How a 90s rock star found new relevance by defining Hollywood’s sound

Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have become prolific film scorers

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Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has become a mainstay in the film score industry as of late.

Courtesy Rob Sheridan (Wikimedia Commons)

HBO’s adaptation of the critically acclaimed graphic novel “Watchmen” premiered on the network Sunday, and the series features a soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have made waves in the film and television industry in the last decade as prolific musicians. The duo is releasing the soundtrack from the series as three separate LPs later this year, corresponding with events that will occur in the series itself. What many do not know, is that Trent Reznor was changing music by angrily screaming into grungy records decades before his clean, instrumental sound defined a new sound in Hollywood.

In the early 1990s, the music industry was changing. Electronic music — previously relegated to niche subgenres — began to infect the mainstream. Suddenly the synthesizer became as essential to genres like rock as the guitar. Surfing the apex of this movement was the industrial, alternative rock band Nine Inch Nails. Calling Nine Inch Nails a band however, might be misleading, since frontman and talented multi-instrumentalist Reznor has been — until recently — the group’s only permanent member. During live performances guest drummers, guitarists and other performers made appearances, but Reznor was masterminding a new kind of sound.

Nine Inch Nails, which modern audiences might know as one of the bands among dads’ bumper stickers, was inexplicably relevant and raw in the ‘90s. Their most popular single, “Closer,” describes fornicating animals to a dance techno beat. Reznor bragged about recording “The Downward Spiral,” the album that features the single, in the house where actress Sharon Tate was murdered. Reznor also scored the popular, ultraviolent first-person shooter video game “Quake.”  Some might dismiss such performances as “shock tactics,” but Nine Inch Nails was more than a middle finger to decency, like so many grunge movements of the time — it was the beginning of a new sound that started with edge-lords and angsty teens. This sound would eventually seep into all of modern music. What Nine Inch Nails lacked in subtlety or grace, they made up for with pure sonic ambition, driven by heavily layered and textured garage-metal sound overproduced to beautiful heights.

After two hugely successful albums, Reznor set out to make an ambitious double album that would consume him for the next half decade, known as “The Fragile.” Its production was long and tortuous, and drug addiction and depression hit Reznor hard. He considered suicide. When the album finally did release in 1999, Nine Inch Nails was no longer the cool kid on the block. Radiohead were the new innovators, and “The Fragile” relied on eerie soundscapes and lavishly produced layers of ambience over any traditional rock or dance elements, and as a result, alienated audiences. Relative to the band’s prior successes, “The Fragile” was a commercial and critical failure. Reznor was no longer a superstar who could tour with the likes of David Bowie, which happened in 1995, and was increasingly looking like the latest washed up victim of the music industry.

What could have become a further downward spiral became a path towards a better life. Reznor sobered up thanks to the encouragement of mentors like Bowie. Other music industry veterans were not shy about Reznor’s influence on them, like when Johnny Cash adapted Reznor’s ballad “Hurt” into his own beautiful version. He started producing cleaner-sounding, more minimalist music like “With Teeth” with sound engineer Ross, who would later become Nine Inch Nails’ only other permanent member. Nine Inch Nails never reached its former heights of fame, but it did still appeal to a niche group of fans. 

More significantly, however, Reznor also branched out and experimented beyond the traditional album. He released “Year Zero,” an album set in a dystopian, parody-future inspired by the Bush presidency, through an elaborate augmented reality game. In 2008, “Ghosts I-IV” was released as a series of purely instrumental tracks licensed under Creative Commons. Reznor released the master files so that fans could remix and augment “Ghosts” to their liking. Since then, samples from “Ghosts” have been used in everything from episodes of “This American Life” to Lil Nas X’s trap-country hit “Old Town Road.”

It made sense for Reznor and Ross to move their music towards a more purely instrumental and ambient direction. The duo are expert sound engineers and have an innate talent for creating eerie and atmospheric textures and soundscapes. Reznor is a far better instrumentalist than vocalist or lyricist, and those outside of “Nine Inch Nails” fandom can appreciate his work much better in a purer, more minimalist form. That is exactly what happened with 2010’s “The Social Network.” Inspired by their previous work on “Ghosts,” the duo’s frenetic, electronic and coldly impersonal soundtrack was a perfect fit for David Fincher’s take on the Facebook origin story and won an Academy Award for Best Original Score.

Since then, the duo have collaborated with technical, precise filmmakers like Fincher while also branching out to score an eclectic array of other movies and now, even television shows. In addition to scoring Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Reznor and Ross have designed the soundscapes of documentaries, including Ken Burns’ series “The Vietnam War” and Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentary “Before the Flood.” More recently, Netflix’s “Bird Box” and Jonah Hill’s sentimental “mid90s” were graced with a Reznor and Ross soundtrack. Their moody soundscapes are capable of evoking reflection, bold driving rhythm and capturing the visions and worlds of all kinds of directors. 

A recent Black Mirror episode starring Miley Cyrus features the pop star covering a positive, remixed take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like A Hole.” David Lynch’s 2017 reboot of “Twin Peaks” featured an extended cameo from Nine Inch Nails during a surreal dive-bar sequence. Reznor currently works with artists like Dr. Dre as a creative lead for Apple’s music streaming service. Nine Inch Nails may not be today’s most relevant band, but its enduring, tidal influence on the rest of the music and entertainment industry is undeniable. Out of his seemingly greatest failure in “The Fragile,” (which is now considered a fan-favorite album) Reznor has embraced his gift for creating beautiful and awe-inspiring soundscapes. His partnership with Ross irreversibly changed music in Hollywood.

It was not a huge surprise then, that the latest big-budget, dark HBO drama would feature a soundtrack from the duo. Music in Hollywood, which was once treated as a necessary but ultimately expendable accessory, is now essential to pacing and setting the mood for creatively ambitious projects like “Watchmen.” Soundscapes define the world and mood of art, and the minimalist but powerful sound of Nine Inch Nails is now a genre of its own. With prominent artists like Reznor and Ross at the helm of scoring so many projects, the future of music in Hollywood is brighter — and more electronic — than ever.

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