Reznor, at age 53, is a different person than he was 30 years ago. He’s married and has four kids. When not working on the band, he and his musical partner, Atticus Ross, compose film scores; they won the Oscar for their soundtrack to The Social Network in 2011. And he still works “in a very limited amount” with Apple on their streaming service.
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Nine Inch Nails’ recent trilogy of EPs have each charted in Billboard’s Top 30, they can headline festivals and they can still notch songs on the rock charts, as they did with the Add Violence EP’s new-wavy, catchy “Less Than.”
He still makes self-deprecating asides in conversation, such as, “I’m not saying this to sound pretentious” and “This is a boring conversation,” when explaining his thoughts. But by and large, one thing becomes clear as he speaks: It’s good to be Trent Reznor these days. So why does his music still sound so angry?
“I have a secret storehouse of aggression that I tap into,” he deadpans during a lengthy chat with Rolling Stone. “I’m not particularly filled with the unchannelable self-destruction and rage as I felt like I used to be. And I’m very grateful for that.” He chuckles. “What’s driving more of my anger these days is external. A portion of each day in the studio is Atticus and I having a therapy session, venting and trying to make sense of what’s going on in the world – and this remains the platform to express that.”
The last three Nine Inch Nails records reflect different aspects of societal decay. Were you thinking mostly of Trump when you were writing these?
It’s not Donald Trump. I don’t think he’s the cause of it, but he’s certainly the result of the conductivity and the social media. The more that people are connected together, seemingly the lower the level of discourse and the more extremities have found each other. It’s become sharper in focus for me and more concerning on a personal level being a father of young kids. It’s power being tribalized.
How did these three releases come about?
They were meant to be three pieces of one big album. Then we thought, “What if we broke it into three smaller records?” So each record is a different reflection on questions like “Who am I, and how do I fit into this world?”
What does each record represent?
Not the Actual Events was more about, “I’m to blame and maybe this person I’ve become is just a façade. People view me as an addict that’s pretending he’s found contentment. What if I burned the house down with embracing that self-destructive fantasy?” And it fit musically.
The second record, Add Violence, was about, “Maybe it’s not me. Maybe the world’s not what it appears to be. Maybe we’re in a simulation.” And initially the third one was supposed to be a more extreme version of that. We started working on it we felt we backed ourselves into a corner creatively. Then it revealed itself to us.
And what was that?
[Bad Witch] was more about how the pessimism had kicked into gear: “This whole idea that we are even important is a fucking illusion. We’re just an accident left to our own devices. With everything we could do, we’ve dumbed ourselves down to where enlightenment is ultimately the illusion. We’re just animals who self-destruct and we’re proving that we’re not fucking rulers. We’re not godlike. The illusion is thinking we are.” The most clues to it all are in the song “Ahead of Ourselves.”
Why did you and Atticus record yourselves pounding on rocks on Bad Witch’s “Shit Mirror”?
It seemed to fit lyrically what we were trying to convey. In this newfound time where the fucking leader of the free world is essentially announcing it’s okay to be racist and fucking ignorant and nothing is happening to him, people are testing the water and coming out of the closet. I find that mentality fucking grotesque. The music was meant to embody that and I thought if it could be done with this kind of attitude and swagger, it would inform the rhetoric of the song, which would be low-tech. What if the sound of it was reduced to just pounding in the dirt?
What made you pick up the saxophone again?
Really, it was just sitting there. For however many years I’ve been out of high school, I’ve been saying, “I’m going to get back and really practice, maybe take lessons again.” I just started playing a little bit and said, ” Fuck it. Let’s go. Start recording.” I think I played for maybe an hour on “God Break Down the Door,” and then Atticus arranged it and I said, “We’re onto something.” Suddenly, I was teleported into a world reminiscent of how I felt about the first Psychedelic Furs album, where everybody picked the instrument they were gonna play and it felt like a collage of sound, like they didn’t know what they were doing but it was mixed well and it sounded chaotic and cool.
You also sang in a different way on that song.
The decision to do the Bowie-esque, croony vocal was just fucking around initially without the intent of it ever going to the outside world. And Atticus spoke up and said, “You gotta keep that.”
With the saxophones, too, it reminds me of Bowie’s Blackstar.
I knew it would. I mean, I still think about that man all the time.
What do you think about Bowie now?
Let’s first talk about Anthony Bourdain. I never met him. But I liked the world with him in it better. I liked knowing he was out there in some fashion, especially in these times. That’s a loss; culturally, we needed that voice.
With Bowie, I did know him to a degree. I certainly studied his work and continued to do so. It felt like, “Man, we weren’t done. There’s more to go. I needed you in the world.” It was like a family member almost. There are these people that you feel you can rely on out there – not for support necessarily, but it’s good to know they’re experiencing life as we’re in semi-uncertain times and even when we aren’t. I think about that a lot.
Backtracking a second, you said around Not the Actual Events you were fantasizing about being an addict burning everything down. Are those feelings you still struggle with?
No. I look back to who I was 20 years ago and I wasn’t equipped to deal with any sort of the weirdness of fame. Alcohol, drugs and what not became a tool to help cope and did for a while until they didn’t. Now I don’t feel like if I’m driving past the liquor store, the car’s gonna drive itself in and I’m going to disappear for a week. I honestly don’t feel like it’s in my DNA; it’s in there, but I’m not going to test it out. That record felt like a dangerous fantasy to allow oneself to think about and examine that. Of course, it’s not a fleeting thought when you’re making a record: It’s several months. [pauses]
I prefer not to be an addict. And I prefer to have the 10 wasted years of my life back. But one good aspect when you do the work to get clean is that painful self-examination is involved in that. I would have never done that electively had I not had to do it. I would never choose, “Hey, what a great idea to sit in therapy meetings endlessly.” But it did equip me with some tools. I know myself better now because I did that, and making an album that’s self-examination does a version of that same thing.
Why have you been looking back on your life lately, in general?
I’ve been trying to think more about who I am and where I fit into the world right now. I don’t necessarily mean me, “the artist,” just that the world seems less familiar in some ways. In trying to think through that, I have found a surprising amount of comfort in thinking about things that make me feel good that are nostalgic. I gave in and bought a turntable several years ago. I actually really enjoy holding vinyl, putting it on and the inconvenience of having to walk across the room to pick the needle up if the phone rings. And I find comfort in watching old Twilight Zone episodes, ’cause it reminds me of something that felt familiar.
I used to never let myself romanticize the past or look at it through rose-colored glasses, and I’ve allowed myself to realize that I do like some things and I don’t think there’s any real harm necessarily in allowing oneself to think back to things that you sense some sort of comfort from.
How has that played into your music?
I used to never allow myself to pick up a distorted guitar, because we’ve done that and it seemed out of date, but I did for Not the Actual Events and it was exciting. As we’re in a very anti-rock climate right now – not everything I’m thinking about is reactive to what’s happening around me culturally – but I do think an exciting, fucking aggressive rock song feels very fresh to me in a world that’s saturated with escapist hip-hop and pop bullshit.
In old interviews you used to say rock & roll was supposed to piss people off.
Well, it seemed like its purpose was to feel like it was breaking the rules and expressing rebellion or something in a way that didn’t feel super refined and preprocessed. I wouldn’t say it has to be angry, but the spirit of truthfulness and integrity appeals to me.
How will you be translating that attitude to the stage?
I’ve always looked at the live show as, “I have the privilege of your time for a few hours to see our music. How can I make that an immersive and something awesome?” And when we did the shows last year, I was thinking, “If you walk into the Sahara tent at Coachella, you’re surrounded by 200 screens and every laser and light imaginable.” And seeing Roger Waters’ last tour, where no expense was spared and there’s a catalogue that’s unmatchable in terms of having a nice, visual component, and then watching livestreams of current festivals and seeing every band in front of a video wall, I thought, “I’m sick of seeing that. Let’s just say, ‘Fuck all that and throw a piss-stained sheet over any video wall that’s around. It’ll be a band playing with fucking smoke.” It felt fresh and maybe a bit retro.
Speaking of retro, you had your fans line up to buy tickets, like in the pre-Internet days. I know some people were complaining about waiting four hours. How do you feel that worked out?
In hindsight, there was a degree of micromanagement I could have done. Did I know how many ticket booths were going to be open? I didn’t ask that question. I assumed someone did. There’s things like that that I can beat myself up about, but what I saw was a little bitching and then there were also people that said it was cool and they’ll remember it.
You said you were enjoying playing vinyl again. Since you’re on Apple Music’s payroll, how do you feel about streaming now?
I think having access to all the music in the world is cool. But it’s detrimental in the sense that I don’t think people spend that much time with the music they have access to, generally. I know that my taste was shaped by not having access to all the music in the world. What I did have access to, I listened to. If I bought an album and I didn’t like it, I only had so many albums to pick from. I don’t think I would have listened to Sandinista 200 times if it came out today and I was 15. But because I spent a lot of money on it at the time and all those discs, I spent time with it and it opened me up. I kind of got it after a while.
What did you learn from the time you were more involved in Apple Music?
It was interesting, but the end result after spending a lot of times feeling like a marketer – and being very concerned with what the audience wants – was that I’ve really embraced being an artist. I think tuning in too much to what the audience wants is toxic. How you sell tickets, that’s one thing, but wondering what people want my new music to sound like is the kiss of death. Listening to feedback like, “doesn’t sound like what I thought it should. Sucks.” Or, “sounds too much like I thought it would. Sucks.” That’s very dangerous for artists.
I think a lot of indie music feels like it’s based on the comments section. “What would be the thing that everyone would like right now?” How can I create a cocktail of things that would be accepted by that camp?” At the end of the day it feels more like market research than true expression.
I did an interview once with a famous rapper before his record came out, and I asked him what he wanted it to be. He kept saying, “I want it to be what the fans want.”
There’s probably nothing wrong with that if that’s what you want to do. But to me it feels like the difference between an entertainer and an artist, and I really quantify those things in my head. There are pop stars I don’t feel angry about. I don’t like what they do, but I feel like they’re an entertainer. But don’t confuse that with – and I’m saying this to sound pretentious – the artist that is actually trying to make art that may or may not intersect with commerce. Having a roster of songs that songwriters have written for you and showing up for a vocal session a couple of times and a photo session for your album that someone else designed. That, to me, feels like an entertainer.