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Former H-F student works for Nine Inch Nails

Updated: September 3, 2013 7:49AM



To put it mildly, Justin McGrath is on an unusual musical journey.

He has gone from playing at, and losing, two consecutive Homewood-Flossmoor High School battle of the bands to working as a synthesizer technician for the keyboardist of the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.

In that time, McGrath also has soundtracked a movie about the Chicago Mob and a foreign film featuring a prominent Asian pop star, composed thousands of sounds and ringtones for Motorola phones and co-founded a popular musical tech blog specializing in synthesizers and other musical gadgets that led him to his current gig.

The world-famous rock group — that inspired him as a teenage super fan — is set to headline Lollapalooza on Friday as part of a five-month-long international tour.

“It’s awesome,” McGrath said. “I can tell you from a work perspective that (being a fan) makes my job easier. I know every single song inside and out. I know exactly what everything is going to sound like.”

McGrath, 30, of Hobart, Ind., grew up in Homewood and inspired by the Courtney Love band Hole, took up playing guitar as a teenager. For his birthday, a friend gave him a copy of Nine Inch Nails’ debut album, “Pretty Hate Machine,” which proved to be a turning point in his life.

He remembers playing the CD and hearing the electronic clicks and drumbeats that open the first song, “Head Like A Hole.” Hearing the strange noises, he ejected the CD because he thought his stereo was broken.

“I put the CD back in, it played, and I made the realization that it was supposed to sound like that and my mind was blown,” McGrath said.

From there, he was hooked on listening to Nine Inch Nails. He bought all their albums (called “halos”) and rare imports, saw their concerts in Chicago and cut out pictures of frontman Trent Reznor and taped them to the wall of his first recording space. Then, he began using his computer to make music.

At school, he befriended fellow H-F High students Jesse Meyer and Geoff Potts and joined their electronic band, Descolada.

“It was a musical part of my life I try not to think about,” Meyer quipped. “We just plugged everything we could get our hands on into things that could manipulate sounds ... and we tried to make sense of it all.”

The group played together in the school’s 2000 battle of the bands, the first time McGrath played a live show. He performed at the event the following year under the name Polyfuse, which he still plays under today. McGrath lost the contest both years but remembers the experience fondly.

“As far as I know, we were the first people to do an electronic thing at the battle of the bands, and we were the first people to turn off the lights and bring our own lights,” he said. “We were magical at that moment.”

A ‘corporate punk’

McGrath graduated from H-F in 2001 and enrolled at Columbia College in Chicago, where he studied sound for film. While there, he soundtracked the Hong Kong film, “Buffering,” which featured Asian pop star Chet Lam. McGrath
composed a new arrangement of one of Lam’s songs for the film, which Lam later released independently.

McGrath also scored the film “Small Assassin,” which is based off a Ray Bradbury short story, and the film “Chicago Overcoat,” a Mob flick set in Chicago featuring Mike Starr (“Dumb and Dumber”) and Frank Vincent (“The Sopranos”).

Five days after he graduated college in 2006, McGrath was hired by Motorola as a sound engineer to create sounds and ringtones for its phones, a job he knew little about. But he learned fast and soon was creating freely — for every 10 ringtones Motorala needed, McGrath composed 120. He described himself a “corporate punk,” attending business meetings with people in business suits while he wore skinny jeans, black boots and a T-shirt.

While working the corporate life, McGrath made a point to keep his music career alive. He played gigs wherever he could and met Chicago musician Surachai Sutthisasanakul. Together, they founded a synthesizer tech blog, trashaudio.com, where they interviewed other musicians about their synthesizers and musical equipment set-ups.

“We started meeting these people that were into crazy synthesizers that would never be anywhere in stores or anything like that,” McGrath said. “We’d get together once in awhile, and there’d be five people in an apartment looking at a $30,000 synthesizer.”

Nine Inch Nails

One musician who took an interest in their blog was Alessandro Cortini, Nine Inch Nails’ keyboardist who’s now a contributing writer for trashaudio.com. When the band played Lollapalooza in 2008, Cortini flew in and met with McGrath and others for a trashaudio.com feature.

Google bought Motorola in 2011 and began a series of layoffs. McGrath survived several rounds until March when he was let go, although he now contracts for the company. McGrath sent emails to friends in other companies, asking if they needed to hire a sound engineer.

On a lark, he shot Cortini a message, asking if he was looking for a synthesizer technician but didn’t hear back. Unbeknownst to him, Sutthisasanakul was in Los Angeles, talking with Cortini.

“He totally vouched for me, and they had a long conversation of whether I would fit in that kind of role despite the fact that I had never done anything close to it,” McGrath said. “At the same time, (Cortini) was looking for someone that is passionate about electronic music and not someone who just knows how to hook things up. From that angle, I was a good fit.”

He met with Cortini in Chicago in April and agreed to take the job, albeit with some anxiety.

“The week before that, knowing I was offered the job, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t stop thinking about how (screwed) I was going to be,” McGrath said. “I don’t know if that was a good idea.”

Nevertheless, McGrath agreed to be Cortini’s synthesizer technician during Nine Inch Nails’ 2013 international tour, which makes stops in France, Switzerland and Germany among other major European cities.

It started in July and ends Nov. 25 in Calgary, Alberta.

To prep for the tour, McGrath flew to Los Angeles in May and began rehearsing with the band 14 hours a day. As a synthesizer technician, he worked with Cortini during the rehearsals to get him the electronic gear he needed for the tour.

During the band’s shows, McGrath is responsible for bringing in equipment and taking it out as well as using a computer to monitor Cortini’s setup to make sure everything works and nothing crashes.

So far, McGrath has two Nine Inch Nails gigs under his belt in Japan and South Korea. He’s nervous to play Chicago because he will have many friends and some family listening and watching in the sold-out crowd.

“Every once in a while, I’ll get to look out in the crowd and think, ‘I’m really enjoying myself,’” McGrath said. “I look out in the crowd, and it’s awesome to see people responding to the work we’ve been doing for so long.”



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