Nine Inch Nails was born out of Cleveland, Ohio, with me and a friend in a studio working on demos at night. Got a record deal with a small, little label, went on tour in a van, and a couple years later found that somehow we touched a nerve, and that first record resonated with a bunch of people. – Trent Reznor
All though the month of November, on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 PM ET, Listen Project Radio will feature a one hour special dedicated to Trent Reznor and the Cleveland bands in which he played. Tune in to LPR to hear rare tracks from The Innocent, Exotic Birds, Slam Bamboo, Lucky Pierre, and early Nine Inch Nails as well as tracks from two projects Trent helped to engineer and play on from Sean Beavan’s Cool Down Daddy and Tom Lash’s Hot Tin Roof.
Trent Reznor was a talented musician from Mercer, Pennsylvania who made his way to Cleveland, Ohio in the mid-1980’s. By the beginning of the next decade, he was the creator of and main force behind one of the most influential industrial alternative bands in the world, Nine Inch Nails and long gone from Northeast Ohio. In those few short years in Cleveland, Reznor left his mark on our music scene and whether or not you consider him a Cleveland musician, NIN’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is something that we should embrace as a positive for our musical community past, present and future.
“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.”
Reznor arrived in Cleveland in 1984 to work in sales for the old Pi Keyboard and Audio after spending a year at Alleghany College. He first joined The Urge, a local cover band and then The Innocent (which also included now legendary Cleveland musicians, Alan Greene on guitar, Kevin Valentine of drums and Rodney Cajka AKA Rodney Psyka on lead vocals) as their keyboard player. The Innocent released their one and only album, Livin’ In The Street around the time Reznor joined and although he is featured in the band photo on the cover and is credited as having played keyboards on the album, it has never been clear if he actually performed on the LP. He left The Innocent after only a few months tenure and found himself playing keys in Andy Kubiszewski’s Exotic Birds both live and on the band’s 1986 EP, L’oiseau.
Once again, Reznor’s tenure in a band was short and by 1987, he had left Exotic Birds and was once more a hired gun, this time for Slam Bamboo which consisted of former Boy Wonder members, Scott Hanson on vocals, Tim Kirker on guitars and bassist Greg Thomas joined by drummer Ron Musarra (from Strictly Physical). With Reznor on keyboards, Slam Bamboo made an appearance on the old WKYC Channel 3 AM Cleveland show hosted by Scott Newell lip syncing both of their singles, “House on Fire” from 1986 and “White Lies” from 1987. Once again, although Reznor appeared in the band photo on the “White Lies” single, he most likely did not actually appear on the record itself. In 1988, Trent Reznor made his final appearance in a Cleveland band. This time he joined Kevin McMahon’s Lucky Pierre on keyboards, playing on that band’s 1988 EP, Communique (recorded in San Francisco) as well as for live gigs through 1989 before departing.
During his time as a side man for these bands, Reznor was developing his own songs. One of the first people he met after his move to Cleveland was Bart Koster. Koster, who was a regular customer at Pi and who was building a new recording studio, The Right Track in the Film Building located at E 22nd St. and Payne Ave., was impressed with Reznor and offered him a job. This arrangement allowed him to develop and record his songs at reduced rates during studio downtime and by 1988, he had written and demoed what he considered his first real song, “Down In It.” He was also able to assist friends with their projects including Sean Beavin’s Cool Down Daddy demos in 1988 and his former Lucky Pierre bandmate, Tom Lash with his new band, Hot Tin Roof providing keyboard and drum programming and engineering assistance for both. By November 1988, Reznor had completed a nine song demo he titled Purest Feeling (released as a CD on Hawk Records in 1994). Initially calling his project, Crown of Thornes, he later decided on Nine Inch Nails as “it sounded menacing, it was catchy, it stood the two-week test, and it could be easily abbreviated.”
After befriending John Malm who would become his manager, the demo was shopped around to various labels before Nine Inch Nails signed to TVT Records. The debut album, Pretty Hate Machine was recorded in various studios with Reznor collaborating with some of his most idolized producers including Flood, Keith LeBlanc, Adrian Sherwood, and John Fryer. Much like his recorded demo, Reznor refused to record the album with a conventional band, recording Pretty Hate Machine mostly by himself. Pretty Hate Machine was released on October 20, 1989. Not long after, Trent Reznor’s time as a Cleveland musician came to a close as he moved to New Orleans:
“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.”
Certainly, while what Trent Reznor did opened the door to industrial alternative rock for a much wider audience, it was how he did what he did, by crafting his songs mostly alone in the wee hours of the night at the Right Track and on his own terms, is something which really connects him to the spirit of the Northeast Ohio music scene in the 1980’s. I’d like to think that without his time in Cleveland, the course of his musical endeavors would have been much. much different. So, congratulations to Trent Reznor on Nine Inch Nails’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Perhaps this honor with bring some more long overdue attention to the Cleveland music scene of the 1980’s.