A long road back to being Trent Reznor

Times Staff Writer

Showtime was still a few hours away, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails was sitting in a hushed, candlelit room backstage at the Air Canada Centre trying to find his scream. Nails' music sounds like a massive nightmare machine, but, on this day, Reznor woke up with his voice small and croaky. As a humidifier gently chugged away in the corner, the rock star smiled faintly and asked, "How old am I again?"

The answer is 43, but Reznor, who clawed through some dark years of drug addiction, is a picture of vitality these days with his brawny shoulders and clear-eyed confidence. He is also serious and candid. Asked about the time when the backstage scene at a Nails show would have been less seance and more human sacrifice, Reznor squinted down at his palms like a farsighted fortune- teller.

"I got so bad that I couldn't even write down songs that were caught in my head," he said. "And then I would feel depressed, so I would go and get more messed up. I finally pulled out of it. Then it was great to discover that I hadn't killed myself and my liver still worked and eventually my brain started functioning again, and then [I] was enjoying the process again."

That process is, in simple terms, caging up the songs that swim through his stormy and considerable imagination. Reznor, whose band will play a sold-out show at the Forum on Saturday, is one of the acclaimed creative figures of his generation in rock, a showman who occupies a territory somewhere between the digital throb of the dance club and the thunderous amps of arena rock. There's always been a melding, too, of the tribal and the technological in his work, and that has been the most fascinating subplot of Reznor's career here in 2008.

The first week in May, Reznor typed the words, "This one's on me," and posted the message on his website, NIN.com, along with an entire new album's worth of raw, twitchy music titled "The Slip." There was no advance notice given, no advertising or anything that remotely resembled a conventional record-label approach. More than 1 million fans downloaded "The Slip" by the end of the month.

It was the second Nine Inch Nails release in two months. Reznor posted the 36-track "Ghosts I-IV," an unsettling instrumental collection, in similar fashion earlier in the year.

Nine Inch Nails -- which is the name Reznor records under; it's more of a brand-name for him than a traditional band -- finished off a contractual commitment to Interscope Records last year, and Reznor walked away and found the fear of a truly liberated man.

"There was a moment of rejoicing, but at the same time it was also quickly followed by panic, because there is nothing real clear or right to do today," Reznor said. "I mean, it's obvious what record labels are doing is wrong, but it's not entirely clear what the right thing is to do."

Reznor's "right thing" appears to be relentless work. He doesn't just follow his muse, he chases it and wrestles it to the ground. In addition to those two albums released this year, he has been meeting with HBO to pitch his idea of writing a two-year series called "Year Zero," which would be based on the intricate science-fiction tale that he created for a 2007 album of the same title. It also came alive for fans as an alternate-reality game on the Internet.

If the television show moves forward as Reznor expects, he will add new chapters to "Year Zero" through another album, another game and a concert tour.

Reznor was giddy talking about this 21st century creative life that allows him to be a rock star but also weave tales that can be watched on screens, pursued through the Internet and performed on stage: "That's my grand ambition. Will it happen? I don't know. But it's the most exciting thing on the horizon when I wake up in the mornings. I mean, think about it; being able to integrate different forms of media to tell a story with music."

Just then his cellphone went mad with lights and vibrations. "Ugh. Sorry, the whole world is calling me." He turned the phone off without looking at the name of the caller. "It can wait. Sometimes you just have to take a breath."

He smirked, and for a moment the only sound was the humidifier gurgling away. "OK, what were we talking about?"

Computer geek

Michael TRENT Reznor was born in leafy central Pennsylvania in a little town called Mercer. His dad had the same first name, so the son went by his middle name. The youngster loved music and computers and, in the early 1980s, he was part of a generation that began to truly meld the two for its own pop-culture pursuits.

"I've always been into computers," said Reznor, whose latest album began on a laptop. "When I was getting out of high school and forming my identity musically, all of it was really coming into the fold, computers and drum machines. It felt like, you know, I'm in the right place at the right time. I liked the collision."

Reznor found his way to Cleveland, where he worked as an assistant engineer and the janitor at Right Track, a recording studio. He'd heard how Prince, the R&B; and funk superstar, created entire soundscapes on his own by playing each instrument and layering them over one another in the studio. He set out to do the same -- the result was 1989's "Pretty Hate Machine," written, arranged and performed by Reznor.

The music was harrowing human emotion within the pulse and crash of an industrial soundscape. It wasn't man versus machine, it was man vis-a-vis machine, as disturbing at times as living tissue pinned down in an angry laboratory. Take the song "Down in It": "So what does it matter now / I was swimming in the hate now I crawl on the ground / And everything I never liked about you / Is kinda seeping into me."

During the tour for the 1994 album, "The Downward Spiral," Reznor slipped into a destructive cycle of addiction. "I was ill-equipped for social situations and found that having a few drinks made it easier. Then I found out I liked cocaine too. And try living in New Orleans, where the bars don't close. You come home in the morning and you always see some guy jogging. That's the worst when you're stumbling in and the sun is coming up. The sound of the birds in the morning. . . ."

It's become a common error in articles about Reznor to report that he was a heroin user -- maybe it's his lyrics about jabbing needles -- but he hasn't asked for corrections. "That's kind of a sad conversation to have; 'I'm not a junkie, I'm a coke head'. . . . "

How far has Reznor come? At dinner in Toronto, the Los Angeles transplant -- he left Louisiana a few years back and now lives near Beverly Hills -- was joined by a surprise guest, his father, Michael Reznor, who had driven up from Pennsylvania. "This is my chance for one-on-one time with Trent, I have to share him with the rest of the family when he comes down and plays Cleveland and Philadelphia. I didn't tell anybody I was coming up. His nephew is going to be mad. He just started playing the guitar."

The elder Reznor got hung up at the Canadian border; a guard recognized the last name and, as a line of traffic started to form, the female officer asked questions about the celebrity in the family. The rock star looked pained as his father told the story, but he didn't complain. He just ate his supper and smiled.

Financially secure

Reznor became rich and famous thanks to the traditional music industry and now has the ability to give his music away because of the money he makes from touring and from die-hard fans who will still buy CDs even after downloading the music. That's made him a target of criticism from some newer artists who have the less fortunate timing of starting their careers after platinum albums have become truly rare.

Reznor has mixed feelings; he enjoys working outside the larger corporate system, but his pride hates to think of art discounted.

"As an artist, I don't feel that it should be free; it's my life's work," he said. "Record labels trained [fans] to mistrust them and feel ripped off by them, and now the technology exists that you can just take stuff. I understand why people feel it's OK, and I say, 'I can't fight that fight.' I look at the way the cards have been dealt and make the most of it. There is also another side of me that wants the world to hear the music, whether you've paid for it or not, I want you to hear it. And people are hearing it."

"The Slip" debuted at No. 13 on the U.S. pop charts and the reviews have been good, although Reznor said he believes this quickly assembled album is more of a sketch than a painting. He anticipates he will spend many months putting together his next collection.

At the show in Toronto, Reznor's performance was startling -- he can still tap into the anger and fear of the old songs even though he's in a saner place in his own life. The stage production is impressive too, with digital effects and a cage-like curtain that descends from the rafters to make it seem as if Reznor is in a parallel, static-filled dimension, peering into the real world.

There's also a quieter subset of the show, a sequence in which the mastermind of Nine Inch Nails peels away the industrial power tools and the computer hard drives to show the man inside the machine.

"Sometimes," he explained earlier, "it's just about the song and the singer."

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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