Trent Reznor On How Sobriety, Discomfort, And Experimentation Fuel His Creative Pursuits

The Nine Inch Nails mastermind, Beats Music COO, and film composer shares how he stays inspired while juggling a wide array of projects and “trying to relentlessly, fearlessly push forward.”

Trent Reznor On How Sobriety, Discomfort, And Experimentation Fuel His Creative Pursuits
Trent Reznor, on stage with Nine Inch Nails [Photo by Paul Bergen, Redferns, Getty Images]

Almost 25 years after the release of Nine Inch Nails’ debut, Trent Reznor is busier than ever. Last fall he released an excellent new NIN album, Hesitation Marks, and he’s currently on tour with the band. He’s also working on the film score to David Fincher’s Gone Girl (out in October), which will be the director’s third collaboration with Reznor and his composing partner, Atticus Ross. Then there’s streaming service Beats Music, which debuted in January and is owned by Dr. Dre and Interscope head Jimmy Iovine. As the company’s chief creative officer, Reznor has been an integral part of the launch, especially Beats’ distinctive recommendation engine.


Here are some of the ways he continues to be inspired as he tackles such varied projects.

Cultivate Discomfort

Reznor loves to challenge himself with new creative situations. “I find it very important to keep myself in a state of not getting comfortable–trying to push myself into things that feel unfamiliar. In terms of making music, I still feel like there’s a world of discovery ahead of me. I enjoy that process and try to keep it changing, keep myself in a place where I don’t feel comfortable, really. I’m trying to avoid any sort of resting on laurels or repeating myself. Before taking on a certain project I try to think it through: How could I arrange this room a little differently? Usually that involves changing the routine, changing the process itself. That could be anything from using different instruments, working with different people, just trying new things. It’s really trying to relentlessly, fearlessly push forward.”

Tune Out the Noise

When you reach a certain level of success, it can be hard to ignore outside pressures and considerations. “Hesitation Marks came from a very unexpected place. There were no expectations. Nobody externally was suggesting I do that. I realized that I was itching to put myself back in the spotlight and write some songs for me, and maybe that would be Nine Inch Nails. I was just starting from a place of, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ A couple of things popped out and then before I knew it, a whole album was done. It was done from a very pure, non-editorial place. I didn’t overthink it, I didn’t think about how it would fit in the canon of Nine Inch Nails, I didn’t care about what reviews would say. It organically came from a place that felt really exciting.”

Be Open to Unexpected Opportunity

Reznor didn’t intend to take on a C-level job with Beats Music, but curiosity and an open mind led him in an unexpected direction. “Jimmy [Iovine, who runs Reznor’s former label] and I survived that always tumultuous relationship between artists and labels. I’ve always liked him as a person, and once we were out from under that he’s-the-boss, I’m-the-artist thing, our friendship blossomed in a way it couldn’t before. He had started the Beats empire, and he asked me if I was interested in solving a hardware problem. He started mentioning his desire to build a music subscription service based around the idea of curation. When Nine Inch Nails left Interscope we spent a few years trying everything I could think of to crack the code of self-marketing: what do people want? How do they consume music, how would they like to consume it, what do they think it’s worth, what formats do they like, how would they like to be treated, how would I like to be treated as the artist? Is there a way to solve that problem without the bureaucracy of a big label around you? Long story short, after a number of experiments that ranged from semi-successful to kind of feeling like failures, nothing felt like a real next business model. But I think subscription music is the next thing that makes sense from a consumer point of view. I’m really proud of what we’ve done.”

Juggle Projects That Work Different Parts of The Brain

Tackling several projects at once only works if they occupy different parts of his brain. “Right now the only compositional work I’m doing is Gone Girl. I don’t think I could do that and write a Nine Inch Nails record at the same time. That would feel like I’m arguing with myself. Currently I’m in the middle of a tour, which is just execution and exhaustion. There’s bits of creativity, but it’s more about just executing. The Beats Music stuff I’ve found can occupy an enormous amount of my consciousness. But at the moment it’s not highly creative, because a lot of the vision that we’ve built is now in engineering to actually get executed. It’s trying the beta, seeing what pieces you thought would work but you realize don’t quite feel right, more of that kind thing. When I’m in creative mode in terms of music, there’s a lot of quiet time and trying to clear my mind. At the moment I feel a general sense of anxiety where if I have a free hour I feel like I should be spending it doing one of the five things waiting for my attention–which also includes being a father. But they don’t feel in competition with each other in terms of what part of my brain is being used.”

The Gift of Sobriety

Giving up drugs and alcohol has had a huge impact. “Right now I’m feeling inspired. An unexpected side effect of getting sober 12 years ago was I’m motivated: I feel like I’ve lost some time and I want to make up for that. I really appreciate having the opportunity to do something I love doing–several things I love doing. Being able to make a living and have people seem to be interested in [my work]…that’s a gift I’ve taken for granted at other stages of my life and I want to treat that with the respect it deserves and try to do the best work I can while I have the energy to do it. Getting sober and getting my life in order has really changed my perspective on the creative process. It used to be fraught with fear. I would try to trick myself into avoiding working, because it was the most difficult, painful self-examination imaginable. That process is no less difficult, but it’s become actually enjoyable. The act of getting in there and examining–failing at times and succeeding at other times and learning in the process–has become something I actually enjoy and look forward to.”


About the author

Rob Brunner is Fast Company's features editor.