Raging On
POP MUSIC CRITIC June 2000

When Trent Reznor moved to New Orleans a few years ago, it was a case of the Big Easy being joined by the Big Uneasy. m"I' m not good with people in general. So living in New Orleans is a way to not deal with that many people," said Reznor, the leader and driving force of top industrial-rock band Nine Inch Nails.

"I think New Orleans helps you because it' s a town that doesn' t give a (expletive) who you are," continued the 35-year-old musician, who performs with his four-man group Saturday at SDSU' s Cox Arena.

Finding out who he is -- and why -- has been a constant theme in Reznor' s often combustible music, which explores the existential Angst of everyday life with unusually harrowing results.

Few artists in any idiom have been able to transform anger, alienation and self-loathing into such provocative songs. Even fewer have made songs as cathartic as those on such albums as 1989' s "Pretty Hate Machine," 1994' s "The Downward Spiral" and last year' s alternately bruising and reflective "The Fragile."

The title of "The Downward Spiral" proved uncomfortably apt for Reznor, whose personal life was in a prolonged free fall, fueled by his rage, frustration and soul-crushing emotional pain.

"I kind of had an identity crisis," recalled the Pennsylvania native, speaking from a recent concert stop in Florida. "I got on a tour bus in 1990, and got off at the end of the ' Downward Spiral' tour (in late 1995). And I realized I was a totally different person, because I didn' t have time (before that) to assess what was going on. I went from: ' Am I going to pay the electric bill this week, or am I going to buy a loaf of bread?' to a whole different lifestyle.

"I' d like to think the person I used to be that I liked is still in there, and that the distorting personalities are now in check. I also like the fact that New Orleans is not Los Angeles, and that it' s much more difficult to succumb to the trappings of fame and fortune in New Orleans. You' re less likely to turn into one of those (show-biz) people, which I' ve seen happen to a lot of my friends. I lived in L.A. for a few years when I was doing the ' Spiral' album, and I just don' t like the value system there.

"Another way to look at it is that, by being in New Orleans, I' m just hiding from situations, and from people," he said.

But New Orleans has been more than just a convenient hideaway for Reznor, who has lived there since the mid-1990s. He spent two of the past three years making "The Fragile" at his recording studio, Hot Snakes, which is housed in a former funeral home. And while his music doesn' t contain even a hint of second-line rhythms or brass-band vamps, Louisiana' s most colorful and musically rich city has had an indelible effect on him and his work.

"I' d say that in an obvious musical way, I don' t interact much with what the town is known for," he said of New Orleans. "But I think the sense of decay that city has, and the sense of everything being old and distressed and earthy -- there' s something raw there that greatly affected the sound of ' The Fragile.' "

A sprawling double album that clocks in at just over 100 minutes, "The Fragile" provides a frequently intense, sometimes brutal listening experience. But it also features Reznor' s most understated and atypically delicate music and lyrics ever, making "The Fragile" the cautiously optimistic yin to "The Downward Spiral' s" yang of alienation, hatred and self-destruction.

"With ' The Downward Spiral,' I was concerned with making a rigid, tough, impenetrable machine," noted Reznor, who has a degree in computer engineering. "And with this album, I really wanted it to feel like it could fall apart, like it was held together loosely ... and was inherently flawed."

A sense of unease has been a musical constant of Nine Inch Nails, whose albums are usually one-man affairs by Reznor. Does he believe personal pain is a necessity for the creative process?

"I' ve thought long and hard about that," replied Reznor, who began a brief flirtation with anti-depressants after his grandmother (who raised him since the age of 5) died in 1997. "And, luckily I still tend to be a very upset person, and very angry and unsatisfied. But the thing I' ve realized, the biggest thing, is that I reached a real bottom at the end of the ' Spiral' tour, emotionally and on a lot of levels. There were a number of issues in my personal life I had to deal with."

"The Fragile" vividly chronicles Reznor' s confrontation of his demons and subsequent realization that there is a ray of hope ahead of him. But he acknowledges that there are still unresolved issues for him to address.

"The thing nagging at me," Reznor said, "is that I' ve gotten everything I' ve dreamed of: success; respect in my field; as much money as I need. I didn' t get into it for the money, but it' s nice to not worry about that. And I guess I thought if I achieved success, it would be all right -- in some way -- and that I' d wake up and it would be Christmas morning every day.

"What I didn' t realize, which seems obvious now, is that I neglected the human-being part of my life. I did it my way, and (thought): ' I don' t need friends or companions, or their help, because they' ve always let me down in the past.' That' s a stupid (expletive) way to think.

"' The Fragile' wasn' t based on anger, or the deconstruction of everything and tearing the house down. It was based more on a process of healing. And the two years it took to make were the best I' ve lived, in terms of finding spirituality, fitting into the scheme of things and attempting to be a little more well-rounded as a person. And also in terms of (realizing) that I am flawed, and that it' s OK to ask for help and for people, when you need people.

"Those were the issues around ' The Fragile.' ' The Downward Spiral' was about self-destruction, and about assessing everything around me and systematically destroying it. And then I basically lived that, and found that I don' t want to be down there. There is still some fire in my blood, but this was about finding a way to be better. It was an overwhelmingly positive time, and couldn' t have been more different than ' The Downward Spiral' "

Older and wiser, Reznor welcomes his newfound clarity and improved prospects for peace of mind.

Yet, while he readily admits his previous penchant for inward and outward destruction, he has no regrets.

"If I could do things over, as of today, I would do it the same," he said.

"Because I feel like I had to go through it; it was a maturity thing, a process. And scraping around the bottom makes me appreciate more where I am now. It' s funny; as you get older, your attitude changes about things. I' m respecting my talent for music more than in the past. And I feel lucky -- that' s not to sound egotistical -- that I can do something pretty well.

"I try to treat that with as much respect as I can, and take it as far as I can. And, at the same time, to take a day off sometime. Someone asked me: ' What are your hobbies?' And I couldn' t think of anything. Everything I' ve done for the past 10 to 12 years has something to do with Nine Inch Nails, whether it was that we had a new effects processor, or writing a song, or practicing.

"And I thought: ' How one-dimensional am I? How did that happen?' I' m not a very well-rounded person. I' m attempting to change that -- very unsuccessfully."

Reznor also wants to continue making exciting music that pushes the envelope. But he is finding that increasingly difficult in a music world dominated by superficial teen-pop stars.

"It' s aggravating," said Reznor, lamenting record-company consolidation and music-industry big-wigs whose appreciation of music starts and ends with the bottom line.

"Record companies are owned by major corporations, who have lots of accountants with quarterly profit margins. So who do you think gets pushed on the back burner? Britney Spears, who' s pop (expletive)? Or somebody like me, who puts out a bloated double CD, and is cranky and is particular about the quality of the packaging, and who is desperately trying to maintain that it' s art, and not just a plastic project?

"And that' s been a tough battle to fight. It' s depressing when you see that everything has become image, and everyone is a clone of everyone else .... I realize I' m in business to sell records. But I approach it from the point that I want to make music that challenges the world -- and changes me.

"And my famous last words are: ' I' m dropped' (from my record contract)."