Since leaving Nine Inch Nails in 1996, Chris Vrenna has done a variety of interesting projects. Among other things, he did the soundtrack for the video game “American McGee’s Alice,” has remixed acts like Xzibit, Rasputina and Rob Zombie, and of course launched his own musical project – Tweaker. Now a partnership with Clint Walsh, Tweaker is back with a 2nd cd, “2 A.M. Wakeup Call,” featuring such guest vocalists as David Sylvian and Robert Smith. In a phone interview, Chris told us about the disc and Tweaker in general.
Being involved with so many projects, what made you decide that now was the time for a new Tweaker disc?
Chris Vrenna: “I’d always planned to do a second record. It’s just hard at times, given all the other stuff I do. The games and remixing; all the other jobs. So it was basically finding time, a big block of time that I could devote to the record. I had always planned on and was looking forward to doing another one. I finally found the time, and took the opportunity in my own life to just do it. But while working on everything else, I was at least conceptualizing and figuring out what I wanted to do so that when the big block of time opened, I was at least ready to go.”
What was the time frame like for making “2AM Wakeup Call”?
Chris Vrenna: “It actually went down pretty fast this time, at least the musical part. Clint and I started writing over Halloween weekend of 2002. That’s when we actually wrote the first music. The bulk of the record was written between Halloween and Christmas a year ago. And then we took Christmas off, like 3 weeks off. You kind of write in bursts and come back. We had some tracks that we liked, but we thought ‘you know, let’s take some time off and come back to spend another 3 weeks writing to see what else we come up with.’ Everything was pretty much written in that time. So then from February-ish until fall of last year it was all going back to work on stuff and the process of getting the singers involved. That takes the most amount of time, actually.”
Can you describe the process of seeking out/working with the vocalists?
Chris Vrenna: “The way I’ve always approached it is that we pick and ask vocalists who we are fans of, first and foremost. And secondly, we look for singers who have a style that is complementary of Tweaker and actually goes with our music. So the first thing we do is have our manager reach out to some of the people. Since all the Tweaker records are concept albums as well, once a vocalist expresses interest in doing it we have a discussion about what the concept of the record is going to be. I show them what the album cover is going to be. The latest one is another Joe Sorren painting, like the first one was. So they can have a kind of visual representation of the look of the record. They hear the music and pick the song they want to sing on. Given all that information, they go and write their own lyrics. If it’s going to be about insomnia and your nightmares and stuff, let them then interpret that from their own experiences. It’s always exciting to get vocals back from somebody and hear them for the first time. To see how that concept impresses them and what their experience of that has been.”
Are the songs totally complete musically when the vocals are recorded? Or do you re-work things based on what the singers come up with?
Chris Vrenna: “The music is written and fully recorded. When they hear it, they’re hearing it pretty much like that. But once the vocals do come back, it does inspire new changes. Sometimes I actually strip some music away, depending on the singers phrasing. Maybe I’ll go in and add breakdowns or change some things around to open up the song a little more for them. There is always a small amount of tweaking that I do to the music after I get a vocal back.”
Did any of the vocalists surprise you with what they came up with?
Chris Vrenna: “[laughs] … I’m not sure if surprised is the word. I’m always excited when I get them back. I’m such a fan of all these people. One cool thing about Tweaker, when you do a project oriented record like we do, is that you get to hear someone that you really respect working on your song. Given that, I will say that David Sylvian this time around was a surprise only in that when you’re actually reading the lyrics for the song …. I never go back to the singer and say ‘well what do you MEAN here? Tell me what the metaphor is. Explain it to me!’. I don’t want to. They don’t ask me ‘what does that drum beat mean?’ But I kind of wish I knew what the underlying impedes for David’s vocal was. Some of the lines in that song are just so twisted. It’s almost like a stream or conscious thing. I do kind of wonder what it is, but I’m not going to ask.”
Can you talk about the concept of the album?
Chris Vrenna: “The title ‘2 A.M. Wakeup Call’ just stems from my wife, who had a long, like month long, bout with insomnia. We go to bed pretty early, I guess I’m getting old. No matter what time we’d go to bed, whether it was 11 or midnight or whatever, she would wake up at 2 in the morning just wide awake. Not like she was having a screaming nightmare, but she would just wake up. Exactly 2 o’clock. Every morning, she’d tell me that she woken up at exactly 2 o’clock again. And I’m like ‘sure honey, ok.’ Pretty soon, she started waking me up saying ‘see, look what time it is!’ and I look and it’s 2. It went on, everyday so that’s where the title came from.
My own personal free time for Tweaker was after whatever I had to do for the day for the other projects. I ended up working on Tweaker really late at night. So the whole concept was dreams, insomnia, nightmares and late night hours. Everybody has that one recurring childhood dream that you’ve never forgotten. Things that keep everyone up at night. Super late at night is so calming and soothing, but at the same time really lonely and kind of scary. If you’re the only one up, you feel really lonely. So the whole thing was kind of all formed around that.”
Have you performed live at all as Tweaker?
Chris Vrenna: “Actually, we never have. Well, there was one time well before I was ever signed where we did this little experimental thing. It was as I was still getting together the concept of what Tweaker was going to be. But as far as in proper form, no, Tweaker has never performed live. I’d always planned to. Me and the band were putting together the music for the live setting with the first album, but 9/11 … the first record came out on 9/11 …. kind of just destroyed that. But we are in rehearsals as we speak putting together a live touring version of Tweaker. There are no confirmed plans to tour, but there will definately be a tour. We’re just looking for something right now. Looking for a cool bill.”
What about the vocals? Will there be a touring vocalist singing all the parts?
Chris Vrenna: “We will not be bringing just some scab vocalist on tour. For me, what makes all the collaborations so special is the people who did them. I don’t want some kid out there trying to impersonate Robert Smith. That sickens me. But at the same time, I didn’t want to have it be me and one guy out on stage with lap tops, hitting the space bar and saying ‘hey, here’s a live show!’ I don’t want to do that either. We do have a 4 piece band and we play all the music live. Everyone in the band is just a monster player. We’ve set it up where it’s all been reinterpreted into a 100% live fashion. Some are pretty true to the record, others are completely different. The vocals will be technologically incorporated into the show in a cool entertaining way. Again, without generically running an ADAT or something like that. That’s what we’re going for.
How has the evolution of musical technology affected the way that you work?
Chris Vrenna: “Well, it’s definitely made it easier. I do everything in Pro-Tools and my mixer is digital and automated. Right now, I’m working on 2 different game scores, for different companies, that are hundreds of minutes each. Plus I’m working on Tweaker stuff and a couple of remixes. It is cool that I keep all those projects going at the same time and keep it all organized. Simply by just loading up a session. We’ll be working on something for a game score and think ‘that’s not really fitting, but let’s put that in the next Tweaker record.’ Every time you have an idea, you can throw it down really fast and end up with all these snippets.
We did a TV theme for Warner Bros. last fall, for a cartoon called ‘Xiaolin Showdown.’ We had to go through 7 revisions. It would be like ‘now the producer wants to hear a gong here… can we make the piano do this?’ I’d be in the middle of other stuff, and in 2 button clicks be in there, change the sound, ftp it, send an e-mail to the network, and then go back to what I was working on. For someone like me, it’s made it super convenient. But at the same time, some of the new technology stuff has made music even more generic. There’s so many cheap software things out there. Like Apple with ‘Garageband’ basically saying ‘you don’t need to go to school, you don’t need to have a music degree, you don’t need to take lessons, all you need to do is buy this $50 piece of software and YOU can be the next BT!’ It’s gotten people thinking that being a musician is no longer a worthwhile art form. Which I think is kind of sad. So for all the good it’s done, it’s done a lot of bad, too.”