I Survived Everything: An Interview with Trent Reznor

Trent Reznor talks past, present and future with Andrew Nosnitsky.

September 24, 2013

Trent Reznor talks past, present, and future

From the magazine: ISSUE 88, October/November 2013

Just days after Nine Inch Nails tore down the headlining slot at this year’s Lollapalooza, Trent Reznor is a few hours out from the final stages of a more daunting operation—a root canal. But the 48-year-old is in good spirits, sipping coffee at Beverly Hills institution The Polo Lounge, even if the venue seems more suited for pinstripe suits than the leather and chains of the classic NIN aesthetic. Reznor is inconspicuous in a T-shirt and jeans, his demeanor echoing the mature calm of his fashion sense.

Simultaneously relaxed and alert, he’s talkative but actively reserved, choosing his words carefully and couching them in caveats like “I think this is kind of a boring thing to talk about,” “I’ll shut up here in a second” and “I’m saying this as an old guy.” And yet, the conversation proves him to be just as well-versed in the then as in the now and the what’s next.

How conscious were you of looking toward the future when you started NIN? To give a bit of context, the synth-pop explosion of the early ’80s was hitting when I was getting out of high school. I got my hands on my first synth and I was always intrigued with the idea of being in a rock band. I knew I wanted to do that, but finding a role for the keyboardist was always clumsy. There weren’t a lot of great examples. I didn’t want to be in Emerson, Lake & Palmer and that kind of shit. So seeing this new technology—drum machines, sequencers—I found it wildly exciting. As the ’80s progressed, what sucked me in was the more aggressive use of electronics and the Wax Trax label in Chicago, which also absorbed some stuff happening in Europe. It felt like the aggressive power of rock music but it was breaking out of that mold that Led Zeppelin created where you had to have guitar, bass, drums, and it had to be blues-based and it had to be this, that and the other fucking thing. I always liked the idea of trying to avoid nostalgia. I understand its purpose, and I’m probably guilty of it [sometimes], because it’s hard to avoid completely, but I like the idea of trying to push forward into new things.

Do you remember the model of your first synth? Yeah. I didn’t grow up in a high-income bracket—my grandparents raised me—and the first synth I got was a cheap one Moog made called Prodigy. It was probably 700 bucks at the time, which was a lot of money then, but just having my hands on one of those things was mind-blowing. Shortly thereafter, the first MIDI sequencer, which was a cartridge that plugged into a Commodore 64, came out, and it allowed you to primitively arrange parts via the computer, which was super exciting at the time.

I’m sure most musicians today would look at that setup and find it incredibly limiting. My arsenal of sound-making tools had been a Wurlitzer piano that my dad got me. It was a cool instrument on its own, and with a couple of effects pedals I could put distortion on it. It sounded like a Van Halen track if you played 
it the right way. So to have something that suddenly was an actual synthesizer was seemingly limitless at the time.

When I see what’s accessible today, just on a laptop, even in just GarageBand or on your iPad, the scope of sound design and compositional tools—fuckin kids are spoiled today! There’s a limitless amount of shit you can do with that stuff. But back then, you didn’t look at it like, I can only make one sound at a time. When you invested in that piece of gear, you—or at least I—spent years learning every trick you could learn with that thing and exploring it to its fullest. Today, it’s kinda like the consumption of music: you have access to so much, and I think people rarely spend as much time as they used to getting what they can out of it.

"I always liked the idea of trying to avoid nostalgia."

Do you see that increased pace reflected in your own work? You’ve definitely been more productive in recent years. From my perspective, there are two different factors at work there. Me working faster is me being less at war with myself. Part of that is being sober. Part of that is being mature enough to understand that what I work on might be shitty, and if it is I can throw it out. As simple as that statement is, it used to cripple me when I’d look at a blank sheet of paper like, This has to be the best fucking song—how did I write that one good song that I did? I was governed by that kind of madness.

But as somebody that makes music, as a creator, I do find [the pace of consumption] troubling. Well, I have mixed feelings about it. When iPods came out, I resisted them because I liked going to Tower Records. The experience and the ritual of going in and looking at stuff, discovering some things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I loved doing that at Record Revolution in Cleveland too. I had a very limited amount of cash to spend, but every single cent of it went into that cool new 4AD import that I hadn’t heard of, but the cover looked cool and it was on a cool label. Coming home with something and taking it out of the plastic and it smells a certain way and reading the inside notes and listening to it with headphones—that ritual of consumption put an emphasis on the music. It was a priority; it wasn’t something you had on in the background. You were here to listen to music. Phone off the hook, don’t fuck with me, I’m listening to this stuff. If you invested in an album, then you played the shit out of it. Even if you didn’t like it, you kept listening to it because it was one of a limited number you had access to. That definitely changed my tastes. If The Clash’s Sandinista came out today, I wouldn’t have spent the time with it to decipher what was going on there. If Talking Heads’ Remain in Light came out today, I would’ve listened to it like, This is fucking weird, I don’t get it, whatever, what’s the next thing? But because I pushed myself through that barrier, it revealed itself as this mind-expanding thing. I can’t tell you the last time 
I spent that much time with something. It’s just different now. I want to have a vinyl collection, but I don’t have my shit together, and I’m moving too much and there’s kids and other stuff in the way now. But I like that, and I grew up with that.

Anyway, after I resisted it, I think we were on tour and I realized I was actually listening to more music, because I’ve got hundreds of albums with me instead of a Case Logic [binder] of CDs that I’m hauling around. I’m not spending as much time with individual pieces of music, but I’m spending more time with lots of music. 
Is that good or is that bad?

It seems like people consume music as something you do while you’re checking your email or tweeting or whatever the fuck you do when you’re online. Has that affected the kind of music that I make? Not consciously. I still try to make music that takes a number of listens to comprehend and can reveal things after 50 listens. Do I think there are a lot of people out there that are [giving it that attention]? I don’t see clear evidence of it, but I hope so.

A couple years ago, you jumped in pretty heavy with social media, and then— Retracted, yeah. [Laughs.] When [NIN] got off Interscope and we were in charge of our own destiny, the first thing I did was dive in. I needed to figure out how people really consume music. Not me, but how does a 16-year-old kid do it? I spent a lot of time thinking about that, and that was when Twitter was kicking in.

At first, I found it interesting. I was toying around with the idea of deconstructing whatever mythology I had created around myself, and I think people realized I wasn’t who they projected me to be. Maybe I’ve got a sense of humor, or maybe I’m awake during daylight hours. I liked confusing people or throwing them for a loop, but I also realized that it was kind of vulgar. Maybe that’s just me being old now, but the culture that we’ve descended into, of reality TV and social oversharing, in general it’s just a vulgar kind of mindset. That’s one side of it—just as a human I sense that, and I don’t want to get too deep.

The other side, which I think is more important, is that there’s a mystique around music that I think needs to remain around music. Again, it all comes back to what turned me into me. When I grew up, I didn’t know what Pink Floyd looked like. I certainly didn’t see them live, and I wasn’t bombarded with videos because there wasn’t MTV. I didn’t know what their salads looked like. Or if they had salads. Because I didn’t know that stuff, I was allowed to read into the music [and imagine] what I wanted it to be. It’s kind of like reading the book versus seeing the movie. The set looks better when I’m filling it out in my imagination.

I’ve had it happen, and I won’t name names, but current bands where I’m interested in their music and I stumble onto a Twitter account and it’s, Oh, this guy’s kind of a douchebag. Just what he’s talking about bums me out enough that the music sounds different when I listen to it. I know that’s not fair, but 
I’d like to keep my personality out of the way of what publicly is more important to me, which 
is the music.

"I still try to make music that takes a number of listens to comprehend and can reveal things after 50 listens."

It seems like the new album is the closest you’ve come to making full-on dance music since Pretty Hate Machine. What was your inspiration? It wasn’t a plan. Usually, before I start any new record or collection of stuff, the first chunk of time is spent feeling around in the dark to see what feels inspiring. With The Slip, for example, what was inspiring was this kind of rule where we said, Let’s make it sound like garage electronics. Nothing gets fixed, there are no double-takes, there’s no tuning of vocals. Put mics on everything, nothing direct. We’d check those rules before we’d start a new song. Everything was done quickly and 
it was fun.

This record, I gravitated toward writing everything on an MPC-type composer, this Native Instruments machine that I had set up in my office. I had so much fun that it became my self-imposed limitation. I’m not gonna use 
a keyboard; I’m not gonna use guitars because they’re boring. I’m gonna use pads. Let me start the songs that way. And probably a hundred separate ideas came out from that phase. Then [I’d] bring those downstairs into the real studio and flesh them out a bit with my guys, Atticus Ross and Alan Moulder.

Maybe it’s a reaction to my [work scoring films], which was all about texture and studies in different moods and ambiences and atmospheres. Rhythm sounded more interesting to me. It wasn’t a situation where I was listening to a lot of EDM—not consciously anyway. I wasn’t trying to make a record people could dance to.

Both pop and urban music seemed to play a big part in your early formula—you thank Prince and Public Enemy in the Pretty Hate Machine liners. When did you start to diverge from those sorts of influences? The period I was in New Orleans doing The Fragile, I tuned out everything that was happening in the outside world. I was much more inspired by old Iggy Pop and Bowie than I would’ve been by whatever was happening at the time—rap-rock and shit like that. I listen to a lot more contemporary stuff now, just to see what’s happening.

On this new record I didn’t censor myself as much as I had in the past. I allowed myself to be poppy at times. “Came Back Haunted,” for example, started with a groove and this out-of-tune bass. In the final touches of arrangement, I thought of some sounds directly off Pretty Hate Machine—those same synths that I still own—that could work on it. Is that a copout? Well you know what, just do it. And I did it and I knew it would point people back. I’ve heard a lot of, “It sounds a lot more like Pretty Hate Machine than anything you’ve done.” Well yeah, because it’s the same synths. I acknowledge that. There wasn’t any reason, any kind of desperate, Hey remember this album that is 500 years old? It just felt like the right thing to do.

It must be cool to go back to those bits of the Pretty Hate Machine template with today’s technology at your disposal. We remastered that album a few years ago, because whoever the fuck bought the rights to it wanted to do whatever. We actually tried remixing it, but that opened up a Pandora’s Box. Do you want to do something more tasteful than that big cave reverb that seemed to be a good idea in 1988? It’s kinda sacrilegious. Those things create the mood, and when the mood changes, it becomes a different album. So we ended up just remastering it. But we did spend time listening to all that stuff, and it refreshed me. You know, it’s like going over your thesis that you did a long time ago. You remember the person that wrote it and it’s interesting to see yourself through that prism.

You mentioned you’ve been paying more attention to contemporary stuff. What have you been listening to? I’ve touched down on what we’re being told we should be listening to from the cool kid indie crowd. Some of it I think is pretty great; a lot of it I think is just bullshit. I think the production on A$AP 
Rocky’s record is excellent. I like the Disclosure debut—it’s super obvious and also great. Something about it feels honest and just fucking fun to listen to. I’ve always loved Grizzly Bear. Um…run something by me and I’ll give you a thumbs up or thumbs down.

What do you think about Yeezus? Oh! I thought that record was pretty fucking good. Musically, I like it a lot. I know Kanye a little bit. We’ve said hi at shows over the years, and I find him to be a pretty fascinating character that’s able to back up some of the absurdity with pretty consistently great music. Like, undeniably. I remember when I first became aware of him, it was those Jay Z tracks with the sped-up samples. I hated that—I just thought that was shitty. Then I listened to his solo stuff and, okay, I get it. He’s raised the bar consistently over time. Even when he fails, it’s usually not for lack of trying. I appreciate that. And although I don’t agree lyrically with what he’s going after, when you add up what it is to be an entertainer in the year 2013, he’s on the cutting edge of that paradigm—that kind of vulgar oversharing.

What do you think about modern hip-hop starting to mirror some of the aesthetic choices you guys were making years ago? Well, I’m drawn to it because I think it sounds interesting. I don’t like it because it sounds like something that came before, I like it because it doesn’t feel lazy.

It seems like some folks in the EDM world have picked up on the aggressive threads of your work too. Where do you stand on that? I like the sound of electronic music. I always have. When we burst on the scene at the first Lollapalooza in ’91, it was like, I hope people don’t notice we have a tape deck on stage. There was a much different mindset about the use of sequencers or playback or synths even. We’d get Milli Vanilli-fied. It’s exciting to see it turn into a form of mainstream [music]. How to destroy angels_ played Coachella, and before we went on, we walked over to the dance tent, which was 10 times bigger than the tent we were playing. I walk in and see a crowd bigger than any crowd I’ve ever played in front of with a band that I’ve never heard of that was absolutely interchangeable with any other American dubstep bass drop nonsense and a crowd of people going absolutely nuts. Stage diving and chaos and lights and a thousand lasers and everything.

Undeniably, that’s fun. I get the energy. If I was in that age bracket, I’d be drawn to it. But I don’t get a lot out of the actual songcraft and innovation on a per-act basis. That’s not to say there aren’t some good things going on there, but generally it kinda feels like… Everything I say now I’m already [imagining it published] as the snarky, out-of-touch dude’s [quotation] on the side of the page. I’m not angry about it! It’s exciting, but it’s not my thing.

How do you see yourself evolving in this landscape? I just want to keep myself in a place where things feel challenging. I read a review of Lollapalooza the other day where it was like, “NIN is the only band from the alt-rock era with an eye aimed to the future.” Thank you. When you’re 20-plus years into doing things, it’s hard to be objective about what other people think of you. You might be their parents’ favorite band, weird shit like that. If I were to look out and think it’s all just a nostalgia act, everybody here is my age, squeezed into Halloween costumes and reliving that great time we had at college, then it would be very clear. I’d need a long look in the mirror and say, It’s time to start scoring films. Or disappear.

In my mind, I’m always looking to reinvent, not to ignore my catalog. I want to give people some taste of what they think they might get, but to also challenge them and push them into the next thing. But it’s tough to judge as tastes shift and culture shifts. When we came out, we were the cool “indie” band, if there was such a thing as indie at the time. Then, over time, things shift into, Hey you’re in that category now. Confessional lyrics over aggressive music are out of fashion—you should have a beard and be playing fucking fake folk shit, whatever [the trend] might be. So I’m just trying to outlast everybody until being an old guy is in fashion.

I Survived Everything: An Interview with Trent Reznor