Nine Inch Nails: "We're getting a 24-hour barrage of culture war that we cannot tune out of…"

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails talk dark times, Donald Trump and Taylor Swift.

Nine Inch Nails: "We're getting a 24-hour barrage of culture war that we cannot tune out of…"
James Hickie
Header photo:
Corinne Schiavone

There’s a story about Trent Reznor in The Defiant Ones, the documentary series charting the careers and creative partnership of Beats Electronics founders Jimmy Iovine and Dr Dre, that would strike fear into the heart of anyone about to enter a room with him.

In the early ’90s, the straight-talking Jimmy, co-founder of Interscope Records, was doggedly trying to sign Nine Inch Nails to his label. By that stage Trent, whose experiences with his then-label TVT Records – the founder of whom, Steve Gottlieb, according to Trent, described NIN’s 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine as an “abortion” when he first heard it – had understandably made him “allergic” to record company executives, so he wasn’t about to make his first face-to-face meeting with Jimmy an easy one.

“I just thought, ‘I’m going to have to portray myself as not someone that you want to deal with,’” recalls Trent of the encounter in an interview for the movie.

“I went into this room, and it’s dark and there’s candles; it was like a meeting with Dracula,” says Jimmy, who eventually got his man, giving Trent his own imprint (Nothing Records) and putting out every record up to and including 2007’s Year Zero.

Arriving at a luxurious hotel in London’s Park Lane today, K! is guided to a suite that requires two lifts to get there, suggesting that the prospect of meeting Trent hasn’t become any less intimidating more than 20 years later. Upon arrival, the vast space is all black wood panels and buffed silver edges, expansive coffee tables and open fireplaces, though its opulence feels more Noël Coward than Nosferatu. “Weird-ass” is Trent’s evaluation when he suddenly appears a few minutes later, dressed, unsurprisingly, in a fitted black T-shirt and black trousers. The 53-year-old strides through the open door armed with a smile and quite possibly the coolest handshake ever administered by a rockstar: his muscular arm almost down by his side, his palm upturned in a laid-back ‘Gimme some skin’ style.

Londoner Atticus Ross, 50, Trent’s creative partner who’s contributed to every NIN record since 2005’s With Teeth and became a member in 2016, not to mention won an Oscar with him for their work on David Fincher’s The Social Network, is far quieter. His slight sneer, menacing monotone and black overcoat – despite the stifling heat – give him the air of a Dickensian villain. At one point, he describes our interview as “an interrogation”.

“We’ll try to work in some waterboarding,” jokes Trent.

Atticus isn’t devoid of levity, though: he later causes the room to erupt into laughter when describing the first time he heard the Black Eyed Peas’ 2005 hit My Humps. “I thought that was the lowest bar in music that could be hit, with the dumbest lyrics of all time,” is his damning verdict. “But it wasn’t.”

Despite the warmth of their bonhomie, Trent and Atticus have lost none of their ability to engineer uncomfortable environments. For proof, look no further than Nine Inch Nails’ latest album, Bad Witch: the aggressive conclusion to a trilogy that began with EPs Not The Actual Events (2016) and Add Violence (2017), a cautious return resulting in caustic music after 2013’s Hesitation Marks.

“Culture, life and the world changes, so we didn’t take anything for granted,” explains Trent. “In America, the rock scene is pretty sterile, so to come out with [something] fucking noisy, [with] rough edges and an unsafe show felt more relevant than it had in years, and it felt good to us.”

God Break Down The Door

Despite the three records’ combined 16-tracks of sonic provocation, however, it’s Trent’s exclamations outside of the studio that have landed him in hot water today.

“I woke up this morning to the perfect storm of managing to offend the Make America Great Again moron troll committee and the equally ignorant Taylor Swift superfan nuts,” he says, running a hand down his permastubble. Both factions are up in arms over quotes from an interview given to the New York Times. Trent has long condemned Donald Trump, a man he’s gone on record to describe as “a vulgarian” and “an imbecile”, and in the NYT piece he suggested that, “The disregard for decency and truth and civility is what’s really disheartening. It feels like a country that celebrates stupidity is really taking it up a notch.”

Though Trent has been at pains to say that Bad Witch isn’t about the U.S. president – a fair assumption given, say, Year Zero’s police state-focused political leanings, and the song Capital G’s perceived commentary on George W. Bush – it’s actually even more potent than that: an artist who’s been making music for 30 years articulating the struggle to understand himself and his place in a world he increasingly struggles to understand.

The ire of the Swifties, meanwhile, is the result of Trent’s answer to the question of whether musicians should speak out more about what’s happening in the world, to which he said he was disappointed that Taylor Swift-type top-tier artists weren’t doing so.

“My point being that there are many, many artists that are far more successful and relevant to youth than me in 2018,” he explains today. “Over the years I have learned that if you have influence and you feel strongly about something, then maybe it’s your civic cultural duty to speak. My point in bringing this up isn’t to re-articulate this, but there’s a real concern about careers and the consequences of having a voice, which feels, to me, at odds with being an artist in general.

“The difficulty of doing promotional press,” he continues, leaning forward and fixing K! right in the eyes, “is that I feel we’re having a conversation, a discussion, in which some relevant points are made, and some stupid shit comes along, too. It’s not the fault of the New York Times piece itself, but the other 50 articles that reference it, with headlines like ‘Trent Reznor slams Taylor Swift’. It goes around the room and suddenly I’m like, ‘I said what?!’ It’s pointless to try to explain, particularly to the angry mob.”

“They don’t want an explanation,” chips in Atticus quietly.

“They’re not interested,” agrees Trent. “I saw someone ask, ‘Why are you attacking women?’ I thought, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’”

Despite falling foul of what he describes as “copycat journalists playing [a game of] Telephone”, Trent remains a remarkably relaxed interviewee, both courteous and chatty (his answer to K!’s opening question, about how Bad Witch developed from its genesis to the final version, stretches to just over 10 minutes.)

“We spent a couple of months, I wouldn’t say going through the motions, we were exploring a lot of different avenues, but there was something that just wasn’t clicking,” he offers midway through the response so epic that he apologises for it afterwards. “I think partly it was that, thematically, where I thought it was going to develop ultimately felt a bit lazy. I hadn’t developed the idea completely, and I was avoiding the hard work. At the time, it was tough to admit that.”

Trent and Atticus love their work, with both using the word “joyful” to describe the prospect of being in the studio, even when it’s to produce music that deals with the notion of humanity being “bacteria in a jar”. Despite this nihilistic outlook, Trent claims that he’s not pessimistic in his family life – so how do these two sides sit together? How do they engage with one another? Would Atticus describe himself as a pessimist.

“Basically,” Atticus begins, “I think I’m…“

“Yes,” Trent cuts in with a laugh.

“I’m not wholly pessimistic, but I’m not a font of optimism, either,” clarifies Atticus. “There are so many compartments to life, though it’s hard not to feel pessimistic in terms of the obvious areas.”

Live with Gary Numan (director Brook Linder)

“What I’ll say about Atticus, and I’d say the same thing of myself, is that we feel pessimism towards the world in general,” explains Trent. “We’re getting a 24-hour-a-day barrage of culture war being dropped on us that we cannot tune out, and we both succumb to being victimised and participants in it, because unlike any other time in my awareness, it feels very tribal, and you’re on this team or you’re on that team, and every day you’re presented with some sort of existential feeling of, ‘This sucks and I’m ashamed of how we’re behaving as a society.’ We’re both fathers to young kids, and it creeps its way into our psyche, so that’s a motivator behind the record for sure.

“We’re hermits and feel outside of mainstream society, but there is a real optimism when it comes to working. I think we’ve both found that’s a way out of that, and it gives a sense of fulfilment and a sense of purpose. So when we get together to work, it’s not two bummed-out guys, ‘Oh, I don’t feel like doing anything.’ It’s kind of the oasis of, ‘Let’s do something. Let’s feed on this feeling we have and turn it into something that makes us feel connected again to the world.’”

Bad Witch is a record dealing with the self and society, civility and savagery – far bigger questions than that of whether it’s actually an EP rather than an LP, though Trent has had to field that one recently, and did so in rather spectacular style. At the end of May, Trent found himself on Echoingthesound.org, a Nine Inch Nails forum he “rarely looks at”, when he came across a heated debate about Bad Witch’s status as an album. One user in particular was sure of the answer. ‘I know very well how an album length is and an EP length is,’ they had written. ‘This is an EP. An album would be seven tracks at minimum and over 30 minutes. Fucking hate music industry sometimes (sic).’

‘EPs feel less important in today’s music-isn’t-as-important-as-it-once-was world,’ Trent replied under the username ‘teitan’. ‘Why make it easier to ignore? We’re not charging any more for it so why get so worked up about it?’ Admittedly, he ditched his restraint somewhat in his now-infamous sign-off: ‘Suck my entire cock.’

"We're Getting A 24-Hour Barrage Of Culture War That We Cannot Tune Out Of…"

Trent Reznor

“Honestly, there were about two seconds of thought before that comment,” suggests Trent today, his grin likely in recognition of his occasionally itchy keyboard finger. “The decision to call it an LP was a very unsexy one on our part. I hadn’t really thought about the whole thing of streaming services and where it pops up, and suddenly it’s, ‘Oh, now they’re hidden down with the singles and bootlegs and bullshit at the bottom.’ What is an EP, anyway? No-one could answer. Well, fuck it; let’s call it an LP. Let’s not charge any more; it’s not a scam to rip people off, but let’s just have it up here instead of down there.

“That’s the culture of internet commenting,” he expands, his blood a little up. “The sense of, ‘I have an extreme opinion that I haven’t thought through at all and it’s coming from an uneducated and invalidated place, and I’m going to anonymously announce it to the world.’ Fuck you!”

Getting music noticed seems to be less important to Trent and Atticus than the way in which they consume it once they find it. Despite his assertion that he doesn’t “want to sound like the guy that works at the fax machine company that’s pissed off that nobody wants fax machines any more”, Trent wishes that people could have the rewarding experience that limited access to music brought him, where a record’s lack of immediacy was a challenge to be embraced rather than a turn-off to be abandoned, and could lead to a more profound connection. Talking Heads’ Remain In Light was just such an album for the young Trent Reznor.

“It was a puzzle I didn’t understand,” he recalls, the excitement evident in his voice. “It kind of scared me and it didn’t make me feel good, and it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. But after a couple of listens, I was intrigued to continue. And after 10 listens, I thought, ‘I kind of like it now’. After 30 listens it became my favourite album. And now, after more than 500 listens, it’s part of me, and now it’s in my work. I don’t know that there would be any incentive for someone with today’s wonderful tools and the access to everything to be forced into that behaviour.”

Talking Heads' Remain In Light

Both Trent and Atticus nod in enthusiastic recognition when Kerrang! mentions the artist Mark Rothko, who was highly prescriptive about the way in which his paintings were displayed in terms of a room’s layout and lighting being conducive to the experience, though they have simpler wishes for the way in which people listen to Nine Inch Nails – even if it seems tricky in the age of shuffled playlists and short attention spans.

“I’d like people to listen to it how it was intended to be listened to,” says Atticus. “We didn’t put them in a randomiser: a lot of thought went into their order, and there’s meaning throughout the three; within each release and then over the arc of all three. There’s a reason that Branches/Bones starts Not The Actual Events and there’s a reason that Over And Out ends Bad Witch, and they’re connected. I don’t know if anyone will listen to it like that, but that is obviously the hope.”

“You’ll find if you do take the time to listen to it sequentially, there is an incredible amount of thought that’s gone into that for the discerning listener,” adds Trent. “There is a riddle there; there is a purpose; there’s an intent; there is careful thought of the order of the songs. They were written in that way, they were mixed that way. We’re not demanding that you do that, but this is the type of art that interests us and that we choose to make.”

“It’s not said with any pomposity,” adds Atticus, by way of clarification.
“Well, a little bit of pomposity,” laughs Trent. “Because, you know what? Fuck how you listen to music now: that’s how I feel about it. I don’t give a shit if that’s the way it is and music should be free. Fucking go crazy, man. But that’s not the art we make. If you don’t want to listen to it, I don’t give a fuck. Don’t come to the show – I don’t give a shit. I don’t.”

Trent, it’s fair to say, is outspoken, and is full of respect for others who are too. He’s a fan of the work of Donald Glover, the writer and star of the acclaimed TV series Atlanta, Lando Calrissian in the latest Star Wars film Solo, and, most pertinently, a musician under the guise of Childish Gambino, whose This Is America video caught Trent off-guard.

Childish Gambino, This Is America

“I respond to things that strike me as having a truth to them and a kind of daring craft involved. I just thought it was really smart, subversive and made me think, and it reminded me of how infrequently that seems to happen these days.

“When we say ‘daring craft’, it’s not about shock value, or having an extreme opinion on something, or being revolutionary: it’s about something that feels like it has moved the bar forward and feels fearless, even if it’s in sincerity or nakedness or whatever it might be, but something that doesn’t feel like product.”

For Trent and Atticus, however, there is one continuing source of inspiration and invention that stands out from the rest. The final track on Bad Witch, Over And Out, is a haunting song that recalls David Bowie, specifically his final album Blackstar, released two days before his death in January 2016. The day after this interview, at an outstanding show as part of the Meltdown festival curated by The Cure’s Robert Smith, Nine Inch Nails play a (rather apt) cover of Bowie’s I’m Afraid Of Americans. A few days later, at a similar special engagement at the Royal Albert Hall, it’s the moving I Can’t Give Everything Away from the aforementioned Blackstar – confirming that even masters in their field bow to someone. So how does the man whose long-term producer Tony Visconti suggested made his death “a work of art” continue to inspire Trent and Atticus?

“I met him only once, but if I could take only one artist, you know, that desert island question, then it would be him,” says Atticus.

“I think as we feel we’re in uncertain times, it’s been comforting to cherish the role he’s played with us,” explains Trent. “I don’t mean the guy you call on the phone, but the creative fearlessness that he’d shown that we’ve mythologised and made our own, that template of knowing him enough to see there was this happy guy in there who’d found inner peace. The loss of him has been particularly painful for the both of us, and we liked the world better knowing he was out there, facing the same shit we are.”

David Bowie, I'm Afraid Of Americans

Despite continuing to face those travails without the mentor he collaborated with, toured with, and credited with helping him get sober, Trent seems contented too, though admits the questions posed by his musical trilogy don’t necessarily have easy answers.

“Is it the world and culture that’s unravelling, or is that part of getting old? Is that what ageing does to your brain now? It’s tough, because the lens I’m looking through is getting older, but I’m also happy that I don’t feel the way I did when I was 20, because I wouldn’t be here if I did,” he says, alluding to past darkness, yet bathing in the new light of new possibilities. “I can miss aspects of that, but there’s shit I do not miss. I enjoy my life much more than I did then.”

And for all his roles: as Nine Inch Nails lynchpin, as a member of How To Destroy Angels with his wife Mariqueen Maandig, a father, an Academy Award-winning composer, and much more besides, Trent is determined to keep one less official responsibility alive.

“I feel it’s my duty to remind people that music can be the main thing,” he says with a smile. “It should be the main thing.

Bad Witch is out now via Null Corporation/Caroline International. Nine inch Nails’ Cold And Black And Infinite tour continues the rest of this year. See nin.com for more information.

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