New Orleans resonates with Trent Reznor

By Keith Spera for Times-Picayune on October 28, 2005

For more than a decade, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor reigned as New Orleans' resident rock star. He inhabited a sprawling Garden District mansion, walked his dog in Audubon Park and conducted audio exorcisms in a former Magazine Street funeral parlor, howling over industrial beats and distorted guitars.

Last year, Reznor sold his house to actor John Goodman and moved to Los Angeles. But his emotional ties to New Orleans remain strong. The tour for Nine Inch Nails' current CD, "With Teeth" (Nothing/Interscope Records), was to include a stop at the seventh Voodoo Music Experience in City Park. Hurricane Katrina scuttled those plans, until the festival was reborn as a benefit/tribute.

So this weekend, Reznor and Nine Inch Nails headline two events: A free "tribute" show for relief workers Saturday at Riverview Park, popularly known as The Fly, and a fund-raising concert Sunday in Memphis. Joining Nine Inch Nails on Saturday are Queens of the Stone Age, the New York Dolls and a litany of local favorites including Cowboy Mouth, Jon Cleary, Bonerama and Kermit Ruffins. Organizers distributed tickets to aid groups, government organizations and musicians; no tickets will be available at the gate.

Reznor arrives in New Orleans today, his first return visit to his devastated former hometown. He called Tuesday morning from a tour stop in Florida. Excerpts from the conversation follow:

In the first few days after Katrina, how closely did you follow the news?

Glued to the TV. We were in preproduction rehearsals (for the tour). I just couldn't believe what I was watching.

It's amazing how your concerns go from "I hope the studio roof is OK," to (realizing) what I have there is completely inconsequential compared to what is happening. I tracked down everybody I keep in touch with and rescued a friend from a shelter in Lake Charles, a handyman that did some work for me. I got him out to California, got him back on his feet.

Folks outside the city have a hard time comprehending the scope of the destruction and disruption, especially as it phases out of the national news cycle.

You hear, "The lights are back on. People are going back in. Business as usual. What time does Mardi Gras start up?"

And that's also what I need to see firsthand this weekend. The people I've talked to there are like, "You have no idea. It's much worse than what you probably think."

You had both good and bad years in New Orleans. Describe your post-Katrina range of emotions for the city.

When we first started touring in 1990, I was living in Cleveland, and was sick of it. Every time I came through New Orleans, it seemed as far away as I could get from rural Pennsylvania and that bummer, steel mill vibe of winter in Cleveland. Tradition, culture, this weird, different attitude, different looking people, the architecture is completely different. It still had the appeal of a smaller city, but it seemed like a really interesting place, a creative place. So on a whim, I moved down there, and ended up staying.

Seeing that hurricane hit, and thinking the bullet was dodged at first, then seeing the levees break ... Seeing a city that you love, and the place that is the closest place I have to home, murdered and destroyed ... it was a bunch of emotions. Obviously shock and sadness. But for me, it turned quickly into anger with government. Just complete outrage.

You moved out of New Orleans, yet still call it the closest place you have to home.

I've done a lot of self-analysis and one of the things, in hindsight, that appealed to me about coming to New Orleans was it was a way for me to hide, to isolate myself from the music business. That plays into me being an addict and a number of other things with my mental health that didn't seem clear at the time.

Being sober now for a number of years ... I felt it was time for me to be around my peers and the business that I'm in. I needed that for the betterment of myself and my art. So that really leaves New York or L.A. All my friends are in L.A. and I thought that might be a healthier environment. (Los Angeles) is a nice place. There's hills. The weather is different. People's boobs seem to be harder, their teeth are whiter, their cars cost more money. But it doesn't have the soul of the city.

I never left New Orleans thinking, "I've had it with this place. I'm done." Being away for a while, there is something that I look forward to going back. One of the feelings I experienced watching all that go down post-hurricane was a sense of grieving. Grieving for a childhood home burning down.

You fully participated in the city, including Mardi Gras.

The first thing I ever did was ride in Zulu. That was culture shock. Then we ended up riding in Orpheus a number of times. Mardi Gras to me and anybody that's been there for any length of time isn't Bourbon Street. It's the city, the soul of the place. That is because of the neighborhoods and the melting pot of people, for better or worse, that wound up there. The balance of interaction between people. And there's no way that is going to come back.

You often attended the Voodoo Music Experience as a guest. Recount your decision to finally perform this year.

When Voodoo started up, every year we'd get an offer (to perform). I was in a period of hibernation, just getting better and trying to get my head screwed on straight, and I could never play it. This year, finally, I wanted to cross it off the list of things I wanted to get done to feel like I'd gotten my life in order again.

Then the hurricane hits... So I get on the phone with (Voodoo producer Stephen) Rehage, interfacing through my booking agent, Marc Geiger. Immediately we both said, "Let's see if we can turn it into a benefit."

My manager started wondering if Voodoo could actually happen in New Orleans, at least as a symbolic event to say that the city is not dead. That might have a little more impact than Hurricane Benefit X in Memphis. We can also get more media coverage, which in turn means more money.

Then they asked us if we would play the Memphis date, because some of the bands dropped off. We had the day off anyway. It means a (long) overnight drive, but so what? I said from the beginning that whatever I can do to help, I'm in.

For you personally, New Orleans means much more than just another gig.

It most certainly does. Where (the festival) is, on The Fly, that's where I used to go write music. I sat up there and wrote words for the last couple albums.

Voodoo Fest is not about Nine Inch Nails playing. It's not about Nine Inch Nails at all. We figured out we can raise over million that goes right into New Orleans. That's well worth a night of my time. That's worth several nights of my time. And my crew and the other bands on the bill had no hesitation to say, "What can we do to help?"

It's hard to look for good things out of this, but it has increased my faith a little bit in compassion. Humans wanting to help each other out.

The cliché is true, that this brings out the best and the worst. Both are intensified.

I had my assistant drive back (to Louisiana) with my (handyman) friend. She called me, crying, from the road: "I'm so ashamed by the way the government treats these people." She was trying to help get their FEMA money, wherever you go to wait in line to be told no, or that you need some document you don't have. Discarded. Heartbroken by the process. "Oh, you're poor and black? Stand in that line."

You know the feeling when the system breaks down, and how terrifying that can be?To me, that was when my grandmother died and my grandpa broke down crying. I'm not used to seeing that. He's supposed to be the rock -- it's very unsettling to see that collapse.

From watching what happened (in New Orleans), it felt that way -- these parts aren't supposed to break. The government that takes half my paycheck, I thought that's where some of this was going. When you find out that's not in place, or all that money went to drop bombs on Iraq. Where are the troops? Well, there aren't any -- they're all over securing the world's oil for us.

Katrina may be a wake-up call, a lesson that won't be forgotten.

I think that is the case. I just wish the price wasn't so great, you know?

Saturday's show should be a much-needed break from reality for the relief workers and troops.

I hope so. It's something, anyway.

So does "Head Like a Hole" have the power to uplift?

(laughs) I don't know that we're the ultimate feel-good, everything-is-going-to-be-OK band. But hey, we're doing what we can.

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