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Interview: Trent Reznor pens 'Black Ops II' theme song

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Interview: Trent Reznor pens 'Black Ops II' theme song

By Mike Snider, USA TODAY Updated

The next soundtrack project for Trent Reznor, who most recently scored The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with Atticus Ross, is not for a film, but for the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops II.

Reznor has composed the game's theme song, an "aggressively sounding" piece of guitar, bass and drums-based rock. Well-known video game composer and Video Games Live co-producer Jack Wall (Mass Effect 2) composed the rest of the music for the game.

A lifelong video gamer, Reznor is no stranger to collaborating with game developers having worked on Quake and Doom 3 with id Software. His teaming with the game's development studio Treyarch is a suitable one as the Nine Inch Nails front man is a fan of the Call of Duty franchise and 2010's Black Ops. "I have always looked to that franchise as the cutting edge of what seemingly unlimited budgets and full-on not cutting any corners can do in the current day and age," he says.

When Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia began talking with Activision's music affairs team, "we were trying to think what is the kind of artist that could represent something a little bit dark, sometimes conflicted, bold original and engaging," says Black Ops II director and writer Dave Anthony. "Honestly, Trent's name stuck out. He was perfect for it."

Reznor recently talked with Game Hunters about Black Ops II, video games and his upcoming music projects.

How'd you get connected with Treyarch on 'Black Ops II'?
I'm not exactly sure. I started dipping my toe into film scoring. That led me to film-scoring agents and whatnot, and a variety of projects start to get thrown at you to check your level of interest. And quite a while ago I had heard, 'Would you be interested in a big franchise video game?' Being an avid gamer my whole life, I said, 'Yeah, I would be interested in that.'

Coming off of doing two films in a row, I wasn't looking to really dive into a super big project, so the idea of scoring the theme song for this came up and it sounded interesting to me so I pursued it.

How is doing music for a game similar or different from composing film soundtracks?
Here's a similarity. When David Fincher called me up a few years ago and said, 'Hey, I'd like you to score this film The Social Network.' I said, 'I'm flattered but I really don't have any real experience scoring films and I'd rather not screw it up on a high-profile project. And I like you and I don't want to compromise our friendship.'

He talked me into it, which I'm glad he did. My strategy going into that was the one I used since then on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and certainly on Call of Duty, which was really to sit and listen and realize that my role in this is a supporting role. He had lived with project, and I'm talking about The Social Network right now, and thought about it a lot more than I have. Let me try to find out exactly what it is he is wanting and why he reached out to me. I found that strategy, although it may seem obvious, really worked.

In Nine Inch Nails, I've been the guy calling the shots since inception. I'd gotten used to that. I was interesting to be in a situation where I was working under somebody I respect and playing a supporting role. When I sat down with the Treyarch guys, I wanted right off the bat to say, 'Guys, first of all, I am working for you on this thing. What are the moods you are looking for, because the role of this piece is greeting the gamer into the game. Let's really talk about themes and as I start throwing iterations at you, please feel free to say, That's not right.'

How did you arrive at a sound?
When I sat down with these guys. I kind of wanted to extract 'If you are looking for a big orchestral, Hollywood-y feeling, traditional-type patriotic score, I can do something like that, but I'm not excited about doing it,and it's not my strength. There's a lot of other people who can do that better than I can.

I was intrigued by the idea that they were willing to get out of the zone with something a little bit different. What I did was present them with the concept of 'Let's have it arranged semi-orchestrally, but let's have the voice be an instrument. Let's veer it more toward guitar, bass, drum rock band aggression. And I don't mean in a corny rock-and-roll way, but let's have a more modern foundation in terms of how it sounds. But let's have the way the voices are arranged mimic an orchestral range.' If that makes sense. The first thing I sent back to them was what really wound up being the foundation of the core of the end result.

What I learned in listening to the full story and the amount of effort that has gone into the back story and the characters and the full preparation (is) there is a lot of reservation and angst and sense of loss and regret and anger bubbling under the surface. So it didn't make sense to have a gung ho, patriotic feeling theme song. It has to feel weighty. There is a lot of remorse and apprehension here. So choosing to arrange it a bit more with guitars and drums and aggressively sounding, that struck a tone with them.

If it was set purely in World War II, for example, I wouldn't have chosen the instruments that I did. The fact that it is set slightly in the future made me feel like maybe it is OK to get away from an orchestra. So we did it the way we did.

Have you completed work on that?
The phone hasn't rang for a few weeks. I'm on call, but we'll see how it goes. I'm assuming that is a good sign but maybe I'm being naive here.

How big of a 'Call of Duty' fan are you?
I think I have played them all with the exception of one or two that may have come out when I was on long touring jaunts. But for the most part, I have played them all.

What do you enjoy about the games?
I've watched with a kind of wary eye how gaming has progressed. I was there at the beginning with Pong in the arcade, and a lot of my great childhood memories were around a Tempest machine. I really looked at gaming as a real art form that is able to take a machine and turn it into something that is a challenging, human interaction puzzle game strategy. I have been wildly enthused about gaming since I was younger, and a career path I chose not to go down but did really consider was getting into programming and game design. When I first played Wolfenstein 3D, it blew my mind. It had a big impact on me.

And when I say 'wary,' I have seen big companies and publishers get involved, and I have seen a similar to Hollywood hierarchy set up where, often, innovation gets bulldozed by franchises and familiarity and let's milk sequels out. What I have appreciated about the Call of Duty games is the scale of production. It's not an indie game. It's not trying to be an indie game. But I've genuinely been pretty consistently blown away by, wow, what an effort has gone into this. I get what they are going for. ... As a player, I've generally focused on multiplayer.

What game systems do you have, and what other recent games have you enjoyed?
Pretty much all systems are here in the house, in some room of the house, the studio or otherwise. I've spent some time with Diablo III. I'm pretty blown away by the scale of Skyrim. I thought Heavy Rain was engrossing. I just bought a piece of obscure musical gear from that company (Quantic Dream) over there. My wife and I spent quite a few evenings kind of scared making our way through that game. That achieved its mark and really felt like an accomplishment in terms of expanding what games can be.

It's interesting to see gaming go from one guy in the Robotron era to when I worked on Quake with the 'Mom-and-Pop shop' of id Software fresh off the success of Doom, but it still was a core of a handful of guys that could work autonomously and churn out interesting cool stuff. And jumping back to id a few years later when it's Doom 3 and now that handful of guys has a zero at the end of how many there are and the scale of, wow, there's a hell of a lot more resources need to go into the game.

And then tuning out of that world for a while and popping in at Treyarch and the scale of it and, most impressively, the coordination of it all. I was in there a month ago or so, and there's everybody in their cubicles working on minutiae that fits into this whole in some way. And I start thinking, 'Man, this is coming out in a few months. Somebody has planned out that all these pieces fit together.' I know how hard it is to get three other guys and the lights to come on for a tour. It is mind-blowing to see that coordination and effort and the handshaking part. It's very impressive.

Can you update us on the How To Destroy Angels album (the band includes Reznor's wife Mariqueen Maandig and Tattoo and Social Network soundtrack co-composer Atticus Ross)?
We have a finished album. It's been finished for a little while. We're doing a little bit of tweaks on it. The record will be out soon. We are doing a different type of distribution this time so it's taking a little bit longer to coordinate stuff. There's a lot of music about to be unleashed, videos, etcetera. I'm working on some new Nine Inch Nails stuff.

Did you say also working on new Nine Inch Nails music? That's good to hear.
Dot dot dot. Hopefully, it will be good to hear. Right now, it's in its gestation period.

PREVIOUS Paul McCartney working with 'Halo' studio Bungie NEXT Ouya to launch new video game console To report corrections and clarifications, contact Standards Editor Brent Jones. For publication consideration in the newspaper, send comments to [email protected]. Include name, phone number, city and state for verification. To view our corrections, go to USA TODAY is now using Facebook Comments on our stories and blog posts to provide an enhanced user experience. To post a comment, log into Facebook and then "Add" your comment. To report spam or abuse, click the "X" in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find out more, read the FAQ and Conversation Guidelines.

About Mike Snider

Mike Snider began covering the video game industry during the Super Nintendo-Sega Genesis clash in 1992. An original pinball wizard, he eventually was seduced by Robotron: 2084 and Tempest. These days he is a fan of action/shooters and lives out his Keith Moon fantasies playing a mean drum kit on music games. More about Mike.

About Brett Molina

Brett Molina has been writing about video games for USA TODAY since 2005. He is well-versed in Madden NFL, the fighting genre and first-person shooters. The first video game he played was Asteroids at a local arcade. He has been hooked ever since. More about Brett.

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