Trent Reznor: The Fresh Air Interview
Originally published on Tue July 1, 2014 11:43 am
When filmmaker David Fincher asked Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and his songwriting partner Atticus Ross to compose the music for his U.S. film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher had one request: for the music to sound 'textural.'
So Reznor and Ross, who won an Oscar for their score of Fincher's 2010 film The Social Network, experimented with sounds created by stretched-out bell tones, piano beds filled with nails and clothespins, and mixes of distorted instruments played imperfectly.
"We wanted to create the sound of coldness — emotionally and also physically," Reznor tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "We wanted to take lots of acoustic instruments ... and transplant them into a very inorganic setting, and dress the set around them with electronics."
Reznor and Ross' hauntingly beautiful soundtrack features three hours of new instrumental music and two cover songs — Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," with lead vocals by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O, and a cover of Bryan Ferry's "Is Your Love Strong Enough," with lead locals by Reznor's wife, Mariqueen Maandig. Those two covers complement the instrumental score, on which tracks are layered with simple melodies, machinelike noises and unsettling synthesizers to create a dark, moody atmosphere and complement the foreboding images on screen.
"[The instrumental sounds are] processed and stretched and manipulated into a setting where it may sound harmonically familiar, but if you tune into it, it's not behaving in a way that you're accustomed to that type of sound behaving," Reznor says. "I find experimenting around in that is an interesting place to work."
Creating A 'Downward Spiral'
Reznor's experimentation with "found sound" and discordant harmonies started early in his career, when he says he was inspired by bands like Throbbing Gristle and the films of David Lynch.
"As early as [Nine Inch Nails'] album Downward Spiral, there was a lot of effort and experiments going on — layering in sounds that might bother you under music to create a sense of anxiety," he says. "I've always found that it's an interesting instrument to bring into the mix — creating melody or purpose out of noise in the various shapes noise can take, whether it could be the hum of a radiator to a room tone, [to create] something that evokes an emotional response."
Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails' second album, was written in 1993, after the band had started to make a name for itself in the Cleveland underground industrial-music scene.
"I decided to write a conceptual record that told the story of somebody that was futilely trying to fill up a hole in their being with whatever it might be — sex or drugs, or to try to escape from a sense of emptiness," Reznor says. "And I felt that that created a framework where I could write these songs that all kind of made sense."
The album sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, with "Hurt" and "Closer" cracking the Billboard Top 10. Reznor says the album, about a man whose life spirals out of control, was not autobiographical at the time he wrote it.
"But the terrible irony of the story is that the story [in Downward Spiral] came to life over the next few years," he says. "My own life spiraled out of control, and I look back now and think, 'I was writing about me.' ... I think that I was somebody who was pretty immature emotionally. And when thrust into a situation that was very abnormal — of fame and adulation — I wasn't really equipped to deal with it very well."
In the late '90s, Reznor says he started relying on alcohol to get him through the day. He also began drinking heavily on tours.
"Things progressed from there and caught up with me," he says. "And realizing I am an addict, it took me a while to realize that. And then it took me a while to take the necessary steps to deal with that. ... I wound up in a pretty bad place that I hope to never return to."
Heading Down A Slippery Slope
Reznor took five years off between Downward Spiral and Nine Inch Nails' next album, 1999's The Fragile, which he says he wrote in his darkest moments.
"[It] was written in a very slippery, thin-ice slope, knowing there's something wrong here — and trying to address it but not embracing the treatment," Reznor says. "Once that record came out, we went back on tour in the worst condition I could have possibly started a yearlong tour. When that tour finished, shortly thereafter, I was finished. It reached a point where I threw my hands up and said, 'It's going to go one way or the other: I'm going to be dead, or I'm going to fix myself. Because I cannot stay feeling like this.' "
Reznor entered a treatment facility, after years of avoiding any kind of help.
"Somewhere," he says, "there was still somewhat of a logical person in there that said, 'OK, this just doesn't work. You've tried every rule-bending thing you can do here. Accept the fact, and let's do this thing."
Nine Inch Nails went on hiatus for six years during Reznor's treatment. In 2005, the band released With Teeth and then in 2007, Year Zero, a concept album that presented a dystopian view of the future of the U.S. A few years later, Reznor formed the band How to Destroy Angels with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, and Atticus Ross, with whom he later collaborated for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Reznor says he always tries to include a personal component somewhere in his compositions. Even his earliest song lyrics, from 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, were all based on private journal entries, he says.
"When I finally had the courage to marry some of those up with music, then I thought, 'Well, this is very powerful, but I can never play it for anybody,' because I didn't create a character consciously," he says. "That character was just me unfiltered. And I realized when I did have the courage to play it for some people, that it had a strength to it, a resonance to it. That became the template to what Nine Inch Nails was about."
On Nine Inch Nails in the mid-1990s
There's a lot of 'I's' in Nine Inch Nails lyrics, particularly that era. Part of that was a lack of skill of writing, and part of it was I learned early on [that] the only thing I could say that had any integrity was truthful things."
On his depression in the late 1990s
"You're standing onstage in a sold-out arena with people singing your music, and you feel like the loneliest person in the world. Because here's a party that, essentially, it's for you. And you still somehow feel like you don't belong there. Those people all have their lives and go back home. And you get back on a tour bus and — you can't say that sort of thing without sounding pathetic, and I fully realize that. But what was wrong with me was there was just an imbalance. Regardless of what was put in front of me, I could find a way to feel bad about it. I was just wired that way. I could write the best song in the world and never feel like it was that great. Or look in the mirror and see somebody I don't like. It just took me into a bad place."
On his musical inspirations
"I did not grow up in a cosmopolitan environment. I grew up in a little town in the middle of nowhere, pre-Internet, pre-college radio. My input for the first 16, 17 years of my life was AM radio, FM radio — pretty mainstream stuff. Rolling Stone was probably as edgy as it got. I think growing up on a solid diet of listening to melodic-based pop music instilled in me that format of hooks and something to grab on to. As I started writing music, and considering how to write music, it would come back to something that was memorable. I tried to think in terms of choruses and hooks and melodies — even if that was set in a very noisy, atonal environment. And I realized a lot of music I liked at the time was hinting at the same sort of thing."
On his music
"I think it's easy to make impenetrable music that nobody can get, and you can hide behind that sometimes. I kind of like the idea of subversively working your way into people's heads, and then you can say whatever you want."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Trent Reznor is best known for the music he's made under the name Nine Inch Nails. Some of his songs became anthems of teenage anger and depression. Recently, he's moved into writing music for movies. Last year, he won an Oscar for co-writing the score for "The Social Network."
The director of that film, David Fincher, asked Reznor and co-composer Atticus Ross to write the score for Fincher's new film, the American adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," which opens this week.
In 1997, Spin magazine named Reznor the most vital person in music, saying that he seems like a visionary, the first rock star to make synthesizers cool for teenage headbangers. In 2004, Rolling Stone placed Reznor on its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time, and in the citation, David Bowie wrote that there's never been better soul-lashing in rock than on Nine Inch Nails' album "The Downward Spiral."
Let's start with music Reznor co-wrote for a threatening scene in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: That's music Trent Reznor co-composed for the new film "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Trent Reznor, welcome to FRESH AIR. This is the second film that you've scored for David Fincher. The first was "The Social Network." What's the process like? Do you sit down and watch the film over and over and get the mood in your head before you sit down to write?
TRENT REZNOR: No, we - when I say we, it's my partner Atticus Ross and myself - we employed the same methodology, really, on both films. And that was - with this one in particular, "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," we started about 14 months ago, and it was right when David Fincher was heading to Sweden to start filming.
And we didn't have the script, and we had not seen a frame of footage. But I'd spoken with David at length about kind of what he visualized the shape of the sound to be. And right off the bat, he said: I don't want to use an orchestra. I'd like things to sound textural. I want to create the sound of coldness, emotionally and also physically.
GROSS: So let's hear some more music from "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." And this is - I think of this as having the kind of, like, theme for the film. It's not like the theme song or anything, but it's repeated. So on the soundtrack, it's called "Hidden in Snow."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIDDEN IN SNOW")
GROSS: And that's music that my guest Trent Reznor co-composed for the new American version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." There's something so industrial, machine-like about - not the keyboard part, but what was going - that kind of whooshing, pulsing thing behind it. What did you use to get that sound?
REZNOR: We wanted to take lots of acoustic instruments, from strings to lots of different bell instruments and prepared piano - which is what's featured in "Hidden Snow" quite a bit - and transplant them into a very inorganic setting, and kind of dress the set around them with electronics.
So you were hearing a lot of live, modular synthesizers creating a kind of icy or pulsing bed with something that feels very non-electronic, an organic and imperfect instrument played imperfectly, sitting on top of that. And that's kind of one of the templates we use for this film.
GROSS: Prepared piano is when you open up the lid, and you kind of stick stuff on the piano strings so it doesn't sound like it typically should. What did you prepare it with?
REZNOR: We picked up a bunch of upright pianos for cheap, and then we just started trying things, from clothespins to nailing nails into where the strings go, some of it ruining the instrument, some of it just creating imperfections so that you'd have to learn to play certain melodies a certain way because certain keys wouldn't work. Certain notes would ring in funny ways and create interesting interactions between the notes.
It's a very hit-and-miss procedure, and also very volatile because you might get something good, but when you - the melody you're looking for, the string changes or the clothespin pops off, or the item that's sitting on top of the strings buzzing just right isn't there when you go back to that note. It's a frustrating, but fun process to go through.
GROSS: In a way, the kind of sound that you get when you're doing your more kind of industrial soundscape kind of stuff, it's, in a way, the kind of sound that we're constantly trying to block out because there's constantly, like, soda machines that are like buzzing in the background or, you know, like some kind of like washing machine that you're trying to tune out or refrigerator that's vibrating.
You know, there's so many, like, machines that we really try not to pay attention to. Have you ever, like, focused on those sounds and tried to hear, like, what's interesting about that?
REZNOR: Oh, very much so. And I think early on in my career, I was heavily inspired by bands like Throbbing Gristle and Test Dept, and films of David Lynch, for example, where the soundscape plays a very important role in the listening experience. In Nine Inch Nails' catalog, for example, as early as "Downward Spiral," there was a lot of effort and experiments going on layering in sounds that might bother you under music to create a sense of anxiety.
And I've always found that it's an interesting kind of instrument to bring into the mix, creating melody and/or purpose out of noise, and the various shapes noise can take, whether it could be the hum of a radiator, to a room tone that could be compressed and amplified and even tuned in to kind of become something that makes you - that evokes some sort of emotional response.
GROSS: So have you used, like, found sound in any of your music, as opposed to, you know, like, generating it with a synthesizer or some other electronic instrument?
REZNOR: A good portion of what makes up a lot of the melodies in this soundtrack and certainly in recent years - well, pretty much all of my work - is the result of going out in the field and sampling things. And like I said, it could be room tone. It could be a car driving by. It could be walking through a crowd of people with a mic in your pocket and just seeing what comes out of that and taking that sound, manipulating it sometimes, stretching it or tuning it, and creating, sometimes, a playable instrument out of that.
A lot of the melody - the melodic instruments in this record started as violins or cellos being strummed in a certain way or bowed in a certain way, and then processed and stretched and manipulated into a setting where it may sound harmonically familiar, but if you tune into it, it's not behaving in a way that you're accustomed to that type of sound behaving, the range or the way it's articulated.
And I find experimenting around in that is an interesting place to work.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. He won an Oscar for the score he co-composed for the film "The Social Network," and now he's co-composed the score for the new American adaptation of the bestseller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Let's talk about Nine Inch Nails. Let's start with "Hurt." Why don't we hear it, and then we can talk about it. And this is from the Nine Inch Nails' 1994 album "The Downward Spiral."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURT")
REZNOR: (Singing) I hurt myself today to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real. A needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting. Tried to kill it all the way, but I remember everything.
(Singing) What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end. You could have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down. I will make you hurt.
GROSS: That's Nine Inch Nails. My guest is Trent Reznor. So, can you talk about, like, the place you were in, you know, mentally when you wrote that song?
REZNOR: It would have been around '93. Nine Inch Nails was born out of Cleveland, Ohio, with me and a friend in a studio working on demos at night. Got a record deal with a small, little label, went on tour in a van, and a couple years later found that somehow we touched a nerve, and that first record resonated with a bunch of people. And it felt pretty great.
And now the stakes were higher, and I felt a lot of pressure to live up to this newfound expectations from these fans. And I decided to make a kind of conceptual record that told a story of somebody that was kind of futilely trying to fill up this hole in their being with whatever it might be, whether it be sex or drugs, or to try to escape from this sense of emptiness.
And I found that that created a framework where I could write these songs that all kind of made sense.
GROSS: You know, it's funny. What you're describing, basically, is a movie. You know what I mean? A movie or a novel. You have a character. You have a whole story, and you're writing songs for it.
REZNOR: Well, I like the idea of working in an album-sized chunk, you know, and I never looked at Nine Inch Nails as a project that would be a hit-driven, single-based kind of thing. And I wanted to tell a story, and I wanted to be able to kind of explore different avenues in the framework of an hour-long - or however long it is - album-type format.
GROSS: Don't you think a lot of your listeners have heard songs like "Hurt" and thought that they were autobiographical? And, you know, maybe it is partly autobiographical. Maybe you're drawing from self-knowledge. But I think a lot of listeners could hear that and think: Trent Reznor, he cut himself.
REZNOR: Well, the terrible irony of the story is that that story came to life basically over the next few years. You know, my own life kind of spiraled out of control, and I look back now and see, kind of, you know, I was writing about me. You know, there's a lot of I's in Nine Inch Nails' lyrics, particularly that era. Part of that was just a lack of skill of writing, and part of it was I learned early on that really the only thing I could say that had any integrity or truth to it was truthful things.
You know, the first set of lyrics for the first songs I ever wrote, which are the ones on "Pretty Hate Machine," came from private journal entries that I realized I was writing in lyric form. And when I finally had the courage to kind of marry some of those up with music, and I thought, well, this is very powerful, but I could never play it for anybody, you know, because there's no - I didn't create a character consciously. That character, it was just me, unfiltered. And I realized when I did have the courage to play for some people, that it had a strength to it, a resonance that you could tell. That kind of became the template of what Nine Inch Nails is about.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. He won an Oscar for the score he co-composed for the film "The Social Network," and now he's composed the score for the new American adaptation of the bestseller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: So you say that the songs that you wrote for "The Downward Spiral" about somebody who's very self-destructive and, you know, on the verge of suicide ended up being your story after that album. Did you get really close to that point of seriously considering suicide? And if it's inappropriate to ask, just tell me.
REZNOR: No, I just - I think that I was somebody who was pretty immature emotionally, and when thrust into a situation that was very abnormal of fame and adulation, I wasn't really equipped to deal with it very well. And I think my life goals up to that point were just: get a record deal, you know.
And I thought maybe if that happened, you'd wake up one day and, wow, everything feels OK now. And as great as it was to see a lot of those dreams be realized - you know, and I can't tell you how great a feeling it is to be a kid that sat in your bedroom writing something that meant a lot to you and then see a year later, being in a city you've never been to, and see someone in the back of a crowded room that showed up to see you sing that song, screaming those words back at you.
And it means something to them that's valid, and it's filled in some portion of expression for them. That's a pretty cool feeling. But anyway, as the '90s wore on, I realized that, you know, my way of coping became have a drink, and, you know, a drink led to another drink, and things progressed from there. And it caught up with me.
And realizing I am an addict, and it took me a while to realize that. And then it took me a while to take the necessary steps to deal with that. And that was pretty much the '90s for me - the late '90s, at least. I wound up in a pretty bad place that I hope to never return to.
GROSS: Now, you wrote about the shock of being alone in your bedroom writing songs, and suddenly you're singing them onstage, and other kids are singing along. And I'm thinking, like, there were probably so many teens who spent so much time being angry or depressed or self-hating in their bedrooms, listening to your songs, coming to your concerts and feeling this sense of, like, kinship with you.
REZNOR: Yeah, I mean, I see - I saw that. And in that situation, I would feel - I could manage to turn that into something that felt isolating and negative, because...
GROSS: How? How do you do that?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REZNOR: Well, you're standing onstage in a sold-out arena of people singing your music, and you feel like the loneliest person in the world, because now - and here's a party that, essentially, it's for you. And you still somehow feel like you don't belong there.
You know, those people all have their lives and go back home. You get on a tour bus, and, you know - you can't say that sort of thing without sounding pathetic. And I fully realize that. But what was wrong with me was there was just an imbalance where, regardless of what was put in front of me, I could find a way to feel bad about it. You know, I just was wired that way. I could feel like I wasn't good enough. If I wrote the best song in the world, I'd never think it was that great. I could look in the mirror and see somebody that I don't like. And that's what - it just took me to a bad place, you know.
GROSS: Were you still performing and composing during that period?
REZNOR: Some of which. You know, I was trying to. The record I put out in '99, "The Fragile," was written in a very slippery, thin-ice slope of knowing there's something wrong here and trying to address it, but not embracing the treatment.
And once that record came out, we went back on tour in the worst condition I could have possibly started a year-long tour. When that tour finished, shortly thereafter, I was finished. It reached a point where I just threw my hands up and said it's going to go one way or the other. It's either I'm going to be dead, or I'm going to fix myself, because I cannot stay feeling like this. I just can't do it. I'm done.
And I was done. That time, I was done. That was 10 years ago.
GROSS: What did you do to fix yourself?
REZNOR: It was pretty clear what I needed to do was just check myself in somewhere and, for a change, listen, you know. Because my strategy of saving myself just clearly wasn't working, you know. Somewhere, there was still somewhat of a logical person in there that said, OK. This just doesn't work. You know, you've tried every rule-bending thing you can do here. And then, you know, accept the fact, and let's deal with this thing.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and he's composing film music now, too. He did the score and he won an Oscar for co-composing the score for "The Social Network," and now he's co-composed for the new American adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
REZNOR: And he's a depressing guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: You're not depressed - is depression a big issue for you now?
REZNOR: No, I feel great now. I addressed my issues, and I continue to address them. And I've seen a dramatic change in every aspect of my life, you know. I like myself again. I'm able to have mature relationships. I'm able to be a good friend. I'm a father. And I think that my art has gotten much better, and I enjoy the process of making it now, and I really couldn't ask for more. You know, I feel strangely optimistic about everything.
GROSS: Do you worry that when your kid becomes a teenager, that they'll be a sullen teenager alone in their bedroom, feeling the kind of anger and listening to their contemporaries' version of Nine Inch Nails? Do you know what I'm saying?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REZNOR: Yeah, I assume there'll be lots of that ahead of me and ahead of him. Yeah.
GROSS: Good luck.
REZNOR: Thank you.
GROSS: Trent Reznor will be back in the second half of the show. He co-composed the score for the new film adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," which opens this week. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails. He writes film music now too. Last year he won an Oscar for co-composing the score for the film "The Social Network." The director of that film, David Fincher, asked Reznor and co-composer Atticus Ross to write the score for the new movie "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." It opens in theaters this week.
Let's hear another Nine Inch Nails song. And this is another kind of - another one in the canon of Nine Inch Nails songs.
REZNOR: Play a happy one just to break - oh wait, there aren't any.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: I was thinking yeah, I missed those. So this is from your debut album "Pretty Hate Machine," and it's "Head Like A Hole," which was the first Nine Inch Nails single to kind of break in the top 100. You still perform this, like when you are performing?
REZNOR: Yeah. That would make its way into the set list.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. OK. So this is like angry, I'd rather die than give you control. And, so let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAD LIKE A HOLE")
NINE INCH NAILS: (Singing) God money I'll do anything for you. God money just tell me what you want me to. God money nail me up against the wall. God money don't want everything he wants it all. No you can't take it. No you can't take it. No you can't take that away from me. No you can't take it. No you can't take it. No you can't take that away from me. Head like a hole. Black as your soul. I'd rather die than give you control. Head like a hole. Black as your soul. I'd rather die than give you control. Bow down before the one you serve. You're going to get what you deserve. Bow down before the one you serve. You're going to get what you deserve.
GROSS: That's Nine Inch Nails from their debut album. My guest is Trent Reznor, who is now composing film music too. So, you know, the two lines in that, bow down before the one you serve. You're going to get what you deserve. What did that mean to you when you wrote it?
REZNOR: I haven't been asked that question for a while. I'd have to refer back to my 22 or 23-year-old self to see what was going through my head. I don't have a great answer for that right now.
GROSS: Because you don't remember or...
REZNOR: But then thinking about it, I've just been - I don't regularly spend a lot of time thinking about the darkest period in my life because when I do it tends to throw my day off a little bit here, so...
GROSS: Right. OK.
REZNOR: ...what was I thinking in 1989 when I wrote that song? I can't tell you off the top of my head.
GROSS: So let me read you something that New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote about Nine Inch Nails in 1996 - wrote about you. He said: He traffics in transgression, blasphemy and primal howls of rage and despair, yet there's no anarchy in his music. With Nine Inch Nails he works himself up within meticulously dramatic genre-bending arrangements. Every thud and crunch is plotted in detail with melodies and he turns punk fury into sonic theater.
And I think, I mean that's true in the sense that I mean you really are composing. It's not like noisy noise. It's more composed noise.
REZNOR: I'm trying to read if that was an insult or not. I'll have to have a word with that young man.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REZNOR: No, I well, here's my thoughts on that is - I mean I did not grow up in a cosmopolitan environment. I grew up in a little town in the middle of nowhere, pre-Internet, pre-college radio. There wasn't even college radio around me. And my input for the first, you know, 16 and 17 years of my life was AM radio, FM radio, pretty mainstream stuff. You know, Rolling Stones was probably about as edgy as it got.
And I think growing up on a solid diet of listening to melodic-based pop music instilled in me that format of hooks and something to grab onto. And as I started writing music and considering how to write music it would always come back to something that was memorable. I'd try to think in terms of choruses and hooks and melody - even if that was set in a very atonal or noisy environment. And I realized a lot of music I liked at the time was hinting at the same sort of thing. The first Jesus...
GROSS: Like what?
REZNOR: The first Jesus and Mary Chain record, it sounded like fuzz on the needle, like when you put it on, you thought, I don't even know what this is. A couple listens into it, oh, it's almost Beach Boy-esque pop songs buried under a layer of fuzz that made it feel funny when you listened to it.
My Bloody Valentine, another band that behind walls of noise were lots and lots of memorable, interesting melodies, you know, that made you return to it. And I found that compared to some other acts like say, Einsturzende Neubauten or, you know, like Skinny Puppy, for example, that was primarily experimental noise - although I like the sound of it and I like the attitude and the anger, there was something that I missed.
You know, I missed the fact that you couldn't sing along or you couldn't remember, there wasn't some phrase you could chant back - for the most part. And I think when I finally got around to writing Nine Inch Nails music, it started to become personal lyrics that felt out of place with contemporaries that were making music that could sound like I did, an emphasis on chorus, things like, you know, pop-song kind of structure creeping its way in there.
I know that at the time, if you would say pop song, it was a bad phrase, you know. But I never felt that way. I've always tried to flirt with accessibility. I mean it's easy to make impenetrable music that nobody can get, and you can hide behind that sometimes. You know, and I kind of like the idea of subversively working your way into people's heads and then you can say whatever you want.
GROSS: Well, you know, you had a really interesting music background. You say you grew up with like, you know, AM and FM radio, that was the music, but also you were in marching band in school and you were in the musicals. You were Judas in "Jesus Christ Superstar." You were Professor Harold Hill, Mr. Seventy-Six Trombones in the school production of "The Music Man."
REZNOR: I had it all. Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: No, but so that must have gotten under your skin too. I mean there are so many great like show tunes. So if you're in musicals as a kid, I mean I think your brain always has a special place for that kind of music.
REZNOR: I just always liked music, you know. And again, I wonder in these times, you know, raising a son in a world with endless amounts of information and entertainment options and diversions, what's that's like. You know, when I grew up, it didn't seem like there was a lot to do. There certainly wasn't anything going on in this town. You didn't have access to the types of information you have today. And I was very interested in music and I was excited about the idea of learning how to play a trumpet or a saxophone and I joined every school band-type thing I could get into just to kind of see what it was like.
And I was good at it and I found my identity kind of forming around that, you know, and it provided some framework that seemed interesting to me. You know, and it wasn't until around puberty that that started to focus itself into, you know, I think rather than being a concert pianist I might I want to be a rock star. That sounds cool. That sounds like an escape. That sounds like a kind of unrealistic fantasy that feels like it should be pursued.
GROSS: So concert pianist meaning classical?
GROSS: So you were really heading in that direction?
REZNOR: I was being urged to when I was around 10 years old.
REZNOR: And I felt like I'm feeling a mastery of this instrument coming on even at that early age, you know, not to sound pretentious here. But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed practicing. I enjoyed playing it. I enjoyed feeling like I could actually express myself. But the idea of dropping out of school and getting tutored and studying with a nun X amount of hours a day, that didn't seem as fun to me when, you know, I could see Gene Simmons on TV.
GROSS: Gene Simmons, I'm so glad you brought him up.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: I was going to ask you about him.
REZNOR: I was trying to find a way to work him into the conversation here and finally, OK.
GROSS: No, because I read that you were like a really big fan of Kiss so I need you to explain that to me. I'm a little too old to have grown up with Kiss, so they really didn't like speak to me. However, I know they did for a lot of people who subsequently formed like really important bands. And I had this kind of infamous interview with Gene Simmons. We didn't hit it off really well. I mean he's not exactly...
REZNOR: I can't imagine why.
GROSS: Yeah, he's not exactly a sweetheart. But...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: But anyway, so, what - as somebody who has become like a really like important composer and performer, like what was it about Kiss that really mattered to you?
REZNOR: I'm just telling you firsthand as a - I would've been probably 12, 13 years old, around that age.
REZNOR: Where I grew up and what they represented was the kind of thing you weren't supposed to like, you know, and it felt - through those eyes it felt dangerous and it felt wildly exciting. It felt like it was rule-breaking. It felt, it represented that kind of male escapism that drew me in. You know, it was the package. It was the idea that rock 'n' roll - more so than the music, ever. It was the idea that it was breaking the rules in some way. It was rebellious. It was not approved by your parents or your teachers. And I think it was the packaging, you know, it was the logo. It was the makeup. You know, it was the whole thing. It was the messaging that it was crossing a line morally somehow.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. He won an Oscar for the score he co-composed for the film "The Social Network" and now he's co-composed the score for the new American adaptation of the bestseller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. And he's composing film music now too. He did the score and won an Oscar for co-composing the score for "The Social Network" and now he's co-composed the score for the new American adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
So let me play another, like, early recording from Nine Inch Nails, and this is "Wish" from the 1992 album "Broken." This one won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance. I should say we'll bleep this.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: And it kind of starts like dance music for people who are too angry or depressed to dance.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Did you ever think of it that way?
REZNOR: Honestly, no I haven't...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REZNOR: ...but I will add that to my lines I say about this.
GROSS: Did you ever think of yourself as making dance music in your own way?
REZNOR: Yeah, kind of. You know, I like the idea of adding rhythm and I thought that, you know, a lot of the influences that I have have come from that world to a degree, you know, with a harder edge to it. Sure.
GROSS: Did you dance? Do you dance?
REZNOR: Not publicly these days, but it's been known to happen.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So this is "Wish."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WISH")
NINE INCH NAILS: (Singing) This is the first day of my last days. I built it up now I take it apart, climbed up real high now fall down real far. No need for me to stay, the last thing left, I just threw it away. I put my faith in god and my trust in you now there's nothing more (bleep) up to do.
(Singing) 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...
GROSS: That's Nine Inch Nails recorded in 1992 from the album "Broken." That was "Wish." And my guest is Trent Reznor, who basically is Nine Inch Nails. And now he's composing film music and he won an Oscar for co-composing the score for "The Social Network" and he's just composed the music for the new American adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Nine Inch Nails is basically you, the recordings. I mean on stage you have musicians, but the recordings are basically you. Did you grow up making - in spite of being in band in school and stuff, did you grow up without people who you could play the kind of music you wanted to play with?
REZNOR: I mean Nine Inch Nails ended up being just me because ultimately I couldn't find, you know, and this would be in Cleveland where I was living at the time - what I wanted to do I couldn't find anyone else that really wanted to do that same thing with the exception of...
GROSS: That same being mixing a kind of more avant-garde, ambient, electronic industrial sound with hooks, with melody.
REZNOR: Yeah, what you just said.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: ...that thing being mixing a kind of more avant-garde ambient electronic industrial sound with hooks, with melody.
REZNOR: Yeah. What you just said.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REZNOR: Now, I mean, a lot of it, the vibe in Cleveland at that time and there was a fairly healthy kind of a band scene there, but it was a handful of bands that were thinking that they could just - if we just keep playing this circuit of clubs, magically some A&R guy from a record label's going to show up and see us and sign us and then we'll be, you know, off to the races.
But in the history of Cleveland, I don't think that ever happened. But it was the myth that kept you rehearsing in basements and playing every week at these same clubs. And it seemed to me that the emphasis should be on trying to define a new sound and writing a catalog of music and defining a new voice and finding that voice.
So after feeling sorry for myself for a while, I just thought, I'll just try to do it myself. You know, I read that Prince did it that way. He was a big influence to me. And I started working at a studio. I had time at night to use the equipment when nobody was in there, and that seemed like a kind of romantic notion but it ended up paying off. You know, it was a lot of work but it was time well spent really honing my craft.
GROSS: So earlier you said that it's hard to think - I had asked you about what went through your mind when you were writing one of your early songs and you said it's hard to go back then, it's hard to be the person I was then when I was, like, in my early 20s writing those songs. So if Nine Inch Nails performs again, and I assume you probably will, are you going to be comfortable doing those older songs and getting into that head again? That angry, like, self-hatred kind of head.
REZNOR: Well, it happens. Yeah. I mean, some songs become - mean new things to you over time.
REZNOR: But when you're on stage, it - I mean, I can say this with complete honesty, that the economics of doing a tour, it usually lasts 70 percent longer than you wish it would last. It's fun for the first month, you know, maybe two months. And then it - you inevitably reach a point where, okay, I kind of don't want to be in a hotel in Dusseldorf right now. You know, and playing the same songs tonight.
But when you get onstage, it takes over, you know, the songs take over; you start to - the songs inhabit you. You live inside the songs, you get placed back in that mindset. And I think primarily my decision to, you know, stop touring with Nine Inch Nails, that had a lot to do with it. You know, because it rubs off on you.
You know, it's - I notice I've been doing a bit of press for "Dragon Tattoo" and a couple times the interview goes down the same corridor we just went down, you know, where it's revisiting some places that I wouldn't choose to normally in my day start thinking about and lowest points of your life, rethink about that, live that for a while. It sticks with you.
I mean, the rest of my day today, there'll be a hint of that in the back of my mind.
GROSS: Oh. You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REZNOR: Yeah. Thanks for that.
REZNOR: I'm suffering for my art. Thank you.
GROSS: Well, Trent Reznor, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
REZNOR: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me. I'm going to go hang myself now.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails. He co-composed the score for the new film adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." The film opens this week. The soundtrack is available as a download now and comes out on CD next week. You can hear three tracks from it on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.