When I was young and yearning to see what lay beyond the suburbs of the Midwest, Trent Reznor was like my patron saint. A lot of people don't realize that the leader of industrial rock behemoth Nine Inch Nails spent his adolescence in rural western Pennsylvania and really came into his own as an artist in the desolate wasteland that was northeastern Ohio in the late 80s. The fact that he was able to use everything that makes the Midwest a kind of stifling place and channeled that back into his art was incredibly inspiring to me growing up. He used Cleveland as an incubator to hone and perfect his sound, which fused pop-sensibilities with aggressive electronic noise and raw, emotive lyrics. And similar to Devo, another forward-thinking northern Ohio band, when Nine Inch Nails finally reached the outside world, it was a fully formed musical force, replete with its own definitive sound, iconography, and aesthetic.
Today, Nine Inch Nails has spawned multiple classic anthems and albums, a slew of groundbreaking music videos and tours, and sold more than 20 million records worldwide. Not to mention, Reznor's innovative work with electronics in music has helped pave the way for everyone from Kanye West to TV on the Radio. And now he's continuing to impact the world with his Oscar-winning compositional work for David Fincher films and his creative direction at Apple.
I've always wanted to walk down memory lane with Reznor and learn about what it was like for him living in Midwest as young man, before all of the success and talk of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations, when he was still finding himself and developing his art. So I called him up toward the end of last year to chat about how his time in the armpit of the United States helped shape him into one of the most influential artists of his generation. This is what he told me:
DISCOVERING MUSIC IN PENNSYLVANIA
I've often thought I'm not the product of any scene. I never felt like I fit in anywhere. But there are places that sort of shaped who I am. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where I spent 18 years in a little shitty town north of Pittsburgh, long before the internet and out of range of college radio airwaves. I was bred on a diet of pretty mainstream stuff on AM and FM radio. I spent a lot of my leisure time thinking about escaping or listening to records.
I've been pretty fortunate that I was raised by my grandparents. They were supportive of whatever I was into and they nudged me into taking piano lessons at an early age. I realized I was naturally good at it and I enjoyed it, and I could identify with it right away. It gave me a sense of pride and self-worth that I could funnel myself into the instrument and feel that I was playing it quite well. As I got a bit older, I started to think that the idea of a band seemed exciting and rock music crept in a little bit more. But I didn't get too far with bass or drums. The idea of keyboard was exciting and that became my dream. I knew I wanted to be on stage and express myself through music.
ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL
In high school, kids would get bands together. But the goal wasn't to create original music and try to make art. We wanted to play the school dance or maybe the bar or get a gig at the county fair or whatever shitty thing was going on. Back then, you just played other peoples' music and did not write your own stuff. That seems crazy now. Covers are probably not as common among the bands of today. But back then, that was what you did. And the successful guys in bands were 40-year-old dudes playing cover music and gigging steadily. That's not where I wanted to end up, though. That was sort of halfway toward something.
I didn't think that rock music needed to be something where the archetype was Led Zeppelin and you had to adhere to that.
I graduated high school in '83, right around that time was an explosion of technology and drum machines and synths. Back then, it seemed like several of my loves were coming together. I loved the idea that this new music couldn't have existed years earlier because the technology wasn't there. I'm anti-nostalgia. I didn't think that rock music needed to be something where the archetype was Led Zeppelin and you had to adhere to that. There was a whole new world of tools being developed to get music out and the fact that I was a keyboard player meant that my time was coming.
BROS AND COLLEGE RADIO
Getting out of high school, I was pressured into some sort of college scenario. I needed something to fall back on. I was good at math, so I went to a school that was pretty close by called Allegheny College. It was kind of a cool scene. It was campus life and everyone was in a fraternity. Since I left high school feeling like a misfit who sat in the art room with the other misfits, I really tried to fit in at college. I wanted to belong to something. But when I got there, right away I realized, These guys are fucking assholes.
I also realized that I could sit and do calculus all day, but I didn't love doing it. But I was with people who loved doing that shit. It struck me that, you know, comfort and security be damned, I need to get on the path of doing what I wanted to do, which is write and play music.
The other important thing that happened when I went to college was I finally had access to college radio. I never realized how much shit was out there. I discovered Bauhaus after they'd broken up and Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle and tons of shit that I just didn't know existed. You know that feeling where you find a new band you haven't heard of, then you discover them and you realize they have like three albums out? To me that's a great feeling because you can't wait to digest and absorb them. Well, that was happening with, like, 30 bands to me in college. It felt very inspiring to be a music fan.
THE GENESIS OF NINE INCH NAILS
The next place that sucked me in was Cleveland, which was a couple hours away. Where I grew up there were two semi-close cities: Cleveland and Pittsburgh… So pick one. Cleveland had a great music shop. It was a store called Pi Keyboards and Audio. You have to remember, this was in the age where, if you wanted a synthesizer, they cost $3,500 and up. Things hadn't become inexpensive yet. So you'd drive to Cleveland and walk in there and spend all day pissing off the salesman looking at shit they knew you could never afford. They had exotic drum machines, the sort of shit that no one else had. It wasn't the the stuff you'd find at a Guitar Center. This was the high-end, interesting, cutting-edge electronic music place.
I got offered a job there as a salesperson, so I took it and eventually moved to Cleveland and fell into the Cleveland scene. I found a couple bands that needed a keyboard player. It was all original music. What was interesting about that time (and part of this is probably looking back romantically) was there were maybe ten active bands that were really trying. But they didn't have a great game plan or real strategy because everyone's mission at that time was to try to get a record deal. All those bands would play out as much as they could at a few bars that would host original acts and hope that somebody from a record label saw them and grant them a contract. That had never happened to anybody I knew, but that was the strategy.
In my head, I wanted to be in the Smiths or with some fraternity of friends I never had. But in Cleveland, nobody gave a shit about the kind of music I liked. I couldn't find a lot of kindred spirits that liked the same music I did, that were inspired by the same things I was inspired by, and were willing to invest time and energy into something that didn't have clear results.
In Cleveland, nobody gave a shit about the kind of music I liked.
Much like where I grew up, there wasn't a lot of stuff going on in Cleveland. It still felt like a small town. Certainly there were more resources and opportunities, but it felt like the city could grind you down. In a lot of ways that motivated me to try to get better at something, to find a way out and break through.
I fucked around for a couple of years playing with a couple bands and reached a point where I realized that I needed to face what I'd been putting off. I took a long hard look in the mirror and asked myself: Can I write anything? And that was kind of the birth of Nine Inch Nails.
BECOMING A PRETTY HATE MACHINE
I met a guy when I was selling drum machines and shit to people. He had a recording studio near downtown on the east side of Cleveland. It looked like a bomb went off over there. The whole area looked like a wasteland with caved in roofs, real fucking America in decay. I knew Prince, who is an idol of mine, worked at a studio to get free recording time. So I thought, Let me try that out and I started working at the studio. I taught myself engineering and was the guy who did whatever job no one else wanted to do, like cleaning piss off the toilet seat. But I did get access to an actual recording studio and I'd stay up as late as I could at night trying to learn engineering, and work on my own demos.
My first forays into songwriting were insincere and shitty, because it was me posturing. I like the Clash, so let me write some half-assed political songs that I don't believe in, because it's fashionable… I didn't really find my own voice until I realized I'd been keeping a journal of embarrassing shit. It was filled with things that I felt like I had to get out of my head because I felt like I was losing my mind. Lots of angry feelings. I started to realize that a lot of that writing could work as lyrics. I wondered what would happen if I matched them up with music.
Anyway, I fucked around on my own and a couple tracks came up and I finally had the courage to play them for my friend, who wound up being the manager of Nine Inch Nails later on. I handed him a cassette tape and had to literally run away. He called me up later and said, "If you want to do anything with this, I'd love to be a part of it."
I think that inspiration was enough to—under the comfort of thinking it was never going to be successful and no one was going to want to hear it—say, OK, I guess I could really try this. That was what started the path of Pretty Hate Machine.
FINDING YOUR OWN WAY
Once the band got going, there was a small scene and a couple bars we would play. Wax Trax was a label we were hugely inspired by. So gothic clubs that played that shit were an inspiration. I had a handful of friends and we had what we thought of as good taste. We'd bounce ideas off of each other. There was also a place called the Phantasy Nightclub. We'd rehearse upstairs. And acts like the Jesus and Mary Chain would play there, which made it our cool cultural hub in the city. I have memories of carrying Psychic TV's gear upstairs for them and saving the Jesus and Mary Chain's show because the drummer only brought two sticks and he lost one. I think back fondly to those days. It wasn't the place you dreamed you'd end up, but it helped shape and motivate and influence the sounds and the spirit of things.
When I moved to Cleveland, there was a sense of freedom and restarting. I wasn't who I used to be. It was a new place and a new kind-of start. I felt like I was figuring out myself and was less concerned about belonging or fitting in to some sort of other club. It was more about self-expression and reinvention. There was posturing involved, sure—but it was coming from a sincere place. I was experimenting, testing things out, trying to figure out who I was. Trying to subconsciously figure out, as an artist, what I had to say.
"Burn" is one of Wilbert's all-time favorite songs. Follow him on Twitter.