Spiraling upward

Nine Inch Nails hammers down new approach

By Donna Isbell Walker for The Greenville News on March 10, 2006

Nine Inch Nails' music paints a dark canvas of foreboding and despair, and the band's front man Trent Reznor cultivates a similar aura, shot through with Gothic hues and the hint of mystery.

So it comes as quite a surprise to learn what's on the TV in Nine Inch Nails guitarist Aaron North's Toronto hotel room while he's chatting with a reporter on the phone. On the tube: The Home and Garden network.

What's up with that?

"What do people expect?" North said. "There are all these kids that think that Trent, like, sleeps in a coffin or something. That when room service comes to the door ... a bunch of fog will roll out, that there are, like, strobes happening in the room. It's a lot less glamorous than people think."

Just goes to show, you can't judge a musician by the album cover.

For all the excitement of being on a major rock 'n' roll tour, there are many hours of dull down time for every two hours of performing bliss. So you have to find your own amusement, not always easy when you're stuck in a strange city in the middle of winter for days on end.

Sometimes you end up checking out the home decor trends on TV, and then channeling your pent-up energies into the night's performance. That's what North has done, to the extent that Reznor has referred to him, with apparent affection, as "insane."

"You get bored, and you get an hour and a half to vent. That's your time to let it all hang out, and I take advantage of it," North said. "I'm not crazy. I've been sitting on my hands for a week at a time, and you get an hour and a half to let loose."

North has been on this tour for a year, an eternity for Nine Inch Nails, which is essentially Reznor and a revolving-door cast of musicians. The latest NIN album, "With Teeth," came out last May after a five-year hiatus, and Reznor performed most of the music himself.

Reznor has a reputation for being a controlling, "fuhrer-type dude," so when North came on as a touring guitarist, he expected to be given a set list with detailed instructions on how to play each song.

On the contrary, Reznor handed North a list of 40 songs with the task of coming up with new arrangements, guitar solos and ideas for giving each of them a different vibe.

The assignment "made me a little scared and bummed me out because it would have been way easier for someone to tell me, 'This is how the song goes.'

"The more challenging part was, he said, 'Hey, here are these songs. I've been playing some of these songs for 15 years, and I don't want to play them that way anymore. ... Do whatever you want.'"

Getting to a comfort level took a while, North said, but once he got settled into the tour, the new approach became a lot of fun.

The shows are an eclectic mix of Nine Inch Nails songs, from the early days to the present. Occasionally, they'll throw in songs that NIN has rarely, if ever, performed live. Other times, they'll take a set of songs "in a weird direction," slowing them down or changing them almost entirely.

That's important, because it can be easy to get bored playing the same songs the same way for hundreds of shows, North said.

The next step for Nine Inch Nails is anybody's guess, but North said Reznor seems to be going through an especially creative phase right now. Reznor is "in his own head" much of the time, apparently working out new material, North said.

Another album is likely in the works.

"This band hasn't been this active in over 10 years," North said. "I'm sure this record is gonna happen in a year, so this will be the first time Nine Inch Nails has ever put out records back-to-back this quick, and has consistently toured. We've toured for a year, and we're not gonna stop. ... It's new territory for this band, to have a real band that is looked at as a unit."

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