In May, 5 Seconds of Summer interpolated his band’s signature “Closer” for their own Hot 100 hit “Easier,” and a month later, Miley Cyrus radically reinterpreted NIN’s 1989 breakout hit “Head Like a Hole” for her giddily received meta-hit “On a Roll,” performed by her Ashley O character in acclaimed sci-fi series Black Mirror. And of course, Reznor and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross earned writer/producer credits on what in August became the longest-reigning Hot 100 No. 1 of all time, after Lil Nas X sampled their “34 Ghosts IV” instrumental for his world-conquering “Old Town Road.”
Even outside these direct lifts, Reznor has proven unavoidable in 2019 pop culture, via the subtler influence Reznor’s sound and aesthetic has played in the recent work of contemporary stars like Billie Eilish and Grimes, and the sound of his and Ross’ disquieting instrumental work scoring movies like Netflix’s Bird Box and A24’s Waves. (Reznor also got a valuable hat tip from Captain Marvel, when Brie Larson’s titular hero wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the classic “NIN” logo.) And in October, Nine Inch Nails’ legacy was again confirmed by a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination, the band’s third. It’s all combined to make 2019 a rare period of late-career omnipresence for the alt-era legend; “The Reznorssance,” Billboard called it in June.
But Reznor isn’t coasting on his past successes, even those recently revived. He and Ross are releasing the score to the first season of HBO’s Watchmen adaptation across three albums — the first of which was released this week — and they’ll score the upcoming Disney/Pixar film Soul in 2020. Reznor jokes: “It was all part of a 30-year plan!”
Below, the industrial rock auteur talks with Billboard about his and Ross’ recent film and TV work, his changed perspective on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his kids being unmoved by his presence on one of the biggest pop hits of all time. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you and Atticus come to work on Watchmen?
Atticus and I had been thinking about what looks exciting to us to work on, rather than sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring. We had been considering working in television if the right thing came along. And part of that was just thinking about the impact that television has socially, as opposed to film — it feels like it’s a bit more in the culture at times. It resonates.
I’m definitely a fan of Watchmen, a fan of HBO — the quality of HBO, consistently, is unquestionable. But the biggest reason was [series creator Damon] Lindelof. I’ve been a fan of his for some time. And I particularly thought Leftovers was some of the best television I’ve ever seen. And so we reached out: “No idea about what your plans are — we’d certainly be up for considering this if you have any interest.” And in the story he tells, at almost the same time, he was reaching out to his camp to say, “See if those guys would ever want to do it.” Meant to be, y’know.
That led to a meeting with him. And almost immediately, Atticus and I felt like, “OK, he’s one of us.” He thinks the way we do, and goes into it with the same kind of attitude we do — which is, do the very best thing we can, no egos, take the gloves off and do the best job we can. And his reverence for the material instilled a lot of faith in us.
How did it come to be three albums? Are they split thematically, or chronologically within the series?
Well, we had quite a bit of music. And we decided to do something fun with the way it’s released. I think that putting out an hour and a half of music today is like throwing it out the window — it’s asking too much of a kind of short attention span audience that we’ve all become. So breaking it up into chunks felt like something we wanted to do.
And I don’t mean to be too cheeky about it, but I think that when the first record comes out, it’ll make more sense why we split it up into three pieces. It’s just something that feels very Watchmen to us. It’s fun, and a cool way to get music out and be part of the story. I don’t mean to be oblique here, but it’ll make more sense when you hear it.
From the music I’ve heard, it sounds very informed by influences from the ‘80s — whether that’s synth-pop, or John Carpenter scores from the time, even some acid house or early electro. Was that intentional as a hat tip to the original time period of Watchmen?
No, what it was was… What we tend to do when we get hired into a project and meet a new team, or there’s a new property we’re thinking about, is try to go in as neutral as possible and listen. And help decode what the show runner or the director’s vision is. What’s the role of music in this thing? Is it a color of paint on the walls, or is it a character in the storytelling? How in-your-face is it, how subtle or oblique or sublime? And what was the tone of this Watchmen going to be? Is it pitch black, dead serious? Is it playful? Is it campy? Is it absurd?
We couldn’t tell that much after that first meeting. And we got a script and it was also kind of hard to tell. And then not too long later we saw a very rough cut of the pilot. And they’d temped in a little of our own music over a couple of scenes. And that was very telling. It let us know, “Ah, OK, music is going to drive this in a lot of ways.” When you take a scene like the interrogation, it’s not like a moody, droney… it’s cheesy almost, raunchy in a way. And that really informed how we’d approach everything.
It was exciting for us because we could be a little less score-ish, and a bit more beat-driven and aggressive at times. And playful, in a way. So that’s kind of how that’s gone.
You mentioned how you and Atticus have been trying to foray into new territory, and challenges you haven’t faced before. Is that also what led you guys to agreeing to work on Soul, the new Disney/Pixar movie?
Yeah. It’s been a couple things. We’re close friends, Atticus and I. And a portion of every day, we’re together pretty much every day, is spent in kind of in an informal therapy session, guys trying to figure out, “What are we doing? Why are we doing stuff?” And what we’ve really come to focus on is trying to keep ourselves in a place where we feel what we’re doing is challenging us, and the experience of collaboration, when we are collaborating with other people, that’s the thing that matters. Not so much the end result, or the way it charts, or its box office. Of course we want it to be successful, or resonate with people, but — who do we want to work with that feels like it would be exciting to see how that goes? What can we learn from that?
Damon Lindelof has proven to be one of those people, and his camp has been one that we’re impressed with his ability to oversee as many things as he has, and his deep commitment to thinking through every possibility. He’s another guy, like us, that wakes up panicked at 4:00 in the morning, filled with terror. “How have we fucked up?” And maybe it’s just nice having a kindred spirit. It’s nice to feel that other people deeply care about what they’re working on.
With Pixar, when it was kinda brought up to us as a potential thing to work on, we both said, “Well, there isn’t anyone that does animation better than Pixar. And there’s always an authenticity to their films that legitimately feels truthful.” And we went and met Pete Docter, and Dana Murray, and found that Pixar was like being in a different universe, where the culture up there felt like, “Wow, this is very authentic here. And very legitimate. And everyone seems to really be into what they’re working on. The vibe is great. And Pete is what we’d hoped he would be. He is the films he makes. He’s speaking his truth.” And that’s infectious, y’know?
I could sense that we were kind of a foreign entity, and that made us feel like, “Ah, we have something to prove here. Let’s prove that we can do this. It’s not all just bowel-churning noise that we make. We can apply what we do in a different area…” I think our first steps with Pixar was us trying to imitate what a Pixar film sounds like. You know, and that’s wrong, because — just get someone who does that. And it took us a wave or two of turning through stuff to realize that, “No, we can do what we do, and it’s what they want.”
Do you ever have to chuckle at how far you’ve come? In 30 years, from Pretty Hate Machine to Pixar?
[Chuckles.] Yeah. You know, I’ve kinda come to… the surprises of life and how things work, I think that if you get out of the way, life can reveal itself to you. I thought life was: You had to fight your way, and never give up, and all that bullshit was something that was drilled into my head somewhere along my youth. Reaching a point with something like addiction — the only way to get through that was to surrender and realize, y’know, “My way’s not working.” And that really opened me up to a world of possibility. You know, had you told me a year ago, “In 2019 you’re going to be co-songwriter of the No. 1 all-time great longest-running Billboard whatever-the-fuck…” I wouldn’t have seen that one coming.
Do you remember your first impressions of “Old Town Road”?
Yeah, I mean… I’d gotten a phone call from my manager, saying, “Hey, I just got a phone call from a kind of panicked manager. The nice kid that’s sampled your song — I was hoping that we could work something out.” And I said, “Of course. I don’t care. It’s fine… Don’t stop it.”
And I’d heard maybe the first 20 seconds of it, and it’s like, “All right. It sounds like Ghosts with a trap beat. And someone was playing Red Dead Redemption 2, and… OK.” And then it just exploded. I’d heard it now three or four times, and I realized I’d wake up in the morning singing it. It was like, “All right, it’s made its way into my brain. It’s catchy.” And then it was just sitting back in awe for however that went on to infect the world.
I think he did a good job on it. Again, it’s another one of those things that — y’know, I haven’t been out really to talk about it at all. Not out of any sort of disrespect, it’s just really that… I don’t see it as my place to step into the spotlight. It’s built on something I did, I provided some material for it. But [that’s all].
When you released Ghosts and you did it through the Creative Commons license, was there ever any kind of thought that people working with the stems, and putting their own spin on it — that it might lead to commercial success like this?
No, not really. It really was… I had an abundance of material that didn’t feel like proper Nine Inch Nails. The process of making that record was kind of fun — it was a very quick timeline, a self-imposed deadline, just an experiment really. And I liked the results. So [I went], “Let’s put it out, let’s encourage people to use it however they want.”
And at the time, the idea of Creative Commons seemed like the right thing to do — it had a kind of anti-record label stance, which seemed important. And that was it, really. And that’s gone on to become… I’m certain Ghosts is why [director David] Fincher asked us to work on Social Network. Again, not part of a master plan, but sit back and look, and it seems like it might have been.
Was it a pretty simple process clearing the publishing splits and getting all of that settled?
I think so, yeah. I wasn’t involved in any of that. I just said, “Look, don’t hold it up. Be fair.” That was my instruction, and I didn’t hear any more about it. Until it blew up, and then I said, “By the way, what did we get?”
I’m sure it’s provided a nice windfall for the year.
I haven’t looked to see actually what it is. But yeah, it seems as though it probably did.
Have you been brought any requests for syncs for the song, or to use it in commercials, movies, TV shows, anything like that? Do you feel territorial about it at all, or will you just kinda say, “Whatever he wants to do with the song is fine”?
Yeah, for that, whatever he wants to do is cool with me.
You referenced the song’s Billboard chart run. Were you following any of that when it started to kind of approach history?
I was aware of it, just from the newsworthiness of it, wondering if it was gonna… I wasn’t as obsessed with it as, say, Trump being impeached.
What do your kids think of the song?
Uh… it’s tough to impress them, I’ve found… [Imitates conversation with son.]
“Yeah, I’ve heard it.”
“Did you know that your dad wrote [the music for it]?”
“Oh, that’s cool.”
Is that as good as it gets with them?
I don’t think I’ve gotten the validation that I’m craving from them yet. So.
What did you think of “On a Roll” the first time you heard it?
I thought it was really great. And remember, it was in the context of Charlie [Brooker, series creator] sending me an email saying, “I’ve got a crazy idea for a Black Mirror episode where we’d like to use your music, and juxtapose it into this syrupy pop thing.” I said, “Well I think that’s a great idea.” And I say that because I think Black Mirror is a really smart and needed show these days. And I have a lot of faith in what Charlie could bring to the table. And I said, “Let’s try it, let’s see what happens, of course.” And then [he asked], “Do you mind if I re-write some of the lyrics?” “Do whatever you want, man.”
A while later, he sent around the music. And I was impressed, I was really impressed that it was done as authentically as it was. I wouldn’t know that was a fake song. It was legit. And when he first mentioned, he goes, “We have a casting, and I can’t tell you who it is, but I think you’re gonna be into it.” And then the song showed up, and it was Miley. And I thought they did a really good job on it, you know?
And I was excited to see how it was going to confuse people, and how that day, in my Twitter replies, someone is going to be going, “I can’t believe you like that shit! Sell out!” People that don’t get what it is. What it is, I think, is really smart, and I think it was a well-done parody. And I actually like the version of the song, too.
I also wanted to ask you about Billie Eilish, who as far as I know hasn’t necessarily directly interpolated or covered or referenced your work — but when I first saw her music videos, the No. 1 thing I was really reminded of was peak Nine Inch Nails. I’m curious if you see any of that sort of ‘90s Nine Inch Nails DNA in her.
You know, I need to do my homework on that front. Not to show myself as totally out of touch with what’s happening in the world, but… I’ve had many people say, “You should check her out.” Including Atticus. He’d say, “Oh, I would listen to that in the car on the way…” But I haven’t gotten around to actually spending the time with it. Seeing that peers have lauded lots of praise, but I can’t comment with any validity yet, because I haven’t done the deep dive.
It does feel like your music is really resonating in sort of a new way in 2019, both through all these parodies and influences and such. Do you have any kind of theory as to why, at this moment, necessarily, your music would feel this resonant?
I don’t. You know, I can say — and it might sound a bit pretentious, but — I can honestly say, when I look back at what I’ve done, it was always the best I could do. I can’t point to anything — unless you can remind me of something that I’ve blocked out — that was good enough, or following a trend, or, “Ahh, I wasn’t really into it, but…” There wasn’t any of that. And I’m not saying everyone should like it all, or it should resonate with everybody. But if it doesn’t, that’s me. I can say with pride that I did the best I could.
And I think as — I could be way off base with this, and this may come off as an idiotic thing to say — but as history gets told by the critics, and the online media these days, there’s an era of electronic music — early ‘90s, anything that was labeled as industrial — that got all swept under the rug. “We can’t include any of that in the indie banner. But we’ll pick out Pavement, and Beck can be in there…” The stuff that inspired me the most at the beginning, the Wax Trax! scene — that’s not part of the in club of whatever became fashionable through the ‘00s, the blueprint for the indie rock movement that recently kind of collapsed.
I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of cool stuff that is good, that may be finding an audience, that wasn’t what Pitchfork told you to like.
It’s interesting to hear you say that you don’t really pay attention to what’s going on in the pop world, because it does seem like you’re still very plugged in with the manners in which listeners still consume music. Why is it more important for you to focus on the process behind listening, rather than what’s being listened to in the mainstream?
Well, that’s a good question, and here’s kind of how I feel about it. When we were in 2006-7-8-9, it was clear to me, being on a major label, that this doesn’t work. At that time, labels were suing listeners for stealing music, everyone’s forced to buy a plastic disc that nobody wants. It leaks. I’m a fan, I want to hear it. Should I steal it? You know, I’m not making money from it, I’m not printing T-shirts outside the show trying to pocket bootlegs. I just want to hear what this artist is doing.
We felt like — and this is the Ghosts era — we should just go direct to consumer. I got obsessed with trying to market myself, to learn about, “What does the audience want?” Did they want high quality? They want this, they don’t want that. They want to be treated with respect, they want to pay a reasonable price. I think they are willing to pay for music — what’s the riddle? Someone’s gotta figure it out, it’s not going to be the record label. Who else is doing it? Let me try.
We tried a handful of experiments, some of which worked, some of which didn’t work, all of which felt like they were right in that moment — but three months, six months later, felt like, “Nah, that’s not right anymore.” Things have changed. And you know, eventually streaming comes along. My agenda in getting involved with Apple on that was to try to help influence from a musician’s point of view, rather than it just becoming a giant version of Sam Goody at the mall, where music could be auto parts we’re selling. It’s just the card catalog, distributing digital assets. Have something where it felt more like the spirit and artistry of music is respected, and the magic of it, etc. Perhaps even musicians could get paid a fair rate, etc.
Coming out of all that, and still being an artist, I became less concerned about marketing in general, because I realized it’s just marketing. It’s not art. It’s a puzzle, and it’s a puzzle you can try to solve and it can be fascinating and maddening and it feels like there’s an answer and it’s fluid. But that’s what it is. It’s not art. And I realized that as I listen to what’s at the top of the charts, as I dip my toe in, it doesn’t speak to me. It’s not for me. I’m not in the TV show Euphoria as a character at present, and that music… I’m not in that lifestyle, I’m not in the age bracket, I’m not that person. And I don’t want music to be something where I have to keep up with the trends. So I’ve kind of tuned out of what I don’t like that much.
And because I’m going to keep putting music out, I’d like it to be heard. I’d like it to have its best shot at making its way into your brain. And so things like breaking the Watchmen soundtrack into three pieces, or breaking our last main album into three EPs… I may not have done that ten years ago. But today, it feels like the best shot of people maybe not being intimidated by it, or maybe listening to the whole thing.
I know that you’ve been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a couple times already, and that you’ve had mixed feelings about the Rock Hall as an institution. But I’m curious if your experiences last year inducting The Cure — did that change your feeling about what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame means, or what it means to be inducted?
It did change my perspective. I was very cynical about it, much like I still am about the Grammys. Which I feel like are “Here’s an award, show up so people watch our TV show.” And again, it was my experience of going through the Oscars that really put the Grammy issue into focus. Our kind of accidental Oscar campaign for Social Network kind of immersed me in that world where I’d never seen so much care and thought and guilt and rules and traditions and specific qualifications… to emerge on the other end of that, somehow holding a trophy… it legitimately felt gratifying. It felt like, “Wow, people that do this thought what I did was really good.” That felt good, you know. Yes there’s politics, and luck, and every other thing involved. But it felt pretty good. It felt like, “That’s a trophy I’m proud to have.”
The Rock Hall, I’d kind of lumped in with the absurdity of, “What are we — what is this? It’s rock, OK, but Whitney Houston is rock? OK…” Anyway, when I got the call, “Would you induct The Cure?” I love The Cure. And I wanted The Cure to be framed as best they could, and I felt like I could do a good job at that. And when I’m in the audience for that, before The Cure’s segment, and I’m sitting at a table with the guys from Radiohead, who are very cool, and I’m looking around, and I just said hi to David Byrne backstage, who I love, and Bryan Ferry walks up on stage, and Duran Duran’s doing their thing about him, and I can tell they mean it, and Bryan comes out, and I can tell he’s humbled, authentically, and they play and it’s awesome.
I walk backstage and I’m getting ready to do the Cure thing, and I’m not sure how The Cure resonates with whoever’s in this audience. Because the people I saw were all old industry people. But I walk out, and there’s huge applause for The Cure, and…. “Wow, man, this feels pretty good.” I got goosebumps right now just thinking about it. And I say my thing, and I see Robert [Smith, The Cure frontman] come up, and I sensed that he was authentically grateful to be there, and liked what I had to say. I went back and I watched them play, and it was like, “Yeah, all right, whatever’s happening here is pretty cool.”
So I take it back. Now please, let me in.
Is there anybody else nominated who you feel invested in getting in?
Well, look would it be great to be in there? Sure. But when I look at the ballot and see that Todd Rundgren and Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode aren’t in there? They all should be in there before I am. I wouldn’t be up there had it not been for those guys. And that’s when it starts to become a metric that’s hard to kinda… I get it’s not just about achievement, it’s popularity and it’s whatever-the-fuck. That’s when it all kinda starts to collapse into, “Hey, I’ll graciously accept, or I will just as graciously every year get emails saying we were snubbed, for the rest of my life.” Whichever way it goes, it’s kind of not in my hands, y’know?
You’re in sort of a strange year for looking back on your previous catalog, in that you’re kind of at an even anniversary year for a lot of your major works — 30 years for Pretty Hate Machine, 25 years for The Downward Spiral, 20 years for The Fragile. Does it get exhausting celebrating all of these, or reviving all of these albums? Or is it a cool reason to revisit the past?
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, quite honestly. It’s just a number. It’s a number that also comes with a, “Oh, Jesus Christ I’m getting old.” And that’s kind of where the thinking ends.
I think it’s nice to see people reflecting and going, “Wow that was 20 years ago, or 30 years ago — that record meant a lot to me. That helped me through…” That aspect of it’s kind of cool. Aside from that, it’s just another reminder that you’re [sighs] getting older.
Do you find any one of those three particularly interesting or rewarding to revisit at this point in time?
You know, it kinda comes and goes in waves for me… the last few years I’ve had a fondness for The Fragile. It’s aged well, in an interesting way. For me, I’m seeing it as who I was at the time, and there’s a melancholy nostalgic kind of… it was a unique and strange period of my life. The road could’ve forked a few different ways, and I’m grateful that I took the path that I did.