Nine Inch Nails frontman is sober and not as somber

By Tim Pratt for Detroit Free Press on October 13, 2005

On the surface, it might seem strange to be talking about Nine Inch Nails in 2005.

This was the dark and aggressive band that had banked its career largely on the raw, emotion-fueled angst and aggression of front man Trent Reznor.

Albums "Pretty Hate Machine" and "The Downward Spiral" (with hits like the R-rated "Closer" and the poignant ballad "Hurt") catapulted Reznor to tortured-idol status in the mid-`90s.

But the five-year wait for a follow-up resulted in the overambitious double album "The Fragile" in 1999, a decent but certainly not legendary work. It seemed like Nine Inch Nails had peaked.

Six years later, Reznor seems hungrier and more focused than ever, armed with a powerful new disc, "With Teeth," that feels more like the proper follow-up to "Spiral." He also has a whole new band and a whole new attitude - he's given up drugs and alcohol.

There's a positive vibe coming from the 40-year-old Pennsylvania native that seems a bit out of sorts for the notorious brooder.

Unfortunately, Reznor hasn't completely escaped drama. Drummer Jerome Dillon, whose heart-related problems spurred the cancellation of the tour's Sept. 16 opener in San Diego midway through the performance, was forced to leave the tour after experiencing more chest pains. That happened just hours after this interview was conducted; so Reznor did not yet know he'd be looking for a new drummer.

Josh Freese (A Perfect Circle) filled in for Dillon beginning with the Salt Lake City performance Oct. 4. At press time, it was unclear whether Freese was a permanent replacement.

Reznor talked to the Detroit Free Press about his changing audience, his new mind-set and having moved from New Orleans just before Katrina hit.

Q: What happened when Dillon had to leave the stage during the San Diego show?

A: All I know is that 45 minutes in, he messed up the song before a little bit and I looked back at him and just said, "Hey, it's cool. We recovered." And he kept trying to get my attention and I was like, "It's all right, man. It's cool. Let's move on." And then I see him get up and I thought, "Man, this guy's coming up to apologize to me." But then I realized ... he said, "Look, my heart's freaking out. Something's really wrong. I'm sorry, I have to stop the set for a minute." And then he ran off the stage. Then we find out that his heart rate was elevated and they were afraid it could be something really bad. He spent the night in the hospital, got checked out the next day, and then we had a show the next day we had to cancel because we didn't know what the results were going to be.

Q: Who else is playing with you?

A: I have a new band this time around. ... I have Jeordie White playing bass; Alessandro Cortini plays keyboards and Aaron North, who used to be in the Icarus Line, is playing guitar.

Q: Did those guys record with you at all in the studio for "With Teeth," or is that the touring band?

A: I got this band together after I finished the record. And the idea behind it was I wanted some guys who were fresh and felt that they could play the new album the best. This new album's a lot more live and a less kind of production-heavy, and I wanted to get guys that meant it and felt could hold their own based on the instrumentation of the new record.

Then we went back and explored older songs to see what sounded good and felt relevant and vital. Because it had also been a long time since I'd been on stage, I needed to figure out who I was these days. I was hoping it didn't suck, but it's been pleasantly better than I could even have hoped it would have gone.

Q: How has the audience changed over the last decade or so?

A: It's been five years since I've been on stage, for this cycle, and during that time I've gone away to get my life in order and get clean and get my head screwed on straight. So, approaching this cycle, it was like, "Well, let me see if I can write a record," and it's like "Wow, I wrote a really good record and I feel good about it. Alright, let's tour. Let me see if it feels right." And it does feel right.

Time has passed and who is the audience? The weirdest thing now is that, when I look out at the crowd, it looks the same as it did 10 years ago. It's still kids, you know? Ten rows back, you'll see older people. ... It's an interesting blend of people and I really couldn't ask for a better cross-section because I was really afraid that ... when it feels like Nine Inch Nails has become the nostalgia band, it's time for it not to be Nine Inch Nails. When and if that day comes, it's time for a long, hard look in the mirror.

Q: I know you lived in New Orleans for a long time. Were you at all affected by Hurricane Katrina personally and if so, what happened?

A: Certainly. I had been living in New Orleans for about 14 years ; I moved down there in 1990 from Cleveland. I just sold my house there a few months ago ... and I still had the studio in New Orleans. It survived the flooding but it's water-damaged and filled with mold now. I saw some pictures of a lot of my favorite old keyboards with green mold all over `em, so ...

How do I feel about it? I can't say I didn't feel some pain while looking at some photos of that stuff, but it's just stuff. It's just gear and it's just a building. ... I'm grieving a city that I think has been murdered. I'm grieving the place that I love.

Imagine what it feels like to be poor and sitting on your roof for five days, left to die. No idea what's going on, nobody telling you what's happening. Or you're herded into the Superdome, or left out on the street. The news media seems able to get in there, I see helicopters flying around, but no one can give us water. No one apparently has a bullhorn to say, "Hey, someone's coming tomorrow."

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