VAMPIREFREAKS • CHRIS VRENNA
If you are wondering what Chris Vrenna has done aside for Manson, all you need to do is pick up the liner notes for most of the CDs you have bought in the last almost 20 years. He has been in the mix of some music's most important artists, underground or established this man has worked with them. This man can do it all drums, programming, engineering, mixing, scoring video games, soundtracks, etc. He was one of the original members of Nine Inch Nails, formed his own brilliant band called Tweaker, and has grabbed the attention of everyone from 16Volt, U2, Metallica, and many more. Fact is Chris Vrenna is not unlike King Midas where everything he touches turns to gold.
Even despite his past, long list of credits, and a Grammy he's still one of the most humble people you could hope to meet. I caught up with Mr.Vrenna while just returning from one hell of a year of touring with Marilyn Manson to talk about everything past, present, and future for him. So sit back and prepare to be truly taken on a journey of inspiration, hard work, and memorable moments. It is with great honor that I introduce you to Chris Vrenna...
I know that you moved to Chicago in the '80s, however not much is written about the time frame before that? What was your upbringing like and what sparked your early education in music? And what brought you to Chicago?
"I did have a strong musical background, I started taking drum lessons when I was six. My dad used to take me to parades all the time and noticed that I would march in time with everyone and when we were at home and the TV was on I would tap along to any music I heard. My dad took me to meet a jazz drummer teacher that at first was hesitant because of my age, but decided to give me a shot. I took lessons from him for about 10-12 years, during that time I also did youth orchestra and a lot of musical theater. There was a local theatre group that did productions of stuff like Grease and Pippin and I played drums for them for about two seasons. I also did drum core, drum lines, you name it and I tried to get involved in it. I never really had a thing where I thought that this music is 'cool' or this music is 'not cool', for me music was just music."
Well it is always important to keep an open mind and not focus on genre. So what led you to leave for Chicago?
"Well after I graduated from high school I went to Kent State in Ohio. I was growing up in Eerie and Trent [Reznor] was in a town called Mercer [right in the middle between Eerie and Pittsburg]. I was playing in a band that my keyboardist knew Trent, who at the time was in another band. Later Trent moved to Cleveland and started the band Exotic Birds, which while I was at Kent State I would make the drive to go and check them out. After hanging out for some time with Trent we became really close friends and I ended up becoming a member of Exotic Birds.
I then moved up to Chicago between '90-'93, right after Pretty Hate Machine, and Trent ended up heading to New Orleans for the first time. I loved the whole Wax Trax scene, it was amazing to hang out in it. I ended up meeting a band called Die Warzau, became a member of the band, helped them record an album, and did the tour for it. I also ended up drumming for KMFDM around that time for their Money tour. In the band Die Warzau I met a guy named Christopher Hall and we became really good friends, I ended up working with him on some tracks that ended up becoming part of the first Stabbing Westward album. I loved Chicago at the time and the scene was so communicable at the time, it was like New York but with a really nice Mid-Western mentality.
I ended up leaving there and moving to L.A. to meet up with Trent and help record Broken."
Speaking of the Wax Trax era and the KMFDM tour, what was it like to work with someone like Kaptin K?
"It was really cool, it was Sascha, En Esch, Gunter Schulz, and Mark Durante at the time. It was just such a great place to be. Everybody knew everybody and everyone respected everybody no matter how big their band was. It seemed like everyone was working together to come up with material and so much great music came out of it all. It seems like that is missing greatly in today's music. I used to buy any record that was a Wax Trax record, just because I loved the style of music that they stuck to and I knew I was going to like it."
I remember the old Wax Trax LPs that had all the albums that the label was releasing right there on the sleeve.
"You are so right, I forgot about that, it was almost like a check list - got it, got it, need it, got it..." [both of us laughing]
Shortly after you became a core member of NIN, what was it to be in the band during what I would consider to be its best years? What do you feel Trent taught you and vice versa?
"Wow, that is tough there is so much shit just put together. When we started out in a studio in Cleveland there was a lot of experimenting. We dabbled so much in engineering at the time. This was way before Pro-Tools, so we had to use a lot of tape to get everything recorded, I put in so much time to try and get everything to sync up. When Trent was working on programming on the computer, I would be working on the console, and when he was working on vocals I would be doing engineering. We had a really good relationship then and worked together real well. With the use of both of our knowledge everything was pretty much covered in the studio."
Somewhere in that time frame you started your own project called Tweaker - which I actually saw open for Skinny Puppy - what led you to start this project and what were you looking to accomplish with it?
"Yeah I started the project shortly after leaving NIN ['97-'98]. Yeah funny you mention that tour, that was the only tour that Tweaker has ever done. It was a great tour, you know it's funny I owe Skinny Puppy my whole career, twice now.
Before NIN was signed to TVT he was talking to Nettwerk Records about signing there, Skinny Puppy, who were on the label, were on their VIVIsectVI tour at the time . Skinny Puppy was coming through Cleveland and they had maybe about eight dates left on the tour. The label figured since we were going to be on the same label - which didn't work out that way in the end - that we should join Skinny Puppy on the remainder of the tour. We of course said 'fuck yeah' because that was our favorite band ever. So here we were with about four days before they come to town and we had no idea how to play this material or what to play live. We stayed up for about four days trying to come up with about a thirty minute set of Pretty Hate Machine songs. We didn't have a keyboard player at the time, so I was playing them, we had a good friend of ours that played drums, and Trent played guitar and sang. We had a reel-to-reel tape deck that was raised up right in the middle of the stage. The thing about these tape decks is that you could only put about two songs on a reel, so I had to change out the tape reel during the set. So while I was changing out the tapes Trent would either talk to the crowd or we would play sounds from an emulator. To add to that we had a bag full of the tape that we ended up covering the whole stage in, and I mean the whole stage; the drums, the floor, around the tape deck, etc. [both of us laughing]
Now cut to 2004 and Tweaker was releasing our second album. Skinny Puppy was looking for an opening band for their tour, and they ended up picking Tweaker. So here I am again about to open for Skinny Puppy again and I had no idea how to pull it off. The way that Tweaker was run with singers being brought in to collaborate and just the way Clint [Walsh] and I ran it, we wondered about how to pull it off live. I wanted to get away from tape decks or anything like that, so I used a lot of loops fed in through the drum set, and everything was done using triggers. I was sitting and talking with cEvin [Key] and said that twice now I have opened up for you guys - my favorite band ever - and they have been rather awkward moments. Twice now I have no idea how to do it, to put a live show together. So thank you for making my career twice. He knew that we were trying hard, and he was really into it. Skinny Puppy are just the coolest guys ever, I love them so much."
And they are still putting on one hell of a tour.
"That they are. I have seen so many times, I saw them as far back as the Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse tour  and have not missed a tour since. They are just the best."
One of the highlights in Tweaker's reign is the vocal collaboration from the legendary Robert Smith of The Cure, how did he come to lend his vocals and how did it feel to work with him?
"Honestly he did the vocals just because I really wanted him to do it, and I asked him, it was as simple as that. My manager at the time asked me which people I wanted to work with so I wrote out a wish list of artists. Robert knew about the first Tweaker album so when his manager approached him about the opportunity he was all about it. It was great though all the different collaborations we did for the band, pretty much everyone I asked for said yes. Though my favorite one that ended up getting away was Geddy Lee [Rush], and I mean come on Rush is one of the greatest bands."
Well as a drummer you can't forget Neil Peart.
"Oh without a doubt, he is one of the greatest. If you don't like Neil then they take your drum sticks away. I have seen Rush at so many shows.
Anyways, he was all about doing a collaboration. Everything was going great till it came time to sign the contract and he had to back out unfortunately due to the band's 25th anniversary with their Cover to Cover album.
But for Robert it was the perfect time. The Cure was taking a break from writing and from touring so he just spent the year working with other artists, fortunately Tweaker was one of the bands he picked. Clint and I had written a bunch of material so we sent off eight of them to Robert to let him pick which one he wanted to do. He ended up wanting to do the kind of quirky electronic one, which was awesome since we didn't expect him to pick that one at all. From there we just worked by sending each other the Pro-Tools sessions in the mail. Later on though there was a festival out here put on by a radio station and The Cure was there, got to meet and hang out with him, he is such a great guy."
I have to ask, but there were rumors of a new Tweaker album dropping in 2008 which didn't happen. What happened and are there still plans for new material in the future?
"We got to the point where half the music for the album was done, but what happened was Marilyn Manson. The Tweaker tour is what got me in Manson. Before that tour I had not been on the road since NIN back in '95 with David Bowie. I had been in the studio for about 8 years scoring video games, remixing, and producing so it made me really want to get back out on the road again. I was talking with Manson's manager and saying how much I missed it, well about two months later by pure coincidence Ginger fell off the stage in Germany. He seriously hurt himself, got several concussions and broken bones. I got a call from Tony [manager] that they really needed me to fill in for Ginger on the rest of the Lest We Forget Tour, I said 'of course, when are rehearsals?' Which he told me were in an hour and to get my ass there. We were only supposed to be on the road for six weeks and things really blew up; so we ended up on the road for a year.
Now we just wrapped up the tour and I am getting settled into my new house. Clint and I just went out to dinner recently and talked about how we should get together and do a new album this year. So there may actually be one this year."
Ok going backwards a bit, when you were in NIN you collaborated with Al Jourgenson in the studio, what was it like to work with Al and how many chemically induced moments were there?
"Yeah there were definitely plenty of those kind of moments, I was a pretty bad druggie at the time myself. Al was really into Quaaludes at the time, I asked him to try it out and he kept saying 'no man I don't know...' which I would reply with 'come on fuck you man.'
My nickname from Al ended up becoming 'Pod Boy'. When I finally came to a few hours later, I saw Al tossing the last bit of shaving cream, and everyone in the room laughing hysterically. They had shaved my head while I was out. They kept laughing and said 'yeah man those knocked you out, here is a plate of coke to wake you up.'
It was great to work with Al though, again that whole Wax Trax era was just so amazing and so much good music came out of it."
I know most people have burned through their copy of In Case You Didn't Feel Like Showing Up.
"That tour was probably the best tour ever done. With Mart Atkins and Bill Rieflin both playing drums together, that was insane."
Speaking of production work, you have a never ending list of bands you have helped to produce/remix/and engineer [everyone from Metallica to 16Volt].
"Well I knew you wouldn't mention U2! [both of us laughing]
Yeah a lot of people come up to me and say that the 16Volt album [SuperCoolNothing] I was on was one of their favorites. Eric is a great person and one of the most talented people I have worked with. He comes up with some amazing material, and is still going which is awesome."
Which artists that you have worked with have changed you and influenced you the most?
"There are so many people I have worked with and in so many different fields so it certainly makes me a much more well rounded person. Sometimes it was doing remixes and sometimes it was playing drums on people's albums. With some I came in and helped work with the programming. With Metallica I was brought in as a Pro-Tools guy, at the time Pro-Tools was fairly new and I was one out of maybe ten that really knew how to run it. It was at one of the NIN shows and they asked me what I was up to after the tour, I told them I had Christmas off so they asked if I wanted to live with them for a bit. They needed another Pro-Tools guy and since I was a drummer I worked right with Lars.
I was fortunate to work with a lot of great producers and engineers as well. I have always been a big fan of asking questions. I have never gotten the line of 'well we don't want to say because that is a secret.'
People have always been very open and willing to teach. It was amazing to watch someone like Flood work, see how he created all the sounds for bands like Depeche Mode, PJ Harvey, and Pop Will Eat Itself.
One of the best experiences for me though was when I did the remix for U2. Our remix was for the song Elevation, the remix ended up being on the Tomb Raider soundtrack and really blew up. Anyways, when they were looking at the remixes, Interscope called me and said that U2 kicked the remix, I was shocked and asked why. They said that U2 liked the remix so much that they wanted to re-record it to the remixes' arrangement. So little did I know that remix I was making was in fact a very expensive demo. [both of us laughing]
So we booked a room for a couple of days and got into the studio to see a whole wall full of gear and Edge going through the different sounds. He would say things like 'I don't know man I think that your sound has much more bite to it than mine, I like yours better.'
All I could keep thinking was 'man you are Edge, and you are asking me?'
But that is just how cool they are, they are always open to what others think. They are one of the highest grossing bands in the industry and are some of the nicest and most respectful people you will ever meet. So many people think that because they are big that their ideas are better and that their way is the right way. But these guys are just flat out humble.
After the band left me and Paul Leary (Butthole Surfers), who has helped me out a lot with my remix work, got a whole bunch of booze and got completely hammered. [Both of us laughing].
We were just so emotionally drained from it all."
I know you worked with Axl Rose on Guns N' Roses for a bit, but then declined to be part of the band. What happened there?
"Well that was right after I had left NIN and Robin Finck was in the band as well after leaving NIN and Cirque Du Soleil. Axl Rose is a much more forward thinking person than people give him credit for, very smart and well read guy. Axl really loved NIN, in one of his music videos he is even wearing the old white NIN Sin t-shirt. I was in the band for a few months and Moby was going to produce the album at the time. It was a brutal schedule of working five nights a week from 10am to 6pm, Axl came down there maybe a hand full of times. It was just not what I was looking for at the time, I knew that this process was going to last a few years, and I had just left NIN so I was really anxious to get back out there and work with other people. But it was really cool, getting to hang out with all of them. We ended up playing the whole Appetite For Destruction album from top to bottom, which really made me happy to get that opportunity."
Another highlight of your career is your work on video games [American McGee's Alice, Doom 3, Quake 4, etc.]. How did you find yourself entering this world and how different is it than working on a band or production?
"I ended up getting into it because NIN was in the first game for Quake. It was also one of the last things I did with the band before I left, so after I left I got a call from American Mcgee who was part of the original Quake and remembered me. That ended up opening all sorts of doors for me in scoring other video games, sometimes that is all it takes. It is real different composing music for games than movies and CDs, some people may take ten minutes to pass a level and for some it may take about thirty minutes. So you have to make the music memorable but not too invasive that the person just wants to turn it off after the 50th time." [both of us laughing]
One odd detail I noticed about your credits in production is that you have been in some way involved with almost every Marilyn Manson album since Portrait Of An American Family. Does it seem now as if everything was leading up to you becoming a core member of Manson?
"Yeah I worked onPortrait Of An American Family, the Dope Hat EP, and Antichrist Superstar was the really big one. However when it came to the next album [Mechanical Animals] that was when the team kind of fell apart. Right after Antichrist was when Trent and I went our own ways, and I didn't work on anything until Lest We Forget. EAT ME, DRINK ME was all Tim Skold. But yeah I have been in and out of the camp since the very beginning."
Do you think in a way it has been leading to this point where you are a core member of the band?
"I guess so, honestly I never really thought about it at all. The one year that Manson took off from touring to do EAT ME, DRINK ME I went out and did a tour with Gnarls Barkley, which is a project that everyone was shocked I was involved with after touring with someone like Manson. All I can say to that is 'why? Because it is hip hop or soul. Do you not think I have a soul? Because I am white you don't think I can groove? What are you trying to say fucker?' [both of us laughing].
That band and their live shows were amazing, I loved working with them."
It would appear Manson is going through a huge leap from his music to his lyrics, what insight can you give us to what happened, what roll you are playing in it, and what do you see the future holding for the band?
"I know some people are having some issues with the changes the band/Manson has made and all I can is 'fuck off!
I personally love the record and think it is one of the ballsiest he has done. Yeah so it is not the typical four to the floor stomp beats and he is not running around in pantyhose anymore, it was just his birthday recently and he turned 41 and I am 43, you just can't live you are 21 forever. You look like an idiot, you have to mature as an artist and reflect on other things in your life and world. I just can't stand that people can be so closed minded about the whole thing, 'this doesn't sound like Hate Anthem? well than go listen to Hate Anthem then. [both of us laughing]
This has been ongoing thing though, when you think about it every Manson album has been pretty different, after Antichrist Superstar Mechanical Animals came out and people hated it because they were not the same album. Artists should write what is in their hearts at the time, so it is obvious that Manson was feeling more about the emotional aspects of his life rather than politics and religion. Who knows what he is going to feel this time around?"
Have you guys already started talking about the new album?
"Right now we are just talking and coming up with concepts for it. We just got back from the tour Dec. 23rd and it was really a long and brutal tour this time. We usually go for about five weeks and take a week off, this time around we really had no time off at all."
I understand that you are going to be setting out on a solo DJ tour, what made you decide to do this, and what can we look forward to hearing from your sets?
"Well we are still talking about that right now, I have done a few after parties so far and had a really good time with it, so you might just see me out there doing it. I am very open minded to the whole idea. It is a great creative outlet and a good way to have some fun along the way."
I am personally stunned at how much you take on, is there anything you do to separate from all the work in the music industry?
"I don't actually. [both of us laughing]
I really need to work on that, my whole life has been in kind of an upheaval on a personal level, so I definitely have to get out there and fix that. I don't even have a couch just yet (both of us laughing)."
I understand that you are a fellow Miami Dolphins fan?
"Oh yeah, I have been a big Dolphins fan since I was about five years old. They are still my team even though they have let me down quite a bit in the past."
It may seem cliché to ask this question, but with your contributions and amazing history, when it is all said and done how would you like to be remembered in the pages of music history?
"Wow now we roll with the deep questions. [both of us laughing]
I often think about this when I am sitting around and have had one too many martinis. (both of us laughing) First and foremost I would like to be remembered as a cool guy. What can I say my mother raised me well, so that is really important for me. Aside from that I would really like to be remembered for some of the contributions I have made to the whole technical aspects of the industry, with the way I used what I had. That somehow I helped music evolve. After that it's all gravy." [both of us laughing]