NAILED TO NEW ORLEANS
Trent Reznor knows what it means to miss New Orleans.
To the world at large, he is the brooding mastermind behind industrial
rock act Nine Inch Nails, perpetually swathed in the dark mystique of
his ominous words and music.
But away from the spotlight and the prying eyes of the paparazzi and his
rock star peers, he is just another New Orleans homeboy, the sort who
roars around the Bonnet Carre Spillway on jet skis, bicycles anonymously
through Audubon Park, and dons a grass skirt and blackface to ride in
Unlike Lenny Kravitz and the other celebrities who maintain a local
address for the occasional visit, Reznor's relationship with New Orleans
runs deep. He lives full-time in a sumptuous Garden District mansion. He
crafted "The Fragile," Nine Inch Nails' third full-length album, in his
Nothing Studios, housed in a former funeral parlor on Magazine Street.
Since the release of the million-selling "The Fragile" last fall, Reznor
has been on the road. After a homecoming show tonight at the New Orleans
Arena, the Nine Inch Nails U.S. tour continues through mid-June before
heading to Europe for a string of summer festival dates.
When he is away for weeks at a time, Reznor finds himself missing the
city, like any good local.
"It always feels good driving back on the congested I-10 from the
airport," he said last week, calling from a tour stop in Florida. "I
feel like I'm home."
The easy-going attitude of his adopted hometown might seem opposed to
the intensity Reznor brings to bear while howling his raw, often R-rated
lyrics. But the city serves a larger artistic purpose.
"My job primarily is to write," he said. "To write, I find New Orleans
very inspiring. If it's time to clear my head, I'll ride my bike around
and look at houses and weird trees and the strange smell that comes over
the city in the summer. That always kicks my creativity back into gear.
"And it's kind of out of the way in terms of big cities, especially for
the kind of music I do. So I'm less likely to get caught up in some of
the bulls---, the elitism of celebrity. The thing about New Orleans is,
nobody cares. They leave me alone, and they don't give a s---. It's not
about who you are or what you're driving. And that appeals to me."
Reznor, 35, grew up in tiny Mercer, Penn., and moved to Cleveland as a
young adult. He first fell under the Big Easy's spell while touring
behind Nine Inch Nails' 1989 debut, "Pretty Hate Machine." That album
largely introduced "industrial" rock -- distorted vocals, an electronic
beat, processed guitars and synthesized sound effects -- to a mainstream
audience. Before "Pretty Hate Machine" took off, a then-unknown Reznor
crisscrossed the country in a van, opening for more established acts.
"I had never really seen much of the country, because my family never
traveled and we never went on vacation," he said. "On that first tour,
every time we'd come through New Orleans, it had some kind of appeal to
me, and I couldn't put my finger on exactly why that was, other than it
was as foreign from Pennsylvania as I could get -- Mardi Gras couldn't
exist in Pennsylvania. It still had a small town feel to it, which I
liked, but it seemed a lot more open. There's a strange ambiance and
atmosphere, and the architecture and the aesthetic of the city really
struck a chord with me."
After the "Pretty Hate Machine" tour, Reznor returned to Cleveland and
an unpleasant surprise. "My ghetto apartment that I was living in had
been broken into, and everything was stolen," he said. "I thought, 'What
better time to escape from Cleveland?' And I really liked New Orleans,
so let's try there."
In early 1991, Reznor came to New Orleans to write new material. Before
heading out on the inaugural Lollapalooza tour that summer, Nine Inch
Nails staged an open dress rehearsal at the Uptown Tipitina's, charging
a $2 admission. After Lollapalooza, Reznor relocated to Los Angeles to
record what became Nine Inch Nails' second full-length album, 1993's
"The Downward Spiral." Infamously, he recorded in the Benedict Canyon
house where actress Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by Charles
Manson's followers; a door from that house now adorns Reznor's Magazine
"I realized that I hate L.A.," Reznor said. "The quality of life I live
in New Orleans, I enjoy. I like the fact that there's not really the
rich section and the poor section so much as you're intermingled with
While touring for "The Downward Spiral" in 1994, he had no permanent
address. "I was basically homeless at that point," Reznor said. "When I
came back through New Orleans, the house I'd had my eye on was still on
the market. So I said, 'You know what? I'm just going to do this.' "
He bought a sprawling old Greek Revival residence in the same Garden
District neighborhood that Anne Rice and Archie Manning call home, then
moved in after a year of renovations. In 1995, he also bought a former
funeral parlor and installed an elaborate recording studio. Did the
building's history appeal to his fascination with the macabre?
"The boring truth of the matter is that I didn't want to build a
building from scratch," Reznor said. "It had big rooms in it, which we
needed, and secondly, it is commercially zoned. Recording studios and
funeral homes are in the same zoning (category). And it wasn't like we
were hauling caskets out of there to put the studio in. I've been there
a million nights alone, and there's never a weird vibe."
After the success of "The Downward Spiral," Reznor was a bona fide rock
star. The accolades poured in: Time named him one of the 25 most
influential people in America, along with Madeleine Albright and Tiger
Woods. Spin dubbed him "the most vital artist in music."
"That's a great way to make you feel terrible," Reznor said, laughing.
"'Can he save rock?!?' When I hear things like that, it's flattering,
and it's always nice to be praised for something you've done. But I take
it with a grain of salt. I don't go around thinking everything I do is
great; 95 percent of what comes out of me is never heard by anybody
else, because I don't think it's great."
Those doubts nearly overwhelmed him as he started to work on the
follow-up to "The Downward Spiral." He took time out to co-produce
Marilyn Manson's breakthrough album "Antichrist Superstar," and composed
soundtracks for directors David Lynch and Oliver Stone. In search of
inspiration, he went to Big Sur, Calif.
"I heard many people say that there was something magical there," he
said. "I was in such a terrible state in my own mind that the last place
I should have been was by myself there. I was an hour's drive from the
nearest grocery store, on the side of a mountain overlooking the ocean,
with a 300-foot drop to a very scary, rocky beach. I started thinking
that if I slipped, how long would it be before they found the body? I
needed to get out of there, because I was driving myself crazy.
"I was in a weird space when I started writing 'The Fragile.' I was very
disillusioned with the whole business side of music. I had a bunch of
bad things happening in my life. I lost the woman who raised me (his
grandmother). I was partying too much. I was escaping any way I could
get away from myself, basically."
So he retreated into the bosom of his adopted hometown. "When I got back
to New Orleans and really sat myself down, I remembered that I really
like to play piano (he took classical lessons as a child). I have one in
my house that I hadn't touched in a year. I sat down, looking out my
window, the sun was coming in in the afternoon, and it started -- ideas
just poured out of me. Then it wouldn't stop, and I had too much music
to put on a single CD."
Reznor spent much of 1998 and the first half of 1999 cloistered in his
Magazine Street studio with co-producer Alan Moulder, laboring over the
tracks that became the double-CD opus "The Fragile." "It was an every
day, all they thing," Reznor said. "For recreation, we'd take our
afternoon bike rides around Audubon Park to see what people looked like
other than ourselves, and then head back into our hole for a while."
New Orleans influences
Reznor does not write songs as much as constructs them, painstakingly
building layer after sonic layer while exorcising his darkest impulses
and emotions. The tone and content of "The Fragile" -- though thoroughly
modern and as unrelated to roots music as anything can be -- were
directly affected by Reznor's residency in New Orleans.
"Not from me hanging out with blues musicians, because there wasn't any
of that," Reznor said, though local jazz singer Kim Prevost contributed
vocal effects to the album. "More from the sense of decay. The city has
a feeling of decay, in a good way.
"I'm still learning how to write music. I try to come up with new ways
to become inspired and new formats and approaches. A lot of songs on
('The Fragile'), I was inspired by impressionistic music. I would
visualize a place, and then make the sound of what it would be like
there. I would take a simple theme, and then put that on a swampy pier.
I don't mean just put crickets in the background, but try to have this
sense of decay or sense of place. That was directly affected by my love
of the city. I spent many nights just out driving or walking around,
soaking in the smells and the trees and the green-ness."
Debauchery is not the guiding principle of his local residency. "One
could argue that it's a great place to bottom out and stay up all night
drinking every night," Reznor said. "I went through my decadent phase; I
explored the dark alleys, and that's fun for what it is. But I'm not in
that phase now. And New Orleans is not all fun because of bars and Mardi
"I see musician friends of mine that live in L.A., and I think that the
surroundings can lead to further digging a hole, and further believing
the hype. What I like about New Orleans is that, for fun we take jet
skis into the spillway and swim in polluted, alligator-infested water.
We just find fun and stupid things to do that you couldn't do anywhere
Ultimately, the arduous process of making "The Fragile" purged him of
the demons that dogged him during the "Downward Spiral" era.
"Thinking back to the two years we were doing 'The Fragile,' it was
definitely the most creative and pleasant, positive-vibe experience of
my life," Reznor said. "The routine at times was so tedious, it was
maddening: Are we going to eat at Semolina's, or are we going to have
burritos? There were four restaurants that we'd eat at every day. But it
was also a really fun process, where (he and co-producer Moulder)
challenged each other. He e-mailed me the other day saying, 'I've got to
get back on those jet skis.'"
A 'masterpiece' album
"The Fragile" was released in Sept. 1999 to rave reviews. Spin named it
1999's album of the year; Rolling Stone dubbed it a "brutal and delicate
masterpiece." Though it entered the Billboard album chart at No. 1 and
has sold over a million copies to date, it did not chart as long as some
might have expected. Reznor recently listened to "The Fragile" in its
entirety for the first time in several months.
"It reminded me of the pride I had when I finished it," he said. "Being
quite frank, when I released this record we didn't have great commercial
hope for it, necessarily. A long time had passed (since 'The Downward
Spiral') and the climate had changed. Now I'm delivering a record that's
very unfashionable. It's long, it requires a lot from the listener in
the day of the short attention span, and there's no real obvious single
"It's been a weird roller coaster. It took me, once again, sitting
myself down and saying, 'This is the record I wanted to make. It's the
best record I could make, and I'm proud of it. Success or failure is not
based on the amount of records sold.' That sounds like a defensive
stance, like I'm trying to make myself feel better. But I love that
record. I'm doing what I can do to try to get people to give it a
chance, take a listen to it, and maybe open their minds a little bit."
When he's not touring or recording, Reznor does not live as a hermit,
shuttered away in his mansion. He eats out, goes to movies, attends
concerts. In March 1997, just after he appeared on the cover of Rolling
Stone, Reznor turned up in a Times-Picayune review of Clancy's. The
paper's former food critic happened to arrive at the Uptown eatery just
as Reznor emerged from a limousine -- an uncharacteristic display of
rock stardom in his hometown.
"Somebody from the record label was in town, and for some reason the car
company shows up with a limo," Reznor said. "We never, ever, ever take
limos anywhere. And it happens to be that the food critic is there and
I'm walking out of a limo."
In December 1998, Reznor opened his home for a Preservation Resource
Center benefit. The PRC works to preserve old homes like the one Reznor
bought; for a $75 donation to the organization, anyone could stroll
through his house.
"It was asked, and I thought it would make me furnish (the house) a bit
better than it was; it was a challenge to get it up to speed," Reznor
said. "I think it worked out well. I didn't really know what to expect;
I didn't know if it would be real stuffy. But everyone was cool."
And he has thrown himself wholeheartedly into Mardi Gras. He jumped in
by riding in Zulu, decked out in the traditional blackface and grass
skirt. "I went to bed early -- you have to be there at 4 in the morning,
to get ready," Reznor recalled. "At midnight I'm laying there wide
awake, trying to make myself fall asleep. So I stayed up all night, and
(the next day) it was 100 degrees out, I'm sweating in blackface."
He also rode three times in Harry Connick Jr.'s Orpheus parade. He comes
off as a local when describing the experience. "We invite friends of
ours down to (ride) and you try to explain to them this strange feeling
of throwing plastic beads out to people with a stupid costume on. You
don't understand it until you're in it and you feel how cool that is. We
have a lot of fun doing that."
Reznor said that he plans to rent or buy a place in Manhattan "to
occasionally balance out some of the Southern-ness that can be the drag
side of New Orleans, the Southern mentality -- elements of racism, et
But New Orleans will still be home.
"I get asked that a lot: 'Why do you live in New Orleans?'" Reznor said.
"Well, I like it. Is it flawed? Yes, it's flawed -- any place has flaws.
But there's a sense of community here that I enjoy."
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is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.