Trent Reznor – “TRUTH”
Photo credits: Marvin Scott Jarrett. Words by: Matthew Schnipper. Styling by: Karen Levitt. Grooming by: Johnny Stuntz.
By Matthew Schnipper. for Marvin on October 1, 2022
The anteroom of Trent Reznor's home studio is as anonymous as a doctor's office, save for the life-size sculpture of a banshee playing a keyboard. As I wait for Reznor, a guy named Jacob introduces himself and offers me a Fiji water from a big fridge. After a moment, Reznor comes from around a corner, shakes my hand and disappears back down the hallway. No one mentions the banshee but artwork lines the walls, most of which appears to be original work for various Reznor projects, including the iconic cover art for Nine Inch Nails' 1994 masterpiece, The Downward Spiral by Russell Mills, which includes the artist's blood.
Five minutes later, Reznor comes back around the corner to lead me to his studio, a large room tidily filled with musical instruments. There are so many analog synthesizers packed with wires it looks like a server room. It's lit in a James Turrell-esque blue and purple glow. He offers me a seat at "the commander's chair," a comfortable black recliner situated in front of a 10-foot long mixing board. It also stares onto a large video screen that he and his NIN bandmate, Atticus Ross, use to play films while they're scoring them. Their work covers a wide array of cinema, starting with David Fincher's, The Social Network (2010) to Sandra Bullock's high-concept, Netflix thriller Bird Box (2018) to Jonah Hill's nostalgia vehicle, Mid90s (2018).
Hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment is around me, and I carelessly put my water bottle down inches from away it all. Reznor is pretty nice about it though, when he politely asks me to move it to avoid any accidents. Dressed plainly in a fitted black t-shirt and dark blue jeans, he looks like a fashionable dad from suburban Pennsylvania, which technically, he is. Limber and relaxed, he looks at least a decade younger than 57, especially since he hasn't really stopped working for the past 35 years.
It's a career most musicians would envy. He was only 24 when he released Nine Inch Nails' debut album, Pretty Hate Machine (1989). It gave us "Head Like a Hole," a searing synthesis of industrial, techno and punk with a disgusted Reznor bellowing out the provocation to: Bow down before the one you serve/You're going to get what you deserve. Despite its blistering sound, the song was a hit.
In its music video, Reznor looked feral and hot with long hair and dirty clothes. When he screamed, I'd rather die than give you control, it could've been about money, or parents, or school, or politics, but listeners heard something that resonated with them.
That Reznor—while making such confrontational music—found such a wide audience, points as much to his aesthetic as to the strength of his songwriting and arranging. He's a creative mega force but he's also an incredible technician, able to coax layers upon layers of sound from an ever-growing array of machines. His lyrics, often plainspoken, are potent without being sloganeering. Not coincidentally, he's also very good at rhyming.
Most of NIN's early work was about antipathy towards the world and its inhabitants. Take "Wish," a single with David Bowie from their 1992 EP, Broken: I put my faith in god and my trust in you/Now there's nothing more fucked up I could do/Wish there was something real wish there was something true/Wish there was something real in this world full of you/I'm the one without a soul I'm the one with this big fucking hole. It reeks of disappointment, yes, but also of desire. Reznor makes plain his repulsion but he also seems desperate to find solace from it. You could map your own 90s struggles onto his music as needed. Whoever or whatever oppressed you, Reznor created anthems in solidarity with victims about taking power back. The difference between him and his 90s alt rock peers is that their messages were about triumph and Reznor's were about survival.
For much of his young adulthood, Reznor struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. It fueled much of his music's rage as he was as angry with himself as he was with the world. "When Nine Inch Nails revealed itself to me—back when I was in my early twenties—the fundamental part of it (whether I could see it or not) was to just try to be as truthful as I could with myself," he explains. "I could write shit where I'm imitating. Or I could peel away the protection and the safety of storytelling and try to get right into it. Some people responded to the art direction, some people to the sound. But the people to whom it meant the most, could sense the truthfulness to it."
Nine Inch Nails' third album The Downward Spiral was a stark statement of beauty. One that included Reznor's most enduring lyric, from the song "Closer": I want to fuck you like an animal. The album closed with "Hurt," a quiet song that directly addressed Reznor's heroin use. The vocals are almost whispered: The needle tears a hole/The old familiar sting/Try to kill it all away/But I remember everything. It's an intense song, and one that's taken a journey. Producer Rick Rubin brought it to Johnny Cash and encouraged him to record a spare cover. He did, and the resulting 2002 song, would come to serve as a farewell when Cash passed away a year later.
What have I become?/My sweetest friend/Everyone I know goes away/In the end. When Reznor sings it, it's a young man taking stock of mistakes; when Cash sings it, it's an acceptance of death.
Cash's version, so much rawer for his failing health at recording, showed off the song's strong bones. Even for those not interested in the sonic darkness of NIN, "Hurt" has since become a modern pop standard, covered regularly by artists of all kinds. David Bowie performed the song live; so did the British folkies, Mumford & Sons. Cash's cover was named "Single of the Year" at the 2003 CMA Awards.
Reznor got sober that same year. "The process of bottoming out for me was just one of complete surrender, of acknowledging that I needed help," he said. "I just felt like I wasn't swimming upstream anymore. It was a significant shift instantly." Quitting drugs and alcohol is an enormous life change for anyone, but especially so for a musician whose work has often been propelled by it. Reznor worried he'd be drained of his songwriting power.
Initially, after I got clean, I thought maybe, maybe [I'd written] what I needed to write. And man, I hoped that I didn't discover that because there's no good outcome if that was the case. Either that part of my life is over or I just die. So, I waited a bit after I got clean, to dip my toe in, to see if—on top of this weird new life—I could still do other things that I used to be able to do. What if wouldn't have anything to say because it was all coming from chemicals or something. And that was a bunch of bullshit.
Instead, seeing his life through to the other side of addiction gave him an artistic weightlessness. He felt freer to compose more abstract music, something he'd previously found intimidating. "I got to a point where, 'hey, if it doesn't work, then it doesn't work.' Unexpectedly, I found it does work and I feel differently about it now because I'm not as afraid to fail."
If something sucks and quite often it does, it goes in the pile over there. Maybe in a week, it doesn't seem as sucky as it did. Or you know, maybe it is just a piece of shit. But sorting through that is part of the discipline of creativity. I had to learn all that. And then somewhere in the process of that, trying to also maintain some objectivity of keeping hubris in check.
In 2008, Reznor and Ross, released an instrumental Nine Inch Nails album called Ghosts I-IV. It's 36 songs (38, if you include the two bonus tracks), most of them are around three minutes long. The pieces vary in style, some funky, some mellow, but they're all impressionistic; largely made up of a free-floating mesh of dour, sparse piano and foreboding, buzzing noises. The precarious state of life he'd long been singing about was now hours of music without words, sketches of anxiety, distilled through feedback.
A few years later, when Fincher was working on The Social Network, he used tracks from Ghosts I-IV as stand-in music during production before officially approaching Reznor to write the film's original score. Initially apprehensive, Reznor eventually relented and the finished product is a marvel. Animalistic at times and delicate at others, its small sounds express big feelings. The film's version of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg is a nebbish antihero who tries to project authority. Reznor's score matches the mood, with brief moments of melody dragged down by the whir of a pensive cello. Zuckerberg is his own buzzkill; and the score is the sound of his uneasy heartbeat. Reznor and Ross won the Oscar for Best Original Score that year. A framed photo of them accepting it hangs in the back of his studio. In the decade since, the duo have released eight more feature film scores. They won another Academy Award for Best Original Score in 2021 with Jon Batiste for the Pixar hit, Soul. Reznor is noticeably more proud and effusive when discussing his scoring work.
"It was really fun to see the power of what music can do collaborating with Fincher and his camp. Film was exciting...with your hands on the controls. Unexpectedly, we started winning awards and suddenly people were asking us to do other projects." He and Ross say 'no' to more film projects, than 'yes'——and proactively reach out to admired directors, though he declines to name any names. Most recently, they've been working on Italian director Luca Guadagnino's upcoming cannibal love story, Bones and All, as well as the director's next film. He is near giddy talking about it. "Luca's new thing feels like it might be rhythmic and beat-oriented so I get to dust off my brain a bit. I'm trying to learn about four different drum machines and workstations–in ways that might be unique, just to see if something comes out. I don't feel like I know what I'm doing completely. I feel like there's a lot to learn and I'm excited by it."
Though he's regularly releasing EPs and collaborations, scoring has become a passion. He keeps a steady Monday through Friday, 11-7, studio schedule and he raises five kids under age twelve. How does he keep it all balanced? "There was some soul searching about what sort of job [scoring films] was going to become. Do we want to try to get into a Hans-Zimmer-world...and start a factory up? My top priority is trying to be around for my kids and to be present. After doing a few more films, the conclusion we've come to is, it's nice to have it as something else to do."
For the thing that takes up most of his time to be "something else" means he still retains fealty to Nine Inch Nails, despite not releasing a more traditional song-based album under the NIN name since 2013. In 2020, in the earliest, scariest days of the pandemic, he and Ross did revisit the Ghosts project, releasing two companion albums in 2020, Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts.
What was it like to return to cutting studio albums after almost a decade of composing for film?
"The process of composing was, sometimes, working on music as flights of fancy... seeing where something leads," he answers. "There was a growing pile of things that felt fun musically, that didn't feel like they were going to turn into songs," he pauses for a moment. "There's only so many instrumental bits I can fit on a record without it feeling lazy. The goal is an album you can listen to, that's not completely pretentious." If not ‘completely,' exactly how pretentious should an album be? "There's a percentage you aim for," he replies. What is it? "It depends on how full of shit you are."
The "truth" and "bullshit" dichotomy keep coming up during our conversation. Basically, truth is a moving target and bullshit is everywhere. He's perfected the tortured genius persona. He can capitalize off of it or he can heal from it but nothing seems more painful to him than faking it. He was dismayed to find his mind wandering onstage during some recent shows. It felt to him as if almost going through the motions of performing. "What are we doing right now? What does the audience expect? Do I feel like it's valid to me? Does it feel real? Does it feel like I'm putting on a costume, pretending I'm somebody I used to be? How much of it is nostalgia? How much of it feels relevant?"
Voices telling him to be true to himself are healthier than the ones he was fighting in his head when he was younger but the process is still about confronting himself. It may be why his music, despite changing over time, is so effective as a soundtrack of catharsis. Apparently, he's asked himself the right questions and is finally comfortable with his answers. "I've always tried to do what I thought was best for Nine Inch Nails, with integrity and truthfulness at the heart of it. I want to pursue excellence. And I want to articulate and express the things inside of me," he explains. "I feel like I have something to say at this point in my life so I'm itching to put Nine Inch Nails' new record on the front burner."
There's a lovely late period NIN song, "Find My Way," from 2013's Hesitation Marks. It's a slow boil of a song. Reznor has a mew instead of his typical growl. The piano tinkles. There's the typical background noise but it feels more like a nice breeze than a looming storm. Lyrically, it's sort of Reznor's take on poet Robert Frost's "two roads diverged in a yellow wood": Well, my path has gone astray/I'm just trying to find my way/Wandered here from far away/l'm just trying to find my way/You were never meant to see/All those things inside of me/ Now that you have gone away/l'm just trying to find my way.
Earlier in his career, maybe this song was about escape. Escape from systems, or escape from himself. But after spending time with Reznor, I hear it in a new way. It doesn't have to be about being lost. It can also be about discovery and about possibility. "You know, I'm a pretty cynical motherfucker," he admits. "The glass can always be half full or half empty. Half empty is just a matter of perception. I would prefer not to feel that way." @treznor