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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.

"But as we went along, anger became more of a source of inspiration or energy. It could be anger at an apathetic audience or it could be from thinking back to how I was feeling when I wrote the song. Turning the whole thing into rock theater was more interesting to me than watching five guys dressed like gas station attendants with their heads down.

"To me, rock music was never meant to be safe. I think there needs to be an element of intrigue, mystery, subversiveness. Your parents should hate it. If it pisses you off, that's great. If you think I worship Satan because of something you see in the 'Closer' video, great."

Yet the heart of Reznor's artistry is his music. Beyond the shocking images of "The Downward Spiral"--the year's most compelling album--there is an anguished cry for something to believe in at a time when government and religion and family no longer seem to provide answers.

It was Bowie's "Low"--along with Pink Floyd's "The Wall"--that Reznor listened to in the months he was writing and recording "Downward Spiral." They are both icy, alienated works by which he measured his own feelings.

"I am the pusher, I am the whore . . . I am the need you have for more," he declares in "Mr. Self Destruct," describing an age in which obsessions and addictions have replaced morality and faith.

Interscope Records' Jimmy Iovine, who has worked as engineer or producer with Bruce Springsteen and U2, was so excited by Reznor's potential three years ago that he spent more than a year working out a Nine Inch Nails joint venture with TVT Records, which held the band's contract.

"Sometimes when you are looking at somebody new, you feel 50% sure about their talent or maybe even 75%, but with Trent I was 1,000%," Iovine says.

"A lot of people can play the guitar really well, and then there's Jimi Hendrix. A lot of people write really well, and then there is Bono or Kurt Cobain or Bruce. . . . These are people who bring something extra to what they do, a vision that is wholly unique, and that's Trent."

Rick Rubin, who is head of American Records and a rival of Iovine in the search for exciting, cutting-edge bands, is equally lavish with his praise.

"Trent is the most exciting musician of his generation, no question," says Rubin, who has produced records for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mick Jagger, Tom Petty and Slayer. "His whole vision blows me away."

You can learn a lot about some one by talking to the people who work with him. All too often in the pop world, managers and agents are reluctant to speak on the record about their clients because of fear they'll say something that will displease the star.

But Reznor manager John Malm Jr. and agent Gerry Gerrard are comfortable talking about their red-hot property.

They and others picture Reznor as someone who is totally devoted to his music and has endless creative energy. He produced the "Natural Born Killers" soundtrack album in a portable setup in his hotel room while on tour.

Given the mystery and provocation of his stage shows, videos and photos, you'd think Reznor always feels the need to play a role.

When the door opens to his hotel room, you half expect him to be waiting in the dark--the way Prince used to do interviews before he stopped talking to the press.

But sunshine fills the room and there's no trace of the anger you hear in the music or see onstage. Reznor is wearing a plain black sweat shirt, jeans and boots. The only hint of rock 'n' roll rebellion is two modest earrings, one dangling from each lobe. The room is surprisingly tidy for a rocker on the road. A portable tape player and some tapes are the only items on the dresser.

Reznor speaks easily and at length, eventually skipping the sound check to make sure all the questions are answered. He is polite and unusually articulate. He's not above flashes of temper, but they are no more frequent than those of most artists talking about the trials of their careers.

"I don't think my persona in the media is accurate," he says, picking up a cup of coffee from the table in front of him. "I'll do interviews and I'll talk to someone and I'll read it and it'll come out like I'm some vampire hanging in a corner--and I'm afraid that people will look at that and think that everything about me is a gimmick."

Because he is in the late Kurt Cobain's home state, the pressures of stardom come up. At the mention of Cobain, Reznor looks out the window and pauses.

"I wasn't the biggest Nirvana fan in the world," he says finally. "I have since realized that part of my negativity toward them was probably jealousy. Even after I realized they were a good band, there was no getting away from them. They were everywhere--on the radio, on MTV, in the papers. And when something hits me over the head constantly, my reaction is to want to get away from that.

"But when I heard that he killed himself, it was a sad feeling. Even at the level we are at, which is much lower than where Nirvana was, there are pressures that I have to deal with."

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