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Founded in 1988 by Trent Reznor in Cleveland, Ohio, Nine Inch Nails (NIN) is commonly referred to as an industrial rock act though NIN defies genre convention, drawing musical inspiration from hardcore industrial bands like Skinny Puppy and Throbbing Gristle, while incorporating solo piano ballads, synthpop variations and even elements of drum & bass into their sound. Trent Reznor is the only official member of the project although backing musicians are employed for live performances.
As a studio engineer and fresh out of the bands The Innocent and Exotic Birds, Reznor started his own project borrowing John Malm Jr. from Exotic Birds as his informal manager. At the time, Reznor worked as a janitor and assistant for Right Track Studios. There he recorded his first demos. Unable to find like-minded individuals that suited his artistic needs, Reznor played all the instruments himself except for the drums and went on to support Skinny Puppy at several concerts.
Reznor’s aspirations for NIN included a 12-inch single on a small European label, but he signed with TVT records and recorded nine tracks in November 1988. These tracks were later included in NIN’s first full length album release in 1989. There was much speculation about the project’s name, perhaps alluding to the nine-inch nails used for the crucifixion of Jesus or, it was speculated, meant to allude to Freddy Kreuger’s nails from the horror franchise Nightmare on Elm Street. Reznor himself disputed any literal meaning claiming he chose the title because it abbreviated well and made a good logo.
In 1989, Reznor collaborated with Adrian Sherwood and Mark “Flood” Ellis on the production of the album Pretty Hate Machine, including the now classic NIN singles “Head Like A Hole” and “Down In It.” This album was one of the first independently released albums to ever achieve platinum status. The original music video for “Down In It” sparked controversy when the helium weather balloon used to film the last scene, where Reznor lies seemingly dead and covered in corn starch while other band members walk off screen in weird costumes, escaped its mooring and ended up in a farmer’s field. The farmer took the camera to the FBI suspecting marijuana surveillance footage. The FBI thought the footage was related to gang violence or possibly even a snuff film.
In 1990, NIN hit the road for The Pretty Hate Machine Tour Series, opening for Peter Murphy and The Jesus and Mary Chain. This tour developed into a world tour that continued through the Lollapolooza tour in 1991. Reznor’s onstage antics became increasingly aggressive resulting in smashed equipment and ecstatic fans.
After disillusion with the TVT record label and trying to record music under various pseudonyms to get around the label’s insistence that NIN assume a more synthpop sound for their follow-up album, Reznor and Mark Ellis started recording in secret. TVT eventually traded NIN over to Interscope, which encouraged Reznor to make the music he wanted to and also helped him set-up his own label, Nothing. In 1992, Reznor released Broken, Nothing’s first album, an EP featuring six songs and two bonus tracks. Heavier and harder than the band’s previous album, two of the tracks off Broken, “Wish” and “Happiness in Slavery” won NIN two Grammy awards for Best Metal Performance, the first two of twelve subsequent Grammy nominations.
Having moved into an LA residence famous for being the site of the Tate Murders (perpetrated by cult leader, Charles Manson) controversy continued to dog Reznor when the music video for “Happiness in Slavery” was universally banned. The footage featured Bob Flanagan naked on a machine which pleasured, tortured and eventually killed him. Continuing along these graphic lines, Reznor’s videos for “Pinion” and “Help Me I’m In Hell” featured a toilet flushing into the mouth of a person in bondage and a young man kidnapped, tortured and killed respectively. Although these videos were never officially released, they were circulated amongst covert tape trading groups at the time.
Living and recording at his LA home dubbed Le Pig, Reznor chose to record rather than tour and began work on The Downward Spiral released in 1994. Influenced by Bowie and Pink Floyd, The Downward Spiralfeatures a range of moods as the music seems to follow the psychological development of a central character. The most successful NIN’s album to date, the album’s success was anchored by the singles “Closer,” “Hurt” (nominated for a Grammy and later covered by Johnny Cash), “March of the Pigs” and “Piggy.” The video for “Closer” directed by Mark Romanek received heavy rotation on MTV2 after extensive editing, the original considered too graphic once again for most watchers. The video is an industrial take on the lab of a 19th century mad scientist complete with animal cruelty, religious symbols including a monkey suffering crucifixion, graphic sexual images and a variety of S&M/bondage paraphernalia. Reznor himself dons an S&M mask while swinging in shackles, which only added to the controversial content.
Reznor embarked on the Self Destruct Tour, culminating in a mud-drenched Woodstock ’94 performance. The Downward Spiral album and tour garnered NIN both critical acclaim and a horde of new fans, catapulting the relatively unknown industrial act onto the mainstream charts with significant, but censored, radio play. After the tour, Reznor took a break from NIN, working on several soundtrack projects. Reznor produced the soundtrack for Natural Born Killers directed by Oliver Stone, developed the music and sound effects for the first person shooter video game Quake and produced the soundtrack for David Lynch’s Lost Highway. The soundtrack for Lost Highway spawned the single release of “The Perfect Drug.” The video, again directed by Romanek, features a father mourning his dead son in a Gothic mansion while losing himself to absinthe addiction, perhaps prophetic of Reznor’s later battles with alcoholism and drug addiction.
In 2005, NIN released their long overdue fourth full-length album, With Teeth, written in the shadow of Reznor’s battle with alcoholism and substance abuse. Singles include “The Hand That Feeds” and “Every Day is Exactly The Same” but the album was generally slammed by critics as being unoriginal and lacking in signature Reznor creativity.
NIN followed up the mediocre success of With Teethwith their 2007 offering, Year Zero, a concept album critical of the US government’s approach to politics. The album’s story is set in 2022, in an America ravaged by terrorism now operating under a Christian theocracy while distributing a drug designed to make the masses apathetic. Rebel movements from 2022 travel back in time to warn 2007 Americans of the coming apocalypse. This album met with critical acclaim but failed to perform in the charts. Although Reznor planned to create a movie adaptation of the album, that idea has since been superseded by HBO and BBC interest in developing a miniseries for TV.
In 2008, Reznor released two albums – Ghosts I-IVand The Slip – under creative commons license, making them available for free download on NIN’s official website. The albums were surprisingly popular, receiving over 5 million downloads. Since 2009, Reznor has officially put NIN on indefinite hiatus while working on side projects including How to Destroy Angels with his wife Mariqueen Maandig, and Atticus Ross. Reznor and Ross worked together on the soundtrack for the film The Social Network, winning a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Score 2010. Reznor and Ross again collaborated on the score for the 2011 film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Hesitation Marks, the band’s eighth studio album, was released in August 2013 through Columbia Records, reaching number three on the Billboard 200. After teasing a release in early 2016, Nine Inch Nails began releasing a trilogy of new releases: the EPs Not the Actual Events in December 2016 and Add Violence in July 2017, followed by the band’s ninth studio album, Bad Witch, in June 2018. On March 26, 2020, the band released the albums Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts.
Trent Reznor appeared fleetingly in the 1987 Michael J. Fox movie Light Of Day, where he’s part of a Synth-Pop band who aren’t much good.
Trent Reznor married Mariqueen Maandig in October 2009. They have two sons, Lazarus Echo (born October 10, 2010) and Balthazar, (born December 31, 2011). Reznor settled on his boys’ names ahead of their births, but admitted to Scotland’s The Daily Record that he would have had a battle on his hands with his in-laws if he’d had a daughter. “With those names, the boys are going to have to learn how to fight,” he laughed. “The in-laws are fine with it. The children were going to be stuck with those names regardless. But if there was a female, we were going to have a punch-up for sure.”
In 2009, before privacy was a major concern to most users, Trent Reznor released a Nine Inch Nails iPhone app with an innovative feature: Nearby, which let fans find other fans using the app in their area. The app didn’t work very well and never caught on.
Stabbing Westward frontman Christopher Hall credits Nine Inch Nails for getting his band and other industrial acts signed to major labels. “They had amazing songs that were super edgy to be on the radio and made everyone feel edgy and dirty.” “When that happened, every record label in America – and this is what they always do, they’re reactive as opposed to being proactive – they looked around and said, ‘Where can we get one of them?'”
Nine Inch Nails entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020. At the ceremony (virtual, due to coronavirus), the Rock Hall made it clear that Reznor was the group, but inducted six other members as well:
Ross, Cortini, and Rubin didn’t make any contributions to NIN in the ’90s.