Interview with Chris Vrenna
By Bob Gourley | Published on November 4, 2012
After an extended stint with Marilyn Manson, Chris Vrenna has finally found the time to return to his ‘passion project’ – Tweaker. The third Tweaker album, ‘Call the Time Eternity, ‘ is the first in 8 years. In a phone interview, Vrenna discussed the new album, his time with Marilyn Manson, thoughts on touring, and more.
What was the timeframe of making ‘Call the Time Eternity’? Was it all done after you left Marilyn Manson, or had you been working on Tweaker material all along?
Chris Vrenna: “It was a bit of both. I’d never intended to wait so long, but after I toured Tweaker in 2004, that was when Ginger [Fish] got hurt, [Marilyn] Manson called to ask me to fill in while he was recuperating. He took a nasty fall and broke his arm and a couple of bones in his face. That ‘fill in’ drumming gig lasted 8 year-ish, and just took up so much of my time. Then the co-producing, and co-writing and all the work on the last two albums, and the numerous world tours in between. I just didn’t have a lot of free time. Tweaker is a passion project, it’s what I do for me, no one else but me. With any passion project, you do it when you can. I just didn’t have a big window of when I could. But I had some ideas. When you’re doing a remix for somebody or doing programming or composition or whatever, you’ll always stumble onto something … a beat or loop or whatever … and think ‘oh, that’s cool, it’s not at all for this but I’m just going to copy this over to my folder of check-back-later ideas.’ But then after I left Manson, my very first priority was to finish the record.”
Are there particular tracks that are based on ideas you’d come up with over the years vs. being entirely written more recently?
Chris Vrenna: “I would say the bulk of it came late. The earlier ideas … there’s probably a couple in there, but if I had to try to timeline any of it, I don’t think I could. It’s kind of an organic process. On this record I worked with Jesse Hall, who’s an amazing programmer. I wanted this album to go more electronic, kind of like how the first one was. The writing is reminiscent of the second record, but the sound design is reminiscent of the first. It wasn’t done on purpose necessarily, but it’s a good thing. All the way at the end, on the last song, it harkens back to the first one, as it ends the same way in terms of the sounds and sound effects. And also Jessica’s song is kind of a response to “Happy Child” from the first record. All my records are themed and concepts, I still really like the idea of the concept album.”
How did the creative process of working with Jesse compare to previous other collaborations?
Chris Vrenna: “It’s the same in the fact that when you find somebody that you’re clicking with musically, it’s like being married and you have to be able to just let it all hang out and not be afraid to suck in front of the other person. Those kind of relationships are just difficult anyway. But it was cool because of the way we both program and do different stuff. We could just share our obsessions. Sometimes I would do something and give it to him. He’s got a little room at his place and I also have a second set-up in my studio. So sometimes we were in the same room, sometimes not. We could just bounce things back and forth. It was fun because we could do a lot of experimenting.”
How did you come to start working together?
Chris Vrenna: “He’s a buddy I met a couple of years ago through a mutual friend. We just kind of clicked as people. I had him helping me in my studio for a while. He does his own remixing and programming gigs and stuff like that.”
Did touring to support the last album have any influence on making ‘Call the Time Eternity’? Were you thinking at all about how the music would come across live?
Chris Vrenna: “No. I’m super proud of that tour with Skinny Puppy, the way we did it with the band and my insane ‘trigger everything from the drum kit’ approach. It was really cool. But I never do anything thinking about the live set. That goes all the way back to the very first Nine Inch Nails stuff. I remember even before Trent signed, we were working on ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ and were offered a spot opening for Skinny Puppy! That was the VIVIsectVI tour. The record wasn’t even completely finished yet but we were so excited and said ‘hell yeah!’. It was like eight shows and we had five days to figure it out. So it’s always kind of been that way. I would like to be able to tour this record. Obviously so much has changed in these eight years. The way I did it in 2004, I think it would just be so expensive to try to pull off. With the gear that I had, and all that stuff. I want to do it, but I’ve got to figure out a way.”
When you started touring with Marilyn Manson, did you see it as something you wanted to do long-term?
Chris Vrenna: “I’ve just known those guys for so long. So when Ginger got hurt, they were in Germany promoting ‘Personal Jesus’ and the greatest hits record. They had a tour booked, but then he fell and was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. I hadn’t talked to Manson in years, but I was stoked to be asked. I’d done part of the drum programming for “Antichrist Superstar,’ been employed on live drums for a few of those tracks, and stuff like that. So when they called they were like ‘well, you know the material since you helped us make it. It shouldn’t be hard to learn.’ I thought, ‘how fun would that be?’ because I love all those records that we made together. I never thought it was going to turn into what it did. I ended up doing that whole tour, because even after Ginger rehabbed they kept tacking on a couple of weeks and a couple of weeks. It was over and I did Gnarls Barkley for a year. That was a blast–what a fun band. For the last Gnarls dates, we were in Perth, Australia at a festival, and an hour before going on stage the phone rings and it was Manson’s manager asking if I wanted to come back, but moving over to keyboards. When I landed back [in the US], I was in rehearsals three hours later. These things just snowball, so I just roll with it.”
Have you ever thought of having a project of your own that focuses on being a touring band? Either Tweaker, or starting up something new?
Chris Vrenna: “Wow, good question. Man, I don’t know, you stumped me. I never thought about it. Not really, but in my head it’s just one big stew of creativity. Playing drums for somebody for a tour is awesome and it’s fun; you get that immediate visceral feedback from the crowd. To do that is amazing, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about just putting a band thing together. As long as I’m making music, or playing music for people, the context doesn’t matter as much as the opportunity to do just what I love.”
Chris Vrenna: “First of all, I love Phil Collins, especially his solo stuff. It’s just dark–he was pissed off. I love those grooves. That was one of the last tracks that we did. We have this radio station out here called Jack FM which has no DJs and it plays 80’s and early 90’s music. For a few weeks, every time I would get in my car to go anywhere, ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ was on, and I was like ‘what the hell? This song is haunting me!’ And the theme of this Tweaker record is about loss and saying goodbye, hence the title. This record was also a way to process events and things that have happened, with my dad passing and divorce and things like that. I’ve also had some friends who have had things happen. The lyric of “I Don’t Care Anymore,” the anger of it, and the sentiment, was like exactly where my head was. So when it was on every time in the car, I was like ‘ok, ok, I got it. I’ll cover it. I’ll do it.’ So that’s how it came up, and I love it. I think it came out awesome. I hope Phil hears it, and I hope he likes it.”
Chris Vrenna: “I’m doing a couple of remixes. One for Sean Bevan, who I’ve known forever; he worked with Nine Inch Nails and is a brilliant engineer, producer and mixer. He and his wife have a band called 8 Millimeter. I’m doing one for a band that I just recorded from Florida called Human Factors Lab. The other band I work with a lot is Army of the Universe, from Italy. We did the first record, and the EP. We have 2 EPs that are just wrapping up. Any chance I get to go out and play drums with them live, I do. I have my other project called Lollipop Guild; I’m hoping to get an EP done by the end of the year. We’ll see.”
Can you describe Lollipop Guild?
Chris Vrenna: “It’s more up-tempo electronic dance, kind of progressive house. I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing until people told me. Just more of an electronic thing, instrumental. Tweaker is always so down-tempo, and even when I try to do something fast it ends up half-time, and then it becomes slow. It’s something different that I can do to stretch out. I DJ as well, at goth/industrial clubs spinning a mix of classic industrial. Because I’m old and I can get away with that. But I mix in electronica and stuff. It has been really good for me. It allows me to think of music as a fan, as opposed to staring at kick drums for seven hours. I can just enjoy it. Lollipop Guild is like an extension of that, where I can just do something just to have fun.”
On the last album, “2 A.M. Wakeup Call,” you had several high profile guest vocalists, such a Robert Smith and David Sylvian. Could you explain the different approach to vocals this time around?
Chris Vrenna: “I wanted to not rely as much on all the guest vocalists. I was honored to be able to work with all those people on the last album. But in a certain way the focus got confused a bit for some people. Also, I’ve always considered Tweaker kind of autobiographical, so for the character on the first record, Elliot, in my head it was male vocals. But at the end of the second record, for the first time there was a female vocal, Jennifer Charles, who did “Crude Sunlight” which was about going to bed but the sun was coming up–that one twist. On this record, due to subject matter and tone, I wanted to carry that character through and make that more the thing, rather than it being all about me. So that’s why I wanted to work with female singers. Jessica is like my little sister, I’ve known her forever–it’s crazy. I produced her Jack Off Jill record years ago, and she does Scarling now with her husband. We’re such good friends, and it just seemed right for something thematically what it is–to keep it close. The same with Karen, her voice is just so beautiful. Those songs are the touching, poignant moments in the record where it really comes together, I think.”See all interviews →