Industrial strength

Nine Inch Nails has survived depression, disease and disaster to roar back on tour.

By Sean Piccoli for Orlando Sun-Sentinel on October 21, 2005

Nothing is ever simple for Trent Reznor, the man behind the industrial rock project Nine Inch Nails.

He spent a good chunk of the 2000s being hideously, suicidally depressed before weaning himself off drugs and alcohol, and finally completing a new album. His planned appearance at this past summer's MTV Video Music Awards fell apart in a dispute over staging and anti-war politics. Hurricane Katrina laid waste to his beloved New Orleans, where Reznor lived until recently and where he still maintains a recording studio. His current tour, which comes to the Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise on Monday, started shakily when the drummer fell ill.

But Reznor, 40, hardly sounded like someone to be pitied in a brief telephone interview on Monday. A replacement for original tour drummer Jerome Dillon has stepped up on short notice and impressed everyone as a quick study. Dillon himself is getting proper care for what has turned out to be a treatable heart condition. The tour is rolling along, and will make a highly symbolic stop at the Voodoo Festival in New Orleans on Oct. 29. The new album, With Teeth, finds Reznor still making dark, incendiary music while peeling back some of the production for a leaner and less obsessively detailed sound.

"A lot of [With Teeth] is based on reaction to what else is happening in music," he says. "Computers, sequencers and ProTools are so commonplace. ... There seems to be a button on all that software that says, `Fix Everything -- Make It Right.' And in the end it sounds like a Staind record -- soulless, and not soulless in a good way like a Gary Numan album. Soulless like something coming out of Guitar Center's back room."

Ouch. Yet Reznor administers these slaps -- to Aaron Lewis' sulky metal band and to a leading musical instrument retailer -- with a cheery offhandedness. Reznor's conversational style may be as critique-prone as his music, but the tone is somewhat less menacing. The point is he wanted to make new music with a more organic, less processed touch. "I wanted it to sound imperfect," he says.

For With Teeth he recruited famed rock drummer -- and Foo Fighters bandleader -- Dave Grohl to provide some hand-made rhythms. In the studio he resisted the temptation to compose using "layers upon layers upon layers" of audio. "This was about making concise songs, about melody and lyrics," he says. But the concision comes across in a more raw, less audibly produced form than just about anything heard on Reznor's preceding album, 1999's The Fragile.

With Teeth has garnered mostly positive -- and some rapturous -- reviews. Sixteen years after bursting into view with Pretty Hate Machine and that album's throbbing anthem, Head Like a Hole ("I'd rather die/ than give you control"), Reznor still has people paying attention. He posted the master tracks for the new album's first single, The Hand That Feeds, on his Web site and invited any and all to download them and "remix/reinterpret/ruin" them at will.

"Last I checked," Reznor wrote at nin.com, "there were hundreds of remixes ... I've enjoyed and cringed at what you've done with my song. Thank you (I think)." Another new song, Only, is now available online for similar tinkering.

Reznor also does a bit of restructuring when he hits the road. While recording, he says, he gives almost no thought to how the songs might sound in concert. But when tour preparation starts, new songs go through a translation process to help them make the leap from studio to stage. The aim is not to duplicate the recordings -- "The last thing I'm concerned with is, does it sound like the record?" he says.

Rather, he wants the songs to adapt to their changed environment -- a concert being what he calls a "more volatile and confrontational, visceral" setting than a studio. "The record and the live show are complementary -- two different things glued together by the material," he says.

And he's all for a strong visual component to the show. "I'm not afraid of theatrics," he says, arguing for "a degree of spectacle, a degree of mind-blowing-ness" to live presentation. Talking as if he were the concertgoer, he says, "I want something that gets me out of my life."

"There's a laziness in a lot of live shows that's become acceptable," he says. "The bar's been lowered by a lot of bad bands."

Reznor likes his band, including new drummer Alex Carapetis, who auditioned in the employee cafeteria of a venue that Nine Inch Nails was scheduled to play within a few days. Being in this band means learning to play along to programmed rhythms, and Reznor says Carapetis -- like Dillon and Grohl before him -- has the essential ability to stay on time with the computerized "click track," but within that framework develop a natural-sounding groove.

"The entire secret to the world is some drummers can play with click tracks and some can't," says Reznor.

Because Nine Inch Nails in the studio is largely a one-man operation, with Reznor working alone or calling in collaborators as needed, the road is a welcome change. It's the place where Reznor is the bandmember, buddy and collaborator he rarely allows himself to be when recording.

"I always thought it would be cool to be in The Smiths," he says. But, being Reznor, he also knows he would find it cool for all of 10 minutes before quitting or firing everyone.

Sean Piccoli can be reached at spiccoli@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4832.

If you go

Nine Inch Nails performs on Monday at Bank Atlantic Center, 2555 Panther Pkwy., Sunrise. Queens of the Stone Age and Death From Above 1979 open. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are - through Ticketmaster (561-966-3309, 954-523-3309, 305-358-5885) or the box office, 954-835-8000.

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