In the launch/rebrand of "64 Parishes," I write about the impact of Trent Reznor's Nothing Studios in New Orleans. Here is some of the music Reznor indirectly inspired, and an introduction now in search of a story.
With its current issue, Louisiana Cultural Vistas takes on a new name, 64 Parishes. It has relaunched with a special music section tied to the Tricentennial edited by Alison Fensterstock, and it includes work by John Swenson, Michael Tisserand, Gwen Thompkins, Jennifer Odell, Matt Sakakeeny & Oliver Wang,Maurice Carlos Ruffin, and more. The topics range from “I’ll Fly Away” to a Morning 40 Federation/Galactic collaboration to Lil Wayne and Louis Armstrong to the French Opera House to Louis Prima. The pieces collectively broaden the scope of conversations about music in New Orleans and suggest new avenues of exploration into the city’s music culture, whether it’s new ways to think of familiar acts or new points of entry into debates that had become a little stale.
For the issue, I contributed a piece on the impact of Trent Reznor moving to New Orleans to open Nothing Studios, not because I was a Nine Inch Nails fan—too goth for me at the time—but because I am fascinated by New Orleans’ relationship with outsiders, particularly celebrity outsiders. On one hand, there was something civic-ly validating about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie moving to New Orleans, even though they were rarely here. On the other hand, culture purists found it déclassé that they moved into Cosimo Matassa’s second J&M Studios on Governor Nichols, as if their presence insinuated an indelible stain of the E! Network on New Orleans’ history. The We love you, now fuck off dynamic plays out again and again as we want our affection for the city cosigned, but then we want the cosigners to scram and leave the good stuff to us.
I set out to explore a version of that story as it played out with Reznor because his low-key presence had some impact. I knew a number of rock musicians who struggled to find homes in the New Orleans music community found their people at Nothing, but the story didn’t work out exactly as planned. It worked out better, and you can read it in the new issue or online.
In the process of wrangling it into shape and cutting it to length, I had to make some sacrifices. The story deals with the start of an electronic music scene in New Orleans, and one detail that didn’t make it to the final version was that Kaldi’s coffeehouse on Decatur Street let electronic artists perform there at one point, but the chess players hated it and took up collections to pay musicians to stop.
As the story came to center more and more on the growth of electronic music in New Orleans, the original introduction made less and less sense, so much so that I finally lopped it off. Still, I like the writing and the dynamic it spells out. With that in mind, i’ve rescued it from the cutting room floor. Maybe someday I’ll pursue the story that follows it, or it will inspire someone else to pick up the thread and write their own Mardi Gras Day of the Locust.
There has long been a strain of thought in New Orleans that popular music is inferior and tainted. Jazz and blues come with sophistication and soul, where as rock ’n’ roll is kids’ stuff. The musicians who played on Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and Shirley and Lee sessions at J&M Studios certainly thought that way, taking their identity from the jazz gigs they played at night instead of the rock ’n’ roll they played for money during the day. Drummer Earl Palmer remembers in his autobiography Backbeat how producer Dave Bartholomew would get mad if anybody tried to play bebop on a session because in his mind, they were making music for the masses.
“The hell bebop wasn’t a mass movement!” Palmer wrote. “Maybe not as popular as rock and roll, because it was too musical for the common lay ear.”
That attitude still had adherents in the 1990s. A narrative coalesced around The Neville Brothers, The Radiators, and many of the city’s elite that they were too talented, idiosyncratic and pure to reach a mass audience, and that inability proved their greatness.
The city interacted with grunge and alternative rock in an MTV Babylon way as musicians came to the Crescent City and discovered that New Orleans plays hardball. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder was arrested for drunk and disorderly on Decatur Street outside the Blue Crystal dance club in 1993. The brawl that led to his arrest injured his drinking buddy for the night, Chicago White Sox’ pitcher Jack McDowell. Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon died of an overdose in the band’s tour bus outside of Tipitina’s in 1995. Less than a week later, Courtney Love spent a Halloween weekend Saturday night at Tipitina’s for an Anne Rice Fan Club’s Gathering of the Coven, where she ended up onstage and drunk, singing Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
Despite a history of debauchery that dates back at least to Storyville, musicians have long thought New Orleans might be the place where they could get their shit together. That plan worked out terribly for The New York Dolls’ Johnny Thunders, who didn’t last 24 hours when he moved to the city in 1991 before he OD’ed as well.
Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor was damaged goods when he moved to New Orleans in 1995. Self-loathing and self-destruction were his muses, and he explored his darker emotions in music that fused visceral pain to pop melodies and an industrial sonic palate. Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral made Reznor not just a star but an icon whose band logo sold on T-shirts by the truckload in Hot Topic mall stores all across America. By his own admission, Reznor was emotionally unstable to start with, and that kind of success exaggerated his issues.
“We had been on tour for two-and-a-half years solid that started in theaters and ended up in sold-out arenas,” he recalled in 2009. “The bus stops, and I realize that I have a beer in my hand and I’ve had that same beer in my hand the last couple of years pretty much since lunch. Then the tour stopped, but the party didn’t stop.” He didn’t want to accept that he had become an addict, but he knew he wanted change—change in part fueled by his deteriorating relationship with Cleveland, his home at the time.
“After a few rounds of the US towards the end of ’90, I came back home,” Reznor said. “It was winter, my apartment had been broken into, I was living in the ghetto. The city I thought would be supportive of a band making it out of there was quite the opposite. I was bitter and jealous and resentful. And, I said, ‘You know what? Fuck this place.’ I got in my car and rented an apartment in New Orleans because I liked it.”
In my story, I deal with Telefon Tel Aviv, Turk Dietrich, Earl Scioneaux III, and the members of the loose musical/social circle Chromosome 57. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find much of the music its members made at the time. Few of the songs have been digitized, nor did many recordings get the kind of release that might lead them to Spotify. Here’s a musical companion to my story to get a sense of what one side of the electronic music conversation sounded like in New Orleans in the early 2000s.