KEXP Exclusive Interview: Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails

Interviews, The Morning Show w/ John Richards
photo by Victoria Holt

From humble beginnings cleaning toilets in Cleveland, to being a Grammy Award-winning, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-nominated artist, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is an inspiration. With the release of a new EP, Add Violence, out now via Reznor's own label The Null Corporation, KEXP DJ John Richards had a chance to chat with him about politics, Twin Peaks, and... Depeche Mode.

John Richards: When I first heard [the 1989 debut LP] Pretty Hate Machine, it changed things for me. It was a record I had been waiting for, and I don't even know why or where it came from. Can you talk about why that hit as many people as it did?

Trent Reznor: I don't really know, to be honest with you. Back then, I was living in Cleveland, and I had kinda reached a point where I'd been wasting time for a few years -- not “wasting time” but playing in other people’s bands, and not really trying. I was afraid to try because I was afraid to fail. And I kinda made a pact with myself that I was going to really try to do this thing, and try to see what I was capable of if I pushed myself as far as I could. Was set in a studio -- well, worked in a studio cleaning toilets by day so I could have studio time at night -- and started to touch on something that felt like it was good. It was kind-of a marriage of me not creating a character to hide behind. I just put my journal entries set to music, and it was reflective of the music that was inspiring me at that time, and I think it was infused with a sense of recourse and enough accessibility that… I’m not sure, there wasn’t a ton of over-thought went into it, it was simply the very best thing I could do.

Shopped it around, and wound up on a terrible label, but it was a chance to get the record out. The label didn’t like it, so we just got in a van and we would open for anybody that would have us. And then we find several months later, we’re [headlining] the same clubs we were opening for. It was a weird kind-of groundswell of attention. It was a slow burn, where it started to creep into people’s awareness with the medium of the time, college radio. I think after a year, we got played at midnight on MTV. It was a great year. It was very strange for me, 'cause I had modest... I had dreams that we would resonate with people, but my realistic expectation was one of, “y’know, if we could headline that club someday, that’d be awesome.” That was how high I thought it might realistically get. It seemed to touch a nerve at the time. I’d like to think it’s because it had a truthfulness to it.

One of my co-workers here -- Chris Gossard -- was a roommate of yours back in Cleveland, back in the day.

Chris Gossard... world's biggest Depeche Mode fan. I remember having heated debates about whether "Never Let Me Down Again" was better than "Black Celebration." He was the authority on Depeche Mode back then.

What was the answer?

I don't remember. I remember we were at odds about something, but he was the guy that you couldn't sway his opinion. He just dug in.

If you and Chris were sitting around now, listening to new EP, as the person you were then, what would you think of this new EP?

If it was 1989, and we were listening to this EP? Then I would hope that it sounded like it was from another planet.

Good answer. When I woke up this morning, I knew I was talking to you today, and then within maybe an hour of the show, you get these updates from Rolling Stone and you're in there, quoting about the president, and maybe an hour before that, he had just banned all transgender folks from the military.

I know our listeners tune into KEXP looking for music, 'cause right now it feels like sometimes it's the only thing that makes sense to them. Does that resonate with you? I don't even know the question I'm trying to ask. I guess, I know I went to your music years ago for the same feelings, and it seems we need music even more right now.

Well, that's how I feel about it. I feel... in the unavoidable question of the political situation in America -- I mean, just to put it out there -- I think nothing is more tedious than a celebrity complaining at you about some cause. I'm not looking to enter into that fray. The headlines you're reading have been extracted from interviews done with me where I'm asked about something, and put a mic on me for 90 minutes and you're going to get some... some stupid things are going to come out, things that, if I thought deeply about it, I'd probably reconsider if I wanted to get into that.

I find that Trump is a vulgar guy. I think he's... I'm not saying anything that shouldn't be obvious, but I am disheartened, particularly as a father of young kids, of what precedent he's establishing. The disrespect he shows for the office, and the general degradation of morality and decency. And that's outside of whatever policies he may or may not believe in. And I'm not anti-conservative or anti-Republican. You're entitled to your opinion. I just think he is an embarrassment. In a number of ways that have significant consequences for our country. Personally, that's how I feel. If you don't feel that way, that's your right. And, come at me, and tweet away, and complain, and do whatever you need to do to get it out of your system. But, I find some degree of comfort in knowing that I'm not alone when someone speaks up.

I find myself listening to more music. I kind of wish music had a more active role in culture and it was less something that you listen to in the background and more something that might be able to effect change or had a real energy to it. Feels to me a little bit like the thing you do while you're doing something else. I think there's many reasons for that. Music's always been very, very important to me. As a human, not just as a career. This is a way for me to help understand the world, and understand who I am, and figure out what would make me feel better about being a human being.

Before we go, I have to ask you, being up here in the Northwest and being a huge Twin Peaks fan. Y'know, I've seen you guys play many times live, but the last I saw you, it was in -- I think -- one of the most successful clubs in all the world, The Roadhouse on Twin Peaks. They get all the best acts. It's unbelievable the acts that come in: The Chromatics, Nine Inch Nails, so many good acts. A lot of people discovering music again through David Lynch, as I did in my younger years. Can you talk about the experience of being on the show? Was that, for you, kind-of a dream come true? It'd be a dream come true for me to be on Twin Peaks, so I have to ask you the same.

No, absolutely. I mean, every experience I've had with David over the years from Lost Highway to the occasional communication here and there, he has been someone that has profoundly affected my world view. I think my introduction to him formally was walking into Blue Velvet in a theatre in Cleveland, unprepared for how I was going to be changed. To teaching me about sound design and how to make people uncomfortable through films like Eraserhead and all his music, all his movies; to having some time with him and working a bit of the score and sound design to Lost Highway; to getting the call, "Would you like to perform in The Roadhouse on Twin Peaks?" Yes, I would like to do that.

We worked on the "Came Back Haunted" video a few years ago, and I was asking him what he was up to. He was very dismissive about it, "done with film, done with film." "The medium that I think people largely -- this golden age of television that we're in right now, I think -- is largely due to what you've done with Twin Peaks. We need you, the medium needs you, the world needs you." I'm not saying that has anything to do with why he actually did Twin Peaks, but when I heard that it was happening, it was like, this is awesome. And I think the result has been fantastic. And the fact that we happened to be in that particular episode is incredibly flattering and one of the best things I've ever been involved in, by far.

The Add Violence EP is out now digitally, with a CD release on September 1st via Reznor's label The Null Corporation. A "physical component" will be released the week of August 8th, whose products description reads: "PROPER USE OF THIS RECORDING REQUIRES IT TO EXIST IN THE PHYSICAL WORLD, AS REAL AS YOU ARE. CHOOSING THIS PACKAGE GETS YOU THE DIGITAL FILES AND WE WILL SHIP THE ACCOMPANYING PHYSICAL COMPONENT TO YOUR RESIDENCE WHICH MAY PROVIDE ADDITIONAL CLARITY. VERY LIMITED SUPPLIES AVAILABLE."

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