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Nine Inch Nails: Self-Destruct
By Martin Huxley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Martin Huxley
All rights reserved.
"Maybe my obsessive desire to find extremes has to do with growing up where nothing ever happened," Trent Reznor would later say, and the details of his early life would seem to bear this out.
Michael Trent Reznor was born at 7:30 on the morning of May 17, 1965 in Mercer, Pennsylvania, a rural farming town (population approximately 2,500) in the state's northwest corner. Mike Reznor — who had worked as a commercial artist and interior designer as well as being an amateur bluegrass musician — had married Nancy Clark while both were still in their teens, not long before Trent's birth. Since there was already one Michael in the family, their son was always called by his middle name. Trent's parents split up shortly after his sister Tera, his only sibling, was born in 1971. After that, Trent — who as a child suffered from allergies to cats, dust, grass and ragweed — lived mainly with his maternal grandparents, while Tera stayed with Nancy, who lived nearby.
Like many children of his generation — including his fellow future alternative-rock icons Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder — Trent was the product of a broken home, offering much ammunition to those who would subsequently attempt to peg the anger and loneliness in his later work as a reflection of his separation from his parents. Reznor has generally downplayed the issue, though he admits, "I know I haven't come to terms with all that shit. I just felt sort of ... off to the side."
As he would tell Alternative Press in 1990, "My grandparents are good people and good parents, but I feel like anybody does whose parents split up — kind of ripped off. I'm not going to make it out to be some big fucking kind of deal. Subconsciously, it may have some kind of effect, but it didn't seem to be that bad. You just realize you're not on Happy Days. It's the real world; you need to ignore what you are programmed by sitcoms to think your life should be. I don't really think about it and I don't put any blame on anybody. My parents were young. I would have done the same thing, I'm sure."
Despite his parents' breakup — and despite his subsequent image as an avatar of alienation — by most accounts Trent had a happy and healthy boyhood. Though he has since painted himself as a childhood outcast, not everyone remembers it that way. "He was always a good kid," his grandfather Bill Clark told People magazine in 1995, remembering Trent as a Boy Scout who enjoyed fishing, skateboarding and building model planes. And music.
"Music was his life," said Clark, "from the time he was a wee boy. He was so gifted."
In addition to studying saxophone and trumpet, Trent showed serious potential as a classical piano prodigy, and was encouraged by his family to pursue his nascent talent. "It came really naturally to me," he would later recall in an interview with Spin. "Knowing that I was good at something played an important role in my confidence. I was always shy, uncomfortable around people. I slipped by. But with music, I didn't."
Those who knew Trent as a teenager describe him as clean cut and popular. He played tenor sax in the Mercer Junior and Senior High jazz and marching bands. "I considered him to be very upbeat and friendly," recalled Mercer band director Hendley Hoge. "I think all that 'dark avenging angel' stuff is marketing, Trent making a career for himself."
"I hated school ... I fucking hated it," Reznor claims. "The fact is that it revolved around something you didn't have access to. If you weren't on the football team, if you were in the band, you were a leper. When people say those were the best years of our lives, I want to scream."
Reznor recalls his first childhood role model being Steve Austin, TV's Six Million Dollar Man, whose bionic programming enabled him to transcend human frailties. The character appealed to him, he told Details, "probably because I wasn't the biggest kid in the class and I wasn't the athletic superstar football player. I always thought he was cool. The day the Bionic Woman died on The Six Million Dollar Man, that was a tearful day in our household. When I think back, I had a degree of feeling mildly depressed, of melancholiness." Years later, Trent would regularly use the name Steve Austin as his alias when checking into hotels while on tour.
Despite the built-in cultural limitations of his small-town environs, he recalls being raised in what he described to Musician as a "liberating, questioning environment." "My parents allowed me to do things that my friends weren't allowed to do. I smoked pot with my dad the first time. I didn't have to be in by midnight. It was an open environment. And when I moved away I didn't completely fuck myself up or become a drug addict, like some of my friends who had a more oppressive home life."
While he may have spent more time with his grandparents during his formative years, it's obvious that Mike Reznor — who remains an avid Nine Inch Nails supporter — was a major influence on young Trent. "My dad and I are best friends. He's pretty much responsible for the way I turned out," he has said. "He would provide a little artistic inspiration here and there in the form of a guitar, stuff like that."
Still, Trent found life in the cultural backwater of Mercer to be stifling. He would later describe his hometown as "a nice little picturesque one-horse, one-McDonald's kind of town. I go back there now and it's like 'What a nice pleasant place,' but not a place to grow up in.
"My scope of travel was maybe a half-hour radius, and every little town had the same Kmart and Cineplex playing the same five movies, all Sylvester Stallone," he told Musician. "It's hard for people who've grown up in cities to understand that, to have an endless cornfield for your backyard. But that's what a lot of America is — it's not dodging gunfire from gangs."
Reznor would later theorize that his subsequent embrace of musical and psychological extremes stems from a "desire to escape from Small Town, U.S.A., to dismiss the boundaries, to explore. My life experience came from watching movies, watching TV and reading books and looking at magazines. And when your fucking culture comes from watching TV every day, you're bombarded with images of things that seem cool, places that seem interesting, people who have jobs and careers and opportunities. None of that happened where I was. You're almost taught to realize it's not for you.
"Growing up, I so wanted to get the fuck out of where I was, away from the mediocrity and mundaneness of rural life," he told Spin. "Anything extreme caught my attention. I was intrigued with the limit, the movie that scared the shit out of me, the book — I had a huge collection of scary comic books when I was a kid.
"I remember seeing The Exorcist when I was eleven or twelve," he recalls. "It fucked me up permanently because it was the most terrifying thing I could ever imagine. I couldn't discredit it like I could Alien. Because I'd been fed all this bullshit by Christianity that said yes, this could happen."
If his musical studies helped boost Trent's confidence, they also served to intensify the budding prodigy's sense of alienation from his peers. "It wasn't cool to play music where I was from. You had to be an athlete," he told Rolling Stone. "The teachers in my school were shitty for the most part, and I got a pretty bad education because I had a bad attitude. If I wanted to get good grades, I could. Stuff I'd like to know now, at the time, I thought was irrelevant; typical teenage stupidity."
Despite his shyness, Trent came out of his shell long enough to play prominent roles in his high school's productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Music Man, as Judas and Professor Harold Hill respectively. He was even voted "Best in Drama" by his classmates. But any theatrical aspirations he may have had went up in smoke the first time Trent heard Kiss.
"Kiss changed my world," he would later tell Spin. "It seemed evil and scary — the embodiment of rebelliousness when you're age twelve and starting to get hair on your balls."
His discovery of rock music also spelled the end of Trent's career as a classical pianist. "I was encouraged to drop out of school, get tutored, practice for ten hours a day for a concert career," he recalls. "But I'd just discovered Kiss, so that was out of the question. I knew I wasn't going to get laid studying piano with a nun."
Instead, he had other ideas about how to implement his musical training. "My dad got me an electric piano. He had a little music store that sold acoustic instruments in the back room, where me and a couple other guys started jamming in terrible garage bands. I realized that music wasn't all about learning a piece on the piano.
"I started fucking around with guitar, and I was never good at guitar. I'm still not good at it. I took lessons off my dad for a couple of months, and then said 'Look, I'd rather just fuck around on it, and not know.' I still only know two bar chords. But I don't care. The naiveté with which you approach an instrument can lead to exciting results."
While in high school, he says, "I begged my parents to get me a real cheap Moog. Now I could play (The Cars's) 'Just What I Needed.'" Thus equipped, the former classical prodigy began playing keyboards with a series of local bands.
Unlike many musicians of his age group who lived in more cosmopolitan areas, the teenage Reznor never got the opportunity to experience the liberating influence of punk and other left-of-center musical genres. "You have to understand. I was in a geographical area where by the time I'd hear something it was already dead. There was no college radio. There were no alternative record stores. There was no independent anything. There was no MTV. There was nothing. My world was comic books and science-fiction shit. Scary movies. Whatever I could absorb. And it kind of ingrained in me this idea of escape from Pennsylvania."
As he later told USA Today, "I didn't want to accept that my destiny was to pump gas down the street. I don't mean to be condescending. A lot of people are happy in that environment, my family included. My friends stayed, and they're happier than I am. But I wanted out."CHAPTER 2
After graduating from Mercer High in 1983 — just as the still-new MTV was exposing a generation of kids in the American heartland to an array of vaguely exotic-sounding new acts, many of them synthesizer based — Trent made his first concerted effort at breaking out on his own. He enrolled at Allegheny College, a small, relatively conservative liberal-arts school about ninety miles north of Pittsburgh. There, he studied music and computer engineering, and made a concerted — and, he says, mostly unsuccessful — effort to fit in socially.
"No one in my family ever finished school. I thought, okay, in high school I was a fuckin' loser, I didn't fit in. So I thought in college I'm going to make some friends, try to fit in. But I was banished instantly. I felt like a misfit."
By this time, the eighteen-year-old Reznor was working steadily with a local group, Option Thirty, whose repertoire was a combination of new-wavey originals and covers of then-current hits by the first wave of MTV-spawned British stars. "They did U2, Billy Idol, Tears for Fears — all that early MTV stuff," recalls one observer.
Despite his recollections of being a misfit, Reznor did manage to make a few new friends while at Allegheny. Andrea Mulrain, at the time a seventeen-year-old freshman, dated Trent during his college days. "I noticed him within my first few days on campus," she remembers, "just because he looked like an interesting character. He had a different image then — shorter hair, dyed red. He looked like a creative type, so I approached him and asked him if he was from New York, and he said, 'No, I'm from Mercer.'
"The first time I saw him perform with Option Thirty, it was immediately obvious that he had star quality and that he had a very special talent, even though he was doing covers. The next day was my birthday, and he came to my dorm room and brought me a makeshift birthday cake made out of Twinkies.
"I was immediately struck by Trent's personal drive," says Mulrain, who is now an A&R executive for London Records. "Even then, he was one of the most focused and driven people I've ever known. He was a bit shy and reserved, but he was super-confident when it came to his music. When most other guys were joining fraternities and getting into the Allegheny spirit of things, Trent was doing gigs and writing songs and having equipment shipped to his dorm room."
Mulrain recalls Reznor already having a deep affinity for electronic music. "When I met him, he was already tinkering and experimenting with programming, and experimenting a lot with his keyboards. He was one of the first people in America to have a Memory Moog; he ordered it specially from Japan or wherever they make them, and he was very excited about that. Although he was studying computer engineering at Allegheny, he had already taught himself a tremendous amount about programming, and he was very adept at figuring out anything to do with computers or keyboard instruments."
The increased mainstream prominence of machine-generated music in the early 1980s was a revelation for Reznor. "It really was exciting," he said. "Sequencers were just coming out. I was going to college for computer engineering and I thought, 'I love music, I love keyboard instruments — maybe I can get into synthesizer design.' The excitement of hearing a Human League track and thinking, that's all machines, there's no drummer. That was my calling."
Though he has since claimed that he didn't engage seriously songwriting until much later, Andrea Mulrain remembers some early compositional efforts: "He was always writing original stuff, in addition to playing covers. He loved synth-pop, and he was always experimenting with that kind of writing. He hadn't discovered the industrial thing yet, so it wasn't as noisy. It was more melodic and less technological, and I think the subject matter was more traditional and not as pained. It wasn't as intense as what he'd do later. I don't think he'd found that aspect of his songwriting voice yet."
By the end of his first year at Allegheny, Trent had decided to put his academic efforts on the back burner, in order to focus on his musical career. "He knew that he had to make a choice," Mulrain states, "and he realized that he really did need to throw all of his creative energies into the music. We were in a couple of computer science classes together, and as far as I can remember he did quite well, but the music began to overtake the studies.
"Toward the end of that year, he was doing three shows a week, and he was playing in Ohio a lot and traveling back and forth. He changed his schedule so that he was only going to school a couple of days a week, so he could do more shows. He came to a decision toward the end of the year, that he was going to have to make a choice between college and music. So he decided to leave Allegheny and go off and try to get a job in a studio somewhere.
"For all the time I've known him, Trent's never been one to sit around and let life happen around him. He'll go out and if he needs to do twenty different jobs to make his record sound the way he wants it to sound, he'll do whatever it takes. He's totally in control, and he always has been. He always has a clear, focused vision of what he wants, and he'll takes whatever steps are necessary to get that."
Reznor himself presents a more modest assessment of his sense of focus at the time. He told Spin that, after leaving college, "I spent a year doing nothing. I lived with my dad out in the woods. And I was playing in cover bands. Three hundred bucks a week. It was the most whorish part of my career so far. I played keyboards and sang. My destiny was lounge bands."CHAPTER 3
After a period spent spinning his wheels in various forgettable local groups (including an Erie, Pennsylvania-based, new-wave cover outfit known as The Urge), Trent decided to relocate to Cleveland, the better to work on establishing a musical career. While gray, economically depressed, industrial Cleveland wasn't exactly New York or Los Angeles in music industry terms, it was a good deal headier than rural Pennsylvania. Though its music scene had cooled down somewhat since the halcyon days that produced such influential underground bands as Pere Ubu and Rocket from the Tombs, Cleveland still offered considerably more in the way of opportunity than rural Pennsylvania.
"I moved to Cleveland, because the band I was in was playing there a lot," Reznor later explained to Spin. "There was a music store that had all the high-tech synthesizers and sequencers that were coming out. I was there all the time. They offered me a job. Ten to six, every day. Hearing twenty people bang on drum machines.
Excerpted from Nine Inch Nails: Self-Destruct by Martin Huxley. Copyright © 1997 Martin Huxley. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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