The Roots Of… Nine Inch Nails

Each week we take an artist, pull apart the threads that make them who they are and build a Spotify playlist from those influences. This week: Nine Inch Nails!

“Music has always been my friend,” said NIN’s Trent Reznor back in early 1999. “It’s been my companion, the brother I never had…” A lonely child of divorced parents; Trent was raised by his grandparents in Mercer, a smaller-than-small town in rural Pennsylvania. Surrounded by nothing but miles of farmland, a five-year-old Trent took up the piano and quickly showed he had real talent.

“I was shy,” he said later. “But with music I wasn’t.”


Trent loved comic books and science fiction, The Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman before he ever really heard any pop music, but when he heard Kiss things began to fall into place. A rush of head-bending culture followed, from The Exorcist (“[that] ruined my childhood”) to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Later he went to college to study computer engineering and music, joined some terrible local covers bands (Option Thirty tackled Wang Chung and Elvis Costello) and even had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo in a gimpy synth band in cringingly awful Michael J Fox film Light Of Day. Aged In 1985 aged 20, he joined Exotic Birds who opened for the Eurythmics and the Thompson Twins, but soon felt he was drifting. In 1988 he got a job in a studio, cleaned up his act and decided – for the first time in his life – to write his own songs and put, “every ounce of energy” into this new project. So Nine Inch Nails were born, but how exactly did we get here?


In The Beginning
Encouraged by his grandmother, a very young Trent took up the piano, tuba, trumpet and saxophone. Stints in school productions of Meredith Wilson’s Broadway smash The Music Man (which featured the original version of ‘Til There Was You, once covered by The Beatles) and an appearance as (a probably really good) Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar followed. Then Kiss opened the mental floodgates to a world of good ‘n’ evil rock and roll bastardism. Just suppose you were like their bass-player, the blood-spitting, tongue-unfurling Gene Simmons, then you would be complete. “Every day would be the greatest day of the world!” he once said. “People would love you. Girls would like you…”

Actually, Yes, There Is Somebody Out There
Trent’s life was utterly turned upside down by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “I’d never heard music that had that naked, honest emotion,” he said in 2000. “That was a real turning point for me. I must have listened to it a million times.” In the early 80s synth-pop began to appear, The Cars’ Just What I Needed was on the radio all the time, then there were these new English bands like Depeche Mode, The Cure, Gary Numan and The Smiths. “I remember the excitement of hearing The Human League,” he said. “That’s all machines – there’s no drummer!”

As Trent developed his love of how music actually worked, he fell for idea-volcano superstars like Todd Rundgren and, particularly, David Bowie, whose fearlessly (re)inventive path was a huge inspiration. Elsewhere, the brilliant story-telling creativity of The Who, the political fury of The Clash and raw psychedelic power of a new band called Jane’s Addiction were all having and impact, but it Queen, a band from his deep childhood, whose fantastically overblown sense of the absurd continued to drive Trent on. “I was much more affected by Freddie Mercury’s death than by Lennon’s”, he said in 1992.

Creeping Industrialisation
In the mid-80s a new strain of electronic music was dominating Trent’s listening habits. Bands like Belgium’s Front 242, London-via-Swindon’s Meat Beat Manifesto and Chicago’s Ministry took the industrial-techno element of what Depeche Mode had done with songs like Pipeline and what Einsturzende Neubauten were doing with jackhammers and concrete and turned it into a raging digital juggernaut. Reznor was hooked, “[these bands] had this fucking aggression and tension that the hardest heavy metal or punk had.” In 1989, particularly inspired by a track called Dig It by Vancouver’s Skinny Puppy Trent wrote his first ever song, Down In It. “The was the impetus,” he said of Nine Inch Nail’s true birth. “Sonically, lyrically, your parents should hate it!”


More in this series

The Roots Of… My Bloody Valentine
The Roots Of… The Libertines
The Roots Of… Nirvana
The Roots Of… The Smiths
The Roots Of… The Killers

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