There aren’t many musicians out there who have heralded from synth-pop origins to produce the sort of industrial music that reinvigorated David Bowie’s career, and then went on to win an Oscar, and prompt a murder investigation into their death along the way. Trent Reznor is in the esteemed company of one in that regard. However, his constant evolution and artistic progression has been an inspiration for many others, even if a two-year FBI farce remains beyond their reach.
When Trent Reznor first started to play the piano at the age of 12 in 1977, new emerging sounds were beginning to make the timeless instrument look old hat. You had punk for the most part sticking to stringed instruments that could be smashed up easily, and you had disco trying to downscale the keys to a synthesised sound.
But Reznor was a lad with his head screwed on and even at a young age, he knew a technical grounding was essential to walk before you started to run. As his grandfather, Bill Clark once said: “[Reznor] was a good kid. […] a Boy Scout who loved to skateboard, build model planes, and play piano. Music was his life, from the time he was a wee boy. He was so gifted.”
That wee boy also had the gift of an eye for the zeitgeist. Part of the reason for that was because he was separated from it by geography. As Reznor told Rolling Stone himself about his upbringing: “I don’t know why I want to do these things, other than my desire to escape from Small Town, U.S.A., to dismiss the boundaries, to explore. It isn’t a bad place where I grew up, but there was nothing going on but the cornfields.”
This viewpoint pushed Reznor into the realm of pop culture fanatic, or as he put it, a lover of things “that seemed cool”. When coupled with his keen finger to the pulse of the main chance, the obvious first venture for Reznor was to try and make his way out of the small town of Mercer, Pennsylvania with the emerging sound of synth-pop.
While that might sound a bit camp for the stylings we now know from Reznor, contextually it made perfect sense. He was a young kid who wanted to make headway in the world and the boom of synth pop was the route that beckoned loudest to the young pianist whose musical education would fit the sensibilities of the genre. It succeeded in getting him to Cleveland, Ohio.
Thereafter, the pop ventures prove fruitless, until he eventually took a job as an assistant engineer and janitor at Cleveland’s Right Track Studio. Therein, his musical experimentation began. Exposed to a world of technology and for the first time in the big city, once more his musical development seemed fitting as he paired the big smoke with Moog’s to forage in the world of industrial style music.
Much like he had as a boy, the studio world allowed him to explore on his own and stretch his imagination. Like Prince before him, the studio allowed Reznor to be a one-man band. With this approach, he was able to go beyond usual live sounds and delve into his own sense of individualism. As he once declared of his output: “Any time I sit down and write music, the first part of that is always centring myself and thinking about who I am currently.”
This comment might seem to stand contrary to Reznor’s next ventures which consisted of collaborations with everything and everyone. He remixed the likes of The Notorious B.I.G., produced Jane’s Addiction and collaborated with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age and Black Sabbath. However, he has also always been very aware of his position as an artist, stating: “Balance is good, because one extreme or the other leads to misery, and I’ve spent a lot of my life at one of those extremes.”
Everything about this career to this point seemed to be shepherding him towards composing. With his unique constitution of relishing collaboration as well as creativity flourishing in an autonomous and his own artistic output that dealt much more with creating atmosphere and mood than hooks and choruses, it wasn’t as surprising as it might have seemed when he first produced the soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers.
16 years later Reznor had honed his craft down to the point when he and Atticus Ross won the Academy Award for their score on David Fincher’s The Social Network. With a tighter link to the movie’s subtext than his usual ambient approach, this brooding development seemed to see Reznor go almost full circle and pair his own musical introspection with a new-found knack of dipping into someone else’s, in this case, Mark Zuckerberg’s. Thus, it’s perhaps no shock that the score is genius yet with an ominous undertone.
Lord knows where Reznor will head next but it will no doubt have the same sense of driven focus and sagacity that he has applied to all his varying works since he first started taking music seriously when he was 12 years old. And the core of that focus will no doubt, be something that he looks for in the sounds that inspire him: “How powerful and transformative music can be.”