When Trent Reznor first heard “Old Town Road,” he was surprised. The song used a short section of banjo from “34 Ghosts IV,” a track off of Nine Inch Nails’ mostly instrumental 2008 album Ghosts I–IV that Lil Nas X and producer YoungKio had souped up with trap beats and an unforgettable chorus. Hearing his music out of context, Reznor’s gut reaction was less critical than visceral.
“At first, when you hear your stuff turned into something else, it always feels awkward because it’s something that intimately came from you in some way,” Reznor tells Rolling Stone. He likens it to being taken aback at hearing the way Johnny Cash turned his sparsely gothic Downward Spiral track “Hurt,” which references drug use, into an acoustic country love song. “You feel a little bit violated, you know?” he laughs. “And then you get over that, and you realize it has become something else, and the Johnny Cash thing is incredible. It’s very flattering.
“The music from Ghosts that turned into ‘Old Town Road’ certainly didn’t come from as intimate a place as the song ‘Hurt’ did, but it’s still something that I remember what I was thinking about when we did it and then you hear it turned into this other thing — it feels strange at first,” he continues. “But I thought he did a good job with that.”
The song, which features Reznor and his Nine Inch Nails collaborator Atticus Ross as co-writers, has since become the longest-running Number One record in Billboard‘s chart history. Reznor was speaking with Rolling Stone for an upcoming interview about his and Ross’ score for HBO’s Watchmen.
“The way it was presented to me originally is I got a call from my management saying, ‘We got a call from a panicked manager saying they had used the sample of something off Ghosts,'” Reznor recalls. “‘They should have cleared it, but it didn’t get cleared. It’s picking up some steam on the viral Spotify charts. What do you think about that?’ And I said, ‘Look, I’m fine with it. I get how stuff goes. They’re not saying they didn’t sample it. Just work it out, but don’t be a roadblock to this.’ I hadn’t heard it yet. Then a few weeks later, I was like, ‘Holy shit.'”
Reznor calls “Old Town Road” “undeniably hooky,” but once it exploded, he took a back seat to the phenomenon. “The reason I haven’t stepped in to comment anything about it is, I don’t feel it’s my place to play any kind of social critic to that,” he says. “It was a material that was used in a significant way and it turned into something that became something else, and those guys should be the ones the spotlight is on…. They asked if I wanted to do a cameo in the video, and it was flattering, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I don’t feel like it’s my place to shine a light on me for that. I say that with complete respect.”
Still, Reznor is amazed at how the song became a juggernaut. “Having been listed on the credits of the all-time, Number One whatever-the-fuck-it-is wasn’t something…I didn’t see that one coming,” he says. “But the world is full of weird things that happen like that. It’s flattering. But I don’t feel it’s for me to step in there and pat myself on the back for that.”
But does he like it? “It’s been stuck in my head enough,” he says. “Let’s put it that way.”