Nine Inch Nails, an industrial rock band fronted by Trent Reznor, has toured all over the world since its creation in 1988. While Reznor—the only official member until adding Atticus Ross in 2016—controls its creative and musical direction in the studio, the touring band performs different arrangements of the songs. In addition to regular concerts, the band has performed in both supporting and headlining roles at festivals such as Woodstock '94, Lollapalooza 1991 and 2008, and many other one-off performances including the MTV Video Music Awards. Prior to their 2013 tour, the band had played 938 gigs.
Nine Inch Nails' live performances contrast with its in-studio counterpart. Reznor writes and performs nearly all Nine Inch Nails studio material, with occasional instrumental and vocal contributions from others artists. However, Reznor has typically assembled groups of backing musicians to interpret songs for tours and other live performances. Keyboardist Alessandro Cortini said that "if you see the show and you're used to the CDs it's pretty clear that the studio entity is different from the live entity".
The only constant member of the live band is Reznor. Live Nine Inch Nails performances are typically accompanied by lighting, stage, and video projection effects. Since 1999, the visual design components of live shows have been curated by Reznor with Rob Sheridan. Three tours have been chronicled on live albums and tour documentaries.
Critical and commercial response to Nine Inch Nails live performances has generally been positive. Critics have pointed to the concerts' aggressive on-stage dynamic and visual designs as high points. Reznor decided in 2008 to cease touring with the band after a 2009 farewell tour. The band resumed touring in 2013, with the group planning a set of concerts in the U.S. beginning September 28.
—Reznor in a 1991 interview
Reznor assembled the first live line-up in 1988 to support the Canadian industrial music band Skinny Puppy on tour. The three-piece band consisted of Reznor on guitars and lead vocals, Ron Musarra on drums, and Chris Vrenna on keyboards. The band was poorly received, however, and they were asked to leave the tour after 10 dates. After the Skinny Puppy tour the band was rearranged and expanded to include a fourth member; Musarra departed and Vrenna moved to drums, Gary Talpas, Nick Rushe, and later David Hymes contributed on keyboards, while Richard Patrick was added as guitarist.
Nine Inch Nails toured North America as an opening act for The Jesus and Mary Chain in 1990, and later for Peter Murphy. During these tours, Reznor began to smash equipment while on stage, and Rockbeat interviewer Mike Gitter attributed the band's early success to this aggressive attitude. In 1991, the band undertook a world tour that continued through the first Lollapalooza festival, where, according to biographer Martin Huxley, they "stole the show". New Musical Express had a sentiment after the performance, describing the show as "genuinely frightening", and asking the reader to "decide for yourself if it's choreographed chaos or unbridled grievous bodily harm". Nine Inch Nails was then invited to open for Guns N' Roses on their European Tour, though they were reportedly poorly received yet again. Before the Lollapalooza date, Chris Vrenna left the band due to a fall out with Reznor, and was replaced for the remainder of the tour by drummer Jeff Ward. Vrenna would rejoin the band for the Self-Destruct tour in 1994. At the conclusion of the Pretty Hate Machine tour, Richard Patrick left the group to form his own band, Filter.
After the 1994 release of The Downward Spiral, the live band embarked on the Self-Destruct tour in support of the album. Chris Vrenna and James Woolley performed drums and keyboards respectively, Robin Finck replaced Richard Patrick on guitar and bassist Danny Lohner was added to the line-up. The stage set-up consisted of dirty curtains which would be pulled down for visuals shown during songs such as "Hurt". The back of the stage was littered with darker and standing lights, along with very little actual ones. The tour debuted the band's grungy and messy image in which they would come out in ragged clothes slathered in corn starch. The concerts were violent and chaotic, with band members often injuring themselves. They would frequently destroy their instruments at the end of concerts, attack each other, and stage-dive into the crowd.
The tour included a set at Woodstock '94 broadcast on Pay-per-view and seen in as many as 24 million homes. The band being covered in mud was a result of pre-concert backstage play, contrary to the belief that it was an attention-grabbing ploy, thus making it difficult for Reznor to navigate the stage: Reznor pushed Lohner into the mud pit as the concert began and saw mud from his hair going into his eyes while performing. Nine Inch Nails was widely proclaimed to have "stolen the show" from its popular contemporaries, mostly classic rock bands, and its fan base expanded. The band received considerable mainstream success thereafter, performing with significantly higher production values and the addition of various theatrical visual elements. Its performance of "Happiness in Slavery" from the Woodstock concert earned the group a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 1995. Entertainment Weekly commented about the band's Woodstock '94 performance: "Reznor unstrings rock to its horrifying, melodramatic core—an experience as draining as it is exhilarating". Despite this acclaim, Reznor attributed his dislike of the concert to its technical difficulties.
The main leg of the tour featured Marilyn Manson as the supporting act, who Reznor had recently signed to his Nothing Records label. At the time, Marilyn Manson featured bassist Jeordie White (then playing under the pseudonym "Twiggy Ramirez"), who would later play bass with Nine Inch Nails from 2005 to 2007. After another tour leg supporting the remix album Further Down the Spiral, Nine Inch Nails contributed to the Alternative Nation Festival in Australia and subsequently embarked on the Dissonance Tour, which included 26 separate performances with co-headliner David Bowie. Nine Inch Nails was the opening act for the tour, and its set transitioned into Bowie's set with joint performances of both bands' songs. However, the crowds reportedly did not respond positively to the pairing due to their creative differences.
The tour concluded with "Nights of Nothing", a three-night showcase of performances from Nothing Records bands Marilyn Manson, Prick, Meat Beat Manifesto, and Pop Will Eat Itself, which ended with an 80-minute set from Nine Inch Nails. Kerrang! described the Nine Inch Nails set during the Nights of Nothing showcase as "tight, brash and dramatic", but was disappointed at the lack of new material. On the second of the three nights, Richard Patrick was briefly reunited with the band and contributed guitar to a performance of "Head Like a Hole". After the Self Destruct tour, Chris Vrenna, member of the live band since 1988 and frequent contributor to Nine Inch Nails studio recordings, left the act permanently to pursue a career in producing and to form Tweaker.
In support of Nine Inch Nails' third full-length studio album, The Fragile, the live-band reformed for the Fragility tour. The lineup remained largely the same from the Self-Destruct tour, featuring Finck, Clouser, and Lohner. To replace long-time member Vrenna, Reznor held open auditions to find a new drummer, eventually picking then-unknown Jerome Dillon. Dillon would remain a member of the live band until 2005.
Nine Inch Nails' record label at the time, Interscope Records, reportedly refused to fund the promotional tour following The Fragile's lukewarm sales. Reznor instead committed himself to fund the entire tour out of his own pocket, concluding that "The reality is, I’m broke at the end of the tour," but also adding "I will never present a show that isn’t fantastic."
The Fragility tour began in late 1999, running until mid-2000, and was broken into two major legs, Fragility 1.0 and Fragility 2.0 respectively. Destinations included Europe, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and North America. Before the first Fragility performance date in Spain, Nine Inch Nails opened their final rehearsal in London to 100 fans. Kick-starting the tour was a performance of the title track from The Fragile at the MTV Video Music Awards. Atari Teenage Riot opened for Nine Inch Nails during Fragility 1.0, and A Perfect Circle for Fragility 2.0. At the time, A Perfect Circle featured Josh Freese on drums, who would later replace Dillon and play drums for Nine Inch Nails from 2005 to 2007. The tour featured increasingly large production values, including a triptych video display created by contemporary video artist Bill Viola. Rolling Stone magazine named Fragility the best tour of 2000.
In 2002, the tour documentary And All That Could Have Been was released featuring a collection of performances from the Fragility 2.0 tour. While making the DVD, Reznor commented on the tour in retrospect by saying "I thought the show was really, really good when we were doing it", but later admitted that he "can't watch [the DVD] at all. I was sick for most of that tour and I really don't think it was Nine Inch Nails at its best".
Following the release of With Teeth in 2005, the live band was reassembled for the Live: With Teeth tour. Since the previous tour five years earlier, much of the band had moved on in their careers, and only drummer Jerome Dillon rejoined. To find replacements, Reznor held auditions during December 2004. He stated that keyboardist Alessandro Cortini "fit in immediately", though he had trouble finding a guitarist to replace Robin Finck until auditioning Aaron North.
The tour began with a series of small-club performances early in 2005. The band told journalists they were "pleasantly surprised by the interest" of fans despite their lengthy absence. This initial leg of the tour also included a headlining performance at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The band followed with a North American arena tour in autumn 2005, supported by Queens of the Stone Age, Death From Above 1979, Autolux, and Saul Williams. Williams performed on stage with Nine Inch Nails at the Voodoo Music Experience festival during a headlining appearance in hurricane-stricken New Orleans, Reznor's former home. To conclude the With Teeth era of the band, Nine Inch Nails completed a tour of North American amphitheaters in the summer of 2006, joined by Bauhaus, TV on the Radio, and Peaches. The 2007 release Beside You in Time features performances from the North American arena tour, the North American amphitheater tour, and a number of studio rehearsals.
Nine Inch Nails were scheduled to perform at the 2005 MTV Movie Awards, but dropped themselves from the show due to a disagreement with the network over the use of an unaltered image of George W. Bush as a backdrop to the band's performance of "The Hand that Feeds". Soon afterwards, Reznor wrote on the official Nine Inch Nails website: "apparently, the image of our president is as offensive to MTV as it is to me". MTV replied by saying they respected Reznor's point of view, but were "uncomfortable" with the performance being "built around partisan political statements". A performance by the Foo Fighters replaced Nine Inch Nails' time slot on the show.
During the first arena performance in 2005, Dillon was forced to stop midway through the show and was subsequently hospitalized. His condition was later diagnosed as a non-life-threatening cardiac disorder, a consequence of his thyroid medication. Dillon later remarked that when he was ready to return he encountered "complete apathy and no sympathy" from Reznor and Nine Inch Nails' management. Reznor in turn wrote that Dillon's "recollection of the events leading to his departure from the band is once again inaccurate". Josh Freese initially replaced Dillon for two shows before Alex Carapetis joined the band for the remainder of the arena tour. Freese eventually replaced Carapetis and joined the band on a permanent basis.
Having taken a break from touring to complete work on Year Zero, Nine Inch Nails began a world tour in 2007, including their first ever performance in China. Reznor continued to tour with the same band he concluded the Live: With Teeth tour, which was composed of North, White, Freese, and Cortini. Supporting acts included Ladytron, Unkle, The Dandy Warhols, Alec Empire, and Serena Maneesh.
The Year Zero project included an alternate reality game of the same name, with much of the game revolving around various live shows. During a Nine Inch Nails concert in Lisbon, Portugal, a USB flash drive was found in a bathroom stall containing a high-quality MP3 of the track "My Violent Heart", a song from the then-unreleased album. A second USB drive was found after a concert in Barcelona, containing the track "Me, I'm Not". Following the release of Year Zero the focus of the tour shifted towards debuting and promoting tracks from the new album. While some of these songs were performed by all 5 band members as conventional guitar-driven rock songs, two of them ("Me, I'm Not" and "The Great Destroyer") were played by Reznor, guitarist North and keyboard player Cortini as a 3 piece, using a combination of live guitars and pre-programmed samples triggered onstage with computers and manipulated in real time using Ableton software.
In April 2007, Nine Inch Nails fans received in-game telephone-calls in which they were invited to a "resistance meeting" in Los Angeles. At the meeting, fans attended a fictional Art Is Resistance meeting, and were later rewarded by an unannounced performance by Nine Inch Nails. The concert was cut short as the meeting was raided by a fictional SWAT team and the audience was rushed out of the building.
Later that year, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported that the September 18 show in Honolulu would be the last performance of the current incarnation of the Nine Inch Nails live band. Reznor told the newspaper "at this point, I want to switch things around a bit. Nine Inch Nails as a rock band configuration, we've done it and we've done it again. I see other ways I can present the material in concert, more challenging, something new. I don't want it to go stale". In the same article, Reznor also admitted that "the idea of five guys playing loud music [for] two hours ... has got to change once finances come into play, especially performing in markets outside of the mainland U.S. I want to whittle things down".
The seventh and eighth major Nine Inch Nails studio-releases, Ghosts I–IV and The Slip, were released in March and May 2008 respectively. Both albums feature contributions from live-band member Alessandro Cortini. Since the release of Ghosts I–IV, a 25-date tour was announced in several North American cities. Cortini and Freese returned as members from the previous tour, while Robin Finck rejoined the band. The lineup was initially to include Rich Fownes, but before any scheduled performances it was revealed that Justin Meldal-Johnsen would instead be contributing on bass guitar.
Supporting acts for the tour include Deerhunter, Crystal Castles, Does It Offend You, Yeah?, Ghostland Observatory, A Place to Bury Strangers, and White Williams. In early June, a tour EP was released for free on the Nine Inch Nails website featuring four songs from the supporting artists and one from Nine Inch Nails. The files are DRM-free MP3s that are fully tagged, and included with the download are desktop wallpapers and a printable tour poster.
The band headlined the 2008 Lollapalooza festival, the 2008 Virgin Festival, and the first Pemberton Music Festival. In May 2008, Nine Inch Nails announced that premium seating for all the upcoming 2008 tour shows would be offered in a pre-sale for fans who registered at the official Nine Inch Nails website. In an effort to combat ticket scalpers, each concert ticket will list the purchaser's legal name. The ticketing process was previously used for smaller pre-sales and was available exclusively to fan club members. On July 26, Reznor introduced an "unplugged" portion into the live show in which the band steps to the front of the stage about an hour into the show, with Reznor on vibraphone and bassist Meldal-Johnsen playing an upright bass. The 20-minute jazzy, acoustic set is taken mostly from Ghosts I–IV. The stage show also featured mesh LED curtains that projected various visuals, ranging from falling rain to static to a ruined city, and made the band appear to be playing on "a stage that appeared to be constructed entirely out of lights." Nine Inch Nails later confirmed that the tour was to extend to South America and it was thought this would be the last Americas set of dates but soon after Reznor announced yet more North American dates including two dates in tourist capital Florida.
On October 8, 2008, after finishing up their last show in South America, Reznor posted on the official Nine Inch Nails website blog that Josh Freese would be leaving the band following the completion of the current tour. Shortly after, it was announced that Alessandro Cortini would also be leaving the band. On November 15, 2008, Reznor announced via the official Nine Inch Nails website that Ilan Rubin of Lostprophets would be replacing Freese after his departure at the end of 2008. No replacement was announced for Cortini, and the band subsequently toured as a 4-piece without a full-time keyboard player.
In 2008, Reznor decided to put Nine Inch Nails on indefinite hiatus. He later clarified that "NIN as a touring live band or live band that's on the road all the time [would be] stopping" after a comprehensive tour, but that he would continue to produce music thereafter.
After a set of shows in Australia and New Zealand, Nine Inch Nails embarked on a North American tour of amphitheatres with Jane's Addiction and Street Sweeper Social Club dubbed "NIN/JA 2009". Concerts in Europe and Asia were also announced before Reznor added a series of smaller-venue shows in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The final show was on September 10, 2009.
In February 2013, Trent Reznor announced that Nine Inch Nails would begin touring once more, with festival performances in the summer, arena performances in the fall, and worldwide performances throughout 2014. After Eric Avery and Adrian Belew dropped out during rehearsals, the festival tour lineup featured Alessandro Cortini, Josh Eustis, Robin Finck, Trent Reznor, and Ilan Rubin.
In March 2017, it was announced that the band will perform at FYF Fest and Panorama Music Festival in July. The touring line-up featured the same line-up as the NIN 2014 tour which included Reznor, Finck, Cortini and Rubin, the band's new official member Atticus Ross also joined the line-up. Nine Inch Nails begin the tour by performing at the Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield, California on July 19.
Visual elements employed during Nine Inch Nails concerts have often included numerous lighting, stage and projection effects employed to accompany and augment presentation. Prior to the Fragility tour in 2000, Reznor reflected that "I’ve adopted a philosophy of the way to present Nine Inch Nails live that incorporates a theatrical element. I want it to be drama. I want my rock stars to be larger than life, you know? The Kurt Cobains of the world, I’m sick of that shit. I don’t want a gas station attendant being my hero. I grew up with Gene Simmons. I grew up with Ziggy Stardust."
Many songs are typically accompanied with specially designed visual aids, including synchronized lighting effects and projected stock-footage montages. Early performances of the song "Hurt", for example, were accompanied by a projected montage of clouds, charred bodies, mushroom clouds, maggots, and war refugees, a performance of which is featured in the song's music video. Recent performances of the song, however, have featured less lighting effects.
Since 1999, the visual presentation of Nine Inch Nails live shows have been directed by Rob Sheridan, while Bill Viola designed a large triptych display for the Fragility tour. The images displayed on the triptych focused on storm and water imagery. And All That Could Have Been features an audio commentary track by Viola describing the display and his inspirations for it.
For the Live: With Teeth tour, Roy Bennett and Martin Phillips were responsible for the lighting design and stage design respectively. Bennett explained in a 2005 interview that much of the lighting was done using a series of LED lights arranged in "stalactites or stalagmites [formations] to tie in to the album artwork". DLP projectors were also used to project images onto a gauze screen in front of the stage.
Using the gauze projection-screen, Phillips, Reznor, and Sheridan devised a "gag" where they projected "a sheet of glass shattering onto a downstage kabuki scrim that would drop as the glass shatters fell. ... We settled on Trent swinging his guitar at the gauze [and] shattering it, but with all the pieces falling up as the [screen] flew out". This technique can be seen in the tour documentary Beside You in Time. In contrast to the lighting of previous tours, Performance 2007 featured minimal lighting that was designed to shadow Reznor and the band.
The visual elements of the live shows has been subject to much commentary. The Boston Globe described the Fragility tour as "one of the most outstanding light shows in memory". A reviewer from the Contra Costa Times described a Live: With Teeth performance as being "heightened by just the right amount of dark purple or blue spotlights, with up-lighting from the stage front, giving the band a horror-flick feel".
Nine Inch Nails has released one album and three videos featuring the live band. Closure, a double VHS set released in 1997, features live performances from the Self-Destruct Tour, including a performance of "Hurt" with David Bowie during the Dissonance Tour. The video has been out of print since its initial release, and all attempts to re-release the video on DVD have failed. A deluxe two-disc DVD version of Closure was delivered to Interscope Records in 2004 and indefinitely delayed from being released. However, both discs appeared on BitTorrent networks in December 2006, presumably leaked by Trent Reznor himself. And All That Could Have Been, which features performances from the Fragility 2.0 tour, was released in 2002 as a live CD and double DVD. An easter egg in the DVD version features a performance with Marilyn Manson at Madison Square Garden of the songs "Starfuckers, Inc." and Manson's "The Beautiful People". In 2007, Nine Inch Nails released Beside You in Time, featuring performances from the Live: With Teeth tour. The DVD also features rehearsal footage, music videos, and still photographs from the tour.
The configuration of the band has evolved since first touring in 1988. Early incarnations of the band had three people playing guitars, drums, keyboards, and samplers. Later incarnations replaced the keyboards and samplers with an additional guitarist, and incarnations after that added a multi-instrumentalist whose main role was as a bassist but also played guitars and keyboards on a number of songs. Finally, the live component of Nine Inch Nails has settled as a five-piece band since the Self Destruct tour from 1994. On the Performance 2007 tour, some songs from the Year Zero album were performed as a 3 piece band, featuring Reznor, keyboard player Alessandro Cortini and guitarist Aaron North, using a combination of live guitars and triggered loops. In September 2007, Reznor expressed his interest in moving away from the "rock band configuration" to explore "other ways [to] present the material in concert", though once again the 2008 incarnation consisted of five positions, but adding a variety of instruments not normally used in Nine Inch Nails such as double bass, various percussion instruments, steel guitar, vibraphone and other acoustic instruments as well as sampled sounds triggered from a variety of electronic instruments. No replacement was hired for keyboard player Alessandro Cortini after he left the band in late 2008, and the 2009 live band is a four-piece, with the role of keyboard player being shared between all members.
Describing the selection process, early contributor Chris Vrenna told Gannett News "coming from the same emotional background, I feel, is more important than how well you can play your instrument. That's one reason that makes our shows more intense when we're up there ... We found people that understood that. It makes us stronger". Reznor described his selection of the earliest incarnations of the live band by saying "I'm not in the position to offer somebody a thousand dollars a week to rehearse ... So I took some young guys who were malleable, who would basically do what I want them to do but expand on it. The only context I've worked with them in so far is, 'Here are the songs, here are your parts, learn them.' "
Between major tours, live band members have on occasion contributed instrumental performances to official Nine Inch Nails releases, though creative control and direction has always been the responsibility of Reznor. Live-band members who have contributed to major Nine Inch Nails studio releases are denoted by a "#" below. Most members provide backing vocals during live performances.
Through the years, Reznor has invited many prominent musicians on stage with his band to perform material outside the usual range of Nine Inch Nails songs:
Those who know Nine Inch Nails only from their studio recordings—industrial-rock affairs heavy on synthesized sounds—might assume that the group's material wouldn't translate well in a live setting. They'd be sorely mistaken, as evidenced by the band's Friday night (5/13) performance at Boston's Orpheum Theatre.
In theory, Nine Inch Nails shouldn't be a great live band. Reznor's music sometimes consists of non-organic instruments thrown straight onto a computer, at times being twisted to the point of not even sounding like the original source.