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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.

Reznor looks again through the window and gathers his thoughts.

"It's like I worked hard at something and I achieved more than I ever thought was possible," he says. "At the same time, the price for me is a bit of normality. On a spiritual and human level, I still have a ways to go. There's a whole world of living out there that I don't know about. . . .

"I had a pretty serious relationship with someone that I realized I couldn't have, because no person can deal with what I'm doing. It's hard to have someone who understands that I'm going to be in the studio for the next six months, then I'll be on tour for a year.

"I once thought that all this (success) would bring you happiness, turn you into the life of the party, but that's all very immature. You get a taste of all that and you realize that's not it. So you go on searching."

Like millions of other kids, young Reznor was often told that he was just wasting his time listening to rock 'n' roll and watching horror movies--starting with "The Exorcist" and through all the Freddy and Jason shockers. But those are two of the influences that shaped his artistic vision.

The other, apparently, was life in tiny Mercer, Pa., near the Ohio border. One reason he is fascinated with life on the extreme, he says, is because he grew up in a place that was so conventional.

"There was nothing going on culturally. The place was much like the town in 'Blue Velvet'--trees, cornfields," he says, referring to the David Lynch film. "The rest of the world was a million miles away. It wasn't bad, but it just instilled in me that I don't want to end up here.

"I felt like an outsider because everything was based on things I didn't care about, primarily athletics. If you were on the football team, you were a celebrity. If you were in the band or took art class, like me, you were an outsider."

Reznor--who lived with his grandparents after his parents were divorced when he was 5--was raised Protestant and went to Sunday school for a while, but he eventually rebelled.

"The truth is it bored the life out of me and a lot of questions I had weren't answered," he says. "I also thought a lot of the members of my church were hypocrites, that the whole thing was a sham."

After high school, he went to nearby Allegheny College, where he studied computer engineering for a year. He still felt like an outsider, and turned to music for comfort.

The good thing about college was discovering a new world of music--synthesizer-based bands, such as Kraftwerk and Einsturzende Neubauten that he never heard on the mainstream radio stations that he could pick up in Mercer.

"I liked technology and electronics. I liked the way it sounded . . . the idea that you could make a record with a machine," Reznor recalls. "It was more interesting than guitar-bass-drum bands."

After a year, he left college and moved to Cleveland, which was the closest rock scene to Mercer.

Reznor had no idea of how to get into the music business, so he started working at a Cleveland recording studio doing odd jobs--including cleaning the toilets.

More than the $200 a month salary, the job gave him a chance to learn the recording process. Whenever the studio wasn't in use, he was given the run of the place.

The young keyboardist played in various groups but couldn't find other musicians who were as serious as he was about music. Around that time, he met Malm, who would become his manager.

"Trent was very soft-spoken, quiet, but he stood out," Malm recalls in a separate interview. "He was talented and very driven. One day he brought me a tape (that he made) and asked me to listen to it."

Malm loved the tape--which included early versions of some of the songs that would be included on "Pretty Hate Machine," the 1989 debut album that Reznor released under the stage name Nine Inch Nails. (Since then he has continued to make albums on his own, using a band only for live shows.)

Reznor remembers the tape as his moment of truth.

"I think my greatest fear after those years of dreaming about making music was to discover I really didn't have anything to say . . . ," he says. "I think the reason I was 23 before I ever wrote a song was that I was afraid of testing myself. What would I do if I discovered I didn't have anything to say?"

T hings moved relatively fast for the new team. Reznor and Malm signed in 1989 with TVT Records, a small New York label that gave them a $45,000 recording budget. The key attraction, Malm says, was a promise of total artistic freedom.

But tensions surfaced early between Reznor and the label, Malm says. And they didn't improve as "Pretty Hate Machine" became such an underground hit (about 250,000 copies sold) that Nine Inch Nails was invited to join the first Lollapalooza tour. The band ended up stealing the show and saw the sales of its album increase dramatically during the brief tour.

Asked about the source of the friction between him and TVT, Reznor says simply "everything."

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