Trent Reznor’s Soundtrack to the Apocalypse

With our political norms crumbling, our social fabric fraying, and our planet literally on fire, the Nine Inch Nails mastermind is back to make sense of it all

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“Is drinking apricot LaCroix going to harm my credibility?” asks Trent Reznor, taking a sip of his fancy seltzer, eyebrow raised. He’s sitting in the mock study of an airily lit studio space in Mar Vista, on the west side of Los Angeles, not far from where he lives. In his fitted black T-shirt, dark ripped jeans, and black boots, Reznor looks exactly like the brooding goth overlord who has — for nearly three decades — occupied his own private pop-cultural space as both a massive mainstream rock star and an eternally freakish outsider recluse. Reznor, at 52, is still absolutely that guy, though these days the King of Angst’s manner is genteel to the point of formality, as if Claude Rains had been reincarnated as an industrial-punk superstar. (Trent is “incredibly personable as well as very effectively guarded,” says the director David Fincher, a collaborator and friend. “He’s not a puppy. He’s more feline.”) “My natural state is one of feeling not good enough — that’s kind of where I reset to,” Reznor will later tell me. These days, though, he is also a well-adjusted grown-up who drinks yuppie soda water on bright weekday mornings. “Mango is actually my favorite flavor,” he explains. “But I just grabbed this out of the fridge.”

Reznor’s mind is still very much on last night’s Nine Inch Nails gig at the Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield, California. As he is set to prove at the Panorama Festival on Randalls Island this weekend, there remains no more reliable source of rock’s essential blend of ecstasy and violence, of exalted disruption, than a Nine Inch Nails show. The Rabobank, in turn, is the Platonic ideal of the suburban American arena, with freshly waxed floors and clean bathrooms that smell like chemical soap and glistening hot dogs that smell like chemical meat and remarkably polite “have a nice evening” security guards who seem like chemical people. But as soon as NIN took the stage, the place was instantly infused with a rank, erotic, decidedly organic feel, as Reznor stalked the stage, vigorously shaking his head like an attack dog that’s just cornered its prey. Still, for the singer, “it was a fucking shit-show.” Rather than strike a stereotypical rock-star pose and perform in front of a wall of curated video — or “content,” as Reznor calls it, practically spitting the word in revulsion — he wanted to cover up that omnipresent scrim with a dirty sheet, illuminated by a set featuring only white lights, “and make the show about this kind of unsafe feeling,” he says. “Make it about a band playing, you know?”

The idea didn’t quite come together. “The piss-stained sheet was a pretty white curtain that looked stupid.” There followed a “harsh talk with the lighting designer,” Reznor recalls. “I said, ‘You are going to throw all this shit out and do what I said the first time. I want the biggest fucking fans in Los Angeles to blow so much smoke that we can’t stand onstage without being knocked over. I want to be the Cure in 1981. I want to be just an outline of a shitty haircut and color and smoke and noise.’ ”

All of this bummed Reznor out, because a) he treats as sacrosanct the exchange between band and audience, and b) the Bakersfield performance was meant as a shake-off-the-cobwebs practice run for a receptive crowd before the band tackles four big festival shows, the first Nine Inch Nails gigs in nearly three years. Those included a headlining slot July 23 at FYF in L.A., where NIN — as an act “in the dying genre and the oldest people on the bill” — played what Reznor calls “the Chili Peppers slot”: Sunday night, 10:45; and at Panorama, where he is set to take the stage at a similar hour on July 30. “I know what I’m doing at that point in a festival. I’m thinking” — the singer mimes looking at his watch — “ ‘If I leave now, I can miss traffic.’ Nobody wants that. I mean, it’s an honor to be asked to do it, but it’s a pretty immediate mirror to find out where you’re at.”

Consider Reznor’s current perch in life: He’s in the prime of well-to-do rock-star middle age, married for the past eight years to the singer and songwriter Mariqueen Maandig, with four children under the age of seven. “I figured if we’re going to do it, let’s go!” Reznor says of his kids. “They’re these cool little minds that are filled with an optimism and a joy.” He is also a consultant (though he probably likes that word about as much as “content”) at Apple Music, where he co-created the streaming service with his longtime friend and former label head Jimmy Iovine. And, alongside writing partner Atticus Ross, Reznor has become the maestro behind the music for all of Fincher’s films since 2010’s The Social Network, for which the duo won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. (“Surreal,” is how Reznor describes his Oscar experience. “It’s a nice little statue to have that I keep hidden because I feel like an asshole.”)

Given all this, one has to wonder why Reznor would choose to spend part of an otherwise lovely Wednesday evening chewing out his lighting guy. Or worrying, as he evidently does, that he will seem somehow less vital when juxtaposed with Frank Ocean on some festival bill. “Because it might fail,” Reznor explains, simply. It’s the same reason he is making new NIN music. Last week saw the release of Add Violence, the second EP in a series that began with last December’s Not the Actual Events; the third is planned, Reznor says, for release by the end of the year. “As a piece of music without storytelling nonsense, it’s a nice EP,” he says of Add Violence. Taken as a whole, the trio of EPs will deliver what Reznor hopes is “an interesting narrative that feels important and relevant to what is happening in the world right now.” He pauses. “I sound pretentious.”

Sparkling water — preferably mango-flavored — is Reznor’s drug of choice these days, since he gave up pursuing whatever mind-alteration fueled his 1994 masterpiece, The Downward Spiral — which he famously recorded in the Hollywood Hills mansion where Sharon Tate was murdered — and partying with Marilyn Manson circa 1996’s Antichrist Superstar (which Reznor produced). But even then, Reznor was primarily driven by a perverse lust for the possibility of failure. “Let me explain,” he says, ever decorous. “I used to think I was depressed, and through therapy I’ve been told, ‘You’re not depressed, but you’re a couple quarts low. You just need to get some air in the tires.’ My way of compensating for that is to work harder, to compensate for what I think I’m inadequate about, which is…everything.”

“Part of the reason to go looking for Trent is his dissatisfaction,” says Fincher. “It’s a riptide, what Trent does. There can be incredibly beautiful melodies, but there’s always this tendency for what’s underneath it to be haunting. You have this beautiful melody sitting on top of this thing that is making you somehow dissatisfied with the beauty of it, and that’s a really interesting conundrum. It’s like those two things are nesting together. And that feels like the human condition to me. I find it soothing. It’s connected to a kind of longing that I relate to.”

Reznor’s feeling of inadequacy — and his discovery of the one way he could reliably relieve it — began when he was very young. “At an early age I started playing piano and I felt like I was connected to it and it could make me feel better about myself,” he recalls. “If life was shitty, I could play piano. I had something to say through this thing.” This was in rural Mercer, Pennsylvania, where, after his parents divorced when he was six, Reznor was raised by his maternal grandparents. Music provided a sense of escape, a channel to vent that primitive sadness, but it wasn’t some brutal childhood he needed to get away from — it was the oppressive banality of small-town U.S.A. “I learned about rock music and, and I mean — being Gene Simmons…” he begins. “I know now it’s a different perception, but at the time it was like, fuck, man, that’s a lot more exciting than the gas station or a fuckin’ real job.”

Reznor always knew what he wanted to do, but it took some time to get there. “My attempts at writing were me trying to sound like someone else that wasn’t me and I knew wasn’t me,” he says. “I wanted to write political music like the Clash. Then I realized that, aside from being a Caucasian male, that’s where the similarities end.” NIN’s 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, was the result of Reznor embracing and aggressively expressing his own lameness, as he saw it. “I’d been keeping a diary that was written like lyrics and matching it up with music and not feeling like I could show it to anybody because it wasn’t really in character, because it was just guts spilled on the page,” he says. “But it had a truthfulness to it.”

It’s easy to miss beneath the gnashing synths and primordial basslines — and the way Reznor looked in his ripped fishnets and goth shag — but many of the great early NIN tracks are heartbreakingly sincere odes to that classic rock-boy theme of romantic devastation. (“All that I’ve been hearing must be true/I guess I’m not the only boy for you/How could you turn me into this/After you just taught me how to kiss/I told you I’d never say goodbye/I’m slipping on the tears you made me cry,” he screams on “That’s What I Get.” In a different setting, the lyrics could be from an early Beatles tune.) NIN may have ventured into the same dark musical space as gloomy, enraged greats like Big Black or Ministry, but Reznor’s emotional wavelength was more in line with brothers in sexually frustrated Middle American arms like the Violent Femmes and Cheap Trick.

Expressing that yearning kept Reznor going for a long, long time, through his whirlwind rise to fame after The Downward Spiral; the subsequent fall from commercial, creative, and existential grace that was 1999’s double album The Fragile; and even through his retreat to what was then his goth-lair home base in New Orleans. “Until the drugs took me down,” he says. By the early 2000s, Reznor had gotten sober and relocated to the comparative tranquility of Los Angeles.

“Coming out of that hole with a new reset and a more humble approach toward my life, getting married, having a family, has provided a lot of sense of stability and home,” he says. “Like, now I fit in someplace: my house.”

One of the byproducts of that newfound stability, Reznor says, was that he began to spend more time as a living, breathing, fully conscious human. “I remembered more things,” he offers, laughing. But it also changed how he made music, and it allowed him to pursue a long list of creative desires he’d never before given himself permission to indulge. (“I’ve always wanted to be a director,” he says. “I like storytelling.”) The Downward Spiral began “with an elaborate story I wanted to tell,” Reznor recalls. For 2007’s anti-Bush fantasia, Year Zero, Reznor constructed a “world bible” to go with the album’s companion video game, which BBC America and HBO actually attempted to adapt. “They got so far as hiring a writer for it, but then it fell to shit because we never had the right writer,” Reznor recalls. “I should have just done it [myself].”

So when Fincher called asking Reznor to score The Social Network, the singer said yes. And a few years later, when, over dinner, Iovine mentioned the curated music streaming service he wanted to launch at Apple, Reznor was all about it. He’d long been “itching to go to fans direct,” as he puts it, and was tired “of being at a label where they were bitching about people not wanting to buy CDs,” he remembers. “People were interested in what I’m doing and I’m supposed to be mad at them for listening to my music? Come on, man.”

But more than that, there was a part of Reznor that had always wondered: Could he function in the straight world? The answer was yes. And also no. After spending the better part of the past few years commuting to Northern California, to the Apple campus in Cupertino, the primary feeling Reznor began to experience was one of guilt. He remembers talking to Dave Sitek, the TV on the Radio co-founder and producer. “I’d ask Sitek, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’d say, ‘I’m in the studio with so-and-so.’ Meanwhile, what am I doing? I’m in a meeting. Um…I…just…what am I doing?”

Ironically, it took a failed attempt at adapting to corporate life for Reznor to embrace being the artist he already was. “It made me feel better about saying, ‘I’m a musician,’ ” he explains. “I’m interested in these other things, but they’re hobbies. This is what I do.”

Like all sentient beings, Reznor has been hit hard by world events from the past year. “Part of the motivation for playing these shows is my increased sense of mortality,” he says, then laughs. “I don’t mean to sound overly morbid, but having friends die more frequently than before…” He trails off. Reznor was very close to David Bowie, and NIN delivered an exquisite cover of Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away” in Bakersfield. “Last year we lost someone very important to us, and to me personally,” he’d said onstage. “We were in the studio kind of messing around, and it felt like we needed to do something, to process it in some way, so we worked on a song of his that gave us some sort of closure. It felt good to us — we didn’t release it, but we’ll play it for you now.”

Then there’s the Trump administration and the current political tenor of the country. “Clearly I find it…disheartening,” Reznor says. But as a kid from the Rust Belt, he feels a deep connection to that part of the country, and resents the coastal liberal bubble that dismisses the realities of life back in his hometown. “When you’re not in an urban environment, you often feel left out of the conversation, and I get that. I grew up in that.” For that reason, Reznor says, he has taken extra care when talking to his kids about Trump. “Donald Trump is a bad guy, isn’t he?” Reznor recalls his six-year-old asking recently, after busting Dad indulging in what Reznor admits is a full-blown cable news addiction. Reznor responded carefully. “Look, I don’t think he’s a good guy. Some people do,” he told his son. “I don’t think he believes in science and I don’t think he believes people should be treated decently and I don’t think he tells the truth. That’s why I don’t like him.”

In more adult company, however, Reznor doesn’t mince words. “It’s tough, because the president of the United States is a complete fucking moron,” he seethes. “That’s what gets me the most — that he’s this vulgar, grotesque dope, everything I hate in people.”

And yet, even though the world he lives in now perhaps more closely resembles the existentially dreadful, morally bereft, lonely hellhole that first inspired him to put fingers to keys, Reznor is, at this stage of his life, much better equipped to manage it. For the moment, he’s choosing to participate in the resistance by simply getting onstage and trying to make people feel more alive, and thus less dug in to their own lane, whether that’s mod vs. goth or Democrat vs. Republican. “I hate that walled-garden effect, where you’re preaching to your safe audience,” he says. “I like the idea of trying to reach people who aren’t following me on Twitter.”

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