A cleaned-up, grown-up Reznor shares more angst and alienation

By Neva Chonin for San Francisco Chronicle on April 27, 2005

At the close of a 1995 Nine Inch Nails/David Bowie concert at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, Bowie and NIN singer-songwriter Trent Reznor huddled at stage's edge for a duet of Reznor's confessional ballad, "Hurt." Trading lyrics that explored pain, alienation and survival, the two stars were a study in contrast: Reznor, counter-culture's icon du jour, resembled an animated shadow as he hunkered down and murmured his lines; Bowie, the rock-scarred veteran, projected the aching narrative outward as if it were a Gothic spiritual.

A decade later, "Hurt" has become legend, thanks in part to a wrenching cover by the late Johnny Cash. And Reznor remains the angry and alienated star he was when he recorded it in 1994 -- with a difference. He's grown up, and in the process discovered the same gritty transcendence that made Bowie and Cash's versions of "Hurt" so compelling. Reznor is, at 39, a survivor. He's battled drugs and alcoholism, social phobia and self hate, writer's block, his manager and his record label. He's moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles, reformed his band and begun his first tour in five years. And, come Tuesday, he'll finally release "With Teeth," the first NIN album of new material since 1999's aptly titled "The Fragile."

Reznor characterizes "With Teeth" as "almost reactionary." It's certainly a trenchant response to market forces Reznor himself unleashed 10 years ago, when 1994's "The Downward Spiral" rewrote the book on industrial rock and studio technology. The new CD, with its emphasis on live instrumentation over digital effects and its gentler approach to human foibles, is as personal as anything Reznor has ever recorded. It's also a risk, coming from the studio auteur known for elevating production wizardry to an art form.

Indications are that the public is ready to embrace both NIN's return and Reznor's new aesthetic. The album's first single, "The Hand That Feeds," has enjoyed heavy radio rotation, and all American and European tour dates (which include tonight's show at the Warfield and a headlining slot at the Coachella Festival on May 1) sold out in minutes.

All very gratifying for an artist who, a few years ago, was grappling with alcoholism, too much cocaine and the essential trauma of waking up in the morning. "I found myself emerging from a very dark period of addiction, and the world looked different," he recalls, speaking over the phone from L.A. "Suddenly I was asking myself, 'How do I fit into this world? How did I get this old?'

"I'd be lying if I didn't say I didn't wake up nervous at the star of this tour," he adds. "I've always had weird social anxiety. I could walk into a room and feel like I was the guy who didn't belong there, even if it was backstage at my own show."

Reznor dealt with his anxiety by self-medicating to the point of coma. He describes the tour supporting "The Fragile" as "a year of terror and waking up sick every day and hating myself at the end of it." He admits, though, that stardom didn't cause his addictions; it merely accelerated them. "If I was selling cars I'd still have been an addict. It was my way with dealing with depression. All I've really been trying to do was deal with pain. Now I'm acknowledging it."

In the angst-fueled '90s, Reznor's ability to eloquently express pain and rage through music was key in pushing NIN's albums to multiplatinum status and transforming him into an iconic, albeit thoroughly miserable, rock star. Now, having watched his metal-tinged rage become a genre and his groundbreaking production techniques become homogenizing tools, Reznor is making technological changes to match his personal ones. Doing his part to nudge music production toward DIY creativity, he's posted the new album's first single, "The Hand That Feeds," as a download on his official Web site and encouraged fans to manipulate and transform it as they please.

He says that he has always viewed the recording studio as "an instrument. It was all about how I could use the sound to support the emotional message of the music. It used to be hard to make a perfect record; now it's hard to make a record that doesn't sound like a computer. I love computers, but now that everyone has the ability to push a button and make everything sound perfect, the result is that things have become soulless. What I wanted to do with this album was to make it imperfect. I wanted it to sound harsh and unsure of itself."

In that sense, "With Teeth" might be the most humanist album Reznor has ever made. And if he's still feeling "harsh and unsure" about some aspects of his own life, at least he's learned -- like Cash and Bowie before him -- how to exorcise his terrors rather than inhabit them. "I'm in a different place now," he says. "I'm still angry about things, but I hope I'm looking at them through a new maturity. I realize that I can deal with life. I can feel pain, I can feel bad, but I can get through it and the sun still rises. That's a big deal to me. I played a show sober the other day and I didn't have a panic attack, and I realized I could do that, too. I just do the best I can, because that's all I can do."

Nine Inch Nails 8 p.m. today and Thursday at the Warfield. Tickets: .

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