Trent Reznor found himself in an unprecedented position when he scored the David Fincher film The Social Network with Atticus Ross in 2010: he won an Oscar for his first film soundtrack. He's since proved he can continue to flourish in this new musical medium but some might reasonably expect composing music for Nine Inch Nails to remain his comfort zone in terms of ease. Absolutely not the case, Reznor tells Rick Rubin in a revealing new interview.
"I really enjoy, weirdly, working in service to something," he tells Rubin in a two-hour interview for the latter's Tetragrammaton Apple Music podcast you can hear below. He and Rubin liken this soundtrack work as "cracking a code".
"What I think about now when it's choosing projects is it's all about the person you're going to be stuck in a room with, trying to figure it out, and if you know them it's one thing," Reznor explains." The last few we've done are all people we hadn't met before and they've largely been good experiences. It's interesting to understand; the code is that director, trying to tell a story – I am a tool that can help shape it in a tremendous way. But trying to understand what they're trying to say, and then trying to do good work inside the confines… I wouldn't want to only do that, and if I do it too much of it in a row I find I really want to do something else."
But Reznor explains the challenge really comes when that something else is NIN songwriting not in service to someone else's project.
"To me, the hardest thing is the songwriting; having something to say. Having something to say with truth that has that reason to exist rather than just a thing. Just an exercise. Having to think about the multiple layers. For a Max Martin – or a songwriter [for other artists] I don't know how that works, and I appreciate the craftsmanship of it.
"I've got five kids now," Reznor adds. "And it's the best thing that's ever happened to me. I know that's a thing to say but it's radically shaped every bit of who I am and what I do. The reason I mention that is for a while I've kept them in a hermetically sealed way from pop music because I think it sucks generally – I have thought that, for whatever reason. And then I realised about a year ago that's not fair. And they're not away from it, I'm just not playing it at breakfast. In the car I don't have on radios stations. And I heard my daughter, who is six, have Dua Lipa on. She's so into it and was so cool – this is her music, this is her thing. And I've kind of immersed myself in what is happening out in culture now… it really reminded me of the art of writing a well-crafted song. I've teared up listening to a Dua Lipa track the other day because it was just a really well-done piece of music – it's clever, good and if I was in the demographic… it's a difficult thing to do.
"I don't know how to do that," Reznor admits. "Because when I'm trying to think of what to say and how to say it, I'm saying it from the unvarnished me. That requires me thinking about who I am and where my position is now. And all of that together becomes… it feels the stakes are higher."
Reznor reveals what sounds like a double-edged sword; the process has become easier in one way as a result of fundamental changes in Reznor's lifestyle, and more difficult in others.
"What's gotten easier in sobriety is not starting with, 'This has got to be the best song in the world', Reznor explains. "That ridiculous… 'Hey this might suck but I'm going to do it today.' That I can have fun with now. But the feeling in the back of my mind is; if this is ever meant to be out in the world, before I start writing the novel I might want to start to think about, what do I think it's about? What might happen in it, rather than just what comes out."
"Sitting there musically arranging [music soundtracks] can come from [the knowledge that], I know what's right – I don't have to assess my thoughts on how I feel about a thing – who am I now? My perspective in the world has changed, and I have to think about this when I'm writing; am I being honest with who I am now or being the character I was? Not in a crippling way but it feels more of a difficult process. It requires more layers."
Rubin goes on to ask a writing question many NIN fans will probably want to know; is he always writing for that project these days or does he only start when he knows he's know he's going to be working on a new record? And in answering that, the connection Reznor marked with his role as a father is especially candid.
"When the film stuff kicked it, it kind of coincided with being married and then family," begins Reznor. "I realised I can never just sit around and be… I feel better if I've got some things [to do], they don't have to be big things. If I have a day off with nothing to do and the kids are at school or something, I'd probably find myself [thinking], now I can work out how that drum machine works that I was interested in using. That would be a fun thing to fill my brain with. What it wouldn't be is what someone healthy would do to relax – whatever that is. I'm not saying I wouldn't go for a walk but I need something to feel like I'm getting stuff figured out.
"When film stuff came into the equation it was the chance to do a lot of composition that felt interesting and informative and educational and rewarding [and a] feeling that you're doing what you're supposed to be doing level, emotionally," adds Reznor. "Without the anxiety of lyric writing. It felt nice not thinking about that. As a parent I find there's a never-ending well, if I choose to look in there, of 'what aren't I doing what I should be doing right now? How can I be more present?' With five of them, someone [always] has an urgent need, or I can imagine there's one. Could I be a better parent? The answer is always yes. Can I spend a little more time?
"When the pandemic kicked in I thought, great this will be the time; I can really write that opera. What I found instead is I don't really want to do anything, I want to feel ok and I want to make sure my family's ok and that's ok. That was a revelation though."
This fundamental change means Reznor is unsurprisingly less inclined to tour as much, though certainly satisfied many fans with Nine Inch Nails's acclaimed 2022 shows in the US and Europe. But beyond that, the future for future NIN activity doesn't sound too likely, and it stems from a disillusionment Reznor seems to have with music's place in culture right now.
"I don't want to be away from my kids, not that much," he explains. "I don't want to miss their lives out to go and do a thing I am grateful to be able to do and I'm appreciative that you're here to see it, but I've done it a lot. I think where it is for me personally right now in the context of Nine Inch Nails, in terms of an audience and the culture where it is and the importance of music – or lack of importance of music in today's world from my perspective – is a little defeating, I think.
"It feels to me in general, and I'm saying this as a 57-year-old man, music used to be the thing; that was what I was doing. When I had time I was listening to music. I wasn't doing it in the background when I was doing five other things, I wasn't treating it kind of like a disposable commodity. I don't go to the cinema and do my taxes while movies are playing. I'm there to watch a movie. I miss the attention music got; the critical attention music got, not that I'm that interested in the critics' opinions, but to send something out into the world and feel like it touched places. It might have got a negative or positive [response] but somebody heard it. It got validated in its own way culturally; that feels askew [now]… that feels like a less furtile environment to put music out into, in the world of Nine Inch Nails."
This realisation contrasts with how inspiring Reznor's film work has become in contrast.
"I think that's where some of the composition of film [soundtracks] has thrust me into places I wouldn't be with my band. It's made me learn and be in awe of what music is and how powerful it is. How much I know about it and how much I don't know about it. I'm in awe of seeing these different ways it can affect you emotionally and techniques and sound and soundscapes – things I don't think I would have come across on the typical trajectory of being in a band."