With a new studio and
a 19th-century mansion, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor joins the parade of edgy
artists who have planted roots in New Orleans.
New Orleans is renowned as the home of classic
jazz, Creole cuisine, ornate balconies in the French Quarter ... and Nine Inch
Nails' new studio and headquarters? Yes, add Trent Reznor to the long list of
creative types - from Lafcadio Hearn, William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams to
Bob Dylan and Daniel Lanois - who fell for the city's exotic ambiance and
decided to settle in for a spell.
It's been a long journey - from his high school
band in rural Mercer, Pennsylvania, to the Cleveland club scene where this
self-described "computer dweeb" forged his personal blend of
hard-core and industrial sounds. Reznor, a one-man band in the studio, emerged
in 1989 with the million selling Pretty Hate Machine, following with the
equally uncompromising Broken (1992) and The Downward Spiral (1994). He broke
out of the pack of alternative rockers with electrifying performances during
the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991. Los Angeles Times pop-music critic Robert
Hilburn called his appearance at Woodstock 2 in 1994 "a marvelous
reminder of rock's rebellious roots." The following year, after a period
Angeles, Reznor was in search of an inspirational place to live and work. New Orleans was the perfectly logical choice.
Not that Reznor's computer-crafted sound and
tormented lyrics owe much to such Big Easy icons as Fats Domino and Louis
Armstrong. "At least not on a conscious level," Reznor comments,
ensconced behind the 48-track board in his recently installed high-tech studio.
"I'm not really familiar with the music scene that exists in New Orleans, and it's not what I moved here
"Moved," in Reznor's case, refers
both to the 19th-century Garden District mansion he calls home and the
elaborate recording/rehearsal facility he set up in a former funeral home
uptown. Just a few blocks from the nightclub and local-culture bastion known as
Tipitina's, Reznor's studio has no formal name and no sign out front. But the
spiffy new paint job - in a rather mundane shade of brown - makes it obvious
that the two-story building has just been renovated. Such squeaky-cleanness
stands out in a town that celebrates decaying grandeur, especially on a block
that also boasts a homemade praline stand and several funky antique shops.
These atmospheric touches are more typical of
what Reznor moved for - the profound and pervasive weirdness that is one of the
city's less touted but most striking features. In New Orleans, the four points of the compass are
useless in determining direction; logic and efficiency defer to whimsy and
indulgence. It's the kind of city where even the decadent eccentricity of
Reznor's controversial "Closer" video would barely raise eyebrows. New Orleans lies well outside of America's cultural mainstream and
work-ethic mentality, a fact celebrated I S. Frederick Starr's New Orleans
Unmasqued - which Reznor recently purchased - and John Kennedy Toole's A
Confederacy of Dunces. In this spacey, sensual environment, an enterprising
artist can work hard and draw on the rich local vibe yet avoid most of the
intrusive trappings of a major industry scene.
All of which suits Trent Reznor just fine.
"I feel creative here," he says, "rather than oppressed by the
big-city feel and the music business - I hate all that s--."
In contrast to the hard-core feel of his music
and videos, Reznor is not the least bit ominous in conversation. Bright, direct
and articulate, he comes across as focused and professional. Inside, Reznor's
studio emanates a similarly businesslike attitude, with muted mauve carpeting
in the office and the healthy 90's touch of an elaborate weight room. There are
traces of youthful indulgence and techno-culture in his extensive collection of
video games, pinball machines and vintage arcade games. The basement garage -
once home to a fleet of hearses - now houses several pricey cars.
A few bizarre items are to be found, most
notably a door from the Sharon Tate mansion in Los Angeles, site of the Manson Family murders,
where Reznor lived while recording The Downward Spiral. What was once the
casket elevator is now used, pragmatically, to move heavy gear. But the
studio's most notable feature is a sophisticated and seemingly endless array of
sound equipment, enough for two complete recording studios and a
Sitting at the center of this sonic universe,
Reznor continues to contemplate the world outside his door. "I like the
fact that New Orleans is still kind of a small town," he says.
"There are parts of the small-town mentality that I'm really comfortable
with. But the small town where I grew up in Pennsylvania has very long winters, and there
isn't much sense of culture and tradition. It was ultraconservative and
stifling. New Orleans is just the opposite. It feels like a European
city. I find it relaxing. I like the weather, the architecture and the way the
city looks. And I like the fact that when I'm stuck on something I can just go
ride my bike and find a sense of space - I'm not oppressed here.
"There's also a weird sort of spirituality
Orleans," Reznor reflects. "I'm not talking about the spirit world that
exists in Anne Rice's books, although some people see a connection between our
work." So much so that groups of young, black-clad tourists see roaming
the Garden District are usually hoping for a glimpse of Rice, Reznor or both.
"There was a time in my life when Anne Rice's books were interesting to
me," he explains. "That was before I moved here, and I suppose that
in a way they tainted my first impressions of the city. But I'm out of that
now. The spirituality that I'm talking about is the personal freedom, the
strangeness. So I'm definitely influenced by New Orleans in that it puts me in a good frame
of mind to work."
And work is indeed what the 31-year-old Reznor
does. Disturbing though that work is to many people, it's also extremely
popular and lucrative. Reznor's skills are in great demand. He produced
Antichrist Superstar, a record by shock-rock brats Marilyn Manson, and will
soon start on a long-awaited Nine Inch Nails album. There was also talk of a
soundtrack project for a Robert De Niro film, following a similar assignment on
Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers.
Such weighty projects call for serious gear,
and Reznor can will afford to be picky. "When I decided that I wanted to
live in New Orleans," he recalls, "I found that none of
the studios here really met my needs in terms of equipment, especially since I
do most of my recording in the control room. I had been thinking of creating a
space that could be a complex for Nine Inch Nails, where we could make noise,
rehearse, record, have several different things going on at once. I wanted to
be self-sufficient. So far the studio has been used mainly for my projects,
although Pantera did come in and work for a few weeks, and Coil may book some
"But I'm not really into the idea of being
a studio owner and renting the place out," Reznor emphasizes. "What's
the point of setting all this up if I can't get in and use it when I want to?
Eventually, though, I may open it to selected clients."
With big-league projects stacking up, Reznor is
hardly a club-hopping man-about-town, though he does have a penchant for a
French Quarter restaurant called NOLA. "But as for hanging out or
interacting, I'm not really tied in to the local scene right now," he
says. "I don't mean that in a standoffish way; I just work a lot. I think
that my studio could eventually become a part of the local scene and offer
something really modern that hasn't existed here before. If that happens, it
would change the preconception that all music made in New Orleans is jazz or rhythm and blues.
"Of course," Reznor hastens to add,
"people like the Meters and Allen Toussaint are really good. But there are
many other things going on here as well. And," he concludes with grand
understatement, "the nature of what's classically known as New Orleans
music is certainly a far cry from what I'm working on over at my new