The Times-Picayune

May 2000

NAILED TO NEW ORLEANS

Trent Reznor knows what it means to miss New Orleans.

To the world at large, he is the brooding mastermind behind industrial rock act Nine Inch Nails, perpetually swathed in the dark mystique of his ominous words and music.

But away from the spotlight and the prying eyes of the paparazzi and his rock star peers, he is just another New Orleans homeboy, the sort who roars around the Bonnet Carre Spillway on jet skis, bicycles anonymously through Audubon Park, and dons a grass skirt and blackface to ride in Zulu.

Unlike Lenny Kravitz and the other celebrities who maintain a local address for the occasional visit, Reznor's relationship with New Orleans runs deep. He lives full-time in a sumptuous Garden District mansion. He crafted "The Fragile," Nine Inch Nails' third full-length album, in his Nothing Studios, housed in a former funeral parlor on Magazine Street.

Since the release of the million-selling "The Fragile" last fall, Reznor has been on the road. After a homecoming show tonight at the New Orleans Arena, the Nine Inch Nails U.S. tour continues through mid-June before heading to Europe for a string of summer festival dates.

When he is away for weeks at a time, Reznor finds himself missing the city, like any good local.

"It always feels good driving back on the congested I-10 from the airport," he said last week, calling from a tour stop in Florida. "I feel like I'm home."

The easy-going attitude of his adopted hometown might seem opposed to the intensity Reznor brings to bear while howling his raw, often R-rated lyrics. But the city serves a larger artistic purpose.

"My job primarily is to write," he said. "To write, I find New Orleans very inspiring. If it's time to clear my head, I'll ride my bike around and look at houses and weird trees and the strange smell that comes over the city in the summer. That always kicks my creativity back into gear.

"And it's kind of out of the way in terms of big cities, especially for the kind of music I do. So I'm less likely to get caught up in some of the bulls---, the elitism of celebrity. The thing about New Orleans is, nobody cares. They leave me alone, and they don't give a s---. It's not about who you are or what you're driving. And that appeals to me."

Instant appeal

Reznor, 35, grew up in tiny Mercer, Penn., and moved to Cleveland as a young adult. He first fell under the Big Easy's spell while touring behind Nine Inch Nails' 1989 debut, "Pretty Hate Machine." That album largely introduced "industrial" rock -- distorted vocals, an electronic beat, processed guitars and synthesized sound effects -- to a mainstream audience. Before "Pretty Hate Machine" took off, a then-unknown Reznor crisscrossed the country in a van, opening for more established acts.

"I had never really seen much of the country, because my family never traveled and we never went on vacation," he said. "On that first tour, every time we'd come through New Orleans, it had some kind of appeal to me, and I couldn't put my finger on exactly why that was, other than it was as foreign from Pennsylvania as I could get -- Mardi Gras couldn't exist in Pennsylvania. It still had a small town feel to it, which I liked, but it seemed a lot more open. There's a strange ambiance and atmosphere, and the architecture and the aesthetic of the city really struck a chord with me."

After the "Pretty Hate Machine" tour, Reznor returned to Cleveland and an unpleasant surprise. "My ghetto apartment that I was living in had been broken into, and everything was stolen," he said. "I thought, 'What better time to escape from Cleveland?' And I really liked New Orleans, so let's try there."

In early 1991, Reznor came to New Orleans to write new material. Before heading out on the inaugural Lollapalooza tour that summer, Nine Inch Nails staged an open dress rehearsal at the Uptown Tipitina's, charging a $2 admission. After Lollapalooza, Reznor relocated to Los Angeles to record what became Nine Inch Nails' second full-length album, 1993's "The Downward Spiral." Infamously, he recorded in the Benedict Canyon house where actress Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by Charles Manson's followers; a door from that house now adorns Reznor's Magazine Street studio.

"I realized that I hate L.A.," Reznor said. "The quality of life I live in New Orleans, I enjoy. I like the fact that there's not really the rich section and the poor section so much as you're intermingled with everybody. "

While touring for "The Downward Spiral" in 1994, he had no permanent address. "I was basically homeless at that point," Reznor said. "When I came back through New Orleans, the house I'd had my eye on was still on the market. So I said, 'You know what? I'm just going to do this.' "

He bought a sprawling old Greek Revival residence in the same Garden District neighborhood that Anne Rice and Archie Manning call home, then moved in after a year of renovations. In 1995, he also bought a former funeral parlor and installed an elaborate recording studio. Did the building's history appeal to his fascination with the macabre?

"The boring truth of the matter is that I didn't want to build a building from scratch," Reznor said. "It had big rooms in it, which we needed, and secondly, it is commercially zoned. Recording studios and funeral homes are in the same zoning (category). And it wasn't like we were hauling caskets out of there to put the studio in. I've been there a million nights alone, and there's never a weird vibe."

California crazy

After the success of "The Downward Spiral," Reznor was a bona fide rock star. The accolades poured in: Time named him one of the 25 most influential people in America, along with Madeleine Albright and Tiger Woods. Spin dubbed him "the most vital artist in music."

"That's a great way to make you feel terrible," Reznor said, laughing. "'Can he save rock?!?' When I hear things like that, it's flattering, and it's always nice to be praised for something you've done. But I take it with a grain of salt. I don't go around thinking everything I do is great; 95 percent of what comes out of me is never heard by anybody else, because I don't think it's great."

Those doubts nearly overwhelmed him as he started to work on the follow-up to "The Downward Spiral." He took time out to co-produce Marilyn Manson's breakthrough album "Antichrist Superstar," and composed soundtracks for directors David Lynch and Oliver Stone. In search of inspiration, he went to Big Sur, Calif.

"I heard many people say that there was something magical there," he said. "I was in such a terrible state in my own mind that the last place I should have been was by myself there. I was an hour's drive from the nearest grocery store, on the side of a mountain overlooking the ocean, with a 300-foot drop to a very scary, rocky beach. I started thinking that if I slipped, how long would it be before they found the body? I needed to get out of there, because I was driving myself crazy.

"I was in a weird space when I started writing 'The Fragile.' I was very disillusioned with the whole business side of music. I had a bunch of bad things happening in my life. I lost the woman who raised me (his grandmother). I was partying too much. I was escaping any way I could get away from myself, basically."

So he retreated into the bosom of his adopted hometown. "When I got back to New Orleans and really sat myself down, I remembered that I really like to play piano (he took classical lessons as a child). I have one in my house that I hadn't touched in a year. I sat down, looking out my window, the sun was coming in in the afternoon, and it started -- ideas just poured out of me. Then it wouldn't stop, and I had too much music to put on a single CD."

Reznor spent much of 1998 and the first half of 1999 cloistered in his Magazine Street studio with co-producer Alan Moulder, laboring over the tracks that became the double-CD opus "The Fragile." "It was an every day, all they thing," Reznor said. "For recreation, we'd take our afternoon bike rides around Audubon Park to see what people looked like other than ourselves, and then head back into our hole for a while."

New Orleans influences

Reznor does not write songs as much as constructs them, painstakingly building layer after sonic layer while exorcising his darkest impulses and emotions. The tone and content of "The Fragile" -- though thoroughly modern and as unrelated to roots music as anything can be -- were directly affected by Reznor's residency in New Orleans.

"Not from me hanging out with blues musicians, because there wasn't any of that," Reznor said, though local jazz singer Kim Prevost contributed vocal effects to the album. "More from the sense of decay. The city has a feeling of decay, in a good way.

"I'm still learning how to write music. I try to come up with new ways to become inspired and new formats and approaches. A lot of songs on ('The Fragile'), I was inspired by impressionistic music. I would visualize a place, and then make the sound of what it would be like there. I would take a simple theme, and then put that on a swampy pier. I don't mean just put crickets in the background, but try to have this sense of decay or sense of place. That was directly affected by my love of the city. I spent many nights just out driving or walking around, soaking in the smells and the trees and the green-ness."

Debauchery is not the guiding principle of his local residency. "One could argue that it's a great place to bottom out and stay up all night drinking every night," Reznor said. "I went through my decadent phase; I explored the dark alleys, and that's fun for what it is. But I'm not in that phase now. And New Orleans is not all fun because of bars and Mardi Gras.

"I see musician friends of mine that live in L.A., and I think that the surroundings can lead to further digging a hole, and further believing the hype. What I like about New Orleans is that, for fun we take jet skis into the spillway and swim in polluted, alligator-infested water. We just find fun and stupid things to do that you couldn't do anywhere else."

Ultimately, the arduous process of making "The Fragile" purged him of the demons that dogged him during the "Downward Spiral" era.

"Thinking back to the two years we were doing 'The Fragile,' it was definitely the most creative and pleasant, positive-vibe experience of my life," Reznor said. "The routine at times was so tedious, it was maddening: Are we going to eat at Semolina's, or are we going to have burritos? There were four restaurants that we'd eat at every day. But it was also a really fun process, where (he and co-producer Moulder) challenged each other. He e-mailed me the other day saying, 'I've got to get back on those jet skis.'"

A 'masterpiece' album

"The Fragile" was released in Sept. 1999 to rave reviews. Spin named it 1999's album of the year; Rolling Stone dubbed it a "brutal and delicate masterpiece." Though it entered the Billboard album chart at No. 1 and has sold over a million copies to date, it did not chart as long as some might have expected. Reznor recently listened to "The Fragile" in its entirety for the first time in several months.

"It reminded me of the pride I had when I finished it," he said. "Being quite frank, when I released this record we didn't have great commercial hope for it, necessarily. A long time had passed (since 'The Downward Spiral') and the climate had changed. Now I'm delivering a record that's very unfashionable. It's long, it requires a lot from the listener in the day of the short attention span, and there's no real obvious single on it.

"It's been a weird roller coaster. It took me, once again, sitting myself down and saying, 'This is the record I wanted to make. It's the best record I could make, and I'm proud of it. Success or failure is not based on the amount of records sold.' That sounds like a defensive stance, like I'm trying to make myself feel better. But I love that record. I'm doing what I can do to try to get people to give it a chance, take a listen to it, and maybe open their minds a little bit."

When he's not touring or recording, Reznor does not live as a hermit, shuttered away in his mansion. He eats out, goes to movies, attends concerts. In March 1997, just after he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, Reznor turned up in a Times-Picayune review of Clancy's. The paper's former food critic happened to arrive at the Uptown eatery just as Reznor emerged from a limousine -- an uncharacteristic display of rock stardom in his hometown.

"Somebody from the record label was in town, and for some reason the car company shows up with a limo," Reznor said. "We never, ever, ever take limos anywhere. And it happens to be that the food critic is there and I'm walking out of a limo."

In December 1998, Reznor opened his home for a Preservation Resource Center benefit. The PRC works to preserve old homes like the one Reznor bought; for a $75 donation to the organization, anyone could stroll through his house.

"It was asked, and I thought it would make me furnish (the house) a bit better than it was; it was a challenge to get it up to speed," Reznor said. "I think it worked out well. I didn't really know what to expect; I didn't know if it would be real stuffy. But everyone was cool."

And he has thrown himself wholeheartedly into Mardi Gras. He jumped in by riding in Zulu, decked out in the traditional blackface and grass skirt. "I went to bed early -- you have to be there at 4 in the morning, to get ready," Reznor recalled. "At midnight I'm laying there wide awake, trying to make myself fall asleep. So I stayed up all night, and (the next day) it was 100 degrees out, I'm sweating in blackface."

He also rode three times in Harry Connick Jr.'s Orpheus parade. He comes off as a local when describing the experience. "We invite friends of ours down to (ride) and you try to explain to them this strange feeling of throwing plastic beads out to people with a stupid costume on. You don't understand it until you're in it and you feel how cool that is. We have a lot of fun doing that."

Reznor said that he plans to rent or buy a place in Manhattan "to occasionally balance out some of the Southern-ness that can be the drag side of New Orleans, the Southern mentality -- elements of racism, et cetera."

But New Orleans will still be home.

"I get asked that a lot: 'Why do you live in New Orleans?'" Reznor said. "Well, I like it. Is it flawed? Yes, it's flawed -- any place has flaws. But there's a sense of community here that I enjoy."

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Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails
This article is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously located at SUS.