Trent Reznor on ‘the David Fincher experience’ and 25 years of ‘Pretty Hate Machine’

10.23.14 2 years ago 20 Comments

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It's been a while since I caught up with Trent Reznor. Since we last spoke he's won an Oscar for composing (with Atticus Ross) David Fincher's “Social Network” score and gone on to collaborate with the director on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl.” He's also somehow found time to put out a new Nine Inch Nails album and knock out a few tours, though at a recent Las Vegas show he announced that this recent jaunt with Seattle band Soundgarden would be his last for a long time. Is he refocusing and doubling down on his efforts in the world of film music composition? Maybe.

Funnily enough, we were speaking on Tuesday, which happened to be a day after NIN's debut album “Pretty Hate Machine” celebrated its 25th anniversary (Oct. 20, 1989), which by anyone's measure is just bonkers to consider. “Head Like a Hole” is a 25-year-old song? “Terrible Lie” is a 25-year-old song? “Sanctified” is a 25-year-old song? Crazy.

So we talked a bit about that, about plans after touring, certainly about “Gone Girl” and how film composing was a perfect fit for a guy who always thinks in visual terms when writing music. Read through the back and forth below, and for a little more, check our video interview with Reznor from a few weeks back embedded at the top of this post.

“Gone Girl” is now playing at a theater near you.

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HitFix: We talked back around “The Social Network,” but not since you won the Oscar. A very belated congratulations on that. That was an awesome moment, I thought, just to see something truly unique in the realm of film music win an award like that.

Trent Reznor: Oh, thanks very much. I appreciate that. That was a pretty surreal moment.

I just wanted to start here today by asking something about Nine Inch Nails if it's OK. I went to both your Vegas and your Hollywood Bowl shows this year, the ones you did with Soundgarden, and at the Vegas show you mentioned something along the lines of it being your last tour for a long time. I'm just curious, what's up?

Well, there's no plans on touring for some time in the future, if ever. I mean, I've learned not to say it's the end because, you know, you never know when motivation and inspiration strikes. But I've got some things planned for the next few years that take me out of the game of touring for a bit, so no. There's no finality to that but the next several years of my life will not involve tour buses and being on stage.

Got it. Let's talk about “Gone Girl.” I can't think of a non-hackneyed way to ask this, but do you think in cinematic terms at all when you're writing music? Not necessarily just film music but in general, do you think in those terms?

Yeah, very much. I mean I remember having conversations years ago with a friend of mine who's a well-known producer. He was telling me that the art of songwriting is something where you could just play it on a piano or a guitar and sing it and if the song is good enough, that's all you need. The dressing doesn't matter. It's about the bones of what the song's written about. And I don't disagree with that, but I do disagree with that in the sense that to me it's always been about, certainly, what the song is trying to say and the melody, etc. It's a little more traditional as for the songwriting. But the set dressing does matter, you know, in the sound. I guess what I'm getting at is I've always kind of thought about the arrangement as being pretty integral to the way it feels. So I realize when I write music for Nine Inch Nails, for example, I'm thinking in terms usually of a visual thing. Now the album “Ghosts,” which is more soundtrack-y than Nine Inch Nails-ish or song-ish, was a study of just that, starting with the visuals – whether it be an actual picture or it was something I'd imagined or a place imagined in my mind. So I think about the instrumentation about the types of sounds and the way the sound makes you feel and kind of dress that set with arrangement sound. And moving into the world of actually scoring films, the end result, what I'm actually trying to achieve, is a bit different, but the methodology of getting there isn't radically different than the way I approach arranging music for Nine Inch Nails. I'm visualizing something and I'm trying to frame that with sound and music.

Do you get overly concerned with making sure your scores are dynamic, in that they work as standalone pieces divorced from picture?

What I learned right away was that in our approach, the only thing that matters is how it melds into the picture. It's service to the picture. And that is different than what I do elsewhere, where I'm hoping a hundred percent of your attention is on the sound. This is more in working in the fabric of the film and trying to make that emotional experience of being absorbed into that the best it can be. And sometimes it needs to be very subliminal and takes a back seat to what else is going on. That requires a bit of ego-checking on my part. But the way we approach writing is, rather than start by looking at a scene and thinking, “OK, we need a 30-second piece of music that does this thing or fills a space in a certain way or manipulates your feelings in a certain way,” we'll usually start with creating a piece of music that's a four- or five-minute long chunk that examines a certain feeling and feels like a piece of music you would listen to. And then what we'll do is adapt that and extract some things from that to fit those scenes in the film that are of a set length and need to accomplish a certain thing by a certain timeframe point. So it feels more familiar to be because I'm working in terms of a longer piece of music, which I'm accustomed to making, if that makes any sense. So I'm trying to achieve two goals: one, that the music disappears into the film and becomes part of that whole, and secondly, when we finish the film, then we turn our attention to the soundtrack album. And that's when we really refer back to those original compositions that are longer length. I think it gives us a leg up because at that point now I am trying to make a record you could listen to that stands on its own. That's always a very secondary concern to making the film the best it can be.

I like the direction Fincher gave you about massage parlor music and music that offers a false sense of welcome and comfort. It's so specific. Do you sort of feel that out on the keyboard yourself or do you do anything akin to scouting, looking for that direction in the wild?

The scouting was more, say, “Let's look up some other examples of music you might hear for relaxation,” or that sort of thing, to either validate what you'd thought that sounded like – you know, from memory and kind of get an idea – or think about it in ways I'd never really thought about it. I'm getting the song somewhere and drifting off. I'm trying to not analyze the music I'm listening to and think about chord changes and what kind of voicings are being used. So we did a little bit of that just to touch base. And when I say a little I mean maybe 20 minutes of some searching on the Internet and listening to a few things and saying, “OK, we're in the right ballpark.” And then it's really just our kind of interpretation of what that might be without the getting specific in scenes. But that kind of seed that David can plant is very useful because it sends us down a path that I know we wouldn't have thought to start with. It's a starting point that branches out into whatever it branches off into. But it's very useful at the start of a project like that, to have some guidance that sends you down a path.

How does the feeling of finishing a film score compare with finishing an album?

Hmm. I find it a little harder to be objective in the role of film because I've – that's a good question. I haven't really thought about that. When I'm finished with an album I've listened to – I've created the entire thing, so I know how it fits together quite well. When you finish a film, at least it's our experience that I'm very tuned in to certain parts of that film that are music-intensive. But there's other stretches that I haven't been paying as much attention to, whether it might be a five-minute chunk of no music of any kind. It may have shifted and changed quite a bit that I just haven't been paying attention to it, because I've been focused on just the bits we've had to work on. So at the very end, you know, after you're somewhat sick of seeing certain chunks of film, which you've seen hundreds of times, it's tough sometimes to say, “Now I'm going to sit down for two and a half hours and try to watch this thing as a whole.” It feels different than say an album, where you've worked on every second, every millisecond of that thing, and you put it together, and it's equally hard to be objective, but you know what's coming.

I always find a surprise at that screening at the end where, “Well, I didn't realize that that had changed,” or, “I haven't usually seen this particular scene with the following bits that precede it,” because I haven't been watching those because there isn't anything for me to do in there on that one. That changes the tone. It's also very interesting to watch – I mean, this is the same as with an album – you finish something you've worked on forever, and the second you bring someone else in to hear it, it sounds completely different to you. Just having someone else in the room that's experiencing it for the first time, it's very clear. If it's an album I'm certain that that song isn't as good as the other ones all if a sudden. That lyric I should have changed. And I can maybe still have time to change it. Seeing the film in a room full of people where everybody's watching for the first time, suddenly everybody's laughing at scenes that I didn't realize were funny. I mean, I've seen it 3,000 times. And conversely, “I thought that was funny and nobody reacted. All right.” It's an interesting perspective when you experience it.

I'm curious if you have any plans to work with other filmmakers. You and Fincher have a great collaboration but I think you probably have a lot of fans who would be interesting to see you branch out.

Yeah, I'm totally open to whatever makes sense. You know, I've been fitting in these films around Nine Inch Nail stuff and other things and it's been just such a privilege to work with David and it's such an artistically rewarding experience and a challenging one. I've been blown away by the David Fincher experience but I'm totally open to something else, you know, the right sort of thing. If our interests line up and it feels interesting to me, absolutely.

Swinging back to NIN, can you believe yesterday made it 25 years since “Pretty Hate Machine?”

Yeah I didn't realize that until I just kind of glanced on Twitter and saw some people mentioning that. It's crazy. I mean I remember when 20 years hit. That was kind of one of those, “How old have I – what's happened?” Like, “Has it really been 20 years?” Twenty years seems – that is a long time. Twenty-five I thought, “Hey, I was half the age I am right now when I wrote that album.” It's strange to think about that. I don't know, weird. It's strange how time moves. In some ways it seems like that was 25 years ago and in other ways it seems like it was five years ago.

Something about that album that I find sort of miraculous – it's always miraculous when anything, a film, a song, whatever has this quality – but it's sort of timeless. Nothing about it places it in its era to me. Do you find that or are you too close to it to really take note of that kind of thing?

Yeah, it's weird. That's a weird one for me because I hear a naïve 23-year-old kid, 24-year-old kid that didn't quite know what he was doing in the studio and wasn't sure of himself. And there's the charms to that. I get that. But when it's yourself and you're hypercritical as I am, it's tough for me to get past some things that I would do differently now, and probably ruin it if I did it now, for sure. But everything I've put out I feel proud of and it was the best I could do. It was who I was and the most representative of who I was at the time. As I have changed over time sometimes it gets a little slippery slope to look at that, those eras, because, you know, it was you. But no, I'm proud of that record. But when I hear it there's things – I can't get away from, “Oh, I should have done this differently.” Endless self-editing.

Yeah. Well look man, it's always great to talk to you. Ever since I saw the insanity of that “Wish” video I've been a fan. And it took me years before I finally was able to see you live and I just have to say, it is, truly, some of the best showmanship around. I know you put a ton of sweat into those things and I just have to let you know it shows.

Well I really, really appreciate hearing that. Thank you, man.    

Congratulations on “Gone Girl” and good luck going forward. Great talking to you.

All right. Well, again, thanks very much. Talk to you next time.

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