Guitarist in rezidence
As a boy, Aaron North was awed by Nine Inch Nails. Now the 26-year-old is touring with the band.
By Walter Tunis for Kentucky Herald Leader on February 24, 2006
Just imagine the scope of the adventure staring Aaron North in the face when he joined Nine Inch Nails.
There was the opportunity to see the world as part of Trent Reznor's touring version of his industrial-strength rock ensemble -- which makes its Lexington debut tonight at Rupp Arena -- as well as the enormous personal thrill of collaborating with an artist he'd listened to as a fan for years.
But what happens when the foundation of that fame nearly crumbles before most audiences get to experience it? And how could North foresee that the person helping piece it together again would be a musician from North's hometown who had been his hero?
"You know, when you're comfortable with something, it's easier for the energy to become kind of stagnant and not as exciting," said North, 26. "But when the possibility is there that you might fall flat on your face and totally suck in front of an arena full of people, an element is added to the show. I think all the weird little changes and hiccups that were happening on the tour last year in a lot of ways made our show something pretty cool to watch."
This is the story of what NIN meant to the Los Angeles guitarist in the first place, and the rocky touring road he has traveled since the band transformed from inspiration to employer.
Following in great footsteps
Rewind to the start of 2005.
North had recently split from the punk band The Icarus Line when auditions were announced for the first NIN tour in five years.
For the uninitiated, NIN is essentially a one-man band configuration run by Reznor in the recording studio. Outside of some drumming by Foo Fighter leader Dave Grohl, nearly all of the newest NIN album, With Teeth, was played and produced by Reznor. Onstage, though, NIN exists in a more conventional format. And other than drummer Jerome Dillon, Reznor wanted a new lineup to show off Teeth on the road. North auditioned and was chosen to follow such NIN guitar greats as Robin Finck and Richard Patrick.
"He shows up ... he's got junk equipment and he looks like he just got up," Reznor said of North in an interview with The New Zealand Herald last year. "Then Aaron starts playing, and on the first note it's like, 'You're the guy.' He wasn't trying to be me and play like I play. He played, and chaos came out."
North recalled, "When we started the last tour, I was the last person brought in. It was one of those things like, 'Well, we're trying to learn 40 songs. We're leaving in a month. Let's go.' You know, if Trent had said, 'Here are the songs and here is how you play them,' that would have actually been easy. There would have been no room to think about things.
"Well, Trent didn't do that."
Instead, Reznor gave North unexpected freedom to interpret Reznor's music onstage. Notoriously meticulous in the recording studio, Reznor was trusting his newest and youngest band member with guitar voicings that, in many cases, he had originated.
"Trent encouraged me to come up with my own ideas," North said. "He didn't want me to play the way Robin or Richard played. There was a conscious effort from top to bottom to change the arrangements of the songs, to shorten them, to lengthen them. He said, 'If there's a solo, write your own solo. If there's a lead part, write one for yourself."
'Weirdo derelict dudes'
For North, touring with Reznor, 40, was initially bewildering. North was barely 10 when early doom-and-gloom videos by NIN hit MTV. He was in his midteens when the groundbreaking mix of metal, electronica, prog rock and alternative angst known as the album The Downward Spiral became a breakthrough NIN hit in 1994.
Fleshing out the concepts of a very singularly minded studio artist on the road was one thing. Playing alongside a song stylist whose music served as a soundtrack to his youth was very much another.
"There is definitely a generation gap within the band now because I'm the youngest member," North said. "I have a unique perspective on the whole thing because I was actually a fan as a kid. I remember being 10 or 11 and seeing videos for (Head Like a) Hole and Wish. There was a dance element to songs like that. To me, that implied they had something to do with sex. And, of course, at that age, I didn't know anything about sex. So they were a little scary.
"Then when I saw the video for March of the Pigs (from The Downward Spiral), I was like, 'Wow, this is really cool. Here was this bunch of weirdo derelict dudes just going for it, playing the song live."
The snags in last fall's NIN tour were immediate. At an opening-night concert in San Diego, Dillon complained of chest pain. The show was called off after 40 minutes, and the drummer was rushed to the hospital. Less than two weeks later he fell ill again, after a show in Sacramento, Calif. Alex Carapetis was brought in to help complete the tour. By December, a more permanent replacement was found in drummer Josh Freese.
"We were finally comfortable with the band chemistry, the new songs and the new arrangements," North said. "Then the rug was kind of pulled out from under us in this Spinal Tap thing that was going on with the drummer situation.
"But with Josh, it's just a total, natural thing. We were already friends with him so the chemistry was there. Now things are fun again."
But Freese was no conventional replacement. Along with current NIN bassist Jeordie White, he hails from the neo-prog rock-metal music ensemble A Perfect Circle, which had toured with NIN in the past. To North, though, White was essentially a big brother -- a musician he had watched and learned from for years, be it in the clubs of Los Angeles or onstage at Lollapalooza, where Freese performed with Devo in 1997.
"Josh and I are from the same neck of the woods in Los Angeles," North said. "He was always the hot-shot drummer guy that played in all these cool bands, and I was always the little kid who would go to see his shows.
"Now being onstage, looking around and seeing him there right with me is pretty strange. Strange and, yet, amazing."
if you go
Nine Inch Nails with Moving Units