interview : Chris Vrenna

The Grammy award-winning Chris Vrenna; drummer, producer, engineer, programmer, and composer who has performed with Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and KMFDM and worked with a score of other notable artists prepares to release his third tweaker album, call the time eternity, on October 23rd.

interview by : Aaron Andrews
photographer : Saryn Christina
makeup artist : Erika Diehl GlamourLush
hair stylist : Erika Diehl GlamourLush

[ additional content and images not included in the October/November 2012 Issue ]

So it was time for a new tweaker album or you just found the time?
Chris Vrenna : A little bit of both. Like I said I’ve been wanting to do one because it’s a pure outlet. Working with Manson on the last two records, there’s still rules that apply, it’s going to be a Manson record. If I do a remix for someone it’s like, “what kind of remix do you want?” There’s always rules. Which isn’t a bad thing but there aren’t any with tweaker. If I like it, that’s it. Creative people sometimes need that outlet. With all the things that happened since the last record, there’s a lot to actually… when you’re super busy there’s not a lot of time to sit and reflect and mourn whether it’s the loss of friends or loves or family or whatever it is. You just drown yourself in tours and albums it kind of keeps those things at bay. It was time and it’s nice to have some time for myself.

You’ve said working with U2 was one of your favorite projects over the years, I didn’t realize you got to remix with them.
CV : Took me by surprise. Because normally you do a remix, you turn it in and you’re done. So we did that and had Paul mix it and a few days later Interscope called and said, “the band really loves your mix and they chose yours.” “Awesome, that’s cool, what’s it going to be used for?” “Well, you know, whatever.  But the band wants to meet.” So I didn’t know if it was a super-secret audition or… I never asked. You know it was kind of, “of course, yes.”

That single seemed like the biggest thing that summer.
CV : It was pretty big for them. I have to say the thing about remixes… I just did two for the group in Germany I was just talking about. Over there they consider a remixer as a producer, even writer, type of thing because it’s completely reworked. In America when a song’s written by someone and produced by someone that’s the writer/producer period. You can rip it all down and redo parts and change the arrangement all around; you’ll get paid to do it obviously but then it will say remixed by, and that’s it. But over there it actually counts like making a proper record for royalties and shit. So, yeah. I was pretty proud [of “Elevation”].  It was a good movie too. That whole soundtrack era is gone now. That one in particular [Tomb Raider] had that exclusive U2 track, Nine Inch Nails had something on there that was previously unreleased. I’ve done a few mixes for P.O.D., one was the lead single off of Scorpion King [soundtrack]. There was that era before MP3 where you’d want a mix or an exclusive version, guess you have to go get that soundtrack record. All those weird, cool, and unique things. I guess I kind of miss that era. Why would you spend money recording an entire different version of a song? No one cares, they’re just going to steal that one too. It’s kind of sad because I’ve always been a fan of remixes and B-sides and box sets, all that stuff. Those soundtrack compilations with unique versions or exclusives, I bought every one of them. I’m sad it’s gone. Back then you would pay to have remixes done because there were ways to monetize on your investment. Sure you’re paying someone five grand for a remix but then you can recoup it. The good and the bad thing about iTunes is you don’t have to buy the record. Sure, how many times have you bought an album for fifteen bucks, you get it home and the song on the radio’s good but the rest is shit. So it’s cool you can just buy one song, you’re not forced into buying a CD. But at the same time… I make albums. I like albums. Pink Floyd, king of albums. I love concept albums, I love where it’s not just about three minutes and what shitty product you can sell. Then it’s gone and everybody forgets about it forever. Tweaker’s that way, all three tweaker records are these evolving stories, are character driven, have these underlying themes and reoccurring motifs. The good part of it is I’d rather you pay the 99 cents and buy the one thing you like than buy nothing at all. So it’s both good and bad. It’s nice that people buy music again.

I’ve kind of noticed that, especially with electronic artists, that singles will have more remixers than they used to because now you’re not constrained by the length of a CD. You can have more people remix or collaborate on your release. I think that’s a nice plus side.
CV : There is a change. I’m doing this with two bands I’m working with now. Rather than the old school, where you take a year to a year and a half to make your album with twelve songs then you have this massive campaign and you have your single and a release day, then a tour for a year. When that’s over you go away and do it all over. You’ve put your twelve eggs into that CD. If something doesn’t work or someone huge puts something out the same Tuesday you did… so no one knew it came out, you’re fucked. Three years wasted. But I’m really into the EP format. Put out a four song EP every quarter, let’s say, because for most people after the third or fourth song you start tuning out no matter what it is. We had this problem on High End of Low with Manson. The last song is called fifteen, because it’s track fifteen. So the album, I had to shave two minutes out of one song so it could even physically fit on a CD. More people have not heard the last three songs… only fractions of the people have made it to fifteen, which is my favorite song on that album. With the EP thing you can put out four great songs, you can start touring. You always have something fresh every four months; at five bucks they’re cheap on iTunes. There’s a few people doing that and I’m really into that idea as opposed to the two and a half year cycle that is the norm for big bands. It’s a way to have something fresh for the people who buy records.

What do you think is essential for an artist to make fresh innovative music?
CV : It’s all about the song and the artist themselves. Everybody can have everything. The days of not having $3,000 to go sit in a recording studio are over. Now you’ve got an iPad and Garage Band that sounds more real than the drummer you tried to record or whatever. The tools that are used now, everyone has it, so it comes down to taste and what you do with it. I toured Full Sail when I was in Orlando, I always wanted to see it. 24 separate mixing rooms, every one’s world class. We got in this big debate about, like, how Jack White does everything on one inch tape, everything’s analog. Eh, I don’t give a shit about that but he writes some pretty cool songs and they’re catchy and his guitar sounds are really cool. I don’t give a fuck how he recorded it, it would still be just as cool if he’d tracked it into Pro Tools. Then people use Pro Tools and other stuff, just slicing and dicing because you can perfect anything and it’s taken all feel and groove out of drummers. Zeppelin couldn’t do that. It’s always been a pissing contest of how it’s done. At the end of the day, does it sound cool? Danger Mouse did that first Gnarls Barkley record all on his PC laptop. Like, really? “I just know it so well, I know what to do to get what I want.” Now that’s the answer. If everything’s been done and everything’s been heard, then it’s a matter of taste and just being cool. That just seems to shine through. I mean look at Skrillex, dubstep’s been around forever, all of a sudden America’s like, new thing! It’s not new, you just heard it finally. Now everyone’s trying to rip it off and it’s in every TV commercial. It’s just what he does is cool. Cream rises to the top. Boy I’m full of shitty metaphors.

I had the chance to see tweaker tour with Skinny Puppy, I thought it was cool and liked the live interpretations of your songs. Do you want to go on tour as tweaker again? Is that something you’re planning?
CV : I absolutely do. Putting it together to be all live, it was very ambitious. At the time I was thinking, well what are you going to do walk out and push play? Nick Young, who sang “Sleepwalking Away” on the second album [2 a.m. wakeup call], he just sang the whole show. I spent all my own money. I would love to do it again, I’ve been thinking about how I’d even do it. Financially it feels impossible the way money is with labels and stuff. I am trying to come up with some way to do it because I’ve been DJing too. Over the last two years I’ve been DJing out. I’ll fly out for a weekend maybe once a month to the local goth/industrial dance club and do a guest spin. At first I was like, just playing songs seems boring, but it’s really fun. What it’s made me do is get away from sitting in front of Pro Tools for six hours a day, six or seven days a week and stop thinking so much about the details of the song. When I spin, I just like a song. It gets me in touch with music. I think about playing songs they’ll like and songs I really like and hopefully they’ll enjoy. It’s a way for me to be a fan of music and not have my brain pick into it like producer guy. It’s really therapeutic for me to do it. When I started to DJ, my shtick was more classic industrial mixed with modern dance. Because of my age and because of what I’ve done, I can get away with the “Sin” remix or the “Head Like A Hole” remix; early Ministry, I can do “Over the Shoulder” and not get laughed at. There’s certain things. Thrill Kill Kult will mix perfectly into Underworld; the Tron [Legacy] soundtrack with the remixes, that’s pretty rad. You can do a lot of mix and matching. I’ll play some new wave like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, [Welcome to the] Pleasuredome, that stuff slams no matter what. I learned my lesson though. I got cocky, I was probably drunk, I’m going to go “Hungry Like the Wolf” and I mixed it with Combichrist and the dance floor just emptied. But that’s how you learn, they’ll forget about it in thirty minutes.

Sure, the audience is drunk too.
CV : They’re drunk. Not me anymore, gave that shit up. Had to. After eight years with Manson that was more than a lifetime’s worth of debauchery and substance abuse. I’m a little a guy too, some people have dispositions that let them take way beyond what a normal person can take. I’ve seen people try and keep up with Al [Jourgensen] and actually die back in the early 90s. Al had this thing for a while when we were doing clubs, it must have been after we did “Get Down Make Love” with him. The Pigface stuff was happening and everyone was hanging out with everyone. We were playing in Houston and Al comes down. Al would just dose any open liquids at a show just to see what would happen. I remember after a couple songs the tour manager saying, “don’t drink anything, I will give you water. Don’t drink anything.” So we all get the message, the only guy who didn’t get the message was the truck driver with all the gear. He was just tripping balls all night. Man, the one guy who has to get the next show on time is the guy driving. I will never forget that, it was so Wax Trax era: Pailhead and Lard and 1000 Homo DJs, Pigface, KMFDM, and Die Warzau and Nitzer Ebb. That whole time where people would move around and work on different shit together. It was a really great era and I’m so fortunate that I was there for it, got to see it, hang out in it and contribute to it. It was awesome, just a cool scene and there were a lot of them. Wax Trax Chicago, Seattle Sub Pop, Dischord DC; these little scenes that spawned cool genres and amazing art.

Do you feel like there’s a music scene like that now? That there’s a core somewhere that’s doing cool things that maybe people haven’t noticed yet?
CV : From what I’ve seen? Fuck no. Everything is just splintered and everyone would rather sit home and have friends on Facebook that they don’t know, rather than hook up with people and get in a room and jam. Back then it was almost like hip hop, with this guy featuring this guy and you weren’t afraid of that back then because there was enough to go around for everybody. Now it’s cut throat because the pie is such a tiny crumb. I also think it’s because music used to be the end product. Now music is just the MP3 background playing while you’re on XBox or whatever. It used to be you’d wait for the release date of something but now it’s, “oh there’s music out.” There’s so much of it on MP3, you can’t even see it because there’s no stores that sell it. You accidentally walk by the shop in the mall and notice a new record out in front. You just don’t know how to find it unless you have time to look at every new release on iTunes every Thursday because there’s hundreds upon thousands of them. That’s a lot of thirty second clips to find one that’s worth it.

That’s the other side of the sword. Now that you don’t have to have a label to release something there is a lot more crap to sift through.
CV : If you made the greatest record of all time and only had a Facebook page and a Twitter. You put it out there, how would anyone sift through all the shit on those social networking sites to find that record, which is the greatest record ever made, that no one will ever know about. Meanwhile what are the sixteen year old kids buying off of The Voice? It’s like, “we need a Katie Perry.” “Throw her in a blue wig instead of a pink wig.” “Great she’s a knock off. Go! We got three months until she expires.” They don’t give a fuck, because they’ll sell three million downloads and move on. The over marketing of easy shit for people, it’s kind of weird. Now everyone knows you don’t need gigantic pots of money to make a record. If you’re talented you can make a way cool record off a laptop. So what labels are starting to do is skip the big advance and spend their money on the marketing and promotion. People need to know that an album is out there, without it you could have made The White Album but no one would know about it. I want a label that’s smart and spends their money there.

If you could make a suggestion as an artist to the heads of the industry to save or make their business better, what do you think that would be?
CV : Get back into more marketing and promotion and start spending money on tours again. Tours, the costs involved, Jesus. The gas, crew, per diem and a hotel. But that’s the actual physical contact between an artist and the audience who are going to support it and buy it. Not just this one but the next one too. As far the selling of music, I don’t know what else you can do. Thank God for Steve Jobs who got everyone at the table and said, “99 cents. I don’t give a fuck. Every song, I don’t care if it’s The Macarena or Rihanna’s latest single. 99 cents a song, 9.99 an album, or people are going to start feeling fucked again like they were by CDs.” Sixteen bucks for two crappy songs? I’ve bought a lot more music since that change. I think it’s about connecting in a real way with the audience too. You need to build a rapport again by touring or showing up, like when I DJ. I consider that like a live show. That’s part of the deal, they want me to hang out all night. The accessibility of being there, not being a faceless fake on Facebook. Call me old fashioned.

view the full feature in the October/November 2012 Issue

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One comment on “interview : Chris Vrenna”

  1. His intelligence and integrity will never cease to amaze me.
    He stains the earth with raw passion, I only wish I could have
    done his makeup for this… :o) Nevertheless he’s as beautiful
    and articulate as always and above all he’s a natural unlike
    most in this fabricated industry. Team Vrenna!

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