Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross on ‘Patriots Day,’ New Nine Inch Nails EP, and How Social Media Creates a ‘Toxic Environment’ for Music

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 27: Composers Atticus Ross (L) and Trent Reznor pose in the press room during the 83rd Annual Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre on February 27, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA – FEBRUARY 27: Composers Atticus Ross (L) and Trent Reznor pose in the press room during the 83rd Annual Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre on February 27, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)

It was a leap of faith for Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to take on the score for the new Peter Berg film Patriots Day, an unflinching film about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three civilians and injured at least 264 others. Previously, the Oscar-winning composing team had worked almost exclusively with director David Fincher on well-developed, full-length features including The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. They had a comfort level working with Fincher and an understanding that what they did worked in his films.

Related: Patriots Day Featurette: Mark Wahlberg, Peter Berg, and More on ‘Getting It Right’ in Boston Marathon Bombing Drama

“With David, we have a familiarity and a friendship and a cerebral bond,” Reznor tells Yahoo Music. “We interpret the mood and the feeling of his movies through our own language and our own soundscapes and our own arrangement techniques. It’s a process that has taught us to trust our musical instinct. On this picture, not knowing Pete, part of the challenge was taking that same instinctual approach for a different type of picture. And to do that we had to find out, ‘Well, is Pete willing to go down that path with us?’”

Patriots Day captures the events that led up to the Boston Marathon attack, the devastation it caused, and the actions of one police officer (played by Mark Wahlberg) in the middle of the turmoil. At the same time, the movie examines the perspectives of other characters whose lives were irrevocably changed by the terrorist attack. This presented Reznor and Ross with creative challenges they hadn’t expected or previously experienced.

“We hadn’t done a film that was experiential like this, and we’d never taken on any subject matter of this nature,” says Reznor. “And that was part of the appeal. We wondered if we could work inside a big Hollywood picture like this, but color outside the lines in terms of what might be expected, and I think ultimately we succeeded.”

Additionally, during the process, Reznor and Ross had to keep up with movie’s three-month work schedule — quickly writing music to accompany parts that hadn’t yet been shot and providing additional score elements for scenes that were added at the last minute. They were also asked to write far more music than they had expected: The score for Patriots Day is 114 minutes long.

Related: ‘Patriots Day’ Review: A Solemn Salute to Boston’s Heroes

While they worked on Patriots Day, Reznor and Ross experimented with previously unexplored techniques, then used those experiences to indirectly benefit Nine Inch Nails. In the end, they surfaced with a haunting, minimalistic film score — and shortly after, they completed a harrowing, dread-inducing EP, Not the Actual Events, filled with songs that further develop NIN’s aesthetic while self-consciously referencing elements from the past.

During this thought-provoking conversation, Reznor and Ross address some of their concerns about working on Patriots Day, the innovative approaches they took to create the soundtrack, and techniques they applied to the Not The Actual Events. In addition, Reznor talks about what inspired him to pick up his dusty guitars for the first time in two years and record a new array of abrasive, teeth-clenched riffs, and the specific rules he and Ross followed when they worked on the songs. In the process, he touches on the current unstable political climate and what he views as the “toxic environment” created by an excess of social media.

YAHOO MUSIC: You were working on Patriots Day at the same time as Not the Actual Events. Would one provide a welcome diversion from the other?

TRENT REZNOR: That method of working in the past has worked pretty well for us. As long as we can stay sane and we can bounce a few things that aren’t all alike, it does provide a nice relief and they inspire each other — usually in a way of, “Man, I don’t want to anything more like that. Let me do this.” Even if it’s just taking a week off to do the other thing. When we did [NIN’s] Hesitation Marks, [Reznor’s other band with his wife Mariqueen Maandig and Ross] How to Destroy Angels and Gone Girl were all happening at the same time as well. And it felt refreshing to bounce between those projects. Same thing here. For this we were doing [the score for Leonard DiCaprio’s documentary] Before the Flood, Patriots Day, and Not the Actual Events all pretty much during the same time frame.

Did you want to draw elements from past Nine Inch Nails records when you were working on Not the Actual Events? It feels like there are familiar sequences in there that are comfortingly discomforting.

REZNOR: To some degree, the process of that EP was comforting to us. It dawned on me that every time I walked into our studio, I walked past a couple dusty guitars that I haven’t touched since the last tour because at some point I decided guitars were out of fashion and I’d done that. I thought, “I’ve gotta commit myself to this other thing. And I can’t touch these things. I’ve done these things. I can’t return to that.” And one day we were kind of just f***ing around and strapped the guitar on and slapped a couple pedals on it and without too much thought, some things came out that were a couple years older version of me since the last time I tried that. It felt fresh because I hadn’t played it for a while. I hadn’t heard those sounds. And I hadn’t heard those sounds from that new thing we just hooked it up to. It felt liberating and it felt free and it felt unfashionable and it felt aggressive and it felt like, “F***, this is what we need to do.” I didn’t overthink it any past that. And that kind of dictated the whole new EP. We’ve been f***ing around with 80 pieces of music, some of which may show up in some fashion here and there. But they were lacking a kind of vitality that demanded they be put out. And when we stumbled into this — you can call it whatever you want — nostalgia, [being] self-referential — I was actually reminded, “Oh yeah, this is exciting and it’s fun. And that makes it valid and worth doing.” I also think it’s a benefit to think it’s unfashionable. That also makes it kind of sexy.

Have the events that transpired in the world of politics while you worked on Patriots Day and the EP impacted the way any of the music came out?

REZNOR: Certainly, yes. I think that it’s not a reaction to Donald Trump, because most of this had been done before that had been officially confirmed. But the climate that had set the stage for such a thing to happen certainly was an inspiration for the sense of disconnected self that permeates the EP. The rage was not a result of Donald Trump winning the election. That had been building over the last year or so of working on that EP that I think absolutely has to do with the barrage of information we constantly are living in. In these confused times when the walls don’t feel as solid as they used to.

In eras of political instability, there’s often some great music.

REZNOR: Well, let’s see. Everything sucks so far, so we’ll have to see what happens.

Will you follow up with a full-length Nine Inch Nails record this year?

REZNOR: We’re working on new stuff now, so we’re planning to release more stuff as soon as it’s ready, and I don’t think that’s this year.

Nine Inch Nails is scheduled to play the Panorama Festival on July 30 in New York. Will you be touring in 2017?

REZNOR: No, nothing is planned right now.

Are you still making music for How to Destroy Angels?

REZNOR: You will see more How to Destroy Angels. It’s in the works.

How is working with Nine Inch Nails different for you today than it was back in the days when you writing The Downward Spiral or The Fragile?

REZNOR: Before anyone had heard of Nine Inch Nails, I discovered that what the band would be about would be me trying to be as honest with myself as I can be when I’m making the music… it usually involves a level of self-examination or exorcizing of feelings that aren’t necessarily pleasant. I learned before you ever heard a song I’d written that that had power. I could scrape out my feelings and turn them into something that made me feel better that I got it out of my head, and I noticed people responded to it because it had a truthfulness to it. I still believe in that same kind of edict. Any time I sit down to write something, even today, I have to remind myself that it needs to be as honest as who I have become when I’m doing this stuff. And I can look back at my catalog and say with honesty that it’s the best I can do when I did it and it was the most true I could be to myself. The challenges are different today.

In what respect?

REZNOR: I’m not the same person I was then and I’m less afraid than I used to be. When I took so long between albums, I was afraid to open that book up and see what was inside my head. I was insecure. Now I think I’m more confident in my abilities, but doesn’t make it any less painful to write at times or do anything about the feeling of being naked when I release this stuff out to the world. But what has crept in is that everyone’s a commentator now. The Internet is giving voice to everybody thinking that someone gives a s*** what they have to say and they have the right. I think, in general, that has created a toxic environment for artists and led to some very safe music. Artists are trying to make music to please the tastemakers that tell the sheep what to like. It’s a vicious cycle and I think it’s unhealthy. I don’t see any Princes emerging on the scene today. I see a lot of people making formulaic, made to please, vegan restaurant patron-type s***. And I think it creates an environment where people are too f***in’ worried about what other people have to say. And people who have never made anything think it’s OK to talk s*** about stuff they have no right to talk about. You got a Facebook account? Nobody gives a f***. You haven’t achieved anything.

How did you begin the process that yielded Patriot’s Day, Before the Flood, and Not the Actual Events all at once?

REZNOR: Atticus and I had worked on a number of projects together over the years and then there was a couple-year period when we did separate things. I was touring; he was doing other work. Then early last year we said, “Let’s commit the next few years to taking on some projects together.” There were a number of projects up for consideration. We’d never taken on any subject matter like those in Patriots Day and we had not worked with Pete Berg before, but he does a good job on the type of films he does and he was interested in working with us.

Did you have any reservations about writing for Peter Berg?

REZNOR: Our initial concern before speaking to Pete was that it seemed like there were lots of ways this film could go off track. It could be too pro-America. The tone of it could lack taste and not be something we would want to be associated with. But as soon as we met with Pete and talked with him, his level of sincerity and dedication to tell an authentic story that respected those involved became very clear, and he was not trying to push any agenda other than the narrative.

Were you on the same page when it came to the kind of music you wanted for the movie?

REZNOR: We said to him, “Look, we’re not gonna deliver a by-the-numbers Hollywood go-get-‘em score. Are you open to that? ‘Cause if you’re not, you should go pick some other people.” And there was nothing but respect from Pete. So we thought, “let’s see what happens.” We jumped in, and several months later, it was finished.

A movie about the Boston Marathon bombing could have been filled with dramatic, highly melodic music, but you’ve filled the film with lots of ambience and some very atmospheric sounds.

ATTICUS ROSS: There’s an aspect where you could conceivably look at this as a genre film, and to that end, there is a certain tried-and-true formula. To me, I think of the big, banging tympani drums and the swelling emotional orchestra, which works. But I think the idea of being in service to a story like this — being able to be honest with ourselves in terms of where we lie musically and what we think’s best — involved finding a process that was interesting to us so we could spend the next three months having fun and learning. It is delicate. It is a story of humanity, at the end of the day. You’ll notice when the bombs go off, we’re not blasting with drums or whatever. And there’s a number of interconnected storylines. We’re tracking five different stories, so there are five different themes in terms of music.

What was the greatest challenge?

REZNOR: There was a backdrop of having a pretty hectic pace. It always felt like we were sprinting, as they were. There was a tight deadline to get this finished, and it changed the entire approach and tone of filmmaking. You don’t have forever to contemplate and reflect and tinker. A lot of it is coming on very hot. And that led to the biggest challenge.

It seems like a different approach than what you’re used to.

REZNOR: We’ve gotten accustomed to a style of filmmaking that feels like you’re on a trajectory that’s leading to a finish line. And the revision project is one where incremental changes come in that consistently make the film better but minutely change that film. You might get a frame or two cut out here. There might be a slight change in this and that. This was quite different. Scenes would disappear, new scenes you’d never seen before suddenly appeared, and it’s sequentially in a place where nothing was there before. As composers, we were trying to make a piece of music that makes some sort of sense — where a theme that’s introduced is meant to have been heard before in a different context, so that it makes sense when you hear it now in a different light. But suddenly, that earlier theme is not there anymore because the scene’s been cut. That made it frustrating to have something that, at the end of the day, feels coherent and cohesive to the listener.

Whether it’s Patriots Day, Before the Flood, or any of David Fincher’s films, you’ve worked with many different movie structures and narratives. Do you approach each film with a different musical aesthetic in the same way as you might approach putting together a record for a different band?

REZNOR: Before we start any project — whether it be a new album for Nine Inch Nails, or How to Destroy Angels, or a film — before any music is composed, we really spend some time thinking about how to set up limitations to hopefully have each project feel like it’s part of its own world, and it’s hopefully not just part of an assembly line of us doing the same kind of stuff for everything.

What were those limitations for Patriots Day?

REZNOR: One of the things Pete said right at the beginning was, “I’m very concerned that we’re making a difficult-to-watch film, because it’s going to go there in certain places. There’s a long section of the film which is going to be pretty grueling to the audience, and I want to make sure we don’t go too far. We want to repel people, we want to shock people, we want you to feel like you’re holding back tears. But we don’t want you to feel punished when the film’s over. Ultimately, this is a film about redemption and strength and the coming together of a community and team and spirit and the power of love. And let’s make sure that those emotions and that sensibility is represented in what you’re scoring.” So we started thinking, “Let’s focus solely on that idea in our composition.” We had some footage to watch, but it was in such a state of flux, we weren’t scoring to picture. So we focused on the sense of what it might feel like looking at a street or a home you grew up in that you have lots of fond memories of. And then something terrible happens against that backdrop. How would that potentially stay in that memory or degrade that sense of place and sense of affection one might feel thinking of the childhood home? And that kind of translated into a technique that we’ve been working with that’s not fully deployed.

What was that technique and how did it guide the score?

REZNOR: It involved stringing tape machines together to record some motifs. We could capture two, four, six, eight bars of phrases and have it bounce between cassette decks indefinitely until we stopped the tape. Each time, it loses a generation and feels like it’s a memory of the other one. It’s a very subtle process where you could leave it to play for an hour and then listen to it and that motif suddenly has a worn-in feel, or you could let it go all night or a couple nights and it starts to become unrecognizable, but in a way that feels — not menacing — and that feels almost comforting and nostalgic. That technique became inspiring enough that it dictated how we would record the rest of the score. The process made us work and think in a way that was unlike anything we’ve done in the past. And it gave us some parameters to work within that gave this film its own identity, and we found strength in that. We applied the same type of rulemaking to the new Nine Inch Nails EP.

In what way?

REZNOR: It had its own set of rules. We said, “Let’s not tune or fix any performances of any of the instruments. And let’s try to have no melody in any of the verses and create lyrics in a way that you can’t sing them. And let’s not allow ourselves to do certain things we’ve done before. These are rules that can change, but they come from having a point of view and an agenda, and it helps inform us. Five days a week, we’re in the same room for most of the day with the same equipment and the same clothes, for the most part. And having each thing be its own world helps us put a lot of effort to make each thing feel like its own identity.

Did you use any of the experimental techniques from Patriots Day in Not the Actual Events?

ROSS: I think one thing informs another thing in terms of a learning experience. Music is a continual lesson and voyage of discovery. But what we don’t do is find something that works really well in one project and transplant it into another one, because that defeats the whole purpose. With all my favorite albums, I can say something like, “I know this song is from [David Bowie’s] Low because it sounds a certain way. I know that this piece of music is from Blade Runner.” The aspiration to create something that has that sense of identity, and that can only live in that world and is attached to that piece of art, whether it be a film or a record.

REZNOR: Sometimes it’s a recording technique. Sometimes it’s choices of instrumentation — what you allow yourself to use. Are we going to use real people playing real instruments, or are we only going synthetic? We want the listener to feel like this thing has its own identity and came from its own unique place. And for us the artists, it’s always a learning experience. Every film we’ve done, every album we’ve done, we’ve learned some new techniques, some of which have worked better than others. We’ve expanded our own vocabulary or engineering and sound design and harmonic evolution. We’re still trying to figure it out and that’s what makes it fun. Ones it turns into, “OK, I’ve got this bag of tricks and now I can reach into this bag and I can pull the same s*** out,” it’s less interesting.

Wouldn’t pulling from a “bag of tricks” be easier and more lucrative?

REZNOR: Of course. Sadly, our approach is not economically viable. It’s not great for your career because we’re not trying to… I remember after we won some awards, there was all this pressure from the outside, saying, “OK, you should take on four or five films a year now that you’ve got all these offers, and we can get you to this next level of…” I said, “Wait a minute. Why are we doing this?” It is to make each thing feel like it’s as important as when I do a Nine Inch Nails record. It’s because I have to do it and I love it and it’s how I define myself. It’s not to tick the box or compete with the other guys — take on five, six films a year. Good for him. We couldn’t do that because we don’t have that many ideas we feel are that good that we can stretch them that far. We just want to do the best we can with whatever we’re deciding to do.