Trent Reznor on Turning 50 'With Some Sense of Dread,' the Future of Nine Inch Nails and a Top-Secret Apple Project

Trent Reznor
Austin Hargrave

Trent Reznor photographed by Austin Hargrave on October 22, 2014 at Milk Studios in Hollywood, California.

Next May, Trent Reznor turns 50. "It's with some sense of dread," he says dryly. "I saw something on TV, 'If you're age 50 to 74, apply now...' -- I'm like, 'F---, I'm in that?' " As he hits the half-century mark, Reznor may have more than his birthday to celebrate: There's a good chance Nine Inch Nails will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, and also the possibility of another Academy Award nomination for the score that he and collaborator Atticus Ross have done for David Fincher's Gone Girl. Their first, for The Social Network, won the best original score Oscar in 2011.

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As for returning to the road with Nine Inch Nails as a 50-year-old, Reznor wonders if he has another tour in him like the 11-month global trek of festivals, arenas and amphitheaters the band finished this past September. "I don't see any full-fledged rock extravaganza happening maybe ever, certainly not for the next several years," he says. "But the idea of putting myself in something that doesn't feel as comfortable to me -- I feel confident I can do that, or until my body falls apart on me. Being onstage alone or with a string quartet, in a theater, it's not right around the corner, but..."

Sitting in his manager's office in Los Angeles, Reznor picks his way from topic to topic with careful confidence. He takes his art seriously, but tosses off a steady stream of wisecracks at his own expense. (His body is in no danger of falling apart anytime soon, unless his interest in mountain biking leads to disaster.) His desire to find a new way to tour has less to do with age than his wish to spend more time with his wife of five years, Mariqueen Maandig, 33, and their two young sons, Lazarus Echo and Balthazar, ages 4 and 2, respectively.

In fact, Reznor was hoping to have a few months of doing nothing but that after the Nine Inch Nails shows wrapped. But during his time on the road, Apple finalized its Beats acquisition for an estimated $3 billion. Reznor was chief creative officer of the Beats Music streaming service, and when he returned home to Los Angeles, Apple was interested in tapping his creative energy.

"That's flattering, as a life-long Apple consumer and fan and advocate," says Reznor, who studied computer engineering during his three semesters in college and has long wrestled with the difficulties of music in the digital age. (Seven years ago, frustrated with his then-label Interscope, he told his fans to steal his music. In the time after he experimented with giving away his music, but released 2013's Hesitation Marks -- the first Nine Inch Nails album after a four-year hiatus -- through Columbia.)

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"I am on the side of streaming music, and I think the right streaming service could solve everybody's problems," says Reznor, who along with Ross will participate in a keynote Q&A at the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference being held at Universal City's Globe Theater on Nov. 5. "Ownership is waning. Everybody is comfortable with the cloud -- your documents, who knows where they are? They are there when you need them. That idea that I've got my records on the shelf doesn't feel as important even to me as it used to. I just think we haven't quite hit the right formula yet."

What movies were important to you growing up?

I grew up in a very uncool place, north of Pittsburgh, in the middle of a cornfield. There weren't any arthouse theaters. There wasn't even a college radio station within range. The closest city was Youngstown, Ohio. It sucked.
I was always drawn to horror films. The films of David Cronenberg and David Lynch made a huge impact on me later in life. I remember seeing Blue Velvet. I walked out of there a changed person. I felt the small town-ness of it, the layers; I felt rules being broken, and it expanded me. Then I went back in his catalog. The role of music and sound in Eraserhead is still a huge inspiration in terms of what can be done and how it can make you feel.

Those early Lynch films -- Eraserhead, The Elephant Man -- have a real man vs. machine quality, both the way they look and their soundscape.

I like the way the soundscape blurred the line between score and sound effects. We've been doing that on these Fincher films, working with Ren Klyce, who does all the sound design and mixing: "Hey, what if this piece morphed into that floor cleaner that you have outside? Tune us to fit that." Just trying to make what we're doing truly become in service to the picture and disappear. David is always saying, "I don't want to notice the music come in."

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That's interesting because there are moments in Gone Girl where the music seems to come up in front of the dialogue.

Atticus and I are working out of our studio, focusing on the music, and we'll send stuff back to David -- QuickTime clips where we've premixed it so that you can hear what we're doing clearly. It's substantially louder than it's going to end up in the film. But sometimes, when you then hear it properly mixed, we all realize having that music absurdly present [was effective]. I can probably think of the scene you're talking about in Gone Girl, where they're at the party, first meeting -- one of the first flashbacks.

A starting point for Gone Girl was Fincher asking you for something that sounded like spa music gone horribly wrong. The score has the quality of the opening shot of Blue Velvet, where you push in on the green grass and the insect world is underneath. Things start off placid, beautiful, and then underneath is something awful.

I can't say that was a conscious reference point, but certainly it's floating around in my head. With Gone Girl, what I thought was really interesting about this was how [Gillian Flynn] adapted the book to tell a nonlinear story. So you start to think of those mechanisms -- there's a reveal where everything changes -- and how are we trying to manipulate people. That is something similar to what Lynch does -- starting with something familiar and peeling back a layer where it's not quite as nice. In this case, we were trying to [get] that saccharine, artificial sense of trying to make you feel comfortable. Something Muzak-ish.

The film takes place in the Midwest. Were you able to visit the set?

No, we didn't visit the set. But I know the Midwest. I know that sense of the town with the shut-down mall, the foreclosure signs and the failed sense of suburbia.
Where I grew up, there was a small-town square with charm. I remember the mom-and-pop hardware shop and the drug store with the soda fountain on the corner and the department store you'd get excited walking by at Christmastime. And a Walmart opens up eight miles away and pretty soon the town is wiped out.
Every time I go back to that area, you see elements of that, and not just from the Walmarts. The steel industry is dead, and that part of the country -- it doesn't feel like it got better when I left. For those who remain there, it doesn't feel like the line on the graph is going up.

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Your film work is a collaborative process -- not just with Ross and Fincher, but his entire team -- which must be very different from the Nine Inch Nails experience.

Nine Inch Nails has quietly become more collaborative in the studio. [Producer] Alan Moulder and Atticus Ross have been beside me -- maybe not at the initial songwriting phase -- but when I go to them and say, "Here's a basketful of stuff. Let's come up with a strategy of how to execute and finish it." Those guys have been as important as I am to the end thing.

But you are very much in charge?

Yeah, I'd be the Fincher of that world. But it's not, "Do this, do that." It's more, "How do we do this now?" On the last album, Hesitation Marks, we did something that impressed me. I said, "This same team of people have done the last several albums, we're comfortable with each other. I know what's going to happen. Let's bring in someone else as a producer. And let's empower them to see what happens."
It meant everyone taking a step back and relinquishing some power. At some point we all went, "This is bullshit. This isn't leading to a better result. This is just clutter." It only lasted a couple weeks.

Who was the producer, and what was the difference in approach?

It was Markus Dravs, who has worked with Arcade Fire quite a bit. He's a song-based guy that's less a studio rat, engineer-type like we are. I don't want to throw him under the bus. I'm not here to talk shit about him. But there was a lot of "Let's get an ensemble of people to play this thing," and "We need an arranger to do that." It didn't feel like it was leading anywhere. I respect the guy and it didn't end in a fistfight or anything. He was a means to an end to make us realize that our instincts about the record were the right way to go. The record that was finished, I'm very proud of. It felt like a reinvention to me.

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Nine Inch Nails has been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What would it mean to you to be inducted?

I don't know. Having won a couple Grammys for stupid shit -- best metal performance -- it's hard to feel good about the integrity of that. The politics involved and the fact [the Grammys are] a TV show trying to get ratings led me to a pretty sour stance on the world of awards.
When The Social Network came up and suddenly there's the Oscar and Golden Globes, it felt like it's coming from a more sincere pedigree. I'm not saying there's not politics and bullshit, but [it was] my first look into how many different crafts are involved in making a film and how seriously each of those crafts takes that process -- it felt different. Two days [after winning the Oscar] did I wake up feeling any different? No. I still can find a sour outlook on life. But I have a nice thing on my mantle now.
With the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I was in Cleveland when they were campaigning to get it built there, and I remember doing whatever you needed to do -- make a phone call from the phone of the music shop I worked at -- to try to raise public enthusiasm. That's probably the most attention I had spent on it because I thought it would be nice to have some civic pride in Cleveland. But I find it flattering to be one of the nominees. It would be an honor to be a part of that if it goes that way. And if it doesn't, it doesn't. I've done the best work I can do.

The Rolling Stones are still touring at 70. Would you want to?

Do I visualize that happening? No. I'd like to get it to a place where it's not a commitment of a year of being away, because I don't want to miss being a father -- being present. I would like to create more, in quicker intervals, rather than make an album, disappear for years, go on tour.

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You're working with Apple. Is this an evolution of your Beats role?

It's related to that. Beats was bought by Apple, and they expressed direct interest in me designing some products with them. I can't go into details, but I feel like I'm in a unique position where I could be of benefit to them. That does mean some compromises in terms of how much brain power goes toward music and creating. This is very creative work that's not directly making music, but it's around music.

Is it about music delivery?

It's in that world. It's exciting to me, and I think it could have a big enough impact that it's worth the effort. I'm fully in it right now, and it's challenging, and it's unfamiliar and it's kind of everything I asked for -- and the bad thing is it's everything I asked for.

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What did U2 get right -- and what did the band get wrong -- with the Songs of Innocence delivery through iTunes?

As an artist, when I make a piece of music, I'd like you to know it's out there. I don't want to force it down your throat, but I would like you to know that if you'd like to, you might brush against it -- it exists somewhere. So I can see the incentive behind what they wanted to do. I was with Bono that day. I was at the Apple event and we were hanging out after they did it. There's an immense sense of pride toward the album he just spent several years making. He was very proud of what he did.
I think the misstep was the wording: If it would've been, "Here it is, if you want it, come grab it..." I am assuming the momentum of that situation led to the oversight in not thinking that people might feel intruded upon.

A recent touchstone was the Beyoncé record, which had a high price and put a high value on music. Putting no price on an album: Does that devalue things?

It's something I spent a lot of time thinking about. I think that paying for music is a relic of an era gone by -- and I'm saying that as somebody who hopes you pay for music. I've spent my life trying to make this thing that now everyone thinks should be free. U2, there [was] an incentive to get in front of as many eyes as possible. I can see what was appealing to them about that, and they're getting paid for it. There's the argument of, "Did that help further devalue music?" Yes, I think it did.
When you put your music on, or allow your music to be on, YouTube, which is free, is that [devaluing music]? There's a whole generation of kids that listen to music on YouTube, and they'll suffer through that ad if there is one. They're not going to pay a dollar for that song -- why would you? It's a complex problem.

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Will you take on scoring projects outside your collaboration with Fincher?

Yeah. I never said it was exclusive. I haven't been out canvassing to get a lot of work in that field, but the idea of scoring for pictures I enjoy. I doubt that it will ever become multiple [movies] per year. I don't know that I have enough ideas to fill that many films.

But if Randy Newman calls up and says, "I need a really scary character for this Disney movie" -- do you take that call?

Yes. I'm excited about getting out of my comfort zone.

So you're going to write children's books?

I don't know about that far out of my comfort zone.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of Billboard.