Nine Inch Nails may be on semi-permanent hiatus, but Trent Reznor—erstwhile prince of sonic darkness, emperor of industrial, master of non-metric measurements—has hardly been sitting on idle hands.
Among other things, the past year saw him forming a new band, How to Destroy Angels; welcoming his first child; and garnering a Golden Globe nomination for his film score for David Fincher’s The Social Network (due on DVD Jan. 11), with longtime collaborator Atticus Ross. Will he be wearing a tux to the Jan. 16 ceremonies in Los Angeles? “For sure,” he says. Does that mean his famously tetchy stance towards industry awards shows has changed? Read on.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, congratulations on being nominated for a Golden Globe—you are now officially a multi-hyphenate.
TRENT REZNOR: Oh, thank you very much.
How does it feel to be recognized in an area of entertainment you’re not generally known for?
It’s been surprisingly nice to see this stuff go down. I’m really thinking about how to proceed from here, because the experience of working with David Fincher couldn’t have been better. It was just working with a really smart guy with a really smart team that challenged us, the work was rewarding, and it was a cool experience not being the boss for a change, realizing you’re working in a supporting role. David knows what he wants, and when we started this thing I went into it with that in mind—he’s not winging it. [The feedback] wasn’t all “yes yes yes yes great,” there was some back and forth. But it was fun to witness, and it was an education.
His next project of course is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I’m sure that movie needs a soundtrack, too. You seem like you might be a good candidate…
[Benevolent pause] Well, we’ll see how that plays out.
On a sadder note, we were speaking about what’s on your iPod [for a piece in this week's EW print issue], and you mentioned [legendary experimental outfit] Coil, which I’m guessing may be in part because of a recent death…
Yes. I just lost a dear friend, Peter Christopherson. We’ve known each other over the years to varying degrees, and I reached out to him this spring, because I wanted to make sure that it was OK that I pilfer the name to use for my new band because a) I love Coil and b) I just thought that was a really cool name, and I wanted to get his blessing on that before I moved forward, so we touched base. He had stayed with me in New Orleans for a while back in the mid to late ’90s, and I always had an immense amount of respect for the guy, not only as a musician but as an artist. He has a very big influence on my life; he did some videos for us way back, and I was just really saddened to hear about his passing.
I only heard that he died in his sleep, no other details…
That’s all I’ve heard too, that he died peacefully in his sleep, and that he was not alone. But I went back to some email exchanges we had, and he had a much more peaceful, positive outlook than he had back in the ‘90s when who-knows-what was going on. I was with David Lynch working on some score music—more like sound effects and textural work—for Lost Highway, and when I heard that session was coming up, I called Peter to see if he wanted to help me with it, because I thought those two minds should meet; it was a pretty interesting several days in the studio [laughs].
So anyway, I went back to one of my favorite Coil records, Scatology, which really was a blueprint for Nine Inch Nails. When I heard that record it felt like “what the hell is going on here?” It sounds unpleasant and it sounds intense and it sounds creepy, but there’s a beauty in there, and with Peter passing I went back and listened to a bunch of stuff, and that record to me—coming out at a time when it would be easy to sound dated and absurd, it still has an integrity to it that’s good to listen to.
You are pretty much in charge of your own musical integrity at this point, now that you’ve had a few years to be a genuinely independent artist. Are you enjoying the freedom of being label-less?
Overall, yes. My experience with record labels throughout my career has generally fallen into wishing I could do things that they’re not built to do, whether it be arguing about having a nicer package—because I do believe some people care about that—to trying to always bank on art-versus-the-easy-commerce route, there’s always been headbutting involved. So the luxury of being able to work on something and put it out exactly the way you want it to and not having to run it through this bureaucracy that feels out of touch, that’s been magnificent.
Now, on the other side of the coin, sometimes it feels like you’re a tree falling in the forest. I’ve got my dedicated band of fans that have been there, and I think are there for the right reasons; it’s not flavor of the moment. And I’m very grateful, but sometimes it can feel like you’re preaching to the choir. I don’t know that that’s specifically because I’m not on a label though, because the world in general, audiences in general, have become much much more fragmented.
I was just talking about this the other day: Back in the early ‘90s when we started out, you only had a few different portals. If you got your video on MTV, you had a built-in audience of millions of people who could at least be exposed to what you’re up to and check it out. Radio was much more powerful then than it is now. Print media, you know, people would look to Rolling Stone or similar publications to be told “Hey, this is pretty good,” or “This isn’t good,” or “If you’re cool, like this.”
Today, if you’re interested in some obscure sub-genre of music, there are websites and blogs and tons of bands that fill just that crevice, but I think it’s much harder for bands in general to break through to more people. And I think being completely independent can contribute to some of that niche-iness because you don’t have the big marketing mechanism that you might have on a label. And I don’t think those big marketing campaigns are appropriate anymore, for the most part. But sometimes it’s scary, it feels like you’re just like, “Alright, I’m trying to do what I think is right here and … is anybody out there?”
I think in general we’ve kind of seen the death of monoculture in the last decade or two, just because there are so many channels to diffuse and scatter people’s attentions, so I see what you’re saying about breaking through the white-noise machine. You and Radiohead, though, are still maybe the two most outstanding examples of artists who have left the mainstream label establishment, but were really significantly successful beforehand. So maybe you are not the most typical example of “independent” for new artists to look to…
Well, you raise a good point. I’ve been criticized at times for some of the things that I’ve done with Nine Inch Nails, in terms of giving away records to entice people into other things, and [they say] “Well, you can do it because you came up through the major-label system.” And that’s true—the work I’ve done trying to find a new business model has been using myself as the guinea pig, and that is the criteria that I walk into it with. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, and just enticing people to hear the music for free doesn’t mean that much when everyone else is essentially doing the same thing on MySpace, or wherever. If you can use a search engine, you can find any piece of music that’s been recorded for free. I’m not saying that’s right but it’s a fact, and I’m surprised that more people don’t accept or acknowledge that, and try to adapt in some way.
But getting back to what you were saying, for the advice I would give a newer band … When I was trying to get started and I was a kid in my bedroom in Cleveland, I took a hard look at where I wanted to be, where I pictured myself ending up in the best scenario, based on what life and the business was like back in 1988. Whereas my peers all thought that playing out in bars was the way to make it happen, I thought approaching labels that had similar acts and a similar aesthetic to me is probably a better route, and working on songs and recordings is probably better than going out and playing in bars. And that worked, back then.
Now, if I was starting out right now, I don’t know think aiming for that label is the right move. I don’t think playing out in bars is right, either. I think working on music and honing your skill set is important, but there are a lot of resources today that didn’t exist in 1988—like YouTube, like being able to broadcast and distribute yourself anywhere. That was the thing that labels had over everyone, that you couldn’t play the game unless you could get your record in the store, and you couldn’t get your record in the store unless you’re on a label that can get you in there, and now that’s all over. A great idea could come out of anyone’s bedroom now and make it around the world overnight. I’m not saying that’s the route to success, but there are a lot of new parameters in play now. And blah blah blah blah blah [laughs].
The advice I would solidly give is this: If you do start to garner the attention of a label, make sure that label is bringing something to the table. What record labels used to be able to do for you is much diminished; what they want from you is much greater.
I know you are not a huge fan of the Grammys, but is it heartening to see Arcade Fire nominated in major categories this year, coming from a genuinely independent label like Merge?
I think it’s great, and I think Arcade Fire is a great band, and if that helps expose them to a new audience, and it makes them feel good that they’re doing something that has integrity, all my props to them.
My complaint with the Grammys—well—OK. For example, this Golden Globe nomination for The Social Network, it feels really nice to get those accolades, and I’ve allowed myself to kind of sit back and accept that compliment, I think partly because it’s a new discipline for me, an exciting new world to dip my toe into. The Grammys, though, partially because the things that I’ve won are absurd—Best Metal Performance, what?—it just kind of feels out of touch. It’s not about integrity, or if it’s ahead of it’s time, or if it’s taking chances.
In 2010, aside from that niche of music that I have no interest in—Black Eyed Peas territory, disposable pop stuff—there’s almost an incentive to go back to making music as adventurous and groundbreaking as you can, because nobody gets a big hit anymore. And you can put it out there yourself, and hopefully get noticed by some of the tastemakers that you hope will, and it will start to find its audience.
Movies and television have definitely become a much bigger outlet for so-called “NPR indie” music, and alt culture in general is reflected back from mainstream magazines and entertainment far more than it was in say, the ‘80s … Now there are baby bands soundtracking Honda commercials before they’re even signed.
Yes, absolutely. Though I think there is some responsibility on the part of the artist to choose [wisely]. Music holds a very dear place for a lot of people, and I can think of a couple songs now that I can’t hear without thinking of a Cadillac commercial, you know?
Oh yes, Phoenix. When I hear Stevie Wonder’s “Sunshine of My Life,” I still think of Minute Maid orange juice.
[Laughs] But that’s the thing—I would rather think of that feeling I had in my life, rather than some commercial for a product, when I hear a song that was probably written with integrity and love and was about capturing some emotion. It just feels kind of dirty. Certainly, I understand that doing something like that can give you money just to live your life, or continue your craft, I get that. And I don’t mean to come off as a purist, because we’ve said yes to a number of things with Nine Inch Nails—I just think it’s something that has to be thought about before the decision is made.
There may be a whole generation of kids who think the original Devo lyrics are “Swiff It,” I guess we’ll find out. I remember seeing you perform at a Coachella a few years ago, and noticing the stream of older fans with their original NIN merch on, and then the younger kids, with their fresher-looking t-shirts from Hot Topic or wherever, and wondering how different the context was for being a NIN fan in high school now, and being one maybe 15 or 20 years ago…
It means a different thing to that generation, I’m guessing. When I took a few years off to get my life in order in the early 2000s, and I went back on the road in 2005 or 2006, sober now, I remember looking out and wondering that first night, “OK, is this gonna be nostalgia night, or are there new audiences learning about this and getting into it?” And halfway through the show, I realized that it looked the same. But wait a minute, it’s not the same, because the people that were there ten years ago are adults now, and these aren’t adults. So I’d like to think that means there is relevance and it’s resonating with new audience, but maybe people were just being nice and having their kids stand up front, I don’t know [laughs].
Or maybe their bones were just too old and brittle to get in the pit. Speaking of kids, do you feel different now that you’re a father? Has that changed the way you look at music at all?
Well, it’s only been a couple months so I’m only becoming an expert at diaper changing, but ask me in a couple years, once I get a healthy dose of morning kids TV in my system.
Artists like Kim Gordon and Courtney Love have talked about their kids loving pop music, and essentially not finding their parents remotely cool for being outside of it… Are you prepared to be an embarrassment to your son?
[Laughs] Well, if that happens, I’ll have to teach him a thing or two. No, I’m prepared to be not cool.