It’s impossible to say what exactly caused Trent Reznor and his writing partner Atticus Ross to return to the dark side two years ago. Since its inception in 1988, Reznor’s central musical project, Nine Inch Nails, has been known for musically excavating the underbelly of human life, from the plaintive anguish of Pretty Hate Machine, through the abject throb of The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, and even into the subdued mania of With Teeth. But in 2016, when he and Ross began working on the first of what Reznor has called “a suite” of releases – 2016’s Not the Actual Events, 2017’s Add Violence and the forthcoming Bad Witch, out June 22th – Nine Inch Nails most recent full-length was 2013’s Hesitation Marks, a comparatively bright album considering its title. It did feel for a while there like perhaps sobriety and the welcome emergence of a stable family life had exorcized once and for all some of Reznor’s most vociferous demons. But then the beast stirred. Not the Actual Events, Add Violence, and Bad Witch are collectively as enraged, searching and disturbed as any Nine Inch Nails albums ever made.
Given the timing of his return to anger, it’s tempting to see Reznor as a kind of musical id, uniquely tuned in to the festering morass of hate and blunt rage that would, soon after he entered the studio, elect Donald Trump. While the ongoing “existential unpleasantness” as he drolly calls our country’s political situation is very much on his mind, all Reznor knows for sure is the psychic tides turned and aggression felt good again. So that’s the frequency he and Ross have remained tuned into these last two years, spinning the sonic and lyrical yarn that now concludes with Bad Witch. The themes explored in the trilogy are familiar old friends, they’ve been with Reznor since he first felt the urge to make Mozart “sadder” when taking piano lessons as a lonely teenager in the rural Midwest. But his view on darkness now, as an established artist, father, husband and participant, for better or for worse, in this thing called society has brought new energy and perspective to old notions of alienation, isolation, and that particular kind of sorrow that curdles into rage. “Lately I’ve sort of embraced nostalgia,” Reznor explains of the scattered self-referential moments embedded in these releases. “I used to think: no. Only forward. But now nostalgia feels good, as an influence on the present. It’s okay to think back and allow yourself to remember things, you know?”
As Nine Inch Nails prepares to put Bad Witch into the world, and launch its Cold and Black and Infinite U.S. tour, Reznor reflects on the broader personal context of these new songs, from the passing of good friends and heroes to the fractured state of American politics to fatherhood to the pleasurable pain of re-learning old tricks. “You’ve got to remember,” he says of his struggle to play saxophone after decades away from the instrument. “It has to hurt a little bit.”
Why is the trilogy format useful to you and where do these records sit in the larger Nine Inch Nails story?
I’ve found over time that if I think about songs in relation to other songs in a bigger context it’s more fun to write them. It gives each a little more meaning. In the early days it felt like a miracle if any song got finished. You’d just happen to cross the line of ten and you’d have an album. Now it’s become more about the idea of the larger story, of a larger container. I like that format as a storytelling device.
You’ve always been interested in how people consume music, from your battles with assorted arms of the industry to your work with Apple, helping them develop their streaming platform. How much are you currently thinking about how someone will hear Bad Witch?
There was a time – the Year Zero era – when I felt myself engaged in trying to crack the code of how to get people to be interested in music and engage fans in ways that are cool. I want people to experience it in the right way, with the right level of expectation. But trying to keep up with the endlessly changing culture of the way people consume music and what works and what doesn’t work is a full time marketing job. When I was working at Apple I had a taste of that. I can do it, but I don’t fucking want to do it. I tire of that side of it.
So where I am now is this: the only true way I can weigh in on something is from my own experience. What I’ve noticed in my life is that music played a big role. Before I was making it, it was affecting me in a way that helped me figure out who I was. And that’s set against a different era of access to information, which I romanticize even though I’ve tried not to. As I’ve gotten older and I’m trying to make sense of who I am in the context of a world that’s changing, where someone is slowly moving the furniture around a little bit, among the many things I’m thinking about is what music means to me, what it has meant to me, what it seems to mean to many other people now. What is music’s role? That directly plays a part in deciding: I’m going to make an album and I’m going to put it out.
Why am I doing it? It’s what I do. And I feel I have something to say. It’s really because I need to do it. It helps me feel good about myself to do this thing, it brings me in touch with a sense of purpose. I would like to let people know, music can be the central thing. It can be this thing that you put your attention on, that you carve out time to actually participate in. It’s not something that happens in the background while you’re doing something else. It can be the whole thing. It can command your full attention.
Is that what it was for you as a kid? Is that what it still is?
Growing up, there were not a lot of other things to do. I enjoyed listening to music. And I enjoyed the blank canvas of not knowing what the artists even looked like or what they were up to or their inner secrets, because I could project onto them. I miss that element, so I find myself still making music to be consumed that way.
I first listened to Bad Witch in transit somewhere and it stopped me in my tracks and made me feel uncomfortable to be in public with those noises in my ears. I felt exposed and sort of damaged by it.
Mission accomplished. One down.
Obviously you’ve explored violence and aggression before, but this feels like a return to that wavelength. And the shows you played last year followed suit. They were spare and loud and penetrating. I’ve heard you talk before about the challenge of reaching people through the polarized haze of online life, I wonder if you see Nine Inch Nails, and particularly this more aggressive side of Nine Inch Nails, as an antidote to all that, as a kind of existential grease cutter. Is that where the need to be extra abrasive is coming from?
I think the impetus for this trilogy … God, I sounds like Spinal Tap. Look, when I think back to the last proper album, Hesitation Marks, I don’t really know who that guy is. Like, my head isn’t there anymore. And it wasn’t that long ago. We were just into something totally different. I’m making set lists for shows coming up and there’s very little on there from that album because I don’t feel it right now. Whereas, I was really down on With Teeth for a long time but now, for whatever reason, it sounds good to me. Not that I listen to it that much but it popped on the other day and I thought, fuck, I forgot I even wrote that song.
Where I’m going with this is that the starting point for Not the Actual Events came from looking externally and saying, what’s my place in this now? Who am I? And as a writer, what can I say with authority and honesty? What’s bullshit, what’s something I think someone else wants to hear, and what’s real? Because, look: I feel at odds with the collective outside world, with the collective them.
I heard “Hurt” on the radio on the way over here, just FYI.
Oh you did? On the sounds of the 70s station? Were they playing it off Dad Rock Volume 62? No, but what I’m getting at, is, as a writer: what’s true versus what’s merely reactive?
Reactive is bad?
Not necessarily. I miss some of the aggression and or lack of polish and truth in a lyric that might actually mean something rather than be wallpaper-y, open for interpretation, cop out safe bullshit. Some of what we’re making now is me reacting to, I think this shit sucks and in response: here, I’m going to vomit on your shoes. And then there’s also dealing with the existential unpleasantness of the Donald Trump administration…
You make it sound so manageable, like a bad smell we just have to collectively endure.
Sadly, I spend probably a total of two hours every day being exposed to the today’s drama. You wake up and you think, what embarrassment, what erosion of decency or civilization is on our doorstep today? And I know it’s being packaged to me as a liberal in a way that makes me angry. And I know the next station over is packaging it to the other side in their own way. I’ve tuned into it in a way that I wish I hadn’t and it weighs on things, you know? It does. I find I don’t have any tolerance anymore.
Was there a line-in-the-sand moment?
Part of it is having young kids. You feel like a guardian of innocence. Rushing to turn the TV when they walk in the room because you don’t want to get into explaining to a seven year old what a porn star or a pee tape is. I wish I could just turn everything off, and I’m making a greater attempt to do that, but when you wake up and the urge is to look and see, did we go to war today? I don’t enjoy that feeling.
But to be clear, the record isn’t about Trump, it’s about making sense of the world. The first record, Not the Actual Events, was more of an internal fantasy of what if I lit a match to my life and just embraced burning the whole fucking thing down. You know? All of this is an illusion and I really should be dead or lying in a ditch somewhere. Who I really am is an addict that self-destructs. That’s my true nature and this is an illusion and some borrowed time. It wasn’t a pleasant thing, but it felt like, that’s a story to tell. And if felt like something I needed to internally process.
And that supported other things that were interesting to us like aggressive music and a sense of the self-referential, looking back at other albums and pilfering bits of the art design to confuse people and also because I was thinking about those records. To try picking up a guitar, which I told myself I would never do again for whatever reason and finding, you know what? It sounds fucking good. Listening back and going, you know what? That was a good song from 25 years ago, it’s not bad to play something like that. There are no rules. That was the first record.
So why make two more? What makes them parts of a larger whole?
It wasn’t fully mapped out but it was meant to feel like if we broke up one big record – if it was Downward Spiral, which has acts, if we do an album like that, but release one act at a time, it will be more immediate and the level of adrenaline and momentum will be higher. And maybe it will be consumed in a way that feels more digestible to an outside world that doesn’t have long attention spans anymore. With the second one, Add Violence, the idea was, loosely, to zoom out, to be more global and to imply that maybe we’re all in a simulated reality. And that might introduce the concept of meaninglessness but also provide a safe container to explain why everything feels off.
By the time we got to the third one, we had an idea in mind but it felt … rehearsed. Predictable. In the end, what felt true was to say that we as a society and as a species are probably an accident, a mutation. Really what we are is fucking animals. And the illusion was enlightenment. The more we’ve connected with each other the dumber we’ve gotten and the more we decide we want to kill each other. We’re not some elevated transcendent beings, we’re bacteria in a jar. I wanted the art direction of Bad Witch to feel like shadows on a cave wall and we’re trying to figure out what it is and really there’s no nice, clean, safe scientific explanation. We’re just an accident. String theory and quantum physics is a fucking trick. And we’re not going to suddenly elevate ourselves into transcendent beings. We’re kidding ourselves. I know this will be an unsatisfying conclusion for some people. It isn’t what they want. They want it to be full matrix virtual reality, and this is the opposite of that, this is dirt and a broken computer chip and everything you believe in is really just bullshit.
Are there other artists you admire, who you think are delivering well-executed work in this kind of fully considered context?
I’m significantly blown away by Donald Glover’s thing. I mean, I think Atlanta’s fucking genius. That’s won me over, this guy’s smart. I never watched Community. I listened to a couple Childish Gambino things and it wasn’t what I was expecting. It was accomplished – okay he can sing, but I watched “This Is America” and I just thought, Jesus Christ, man. I thought the song was great, but it was better than if I’d just heard the song. I didn’t know what I was in for. It was bold daring for a number of ways. And then you can appreciate, the dude can dance, too?? Jesus Christ. You know what I mean? He’s taken advantage the fact that television is hot right now. He’s done something excellent in a network format. And I didn’t even know he had a comedy special. It’s just: I’m impressed. I find myself playing it for people – like, you’ve got to fucking see this.
Does that make you feel at all better about the state of the universe, or at least the state of modern pop culture?
It really truly does. And I’ll tell you why. Because in general it feels like the bar keeps lowering. To see this come out and then to see how long it was staying in the conversation, seeing how many people were talking about it, I appreciated it being provocative and I appreciated people arguing about it. It’s important. It was done with excellence. And that’s what I miss.
He brought you out of Twitter hiding! You hadn’t Tweeted in well over a year, but what you posted about that video was so earnest. You wrote: “I can’t remember the last time I watched a music video all the way to the end, let alone one five times in a row. Incredible work! #ThisIsAmerica.” People have this impression of you as melancholic brooder, not a guy who says things like “incredible work,” even online. Are you a secret optimist?
Look, pessimism is a dead end. And honestly, in life I’m not a pessimist. Around my family and my kids, I’m not a pessimist. Even when it comes to our film work, I’m the one who’s always saying, let’s do that fucking movie because we could make it awesome. That’s not a pessimistic view. It’s just that with this record, I couldn’t keep it from taking over, as a way to tell a story.
Talk to me about the film scoring. Where does that work sit in relation to Nine Inch Nails?
We’ve always got a fishing line in the water for interesting scoring projects, and the motivation is simply: how can we work with smart people. That’s it. We’ve learned that is all we really care about. We unexpectedly won an Oscar with Social Network. And it happened to be an incredibly rewarding creative experience. Working with new great friends that are also really fucking good at what they do, and inspiring to be around.
Is making music a biological function for you? Who is this music for?
I’ve got abandonment issues. I know why I have some of them. I spent a lot of time by myself as a kid at home with my grandparents where there wasn’t anything to do, it seemed like, in a small town where you had to create entertainment for yourself. We had a piano. I learned how to play the piano and something fundamental clicked where it made me feel good. I could mechanically do it and it came naturally to me, but more importantly it felt like, I know how to express myself through that. It feels good. Not to have someone tell me it’s good. It actually feels good. I would get in trouble because the way I felt like Mozart should go wasn’t as robotic as people wanted you to play it or as he intended it to be played. I sometimes wanted it to feel sadder, you know? And when I wasn’t in the lesson I would interpret it my way, which was more – had a melancholy tinge to it. When I finally had the courage to write music for what would become Nine Inch Nails, after wasting time afraid to try, it took me a while to understand that that same feeling of being able to interpret or express an intimate feeling, I can apply it to … it seems obvious now – but then, when trying to think of how do I write songs? What do I have to say? It wasn’t this loud character, it was more like, I need to get quiet and allow it to come out, rather than create a mask.
You don’t have to be Gene Simmons.
No, and I thought I did. But once I realized I do have something to say, and it’s this thing, it’s not this loud caricature, it’s this person, I knew I’d tapped into something that was truthful. It’s about being honest with myself and having integrity and yes I want to embrace theatrics and I want to embrace danger, and live it can become a bit of a character at times, but it’s rooted in something that’s true. You may not like it, but that’s ok. It has an honesty to it, and that is the template I’ve tried to follow throughout.
You just announced the Cold and Black and Infinite tour, which will take Nine Inch Nails and Jesus and Mary Chain through much of the US this fall. Tickets for these gigs were sold in an unusual way: at the actual box offices, of the actual venues, in the actual cities in which these shows will later be played. You called it the “Physical World” pre-sale. What’s the origin story behind this plan?
Over the years I’ve learned which battles to fight. If it were up to me, I would do a lot of things differently, but some things you just can’t win. But no one wants the experience of tickets are onsale at 10 o’clock, refresh refresh refresh, sold out! Here they are on Stubhub for five times the price! So we looked into seeing if we could just put them onsale at the box office. I know it’s inconvenient for people, but it seems to me that if you’re the twentieth person in line you’re probably going to get good seats because you’re right there. There’s a sense of people being there for something and you’re all there at the same time, inconvenienced because you’re celebrating art and music together.
You might meet someone you like.
And at the very least you’ll interact with other humans who also had to put pants on and leave the house.
Yeah. I mean, walking into Amoeba or a record shop, if you can find one – it’s nice to be in a place where everybody there is there because of music. They’re not buying dishwashers. If it works the way we hope it will, it will be a cool few hours.
You are fetishizing the experience of show-going, from start to finish.
Yes, as much as we can control it. The shows we did last year proved a concept, which was, we enjoyed playing and we enjoyed presenting the band in a less polished, less choreographed, less backing-tracked, video-accompanied, hologram-filled extravaganza. More raw and just alive, with mistakes and honesty and a fluid set list and maybe a bright light in your eyes the whole time and you can’t see anything but smoke and it feels a little bit dangerous. That feels right with who we are right now. That feels like what it wants to be. I’m genuinely looking forward to going out in that format and having it less be about look at the spectacle and more about here’s us playing to you, which feels appropriate with the aesthetic of the new album. That’s the reason to take the risk of selling tickets this way.
And the venues we chose to play are part of that. They felt like fun places. We saw LCD Soundsystem at the Palladium recently. Now, it takes a lot to get me to leave the house, but I did. Atticus went with me. And it was fucking excellent. Everything about it was great. Showing up and seeing people outside lined up and being inside and seeing people watching and the lead up to the show starting and the show starting. All of it. It was intimate and it was honest and it felt good and it sounded good. When we left it was like, fucking YES. I needed that. When you play the arena you get a contingency of people bitching because it’s an arena and it always sounds kind of bad. It can be a kind of bummer. It wasn’t made to play music there. We thought it would be more exciting to play smaller places, and multiple nights in some of them, to take that same mindset of something that’s less high tech and more honest. I would like to see us in those places.