Speaking In Tongues: Trent Reznor

"It was kind of a pressure valve..."
How To Destroy Angels

Trent Reznor comes with a certain aura, a certain cache.

A profoundly independent artist, the Industrial musician led Nine Inch Nails to international acclaim across a career which lasted more than two decades. Leaving the moniker aside, Trent Reznor has become known for sterling soundtrack work - even winning an Oscar for his role in scoring 'The Social Network'.

So it's a pleasure - and no small relief - to discover that the voice on the end of the phone is gentle, self-effacing and welcoming. Currently focussing on How To Destroy Angels - a collective which also features Atticus Ross, Rob Sheridan and wife Mariqueen Maandig - Reznor is open to new ideas, fresh suggestions.

Their latest EP 'An Omen_' points to a wonderful future. A firm step onwards from their 2010 debut EP offering, this latest release feels like a the four musicians involved have gelled, allowing the natural tension of the creative process to bring out some hidden qualities. With a full length album due in 2013, Trent Reznor is ready to open up about the project.

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What led to the break between those two EPs? Were you continually in discussion about the project?
When we finished the first EP it was really just the result of throwing ourselves in a room for a few weeks to see what happens without interruptions from people. It was the first time I had worked with my wife in that capacity, while Adacus and I – and Rob Sheridan – had known each other for some time, we’d worked on a variety of projects. The first EP we thought was an interesting little memento of what we did at that time, we admitted that it felt like you could tell its roots pretty clearly. We immediately started working what is going to be the next LP which is coming out shortly and the new EP which is out now. Why it took so long is that when we went into this project we wanted to take our time, we wanted it to reveal itself rather than force it down a certain avenue. We wanted to give the band some time to figure out what it actually sounded like, how we felt comfortable working.

In the meantime Atticus and I had been working on the score for two different films – 'The Social Network' and 'Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' – so we were sitting together pretty much every day throughout that two year period. We’d break up working on those soundtracks by re-deving into How To Destroy Angels, and having the luxury to check in every couple of months and see what happens – really letting things marinate, use the objectivity of being able to step away from it for a while. So it wasn’t a solid two years of working on this thing but it was pretty consistently touching base and learning what felt right and what didn’t feel right. How the songwriting could intertwine with the way we as a band work together. It was an interesting process, I’m glad to hear you felt there was some evolution because we felt the same way – it’s turned into something which is now much more of its own entity rather than just a cast off side project. Those soundtrack projects must have had such definite end points due to the process involved.

Given the deadline driven nature of film work, did working on How To Destroy Angels become a release valve of sorts?
It was kind of a pressure valve. Working on a film with – as you mentioned – a tight deadline, it’s also.. there really is a sense from working on film that you’re not in control: I’m contributing to this other, greater thing. I’m not saying that in a negative way, you’re a contributor to rather than the governor of a project. It was interesting to be able to say – we’re taking a couple of weeks off to work on what we want to work on. To be able to blow off steam and to try and get that freedom – sometimes the freedom of having complete control can feel like pressure when everyone’s looking at you to make a decision. It’s an interesting way to break up both things. We work on How To Destroy Angels for a while and then get back to the scoring side of things. The scoring material felt a bit more rigid in terms of what we had to do, while How To Destroy Angels felt more open ended – as if we could take it wherever we wanted, there were no rules here. It was a good way to work, it felt good.

There seems to be a marked use of space on this EP, as if you’re intent on using silence as an instrument in itself. Is that something you felt while listening back to the finished article?
Yeah I think.. My role in this band would probably be co-arranger, probably more a producer than the other guys. Having Mariqueen's voice and her lyrics, and my arrangement – it was refreshing for me because I didn’t have to place myself at the centre of the stage and figure out how to dress the stage, the personality – in terms of the voice of the music –I wouldn’t have to worry about what space that took up. It was interesting finding the place for her. It was interesting in my mind, the difference between the first EP and the second EP - and the album which you’ll soon hear – is that the first EP we were really trying to replace me with her. Instead of taking my voice and inserting her voice onto it, as we worked together more we realised that this is much more of a collective than one person in front of a backdrop. Maybe her voice is another instrument and should be part of a tapestry instead of this featured thing which should be put on a pedestal. At times it is, but at times it becomes another instrument in this ensemble. It took us a while to figure out that that felt like the right thing to do.

You’ve called How To Destroy Angels a ‘band’ a few times, yet it’s not really a ‘band’ in the strictest sense. How do you view the project?
That’s a good question. I realise that I’m hanging onto this notion of a band because I thought I’d always wanted one. When I started out with Nine Inch Nails I was really looking for a group of comrades, of brothers to take on the world and feel like they had shared responsibility. I like that romantic notion of a band. But I just couldn’t really find the right people and maybe it wasn’t the right form for those people, I wanted it to be more of a dictatorship. As I’ve gotten older.. I think also working on film scores where it truly is a collaboration I’ve really come to appreciate things which aren’t really under my control, and respect others whose opinions and knowledge differ from your own. Personally, to differentiate from how Nine Inch Nails works and thinks, I mean this is four uniform voices – we vote on things, and often things are not what I think they should be. That creates a bit of good tension at times, sometimes frustration. It’s made the process of decision making and direction making much more of a democracy. It’s an interesting way to work.

Does the new EP draw on the same pool of material which forms the album?
Yeah. There were a number of more tracks and we decided to extract a bit out and find the best way to introduce the world to this new batch of material via presenting it as an EP first because that’s a more satisfying, well rounded signal to what we’ve been up to than a single. It’s a matter of paying attention to how people consume music, how it gets judged and disposed of and trying to find a way to create the right kind of expectations for the full album so it gets a fairer listen rather than being base on what you’ve heard from the last EP.

The EP works as an independent document, I feel.
Thank you for saying that. There was a lot of time spent thinking about that, it wasn’t some haphazard “let’s grab these few songs” – it was really like thinking about it and taking time to glue it together so that it felt like something we could listen to and feel. It felt like a real piece of work.

Is the EP as a format something you value?
I like EPs. I look at things through my own eyes, at my own age and I remember EPs I loved growing up which felt like.. what I guess I’m getting at is that – as I mentioned previously – I spent a lot of time looking at way people consume music, what size portions people absorb now. When I grew up it was an album – each side meant something. I still as an artist prefer that form and think in terms of that form when I’m creating the music, I think in terms of sides: Side A and Side B. I think the reality, though.. I know the reality: in this day and age, through having so much access to music through so many sources, people don’t spend as much time consuming than they did before. Even if you didn’t like it: I remember punishing myself with records, which sometimes turned out to be records I really liked once I allowed myself time to learn them. Nowadays with the slip button and piracy and streaming services and everything else there’s so much access that I can’t imagine people spend as much time on particular pieces of music as they used to.

I am intrigued by the idea of the smaller, bite sized package of an EP which is concise, you can get a point across, it’s bigger than one song. When I write music I often think – in batches of albums – “hey this song works because it’s next to its brother – they support each other, they make more sense together”. You can explore different things which are related beyond the four minute mark of one track. If that makes any sense. A rambling answer! I like EPs but I still think in terms of the luddite way of a full album, a full collection of songs coming in at 45 minutes or so.

Why can’t you shrug off those forms? Is it purely because you’ve grown up that way, or is there something inherent in the album format which works for your music?
It’s tough to say. You know, when iPods first came out I just hated it. I felt like it was such an unsexy way to listen to music – some ugly text on a dim white background. That’s the aesthetic component for new music. Certainly not as good as I remember or still experience a piece of vinyl, with all that real estate – inside sleeves, lyrics and words written around the run off in the vinyl by the mastering engineer. That experience – the smell of the vinyl, the sound of the needle tipping down, getting a piece of vinyl home, putting it on the turntable, putting headphones on, not having a cell-phone. Going on a journey with a piece of music. That experience, I long for those days and I have a lot of romantic ideas around it. My youth was based on that, every moment of my life has some component of music attached to it, soundtracking it, tied into an experience similar to the one I’ve just described. At the same time, I’m intrigued by technology and the follow up to not liking the iPod is that I realised after I bought one that I was listening to a much larger variety of music than I used to listen to. Going on tour meant taking a bunch of logic cases with me containing a library of CDs and vinyl every time I travelled. Now I’ve got every record Frank Zappa ever put out in my pocket – wow! I’ve never had that before. It changed the way I started to think about music.

I think for a musician today, the whole business is so disrupted.. I mean now it’s not just the business it’s already the audience, the way it’s constructed, the way it experiences music – not just how they listen to it but how they experience you as an artist – has radically changed across the past 20 years. How much exposure you can have to people. When I was young no one knew what bands looked like – if there wasn’t a picture on the album or if I didn’t happen to catch the time they were on TV, maybe. I lived out in the middle of fucking nowhere, there were no concerts where I grew up so you filled in all the blanks for the artists you were intrigued by. It was the book versus the movie: you made them into these larger than life things. I think all that’s changed now and I do think it’s important for contemporary musicians today to think a little bit of time thinking – not necessarily about marketing and all that bullshit – but just who’s out there. How are people consuming what I do? Or are hearing about this? I think a lot of that stuff matters, spending time thinking about that it not necessarily a bad thing.

You’ve been involved in a raft of projects of late – from tech to soundtracks and How To Destroy Angels – do you see a central thread running through this?
I mean, I’ve tried to.. I’ve been very fortunate that after 20 something years and counting someone is interested enough to have an interview with me right now. I’m fortunate, I realise that. I like to think that I’ve always tried to approach what I’m doing with the mentality that there should be integrity, to cut through some of the bullshit and have an integrity to it. Whether it be working on new Nine Inch Nails material – which I’m dipping my toes into the water with right now – or How To Destroy Angels or veering into scoring a film, I’ve tried to approach it with the mindset of completing the best work I can do, or the most challenging. Pushing me forward into something which speaks with the truth. Now, that may sound a bit pretentious but what’s always been exciting to me as an artist is being able to be true to my soul versus how can I grab a paycheck? Here’s a trend, let me hop on that. Let me desperately try to stay right by the marketplace. I’ve tried my best to stay level headed about those things, even when working with Dr Dre on something which would seem not very artistic, working on a streaming music service which I think could be dismissed as a sort of corporate cash in scenario.

The reality, what’s exciting to me behind that, is solving a riddle. Why I’ve spent the last year working hard to contribute to these guys making this thing is that the mindset behind it is one that makes for a better experience of the music we listen to. One that makes sense of walking into a record shop when you think you don’t want anything and then you walk out with 20 new pieces of music which you’ve never heard and can’t wait to get home and listen to. I don’t think that need has been clearly met by any service which is currently out there. The guys at beats want to build something which has that as the DNA, and it became a riddle to think: I wonder how I can make that happen? We’ll see what happens, at the end of the day, and what actually comes out. What was intriguing – and what warranted spending time doing it – was that sense of, I think I can bring something to this and it could enlighten people. It could turn people on to the magic of how great music is. The thread would be really trying to get down to what matters to me and what feels important, what I can really do my best at. Blah blah blah! (laughs)

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'An Omen_' is out now.

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