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Trent Reznor and Danny Elfman talk collaborating on new album Big Mess

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Trent Reznor and Danny Elfman talk collaborating on new album Big Mess

Danny Elfman is already waiting for me when I sign on, his generously tattooed arm peaking into frame, sunlight reflecting off his shaggy mop of hair. “It’s really weird — I’ve never not been in the room with my team,” he says about his current situation: churning out a new project in his studio, forced to play editor, director, and musician all in one, due to, well… you know. Trent Reznor, who joins the conversation soon after, can sympathize: He, too, is working virtually, with people he’s never seen in person.

Luckily, the same can’t be said for this pair, who first met in 2014 at an awards roundtable. “When I heard him speak, it was like, ‘Man, I can relate to that,'” recalls Reznor. “He kind of sounds like how my brain works. His level of madness and insecurity reminds me of how I feel.”

Elfman concurs — with a reminder that impostor syndrome can lurk around the corner no matter how successful you get: “That’s my whole life,” he says, “essentially finding myself in different worlds I know nothing about and feeling like I’ve just broken into a party I’m not invited to.”

Perhaps that’s why Elfman and Reznor have had such similar career paths. Both made a name for themselves fronting rock bands —  the former with the new-wave theatrics of Oingo Boingo, and the latter with the industrial rot of Nine Inch Nails; both became successful film composers; and both have a knack for translating nightmarish worlds into musical landscapes. Even with hindsight, many fans were surprised when Elfman began releasing music that sounded a whole lot like Nine Inch Nails: cacophonous, brash, angry, cathartic (as one YouTube commenter put it: “Trent Reznor winning Oscars for scoring films and Danny Elfman recording industrial songs. What a time!”).

So when Elfman decided to remix some of his new solo work — which appears on his new album Big Mess — he naturally asked Reznor to contribute. The NIN frontman was happy to oblige, and “True” marks their first collaboration together — though hopefully not the last. Right, guys?

“Now that I’m Mr. Collaborator,” Reznor says with a chuckle.

“I’d love to,” responds Elfman. “I’ve opened that dusty old door.”

Adds Reznor, “It’s creaked open.”

Here, the pair discuss their similar career journeys, their artistic insecurities, and what’s made them smile during this very tumultuous moment in history.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve both had strikingly similar career paths. Each of you have fronted successful bands before becoming film composers. And Danny’s album, Big Mess, is heavily indebted to the type of sound Nine Inch Nails pioneered in the ’90s. When did you become aware of each other’s work?

TRENT REZNOR: I’ll start. I was an Oingo Boingo fan. I caught you guys playing at the Phantasy Theater back in Cleveland. 

DANNY ELFMAN: Oh my God. [Danny covers his face.] 

REZNOR: And I’ve played “Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me” in a cover band. Then over the years, watching his transition into not only film scoring but also defining what that could be — it reinforced the notion that I know I can’t do that. I’m not saying that out of pure flattery. It’s just, when I hear Danny’s scores, my brain doesn’t work that way. 

ELFMAN: Well, first off, thank you. I’m a bit speechless… I definitely relate to not knowing what I’m doing and feeling like an imposter. When I was [asked to compose] Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I almost said no. As Trent was saying, I would listen to other composers like Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams and go, “Oh f—. I don’t know how to do that.”

What’s interesting about Trent’s career to me — other than my being a huge Nine Inch Nails fan — is I remember 20 years ago a producer saying to me, “Can you do a Nine Inch Nails sound?” I go, “No, I can’t, especially not for this period piece.” But I always had in my mind, “I wonder what Trent’s going to do when he starts [composing].” Which I knew he was going to do. I could hear it. Was he going to take the easier route or the harder route? The easy route is doing what everybody expects you to do. The harder route is doing what you did, Trent, which was define a sound that was completely your own. 

REZNOR: Well now I’m speechless. 

ELFMAN: When I started doing Tim Burton’s films, one of the reasons other composers hated me was because they were being forced to do stuff like me. And because they knew I wasn’t trained, I got a lot of grief. Now I’m at that point where I hear the Trent sound in all these other scores, because he’s defining a unique place. That, to me, is what makes a composer really a composer — as opposed to just a successful film composer, who has no real feel or sound to what they do. Things become interchangeable, and we’re in a very generic era right now with film composition, where you can take big films and almost swap scores around.

Did that sense of genericness push you into taking a left turn with Big Mess?

ELFMAN: Nothing pushed me other than the pandemic. I was angry and depressed, and I had a guitar and a microphone. Really, it was more about venting. 

Trent, what did you think of Danny’s record? 

REZNOR: I’d reached a point where I’d been distracted through the start of the pandemic with finishing a couple of films. When that passed, I slipped into a weird panic because now I had time to examine the world and the hopelessness and bleakness of where we’re at. Unlike Danny, I didn’t feel motivated. I wanted to make an opus, but I found myself too immobilized by fear. And then his record shows up with a “Would you like to sing on any of these?” And I was like, “Oh f—, yeah I would.” I was grateful. And I was surprised at what it sounded like. It just felt like I-don’t-give-a-f— music that was confrontational and exciting and ridiculous and excellent.

ELFMAN: [Laughs] It sounds like that.

REZNOR: Problem, though, was when they asked what I would like to sing on. It sounded wrong for me to try to fill that space. I was also faced with realizing I’m a terrible engineer and I’m by myself [because of quarantine]. I haven’t had to work the console for 20 years. And so I just said, “Look, I’m going to send a bunch of stuff unedited. If you can tolerate making your way through it, and if there’s anything there, great. If not, don’t feel obligated to patronize.” It was a really nice distraction for me.

Just to overshare, trying to pursue or nurture friendships is not a strong suit of mine. I don’t know how to; I see other people do it. And to me, it was great to hear from Danny — I had felt since [we met] years ago, there’s a kindred soul here.

ELFMAN: I was floored when Trent sent material back to me. I’m so wired to think nobody’s gonna like this s—. I was too embarrassed to reach out myself. “True” is one of the first songs that I wrote for the album. And it was where I was actually finding my own voice because I hadn’t really sung in 27 years except for doing Jack Skellington [for The Nightmare Before Christmas], which is a very different voice. I didn’t know what my voice was going to be anymore. So I had to kind of re-figure out what to work with. It’s like, I can’t hit the high notes from Oingo Boingo, but I can hit other stuff in a way. I couldn’t have sung this song back in those days.

Then I find myself so many months later with Trent’s voice on it, and now I’m singing with it and I’m going, “This is the first time I’ve collaborated on a song in my lifetime.” And it was really an interesting experience. I’ve never done that before. So to be doing it now is such a weird surprise at this late stage of the game where I’m, you know, hanging on to life…

REZNOR: [Laughs] Bloomer collaborators.

ELFMAN: … You know, with the Grim Reaper smashing at me. But it’s like, what the f—? I think the high point this year for me was this collaboration because it’s something I never imagined. 

Trent, collaboration was something that came later for you as well. 

REZNOR: It sprung from necessity. You know, initially I didn’t love the idea of a band and a collaborative team. I found people that could execute what I wanted, but I couldn’t find anyone that I felt like shared the same outlook. And then I think over time with some record label interference, it initially taught me to fight for your own vision and maniacally pursue that. Sometimes it’s expensive for other people’s feelings, but I had something I wanted to say and I’m not interested in compromise. I find that those moments of creativity and the sparks of excitement are so fragile. Like, a jam session to me would be like getting toenails pulled out. However, as [composing partner and follow Nine In Nails member] Atticus [Ross] and I got to be friends, our tastes and skill sets complimented each other in a way where I realized it’s nice to have a sounding board. That significantly changed things in my world to a degree. 

You know, getting sober 20 years ago taught me a very unexpected lesson: relying less on fear and kind of being able to try things and know that this might be a piece of s—,  but I’m going to try it and I can always throw it in the trash. And it might end up being okay. 

Did relying less on fear lead you to something like you and Atticus producing Halsey’s new album?

REZNOR: The Halsey thing is a good example because it was completely unexpected — similar to this, where something came up on a whim. “Would you be interested in working on this project that was not something that you had planned or even thought about?” And it caught me in the moment, where I said, “Let me hear what you’re talking about.” To my surprise, I really had fun writing material in a format I’d never thought about before. I found myself excited. I wanted to get up even earlier to start working on it. And I thought, “Well, I haven’t thought through all the repercussions of what it means to my career or to my people or to her people or how I’m f—ing myself in this, but it’s exciting to me as an artist for the right reasons.” It’s not for a trophy or a paycheck or anything. The end result of working on that Halsey record is Atticus and I went into it with a set understanding of what we thought we were doing and we came out the other end realizing we don’t know everything. I’m grateful for that opportunity, and hopefully other people won’t think it’s a piece of s—.

ELFMAN: I can’t wait to hear this.

REZNOR: Yeah. Maybe I f—ed it up a little bit much.

ELFMAN: Nah. Trying to figure out how to keep learning and moving is the hardest f—ing part of everything. The last 40 years and working in film, it’s like, “Okay, if I’m not challenged by film, I got to find other stuff to do.” And the thing is, once you get successful at something, you either just coast and die, live on that, or you have to keep finding ways to stay excited. To do that takes effort. And if you’re not willing to fail, you’re not going to come out of anything new, period. There’s always bound to be that chance of failure.

REZNOR: One of my favorite lines in interviews was, “I like to put myself in uncomfortable situations.” And then you find yourself in an actual uncomfortable situation and you’re like, “F— this. This is terrible. Why am I here, man? It’s not comfortable.”

REZNOR: I look back at when David Fincher offered me The Social Network. It was just, “I want to do it. I respect the hell out of you as a filmmaker. And the film seems like it would be great, but I don’t know how to do it. I don’t come from that background.” I’m nodding my head like I do, but being thrust into that and having to figure it out and making the smart decision to not really ask how to do it, but see what would happen if, instinctually, you just wind up in a place that feels right — it allowed me to find that excitement again, to stumble into something that I didn’t know that I could do. But I hadn’t thought about music that way. What a gift that’s been, to be able to have another canvas to paint on. It’s exciting. With that said, the way it seems like [Danny] approaches a score still feels like advanced calculus. And I’ve just figured out subtraction.

ELFMAN: Thank you. I mean, it’s only just because I come out of a chaotic space with thousands of notes going and just to have to try to figure out how I harness them in some manner. Frequently I’ve been told, “Danny, it’s a shame you’re not getting paid by the note because you’re making a s— ton of money on this.” 

For two people known for translating dark emotions through music, what has been keeping things light for you the last 18 months? Is there anything making you laugh or smile?

REZNOR: Difficult question. Go ahead, Danny. I hope there’s a good answer about to come out, and then I can let the clock run out on this one.

ELFMAN: I got it. After dinner, before I go back to work — because unlike Trent, I’m a late-night worker — I’ll watch one show with my wife. I know this sounds ridiculous — The Great British Baking Show. It’s as much stress as I could take. It’s like, “Will the soufflé rise? Oh my God. Oh, will the custard collapse?” These are the stress moments, and I find myself getting really caught up in it. 

REZNOR: I might have to give that a shot. In my mind, I’m kind of spinning a bit with this latest whiplash of whatever the f— is going on in the world. I think I’m trying to come to terms with what felt like a year of despair, but it focused on an existential threat of the virus. Now it’s utter resentment towards a segment of the population. I’m fed up, and I’m angry — not at the virus anymore. I’m pissed off at a virus, but I’m furious at my neighbors. I also have five young kids and I’m really trying to make a concerted effort to turn off the valve of information coming in, and focus on the moment and what’s happening under the roof here. So I find it uplifting to kind of immerse myself in the struggles of Peppa Pig.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

A version of this interview runs in the October issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands beginning Sept. 17. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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