For years, Trent Reznor had been offering to anoint Atticus Ross as a “made man” in Nine Inch Nails — christening him the only official member other than Reznor himself — before he finally accepted two years ago. “It has always been too scary for me,” Ross tells Rolling Stone. “I get incredibly nervous playing live. The hour or two before a show, I think I’m going to have a fucking heart attack. Now Trent has four kids and doesn’t want to tour, so I accepted. We did five shows last year, which felt fine, and this year, we’re doing about 5 million, so I’ve been tricked again.” He laughs.
The Londoner, age 50, is leaning back on the couch of a tucked-away green room in Las Vegas’ Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. He’s tall, scruffy-haired and dares to defy Nine Inch Nails’ prescribed all-black uniform with a white shirt. He met Reznor almost two decades ago when his group at the time, the electro-pop ensemble 12 Rounds, signed to Reznor’s Nothing Records. Something between the two of them clicked and he eventually became Reznor’s right hand — they’ve collaborated on every Nine Inch Nails record since 2005’s With Teeth and they work together frequently on soundtracks, including the Oscar-winning score to The Social Network.
In fact, work is pretty much all they do. Even in Las Vegas, where the pair could pursue any manner of adventures, Ross says they used their day off yesterday to work on a film score. Although he claims his role in the duo is mostly to arrange the songs and work on programming (“I can’t play anything as well as Trent”), he also carries out the critical role of pushing Reznor out of his comfort zone. When the pair were working on music for the climate-change doc Before the Flood, he encouraged Reznor to sing in a more vulnerable way on the ballad “A Minute to Breathe.” “He came in with a list of other singers he thought we should reach out to,” Ross says, “and I was like, ‘No.'”
He played a similar role when they were making Bad Witch — the bellicose final installment of a three-EP cycle about the cultural devolution CNN broadcasts every night — fluffing up the frontman’s saxophone playing on both heavy and moodier songs and encouraging Reznor to affect a David Bowie–style croon on “God Break Down the Door.” “He was like, ‘I’m not sure how this is gonna sound, blah, blah, blah,’ which he often does,” Ross says. “And I just said, ‘There’s no way we’re gonna change it.'”
On past Nine Inch Nails releases, the two of you have set parameters for yourselves. With Ghosts, you finished a song a day. With The Slip, you wanted it to sound like garage electronics. Did you do anything like that with the trilogy?
Yes, we worked around a conceptual arc about America today. We made Not the Actual Events pretty quickly. To some degree, it was reactionary and there were some self-referential aspects from before I was in the band. It was also about how the music business is so different now and it doesn’t feel as dangerous as it used to. So with the subject matter, we felt it should be like a punch in the face. So there’s a family of instruments that I think is fairly obvious on that one – and noise.
How did you continue that on the next one?
With Add Violence, the camera had been moved out a bit further. We used monophonic synths and certain guitar sounds in the programming that applied both emotionally and in the physical world, like how a film score might support a story, the music supports the lyrics.
Bad Witch took a bit longer, because it didn’t feel right; it started to sound a little bit like Add Violence, Part 2. So we threw that away, and it ends with more of a question mark. We spent about six months working on it, because we didn’t know what it should be. It ended up with very lo-fi recording techniques in the sense that neither of us are good engineers. So we’d get the drum kit with one mic or Trent picked up his sax again.
How was it watching that?
Oh, it was great. “God Break Down the Door” was a big moment for us. We’d put the saxes through different [effects] pedals and process them differently. Trent would just play and play and play, and I’d be fucking around with the sound, and we managed to get this arrangement together where the saxes felt organic. Then the real moment was when Trent sang the lyrics in the way he did.
Is it difficult to push him with his vocals?
We don’t have a fraught relationship in any sense. And Bad Witch was an example of risk-taking and not settling for something we could have done. If it became repetitive, we’d probably stop.
One of the things I liked on Bad Witch was “Shit Mirror,” which starts with a beach-rock vibe with the handclaps and ends with heavy guitar. How did that come about?
We were referencing records that we love from the Seventies, so we put a phase on that guitar. Nobody fucking puts a phase on their record anymore. And there’s an aspect of the Stooges with the claps. If you listen to Raw Power, it sounds so vital in the sense that it’s so poorly recorded but it’s so brilliant. On the second chorus, we did some interesting things harmonically. There’s a collage of stuff in there; there’s a sax in that one playing the low notes, and then Trent’s voice is caught in a tape loop. And at the end, the rhythms are literally beating on rock and the ground.
There’s a primitive aspect or reflection of who we are in these times on there. It seems like we’ve been led. And I think we implied that in the cover, staring at shadows on the wall.
How much does your soundtrack work influence what you do with Nine Inch Nails?
I think it helps the creativity. You can use a different part of your brain by going into a different discipline. It’s helped the creative flow.
What is it about the two of you that works so well together?
I can’t really answer that [laughs]. It’s based in friendship. We have shared musical interests. And being in the studio endlessly is a bit like being on a ship in the middle of the ocean. You’ve got to get along with the people, otherwise you’re gonna kill them. And I think what I’m good at complements what he’s good at, and he’s pretty much good at everything.
What do you mean by that?
He has a natural musicality I haven’t experienced with anyone else. He can play literally any instrument. It’s kind of annoying at times, but I work well with our arrangements and programming. People think we spend ages twiddling with some sound, and in reality, we work very fast. And we use the computer as an instrument.
Electronic music is a big part of where you came from.
I was too young for punk rock, but I was the perfect age for acid house in England. I don’t think people here [in the U.S.] know what that was like. But it was awesome. It felt rebellious. It felt like anyone could make music. And I started with just an Atari and a Roland keyboard that had 10 seconds of sampling time and an 808. The computer was an instrument.
Then in the Nineties there was ProTools and you could fix everything in terms of rhythm and pitch. And you could really suck every morsel of soul out of the record. Imagine the Velvet Underground with everything fixed. I mean, fuck, it would be terrible.
You’ve said that you have terrible stage fright, but that you felt the last tour was more manageable. Is it any better this time?
Originally, Trent was like, “OK, we’re gonna add five new songs from last year’s set.” And that felt like a manageable amount. And then the day before we came out here, he was like, “It may be unrealistic, but why don’t we try for these 20?” And when he says, “It may be unrealistic,” it means, “We’re gonna add these 20.” So it was even more nerve-racking, ’cause those aren’t songs we’ve rehearsed. But it’s seemed to go all right.