Nine Inch Nails were the most popular industrial group ever and were largely responsible for bringing the music to a mass audience. It isn’t really accurate to call NIN a group; the only official member is singer/producer/multi-instrumentalist Trent Reznor, who always remained solely responsible for NIN’s musical direction (he was, however, supported in concert by a regular backing band). Unlike the vast majority of industrial artists, Reznor wrote melodic, traditionally structured songs where lyrics were a focal point. His pop instincts not only made the harsh electronic beats of industrial music easier to digest, but also put a human face on a style that usually tried to sound as mechanical as possible. While Ministry crossed over to heavy metal audiences, NIN built up a large alternative rock fan base right around the time of Nirvana’s mainstream breakthrough. As a result, Reznor became a genuine star and his notoriously dark, brooding persona and provocateur instincts made him a Jim Morrison-esque sex symbol for the ’90s. A long period of inactivity and writer’s block followed, which gave virtually every alternative metal band of the late ’90s a chance to rip off elements of NIN’s sound. By the time Reznor’s five-year hiatus finally ended, he was still a popular figure but his commercial momentum had slowed somewhat.
Michael Trent Reznor was born May 17, 1965, in the small town of Mercer, PA; he went by his middle name to avoid confusion with his father, Michael. At age five, Reznor’s parents divorced and he wound up being raised mostly by his maternal grandparents; even so, Reznor stated repeatedly that his childhood was mostly happy. He began playing the piano at age five, studying classical music, and later learned tenor sax and tuba in the school band; he also acted in musicals and became an avid Kiss fan. Reznor spent a year studying music and computers at Allegheny College, but dropped out after a year to pursue music full-time; he soon packed up and moved to Cleveland with high school friend Chris Vrenna. Around the same time, he was discovering new wave and assorted underground music; he was most fascinated with early industrial, since it offered an edgy, aggressive way to use electronic instruments. At age 19, he successfully auditioned to join an AOR band called the Innocent, which released one album, Livin’ in the Streets (Reznor’s picture does appear on the jacket). He quit the Innocent after just three months and subsequently gigged with local bands; he also worked in a keyboard store and as a janitor in the local Right Track recording studio. Eventually, he became a studio engineer, teaching himself various computer applications and working on his own material during off hours. In 1987, Reznor appeared in the Michael J. Fox/Joan Jett film Light of Day, where he played keyboards with a trio dubbed the Problems during a bar scene.
As Nine Inch Nails, Reznor began recording his own Ministry- and Skinny Puppy-influenced compositions in 1988, playing all the instruments himself. At first, he simply hoped to release a 12″ single on a small European label, but when he sent demo tapes to around ten American labels, nearly every one offered him a deal. He wound up signing with TVT, which released NIN’s debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, in 1989 (after having rejected an initial effort called Industrial Nation). Reznor quickly assembled a backing band and toured with Skinny Puppy for a short time, but soon tired of playing for strictly industrial artists. With a tighter outfit featuring Chris Vrenna on drums and Richard Patrick on guitar (plus several revolving-door keyboardists), he consciously chose to open for alt-rock acts (including, early on, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Peter Murphy), partly for the challenge of winning over fans who might not have liked industrial music. The strategy helped expand Nine Inch Nails’ fan base substantially; the single “Down in It” got some airplay in dance clubs, reaching Billboard’s dance and modern rock charts, and MTV later picked up on the video for the more rock-oriented “Head Like a Hole.” In 1991, after settling on keyboardist James Woolley, Nine Inch Nails became part of the inaugural Lollapalooza tour, which expanded their fan base by leaps and bounds. Pretty Hate Machine’s momentum kept building slowly, and although it never climbed higher than number 75, it spent over two years on the album charts and eventually sold over a million copies — one of the first indie-label rock albums to do so.
TVT had a massive hit on their hands, and to ensure that Reznor would produce another one, they attempted to take control of the follow-up’s creative direction. Enraged by the outside meddling, Reznor tried to secure a release from his contract, leading to a vicious court battle. His only recording outlets were side projects; in 1990, he co-wrote and sang on “Suck,” a track on Pigface’s debut album, Gub, and also sang on the Al Jourgensen-led 1000 Homo DJs cover of Black Sabbath’s “Supernaut.” (TVT ordered Reznor’s vocals removed from the track, but Jourgensen actually just altered them slightly and said he’d re-recorded it.) Eventually, he was able to sign with Interscope, which helped him set up his own label, the Cleveland-based Nothing imprint. Reznor had been recording new material on the sly, and in 1992 Nothing released the EP Broken as well as a concurrent remix disc titled Fixed. Broken featured more (and heavier) guitars than Pretty Hate Machine, partly in response to NIN’s live sound and partly as a sonic evocation of Reznor’s boiling frustration in the wake of the legal wars; it also featured two bonus cuts, a version of “Suck” and the Adam Ant cover “(You’re So) Physical,” a nod to Reznor’s new wave roots. Despite many reviews characterizing the EP as a harrowing, difficult listen, Broken — supported by NIN’s now-considerable fan base — debuted in the Top Ten and the first single/video, “Wish,” won a Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Performance. Reznor enhanced his reputation as a provocateur with a widely banned clip for “Happiness in Slavery,” which depicted S&M performance artist Bob Flanagan being torn apart by a machine; there was also a long-form clip for Broken that was never released commercially due to its graphic content (a torture victim is dismembered while viewing NIN videos).
Reznor moved to Los Angeles to craft the second full-length NIN album, assembling a studio in the house where actress Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson’s associates. The Downward Spiral was a highly ambitious work, a concept album indebted to progressive rock that featured the most detailed, layered studio craft of any NIN release yet. Hugely anticipated, the album debuted at number two and became one of the bleakest multi-platinum albums ever. Richard Patrick had departed the touring band to form Filter, and Reznor revamped the group with drummer Vrenna, keyboardist Woolley, guitarist Robin Finck, and bassist Danny Lohner. NIN caused a sensation at that summer’s 25th-anniversary Woodstock concert, performing a ferocious set after horsing around and covering themselves in mud just before hitting the stage. Meanwhile, MTV had put an edited version of the video for “Closer” in heavy rotation and NIN scored one of the year’s unlikeliest hits which helped make Reznor one of alternative rock’s biggest sex symbols. The subdued ballad “Hurt” gained some further airplay, even though it lacked the titillating shock value of “Closer.” Later in the year, Reznor assembled the soundtrack of Oliver Stone’s controversial Natural Born Killers, editing the songs together to create an innovative collage; he also guested on “Past the Mission,” a track on Tori Amos‘ second album, Under the Pink. In 1995, with new keyboardist Charlie Clouser, Nine Inch Nails hit the road with David Bowie, whose late-’70s albums (along with Pink Floyd) had been a major influence on The Downward Spiral. He also contributed a cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” to the soundtrack of The Crow and issued the remix album Further Down the Spiral, which nearly reached the Top 20 (a testament to his popularity).
Using money from The Downward Spiral, Reznor built a state-of-the-art studio in New Orleans in a building that had once been a funeral home. While pondering his next move in the wake of his sudden stardom, he produced Nothing signee Marilyn Manson’s second album, Antichrist Superstar, which did indeed make him a superstar. In 1997, longtime friend Vrenna had a falling out with Reznor and eventually was replaced by Jerome Dillon; Reznor’s maternal grandmother also passed away that year and his friendship with Manson soon deteriorated. Even so, he produced another movie soundtrack, for David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and contributed the new single “The Perfect Drug,” which flitted unpredictably between several different rhythm tracks. Though “The Perfect Drug” kept him in the public eye for a time, Reznor was still unsure what kind of statement would be an appropriate follow-up to The Downward Spiral; that uncertainty resulted in a severe case of writer’s block. In the meantime, NIN were proving vastly influential on a new crop of bands; major labels signed up industrial metal outfits like Filter and Stabbing Westward, and an assortment of alternative metal bands started grafting industrial production flourishes onto their music; Guns N’ Roses lead singer Axl Rose even fired the rest of his band and holed up in a studio to pursue a more NIN-influenced direction.
Nine Inch Nails finally returned in 1999 with the double-CD opus The Fragile. It debuted at number one with massive first-week sales, but slipped down the charts rather quickly afterward, perhaps because the musical climate had changed a great deal over the past five years. The remix album Things Falling Apart followed a year later, as did an extensive world tour. An album of live performances culled from the tour, And All That Could Have Been, was released in early 2002. Reznor was largely quiet during the next three years, finally re-emerging in 2005 with another chart-topper, With Teeth. Touring continued into 2006, where NIN spent the spring and summer on the road with various support acts including Saul Williams, Bauhaus, TV on the Radio, and Peaches. The EP Every Day Is Exactly the Same appeared in April 2006; it contained the title track and five various remixes (all originally from With Teeth). Touring America followed, and then late in the year Reznor was back in the studio working on the next album. In early 2007 the band resumed touring, this time in Europe. A viral marketing campaign began when USB key chains that contained new songs were found in the restrooms during NIN shows. These key chains also contained a noisy audio file that, when run through a spectrum analyzer, drew an audio wave in the shape of a phone number. The phone numbers were answering machines filled with conspiracy theories, there were fake websites strewn across the net, and busy Internet forums and wikis appeared to theorize about and document it all. The big payoff appeared in April when the dystopian concept album Year Zero arrived. A year later Reznor began experimenting with different methods of distribution when he made the Saul Williams album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust available as a digital download. Reznor had helped produce the album and had planned to release it on his Nothing imprint but as his distaste for the major label system increased, so did the possibilities of digital distribution. He completely broke free from the system when he left Interscope and released the entirely instrumental album Ghosts I-IV on his own in 2008, making it available in both digital download and CD formats. The album’s release also marked the end of his Interscope distributed Nothing label and the beginning of a new imprint, Null Corporation. - Steve Huey