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Punishing synths, dissonant drumbeats, and the occasional sax riff punctuate the latest album from Nine Inch Nails, the industrial rock outfit fronted by Trent Reznor. The project, Bad Witch (out June 22), is the final chapter in a trilogy, and continues the thread Reznor first explored on the series’ preceding releases, Not the Actual Events and Add Violence. Specifically, what is our place in the world today and how do we navigate it? Reznor is still not sure he has an answer, but by splitting the story into three parts, he is allowing listeners more time to come to their own conclusions. As he tells EW, “I knew [a trilogy] would give us time to think about how it resolved itself as three separate pieces that are related versus one big, long chunk of music and ideas.”
Ahead, Reznor discusses the origins of the new record, sobriety, the perils of technology, and the influence of David Bowie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Add Violence came out last year, you said you didn’t know what the last project in the trilogy was going to sound like. How did Bad Witch take shape?
The original idea was to split this big album into three chunks. The first [EP] had its own momentum. It’s an angry thing that felt effortless in terms of its coming together. Add Violence was much harder to actually execute. It was a difficult record to mix. We then played some shows right after Add Violence and everyone felt good. So we felt we’d go right into the studio and capture that momentum and turn it into this last piece. Unexpectedly, we bogged down in quicksand. We started working, and it just wasn’t feeling right. A lot of the music felt like posturing. Depression was setting in on some level. I think leading to a point of frustration kind of snapped us into the breakthrough that we needed, which was, let’s try some things that would be exciting and risky to do.
Was incorporating saxophone part of that risk-taking?
It was part of the “There’s no bad ideas, so let’s try some things.” Picking up the sax put me in the mindset of, let’s create a collage of sound that was reminiscent of the first Psychedelic Furs album — stuff that didn’t feel polished.
The sax on this album also seemed reminiscent of David Bowie’s Blackstar.
Clearly, Bowie is front of mind, and that was certainly an influence. In terms of the precision of arrangement, I think back to [being] younger, reading about Psychedelic Furs as a bunch of students that all picked instruments and learned enough to make a record. As someone that had studied his ass off how to play an instrument, I thought, You can do that? Some people worried about technique or if it’s in tune, or if it’s played well. [For Bad Witch, I thought] let’s just use it and add to the mayhem and message we are trying to convey. All this time [the sax] had been just sitting in my studio staring at me. Taunting me.
You did play a little sax on the Dissonance Tour with Bowie back in the ‘90s, though.
There’s some sax on Pretty Hate Machine too. When we toured with Bowie, and we did “Subterranean,” it felt cool playing the part he played. And then I realized what a pain in the ass it was to play live, making sure the reed is the proper wetness and the mouthpiece is right.
Bad Witch, which is six songs, was originally conceived as the last EP in a trilogy, but you’re now calling it an LP. Why?
I have always been an album guy. Even when a band you like has a greatest hits, that always felt wrong because the songs weren’t in the right order. I loved the format of the album, and specifically, the two sides. It felt like two acts with a beginning and an end. Certainly all the music I grew up with I consumed in that way and I liked when a great song felt part of a bigger thing.
When I write songs, it’s like they need to support each other. It allows me to go further in one direction because this thing next to it provides some sort of balance. When the idea originally came to create the three EPs, I was still thinking of them in terms of it as one big, long thing that’s in three smaller components. And the really unsexy answer to why we’re even talking about this now — having put out two EPs, it was easier for them to fall through the cracks of an already very porous attention span that people have. There were also boring things [to consider] like where they show up in streaming services. If you looked up Nine Inch Nails, it would look like the last record we put out was [2013’s] Hesitation Marks unless you scrolled way, way, way, way, way, way down to singles and, Oh there it is. That’s where they put EPs. And so I just said, “F—k it,” and made this an LP.
With this album, there seem to be competing voices navigating these dual visions of our current era. On “Ahead of Ourselves” you say, “Why try change when you know you can’t?” And then on “S—t Mirror,” it’s “New times, mutation, feels alright.” Where do you find yourself in the struggle between these opposing views?
All of these EPs started out with the same question, which is, “Where is my place in the world today?” And I’m asking myself that question as someone who’s getting older and looks at a world that feels increasingly unfamiliar. Is that aging? I feel a lot differently about things than I did when I was 20. Thank god. But the way I feel about them isn’t as terrifying to me as I thought it would be when I was 20. Your perspective does change. The things that seem to be happening in the world at the moment seem crazier than they ever have today. Is that me saying it because I’m older? Or are things actually f—king up in a very extreme way? Or is it some combination of both?
I think we’re in a f—d up situation where the world is off-axis. Originally, [Bad Witch] was going to be an even more extreme version of Add Violence. And what it wound up being was a much more pessimistic [message] where we’re not living in a simulation and there’s not a convenient external thing we can blame this on — at our core, [humans] are just an accident, and when fully realized we will just exterminate ourselves, and we aren’t these enlightened creatures. We’re really just animals. And I do feel that way to some degree in real life. Take the promise of technology. Where’s that gotten us really? The more connected we are, the worse we are as a society.
You were an early adopter of technology and its uses, especially Twitter. Does the way it’s being used now disappoint you?
I’m disappointed, without trying to sound like a Luddite. I like to consider myself forward-thinking. As an early adopter of social networks, [it] seemed like a great opportunity to engage fans in a way you never had before. I’m disappointed to see what it’s turned into. My takeaway from a platform like Twitter is to disengage as much as I possibly can aside from using it as a marketing tool. The thought of having any sort of discourse or conversation — it’s hard to make any point without being jumped on from all angles. It’s not a very efficient or articulate way to engage people. I don’t think as a society, when you look at what’s happening in the U.S. right now, that technology has been helpful for democracy or decency or compassion or empathy or the arts or journalism.
But you did tweet about Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” recently.
That was heartfelt. I got goosebumps [watching that video] and thought Man, thank god, somebody’s doing something interesting. Not that he’s the only person. It’s nice to see the bar raised and be reminded of the power of what arts and music can do.
Now not that you’ve completed this trilogy, do you feel you’re any closer to figuring out how human fit into a changing world or further away from it?
Now that I’ve figured it all out…
Basically, I’m asking you for the secret of life.
I’ll tell you what it is. This has been something I stumbled on to when I first started writing music. I wrote a few terrible songs because I was trying to be like somebody else. And then I realized the only thing I could speak [on] with authority was something I actually knew about because it came from an honest place versus one of posing. That next batch of songs, for Pretty Hate Machine, had an honesty to it because it came from a real place. It was my real feelings about things. And the process of digging is redemptive to me. If it’s to exorcize something out of your system, as unpleasant as it can be, it feels like, even if you don’t find what you wanted to find, you looked, and that’s more than you would have done had you not done it. Like getting sober for me. Incredibly unpleasant experience. Hardest thing I’ve ever done. But many benefits come from it, aside from not being dead. I sorted through a lot of s—t that I was carrying around. I’m very grateful that I had to go through that.
Someone asked me “Why are you making albums and touring? Is it for the same reasons you did years ago?” In some ways yes, in some ways no. We’re not making any money from putting albums out, but the other side of that is freedom. I’m not worried about charts, I’m not worried about trying to appeal to playlists on radio stations. I just want to make the most challenging, best music I can. And there’s nobody whispering in my ear saying, “Make a nice hit single,” or “Appeal to this sponsor.” And that’s incredibly freeing. I’ve seen what it feels like when you put out music that didn’t work with that machine, and the record label didn’t promote you. The kind of music we’re playing, I don’t see anybody else doing that sort of thing. And I think there’s an appetite for it, and it feels good to us to do it, and it feels like it has purpose and intent. And okay, that’s a pretty good reason to do it. That’s a pretty good reason to be away from home for a while. It’s a good reason to be in the studio and try things that don’t feel comfortable because when it does turn out well, I got something out of that. I feel a little bit better about myself.
This interview has been edited and condensed