Darkness gives way to beauty

By Jeff Spevak for The Democrat and Chronicle on March 9, 2006

(March 9, 2006) — Nine Inch Nails sounds like beauty being torn to pieces. It is Trent Reznor bringing his nightmares to life.

And this clash of beauty and nightmares, including Nine Inch Nails' latest album, With Teeth, is born completely in the studio. Layers upon layers of sampled sound, and Reznor playing the instruments, tweaking away until the creative process has drifted far from the raw chemistry of rock.

So the problem tonight at the Blue Cross Arena becomes: How does Nine Inch Nails re-create those vivisection sounds for a live performance? Particularly since the band's instruments are often specially designed gimmicks of hallucinogenic contortion and self-destruction?

"After a while, those gimmicks become quite comfortable for us," says keyboardist Alessandro Cortini. "We have water flying, guitars flying, Aaron breaking guitars on me and throwing himself into the drum kit."

Nine Inch Nails is Reznor and whoever he picks for the current tour. As of now, it's drummer Josh Freese, guitarist Aaron White, bassist Jeordie White (no relation) and Cortini. And despite the mayhem onstage, they're actually trying to play this stuff, rather than rely on sampled sound.

"A lot of people would press 'play' and the show plays itself," Cortini says. "The atmospheric sounds, textures, are a little less cold than would have been if I had sampled straight off the album. It's a little more interesting to play, and a little more interesting for the audience, because it doesn't have to listen to the same sounds as the album."

And they'll see? "You'll see a lot of blinking lights." And Cortini inside a cage. For protection from flying guitarists. "I'm not gonna get hurt," he says.

Reznor has developed a penchant for seeking the darkness. He recorded 1994's The Downward Spiral in a studio he built in the house where Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by the Charles Manson gang.

From there, he moved on to New Orleans, where he built a studio in a former funeral home. The bulk of 1999's The Fragile was recorded there.

Choosing such surroundings may be Goth soup for the soul, but they might also be the sign of a troubled man. Reznor was reportedly bedeviled by writer's block and excessive alcohol abuse.

"Keep in mind, the guy is super-picky and self-criticizing of his own work," Cortini says. He's been to Reznor's new home in Los Angeles, which Cortini says is not at all funereal.

So the darkness is gone, he says, and the drugs and alcohol as well. "The guy is super-productive now. He is the most multi-tasking person I've ever met. He gets up early. By the time I'm done in the restroom, he's written 45 songs."

Reznor sold his home in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina hit. The tragedy that followed hardly felt like a real-estate coup. New Orleans was beauty torn to pieces. The Bush administration's inability — or disinterest — in rebuilding the city has kept Reznor's anger smoldering.

He wrote on the Nine Inch Nails Web site: "Disbelief and sadness are evolving into outrage."

"His probably takes a little longer to die, because that city means so much to him," Cortini says of the anger. "Seeing that kind of destruction for 45 minutes, you keep on driving, it never stops, it never ends. The only constant is destruction and the water line on every house and the spray paint on the doors that tells you how many bodies they found there."

Kanye West may think George Bush doesn't care about black people, but Reznor evidently believes that the president simply doesn't care about people in general. At the 2005 MTV Movie Awards, the band was ready to play its anti-Bush song, "The Hand That Feeds," in front of a huge portrait of the president. No devil's horns, just Bush. "That was canned by MTV," Cortini says, and Reznor announced Nine Inch Nails would not play under such censorship.

He didn't go away quietly. "Trent is not somebody that just shuts up," Cortini says. "He uses what he can use to say what he thinks."

Again, from the Nine Inch Nails Web site: "We were set to perform 'The Hand That Feeds' with an unmolested, straightforward image of George W. Bush as the backdrop. Apparently, the image of our president is as offensive to MTV as it is to me."

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