Photo: John Crawford

A Minute to Breathe: Interview With Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

"The last thing I wanted to do was make a song that was preachy about climate change," says Reznor, who with Ross tackles the world's biggest issues on their own terms.
Atticus Ross
Before the Flood

Holy hell, 2016 was a terrible year wasn’t it?

While many in America scoff at the idea of blaming a year simply for being bad, it was hard to argue against a 365 day period when we experienced numerous unresolved worldwide conflicts and contentious national politics and an endless stream of celebrity deaths that only increased in size, magnitude, and tragic impact. You may have a had a not-bad year yourself, but the mood that permeated conversations with friends and co-workers started out dour and bitter and seemed only to get amplified from there.

For Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, things on paper seemed to be going well. The long-standing musical duo scored two films in a single year (the climate change documentary Before the Flood and the Peter Berg film about the Boston Marathon bombings Patriot’s Day), released a brand new EP of Nine Inch Nails music with little warning, and to top it all off, Reznor welcomed his fourth child, daughter Nova Lux, into the world.

Yet the closer one looks at the duo’s artistic endeavors, the more one realizes just how in-tune Reznor and Ross have been with the dour mood of the world. That Nine Inch Nails EP, Not the Actual Events, proved equal parts brutal and uncompromising, a far cry from the almost-pop concessions of 2013’s Hestiation Marks. Patriot’s Day tackles a very recent tragedy in American history, and Reznor and Ross made nearly two hours of music for the feature (“114 minutes of score in that thing,” notes Ross, “It’s absurd.”). And for the Leonardo DiCaprio-lead, Fisher Stevens-directed Before the Flood, tackling climate change in very real, immediate terms was a challenge for the duo as it was something they felt incredibly passionate about.

“We had been off doing our separate things for a couple of years,” Reznor tells PopMatters, “mine involving touring and Atticus involving other scores and what not. We made a commitment to work together for the next few years — we enjoy doing that.

“Atticus had engaged with Fisher and mentioned this documentary was happening,” Reznor continues. “[Atticus] had seen a very early cut of it, [and] it was very horrifying and important. And knowing that the agenda was going to try and get it out before the election and that [climate change] was absent in the sideshow primary debates, the subject matter was intriguing to us.”

In order to hit that target date, much less create a cohesive, potent work of art, Reznor and Ross first wanted to make sure their vision for the score was in line with Fisher’s ultimate end goal. “We engaged Fisher,” Reznor continues, “I found him to be an incredibly charming, smart, and really nice guy. When we saw what he was doing with the picture, and what he and Leonardo were trying to do — make a digestible and ultimately somewhat optimistic call to arms about the seriousness of this threat, and high-level kind of enlightenment as to what one can do — using the celebrity of Leonardo was a pretty noble cause, and the way they’ve gone about it doesn’t feel preachy.

“Right from the start, Fisher was very clear: ‘I don’t want this to be a go-out-and-kill-yourself’ video, ya know? We don’t want to sugarcoat the real and imminent threat here, but we do want to sort of always feel like optimism, hope, and we as people can come together and we can avert this.’ It was intriguing to us, and it seemed like a pretty broad canvas in terms of what the score could sound like.”

The only problem? “What I did know is that we didn’t have time to do everything,” adds Ross, “So that’s what lead to the idea of engaging other musicians whom we respect and are fans of to collaborate with. So, beyond being something that, as soon as we saw it, is one of those things where you can’t say along (they rarely come along), but that’s one of ’em.”

“So with the accelerated timeframe to get this out by the election,” chimes in Reznor, “we thought, ‘OK: let’s reach out to some people that we really respect to share the workload.'”

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After winning the Academy Award for Best Original Score for their work on the movie The Social Network, it wasn’t hard to hook up with some of the most respected names in the world of cinematic soundtracking. Gustavo Santaolalla is an accomplished guitarist who himself won an Oscar for crafting the score to Brokeback Mountain, and is also known for crafting the themes to TV series like Making a Murderer and Jane the Virgin along with cinematic video games like The Last of Us. Indie rockers Mogwai, meanwhile, have scored their own share of documentaries while also helping in making Clint Mansell’s iconic, Golden Globe-nominated score for The Fountain come to life. These were people that very much spoke the same melodic language that Reznor and Ross did.

“The original intention was born out of practicality,” Reznor notes. “We saw a film that was two hours long with wall-to-wall music. It’s a major undertaking. That much music wasn’t going to be a week-long project. So with the accelerated timeframe to get this out by the election, we thought, ‘OK: let’s reach out to some people that we really respect to share the workload.’

“Originally, the film — in an earlier version — was segmented into sections, and they start to blur,” Reznor continues. “As the film evolved, it became more watchable and entertaining. It became much less sectional and it had more of a flow to it. So the original idea — that one musical section, one suite would ‘cover’ a quarter of the film, another musical suite, another [section] — that idea kind of eroded. So when we were composing and we had Mogwai and Gustavo involved, we took the initiative right from the beginning to say (not knowing this would work and being pessimistic that it would work, quite frankly): what if we share the state [that the music] is in? And if either camp feels any inspiration lifting a melody or [making] a chord change or covering the song and making a radical 180-degree turn or ignoring it all together, please feel free. There’s no ego involved here.”

Unlike the brooding-yet-inquisitive electronic sounds the duo came up with for The Social Network or the sometimes harsh aggression they curated with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Reznor and Ross’ score for Before the Flood feels like a logical extension of the work they did for their third collaboration with director David Fincher, Gone Girl, the duo underplaying their hand by going for an open, lush, and minimalist sound that lets the scenes breathe on their own. Yet, most spectacularly, given that Mogwai and Santaolalla are basically covering and riffing on each other’s themes, the whole thing feels like a cohesive unit. Sure, that’s Santaolalla’s guitar front and center on “Thin Ice”, but it feels less like a “break” in the Reznor/Ross portions and more of a continuation of it.

Describing this cohesion to Reznor, he furthers the point: “Our goal would be exactly what you stated: [that] it would feel like a film. That the film would be unified, that it would stand on its own. We spent a lot of time, before we even picked up an instrument, thinking about ‘What’s the musical world that we’re creating for the film? What instruments are we using? What, harmonically, are we trying to say? How intrusive or subtle is the music’s role in the film?’ So each work feels like its own little universe or has its own rules. As composers, what we didn’t want to do is [have it] feel like a needle drops and you get licensed music from some source. We wanted it to feel all connected.

“It was happening pretty quickly, and very fluidly, very naturally,” he continues. “Where we wound up — when we started hearing the finished [work] — it felt like a lot more fun than us all working in our own little bubble. The consequence of that was, as you said, that it feels connected. It was fun, and it was inspiring.”

“And it was literally sharing sessions: one person would make it and one person would cover it,” elaborates Ross. “One of my favorite pieces is ‘8 Billion’, which is basically us covering Mogwai, and then Mogwai covered one of the ones that we’ve done, which closes the album. I don’t often listen to music that we’ve made, mainly because I’ve listened to it a billion times, and I’ve put on Before the Flood in the car and it does work as an [entire] body of work.”

Of course, even with the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio being used as a way to get people interested in a documentary that spells out the bleak effects man has caused on the changing climate, Reznor knew how to do his part. While he’s not the most frequent of Twitter users, the times he does go on it, people are bound to pay attention, like when he voiced support for another of 2016’s most sensational documentaries, David Farrier’s insanely engrossing Tickled. Prior, Reznor teased out the only vocal number from Before the Flood, a six minute breakup song called “A Minute to Breathe” (he noted in his tweet that this very much wasn’t new NIN material), which, although not explicit with its lyrics, still feels like a breakup song to, well, humanity, or perhaps even the entire planet.

“Well that was the intention,” Reznor notes when this theory is brought up. “I mean, the last thing I wanted to do was make a song that was preachy about climate change, so the intention was to make a song that worked on its own, but also, in this context, felt applicable to the film. The process wasn’t that much different from when we were composing for [dramatic] film: you really inhabit the space and see how you feel without overthinking it. The same question comes up when you’re working on a project like this: ‘What’s at stake here?’ Particularly, acutely through the eyes of a young kid. It was much harder to work on than other [film projects] ‘cos the stakes were higher.”

Of course, one would be remiss if they didn’t think that Reznor and Ross’ projects were connected in some way, feeding off of each other. “Everything kind of leads to a reaction,” notes Reznor. “What we’re doing right now is working on some unfinished stuff. Before the Flood had a certain attitude and basis. We just came out of a longer, much more intense project with Patriot’s Day, which has a different emotional grounding. […] We’re working on Nine Inch Nails music which is feeding off that. Apparently what happens is they react to each other, ya know? With Nine Inch Nails, I get to write the script, and it’s kind of a reaction to what’s going on — and that just happens naturally. Going down the rabbit hole of the process. My instincts kind of forge on the mat, [and] they come back in a way to inspire the next thing, whether it be ‘I hated the thing I just did and now I want to do something different’ or ‘I love this thing I did, it was so great — let’s do more of it.’ Whichever makes sense.”

“Two guys sitting in the same room together, but primarily with the same instruments — usually wearing the same clothes,” quips Ross.

Yet Reznor, perpetually outspoken, knew full well that in participating in Before the Flood, there was going to be a bit of a political element to it, and with DiCaprio and Fisher wanting to get the film out prior to the election, they knew full well what part of the cultural conversation the movie was going to inhabit, going so far as to include footage of then-candidate Donald Trump dismissing climate change outright. Although the film doesn’t pull any punches, it does end on a surprisingly upbeat note, one of optimism that can be sustained as long as we actually do something about the dire circumstances our species finds itself in. As such, it felt worth inquiring as to whether or not Reznor and Ross actually shared the film’s final note of uplift about mankind or remained doubtful over our efforts to right decades of damage.

“I mean, for me personally,” starts Reznor, “I can’t find it in me to feel optimistic about what’s happening. I was raised in a little shitty town, in rural Pennsylvania. I understand the feeling of being overwhelmed. It’s a part of the conversation. I understand anger. I’ve had my issues with Obama. When you hear him speak, eloquent and with a sense of style — maybe it is just flowery language, but as the world seems to get dumber and fucking dumber, I’m always on the side of the smart people. I believe in facts. I believe in education. It’s a shame to see the voice for that [national] anger to be this guy [Trump]. I don’t believe in personally giving him a chance. He doesn’t represent anything about me.”

Ross, meanwhile, finds the current political situation terrifying and finds himself “reflecting on this daily.” Continuing, he notes that “the only measure that I can see in terms of personal activity is … you know I’ve been interested in politics for the last many years, but I’ve never been engaged in terms of personal what-can-we-do, where can I give some money? etc. And I feel the responsibility is on all of us to answer to, you know, get involved. I think that’s the only way I can see for myself to try and channel some of what is a disaster into maybe some positivity. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I think sitting back and saying ‘Well I guess that’s how it is’ is a huge mistake.”

Yet with the future of the world remaining wildly uncertain, there is still much to do, protests to be held, conversations to be had, and art to be made. Reznor and Ross’ voices will be heard. After all, Before the Flood ended up being seen by 30 million people worldwide after its digital release. The Not the Actual Events EP, with virtually no lead up, became Nine Inch Nails’ first Extended Play to chart in the US since Broken in 1992. And throughout it all, Ross still feels there’s next to no chance of the guys slowing down:

“I feel like what we do — my main goal, I guess in life, is to not sound kind of mundane, is to stay interesting, and I think that in [the studio], we do manage to do that. I never come in here thinking ‘We’re going to have a boring day.’ I think that we’ve put a lot of effort into what we do. I think that both of us suffer from a control-freak element, and an inability to let go. I think those [traits] can hamper one’s life in other areas, but in terms of making music and making the best music we can possibly make, they’ve been handy. As I get older, ya know, I’m 48, I don’t feel any less enthusiastic about making music than 30 years ago, then I think that speaks for itself.”