When the Oscar-winning composing duo — and Nine Inch Nails bandmates — Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross learned that the beloved comic book Watchmen was going to be expanded into a TV series, they wanted in. Reznor was already a fan of the graphic novel, but moreover he liked the work of series creator Damon Lindelof, who previously worked on Lost and The Leftovers. So the duo reached out to Lindelof to offer their services, and, after a meeting with the show runner, they realized that they clicked immediately and got the gig. One aspect of working on the series that especially appealed to Reznor was that it didn’t feel “safe.”
“It would be a lot easier for Damon to make something that was not called Watchmen than it is to make something for fans that are unpleasable,” he says on a call from his California home. “Just taking on the IP doesn’t feel safe, so Atticus and I are all in with this show. We think it’s interesting, important storytelling — and it’s entertaining and it’s risky.”
After reviewing some scenes from the pilot with temporary music added in — Reznor is sketchy on details but thinks it might have been some score he and Ross had written for Ken Burns’ documentary, The Vietnam War — the duo began creating eerie, often icy synth-dominated soundscapes that perfectly complement the unrest depicted in the series. “They wanted something that set an aggressive, sort of sleazy tone,” Reznor says, referencing the first episode’s “cattle battle” and “interrogation pod” scenes as examples.
The way Reznor talks about it, the music will be evolving along with the plot, which explains why he and Ross are putting the series’ soundtrack in three volumes; the first installment came out this week. Some of the tracks on Volume One are high-energy EDM grooves with scuzzy guitar (“Never Surrender”) and others sound like Broken-era Nine Inch Nails outtakes (“The Brick”) or even James Bond music (“Mueller Time”). The many styles show off the duo’s wide musical palate, which they’ve relied on in recent years as they’ve incorporated scoring films into their routines.
Since last year, Reznor and Ross have released music for the films Mid90s, Bird Box and Waves, and they’re currently (improbably) working on the soundtrack for a Pixar movie called Soul, which is (more believably) about a literal lost soul. It’s been a year since the last Nine Inch Nails release, Bad Witch, but the band’s influence has resounded over the past year with a sample of its experimental Ghosts I–IV album appearing in the Number One hit “Old Town Road” and “Head Like a Hole” getting a pop makeover in Black Mirror. Although Reznor says he and Ross aren’t actively working on new Nine Inch Nails music, they do have plans for more. Reznor recently took a short break from his stacked schedule to speak with Rolling Stone for a lengthy, wide-ranging interview about the whirlwind that has been 2019 and why he’s found Watchmen to be an exciting new challenge.
Did you come into Watchmen with an idea of how you wanted it to sound?
We came into it really neutral, really having no idea what Damon Lindelof’s plan was. And we sat in an initial meeting with the producers and him, he gave probably a 10-minute monologue about the plot, and Atticus and I looking were looking at each other like, “OK, you lost us in the first 15 seconds.”
As you will see, it’s a very intense and deep series of intertwining storylines. It seemed interesting, but it really provided no clues as to what it would sound like. When we saw a rough cut of the premiere, it started to become clear that the role of music would be more in-your-face rather than a supporting role in the background.
What did you think of the violence in Watchmen? It plays with a lot of themes regarding civil rights that feel very current. Did you worry about working on something that could cross over into the political discourse the way Joker did?
That’s an interesting point. Here’s what it comes down to: When we get into a project in the film world, we’re in service to the picture. And in the first 10 minutes of meeting Damon in person and speaking with him, my suspicions about who I thought he was — an intelligent deep thinker — were confirmed. In addition to that, Atticus and I walked out of the meeting thinking, “OK, he’s one of us.” We’re operating on the same kind of wavelength in terms of, “We’re here to do the best job that we can. There’s no ego at the door. Let’s take our gloves off and just get down to business and let’s push each other to make the best thing we can.” That instilled a faith in me that in deploying the mechanics of violence or the way things were shot or how much to show of certain things has been deeply considered. If it was meant to be titillating or offensive or push buttons, it wasn’t just for the sake of that. There was intent behind it. I think as you see how the story unfolds, you may or may not agree with that. But any concerns I had that this was exploitation or, “Is this in bad taste?” or “Is it socially irresponsible?” were put to rest.
You’re coming out with three volumes of Watchmen soundtracks. Are you doing that just because there is so much music?
Well, we’re having some fun with the way that it’s released. There are a number of reasons behind doing that. One is there is quite a bit of music, and I think when you drop a big chunk — a couple hours’ worth of music — on the public these days, that’s a good way to get 90 percent of it ignored. So breaking it up is good. The motivation wasn’t to monetize it three times; that wasn’t what the deciding factor was. And we’re putting it out on vinyl because we’ve been on a physical-object kick. Speaking for myself, that’s for nostalgic reasons. I’m looking at a shelf full of vinyl albums right now, and it that feels a little different than something that’s a cloud-based file, which feels a little disposable. They also tie into Watchmen. Let’s put it this way: We overthought it.
You broke up the last three Nine Inch Nails releases, so that people could make better sense of it. How do you feel about the reception they got?
I think it went well. If I could put The Fragile out again, I’d break it into two albums. I think back then, 20 years ago, it was a little self-important to drop something of that length and density on people, but the last three mini records we put out were actually one album. The music, I felt, in no way was dumbed down. And again there’s no concern or thought or even the slightest consideration for, “Does it make sense in the streaming era? Will it chart better?” I don’t care about any of that stuff. It’s how can people be aware of it and digest it in some fashion.
What did you think of the way Black Mirror interpreted “Head Like a Hole” this year, in the episode where Miley Cyrus sings a poppy version of the song called “On a Roll”?
I thought it was great. That’s been another one where when you sit back and watch people’s reactions. Probably somewhere in my Twitter feed today somebody will be bitching about, [lowers voice to sound dumb] “I can’t believe you like this. Fucking sellout.” ‘Cause you realize what makes it interesting is the context, and that’s the point.
How did it come together in the first place?
The quick Black Mirror story was getting an email from Charlie [Brooker, the showrunner] saying, “Hey, we’ve got this idea,” with a quick synopsis of the plot. “We’d like her songs to actually be Nine Inch Nails songs. Would you mind if we turned them into these syrupy pop things?” I said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s try it.” And I say that for the same reason as Watchmen and Damon Lindelof: I’ve been a fan of Black Mirror. I think it’s been much needed social commentary for these times. So if it’s in his hands, let’s try it. And then a little while later, I got sent demos of [“On a Roll”], and I was pretty blown away by how authentically poppy it was. It was like someone who actually knows what they’re doing, did these. It felt like it should feel alien. It should feel weird.
What did you think of the new lyrics, like “stoked on ambition and verve” instead of “bow down before the one you serve”?
I think that they’re wonderfully absurd. It’s just stupid in such a great kind of juxtaposition. Again, in the context of that story, I thought it was really funny. I see why people don’t get it, but I think if they understand the context then it makes sense. And if you still don’t get it, well, sorry.
Did you ever have any dialogue with Miley about it?
Not face-to-face, no. I think I said something nice somewhere in the press, and something nice came back to me through the press. I thought she did a great job. It was strange to hear your music come through the blender and back at you like that. It made me start to think, “I wonder what life would’ve been like had I gone the pop-songwriting route.” I thought about that for about 10 seconds.
This year is the 30th anniversary of Pretty Hate Machine. What inspired the original “Head Like a Hole”?
It came together quick. I thought the record needed something that was up-tempo and aggressive. Really, Pretty Hate Machine was born from tinkering around in the studio at night. I stayed up late at night, trying to figure out who I was, what I had to say as a songwriter. And things started to pop out. I remember “Sanctified” and “Something I Can Never Have” were pretty early. I think “Terrible Lie” was pretty early in there, too.
It eventually started to make sense what Nine Inch Nails could be. I asked myself what I, as a songwriter, had to say. What was something that I could say with authenticity? I started out trying to imitate the Clash — shitily. I’m not the Clash; I didn’t have anything smart to say politically, back then — or now for that matter. But when I turned to my journal and I realized I was writing song lyrics anyway, once I got over the hump of, “I could never say that out loud to other people,” there was an authenticity there and truthfulness that I think resonated. And I could tell when I played it for some people around me, I’d have to leave the room, but I could tell that affected them in some way. It started to form the basis of what I hoped would be an album.
Towards the end, the way I remember it, I felt like I needed something to kind of break the guitars out and be a bit more aggressive. And I remember “Head Like a Hole” was quick. Some songs feel like months of tinkering, and other ones seem like an afternoon and it’s done, and that was one of those songs that just kind of fell out. And it was starting to get clear that the record label we signed with was not our friend. I think that kind of all worked into the mix. I had no idea that was going to be what it went on to be, though.
So were the lyrics directed at the record label already, by then?
I mean not specifically. That was one of the first songs we did at the Cars’ studio in Boston with [producer] Flood. Then I went over to England to work with John Fryer to do the rest of the album. And I think when we came back that’s when the record label said they hated the album. I went back in and re-tweaked “Head Like a Hole.” [Producer] Keith LeBlanc did a mix that felt right, one that turned up the aggression a little bit more, and that’s the version that is out. By the time anyone heard it, it had the influence of, “OK, maybe no one will ever hear this because our label hates it and they told me it sucks, so, fuck you, here it is.”
You did an interview in 2011 where you said the time around Pretty Hate Machine was “the darkest period in [your] life.” Do you still see it that way?
It’s funny ’cause now I look back and it was not the best years, but it was a good era. As you kind of put rose-colored glasses on and think back about the excitement of finally be able to maybe put a record out, have a band, have someone show up that you don’t know in a different city, it felt like the beginning of something. We didn’t know what it was, it was terrifying and it didn’t feel like a secure position, but it felt exciting that we might have a chance to be heard.
What would you think of the person you were then if you met him now?
That’s a good question. Back then, Pretty Hate Machine-era, I don’t think I’m that different than I am now. I was certainly more naïve, but the person I would be the most distorted from compared to who I think I am now would be myself at the end of The Downward Spiral era. That’s when drugs and alcohol were kicking in, and fame. That’s when I’m the least recognizable. I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. I started to think I was the guy that I’d read the interview about: the character, the exaggeration. And I was pretty embroiled in darkness that whole time. I was feeling like everything’s finite and feeling like I probably won’t be around that much longer and just kind of embracing it as if that was something noble to embrace. But Pretty Hate Machine, that guy … I remember him.
Do you have a hard time relating to Downward Spiral songs now?
It’s not the songs. They kind of became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know who I was in the songwriting process, and then that record took off against a backdrop of not having any place to live and being on tour for two-and-a-half years and pumped full of chemicals and around weird people that want things from you and not treated like a person anymore. [Pauses]. I often think, it would be kind of fun to be in that body for a day just to remember what the fuck was going on. It seemed like being unmoored and kind of lost.
Do you feel like you had emerged from that by the time you did The Fragile?
It stopped being fun by the time I did The Fragile. The consequences and the price were starting to stack up. It was a lot bleaker and more serious and scary, and a fragile time. So I know The Fragile–era person quite well. I’m grateful to come out of the process with that one.
You’ve done The Downward Spiral album live in its entirety a couple times, and you’ve done Broken. But I don’t think you’ve ever done Pretty Hate Machine or The Fragile live. Have you ever considered that?
I’m sure we haven’t. There’s always been a couple of songs that we’ve never worked up live. When we do those things live, it just comes together. For example, we didn’t plan on playing the whole Broken record. Two days before the first show, I thought, “Hey, we know every song except this one or that one. Let’s learn it.” And then we’re on tour and we see the reaction and that was actually pretty fun, and it’s great to mess the set list up and keep it exciting for the audience and us.
I wonder if we could do The Fragile. There are eight songs we don’t know. So maybe next time we tour, we’ll do our homework and work up a few of them. I’d like to say there’s a great master plan behind all that; usually, it’s inspiration when it’s too late to actually do anything.
On the topic of legacy, you inducted the Cure into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. You’re on the ballot again. Did attending this year make you look at the Rock Hall any differently?
Every few years you hear, “Hey, you’re nominated. How do you feel about being snubbed?” And I’m not raising my hand to be in the mix. Am I gonna have to put up with this the rest of my life? Anyway having said that, I love the Cure, and when I was asked to induct them, I thought, “If I don’t do it, someone else is gonna do it, and I gotta make sure these guys, have a great time. I want them to feel good. I want the Cure to be in.
And when I showed up there, I’m sitting in the audience next to the Radiohead guys, who are super cool, and we’re watching Bryan Ferry, and I thought, “This is actually kind of cool, but are the Cure gonna resonate in this crowd?” And I came out and it was like, “Holy fuck, people love the Cure here.” And it felt good. It felt good seeing them come up. So maybe I’m not the first to say it, but I will say it when I’m unnecessarily bitchy about a thing, I thought that was a cool experience. I’m glad I did it. I’m glad the Cure are in it. Is it nice to be nominated? Yeah, it’s nice. I don’t know, you know? I’m in a death match against Pat Benatar. Could there be a more absurd? You’re going to have to choose, man: It’s me or Pat or Whitney Houston.
Right, then I look and see that we’re up against Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode. Those are bands that by any stretch of the imagination need to be ahead of us in that line. We wouldn’t be us without those guys. Todd Rundgren, same thing. That’s where it starts to get kind of … Alright, I don’t know how I should feel about it. You know?
It sounds like you’re gonna be voting for everybody except for you.
Bullshit, I’m voting for myself [laughs].
Are you working on any new Nine Inch Nails music at the moment?
Right now, we are finishing up Watchmen, and we’re working on the Pixar film that we are doing. And we have plans for Nine Inch Nails stuff, but we haven’t got down to doing it because literally every minute of the day for the last several months has working on score stuff. But the plan is to do stuff, yes.
Is it strange to be working on a Pixar movie?
I read something about someone like Robert De Niro years ago — maybe it wasn’t him and maybe he didn’t say it — but someone ask, “What’s your take on this movie you’re making?” He goes, “I haven’t even seen the end result. I’m not doing it for that. I’m doing it for the process of doing it.” And I thought that was kind of odd. Then what I found in my own life is that by taking on these scoring projects, for us, it’s not, “How’d it do at the box office?” or “What was the Rotten Tomatoes score?” It’s nice if it does well. But being in the trenches, collaborating with someone new, learning from them, fighting with them, figuring out their process — that’s the exciting stuff, especially when it’s someone you resonate with. That’s true with Damon Lindelof.
So someone said, “Are you interested in working on an animated film with Pixar?” Yeah, I don’t think anybody does animation better than they do. And we end up meeting with [Pixar’s chief creative officer] Pete Docter, and he’s what you hope he would be. It feels very authentic, it feels very exciting and it’s very, very different from anything else we’ve ever done, from the way they do it to how they think about it. And we’re a risky choice for them, so that makes it very appealing. Can we do something like that? That means us working out of our comfort zone. It’s early days but it’s been really cool.
Maybe people will discover a song like “Closer” through your work with Pixar.
Who knows? We’ll see if we can taint Pixar and darken them up.