“I get anxious about long interviews,” says Trent Reznor, smiling shyly from a leather couch at an empty hotel bar in Bakersfield, California, “but it’s nice to have a break from rehearsing the set and feeling suicidal about how much more work we have to do.” Sipping from an early-morning black coffee, Reznor is dressed in heavy boots, green cargo shorts, and a black T-shirt. He’s here with Nine Inch Nails, the musical project he’s led since 1988, to prepare for a spate of summer festival appearances, including one at New York’s Panorama, in support of the band’s new Add Violence EP, the second in a planned trio of releases all connected by the same cryptic story line.
Those efforts represent the first new Nine Inch Nails recordings since 2013’s Hesitation Marks, but with Reznor, silence is never a sign of inactivity. Of late, this paragon of musical and emotional extremism has become a respected voice on the promise and failure of streaming music, and works closely with Apple Music on the tech giant’s efforts in that realm.
(He’s also become an Oscar-winning film composer, in partnership with his NIN bandmate Atticus Ross.) It does seem, though, that returning to the music that made him famous has put Reznor in an expansive — and pugnacious — mood. Or maybe he’s just a little antsy in anticipation of the impending live shows. “These are my last few moments of life,” he says as the conversation begins, “let’s make the most of it.”
For a long time, you were one of the real avatars of white male angst and anger. Have you noticed a change in how those feelings get expressed culturally? There’s a toxicity and meanness in the air now that I don’t think was there when you one were, for lack of a better term, a poster boy for alienation.
I never thought about Nine Inch Nails in that context. From my perspective, I was doing what Morrissey and Robert Smith had done, which was expressing a sense of “I don’t fucking fit in anywhere.” It was never about any larger cultural sense of oppression or disenfranchisement. I was thinking if we can take music that embraces and toughens up the sound of electronics, brings the aggression of Throbbing Gristle and hard rock, and also instills an honest lyric — we might have something. I don’t think what we were tapping into was at all similar to the absurdity of whatever Gamergate represents, if that’s what you’re suggesting.
It’s part of it. I’m sure this is both simplistic and naïvely idealistic, but I can’t help but think there are a lot of alienated people out there who might be better served by the kind of catharsis Nine Inch Nails was offering in 1994 than by whatever itch is getting scratched by being an online troll.
I sort of think I was kind of a trailblazer when it comes to getting trolled, so I’m very familiar with the rage that seems to fuel the Trump voter or the angry internet commenter. When we first started off, our interaction with our audience would be someone recognizing you at a record store and saying, “I’m not a fan, but my so-and-so is.” Okay, fuck you. Or people would find out where you live and send you a letter and you’d read something that clearly came from an insane person. Then the internet connected everybody. I remember the Prodigy bulletin board and being fascinated to see there was a Nine Inch Nails room. The promise of that kind of interaction with fans was exciting. The consequences of how that interaction has evolved have not been.
What are were those consequences?
One is the demystification of artists. Growing up, I didn’t know what Pink Floyd looked like and I didn’t need to know. In my mind, they looked like fucking wizards, man. I remember seeing a picture of Supertramp — and I loved Breakfast in America — and I was like, What the fuck?
You know, intentionally or not, Supertramp was all about shattering illusions.
Forget just photos: I didn’t know anything about them. Something in me needed the people making the music I loved to seem larger in life. I needed heroes. David Bowie was a fucking alien, you know? As it happens, he was a fucking alien. I was lucky enough to be friends with him and he was even cooler than I’d thought. But demystification is a real problem. There’ve been people whose music I can’t like anymore because I’ve seen them bitching on Twitter about a waiter like a fucking asshole.
Can you tell me who?
I don’t really want to start a battle. I’ll give you a good counterexample: I appreciate what Radiohead has been doing the last few years. You’re not saturated with stories about them. They’re not in the press constantly talking about stuff. They create an aura that makes you more interested in what they’re doing. That’s a good position to be in versus what I’m doing right now, which I’m sure is ruining people’s impression of me.
What are other consequences of fans knowing more about the musicians they love? And also of being able to communicate with them?
Another problem is that it’s too easy to listen to the opinion of the anonymous basement-dweller, and that’s bad for art. Criticism hurts. Hearing someone say that you’re a piece of shit or that the song you’re insecure about sucks is harmful. And I have a hard time unhearing that stuff, so I really had to learn not pay attention. When I did Pretty Hate Machine, I didn’t think anybody was going to hear it. Then suddenly it was, “Hey, X amount of people bought your record and it’s time to write a new one.” And you’re thinking, I wonder what they liked about that other record I made? What if I want to take a detour into free jazz? How is that going to go over? When you’re not thinking about the audience, you can make more pure art.
Are there any artists that you think are using social media smartly? I know they exist in a different online world than you, but people like Drake and Taylor Swift sure seem canny about how and when they engage with fans.
Those examples would probably be the best answer to this question. I don’t pay much attention, but I see what Drake’s been able to pull off in terms of being omnipresent and constantly engaging an audience that seems to enjoy the way he’s engaging them. I’m just not part of that audience. I’m not as well-rounded as I used to be about pop culture. I’m not saying pop music isn’t well-crafted or the people who make it aren’t wonderful, but it’s not for me. I’ve asked people, “What is it that’s good about Drake?” I’ve said to my friends at Apple: “Explain to me why.” As the old guy, I don’t see it.
Did anybody give you any satisfactory answers?
I wasn’t even asking cynically. I was curious what it is that he’s touching on. The answers I got made me go, “That’s it?” But knowing the right way to interact with your crowd in a way that feels cool is a good thing. I’m just doing it for a different sized audience. The stakes aren’t the same for me, and that’s fine.
Because of your work with Beats and Apple Music, and also because of how quickly Nine Inch Nails adapted to various online realities, you’re often held up as someone who credibly bridges music and tech. Do you feel culturally at home in both worlds? Is there anything to the idea that tech entrepreneurs are the new rock stars?
What a load of bullshit that is. It’s important to unpack a couple things: What’s your quantification of success? Is it money or something else? This is nothing against somebody who has a great idea and wants to get funded — more power to you. That’s a cool new economy, and coding is an incredibly creative and artful medium. But if success is purely measured in how high on some Forbes list you are, then by all means, go make a new app. I’m biased: Music or film or writing or journalism — things that inspire emotional connections are so much more important to me than things that only have utilitarian ends. I’m glad someone figured out a food-delivery service. That’s made my life a little bit better. But that’s not that interesting to me. A good song can become part of my soul. So this whole nonsense about tech rock stars is farce. What else were we saying about tech world?
How you fit into it.
My experience with Beats Music and then at Apple largely was dismissed from outside, maybe justifiably, as here’s another celebrity moron holding up a phone and expecting some sort of credit. That kind of situation, which mine isn’t, would be insulting to the people that actually are doing the important jobs. And I don’t want to hear about “Ashton Kutcher’s a fucking tech genius.” I don’t give a shit about that. He seems like an asshole.
[Laughs.] I don’t know where that rage just came from. But all I can say is that I’ve learned a hell of a lot from working at Beats and Apple. I’ve seen a lot, and it’s interesting to be behind the scenes and meet really cool, smart people that I highly respect. Now, and I’m not talking about Apple here: I’m not yearning to be a tech guy. Being in that world has made me realize the true value of being an artist. The economics of music aren’t what they should be, and the culture isn’t giving the arts its fair due, but humans are always going to respond to emotion and storytelling. I believe that as much as I ever did. More, even.
During the peak of Nine Inch Nails’ notoriety, you were one of the culture’s real bogeymen. I remember watching the band’s videos and being sort of scared of you. What was the appeal back then of being shocking?
It might be better phrased to say that my interest was in being subversive rather than shocking. I wanted to see how extreme I could be. I had a bigger audience than I ever expected to have, and around the time of The Downward Spiral, when Jimmy Iovine came into my life, I had the opportunity to make a video with a willing corporate entity. It seemed exciting to take a song like “Happiness in Slavery,” that had zero commercial potential, and use a proper budget to film something that perhaps crossed a line. I was doing my version of something like the magazines you’d find in the back room at the S&M store — opening up portals into cults and behaviors that you didn’t know about. Did the 27-year-old me know it would be shocking if we put out a version of that video where there’s a naked penis and performance artist Bob Flanagan gets ground up? Yes, I knew it would be shocking.
What about something like the fact that you lived and worked in a house where the Manson family killed people? Was that part of the same desire to be subversive?
No. I had to answer questions about that for ten years. I can tell you the story behind recording The Downward Spiral in the Sharon Tate house: We were looking for a place to work on the album, and I saw a number of places, and one of them happened to be the house where the Tate murders occurred. But no one told us that.
You can imagine a realtor not wanting to mention that.
I just didn’t know. That place sits up on a hill overlooking Beverly Hills, with the ocean on one side and downtown in the other direction — it was a cool, tranquil little ranch house with a nice yard. And it was cheaper than the rest of them.
That’s always a clue.
I remember having dinner with [music booker] Ian Copeland and he asked where I was going to be in L.A., and I mentioned a house on Cielo Drive. He said, “That’s where the Manson murders took place.” I had read Helter Skelter as a kid and was freaked out by it; Ian said he had a copy. So we finished dinner, and I got his copy of the book and turned to the pictures in the middle. I’m thinking, Man it would be fucking crazy if it’s the same house. Then I saw a picture that showed a wooden ladder going up to the loft — I’d just gone up there earlier that day — and I thought, Holy shit, it’s the same place. No part of me thought, That’d be cool!
People thought your staying there was contrived.
And it wasn’t. I wasn’t trying to create some manufactured spooky thing. Any shock value to what I was doing was about trying to sneak subversive things to a wide audience. With Marilyn Manson, who I thought was a great artist back then, he knew exactly what he was doing and exactly what would be shocking. Those were very conscious decisions on his part. What I was doing wasn’t the same thing.
Not that long ago, I read an interview with Eddie Vedder, and he was talking about how one of his kids had listened to a song he’d done and got really upset to hear his dad sound like he was in so much pain.
I know where you’re going with this.
When your kids are old enough to discover songs like “Closer” and “Hurt” I assume they’ll have questions. Have you thought about what your answers might be?
I’m not looking forward to the “Closer” talk, which is probably going to happen quicker than I’d like. Just this morning, me and my two older boys were sitting in the hotel restaurant. Their mom has played the new EP for them a couple times. They’re like, “My favorite song is ‘Less Than’.” That’s sweet, but then I’m thinking, Don’t I say ‘fuck’ in that one? Same thing when they were at sound check: What song don’t I say ‘fuck’ in? I’ll tell you another thing I think about: I’m now thrust into adult events — school things with other parents, and just … You’re not really thinking about how lyrics that seemed cool at the time are going to register with parents at your kid’s school 20 years later.
The music that made Nine Inch Nails popular came out of your trying to transcend some dark emotions. Your life is obviously a lot more settled now. Do you find it’s getting harder to generate the feelings that drive Nine Inch Nails?
The first album [Pretty Hate Machine] came out of me being in my early 20s when I knew I had something to say but didn’t know what it was. Before that, I was imitating stuff. I was trying to pretend I was Joe Strummer and it felt insincere, because it was insincere. It wasn’t until I’d been keeping a journal and turning those thoughts into lyrics and setting incredibly painful and naked feelings to music that I stepped out in front as myself. That honesty gave Nine Inch Nails a power that carried through the first few records.
Then you get older. I’m 52. Somehow that happened. I don’t feel like I’m 52.
How old do you feel?
Developmentally, I feel like I’m still in my early 30s; my body’s starting to feel like a little older than that. But I’ve found a way to relook at who I am in the context of my music and in the context of the world, not just myself. The world has gotten weirder. Especially politically.
Trump is the question hanging over so many artists right now.
I’ve been struggling with that, especially as far as the live performance and my trying to be a provocateur. I’m sure I’m doing what many people are trying to do in response to the election: understand, quantify, justify, rationalize, find comfort, feel animosity, should I say something? Should I do something? Should I give up?
So have you landed on anything helpful?
Well, the weird thing now is looking at politics as a father. My kids walk in the room and I’ve got CNN or MSNBC on and I have to hit the mute button because I don’t want to get into a discussion about how embarrassing the president is. He’s a fucking vulgarian. Aside from whatever ideological beliefs he has — if he has any — he’s a grotesque person who represents everything I hate. I’m repulsed by everything about him and he’s the president, you know? I haven’t figured out how to rationalize that to my kids’ beautiful little optimistic minds. I grew up in a shitty little town full of Trump voters, so I think I can I understand the point of view of someone who supports his message. What I don’t understand is supporting that messenger.
On the subject of provocation, I want to ask about something you do in concert. During “Hurt,” the video screen behind the band shows this montage of atrocities: concentration camps and nuclear explosions and prisoners of war being shot in the head. I get that the song is about the pain humans inflict on each other, and the point is to disturb audiences, but ever since I saw you play live, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that using that kind of imagery in the service of amplifying the emotion of a rock concert is hard to justify. Does that make even a little sense?
It does, but I hadn’t thought about that specific question before. I’ve seen that footage so many times and it’s become part of the canon of what we do in concert. And when we’re playing live, the footage is behind me so I’m not seeing it the way you are. To back up a bit, that footage comes from the video for the song, and we hired a guy, Simon Maxwell, who licensed the images and put them all together. I liked what he did. I won’t say I didn’t. I would like to say more thought went into it, but honestly, it mostly just felt like a nice way to close parts of the show.
The persona of the “shocking” rock star has pretty much disappeared from the culture. Is that because musicians have become scared of negative attention? Or is there just not much left for a rock star to do that’s shocking anymore?
I’ve thought about this a lot and I don’t have a good answer. I’ll try and piece together a theory with you right now: Something that’s struck me as a significant shift, and I don’t know when it started, is when the corporate entity became a benefactor as opposed to a thing musicians shunned. When I hear Grizzly Bear in a Volkswagen commercial, it kind of bums me out. I like Grizzly Bear a lot; I don’t want to think of a fucking car when I hear their song. But somewhere along the line it became okay to get in bed with a sponsor. More specifically it became okay for rock bands to talk about. When I started to hear musicians talking about their sponsorship deals as something to be almost proud of, it bothered me. I remember having a conversation with a well-known EDM artist. Half of the brief conversation was him humblebragging about how many corporate sponsors he’s got: I can’t do this thing because I don’t want to piss that sponsor off and I can’t do that thing because I need to make sure this other sponsorship deal stays in place. That’s not what the spirit of being a musician or a rock star is. Why are these people even making music? I’m doing it because I have to get something out and I feel vital when it resonates with someone else. When I can get paid, too, that’s a nice consequence.
Isn’t the financial landscape different for bands now than it was when Nine Inch Nails took off?
The avenues of being able to pay your rent as a musician have changed dramatically. I get it. Do I think it’s bad that a band explores ways to get paid for their music? Ultimately no. But I don’t feel governed by it and I don’t feel restricted about whether or not representing myself in a certain way might close down licensing potential with certain key demographics. Thinking about profits and sponsors is not conducive to strong artistic thinking. I don’t know if I’m just older and not seeing it, but I don’t feel like there are a lot of strong stances out there. One avenue where it seems people are trying to be provocative is by seeing how gratuitously sexy something can be. Take the “Anaconda” video. Is that supposed to be sexy? How about we just have full gynecological probing in a video? There’s a vulgarity to it. I don’t know. Maybe lines are being pushed in that way and I’m just blind to it.
While we’re talking about perspective: Most of the other acts you’re playing festivals with this summer are a generation younger than Nine Inch Nails. What do you think you represent to people who didn’t grow up during the ’90s?
Probably the strangest aspect of having a career that lasts is trying to maintain any objectivity about how you’re perceived. We go out and play and I look at the audience, and they look like the same demographic I’ve been seeing for 25 years — maybe the people my age are further away from the stage these days. I don’t know. I’ve just tried to keep the idea of Nine Inch Nails as honest and valid as it can be, where I don’t feel like I’m dressing up as a character that I created years ago and am only doing it for financial reasons. As far as what other people think, I understand that we’re set against a backdrop of rock music being in decline.
If you’re asking is rock dead, no, rock’s not fucking dead. It’s not in its most innovative state at the moment, but the feeling — when I say “rock,” I don’t mean necessarily the way it sounds; I mean the attitude, the rebelliousness — that’s not going away. Maybe the promoters of festivals like the ones we’re doing are being cynical and deciding they need a rock band to be one of the headliners. It may be as simple as that, and there’s not many rock bands left, so here we are. It’s like reading reviews — will you allow me to go on a tangent?
Yeah, of course.
Over the last ten years, there’ve been times where I’ve looked in the mirror and thought, Is there an audience out there for what I do? I labor over music that I meticulously create and then release it into a world where music has become disposable. People listen to music while they’re doing something else, you know? The act of even having to go to the store and make the commitment to purchase something is gone and it’s not coming back. It can make me feel a bit like, Is anybody noticing?
Are you asking if anybody’s noticing what’s happened to the way we consume music or if anybody’s noticing the effort you’re putting into Nine Inch Nails?
I think maybe they’re related. We’ll agonize over the most minute of details, and a lot of times we never receive feedback. It doesn’t feel like people live with music as much as they used to, and that music’s role isn’t quite as important as, say, it was to me.
Don’t you think a Lorde fan is just as passionate about her as you were about David Bowie and Pink Floyd? I never quite understand why older music fans assume younger ones are less emotionally engaged with the music they love.
I fully get that. I don’t want to sound like I’m a Luddite clinging to the good ol’ days when life made more sense. I try to put myself in the shoes of someone consuming things in new ways. But in the pre-internet caveman world that I grew up in, the album was an escape, and you read things into that cover artwork. Music became the canvas I could project onto; it became my story of myself. I hope it’s not just a concept to think that music still can perform that function for some faction of the audience.
I think it can be hard to see beyond your own emotional paradigms about this kind of stuff.
Yeah, it’s tough not to veer into a get-off-my-lawn attitude. My complaint — I was thinking about this earlier today for some reason — and it’s not so much a complaint as it is an observation, is that I grew up in a little shitty town outside the range of college radio. I had FM radio, I had Rolling Stone, and later, I had a subscription to Village Voice, which seemed like it came from different world. That kind of cultural isolation made discovering music exciting. When I went to college in the early ’80s and discovered independent record shops, it was like, I’ve got so much catching up to do. I’d never heard of XTC, then I’d learn they had six albums for me to listen to. I’d never want to discredit the feelings of the 16-year-old who completely relates to Lorde, but there’s something to be said for not having the ability to just skip to the next song, not having endless playlists, not having unlimited choice, not having to choose music over video games and endless television and looking at mindless humblebragging someone is doing on social media about their awesome life. You used to actually have to decide to spend time with music rather than just idly picking it from a plethora of options.
Wouldn’t a music obsessive like yourself have loved having the same choices that listeners have now?
Again, I’m not saying mine was a better era, but a lot of the music I ended up really loving was because I spent nine bucks on an album and that meant I had to listen to it and figure it out. Or maybe I forgot to sign the slip for the Columbia Record Club and they sent me a Billy Joel album I never asked for. Then you get it and you’re like, Oh fuck. But you know what? I listened to that album a thousand times simply because that was the record I’d paid for, and I ended up loving Billy Joel’s 52nd Street.
Basically you’re saying sweat equity matters.
Yeah, it does. I’m not saying there aren’t a million great things about streaming music. Being able to have access to every obscure Frank Zappa album is good; I was never going to hear a lot of them as a teenager, because I didn’t have the money to buy all 600 albums he put out. But I don’t think I’m being a crank if I suggest that maybe there’s some drawbacks to the all-access, all-free world we’re living in.
Is your decision to release EPs rather than a full album your version of trying to split the difference between making a big musical statement while also acknowledging that, in 2017, albums are not necessarily the way people make big musical statements?
Let me preface my answer with an old story, very briefly: We were on Interscope Records for a long time. Being there made a lot of sense in the early ’90s. We had a company that was actively trying to support us and promote us. Then as it got into the early and mid-2000s and file sharing decimated things, you found yourself in a very frustrating place as an artist: You were supposed to be angry at fans because they wanted to listen to your music? The feeling of seeing someone get a hold of a record and share it online a month before it was officially supposed to come out is not the same feeling as going to play in Mexico City and seeing a knock-off merchandise village set up outside your show. That thing starts to feel like — not to be mister capitalist guy — but that starts to feel like getting ripped off. File sharing didn’t. File sharing was just people wanting to hear your music.
That’s not how the industry treated it.
The thing is, artists were trained in the 2000s to feel like, “Well, if you’re a fan, you won’t listen to stolen music.” That’s bullshit. You should be grateful that someone’s interested enough in what you’re doing that they’ll go to the trouble of stealing it. The whole premise of how music was delivered in the CD era was stupid. Nobody wanted to buy compact discs. There was a better music shop and it was called Napster or What CD or OiNK. It was curated better and it had every version of everything you wanted.
I’m not quite seeing the connection to releasing EPs.
Okay, let’s move back to your question: I had all this shit in my head about how people listen to music and consume music. For a couple of years, it’s been full time at Apple immersing myself in this extremely interesting stuff, and doing that has helped me realize how much I appreciate being an artist and how valuable time is. I’m feeling re-energized about music now. I love the format of the traditional album: 45 minutes, the songs support each other, it’s a suite of music, but an EP allows us to be nimble. We can turn one comfortably around in six months, rather than years, and you can use it to sustain moods without getting bogged down in a full-length album. And from my impression of how people listen to music now, being a bit more bite-sized fits into people’s lifestyles better. You put an album out now and it’s reviewed, judged, and forgotten in a weekend. If you’re lucky.
What’d you learn about how people consume music during the years you were off a major label and releasing your music independently?
All my thinking about file sharing sent me down a certain path: We got off Interscope, which was a mutual decision. We weren’t selling enough records to warrant the giant advances that we’d been promised; these were contracts that didn’t see the cliff coming. Anyway, I decided I wanted to be able to engage fans directly without dealing with the bureaucracy of record labels and people trying not to lose their jobs. So I tried things. This would be around the Radiohead In Rainbows era. Something important happened during those years. Because we went independent, I had to become a marketer as well as a musician. This is when we put out Ghosts and The Slip. It was important that I learned to put myself in the fans’ mindset and live and interact with them and find out what they think is good and bad and what felt cool and what didn’t. So I realized that I could do marketing, but I didn’t enjoy it.
Did you take away anything counterintuitive from that experience? Doesn’t it boil down to don’t rip people off?
Yeah, a lot of marketing and being independent is common sense: attempt to over-deliver; make it clear that there’s a person who cares on the other side of the transaction. But there was a humbling moment that came out of reading bulletin boards and having an ear to the ground. A lot of music fans were saying they’d be happy to financially support a musician if they felt they could get what they want format-wise and that the money would be going to the people who made the music instead of the evil record label.
That proved not to be the case?
We did a record with Saul Williams. I probably spent 18 months working on it with him — a real labor of love. We thought he was going to be signed to Interscope, but that didn’t work out. So I said, “Let me use your record as an experiment. I’ll cover the losses if it doesn’t work out.” I wanted to test out a simple scenario. It went something like this: To my database of people, we sent out a message saying, “Here’s a collaborative album I’ve worked on for X amount of time with Saul. Click on this box if you want the full album, not copy-protected, free. I know you can steal it anywhere you want anyway. All I want in return is your email address. Or, click on the box next to it: five dollars; it goes directly to Saul. You can have it for free or you can pay. I’m calling your bluff. Are you going to do the right thing?”
How’d that shake out?
Maybe 30,000 downloads occurred in the next week and less than 20 percent were paid for. I thought that second number would be higher. At the time, I felt I was making a genuine offer, worded simply and confrontationally, for something I thought had genuine value. So I was bummed out by the result. It took the wind out of my sails as far as thinking of direct-to-customer as a sustainable business for a musician. In a way, that experience gave me a preemptive look at music today. You’re not making money from albums; instead they’re a vessel for making people aware of you. That’s what led me to thinking that a singular subscription service clearly is the only way this problem is going to be solved. If we can convert as many music fans as possible to the value of that, in a post-ownership world, it would be the best way to go.
Do you feel like you’ve been successful with Beats and Apple Music as far as working on subscription streaming?
Without going into detail, I’ll say it’s been an education. I’ve been on the other side of artists bitching about payments and free music, and I agree with those arguments, but you can sit and bitch about the way things are, or you can try to affect some change. Working under the Apple umbrella, I have a unique opportunity to work on a streaming service from the inside. I thought I could help set a precedent where artists could actually be paid and the fans could feel like they were dealing with a service run by people who actually care about music.
Is it working?
It’s been interesting. Where it seems to have wound up is that free music is here to stay. It doesn’t seem like, with all the different services, artist payments are coming together in the way that one would hope, but the data is valuable. I didn’t realize Nine Inch Nails had such a huge following in Mexico, for example, until I saw the streaming data — and my primary consideration, above being paid, is that my music reaches the people who are interested in hearing it. Anyway, where were we? I’m not sure how I got so far off track.
Ah, it doesn’t matter. Let’s get back to the new EPs for a second. The packaging of the physical versions of them is incredibly detailed. You can go on Reddit and people are uncovering all these possible clues to the larger narrative hidden in the artwork. It reminds me of the fan response to a show like Westworld, where the creators seemed to encourage people to think of the show as a game full of mysteries to solve. Is the idea behind offering that level of immersion just to provide catnip for online obsessives? I sometimes wonder if people are missing something about art if they’re thinking about it primarily as a puzzle containing definitive answers.
I like the depth. With the new EPs, I liked world-building, and writing music that can sit in that world. I was always the guy who desperately wanted the Dark Side of the Moon to line up with The Wizard of Oz. I wanted to believe somebody was so far out of their mind that they figured that out. Fuck, I got goose bumps just thinking about that possibility right now — the idea that someone could be thinking so hard about an album.
Are you ever concerned that the hunt for clues overshadows the music?
Certainly with Year Zero it did. We went crazy with that album, building a world and telling a story that was mainly meant to provide context for the music. And what happened was that far more attention was paid to what the world was and how that got revealed than was paid to the music. If anyone actually bothered to fucking listen, Year Zero was a good fucking album. I’m not saying every album should be something that invites people down a rabbit hole. I’m just saying I care about context.
I was reading the Reddit Ask Me Anything you did a few years back, and someone was asking questions about the infamous lyric from “Closer”: “I want to fuck you like an animal.” And this person wanted to know if that meant (a) fuck you in the way an animal fucks; (b) fuck you in the way you would fuck an animal; (c) fuck with the level of emotional desire that an animal would feel — it went on. That’s for what I’d thought was a relatively straightforward lyric.
So forget the packaging, does it affect the music you create when you know that people are going to be scrutinizing the results like they’re messages from outer space?
What the obsessives maybe don’t know is that if I were to explain everything to you, or just explicitly lay out what the new EP is about, you’d only be disappointed. You don’t really want to know. The experience of grappling with the thing is what makes it interesting, not the immediate gratification of going, “Oh, that’s what it means.”
I read a quote from you once where you said that Nine Inch Nails used to make you feel like a shaman when you played live. I assume that was partly due to what was floating around in your body, but I also assume that’s no longer your experience in front of a crowd. Can you articulate the emotional difference between playing live then and now?
Back then the fuel for the band was rage, and I had to get it out or something bad was going to happen. For some reason I remember a show we played in Tulsa after Pretty Hate Machine came out, opening for Peter Murphy. I’d never been to Tulsa. I didn’t know one person in Tulsa. But somebody in the back of the audience was fucking screaming the whole album back at me and I was thinking, Wow, this is resonating. And as that grew, as we got bigger, I felt like a conduit. We were unleashing something and this energy that I was putting out was coming back at me. It was a magical feeling, and one of the few experiences in my life where I felt like I was in the right place at the right time.
That kind of intensity seems unsustainable.
It didn’t help that I kept getting more and more into drugs and drinking. But that trance — being some degree of fucked up onstage and having that energy exchange with the crowds — it felt like you were in some kind of weird ritual. It was great, and also alienating.
I remember the feeling of walking off stage at the end of the night, and everyone else is gone, and I’m alone in a back room, and I still don’t feel like I can fit in anywhere — even though I was in an arena full of people that came to see some version of me. It was just weird. And it got even weirder after The Downward Spiral hit and we were playing arenas. You’d meet people and realize you’re not even you anymore. You’re the version of you that they’ve read about. Then you’re thinking, I don’t know who I am anymore either. Am I the vampire I read about in a magazine? Am I acting like I should act? Because no one’s treating me like a normal person anymore. Set those feelings against a few too many drinks a day and a warped scenario starts to emerge.
Did that weirdness change when the popularity dipped?
The Fragile didn’t do as well commercially as The Downward Spiral. That’s when you learn humility. When you can suddenly see that the arena has different color seats, and you can only see that because people aren’t sitting in them, it doesn’t feel so good. You think, Is this what it’s going to be like now? Because no one points out the moment that your career changes. Like, “Hey, you know that upward success? It ended yesterday. Time to recalibrate.” That doesn’t happen. Getting sober, which happened after The Fragile, that also brought with it true humility: Hey, my career could be over, but I’m alive and I don’t feel like I want to kill myself and I’m not addicted to a substance and I’m not lying to people and I’m starting to feel good about myself. What I found out from being sober was that I actually enjoyed making music more than I did when I was high all the time and playing self-destructive games with myself.
So how does the live show feel now?
It’s different. It’s more about being conscious of trying to perform well and sing well and be in the moment. But the songs have written the role I play, and it’s still a version of me that’s in every one of them. When I sing “Hurt,” which I’ve done countless times and will continue to do, I’m still in those feelings, you know? I’m not saying that defensively. I’ve weeded out the material that isn’t relevant to me anymore.
What’s an example?
Some of the stuff on Downward Spiral. The point of the album was naked emotional outpouring, and now it sometimes feels like it crosses over into eye-roll material.
A lot of the harsh, dense electronic sounds on that album and The Fragile have been absorbed into the mainstream by genres like EDM. Does that make you want to move in different musical directions?
When we go in the studio, the thinking is about doing what feels right for the song. If what we’re doing isn’t the most sonically experimental thing, that’s probably because that’s not what we were setting out to do. As far as responding to what’s happening now, I’ve had many agent types over the years say, “EDM is the future.” No, it’s not. It’s fucking not. I understand why people like it, and if I were 18, I’d love to be listening to it in the Sahara Tent at Coachella, high out of my fucking mind. But it’s not speaking to me at a level that I think has staying power. I’m saying this judgmentally: EDM has certainly changed pop music and is an interesting flavor, but I don’t think anyone’s going to be listening to it in ten years and saying, “What a fucking great song that beat was.” I know saying that is opening me up for criticism.
What makes you hopeful about music’s future?
I still feel like a student who has more musical places to go. I’m in awe of the compositional possibilities still out there. When I work on new music, nine times out of ten, I feel like I’m tuned into something I haven’t explored before. And working on films with Atticus [Ross] is teaching me so much. I’m interested in learning more about traditional orchestration; there’s harmonic exploration I want to do. There are a million rhythmic things I want to explore. My optimism comes from the possibility of expanding my musical brain.
That’s you personally. How about culturally?
It’s interesting to see the chaos of the music-business disruption stabilizing around streaming services. Someone was talking to me about how in the old days of the record industry, there was a system in place: You handed the music over to the label, it came out three months later, then you went on tour. Your job as a musician was more defined. As that framework crumbled, you had to question every bit of what you were doing. Why am I making an album? Who’s getting it? What device are they listening to it on? A lot of things changed — and I think they’re changing again — and I hope that as artists understand more about those changes, maybe it leads to more coloring outside the lines. Maybe people get less concerned about career-first personal survival and exciting music emerges. Not that there isn’t exciting music today, but there’s not a lot that I find sounds radical or has the spark of danger. Or maybe things will just continue like a shitshow and eventually nobody will want to be a musician anymore.
What will they want to be instead?
They’ll go work at a start-up.
Annotations by Gabe Cohn.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.