Trent Reznor: Darkness Audible
Oscar winner Trent Reznor's evolution from a rock nihilist and addict who once wrote his own (quite vulgar) epitaph into the musical, brilliant -- sometimes even smiling -- soulmate of director David Fincher.
While working on the score for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Trent Reznor had to block out the sway of palm trees outside his Beverly Hills home, draw the shades, turn up the air conditioning to meat locker temp and think: Winter. Conveying the sounds of a seaside town in northern Sweden -- the clank of icicles and bells, the drones of motorcycles and European floor buffers -- without having traveled to the location set where director David Fincher was filming presented both a challenge and an opportunity for the composer and his production partner Atticus Ross, and they were ready for either scenario.
"The Social Network was very much an education from start to finish," says the 46-year-old Reznor, who won a best original score Oscar for the 2010 Fincher film about the birth of Facebook. "It was tricky because it involved mainly people in rooms bitching at each other; it didn't seem obvious what role music would play. This film felt a bit more like: 'Ah, serial killers and anal raping, I know what that sounds like. It's not as much of a stretch …'" Reznor stops himself. "Let me rephrase that -- a dark tone felt more familiar."
He's not kidding. The singer and creative mastermind behind the influential industrial band Nine Inch Nails, Reznor has resided in creative areas of extreme discomfort for more than 23 years. Paired with perhaps his directorial equivalent, the equally dark and subversive Fincher, this musical anti-hero has sung of "needles, pushers and whores" on the 4 million-selling The Downward Spiral, is famous for denouncing his record company's marketing tactics as "label bullshit," encouraged his fans to steal his music and once joked that his epitaph should read: "REZNOR: Died. Said 'fist f--,' won a Grammy."
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Yet, on this day, the soft-spoken Reznor, relaxed and charming in his loaf-or-work uniform of blue jeans and a black tee, has found himself in the most improbable of positions. He is an industry darling who has an Oscar on his mantel and is working for one of the biggest corporations in the world: Sony, the studio releasing Dragon Tattoo on Dec. 21. With its frenetic pacing and sexually charged storyline centered on a Swedish murder mystery (adapted from Stieg Larsson's best-selling book), Dragon Tattoo hardly makes Reznor seem a goth out of water. The nihilistic, dissonant sounds and anti-establishment themes on the soundtrack evoke those heard on the band's 1999's double-CD The Fragile, not its biggest commercial success but an artistic highpoint for Reznor.
Still, gone is the booze and heroin (he's been clean 10 years), the eyeliner and the leather. There was perhaps no better example of Reznor's evolution, and pride, than on Oscar night in February, when the beaming musician, handsomely clad in a Prada tux and accompanied by his wife of two years, singer Mariqueen Maandig (the two have a 14-month old son), took the stage with Ross for their acceptance speech and -- shocker -- cracked a smile. Countless surprised Gen Xers certainly let out a collective, "Trent Reznor just won an Oscar?!"
Sell out? Hardly. In the mild-mannered world of scoring, where John Williams and Randy Newman are household names, Reznor the rock star stands out, even though he's one of more than a dozen fringe artists currently working in film, including Jonsi from Sigur Ros (We Bought a Zoo) and Chemical Brothers (Hanna). "The man is truly one of the great original thinkers in music," says fellow Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, who lost the Oscar for Inception to Social Network. "Film music has become more personalized. It's not just about having the orchestra or choir, it's about composers and performers with a strong musical voice playing a prominent part in the piece. Trent does it tremendously well."
Dave Grohl, frontman for Foo Fighters and a contemporary since his days as the drummer in Nirvana, still considers Reznor the king. "I think it's safe to say that Trent Reznor is my generation's most talented musician/producer/songwriter," Grohl tells The Hollywood Reporter. "When he won the Academy Award, I was not only happy for him, but I was also happy that someone from my musical generation was being recognized not just as a rock musician but as a brilliant composer. As an artist. It was well-deserved."
Reznor, who proudly declares he's spent the past 14 months holed up in his home studio ("We're not anti-social, but we tend not to go out that much," says Ross), nonetheless maintains those familiar echoes of a troubled soul. "Winning that Academy Award, I'm not ashamed to admit it," says Reznor, whose NIN sold 13 million albums in the U.S. according to Nielsen SoundScan, was nominated for 12 Grammys and won two. But you won't find either Grammy displayed in the house that his band's 1989 debut album Pretty Hate Machine built. The Mercer, Penn., native admits that having moved several times in the past two decades, he's not sure where the trophies are, nor does he care. The Oscar, however, sits prominently next to his Golden Globe (puny in comparison) in his living room.
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"The others don't mean anything," says Reznor. "Why don't the Grammys matter? Because it feels rigged and cheap -- like a popularity contest that the insiders club has decided. The movie side is interesting, challenging, different and rewarding in way that I hadn't experienced through my music career."
Reznor's work space is a typical L.A. home studio, a soundproof bunker designed not for style or comfort but for getting the most use of its tightly packed gear. Compared to the Sony lot's famed 2,300-square-foot scoring stage, where Zimmer once let Reznor sit in on a Pirates of the Caribbean session involving an orchestra of 60 (music for Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind was also recorded there), it's little more than a closet. But in this room, says Ross, 43, genius goes to work.
In fact, Ross is still amazed by the three-note theme to Social Network, which came as a last-minute add-on by Reznor to a nearly finished track, "almost as an afterthought." He recounts the Oscar-making moment: "Trent said, 'I've got an idea for this piano line; let me just try this.' And he puts down that line and plays what I think is one of the greatest cinematic pieces of last year. Fincher really zeroed in on it, and it was that piece that changed the whole landscape of that film."
It was Reznor's sense of anxious tension, often executed with the simplest melodies and chord progressions, that allowed Social Network to feel suspenseful without orchestral trickery. He went for quiet when you expected loud, and brought an audible elegance to character-less conference rooms. By the end of awards season, the music had claimed 15 of the film's 126 honors (curiously, Social Network didn't garner a single Grammy nomination).
By the time Dragon Tattoo came along, Reznor understood the arduous process of matching music to picture and that is as collaborative a process as it gets. "We spoke with David in terms of broad stokes," Reznor explains. "First, we wrote from an impressionistic gut level with no script, although Atticus and I had both read the Dragon Tattoo book. Then, the way David works is he films digitally at night and the team back in L.A. assembles very rough comps of scenes so he can see the next morning if he got the shot. So we got to see a lot more of the sausage being made, and that's been enlightening. It's more work in terms of redoing, rethinking and restructuring things, but it's also taught us not to be precious about our compositions." In the end, three hours of spine-tingling motifs, from the ethereal to the fist-clenching, came to life (the movie clocks in at 2 hours, 37 minutes).
Still, sometimes Reznor is asked to do what he does best: aggressive hard rock with dramatic builds, sharp hooks and biting words. Fincher went there by suggesting Reznor remake Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" with a female vocalist for the film's opening sequence. Reznor wasn't thrilled ("It's asking for trouble, much like covering The Beatles or a classic Stones song," he says), but understanding that there was a "clear captain of the ship," he capitulated, enlisting Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O. The result? The song has been called "amazing" by AOL's Spinner and "eerie and alive" by Spin.
Reznor's musical roots were laid down early -- at age 5, to be exact, when he took up the piano and was quickly noticed for having genuine talent. Around that time, his parents -- his father was an artist, his mother a homemaker who had Trent while in their teens -- split and he went to live with his grandmother.
Although he's long insisted that his childhood wasn't unhappy, Reznor, who attended Sunday school and was brought up Protestant, found himself drawn to the darker side of entertainment, horror movies like The Omen and The Exorcist and bands like the fire-breathing Kiss. After graduating from high school in 1983, where he was a regular in drama class productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar (he was, naturally, Judas), Reznor began to play with local bands around Allegheny College. He dropped out of school after a year but graduated to the Cleveland music scene, where Nine Inch Nails would form in 1988. Three years later, he was headlining the first Lollapalooza, and by 1994, when NIN topped the bill at Woodstock '94, the band had cemented its reputation as music's most intense industrial act.
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Reznor's affiliation with Fincher goes back to 1995, when the director used a remix of NIN's rock radio staple "Closer" as the opening sequence to his movie Seven. It wasn't long after that Reznor launched himself headlong into a four-year stint in New Orleans, grappling with a heroin and alcohol addition that threatened to derail his music career or kill him, whichever came first. One former party pal who wished to remain anonymous recalls a fair share of drunken, cocaine-fueled nights in the Big Easy with Reznor and Marilyn Manson (who was signed to Reznor's Nothing Records in 1993). "Trent would just go nuts -- he was addicted to the lifestyle, as so many of us were," the friend says. Another former member of NIN's extended family described Reznor as an exceptionally functional addict. "He always delivered," says the source, who notes that dealing with him directly often felt "like walking on thin ice. … He was very controlling of the work environment -- everything was about perfection and being very professional. But he had his vision and was always working towards it, whether he was writing an album or shooting a video or going on tour or signing other artists."
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At the time, Reznor's only film credits were as a soundtrack producer curating songs for films such as Natural Born Killers and Lost Highway, or contributing artist, like in Seven. But in 2001, he was recruited by director Mark Romanek, who had worked on highly
stylized NIN videos "Closer" and "The Perfect Drug," to compose music for the indie thriller One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams.
Reznor submitted several compositions, but none made it into the movie. "I remember there was an issue with the studio trusting someone who had never scored a film before, so that was the end of that," he says, recalling the sting of rejection by Fox Searchlight. "But the way I choose to see things in my own life, I was getting into a pretty bad space. I was an addict and not functioning very well at that time. So I'm kind of grateful it didn't come together because I couldn't have done my best work then."
Whether his first film fail came before or after hitting rock bottom, Reznor can't recall, but he says, "It was another brick in the wall of, 'Hey, you need to get your shit together.' " Reznor finally did in summer 2001, checking into rehab and, once clean, moving to L.A. Soon after, he met British engineer and multi-instrumentalist Ross, also a recovering heroin addict, and the two "hit it off," beginning a professional relationship that would span many bands but little released material. Says Ross: "We had quite a good run of things that never materialized."
For Reznor, what came next was the sort of existential crisis that can drive a creative person straight to relapse -- the notion that, if your best art came during your darkest days, what does that mean for the sober version of your former self? It's a tricky reconciliation that Reznor has spent untold hours thinking about. He explains: "It was a huge fear, realizing you've got a problem and asking, is that where all the art came from? Because if it is, maybe I should keep going down that path and die young."
He was finally able to look at his situation with clarity. "I realized that my disease was killing my art," says Reznor. "I certainly didn't feel creative when I was high anymore, so I made a decision: that trying to stay alive and feel OK about myself was better than the risk that maybe all of that good music was coming from this substance. And my output has gone up 20,000 percent since I've been sober. The difference is, I'm no longer afraid to look in the mirror, or to think, 'Can I ever pick up a pen and write a good song again?' That's a great recipe to end up with a blank piece of paper. I did that for years."
An often-asked question of rock stars: What's the band that made you want to be in a band? The Beatles may come to mind, perhaps The Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground or Reznor's hero, David Bowie. And then there's Nine Inch Nails, a rite of passage for any goth kid, much like the Grateful Dead was to the high school stoner, only trade tie-dye for black and Birkenstocks for rumble-ready boots.
Fincher even alludes to the stereotype in a scene from Dragon Tattoo, when a disheveled, long-haired overweight hacker, who's helping Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) with her spyware, makes his entrance wearing a NIN T-shirt. Reznor had to sign off on the cameo. "I told Fincher, 'Look, man, do what you gotta do -- let's keep this as accurate as possible,' " he says with a laugh.
To that end, Fincher clearly appreciated what the tee symbolized: a global fanbase and maybe even a movement uniting disenfrachised outcasts launched almost singlehandedly by Reznor. “There’s a darkness and honesty to Trent’s music,” says Matt Pinfield, host of MTV’s120 Minutes, who’s become a friend of Reznor’s. “He’s an amazing songwriter and Nine Inch Nails are in a league of their own."
"As with Grohl and Foo Fighters, Reznor's radio presence with Nine Inch Nails has only multiplied exponentially over the years. In fact, the band had its highest-charting single (No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100) not in the mid-'90s when The Downward Spiral exploded, but in 2005 when a 40-year-old sober Reznor delivered another NIN insta-classic, "The Hand That Feeds."
But even with a hit in his grasp, negative experiences in the music industry tainted his successes past, present and future. No stranger to litigation (in 2004, he famously sued his former manager John Malm for fraud, citing unfair commissions and misapporpriation of his trademarks and won, the judgment awarding him nearly $5 million) or denouncements online, Reznor had publicly criticized his label Interscope Records for myriad antiquated practices but perhaps most loudly about pricing, going so far as to encourage Australian fans to steal NIN's 2007 album Year Zero as an act of protest. "Steal it. Steal away. Steal, steal and steal some more, and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing," he wrote in a blog post, calling Universal Music execs "greedy f--ing assholes."
Says one Interscope insider who lived through the drama: "When Trent was upset, he let people know about it. He was opinionated and complicated but also funny, sarcastic and insanely smart."
Weeks after the album's release, Reznor and Nine Inch Nails were released from Interscope and swore off major labels for good. Says Reznor: "It was liberating and terrifying, those both occurred within about 60 seconds of each other. Now you can do anything you want. Oh shit, now what are we going to do?"
Reznor did what musicians do: he toured, but something felt different on the last NIN outing. "It was starting to grate on me a bit that it doesn't feel as truthful as it once did," he explains, the days when he and his bandmates would cover themselves in corn starch (to contrast the glut of black leather) long behind him. "I'm kind of moving into a different phase, and I think that's a good thing in terms of a human being evolving, maturing and progressing -- to not feel obligated to behave or write music for a certain thing." In a case of curious timing, that was when Fincher came calling.
“I was always a fan,” says Fincher. He directed the video to NIN's "Only" in 2005 and reveals that he used parts of Ghosts, the band's 36-track 2008 instrumental album, as temp music for The Social Network before booking Reznor for the job. “It was fitting to me that there were parallels in both Trent and Mark Zuckerberg — they were both iconoclasts, embraced technology, and were engaged in broad aspects of communication.”
The break from NIN turned out to provide an opportune window for his latest passion project, the band How to Destroy Angels, featuring his wife Mariqueen and Ross. Their cover of Bryan Ferry's "Is Your Love Strong Enough?" (from the 1985 Tom Cruise film Legend) appears at the end of Dragon Tattoo, and they are currently acing to meet a self-imposed mixing deadline.
The band will release the album independently on Reznor's own Null Corporation. "No committees, no bureaucracies, no e-mails a week later of why you can't do this," Reznor says. "There's no talking to people on the other side of the world that have their own set of agendas and 'no' written a hundred different ways on a piece of paper."
But the DIY route has its disadvantages. "I miss how a record label can help spread the word that you have something out," Reznor confesses. "Sometimes I feel like stuff disappears into the ether. You tend to rely on the power of your Twitter feed and how loud you can shout from the rooftops, but I've noticed that voice isn't so loud in, say, France. … Putting a record out today, if you're not one of the four acts that gets carpet-bomb marketing and has a Coldplay-esque genericness that makes you a commodity to enough people that it warrants spending a lot of money to use outdated means of marketing to tell the masses what to like -- which we aren't -- you put a record out and it's consumed, stolen, judged and forgotten in a day. It used to be a couple days."
Perhaps that's what precipitated a recent lunch meeting between Reznor and Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine where the two "swapped war stories." Says Reznor: "Jimmy is a friend. We get along better when we're not working one under the other, not that I can remember it ever being a personal animosity. There was frustration when I was on the label because I believed it didn't serve the customer right and couldn't move as fast as I liked and I felt like, I'm not at the right place anymore. But I think he’s pioneering and what he’s done with [headphones] Beats [by Dre] is incredible."
For the first time in awhile, Reznor is relishing his accomplishments as well, which includes recently celebrating that decade of sobriety (he marked the occasion by spending the day with his family) and occasionally admiring the little man of gold staring at him from across the room. "[As artists], we have no problem beating ourselves up about things," says Reznor. "It's how we are -- there's always a reason to feel shitty about yourself. But after the Oscars, Atticus and I did take some time, went against our nature, and said, 'This feels pretty f--in' good. Let's take an evening, we deserve it. Let's not rush to the next thing we're going to fail at.' "
THE DRAGON TATTOO FRANCHISE: Swedish writer Stieg Larsson didn't live to see his Millennium series of novels published; he died of a heart attack in 2004 at age 50. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was released the following year, and the trilogy of crime thrillers -- including The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest -- went on to sell more than 18 million copies and counting worldwide. The novels were adapted into a trio of Swedish films, all released in 2007, starring Noomi Rapace as goth hacker Lisbeth Salander and Michael Nyqvist as magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist. Dragon Tattoo became the most successful Scandinavian title of all time, and a Pan-European franchise was launched. And by mid-2010, Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures were fast-tracking the English-language version.