Reznor, Revitalized

Nine Inch Nails frontman is sober and not as somber

By Tim Pratt, Free Press Special Writer for Detroit Free Press on October 7, 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 Tuesday night. At press time, it was unclear whether Freese was a permanent replacement. But Saturday's show at Joe Louis Arena will go on.

Here is an extended transcript of Free Press special writer Tim Pratt's interview with Trent Reznor. It was conducted after drummer Jerome Dillon had to cut a show short because of heart problems - but before Dillon left the tour for good because of the ailment.

QUESTION: 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, Γ«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 and after that, everything's been fine. He's been taking care of himself and the situation seems to be under control.

Q: Who's playing with you right now, cause I know it's changed a lot since the last time you were out, correct?

A: Yeah, I have a new band this time around. Jerome Dillon, drummer is the same guy from the last time; and 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. It's been a pleasant surprise. I was hoping it didn't suck, but it's been pleasantly better than I could even have hoped it would have gone.

Q: Is it different at all singing the songs now that you were singing 10 years ago from "Pretty Hate Machine" or "The Downward Spiral"? Do you almost have to get into a different place now, mentally?

A: That's a good question and it was one I wasn't sure how I'd feel either. But when we first started out, when the first album, "Pretty Hate Machine" came out, I made the decision to take a rock band format out to play the music and, in other words, not being two guys with a sequencer, not Chemical Brothers style.

Q: Thank God you didn't do that, actually.

A: In hindsight, yeah, it was a good move. But what I found on that first tour was the band didn't sound like the record that much, but the record was one guy with a computer in a studio and the band was this thing that could kick the emotional level of the music and certainly make it more visceral. But I was surprised to see that the songs could survive a kind of arrangement change and sounded better to me. And that served as the blueprint of the way I would do it, even up to the present. From playing those songs live a lot, the one career thing that's always worked for Nine Inch Nails was we could never count on radio and we could never count on MTV, but we could just tour forever and it seemed like that got the message out.

Those first waves around the country in a van, we'd open for anybody and then come back another month later and a couple months later, and come back, come back - it'd always be the same people and their friends, plus their friends and then it felt like ... the live thing is something that's a valid means of getting the word out. And the songs took on different meanings, you know, they were based on what I meant sitting in my bedroom when I wrote them, but it became much more real.

And seeing the people yell the words back at you, realizing that first time out that "People are relating to this, somehow." People I had never met in a town I'd never been to, people screaming my words back at me and it'd mean something to them. You feed off that and it becomes this whole new thing. Nine years later, the strategy of putting this band together was, again, learn the new record, get it right, and then, let's work backwards, move back in time, and see what songs feel valid and see which ones don't feel valid ... as I learn who I am onstage, which ones do and don't come to life for me now. It was an interesting process, and I can honestly say, looking down at the set list now, there aren't any on there that I don't feel that I'm dreading playing, that I don't mean. And that's not to mean that when I get on stage and sing "Hurt" today, that I mean exactly what I meant 10 years ago when I wrote it. But it means something that's still powerful. The elements change, the set dressing changes, but the emotion is sincere, if that makes any sense.

I haven't felt like Gene Simmons on stage, you know, singing to somebody 40 years younger than them about partying all night.

Q: How has the audience changed over the last decade or so? Do you find the audience has grown with you or do you see a lot of younger people out there?

A: Another good question and one I that didn't know the answer to until we started this way of touring. 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. My priorities weren't maintaining a career, it was maintaining a heart rate and struggling to stay alive. 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.

OK, now, I wonder if anybody's out there, who the hell is going to be out there this time. I wasn't assuming that it's 1994 and we're the biggest band in the world. Not that we were the biggest band, but certainly bigger than we are today.

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 a weird blend of obviously new kids who weren't there because they couldn't have physically been there before and people getting up to my own age.

It's not just kids and it's not just old 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 we're A Flock of Seagulls, you know what I'm saying?

And I don't mean that with any disrespect to them ... yes, I do! When it starts to even hint that it's getting into that, then it's time to readdress the situation. To me, it feels valid and it feels relevant and it feels real. I don't feel like I'm going through the motions on stage. And when I see the crowd, it doesn't feel like it's time for the stockbrokers to go crazy, put some gel in their hair and come out and see the band they used to like.

When and if that day comes, it's time for a long, hard look in the mirror.

Q: A lot of your lyrics feel like catharsis in a way and I think that's why people glommed onto you, especially at the time. Because of your lyrics, did it feel like people were trying to pin a title on you, like "Spokesperson for a generation," or to put it another way, because you wore your emotions on your sleeve, did people try to attribute a particular movement or sound with you and your music?

A: I've certainly got it from fans and I've heard enough ... it's a strange bag of mixed feelings. Do I want to be this spokesperson for a generation? Certainly not.

Q: I guess that's the wrong terminology to say.

A: But I know what you're getting at.

Q: You really put yourself out there in a lot of your songs, I guess that's part of it.

A: It is that way and I think that certainly some people picked up on it. When I've gotten cornered backstage or read a letter and somebody's saying, "Hey, you're the reason I stayed alive, man, you know exactly how I feel." And suddenly - that's the nicest compliment you could get from somebody. But, at the same time, it's also kind of weird because, hey, I'm (profanity)-up man. Don't be looking for a lifeline from me because I'm not the guy you want to ... I don't need that responsibility.

But purely through art and music, I certainly remember ... like I had a friend or someone else that could identify my situation and explain it or be there for me when I needed it. And I got that through music. I got that through music and songs and bands and writers that, somehow they knew what was in my head and they could express it more eloquently than I was able to. It made me feel like I wasn't alone or I wasn't the only person that felt that way. And to be able to feel like you provided that for someone else, that feels like a reason to be alive or a purpose.

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. It seemed like the weirdest place in the world because I hadn't really ... I grew up in Pennsylvania and hadn't really traveled anywhere. Stayed there for several years and when we got signed and really went on tour, it was the first time I had really seen the majority of the country, let alone the world.

Got to New Orleans and it was like, "What in hell is this place?" So different from the Midwest, where I grew up. Anything went, weird culture, looked different, the architecture's different, the vibe is different, the air smelled different, people were different, it was a weird sense of tradition and community. Wow. It seemed like a great place to go write. Moved down there.

I just sold my house there a few months ago. I decided that I needed a change of pace and I needed a different view when I looked out the window. I also needed to be more around my peers, which I'd been isolating myself from, so I moved out to L.A. end of 2003, but just sold my house 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 and really, I've been helping out some friends I have there that have lost everything, their house, their job, their community they grew up in, their family's displaced and scattered around, nobody has an answer, got a hit-in-the-head shell-shocked feeling. They don't know if their house is going to be bulldozed, they don't know if they're going to get any money for it, they don't know what they're going to do. They're living in hotels in Baton Rouge and Houston and I'm grieving a city that I think has been murdered. I'm grieving the place that I love.

I'm filled with outrage and anger at the Bush Administration. I do think it's time to point fingers, I do think it's finally time for accountability.

Imagine what it feels like to be poor and sitting on your (profanity) roof for five days, left to die. No idea what's going on, nobody telling you what's happening, or 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."

Nine Inch Nails
with Queens of the Stone Age and Autolux
7:30 p.m. Saturday
Joe Louis Arena
600 Civic Center Dr., Detroit
.50, .50

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