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 in Los 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 for."
"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 in New 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 time.
"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 place."