Trent Reznor: Death to Hootie

The Nine Inch Nails auteur makes a case for danger

March 6, 1997
Trent Reznor
Trent Reznor

Some of the most wondrous moments in David Lynch's Lost Highway owe significantly to the aural genius of Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. His thick, ambient drones – during the film's mysterious video sequences – give the fated house where the film's two main characters, Fred and Renee, live a life all its own; it's as if the walls were breathing and murmuring, or trying to whisper horrid secrets. In his own way, Reznor has created a tense and powerful soundscape here that is as inventive (and likely to be as style defining) as Bernard Herrmann's orchestration for the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

Like Lynch, Reznor is one of the artists who is helping to change popular culture's mainstream sensibility. His 1994 album, The Downward Spiral, is among the most radical sound assemblies ever to become a multimillion seller, and also one of the most ingenious: It mixes violent textures with lovely melodies, all to frame a harrowing, deeply affecting story of one man's descent into his own abject soul. The effort made Reznor a major star – and a busy one. In the years since, he has toured with Nine Inch Nails, supported David Bowie on another big tour, produced the startling soundtrack for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and also helped produce three CDs for shock-rock fave Marilyn Manson, including Antichrist Superstar. Reznor also became a target for cultural moralists William Bennett and C. DeLores Tucker, who expressed outrage at what they viewed as his music's assault on decency. What Bennett and Tucker fail to comprehend is that there's more than one mainstream in America. There's also a mainstream in which people acknowledge and cope with pain and fear and anger. It's not a small one; if it were, there wouldn't be so much disturbing or so-called dangerous art that is also so popular. Reznor is a star not just because he makes great sounds or looks sexy; he's also a star because his audience likes and needs to hear what he has to say.

His new songs on the Lost Highway soundtrack (which also includes new music by the Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Lou Reed and David Bowie, among others) are the only things we'll be hearing from Reznor for a while. He's working simultaneously on two new records, but he isn't willing to say when they'll be released. I interviewed him twice – once in his Los Angeles hotel room and a second time during a late-night phone conversation. I found him to be a gentle-mannered, soft-spoken and steadily thoughtful man who isn't afraid to say strong things.

How did you come to work with David Lynch?
He was looking for somebody to provide some of the sound for Lost Highway, and a friend suggested he give me a call. I hadn't seen the film, but I'm a huge David Lynch fan – we used to hold up Nine Inch Nails shows just so we could watch the latest Twin Peaks. So we set up a weekend for him to come to my place in New Orleans. At first it was like the most high-pressure situation ever. It was literally one minute, "Hi, I'm David Lynch," and he's cooler than I even imagined he would be. Three minutes later, he's saying: "Well, let's go in the studio and get started." Then he'd describe a scene and say, "Here's what I want. Now, there's a police car chasing Fred down the highway, and I want you to picture this: There's a box, OK? And in this box there's snakes coming out; snakes whizzing past your face. So, what I want is the sound of that – the snakes whizzing out of the box – but it's got to be like impending doom." And he hadn't brought any footage with him. He says, "OK, OK, go ahead. Give me that sound."

He wasn't doing it to intimidate me. At the same time, I had to tell him, "David, I'm not a film-effects guy, I don't have ad clients, and I'm not used to being in this environment. I don't work that way, so respect that and understand that I just need a few moments to be alone, so that I know that when I suck, no one is knowing I'm sucking, and then I'll give you the good stuff." I'm thinking, "Boy, he must think I really suck now." But by the end it went cool. And then he turned over all the music that was in the film and asked me to make a CD out of it. So I've done my best to make the CD a fair representation of the film, because this isn't Mortal Kombat, you know. This is David's movie. To the person who hates pop music who buys this David Lynch soundtrack, they will get what they want out of it. At the same time, I want it to have some degree of accessibility for the 13-, 14-year-old kid who buys it because I have a new song on it; or for the Smashing Pumpkins fan who buys it for that. Anyway, I think the whole thing flows, and that's my main contribution to that project.

What was your estimation of the film?
When I saw the finished one, I thought, "Fuck, this is fantastic." It's abstract and bizarre, but it also has enough payoff. But there is that one weird night in the movie [when Fred transforms into Pete Dayton]. I wanted to know what the fuck happened that night.

There's no really easy closure in the movie. It's more like a Mobius-strip story than a beginning-to-end narrative. That may prove difficult for some viewers. . . .
But that's another reason to praise [Lynch], in the sense that he's not really catering to them. You get it or you don't. When I saw Blue Velvet, I walked out of the theater changed and very shaken. I talked to someone later, and they said, "Didn't you think that was funny?" I didn't think it was funny. I was terrified because, when I saw it, I realized I would have done exactly the same thing as Kyle MacLachlan's character. I would've tried to sneak in, I would've felt for her – I would've done it all. I also remember the Twin Peaks episode where Leland bashes Maddie's head against the wall, and then he's driving his car with the body in the back. I thought, "This is the scariest, most violent thing I've ever seen on television, ever. Fuckin'-A, someone got away with it." I could also see why people had a problem with it. It wasn't, you know, Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

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