Producer, remixer and former Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna hasn't had a lot of sleep as of late. But that's not necessarily a bad thing as its resulted in a dark, yet hypnotic new album entitled 2 a.m. Wakeup Call under Vrenna's band moniker Tweaker.
ConcertLivewire's Tony Bonyata recently caught up with Vrenna prior to Tweaker's upcoming tour with industrial music pioneers Skinny Puppy to discuss some of the famous guest vocalists on his new Tweaker album, his relationship with NIN's frontman Trent Reznor and what it is that keeps him up so late at night.
Livewire: Your new record is a really great collection of songs.
Chris: Why thank you.
Livewire: Why the title 2 a.m. Wakeup Call?
Chris: Well, that was actually my wife's fault.
Chris: (Laughs) For a long period of time we had some horrible insomnia and no matter what time she went to bed she woke up at exactly 2:00 am every single night.
Livewire: Really, that's weird.
Chris: It was pretty weird. Every morning she'd be like, 'it's 2:00 a.m. again.' Then the next night she'd wake up and go, 'see what time it is.' And then the next night she would wake me up, 'see what time it is.' So pretty soon it got kind of creepy because it lasted for a week. So that was the main reason for the title.
Livewire: Makes sense.
Chris: And working on all of the other things that I do all day (producing and remixing), the only real free time I really had to work on Tweaker was late at night - after all my other deadlines were met.
Livewire: So as soon as your wife nudged you on the shoulder that was your call to start working?
Chris: Pretty soon I just started staying up, then she'd wake up at 2:00, and 'oh, I'm up again!' So after awhile I just switched my schedule around, trying to do a nighttime thing. It started off by accident, but it worked out really well. I originally gave up that kind of schedule when I quit the band [Nine Inch Nails] and got old. It ended up being very inspiring to go back to the way I used to live in my early 20s - being up all night and working on your own music.
Livewire: You mean when you were working with Nine Inch Nails?
Chris: Yeah, it was kind of fun to go back in time, if you will.
Livewire: It seems like the album does have a dark, nocturnal feel to it - as does a lot of your material.
Chris: Exactly. Tweaker overall is a fairly somber style anyway. Doing it all late at night either enhanced it, or visa versa, I'm not really sure which is which anymore.
Livewire: Even though the majority of it does have a dark feel, the track you did with guitarist Johnny Marr, "The House I Grew Up In", actually feels more like 6:00 am - when the sun is just coming up.
Chris: Well it is. You've actually accidentally hit upon the sub-plot of the entire record. As it was going, the concept became 2 a.m. Wakeup Call, after another one of Joe Sorren's paintings.
Livewire: I'm sorry, who?
Chris: Joe Sorren was the painter who did our first album cover. I got another painting from him that is very similar to the first album, only this time as a nighttime shot. Our concept was to have all the singers sing about insomnia, or what keeps them up at night. Project albums, like Tweaker, I always find are kind of difficult because the thread that keeps the whole band together is the singer. The singer can sing about anything he wants, but can change the subject matter from song to song. But it's still the same voice and the same face. And that's what ties it all together. But when you're doing a project where every song is a different voice and a different face and to have a totally different subject matter, for me it makes for a very schizophrenic record with no unity to it. To finally answer your question, though, there was actually a second kind of sub-concept where the album is actually only one night. Will Oldham's song is setting you up, and the first half of the record is almost upbeat. Then the Robert Smith song ["Truth Is"] introduces a cool, sleazy vibe - like a strip club. Then Hamilton's [Leifthauser] song "Its Still Happening" is kind of saying, I won't be home tonight.
Livewire: Is that going to be the single?
Chris: I don't know what the single is going to be. We're still debating that actually. The problem with singles is that the songs are all stylistically so different. So it's hard to pick one song.
Livewire: How did you manage to corral so many different great vocalists together for this project? That had to be a job in itself.
Chris: It actually took longer to get everybody involved than it actually took to write the music itself. It just takes a long time sometimes, because I try to give everyone as much opportunity as possible.
Livewire: So you didn't necessarily give them 100% creative license, it was kind of a back and forth thing?
Chris: On some of them, yeah. On some of them it was like, 'do what you want to do.'
Livewire: I understand that you're a really huge fan of The Cure. Was this the first time that you've worked with Robert Smith?
Chris: It was the first time that I have worked with him professionally. I've seen every Cure tour since Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me - going back to like '85. They are one of my favorite bands of all time.
Livewire: You've also worked David Sylvian into this project as well.
Chris: I got to work with David on the first record, and hearing his voice still blows me away. That's the exciting thing about the project - when you approach people you really respect. I pick people because I like the way they sing.
Livewire: Do you sing at all?
Chris: Yes, I actually sing on this record.
Livewire: Is that "Movement of Fear?"
Chris: That's me. That's my first time.
Livewire: I think its great. Why don't you do more of it?
Chris: I don't know, maybe someday. I'm not advertising it. I sing the whole thing and my partner Clint doubles me on all the chords.
Livewire: How did you hook up with your latest music partner Clint Walsh?
Chris: He was in a band that I had produced a couple of years ago. We started playing in a band and then struck up a friendship.
Livewire: This album seems to have a more organic nature than your previous one.
Chris: Very much.
Livewire: Was that an intentional thing right from the start?
Chris: Absolutely intentional. The first record was shortly after I left Nails. The last thing I did with Nails was 18 months of the Downward Spiral Tour and then the David Bowie Tour.
Livewire: Do you have any working relationships with Trent [Reznor] anymore?
Chris: No, I actually haven't spoken to him since 24 hours before I left the band seven years ago.
Livewire: Is there a bad blood between the two of you?
Chris: No, people grow together and people grow apart. I just couldn't see where else it was going to go. I wanted to try something new. I wanted to try my hand at myself. I just thought that was a good point to do it. I enjoy L.A., but I didn't enjoy New Orleans very much [where Reznor's recording studio is located]. I mean, we were best friends since high school. I still talk to a couple of the guys from the band now and then though. But back to your question about the more organic nature of this record...man, I digress. After the first [Tweaker] record I was tired of playing my drums and I was sick of being a live drummer. The first record was all about programming and noises and stuff, but then in the last three years I was playing more and more drums because I was adding live drums to a lot of the remixes I was doing. A lot of the bands I was working with weren't really heavy and they wanted it to sound like a rock band. So I starting playing with more live drums - because that really is my instrument - and I realized that I really missed it. One of the first rules for the record was to try and build all of the grooves off of live drums rather than just noises and crap. Rule number two was that I learned how to separate writing from production. We wanted the writing of the material to stand up on its own as songs, rather than just being dependent on production - which was opposite of the first record where it was all about production and how crazy everything could sound. I was like, 'you know, I didn't really write any good songs there, but it's a really weird [expletive] sound.' (laughs)
Livewire: You did this album all in your own home studio, correct?
Chris: Oh absolutely, the whole thing. The back two bedrooms of the house are all converted. That's the way a lot of people are doing it now. That's all you need. I like making music and if that's helping a band or whateverSť I just like making music. Sadly, there is more music being made for television, movies, video games, and commercials than there are people making actually records.
Livewire: What are the plans for you to promote this? Are you actually going to take it out on the road?
Chris: Yeah we are. As a matter of fact I have a band meeting as soon as we get off the phone. I put together a band for the first album - me and Clint and our bass player Paul Ill. Our first record was supposed to hit the shelves on 9/11, but everything was backlogged so it didn't come out until 9/18. The whole thing was a mess and we never got to tour. But to answer your question again, yes, we plan to tour. There is going to be four of us.
Livewire: You've got so many different singers on the album. Who's going to do the vocals?
Chris: I'm working on something kind of cool, utilizing a little bit of technology. I have an idea of how it's going to go down.
Livewire: Are you going to be doing any of the vocals yourself?
Chris: I don't think so. Again the problem with project type bands is they always have these awesome guest vocalists, but when they go on tour they just get some kid to sing. I don't want anyone singing David Sylvian but David Sylvian. That's what made it so special. I'm not going to sing Robert Smith, and I don't want to get some random kid to imitate him - that'd be embarrassing. The other thing I don't want to do is to walk out on stage and just hit a tape.
Livewire: You could do what Laurie Anderson did on her Home Of The Brave tour, where she had Adrian Belew playing guitar on a large video screen behind her.
Chris: Exactly. Let's just say that's going on the right path of what we're working on right now. I want to keep it as live as possible because everyone in the band are brilliant musicians. One thing I want to do is to have that freedom to improvise and just jam. I don't want to be one those bands that goes out there and justSť.I mean, Nails played the tapes better than anyone played the tapes. But I want to go even further and try to do everything live - and if that means songs have to be completely rearranged with four guys, then that's what we're going to do. With everyone stealing music and people unwilling to pay for music in the recorded form, what I think is going to happen is that the live experience is going to become more special than its ever been. You can't steal a performance. You can steal a recording of it, but you're not going to smell the smoke machine and the strobes aren't going to make your eyes all whited out and you're not going to be in that club. I truly feel this is where the future of music lies.
Tweaker will be opening up for Skinny Puppy on June 15th and 16th at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, IL.
CD Review - 2 a.m Wakeup Call