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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.

About Reznor, Steve Gottlieb, president of TVT Records, says: "Trent is a musical genius, and one of the most inspired artists of our time. In spite of our problematic working relationship, I have nothing but the utmost love and admiration of his creative output."

Aware of Reznor's potential, major labels raced forward to try to get the band away from TVT.

Jimmy Iovine, who had just started Interscope, was among those pursuing Nine Inch Nails. He worked out a complicated joint-venture agreement with TVT that assured Reznor the freedom he wanted.

Much of the anger from "The Downward Spiral" is a reflection of his depressions during the TVT days of uncertainty, Reznor says.

"When I started making 'Downward Spiral,' I was also very depressed and the theme of self-destruction was heavily on my mind," he says, sitting in the hotel room. "I wanted to make a record that explored the feeling that makes you feel so isolated that you feel self-destructive about everything in your life. I even plotted out the different ways you can go about destroying yourself. It was my attempt to chip away at all the darkness inside."

Reznor was thinking about recording the album in Los Angeles, which led him by accident in early 1993 to the Tate house. Looking for a place to live here, he drove around with a realtor one afternoon, looking at several houses, including one in Benedict Canyon that impressed him because of the isolation and the lovely view.

When plans fell through for an alternative recording site in New Orleans, where Reznor now lives, he decided to rent the Benedict Canyon house, whose history he had since learned.

"I didn't rent it because someone had been murdered there or for publicity, and I certainly don't give a (expletive) about Charles Manson," Reznor says. "I just loved the view. If it affected the way the record sounded, it was simply because it was so isolated. I'd go for a week without leaving the place."

The decision this year to play Woodstock was strictly for money, not for a stake in rock history. The Woodstock fee--a cool $250,000--would help finance Nine Inch Nails' high touring costs.

"The first Woodstock meant nothing to me, historically or whatever, and I didn't have any interest in being a spokesman for a generation or any of that crap," he says. "The idea was just go in and play and leave the statements to the rest of the bands."

But he got into the spirit of the weekend once he got to Woodstock and saw 300,000 people trying to have fun in the mud. So, on the way to the stage, he tripped his guitar player, who fell flat into the mud. The result was the whole band ended up in a mud match.

"It wasn't like a calculated move, but it might have been some subconscious attempt to identify with the fans," Reznor says. "One thing that kind of disturbed me about the whole weekend was the fans had all these horrible conditions, the rain and all--and the bands have a trailer and shower and nice place to sleep. The mud kind of made us all one."

Nine Inch Nails' Seattle show is at the Center Arena, which is next to the grounds on which the public memorial was held for Kurt Cobain in April.

"There was an honesty to both bands that I like, but Nirvana tended to look at things in a more positive way, while Nine Inch Nails tends to be darker, which is what I like because it's closer to how I feel sometimes," says Ben Beranek, an 18-year-old fan as he stands outside the arena, watching some girls pass by.

Unlike most hard-rock bands, Nine Inch Nails draws a high percentage of females--a sign of Reznor's sex appeal.

"What can I say," says Julie Torres, 18, of Seattle. "He's sexy and scary."

You watch some of the young faces and you can imagine the look on Reznor's face the first time he saw "The Exorcist" back in Mercer.

In the audience during "Closer," a boy, no more than 14, sings every word as aggressively as Reznor does onstage:

*

I want to (expletive) you like an animal.

My whole existence is flawed.

You get me closer to God.

*

Nine Inch Nails' tour runs through February, but Reznor is already thinking about the future.

"I'm very much aware of the dangers of becoming a cliche . . . Mr. Anger, someone who gets meaner, angrier on record," Reznor said earlier in the day in his hotel room. "When I don't feel it, I won't write about it anymore. I promise you that. I don't care if no one buys a record ever again."

But is there any happiness in Reznor's life?

"On a career level, I feel very happy," he says. "I'm so surprised that Woodstock turned out the way it did. It's like we just stepped up another plateau. 'Downward Spiral' debuted at No. 2 on the charts. I'm happy about that. No reservations.

"That's why I want to begin work immediately on another record as soon as the tour is over. I've never gone into the studio in this (frame of mind). . . . My goal for the next album is to make it anti-'Downward Spiral' in terms of something that is not heavily produced."

What about the themes?

"Well," he says, with the flash of a smile, "don't look for my 'married and happy' album yet."

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