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Photograph by Chapman Bachler

Once Was Lost: Trent Reznor might lose cool points if his hardcore fans knew he takes vitamins and walks on fire trails.

Mortality Combat

Nine Inch Nails' resident Rasputin ponders his own arena-size profile

By Tom Lanham

FORMER bayou boy Trent Reznor cautions before telling a potentially stupid story. "Right after I got sober, I was out Jet-Skiing around the swamps down in New Orleans, just for something to do. And one night, the sun started going down, I was laying on the back of the Jet-Ski, floating out there."

And that's when the singer saw the world in a whole new light. "This sunset was just a wild array of colors," he recalls. "And I'm like 'Man! When did sunsets start looking like that? Check it out, guys—look at the colors on that!' And my friends were like 'Whaddaya talking about?' So obviously, that's not new, that didn't just start happening, and hey—it's just a sunset. But I'd never really paid attention."

Sounds goofy, Reznor knows. But lately this tortured tunesmith—adored by the goth set for his spectral, brooding work as virtual one-man band Nine Inch Nails—has begun to appreciate the little things in life: a gorgeous twilight, Park Chan-wook's Oldboy and going out for midafternoon walks with his dog on the fire roads around his new Hollywood home. "There's no one else around, I take a little minirecorder with me and just tune out—it's like being out in the woods somewhere," he relates. "And that's enough time for me to get ideas—things would come into my head out there, and these were all kind of new processes. I could sum up the whole thing. It's a much less fear-based, much more kind of wide-eyed approach to songwriting. To everything in my life."

This artist—who just hit 40—is more than alert these days, which is exactly what near-fatal collisions with drugs, alcohol and lifestyle will do. Four years ago, after ODing and nearly dying, Reznor was literally scared straight. He admitted he was an addict, underwent problem-solving therapy and exorcised his inner demons via a stripped-down new NIN disc, With Teeth. Co-produced by Reznor and his longtime studio associate Alan Moulder, the set opens quietly, Reznor asking himself in the opening number why he regularly receives "All the Love in the World." The deeper he digs into his own twisted psyche, the more pounding the percussion becomes, the more sinister the synths. "Love Is Not Enough" he soon decides, before bemoaning the fact that "Every Day Is Exactly the Same." In the title track, he gives seductive siren form to addiction, whispering, nearly begging, "I cannot go through this again ..." A conversely bouncy "Only," via half-spoken Baudelairean rhyme, finds him finally facing the truth, realizing he's "fading away, well you might say/ I'm losing my focus."

How did Reznor drift so far from sanity's shore? Moving to New Orleans several years ago was the beginning of the end. In the French Quarter, Reznor commandeered an old funeral parlor and installed security cameras and opaque mirrored glass instead of windows. He could always peer out at passers-by; no one could ever peek in. Downstairs, in the vaults where cadavers were once stored, he had installed a high-tech studio, and artists on his personal Nothing imprint dropped by for impromptu sessions. It was a self-contained universe in which a sound-obsessed perfectionist could truly get lost. And he most certainly did.

"I think my goal at the time was to try and create an environment where I could just focus on music and focus on what I thought my role in life was," Reznor recollects. "But ... it just dawned on me that what I'd been up to since I moved there, really, was just hiding. And isolating. And my nature, growing up in a small shitty town, has always been to isolate and to try to feel like I don't need people, I don't need peers, I don't need you, I don't need anybody."

Had Reznor truly become the malevolent misanthrope his lyrics described? "I bought into that," he sighs. Reznor likens his New Orleans state to rapture of the deep. He stayed submerged in a sea of stimulants and depressants so long he nearly ran out of air. "And then for me, it was all about getting my life in order, getting sober and kind of waking up out of a coma and realizing that there is life outside these walls."

After completing the soul-baring With Teeth, he made a conscious decision to discuss the darkness of his past. Reznor hasn't had a drink in four years. The formerly ghostly-pale rake sold his house, moved West and developed healthy new habits: jogging, a vitamin regimen, being seen in daylight. And at long last, he began to re-evaluate his career goals. "Through getting sober, I realized that a lot of the values I placed on things, or my life goals and things that mattered to me, were just really stupid.

"Are they nice things? Yeah, generally. I'd rather have some of those things than not have them. And it's certainly been a great experience, feeling like you've done a good job at something and feeling that maybe you've nurtured some talent that you were luckily given. But what I'd neglected were the simple things, like 'Hey, there's a new DVD coming out on Tuesday.' Or, as ridiculous as it sounds, 'What a nice day. I think I might go for a walk.' Stuff that doesn't sound that exciting when your heart rate's 160 beats per minute."

Reznor still owns that New Orleans studio/retreat, and everything was trashed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "It didn't necessarily flood, but there's a lot of water damage, roof leaks. But it's just stuff.

"When the hurricane hit, I was pretty worried about my stuff. But when that turned into just an unbelievable tragedy, on multiple levels, it made me realize it's just stuff. I have friends down there who've lost everything. All my friends are alive and accounted for—which is obviously the most important thing—but they're left with no house, no job, no neighborhood they grew up in. No idea of what to do, how to rebuild or even if to rebuild. It makes my life pretty minimal in comparison."

Reznor wasted no time putting a touring NIN together and taking his leaner, meaner With Teeth sound out on the road. He worried that his hardcore crowd had moved on. "Given the fact that a lot of time has passed, I'm getting older, we've been out of the limelight for a long time and I'm not making pre-digested music that sounds just like everyone else that's out there right now, it's a harder road. That's true. But it's what I'm here to do."

Nine Inch Nails plays Tuesday at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 305 Church St.; 831.420.5240. Tickets are $25$65 and available through Ticketmaster.

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From the November 30-December 6, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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