Reznor grew up in Mercer, Pa., a farming town so small that when it came time to leave home and move to the city, that city was Meadville, Pa. (pop. 14,258). After a year at Allegheny College, where he majored in computer engineering he moved again, this time to Cleveland.
"I was trained as a classical pianist," Reznor says. "I started when I was 5 years old. And it got to the point where I was encouraged to drop out of school, get tutored, practice for 10 hours a day for a concert career. 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.
"It wasn't cool to play music where I was from. You had to be an athlete, or else an athlete, a fucking turd in a football uniform. 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 teen-age stupidity." At first, college was even worse. "Where I went to school for a year was super fraternity oriented," Reznor says. "But when I started to hang around better colleges, I realized, Jesus Christ, there's a lot of music I'd never heard. It was like a musical awakening – from Test Dept. to XTC, all these bands I never knew existed. All those classic one-hit-wonder synth bands were permeating the airwaves, and it was kind of interesting just to see Devo and Human League briefly edge out Bruce Springsteen and Rush. That was about when synthesizers were becoming relatively affordable, and sequencers for home computers were just coming out. And when I stumbled into all that harder-edged music that incorporated electronic elements – what you, but not I, would call industrial – it pretty much fit with things that were already in my head. Suddenly, music started to make sense."
In Cleveland, Reznor worked in a music store and in a recording studio – and he cleaned toilets. He shared a grungy apartment in a bad neighborhood with Vrenna, still his drummer and closest aide. "When we were living together broke in Cleveland, our unit of currency used to be LPs," says Reznor."'That shirt costs three LPs and two 12 inches? No way.' Then it became video-game cartridges, back when a $40 gas bill was enough for us to worry about for a week. The currency was drugs for money a while – that's the ultimate no value for your money – and at a low point, it was Top Ramen noodles and Busch in cans, because Budweiser was too expensive, and Ramen will technically keep you alive. We kept some Old Milwaukee around in case friends came by."
Reznor played keyboards in a succession of lousy Cleveland bands before he found religion in early records by Ministry and Skinny Puppy, the boom-whack disco, full-on. pumping double-time bass line, anguished megaphone-sound vocal thing that became known as industrial music almost by default In 1988, Reznor started recording as Nine Inch Nails.
The band's first album, 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, on which Reznor wrote, co-produced, sang and played all the instruments, has been called the Appetite for Destruction of industrial disco. It may have been the first industrial album – and perhaps the first rock & roll indie album – to sell a million copies. TVT Records, NIN's first label, started to sniff the long green, and Reznor felt so alienated by what he calls the label's creative interference that it would be four years before NIN would put out another record. (The band's struggles, largely unsuccessful, to break out of its contract are legendary within the music industry.) NIN stole the show from Jane's Addiction on the first Lollapalooza tour – also sold more T-shirts – and the single "Head Like a Hole," a disco-metal hybrid with a hook raw enough to shatter concrete, came within just a smidge of becoming the battle cry for smart-teen rebellion that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would become a year later.
As a low-billed act at Lollapalooza, almost green complected in the dimming sun, Reznor whipped and thrashed, leapt onto his band's instruments, lowed until you feared his throat would bleed. Nobody had ever seen industrial music in the light of day before – early live NIN shows had relied heavily upon glowing billows of fog and pulsating planes of colored light – but it hardly mattered, so intense was the sound.
Monstrous electronic disco beats washed with jungle drums and shrieking feedback guitar were so loudly amplified that it actually felt a couple of degrees cooler when the music stopped for a hit between songs. Even Reznor's backup musicians looked terrified. It was as dose to the anarchic assault of primo rock & roll as it is possible for, er, disco to get. But suddenly, Reznor was something close to a heavy-metal star, and he didn't like it.
"By the end of Lollapalooza," Reznor says, "it wasn't uncommon to hear someone come up to me and say, 'I saw you guys play, and you were fucking awesome, but I went out and bought your record, and it was fuckin' synth-fag music.' We just weren't prepared. I felt like the fucking Beverly Hillbillies onstage."
Reznor stretches his arms above his head into something of a Vargas-girl pose and yawns. "When I see a band," he says, "I'd rather see them in a theater than in an amphitheater or arena. At huge shows like Lollapalooza you're up on a pedestal rather than going head-to-head with people. It's hard to know if the energy you send out is even coming back."
So why is NIN doing Woodstock?
"The money," Reznor says. "To be quite frank, it's basically to offset the cost of the tour we're doing tight now."
After Lollapalooza, Interscope Records, then best known as the home of Gerardo and Marky Mark, absorbed Reznor's contract with TVT and helped Reznor set up his own label, Nothing. (Nothing's first non-NIN release is a Reznor-produced splatter-glam album by the Florida group Marilyn Manson that includes a song about child molestation that could be seen by some as not entirely disapproving; there are also upcoming Nothing releases by the British electronic artists Pop Will Eat Itself and Coil and by the brutal Cleveland post-industrialist synth guy Prick.)
"All you can do with a guy like Trent is to believe in him and let him go," says Interscope co-chief Jimmy Iovine. "No matter how odd what he's doing may look to us now, it will all seem exactly right in a year or so?
NIN immediately released the intriguingly unlistenable EP Broken, which went Top 10 and quelled any rumors that the band had gone soft. Reznor moved to Los Angeles, rented the infamous Tate house without at first knowing the mansion's history, began to work on Downward Spiral and became blocked.
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