Nine Inch Nails (abbreviated as NIN) is an American industrial rock band formed in Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1988 by Trent Reznor. As its main producer, singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist, Reznor is the only official member of Nine Inch Nails and remains solely responsible for the musical direction of the band. His lyrics are largely concerned with dark explorations of the self, and the time between major studio albums (bridged by releases of remixes and live albums) has been extended by Reznor’s battles with personal issues. After recording a new album, Reznor usually assembles a live band to tour with him extensively; this live component is generally considered a separate entity from Nine Inch Nails in the recording studio. On stage, NIN performs amongst visually spectacular elements and live performances often culminate with the destruction of musical instruments.
Nine Inch Nail’s music straddles a wide range of genres and techniques while retaining a characteristically intense sound. Underground music audiences warmly received the band’s early activity, and NIN went on to produce several highly influential releases in the 1990s to international acclaim, including two Grammy Awards. Media coverage of NIN reached a peak in 1997, when Time magazine named Trent Reznor one of the 25 most influential people in America. The RIAA estimates that Nine Inch Nails has sold at least 10.5 million units of all of its albums in the United States alone. In 2004, Rolling Stone included Nine Inch Nails on their list of the 100 greatest artists of all time.
Initial ambitions for Nine Inch Nails were modest, as Reznor hoped to release one 12-inch single on a small European label in 1988. At that time, Reznor was employed as a programmer (and janitor) by Bart Koster, owner of Right Track Studios in Cleveland. Reznor asked to engineer some demo recordings of his own songs at night during unused studio time, free of charge; Koster agreed, remarking that it cost him “just a little wear on tape heads” While recording the earliest NIN tracks, Reznor was unable to find a band that could articulate his songs as he wanted and instead decided to play all the instruments himself. For the band’s studio recordings, this role largely remains Reznor’s, though he has since involved other musicians and assistants. Several labels responded favorably to Reznor’s material, and he chose to sign with TVT Records. Nine selections from the Right Track demos were unofficially released in 1994 as Purest Feeling; Reznor completed five of these, dropped the others, and wrote several new songs to complete the first NIN album, Pretty Hate Machine.
Several rumors have persisted about the origins of the name “Nine Inch Nails”, one being that Reznor chose to reference the story of Jesus’ crucifixion with nine-inch spikes. Others have surmised that Reznor was inspired by the sight of nine-inch fingernails on Freddy Krueger. Reznor asserts that he coined the name partly because it “abbreviated easily”, rather than for “any literal meaning”. Gary Talpas and Reznor designed the distinctive Nine Inch Nails logo (consisting of the letters “NIN” set inside a border with the second “N” reversed), which first appeared on debut single “Down in It” and was inspired by Tibor Kalman’s typography on the Talking Heads’ album cover for Remain in Light. Talpas, a Clevelander, would continue to design NIN packaging art through the 1997 double VHS Closure.
Written, arranged, and performed by Trent Reznor, NIN’s first album, Pretty Hate Machine, debuted in 1989. The album expands upon the Purest Feeling demos with the addition of studio production and several new songs (including singles “Down in It”, “Head Like a Hole” and “Sin”), marking Reznor’s first collaboration with Adrian Sherwood (who produced “Down in It” in London, England without having met Reznor face-to-face) and Mark “Flood” Ellis. Flood’s production would appear on each major NIN release until 1994, and Sherwood has done remixes for the band as recently as 2000. The songs on Pretty Hate Machine feature catchy melodies set against dark, introspective lyrics; Reznor proclaimed this combination “a sincere statement” of “what was in [his] head at the time”. In the album’s liner notes, Reznor thanks horror fiction writer Clive Barker for inspiration. MTV aired videos for “Down in It” and “Head Like a Hole”, but an explicit video for “Sin” was not released until 1997 on Closure (in edited form). Spending two years on the album charts, Pretty Hate Machine became one of the first independently released records to go platinum.
Nine Inch Nails first toured North America opening for industrial band Skinny Puppy as well as alternative rock acts such as Peter Murphy and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Reznor soon received a reputation for smashing instruments on stage out of frustration. This aggressive attitude won over NIN’s earliest audiences, who often were openly hostile toward synthesizer-based bands. NIN then supported Pretty Hate Machine with a world tour that continued through the first Lollapalooza festival in 1991, where the band “stole the show” from headliners Jane’s Addiction. After receiving a disastrous European reception opening for Guns N’ Roses, NIN returned to America amid pressure from TVT to produce a more commercial follow-up to Pretty Hate Machine. In response, Reznor secretly began recording Broken under assumed names to avoid record company interference.
The fruit of Reznor’s disillusionment with his record label and culmination of the band’s harsh, aggressive live sound, the Broken EP of six songs plus two bonus tracks was released in 1992. In the liner notes, Reznor credits his band from the 1991 tour as an influence on Broken, a guitar-based “blast of destruction”.
Broken was followed by the remix EP Fixed in late 1992. Rather than tour in support of either EP, Reznor returned to Le Pig and began working on a full-length follow-up.
NIN released its second full album in 1994, The Downward Spiral, which debuted on the Billboard 200 at Number Two. The Downward Spiral eventually became the highest-selling NIN release in the USA. Inspired by late-1970s rock albums, Low and The Wall, The Downward Spiral features a wide range of textures and moods to illustrate the mental progress of a central character. Most of it was mix engineered by Alan Moulder, who would take on more extensive production duties for subsequent NIN albums.
The album spawned two commercial singles (“March of the Pigs” and “Closer”) and two additional tracks (“Hurt” and “Piggy”) that were issued to radio without a commercial single release. The “Closer” video directed by Mark Romanek set a standard for NIN videos. MTV made significant edits to the video for objectionable content but broadcast the edited version frequently. A censored radio edit that partially mutes the song’s explicit lyrics received extensive radio airtime.
“Hurt” enjoyed renewed success when it was covered by Johnny Cash in 2002 to great acclaim. Reznor has stated that hearing Cash’s cover revitalized his interest in writing music and partly inspired the stripped-down approach to songwriting for With Teeth. David Bowie sang a duet of “Hurt” with Reznor on the Dissonance concert tour in 1995. This and other performances from NIN’s marathon Self Destruct tour were documented on Closure. The Nine Inch Nails live band also made appearances in performance videos for “Hurt” and “Eraser,” which were not issued to MTV, as well as “March of the Pigs” (re-recorded in-studio with one camera in a single take).
Widely regarded as NIN’s most influential magnum opus, The Downward Spiral marked a high point for the band, which reached its widest ever mainstream audience with a mud-drenched performance at Woodstock ‘94, broadcast on Pay-Per-View and seen in as many as 24 million homes. Many other artists began citing Reznor as an influence after the release of The Downward Spiral, and Nine Inch Nails received considerable mainstream success in the mid-1990s, affording the venues for an expanded live show with arena rock production values, thereby adding highly theatrical visual elements to an already overwhelming live show.
At the same time, Reznor’s relentless studio perfectionism, struggles with addiction and bouts of writer’s block began to elongate the time between major NIN releases. This served to increase fan anticipation for the band’s next move during the wait between releases. The end of NIN’s first decade was characterized by a very long tour in support of The Downward Spiral followed by an even longer period of relative silence.
After The Downward Spiral, Reznor produced a remix album entitled Further Down the Spiral, the only non-major NIN release to be certified gold in the US. It featured contributions from electronic music pioneer Aphex Twin and Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. There are two versions of Further Down the Spiral, both featuring exclusive content. A tenth anniversary reissue of The Downward Spiral was released on November 23, 2004, as a two-disc “Deluxe Edition” package. The first disc, a hybrid SACD, featured the entire album in high definition 5.1 surround sound and a remastered version of the original CD stereo mix. The second disc featured album b-sides, previously unavailable demos, and other non-album tracks in remastered stereo sound. The first disc was released concurrently as a two-sided DualDisc playable in standard DVD players as well as high-definition DVD-Audio players and most traditional CD players.
Fans waited five years between The Downward Spiral and NIN’s next major release, The Fragile, which arrived as a double CD in 1999. Dense in musical texture but lyrically sparse, the album was built around “soundscapes,” according to Reznor, in which “songwriting and arranging and production and sound design . . . became the same thing. A song would start with a drum loop or a visual and eventually a song would emerge out of it and that was the song.”
On the heels of NIN’s previous successes, media anticipation surrounded The Fragile before its release. After many delays, it finally debuted on top of the Billboard 200, selling 228,000 copies in one week and receiving generally favorable reviews. Without sufficient promotion from Interscope Records, however, it slipped out of the charts soon afterward, and Reznor was forced to pay for the subsequent North American tour out of his own pocket. Spin hailed it as the “album of the year,” and several songs from The Fragile were regular features on alt-rock radio stations. The instrumental “Just Like You Imagined” was later used in the trailers for the film 300 in 2007.
Canadian rock producer Bob Ezrin was consulted on the album’s track listing; the liner notes state that he “provided final continuity and flow,” suggesting an arrangement of songs that would strengthen their overall cohesiveness. Ezrin, who has also produced classic albums by Pink Floyd and Alice Cooper, would in 2007 describe Reznor as a “true visionary”.
Reznor followed The Fragile with another remix album, Things Falling Apart. This was released soon after the 2000 Fragility Tour, itself recorded and released on CD, DVD and VHS in 2002 as And All that Could Have Been. A deluxe edition of the live CD came with the companion disc, Still, featuring stripped-down re-interpretations of songs from the band’s entire career along with several new pieces of music. Some of Still originated in Reznor’s unreleased score for Mark Romanek’s film, One Hour Photo, and three videos for it were released on the official NIN website.
NIN’s fourth album, released in 2005, was written and recorded following Reznor’s battle with alcoholism and substance abuse: the lyrics of With Teeth reflect this struggle. With Teeth, which leaked prior to its official release date of May 2005, contains guest appearances by Dave Grohl on drums and live percussion. Just as The Fragile had, the album debuted at the top of the Billboard 200. A music video for the first single, “The Hand that Feeds”, premiered on the official NIN website rather than on a traditional music video channel. Though the package for the album lacks typical liner notes, the album website features access to a digital PDF poster full of stylized artwork and lyrics. The entire album was made available in streaming audio on the band’s official MySpace page in advance of its release date. Japanese, Australian, Brazilian & European releases of the album all feature an extra track from the With Teeth recording sessions, “Home” (also found on the album’s vinyl configuration).
In April of 2005, Trent Reznor released the source files for “The Hand that Feeds” in GarageBand format, allowing his fans to remix it. This release spawned an unofficial remix contest, in which over 500 fan remixes were submitted. In response to this successful experiment, Reznor released the source files for the album’s second single, “Only” in a wider range of formats, including ProTools and ACID Pro. Fans were also invited to access the band’s official MySpace page to upload remixes, vote for favorites, and comment about them in a blog. David Fincher directed a video for “Only” using primarily computer-generated imagery; it debuted in July 2005 on Fuse. The third single from With Teeth, “Every Day is Exactly the Same”, was released in April 2006. Though a planned music video was reportedly scrapped in the post-production stage, “Every Day Is Exactly the Same” still topped Billboard’s 2006 year-end Hot Dance Singles Sales and Hot Digital Songs charts. In late 2006, the official NIN website announced that a tour documentary entitled Beside You in Time would be released in the US in February 2007 in three formats: DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray.
In the months following the release of With Teeth, two new songs surfaced: “Non-Entity” (first performed by Reznor solo at the ReactNow! Hurricane Katrina benefit concert) and “Not So Pretty Now”, both of which have appeared on set lists of the With Teeth tour. During a chat with fans on the official NIN fan club, The Spiral, Reznor stated that these songs were outtakes from the With Teeth sessions, and studio recordings of them may surface. A live recording of “Non-Entity” appears on Beside You in Time.
In autumn 2005, Nine Inch Nails launched a North American arena tour supported by Queens of the Stone Age, as well as Autolux and Death from Above 1979. Other opening acts on this tour included The Dresden Dolls (a “cabaret punk” duo as described by singer Amanda Palmer) Saul Williams (a hip-hop/spoken-word performer for whom Reznor is producing a “genre-breaking” album), and dance-rockers Moving Units. To conclude the With Teeth era of the band, NIN did a tour of US amphitheaters in the summer of 2006. Joining them were Bauhaus, TV on the Radio (first half of the tour), and Peaches with her band, The Herms (second half of the tour). After taking a break to complete work on the follow-up album, NIN continued their world tour in 2007. Trent Reznor personally invited UK band Ladytron to open for NIN in Europe.
The latest Nine Inch Nails studio album, Year Zero (2007), is a concept album that describes Reznor’s forecast of how the United States government’s current policies will impact the world fifteen years in the future.
An alternate reality game has emerged to promote the album’s concept. Clues hidden on tour merchandise have led fans to discover websites that describe an “Orwellian picture of the United States circa the year 2022.” Before their release, songs were reportedly found on thumb drives in the bathroom stalls of NIN concerts in Europe. Fan participation in this alternate reality game has caught the attention of the media; USA Today and Rolling Stone have cited fan-site The NIN Hotline, forum Echoing the Sound, fan club The Spiral, and NinWiki as sources for new discoveries.
The first single, entitled “Survivalism”, was due for radio airplay in March 2007, but received an early premiere along with the other songs leaked from the thumb drives and the band’s official MySpace page. In early April 2007, the entire album was made available for streaming online. “Survivalism” along with three other tracks had their multitrack audio files released for fan remixing.
Nine Inch Nails has issued six major studio albums; each is accompanied by numerous satellite releases, including remix albums, singles with extensive b-sides, and tour documentaries. Indeed, each primary release is seen as the center of an associated era, in which the secondary releases are vital to understanding the artistic whole. This is underscored by the use of Halo numbers, a sequential numbering system that applies to every official NIN release. Halo numbers may be interpreted to imply that each release is an equally-weighted component of the catalog, regardless of length or format; they could also be considered as marketing enticement for fans to complete their collections.
Nine Inch Nails has recorded five songs specifically for film soundtracks: a cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” for The Crow, “Burn” and a reworked version of “Something I Can Never Have” for Natural Born Killers, “The Perfect Drug” for Lost Highway, and “Deep” for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Reznor himself has remixed a number of songs by other artists, only a few of which are credited to NIN.
Sound effects and ten instrumental, ambient background music tracks were recorded for the game Quake, credited to Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. The game itself featured influences from the artist musically, aesthetically and also functionally. Two different nail guns featured as key weapons; the ammunition box for these weapons was also adorned with the NIN logo in recognition of Trent Reznor’s input.
Nine Inch Nails’ music has been categorized as rock, electronica, heavy metal, alternative, or, most commonly, industrial rock. This latter categorization upset industrial music “purists”, most of whom disdained the application of the term to what could be regarded as pop songs. Reznor has never referred to his music as industrial but admits to borrowing techniques from such bands as Throbbing Gristle and Test Dept. Despite the disparity between those artists initially operating under the term “industrial” and NIN itself, it has become common in journalistic descriptions of Reznor’s body of work to describe it as such. In actuality, the band’s output has covered a wide range of genres: “The Perfect Drug” has the flavor of drum and bass, “Down in It” was influenced by early Skinny Puppy (particularly their song “Dig It”), “Happiness in Slavery” is tinged with industrial metal in the vein of Ministry, “The Frail” is a melancholy piano piece, and most of Pretty Hate Machine could be described as dark electronic pop.
On each album since Broken, Reznor has included at least one piece built around an instrumental ostinato. These tracks tend to begin moderately quiet and slowly crescendo into a climax of noise and distortion; “Help Me I Am In Hell”, “Eraser”, “The Way Out Is Through”, “Beside You in Time”, and “The Greater Good”, all of which are typically accompanied by a video segment when performed live, fit into this category. Similarly, some NIN albums contain a repeating motif that reappears multiple times in different songs and contexts (either on a different musical instrument, with a transposed harmony or in an altered tempo).
It is generally understood that the Nine Inch Nails live band is a separate entity from the recording studio-based component of NIN. Occasionally, past band members are invited to participate in the process, but when not directly involved with recording new material, Nine Inch Nails’ lineup tends to change drastically between major tours. Aside from Trent Reznor remaining on lead vocals, nothing about the live band has remained constant since its inception. Reznor cited the long gestation period between studio albums as part of the reason for these personnel changes. NIN’s most recent incarnation features Aaron North on guitar, Jeordie White on bass, Alessandro Cortini on keyboards, and Josh Freese on drums, although Jeordie and Alessandro occasionally perform with different instruments. They are set to continue touring with the band in Europe, Australia and Japan through summer 2007.