Pulling the harsh sounds of industrial rock into the mainstream, Trent Reznor and his band Nine Inch Nails became the face of industrial music in the ’90s with “Head Like a Hole,” “Closer,” and “Hurt” becoming hits and The Downward Spiral (1994) and The Fragile (1999) topping the charts. Nominated for over a dozen Grammys, NIN won Best Metal Performance awards in 1992 and 1996 for two tracks — “Wish” and “Happiness in Slavery” — from their metallic EP Broken. Extending into the 2000s, Reznor maintained his chart success, even as the band’s style shifted to incorporate atmospheric electronic elements influenced by his Oscar-winning film scores. In 2016, after decades as the only official member of the band, he welcomed English producer Atticus Ross — his longtime film scoring partner and bandmate in side project How to Destroy Angels — as NIN’s official second member. Over the next five years, the duo enjoyed a prolific period that saw additional new film scores as well as NIN projects like 2018′s Bad Witch LP and a continuation of their ongoing instrumental Ghost series which saw two new entries in 2020′s Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts.
Michael Trent Reznor was born May 17, 1965, in New Castle, Pennsylvania and raised in Mercer, a small town outside Pittsburgh. His parents divorced when he was six and he was raised by his maternal grandparents. As a child, Reznor had already developed a keen interest in music. He learned to play piano, tenor sax, and tuba, playing in his school’s jazz and marching bands while also acting in high-school productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Music Man. Outside of the classical sphere, his biggest rock influence was Kiss, whose theatricality and live shows would later inform NIN’s acclaimed stage production. While studying music and computer engineering at local Allegheny College, he was a fleeting member of new wave outfit Option 30, contributing vocals and keyboards before parting ways with the band when he dropped out of school to pursue music full-time. He packed up and moved to Cleveland, Ohio with his friend Chris Vrenna, who later became a founding member of the first incarnation of NIN.
While in Cleveland, Reznor was drawn to new wave and the industrial sounds of Ministry and Skinny Puppy. He gigged around town for a few years, playing in cover band the Urge before joining the Innocent as their keyboardist. The latter band released a single full-length, 1985′s Livin' in the Street (Red Label Records), before Reznor quit. He soon hooked up with synth pop group Exotic Birds, contributing keys, programming, and backing vocals, while also recruiting Vrenna on drums. Despite their brief run together, Reznor appeared with the band in the 1987 Michael J. Fox/Joan Jett film Light of Day as a fictional band dubbed The Problems. His final roles in the local keyboardist circuit were with pop outfit Slam Bamboo — they issued a single “White Lies”/“Cry Like a Baby” in 1988 — and new wavers Lucky Pierre, whose vocalist Kevin McMahon would later form Prick, one of the first signees to Reznor’s future record label, Nothing Records.
During these stints, Reznor continued to work on his own material while employed as an assistant engineer and handyman at Cleveland’s Right Track studio. When the shop closed for the day, owner Bart Koster allowed Reznor to use the facilities for free. The seeds from these early recording sessions — on which he played keyboards, drums, guitars, and samplers himself — would grow into Nine Inch Nails’ first demo, Purest Feeling. After making NIN’s live debut as tour openers for Skinny Puppy, Reznor shopped the demo tape around the U.S., landing a deal with indie label TVT Records. Reznor quickly returned to the studio to polish existing Purest Feeling tracks and record some new songs. The result, 1989′s Pretty Hate Machine, presented a dark, synth-soaked vision of industrial that was also hook-heavy and accessible. Combined with a lyrical focus on sex, self-loathing, betrayal, angst, and religion, these attributes would become hallmarks of Reznor’s early-era material. Pretty Hate Machine only peaked at number 75 on the Billboard 200, but a burgeoning cult following helped maintain its chart presence and sales. Buoyed by radio and MTV airplay for singles “Down in It” and “Head Like a Hole,” it became the first independent release to receive platinum certification to date.
Promotion of Pretty Hate Machine kept the band (then primarily composed of Reznor, Richard Patrick, Chris Vrenna, and various drummers/keyboardists) on the road for years, spreading NIN’s fan base across genre lines by not only opening for Skinny Puppy, but also alternative/goth acts the Jesus and Mary Chain and Peter Murphy of Bauhaus. Their American reach expanded in 1991 when they joined inaugural Lollapalooza tour, playing alongside Siouxsie and the Banshees, Living Colour, Violent Femmes, Rollins Band, Lords of Acid, Jane's Addiction, and more. Days after the conclusion of Lollapalooza, NIN shipped off to Europe, opening a pair of shows for Guns N' Roses and penetrating the German industrial market.
When NIN returned to the U.S., Reznor became embroiled in a lengthy legal feud with TVT, which was eager to pump out another, similar-sounding hit album, constricting his creativity in the process. In secret, he signed a new deal with Interscope Records and created the vanity label Nothing Records. The band relocated to a new studio in Los Angeles and began recording a batch of aggressive songs inspired by punk and metal. With production by Flood and drumming by Martin Atkins and Vrenna, the Broken EP landed in September 1992, peaking inside the Top Ten on the Billboard 200. In addition to the Grammy-winning single “Wish,” the effort also included covers of Adam and the Ants’ “(You’re So) Physical” and Reznor’s collaboration with Pigface, “Suck.” Reznor enhanced his reputation as a provocateur with a widely banned music video for “Happiness in Slavery,” which depicted S&M performance artist Bob Flanagan being torn apart by a machine. There was also a near-mythical, long-form clip for Broken that was never officially released commercially due to its graphic content (a torture victim is dismembered while viewing NIN videos). Bootleg versions became a prized fan commodity and a remastered version found its way onto the Internet in 2006. The Broken era came to a close with NIN’s first remix EP, Fixed.
Still based in the Los Angeles studio dubbed Le Pig — coincidentally built in the same house where actress Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson’s followers in 1969 — Reznor began work on the highly anticipated follow-up to Pretty Hate Machine. A concept album centered on the protagonist’s titular descent into self-destruction, The Downward Spiral arrived in March 1994 and debuted at number two. Widely considered to be Reznor’s masterwork, The Downward Spiral is often cited as one of the most important albums of the ’90s, presenting a bleak, nihilistic version of NIN that would nonetheless break the band into the mainstream. Hit single “Closer” was a staple on both MTV and radio, despite its graphic music video and lyrical content, while “Hurt” became a live fixture for NIN, receiving a second life in 2003 through Johnny Cash’s stripped-down cover version.
The Downward Spiral was anything but for the band, launching them further into the public consciousness and prompting an industry push for soundalikes Gravity Kills, Stabbing Westward, and Filter on rock radio. NIN promoted the effort with the Self Destruct Tour, which featured Vrenna on drums, James Woolley on keyboards, Robin Finck on guitar, and Danny Lohner on bass. Already a formidable concert presence, NIN’s reputation grew with chaotic performances that often ended in destroyed equipment and serious injuries. That intense commitment to their live show reached into American living rooms in the summer of 1994 with their show-stealing, mud-covered set from Woodstock ’94, which won them another Grammy for the live recording of “Happiness in Slavery.” After the release of the remix album Further Down the Spiral, NIN continued to tour, supported by then-newcomers Marilyn Manson, before joining major influence David Bowie on the co-headlining Dissonance Tour.
During this period, Reznor took his first step into the world of film, assembling the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s controversial movie Natural Born Killers, which included the previously unreleased NIN song “Burn,” as well as edits of “Something I Can Never Have” and “A Warm Place.” Another track, a cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls,” was featured on the soundtrack for The Crow. Reznor also contributed vocals to Tori Amos’ “Past the Mission” from her album Under the Pink.
After the conclusion of the Spiral era, NIN entered a period of hibernation. Although Reznor remained active — producing Marilyn Manson’s breakthrough sophomore effort, Antichrist Superstar, and contributing the NIN single “The Perfect Drug” to the Reznor-produced soundtrack to David Lynch’s Lost Highway — a growing case of writer’s block, struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, and public pressure put a hold on album number three. Encamped at the newly constructed Nothing Studios in New Orleans, a reclusive Reznor spent five years crafting that follow-up, which arrived in 1999.
Influenced by the passing of Reznor’s maternal grandmother, the deterioration of his friendship with Manson, and his increasing addictions, the conceptual double-disc opus The Fragile debuted at the top of the charts and was certified double platinum within months. Meticulously produced by Reznor and Alan Moulder, the album included singles “We’re in This Together,” “The Day the World Went Away,” “Into the Void,” and “Starfuckers, Inc.” The remix LP Things Falling Apart featured interpretations of Fragile tracks, as well as the unreleased “10 Miles High” and Gary Numan cover “Cars.” On the supporting Fragility tour, the NIN lineup featured Reznor, Finck, and Lohner, as well as newcomers Charlie Clouser on keyboards and Jerome Dillon on drums. That trek spawned a tour documentary titled And All That Could Have Been, which was accompanied by a live recording and limited-edition EP, Still, which featured stripped-down versions of NIN deep cuts, as well as previously unreleased recordings from the era.
Toward the end of the Fragile years, Reznor entered rehab after an unexpected overdose in London, putting NIN on hold until they returned in 2005. Sober and refocused, Reznor inaugurated this new chapter with an equally hungry release, fourth LP With Teeth.
Unlike prior albums, With Teeth traded gloom, frustration, and pain for outward aggression, matured emotions, and Reznor’s first attempts at sociopolitical commentary, also marking a turning point for NIN that informed the vocal delivery, production, and collaborative spirit of the band into the next decade. In addition to production by Reznor and Moulder, the taut set featured programming by Atticus Ross and live percussion by Dave Grohl. In addition to being the band’s second straight number one, With Teeth also included a trio of chart-topping singles: “The Hand That Feeds,” “Only,” and “Every Day Is Exactly the Same.” A lengthy tour — featuring the lineup of Reznor, bassist Jeordie White (aka Marilyn Manson’s Twiggy Ramirez), keyboardist Alessandro Cortini, guitarist Aaron North, and drummers Josh Freese/Jerome Dillon — accompanied the release, documented on 2007′s Beside You in Time.
While the first decade of NIN’s existence was marked by mystery and long periods of silence between major releases, the reinvigorated outfit began churning out material in earnest after With Teeth. In early 2007, a multimedia promotional effort was rolled out to earnest fans who deciphered clues found on T-shirts, websites, and strategically placed USB drives placed hidden throughout Europe. Part of a high-concept alternate reality game, they revealed a fictional story of a future dystopian America and a burgeoning resistance movement, all of which was inspired by George W. Bush’s presidency and the post-9/11 Iraq invasion. This overtly political concept was at the core of Year Zero, which arrived in April on Interscope Records. Delving deeper into digital soundscapes, Reznor was once again joined by Ross, who was promoted from assistant to producer (a position he would hold until becoming an official member of NIN a decade later). The promotional tour took the band through Europe, Australia, the U.S., and Asia, notable for featuring NIN’s first stop in mainland China at the Beijing Pop Festival that September. While a television show and movie were planned to accompany the Year Zero story, those never came to fruition. The album cycle closed with Year Zero Remixed, which featured reinterpretations by Ladytron, Bill Laswell, the Faint, and rapper Saul Williams, whose third effort, 2007′s The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, was produced by Reznor.
During this prolific period, NIN also released the four-part ambient instrumental album Ghosts I-IV — released on Reznor’s new label, The Null Corporation — as well as the surprise album The Slip. Both 2008 efforts were available for free in their digital formats. While The Slip charted outside the Top Ten on the Billboard 200 and the single “Discipline” became another rock chart hit, Ghosts was nominated for a pair of Grammy Awards (and the track “34 Ghosts IV” would crash the mainstream in an interesting way in 2019). Continuing the direct-to-fans approach, NIN later provided live footage from their accompanying Lights in the Sky tour to online fans, who stitched the pieces together to create a documentary dubbed Another Version of the Truth.
The next year, NIN embarked on another trek, the forebodingly dubbed Wave Goodbye tour. When the journey concluded, the band entered an official extended hiatus, during which time Reznor and Ross focused on film scores for director David Fincher (2010′s Oscar-winning The Social Network, 2011′s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and 2014′s Gone Girl). The pair also formed a side project with Reznor’s wife, Mariqueen Maandig, called How to Destroy Angels. Essentially NIN with a female vocalist, the outfit released a pair of EPs in 2010 and 2012, as well as a full-length album in 2013. Months after the conclusion of their first tour, NIN returned with their eighth album.
The Grammy-nominated Hesitation Marks (Columbia/The Null Corporation) was issued in August 2013. Produced by Reznor, Ross, and Moulder, it debuted at number three on the charts and included the Top Ten single “Came Back Haunted” as well as “Copy of A” and “Everything.” Guest collaborators on the album included Pino Palladino, Lindsey Buckingham, and Adrian Belew. The ensuing Tension arena tour featured backup vocalists Lisa Fischer and Sharlotte Gibson alongside another revamped lineup that included Reznor, Finck, Cortini, Palladino, drummer Ilan Rubin, and guitarist Josh Eustis. NIN extended the Hesitation Marks cycle into 2014 with a co-headlining tour with fellow ’90s mainstays Soundgarden. That same year, NIN were nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The following year, NIN began the rollout of remastered reissues of past albums. The Fragile appeared in instrumental form exclusively on a streaming platform, with an accompanying collection of instrumental, alternate, and unreleased songs collected as The Fragile: Deviations 1. After the completion of scores for Before the Flood and Patriots Day, Reznor announced a multi-year project that resulted in a NIN EP/short album trilogy, which started with late 2016′s Not the Actual Events. A return to the abrasive industrial of the band’s earlier days, the five-song set featured the brooding track “She’s Gone Away” and special guests Mariqueen Maandig, Dave Grohl, and Dave Navarro. Also, after decades of NIN liner notes reading “Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor,” it was announced that Ross had become a permanent member of the band.
In the summer of 2017, the second installment of the series arrived. Add Violence debuted in the Top 20 and spawned the radio hit “Less Than,” which climbed the Mainstream Rock and Alternative Songs charts. A year later, the trilogy ended with Bad Witch, which was officially issued as the band’s ninth album. Notable for lead single “God Break Down the Door” — featuring jazz saxophone and Reznor singing with a Bowie-esque croon — Bad Witch also included vocals from the Cult’s Ian Astbury and Mariqueen Maandig on “Shit Mirror.” In support of the effort, NIN embarked on a 2018 tour dubbed Cold and Black and Infinite, which reunited Reznor with the Jesus and Mary Chain after opening for them almost three decades prior.
In 2019, NIN experienced a pop culture resurgence, reaching a fresh audience through some unlikely sources. In addition to a savvy pairing with Captain Marvel — which saw the titular superhero donning a vintage NIN shirt throughout much of the film — the band returned to the charts through a clever cover (a pop makeover of “Head Like a Hole” called “On a Roll,” which was performed by fictional pop star Ashley O, depicted by Miley Cyrus) and a strategic sample (Lil Nas X’s use of “34 Ghosts IV” in his record-breaking hit single “Old Town Road”). To close the year, Reznor and Ross crafted a trio of very NIN-esque scores for the HBO series Watchmen.
At the start of the 2020s, as the world was in the grip of a global pandemic, NIN revived their Ghosts series with the sequels Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts, nearly two-dozen additions to the series inspired by the need for connection in an uncertain time. In 2021, shortly after winning an Oscar for their score to the animated film Soul, Reznor and Ross collaborated with noise band Health on the NIN single “Isn’t Everyone.” ~ Neil Z. Yeung