For one thing, I realized that I would never have been allowed in under those rules, because when I was growing up, I was never one of the kids that anyone called cool. That's where a lot of the anger started."

*

If D. A. Pennebaker, the noted documentary filmmaker who captured Bob Dylan and David Bowie at critical moments in their careers, wanted to make a movie about a contemporary rock figure, Reznor would be the ideal choice. The 29-year-old Nine Inch Nails leader is at the absolute center of the sociology of today's rock.

In his most powerful moments, he pushes the relatively polite alienation of most post-Nirvana bands to new levels of aggression.

Reznor, through the album "The Downward Spiral," uses some of the grotesque images of horror films and old-fashioned heavy-metal music and weaves them into such personalized tales of self-destruction and self-loathing that they become uncomfortably lifelike.

Nothing in the world of Nine Inch Nails seems off-limits--and the most unsettling part is that Reznor accompanies the stories with such a seductive musical assault that it's hard not to feel a certain visceral thrill when listening to it.

Like Bowie and Prince, Reznor senses a liberation in forcing an audience to confront its own sexual and social taboos. His videos are frequently filled with death, sadomasochism and perversion. In the 1992 video for "Happiness in Slavery," a man is turned into ground meat by a machine. (MTV passed.)

"The truth is I'm not a big fan of videos, but if we are going to make them, let's make them as interesting as possible," he explains. "I like the idea of subversively communicating with people . . . so that you make people see things in different ways. The same way with the live show. . . . When we started playing live, it was us just trying to play the music as honestly as we could.

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