Trent Reznor Is Doing What Feels Right
NIN’s frontman on LCD Soundsystem, fan forums, Coachella, the Rock Hall, ‘Dance Party USA,' and more
When Trent Reznor says he is excited about something he doesn’t actually sound excited at all. He speaks in a measured mutter, choosing his words carefully whenever he’s asked a question that could potentially lead to a headline-grabbing response. The press cycle for his most recent Nine Inch Nails release, Bad Witch, generated some notable quips about Kanye West (“The guy’s lost his fucking mind”) as well as the increasingly terrible political situation in the US (“You don’t hear a lot from the Taylor Swifts of the world”). When I meet Reznor at his hotel the morning after his first of two shows at Brooklyn’s Kings Theater, he’s not restrained so much as he is meticulous in the way he answers questions. He has a lot to say and he will say it with precision. That’s just the way he operates.
Reznor is known to be a perfectionist. He rose to the upper-echelons of rock stardom writing increasingly complex, moody music about depression and isolation and political unrest and, occasionally, euphoric feelings of love. When Nine Inch Nails’ sophomore album The Downward Spiral was released, it was hailed as a masterful, forward-thinking exchange between synth-driven pop and heavy, heavy rock. Their subsequent work has borrowed from different musical traditions with this tenet at its core.
Nine Inch Nails have been a band for over 30 years and have avoided seeming like a relic of a bygone era. Part of this is by design. Reznor, who is 53, has never come across as a nostalgic luddite afraid of the future and for the past two decades or so he has been intensely interested in technology’s potential to revolutionize the music industry. Over the past several years he put that obsession to work with Beats and Apple Music. Reznor’s investment is in artistry, though, and now he’s back to doing what he knows he can do well. Reznor has been busy as of late doing scoring work with bandmate Atticus Ross. Their latest work is the score for Jonah Hill’s Mid90s — out today and streaming below — and their upcoming projects include HBO’s Watchmen series; the Netflix release Bird Box, with Trevante Rhodes, Sarah Paulson, and John Malkovich; and the thriller Woman In The Window, which is based on the bestselling A.J. Finn novel and stars Amy Adams.
Nine Inch Nails, meanwhile, recently released Bad Witch, the third installment of a three-part collection that started in 2016 when NIN debuted the EP Not The Actual Events followed by 2017’s Add Violence. This new collection was initially called an EP, but Reznor changed his mind and decided it should be marketed as an LP. Why? Because Spotify prioritizes LPs, listing them above more recent EP releases. There’s that attention to detail. Bad Witch is the very best of the three collections — it finds Reznor taking up the saxophone again (he played some on Pretty Hate Machine) and channeling a late-career Bowie.
The supporting tour brought Nine Inch Nails to smaller venues that the band wouldn’t typically play anymore. In New York they did two nights at Radio City Music Hall and two nights at the Kings Theater. Usually, they’d be playing Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center. Fans had to buy tickets in person, from the venue, the way they would have had to way back when Nine Inch Nails were first on the up and up. All of the New York shows sold out.
There’s a specialness to seeing a band as big as Nine Inch Nails at a venue that, enormous as it might be, still feels intimate in comparison to those arenas. To make it more special, the band’s been breaking out some songs they rarely play live. (When I saw them on 10/16, they did “The Perfect Drug,” which they played live for the first time ever back in September, and the audience absolutely erupted.) Reznor’s trying to crowd please in a way that still feels authentic to him — “authentic,” like “excited,” is another word he uses often — and he has spent a lot of time contemplating the role he and his band have played in the greater cultural conversation.
Reznor and I talked a lot about process and intention. What are you trying to say as an artist and why does it matter? How does one determine whether they’re still relevant? When do you decide that it’s time to move on from one project to another? Reznor isn’t caught up thinking about what Nine Inch Nails used to be — he’s still trying to sort out what’s next. We talked about his scoring work, stealing ideas from LCD Soundsystem, that one time he appeared on Dance Party USA, and Nine Inch Nails being left off the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame ballot for the second year in a row. Read our Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: What was the motivation behind bringing this tour to smaller venues?
REZNOR: This tour seems like the first time that I’ve really gotten actively involved in what it is we’re trying to do. In the past it seemed like you’d decide if you want to tour and then the people that spend their lives thinking about that kind of shit put it together. About a year ago, when we talked about touring the question was, “Do we want to tour? What’s the point of touring? Is it relevant? Does it make sense?” And also: We’re older, we have families now. So is it worth being away? It kind of came down to: Do you want to play arenas or do you want to make it something that feels different and more interesting?
I was invited out to LCD at the Palladium in LA — they played a handful of shows — and I don’t go out to see many shows ‘cause it feels like I’m going to work, often. And it was an extremely exciting show — it felt vital and it felt exciting and important to be there. And I thought that kind of vibe is the opposite of going to a sports arena and getting hassled by security in a place that sounds like shit. And I thought if we could basically rip that idea off and play those kind of shows in smaller places, multiple nights, it’s more work but it’ll make it feel kind of cool.
Then that led into the ticketing question. You’re always kind of in a lose-lose situation with people bitching about scalpers, and the process is broken. So we came up with the idea of: If you want a ticket just show up and get one. And it was flawed, but I think in general the idea felt … I think I had more people that I noticed say, “That was a cool experience, warts and all.” Versus people that were just bitching about it that are gonna bitch anyway. Anyway, tour’s wound up feeling good to me. It feels like something I will think back on and say, “That felt like the right thing to do at the time.”
STEREOGUM: Do you bring your family out on tour?
REZNOR: Once in awhile. They were with me throughout Europe and Asia and they just left here yesterday. Half of them. It’s cool — it’s good and it’s bad. It’s great because that becomes home and you’re not missing something. But then all the responsibilities of being home come with you on the road so a minute off is … you pivot from tour guide to entertainment director of family events and things like that. But I’m not complaining.
STEREOGUM: Do your kids like your music?
REZNOR: The little they’ve been allowed to listen to. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Is that a wall you’ve come up against?
REZNOR: It’s something I can tell ya never even crossed my mind when I was writing those songs. But, uh, we haven’t had — I haven’t had — the talk to explain language and content and the role of art as expression versus … I’m still kicking that can down the road.
STEREOGUM: You used the word “relevant” when you talked about taking Nine Inch Nails back on the road. When you approach a question like that how do you process it and figure out if it’s time to do this again?
REZNOR: It’s mostly an internal dialogue or [conversation between] me and Atticus. It’s not me with business guys or managers saying, “Does this make sense?” But it’s weird having a longer career because it becomes more difficult to maintain an objectivity as to how others see you. And I found it’s difficult to see how the young fan looks at you through your eyes because there’s a degree of denial of self-image as to how I’m looking out at the world. Do you ever see a photo of a group of people and you’re in it? And you really haven’t noticed the other people because you’re concerned about the way you’re squinting — looks funny or something like that? It’s tough to kind of look at Nine Inch Nails [objectively] as a band or a brand or however people see artists as these days.
Over the course of our career we’ve had a lot of great ups and there’s been times where it feels like you’re strapped to a rocket and you’re in the right place at the right time. And there’s times where you feel like it’s the opposite of that and you start to feel like momentum isn’t behind you or culture has shifted a little bit or taste has changed. And there’s something else that’s cool and you’re not a part of that. I’d say by fate giving me a different career branch with film scoring it’s relieved the pressure of, “Oh I have to do this thing.” And it’s allowed me a little bit of space to say, “Do I want to do this thing?” And not just want to do it, but does it still feel like it’s important? Does it feel like there’s a connection out there that’s beyond just nostalgia.
When we started working on these last EPs there’s a complete detachment now from popular culture where we don’t feel like we’re a part of it, we don’t feel like we have anything to do with what’s [popular]. The world’s splintered into fractured genres and there’s no monoculture anymore. There’s no big thing other than, what, maybe SNL? People kind of pay attention to that, right? There’s no MTV, there’s no real pipeline that reaches lots of people. Everyone’s off in their little fractured niche. We realized that we have a core fanbase and we’re not worried about trying to follow trends or pay attention, really. We’re not consciously trying to play the game of breaking through to whoever or getting onto a playlist or getting played by a radio station. Who gives a shit? And it’s given us freedom, creatively, to [feel like we’re] in a different world.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been playing a lot of older material and some songs you’ve never played live before on this tour. What is your relationship to old Nine Inch Nails music? Are there songs that you absolutely would never want to perform again? Are there songs that feel great every time you sing them even if they’re 20 years old?
REZNOR: The trap I realized I was falling into even as far back as The Downward Spiral was that once we had a little bit of a budget and we could put on a show, I always thought, “If I have your attention for a few hours and you’re coming out to see us, let’s transform the place into a spectacle. Let’s make it the best setting to hear music in, let’s put care into every aspect we can control.” Particularly production onstage — let’s really make it something cool. And a lot of times that was based on the technology available at the time and the budget of how much you could spend on it. How can you use that stuff in a creative way to make it a multimedia show to some degree? And the trap that you get into is how do you outdo it the next time? How do you reinvent the wheel the next time? And the second part of that is the consequence that wasn’t obvious at the beginning of that process was you end up limiting what you can play because everything becomes choreographed around a finite amount of stuff. Does this song have content with it? You can’t just pull shit out of your ass.
If you have a hole of a few songs that don’t have any [accompanying media] it feels weird. You get locked in — you’re playing the same 20 songs a night, maybe you have 30 you shuffle around. In a time before everyone was on the internet sharing everything you do the first second it happens, you could get away with that to a degree. But it also gets real boring after the second week of touring. You know what you’re going to do and many times I’ve been onstage and I can’t stay present. I’m thinking about everything, but I’m not thinking about the song I’m playing. I look out at the audience and they look the same and I’m wearing the same clothes, I’m playing the same song.
I had a kind of awakening a few years ago sitting on my couch watching a Coachella livestream from the comfort of my living room and now that big video wall that you had to pay to bring out is part of the stage. And in the advent of the electronic musician that comes in with a flash drive and plugs in their content and hits the spacebar and music plays and the video plays and seeing 10 bands or acts in a row that it’s all visuals and bullshit — lip-syncing — I think that paradigm’s dead. Walk into the Sahara Tent at Coachella and you’re surrounded by hundreds of video screens and lazers and you can’t compete with that and people have seen that and it’s not as exciting as it was 20 years ago. So let’s just go play, you know? And not in a stripped-down acoustic way but like, I think about seeing the Cure in the ‘80s and the Jesus And Mary Chain and there was no production other than it’s smokey and kinda scary. Seeing Swans, I was wondering if I was going to be murdered, if my head was going to explode from the bass.
That feeling — I didn’t see that from my couch. I saw lots of clever production and expensive videos. Getting rid of all that shit and stripping it down allows us to kind of do whatever we want. And that opened the door to finally answer your question: Most of what we play is stuff that still feels relevant in some way or feels OK to play. There’s a number of songs that we don’t just because it doesn’t feel like me anymore or it doesn’t feel authentic. And there’s a handful of songs on this tour that I don’t particularly feel an affection towards but because of the novelty of we’ve never played them, I know it’ll be exciting for superfans that seem to live for those type of things.
STEREOGUM: Do you spend any time on the Nine Inch Nails Subreddit?
REZNOR: I just discovered that about a year ago and I will check it. I don’t study it but I’ll pop in to kind of see what the discussion is about and I find that generally it’s a wider swath of fans. There’s a couple Nine Inch Nails forums that are … very niche-y for the people that can’t be pleased.
STEREOGUM: It’s cool that fans use it to connect and meet up — a group planned to get together before the Radio City shows.
REZNOR: Yeah, that’s cool! That was the intention of having people buy tickets in person was to have an experience — not that I’m saying it was a great experience — but to actually have to get out of your fuckin’ house and do something and be around other people and maybe it’s one of those things where you think back like, “Remember when it rained on us and we stood [in line] 10 hours.” I don’t know. It seemed like the right thing to do. It seemed like it was in the spirit of what this tour is about.
STEREOGUM: A while back a video of you performing on Dance Party USA started circling. Do you remember that taping well?
REZNOR: [Laughs] Yeah, very well. You have to remember, we were at zero. We were from Cleveland and we were on big powerful TVT Records right? I think “Down In It” had come out, we’re in New York, and we’re friends with our publicist and she’s like, “Hey, are there any TV shows that you guys wanna do?” And I remember we had watched that show ’cause it was so fuckin’ stupid, right? And I said “Yeah, fuckin’ Dance Party USA, get us on that one.” As a joke, kind of. And then she says the next day, or shortly thereafter, “Hey, I got you on Dance Party USA, it films over in New Jersey, you wanna do it?” “Fuck yeah, let’s do it!” Not thinking that 30 years later … But when we got there, we didn’t take it seriously, it was so absurd and people looked ridiculous. Even at the time, they looked ridiculous. We looked ridiculous. But I remember trying not to laugh while we were doing it. We were just trying to make it another month in our career.
STEREOGUM: I have to ask you about the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. The past two years you have not been nominated, though you were nominated back in 2016. There are people out there saying, “Nine Inch Nails were snubbed again!” Is this something you think about?
REZNOR: I saw somebody write something online or comment on Twitter like, “What could be less rock and roll than the fuckin’ Hall Of Fame.” And that is authentically how I feel about it. I’ll say this: It’s nice to be appreciated. It’s nicer when it feels like that’s coming from a place that you care about. Like, a Grammy doesn’t mean a fuckin’ thing. It means a few assholes in a room that are trying to make a TV show have good ratings deciding, “Let’s give it to this guy.” It doesn’t feel like it has any meaning behind it.
The Oscar was completely unexpected. When you see what goes on behind the scenes there and the different guilds and how many people are involved and how seriously they take it, I’m still pretty blown away by that. I’m not saying there isn’t politics and bullshit involved too but it feels like it’s coming from a much more significant place and from the community that’s honoring you than a couple dudes trying to get ratings for a TV show like the Grammys. Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, who knows what that is. I don’t give a shit. It’s irritating every year that suddenly my inbox lights up with, “Oh man, sorry about …” I don’t give a fuck! [Laughs] You know what I mean? I don’t … the worst would be if we did [get inducted] and then what? We’d have to fuckin’ show up and jam? I can’t even imagine what that would be.
I’m not saying this as sour grapes. I honestly couldn’t give less of a shit. I’m not gonna sleep any better. Included or not. With that being said, it’s always nice to feel you’ve been appreciated to some degree but it’s not on my list of things I have to achieve before I die.
STEREOGUM: The Stereogum staff likes to joke that, “In the future every film will be scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.” What is the criteria that makes you decide, “This is something I care about and want to work on.”
REZNOR: The truthful answer is that The Social Network came out of nowhere and the teaming up with [David] Fincher experience was terrifying and it was awesome. In my life it was one of the best experiences I’ve had. It has nothing to do with winning awards for it. I knew Fincher socially, he kind of nagged me to do it and I resisted because I didn’t know how to do it and I was tired at the time and I was just coming off a long tour and then I felt shitty that I turned him down so I called him back and he was like, “Nah, I’m still waiting on you come on over.”
So here’s a movie, The Social Network, with no music in it with constant talking in it from the beginning to the end and I didn’t know what music should sound like in that film. It wasn’t like, a serial killer. I might know what that sounds like. It was just some assholes bitching at each other. On this terrifying drive home Atticus and I decided we’d do it — [we wondered] should we call Hans Zimmer and hang out his house and make coffee and sort of watch what he does and learn the process?
We took a few weeks instead and without the movie, without looking at the script we made music that seemed like it belonged in that setting. We thought impressionistically about characters and setting and feelings and a bunch of music came out and that became the blueprint of what became the score. I translated that task into something I knew how to do. Working on that film and seeing these guys that really had their shit together working as a team, collaborating, contributing to the whole but not being on top of the pyramid, was fun. It was a very different experience and it was wildly exciting to see the role music plays in film while your hands are on the dials. If I do this, it really feels different when you watch that scene. I can make you hate that guy. It was interesting. Not that you don’t know that’s the case but actually doing that felt … intoxicating.
We win all these awards, the phone starts ringing and the music business side of things can kind of beat you down. It’s not a particularly optimistic decade we’ve been in. Or the last couple of decades, you know where no one buys music and now no one really cares about music that much — it’s in the background. It felt like, “Well maybe we immerse ourselves in this. Maybe this is the thing we pursue.” But having had experiences that have been great scoring and having had a few that have been less than great you can quickly see how that can become just a job. I see a lot of films and most of them I don’t pay any attention to the score because it could be interchangeable with any other music it seems like. It’s the ones that either stick out because the movie is significantly enhanced by it and [the score] feels like it’s a real part of it or it’s so annoyingly shitty in a way that it calls your attention to it. But most of them are in that middle part where it’s like, “Was there a score?” It was just the same kind of shit that sounds like everything else and that doesn’t seem like something that’s particularly exciting to do. Or artistic.
You learn that a lot of films are really just investments. Like, this director and this star plus this genre equals this box office. So music is just a thing you have to have in it. I try to avoid that shit and we’ve made some mistakes and now what we’re looking for is simply trying to find people who are trying to make excellent films and are trying to do something with complete integrity. And it’s harder than you would think. [Laughs] And it’s also a gamble thinking, “Maybe this person’s trying to do it.” And then you get involved in it and … maybe or maybe not. I’m trying to avoid naming names here. I read a thing about Robert De Niro years ago — maybe it was Robert De Niro, I think it was — but the question was, “Why did you take this role?” “I did it for the process. I didn’t even see the film when it was finished but I wanted to do that work and be involved in that process and try this thing.” We’re kind of thinking the same way, in terms of being in the moment, being concerned about getting to the end and not just what the end result is. The process of what we’re going to learn and the challenges it presents and trying to avoid repetition and comfort and easy.
STEREOGUM: Has any of that work influenced the newer stuff you’ve written with the band?
REZNOR: Atticus and I found that if we’re working on a band-based project [it’s good to] have something else going on that we can ideally spend two weeks, week and a half on one thing, and the other way, it allows each side to breathe in a way that gains some objectivity when you come back to it. Everything’s kind of a blur of time right now but How To Destroy Angels was happening at the same time as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Nine Inch Nails stuff and being able to kind of go back and forth between different buckets of things where different instruments were used and there was a different mindset here — it kept us sane.
Things kind of collapsed recently because we really mishandled our time and we had to finish a film right at the beginning of this tour. The schedule shifted with some reshoots and we somehow weren’t looking at the calendar and we realized, “We’ve got to turn in a lot of music one month after the tour starts.” So, we had to bring a studio with us so every time we weren’t onstage we had a room set up where we’d wake up at about eight in the morning and go in that room and stay until 10 at night. Sleep, wake up, or go until soundcheck, play a show, wake up. That wasn’t an ideal situation. Kind of fun in retrospect, looking back at how stupid it was, but it was another level of pressure that I don’t recommend.
STEREOGUM: You said that music in 2018 often feels like an afterthought or background noise. Did working at Apple and your foray into the tech world make you feel more jaded or less about where the music industry is at? Nine Inch Nails have seen a lot of transformation as far as how people consume music from the ‘80s to now.
REZNOR: Yeah, I was excited about Pretty Hate Machine being on compact disc! Back when it was physical things you had to touch. I have a mixed set of feelings about the whole thing. From my own perspective, I got obsessed with trying to crack that code. Being stuck on a record label, watching fans get pissed off — watching myself get pissed off at fans and wondering why am I pissed off? ‘Cause they’re listening to my fuckin’ album! A week before a plastic disc shows up in the store that no one wants to buy! They’re not bootlegging t-shirts or something they’re listening to shit I did and they’re excited about it and I’m doing it too to other bands that I am excited about and I thought, “This is broken. The whole idea is broken and there’s got to be a better way.”
Apple had been one of those companies that I really looked forward to what they were going to present. It’s like Willy Wonka. I thought Steve Jobs was a genius and he brought things to the world that I think made significant changes and I looked forward to what was ahead. Steve wasn’t there anymore but this was an opportunity that if I didn’t do it, would I feel like I would’ve wondered what would have happened if I did do it. We were in-between record cycles and after much soul-searching I just thought, “I’ll jump into this and see what I can do.” And it was an eye-opening, incredible amount of work to be dropped into the world of engineers who didn’t want you there. You know, the boss dropped you down in there and everyone’s like, “What the fuck is this guy doing here?” It was an incredibly political situation that was defeating and tiring to have to deal with and most of the work seemed to be on that side than it was doing the actual work.
I would like my sons to be able to think, “Hey maybe there’s a career I could have as an artist and I don’t have to do that on the side while I do something else.” That there’s a possible chance of a livelihood being made. I think after two real years of doing that full-time and another two years of doing it part-time some inroads were made that mattered — I think my awareness that most of that job comes down to product design and marketing and thinking about what the consumer wants felt at odds with the artist in me. I’d find myself speaking the language of the marketing guy because I’d been in a room with 40 people that were talking about brand identities and shit like that. I felt like, guilty that I wasn’t being an artist and a part of that’s my own madness but it made me realize I’m not that interested in that. I’ve seen it, I’ve been under the hood, I’ve sat at the table with these guys, I got to know them, I’m in awe of what they do. It’s not what I think I was put on Earth to do. And I know that now.
There was a part of me that always thought, “What if I would’ve gone the computer engineering route? Would I be happier?” I don’t know. The grass is greener on the other side. I had a chance to kind of deep-dive into working at a corporation. Seeing the nuts and bolts of how that works, there’s a lot of fascinating shit in there that I never would’ve seen or experienced and I’m appreciative of the opportunity but it also made me cherish what I’ve made on the other side, as an artist.
This is what’s good about having Atticus around. Sometimes, in his dry sense of humor he can cut right to the heart of the matter. Like one time, we were talking about something and he goes, “You know what I want in life?” “What’s that Atticus?” “Just not to feel bad.” I thought, “Yeah, me too! I don’t want to feel bad.” That’s the core of it. Everything just kind of stems from not feeling bad; physically but also spiritually and emotionally.