Trent Reznor recalls his "terrible" attempts at songwriting before he struck gold with Nine Inch Nails

Trent Reznor attends the Los Angeles Premiere of Searchlight Pictures "Empire of Light" at Samuel Goldwyn Theater on December 01, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California
(Image credit: Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic))

Nine Inch Nails mainman Trent Reznor has opened up on the self doubt that stalled his fledgling career as he feared he would end up being in a poor facsimile of The Clash.

In a discussion with his friend, the actor David Dastmalchian, for Interview Magazine, Reznor also talks about his successful soundtrack-writing partnership with Atticus Ross and how getting sober changed his approach to work and life.

Dastmalchian, who starred as Thomas Schiff in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, explains how he wrestled with how much of his personal experiences to put into his acting roles, prompting Reznor to say: "For me, I knew I was a musician and I knew I wanted to have this kind of career, and it felt like the only thing I cared about.

"But the question I was putting off was, what if I’m not a great writer? So I played in other people’s bands and wasted time. But when I finally sat down and said, I’m going to see what I actually have to say, the first experiments were terrible, because it was me pretending I was somebody else. It was me using a safety net of, I like The Clash, so I’m going to sound like The Clash.

"Before long, I realised that the journal I’d been keeping were song lyrics, but that wasn’t anything I could ever show anybody because that wasn’t a character. That was me at my most painful, in terms of not fitting in, not being able to function in the world, feeling like wherever I am is not where I should be.

"So Nine Inch Nails was born of having the courage to commit some of those journal entries to tape and hand them to a friend and then have to run out of the room. But I did realise there was an authenticity and an honesty there that it was powerful and resonated. That became the blueprint of what ended up being Nine Inch Nails.

"Let me try to be as honest with myself as I can, embrace whatever warts and tangents I’m on at that time."

As Dastmalchian opens up on his battle with addiction, Reznor says he's grateful to have lived through his own struggles.

He adds: "I’m incredibly grateful that regardless of what pain and trauma and whatever the fuck led me into the hole I got myself into, I’m glad I went through it and am able to be the person I am today, and feel just fucking grateful to be alive and to feel in touch with things.

"We’ve been sober about the same amount of time, and much like you, I had the same frustrations about time lost and wishing I could have condensed that period, which for me was about five years lost, into six months.

"But we play the hand we’re dealt. I had the same insecurity about, did I need to be high to do what I do? Can I write music from a sober point of view? I had convinced myself of the romantic notion that that was part of the fuel, and I bought into the same mythologized bullshit that we all did– that it was necessary.

"And then also like you, and much to my utter joy and amazement, I found that the act of creating was more fun and the work I was doing was better, and I could remember a lot more of it.

"I’ve started to think more about how things are finite. What matters? My kids matter, my wife matters. But in terms of my work, really just thinking about that. What’s the hill that I want to climb and what am I getting from it?

"The answer that I’ve come to is the feeling of finishing a song in the studio and feeling like this is the best work I can do. You might like it, you might not. It might be successful, or no one will pay any attention to it. But I know I tapped into something. 

"That’s the payoff. It’s not the chart position or the snarky comments or the praise or the feedback. I’m not saying those things don’t play roles, but it’s not the point. For me, if I tap into that thing, and the creation process, I have a value that I didn’t. It might be the broken voice in me that still speaks up, but I feel validated."

On his work with Atticus Ross, Reznor recalls director David Fincher asking him to score The Social Network and how that brought its own wave of self doubt.

Reznor says: "It was something I was interested in, but didn’t know how to do. I didn’t know the process, the technique, I don’t even know the terms you use. I could write a song, but I don’t know how to write a 13-second piece of music for someone walking out of a room and going up the steps. Is that a chorus or is that a verse?

"I turned them down at first because I didn’t feel like I had enough energy in the tank to take on a new medium. I was tired from touring and I was just getting married and I promised myself I was going to carve some time out for me, and then this came up and it felt overwhelming.

"So I said no. But then I felt shittier for the next few weeks because I felt like I’d let him down and I’ve let myself down. And maybe I was just being a pussy. I called him back and said, 'It’s not the material, it’s not you. I just didn’t want to ruin your movie.'

"He’s like, 'Hey, I’m still waiting on you to do it. Come on.' I got in the car. I was working with Atticus on a lot of stuff and said, 'Do you want to take this on with me?' 

"Anyway, we had enough time and a very nurturing situation with David who’s an incredible collaborator. He fights hard to make sure the inner circle of collaborators are protected from any outside influence, like studios or money people. And I can’t say enough about what a nurturing, positive environment that was to try things."

Reznor recently marked the 30th anniversary of the release of NIN masterpiece The Downward Spiral, saying he still finds the album exciting and heartbreaking.

Stef wrote close to 5,000 stories during his time as assistant online news editor and later as online news editor between 2014-2016. An accomplished reporter and journalist, Stef has written extensively for a number of UK newspapers and also played bass with UK rock favourites Logan. His favourite bands are Pixies and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Stef left the world of rock'n'roll news behind when he moved to his beloved Canada in 2016, but he started on his next 5000 stories in 2022.