TWEAKER'S CHRIS VRENNA
Interview and image by Night Watchman

FEBRUARY 2004 WAS A STRANGE TIME TO BE AN ENTERTAINER. HOWARD STERN HAD JUST BEEN PULLED OFF CLEAR CHANNEL STATIONS, ROSIE OíDONNELL GOT MARRIED, AND SOMETHING HAPPENED AT A BIG SPORTING EVENT AT THE BEGINNING OF THE YEAR THAT CAUSED SENSORS EVERYWHERE TO GO ON A WITCH HUNT. NIGHT WATCHMAN HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO TALK TO TWEAKERíS CHRIS VRENNA ABOUT HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED FROM THE DAYS OF "CLOSER", AND WHAT ITíS LIKE TO HAVE A 2 A.M. WAKEUP CALL.

Night Watchman: So, have you been doing quite a bit of press for 2 a.m. wakeup call?

Chris: Iím starting to, yeah. As we get closer to the big day.

N: Are you excited about it?

C: I cannot wait! I really cannot wait.

Both: (laugh)

N: Iíve been listening to the new album a lot. I really liked the first one, but this one seems so much more cohesive.

C: Yeah, I know. I very much feel thatís the case. I like the last record, too. But, you know, my first record actually went through two different labels. As I was almost done making it the first time, the label I signed to folded in one of those big mergers. I think it was a case of finding myself more on the first one. On the new one, Iíve been through the process now. I feel way more comfortable with it. I have a permanent partner, Clint Walsh, who did a little bit of guitar stuff on the first record at the very, very end of it. I was playing with other friends; it was more scattered. I started working with Clint on all my remix work. When it came time to work on tweaker, he and I just started jamming together. So there is definitely something to be said for having other people work with you.

N: Do you find that writing with someone else is the best way for you to work?

C: I always find it beneficial. Sure, you may come up with an amazing part or idea, but you may have no idea where to go with it. Someone else is sitting there saying, "That partís great, but now go there!" You know? And youíre like, "Wow! Thatís the 'B' I needed for my 'A'." Thatís kind of the way tweaker was. The acoustic guitar thing in "Ruby"? The little sad guitar? I had all that, but I didnít know where to go next with the riff. I had a couple little ideas for parts, and Clint was like, "If you put both the little part ideas together and play it heavy-ass, youíll have it." One day Clint was playing piano in his living room, and he came in with these two sad chords. He said, "I just kept playing these two chords over and over, and it made me really sad all day. Let me play you these two chords." And it was two chords of "Worse Than Yesterday". I was like, "Thatís great, but two chords? Weíre going to get bored. We need a third chord in there." So we find a magic third chord, and-- BOOM!-- thereís "Worse Than Yesterday". Thereís always that kind of trade-off. Obviously, there needs to be a lot of trust and openness; if your stuff sucks, theyíll tell you. That openness will allow you to be able to try something without fear of being laughed at.

N: Yeah. It seems like there was a bigger concentration on songwriting on this disc.

C: Well, that was one of the other main issues and goals I wanted to achieve on this one. With the first record, I had just come off of [Nine Inch] Nails. All the touring we had done all those years made me kind of sick of playing drums, so I was really just into sitting at home with my computer and making weird sounds. That first record was a total focus on making weird sounds. In the years between working on producing and remixing, Iíd gone out and bought myself a new drum kit, and set it up in my studio. It sits there miked all the time. I had really missed my instrument, so thatís why the goal for the new record was live drumming and performance. I keep hearing songs on the radio that are Pro Tooled to death; thereís no soul to any of these rock bands out right now. You might as well just have machines making all this music. You hear it that way, and then you see the band try and play it live, and they canít play it. What a waste. So, goal number one was to build as many of the grooves based around live performances, and then not really chop them up. I start with the drums, and if the chorus is 16-bars long, I just play the song and I play a 16-bar chorus that I like. I try not to edit or correct it. There is some pretty loose playing on the record, but it's on purpose. And all the shakers and other percussion sounds, a lot of it is live, hand-held playing it into a microphone.

N: It gives the album a real warm feeling.

C: It totally does-- all those weird inconsistencies, you know? What most people do is they make a loop or a drum machine beat, print that, and then have the drummer play over top of it. Then they'll go chop the live drummer to be perfectly quantized, like the loop was. I went the other way around. I would do all the performance stuff first, and then go back. I would play to the loops for timing, but then shut them off when Iím listening back to my own playing. I'd get a performance I liked, and then go back to that loop, and chop that loop to make it imperfect, but still match me so itís not sloppy sounding. So it has that live feel.

N: You didnít do any touring for the last album, did you?

C: No. Clint and I put a band together for the first album, but the album came out right around 9/11, so everything really got screwed up for the first record. Itís almost like this record is the first record again. We were up for a couple tours at that time, and the bands that we were going to open for were like, "Weíre not going to tour anymore. Weíre just going to sit home." So itís almost like starting over. But we are putting a band together as we speak to tour this Summer.

N: So youíre looking forward to touring again?

C: I canít wait! With the new record being musically much more organic in itís overall sound palette, I just canít wait to put it on stage.

N: I think it will translate really well.

C: I think so, too.

N: How are you going to cover all the different vocalist parts live?

C: That, Iím not giving away.

Both: (laugh)

C: You know, thatís a tough one, because tweaker is a project band.

N: Are you going to take 75 people out on the road with you?

C: Exactly. You canít really do that, and youíre not going to get Robert Smith to stop working on The Cure to go out on tour with you for six weeks. But Iíve seen other bands do this. Massive Attack has all those cool guest vocalists, and then they'll go on tour and just get one guy, a no-name guy to come out and sing all the songs. For me, half of the excitement of the tweaker project is all the amazing people I get to work with. So, I'm kind of torn. I donít want someone else singing David Sylvian and Robert Smith and Will Oldham. I donít. I want those guys. And if I canít get those guys, well, I donít want to put all the vocals on tape and be an instrumental band. Itís like, "Well, thereís four guys jamming, and Iím hearing vocals every song, but I donít see a soul. So, obviously, itís all on tape." That sucks, too! Unless youíre going to do a Gorillaz thing and all stand behind screens.

N: There you go. Have the singer wear a Robert Smith mask.

C: Yeah, you know, Iíve got some ideas, but Iím not going to give it away. I think itís going to be really cool. A cool way to do it.

N: A magician never gives away his secrets.

C: Yeah.

Both: (laugh)

C: Weíre going to try to make the live thing like the record; performance-oriented, where there wonít be any music on tape at all. I can take some of my percussion things and turn them into two-bar loops that I can trigger live. So, obviously, weíll be locked to the tempo of whatever the loop is, but if itís going really well one night and we want to jam for five minutes, we can. I can just keep hitting the loop and keep playing over the top of it.

N: You guys didnít have that kind of flexibility on the tours for Nails, did you?

C: No. All of our backing stuff was on tape. When you are doing arena shows and youíve got a hundred Vari-Lites up there computer controlled, and youíve got these giant movies-- like we had for The Downward Spiral tour for "Hurt"-- all that stuff is SMPTE time coded. Itís just such a massive thing. Nails is not a jam band, so you donít get up there and have the crowd yell out songs for us to play. It has to be that way to have that much production stuff all work together every day, and not have the production crew lose their minds.

N: Was it strange to see Nine Inch Nails go from a relatively underground band to this huge touring monster?

C: If I look back, I guess it was kind of weird. Especially considering that what made it for the band was Woodstock '94 and "Closer". Hereís a bunch of guys youíve never heard of, covered in mud, playing in front of a half-million people, and the song on the radio is "I wanna fuck you like an animal." That shouldnít have worked!

Both: (laugh)

C: At the time, we didnít even have time to sit back and think about it. We just went and did it. But when you look back in retrospect, thatís pretty weird. And pretty cool that it actually happened like that. Itís just weird. You canít really imagine an arena full of kids listening to The Downward Spiral. It just doesnít seem like an arena rock record.

N: I donít know. I think that The Downward Spiral was just one of those rare records that came along at the right time for a lot of people. I think itís the White Album of our generation. I know that it didnít leave my CD player for almost two years straight, and Iíve never had any other album be like that for me.

C: It was one of those weird moments in time where everything just lined up and worked. I donít even know if that would be able to happen again with the way things are with radio right now, and MTV doesnít play videos anymore.

N: And everyone is afraid to say the wrong thing right now.

C: Exactly. As much as I think Janet Jackson totally fucked up with that stupid stunt she pulled, do we really need government hearings and Clear Channel trying to protect their own ass by getting rid of Stern? Did you see that?

N: Yeah! Thatís insane!

C: Are you nuts? And the thing they cited was no worse than anything else Iíve ever heard Stern do in ten years!

N: Itís the exact same thing he says daily!

C: Itís just weird! We live a weird country where 60% of Americans are against gays having any rights at all. But yet, in USA Today a couple days ago, they had this thing about public executions, and people said that if there was a Pay-Per-View for executions, somewhere around 60% said, "I donít know if Iíd watch, but Iím okay if someone wanted to do that." And somewhere around 30% said that they would actually probably pay at least once to see it. They wouldnít watch them all the time, but theyíd probably do it at least once out of curiosity.

N: Wow.

C: And Iím like, "Jesus! Youíve got to be kidding me!" Rosie OíDonnell, as much of a freak as she is, I had to agree with her. Did you see her get married this morning?

N: No, I didnít.

C: Iím a news junkie. I leave news on all day. Who has time to worry about who gets kicked off some stupid island run by CBS, when all this shitís going on?

N: Right. (laughs)

C: Reality television is watching the news all day. If you watch all three networks, since they're all biased in a certain direction, you can find a center somewhere. Anyway, Rosie and her girlfriend/wife flew to San Francisco today and said, "George Bush is the only seated president in the history of our country who had attempted a constitutional amendment that would actually take rights away from citizens." And I thought about that and went, "Holy Christ. Thatís totally true!" If you donít agree with it, fine. Just leave it alone. But to actually say what heís saying, I couldnít help but lose it. Itís like, goddamn, is everything fucked up right now?

N: These are insane times. It hasnít been like this since the Reagan Administration; everything is completely screwed up, and no one cares about education or anything that really matters. Itís all about fear.

C: I know. I donít know how old you are, but when Clinton left office, we had a surplus. We had a balanced budget and a surplus of money. But within three years, weíre now a half-trillion dollars in debt, and the welfare fund has been raided. And now theyíre talking about cutting benefits for welfare because there is no money. So by the time I retire, all that money weíre paying in our Social Security checks every week-- it ainít gonna be there for us. I mean, Iím going to quit paying taxes. Why am I paying my taxes if youíre going to run out of money, and I donít even get my tiny little piece when I get old and am going to need it? Weíve got all these kind of problems to deal with, and instead all we talk about is Janet Jacksonís tit. It gets old.

Both: (laugh)

C: Anyway, that is a long jump from saying ďI wanna fuck you like an animal,Ē on the radio, which I donít think you can say anymore. And that was my whole point.

Both: (laugh)

C: I think the radio stations would be afraid to play a song that said that, even though we obviously beeped it out. I think it was pretty obvious what the heck we were beeping there.

N: Right.

Both: (laugh)

N: Are you still in contact with Trent?

C: No. Iím not in contact with pretty much anyone from the band nowadays.

N: Was it a bad ending?

C: I canít really say it was good or bad; it just was. Everybody just moved on in their own lives.

N: I think the tweaker stuff is a nice step forward. Itís different enough, but every once in a while there is one of those sounds or loops in there that ties in with what youíve done in the past.

C: Yeah. Like you were asking earlier, besides goal number one of the drumming thing and the way I thought about grooves-- youíd asked this, but then we got off topic, like I do.

Both: (laugh)

C: Where the first record was more of a focus on "listen to these weird pieces", the new record was focused on songwriting. Thatís why thereís much more vocal material, and a lot less of those musical interludes. That was the other thing, too. I keep hearing such crap songs on the radio, and I know Iím old and jaded. I admit that, I do, right from the get-go.

Both: (laugh)

C: I like rap and hip-hop and rock, but I donít need some 20-year-old kid screaming over top of a nu-metal riff about how pissed off he is because his girlfriend wonít talk to him.

N: (laughs)

C: Bands like Coldplay; what a beautiful record. You can call them sissies or anything you fucking want, but their songs are beautiful and well-written. Thatís one thing about the tweaker albums; all the vocalists are singers. Thatís their craft. They are brilliant lyricists and singers who can emote with their voice, not just by screaming about it, but by actually saying something intelligent about it. There are many other ways to say "fuck you", and a smart guy can figure that out and make a much more pointed insult. And when we were working on the new tweaker record, I was reverting into my childhood and listening to bands I liked as a kid. Old Talk Talk, old Cure. Well, not just old Cure; any Cure. Disintegration-- I mean, Jesus!

N: God, yeah! That was the album that just opened up my world, as far as music goes.

C: Theyíve had a lot of amazing records, but that will be their legacy, I think. Radiohead is like that for me. Take Thom Yorke; he has things to say, and he sings them. That was the kind of music that was touching to me. I donít need this overproduced, cookie cutter, rock 'n' roll bullshit that's out there now. The only difference between nu-metal and '80s hair metal is that everybody now has a shaved head and a goatee. Itís the same thing. Again, I know Iím old and out of the demographics that record companies care about, but a singer that has something to say and can make me feel something or think something-- thatís what I was going for. And it is really hard to connect with people when itís just instrumental; people still want to have words. So that was a very definite focus; the songwriting and making sure the songs worked. When we were writing the record, Clint and I were like, "No production!" Itís so easy to get fooled by (in a radio announcer voice) "Listen to this wacky sound!"

Both: (laugh)

C: But then you realize the bass line is a piece of shit. So we wrote everything with piano. I had one synth-based patch, one clean guitar, one electric bass, and a MIDI bank of live drum sounds that would be replaced by me. That was pretty much it. It was like, "If the shit doesnít work emotionally with this palette, forget it." Because I didnít want to sit around all night thinking about what kind of sound we should use. So we wrote everything-- piano, acoustic guitar, drum set, synth, and bass. And once the songs all worked, then we would go back and say, "Okay, letís change that synth pad into something really multi-layered and wide and sweeping. Letís go set up the kit and replace all the little MIDI mapped drums with my actual performances." Again, paying attention to the simple songwriting first.

N: I know youíre a fan of Joe Sorren, who did the painting "Elliotís Attraction To All Things Uncertain" that appeared as the cover for The Attraction To All Things Uncertain, and that 2 a.m. wakeup call will also feature one of his paintings. Which piece is that?

C: If you go to joesorren.com, itís in the archive. Itís called "Adaptation", and itís a couple years old, I think. I go to his website once every week or two, just to kind of check in and see if heís posted anything new, because he always puts updates on shows and works in progress. I was in there looking around when he had first put up the archive. Weíd already had the concept of the record; the nighttime thing was pretty much there, and we were working towards that specifically, so I started looking through those. "Adaptation" is another weird guy; not quite as human as Elliot was, wearing the same striped sweater, crawling out of water late at night. He has half-amphibious, half-humanoid hands and feet, and the same freakiní typewriter is sinking in the water underneath him. I was just like, "Wow!" So I went to Joe and told him Iím doing a nighttime record, and asked if he had another painting that somehow thematically tied to the first record. I couldnít have ordered a painting that was more perfectly suited. Thatís another thing thatís a problem with project bands, at least in the way I view it. If youíre in a band band, your subject matter from every song could be different, because what ties the whole thing together is the singer. Thom Yorke can sing about anything he wants, as long as itís Thom Yorke standing there singing. When youíre a project band, you have different singers on every song. And I donít want different topics from every singer, because that would make it even more schizophrenic and weird. So the first record had one story, and as we were working on the new record, since we were working on the whole thing at night, it fell into that vibe. Musically, it was starting to sound that way. It hit me one morning-- that would be the one thing for the singers. I approached the singers and showed them the new album cover, and I told them itís a nighttime album, and itís going to be called 2 a.m. wakeup call. Itís when youíre sleeping, and-- BOOM!-- youíre wide-awake. Whether it was you waking up in a cold sweat panting because you had a nightmare, or itís 2:00 AM and you canít fall asleep in the first place. Itís those wee hours that just wig you out; nightmares and insomnia. I just asked every singer to sing about that topic in whatever way that resonated with them. So that became the whole thing for everybody. And if you know that going in as youíre listening, then you can hear how each singer handled it, and that gives a project album like tweaker a bit of a thread to help it make sense.

N: Itís pretty amazing that you have so many different styles of singers on the album, but having that focal point turns it into a cohesive album.

C: Itís the way Iíve chosen to do both albums; to have one unifying storyline or theme, and then have everybody write about that. And, so far, it works. And I think the singers like it, too, because weíre all artists. I think people get inspired by somebody who has a plan and a creative vision or idea, rather than, "I donít care. Do whatever you want." Who the hell wants to hear that? "I want you to be on my record, but I don't care. Whatever you want to write about, go for it."

N: Sometimes having an empty canvas in front of you is more daunting than if they give you choices.

C: Of course. Option anxiety. (laughs) If I send them a JPEG of the cover, that might trigger some memories within themselves and give them a focal point to start from, and that might make it a cooler record. Itís always fun to hear how people interpret that.

N: Who else inspires you visually besides Sorren?

C: Oh, man. The back cover and all the inside art was done by this artist named Troy Morgan. He does all his own stop-motion animation pieces, and they are just awesome. Theyíre so cool! I love Mark Ryden. I produced the band Jack Off Jill years ago, and now that band has broken up. But Jessicka [Fodera] has a new band called Scarling, and their record just came out last week. Markís given them paintings for the last two or three records, so Iíve been to a lot of Markís shows. I really like his style. Thereís a bunch of cool stuff out there. Art is pure to me because there is only one. Unless you start making lithos and posters, there is only one. Itís not like making a record. Imagine making a record, taking it to a gallery, and only one person gets to buy it and hear the songs. Isnít that weird? Music wasnít meant to be that way. There is only that one original; itís like you're giving away a child or a puppy. How pure is that? You canít really over-commercialize it, again, unless you become one of those people who makes postcards and everything else. You canít, because there is just that one. Itís crazy. We just got a Camille Rose Garcia, who is another really great artist. She did the cover for the new ohGr record, if youíve seen that.

N: Yeah. She does great work. Did you see that stop-motion video that ohGr did? That was really cool.

C: Yeah, pretty cool, huh? So, fine art-- painting, in particular-- I find it very humbling to be able to meet those people.

N: If you think about it, music used to be like that. Before recording was perfected, the only time you could hear music was if you knew how to play or if someone played for you. When they left, so did the music. Weíre very lucky that we live in a time where you can get music on demand. There was a magic to it, and paintings still capture that.

C: I know. Itís funny you say that, talking about tweaker going on tour. I think music is almost heading back to that same place. I donít want to get into a protracted discussion about the record industry, but, suffice it to say, nobodyís buying records. Whether itís because of downloading or copying or records are just too expensive because they cost more to buy than a DVD-- people are just saying, "Fuck you. Iím not buying it." I donít know. Things are definitely changing, and for me coming from the album generation, CDs were bad enough. And now itís just an MP3 for your iPod; nobody cares about what the cover is, but weíre talking about art. They donít care about the lyrics or the credits. If they need them, they can Google and get them. So if it keeps going that way, the only way people are going to get their music is through XM Radio and iPod. And it will make the live experience special; more special than it already is. I think true bands will have to get back out there. You can go steal Radiohead songs all day, but if youíve never seen them live, you have no fucking idea how good it is.

N: And you have to pay to get that ticket.

C: You canít steal that experience. You canít steal the way they play them live, and they way they interact. Or the light shows, like Nails, with all the movies and stuff we had for Downward Spiral-- that canít be downloaded. The only way to get that is to buy a ticket, get down to the pit, and get sweat on. So I do think that weíre headed back to then; the live experience is going to become important again.

N: Yeah. I wonder where this will all end up. What is going to happen? Will the record companies die, and the bands will stay around? Because bands typically make their money through touring and merchandise. With smaller bands, the label takes most of the money from record sales.

C: Itís weird. Most bands donít even have the money to get into the studio to make a record on their own dime. Labels have just been kind of a giant loan shark for decades, you know? (in loan shark voice) "Yeah, weíll give you $100,000 to go make a record. And then youíll never make a dime until you die, and we own you." Itís like, come on. I donít know whatís going to happen. Tower Records just filed Chapter 11, other stores are in trouble, warehouses are gone. They keep saying that within ten years the brick-and-mortar record stores will be gone. One side says it will be gone, and all music will be distributed digitally, whether itís through your TiVo or your new PC media thing. Iíve seen those starting to come out now. Gatewayís got one. Itís like a giant plasma, and itís got TiVo built in. Itís a PC, but itís got a remote control, and itís mounted in a 42" plasma television that you hang on the wall. I keep hearing that within ten years, all music will be sold via downloads as files; theyíll still make some CDs for people who donít do that, like me. I guess if I still rode the bus to school like I used to, and my house was a half-hour from the high school, man, an iPod would have been the coolest freakiní thing in the world. But I just donít listen to music that way.

N: There is something about going to a dirty mom and pop record store, and just digging through the bins. That can never be replaced.

C: I know. I mean, I still like to have the artwork, no matter what it is. Old school, I guess. The flipside argument is Amazon was going to put all bookstores out of business, but that really hasnít happened. Bookstores are now Starbucks, books, records, and DVDs. Books just had to venture into other things.

N: People always freak out when something new comes along. Especially the people that are making money off of it.

C: Exactly. Those that are making giant six-figure salaries realize their days are numbered. I donít know whatís going to happen, and I canít really sit around and worry about it too much. No matter how people do it, somebody still has to make music, otherwise there wonít be anything there. And thereís plenty of talented people making music.

N: And there is always some new avenue that will need music, like the music youíve done for video games.

C: Exactly. Music becomes one small piece of a lifestyle. Itís like you either listen to SoCal punk and go to skateboard shows and Warped Tour, or you listen to The Cure and, hopefully, tweaker, and you shop at Hot Topic, who has a tiny record selection in the back. All the music that appeals to those kinds of kids. The last couple bands Iíve been turned on to have been via television commercials. You hear something, go to their website, and youíre like, "Oh, Iíve heard of that band. I gotta go get that record." So, for me, Iíve actually been turned on that way. You just have to find new and creative ways to get people to hear your music.

N: Thatís very true. I just have one last question for you. We ask everybody this, so it's going to be completely off the topic from everything else weíve talked about.

C: Okay. (laughs)

N: Do you think dogs have lips?

C: (laughs) Um... do dogs have lips? I think so. Sure! I think they do. I mean, they canít pucker them, but they definitely... I would say dogs have lips. Sure. So do kitty cats.

Both: (laugh)

C: But chickens donít! But dogs do. (laughs) Oh, God.

N: Are you going on tour?

C: Probably in the summer. The record comes out April 20th, so we are hoping and planning on being tourable by the beginning of May. Then, once the record is out and we see what itís doing, then the label will think about touring. But I would definitely say summer.

N: Great. Iím looking forward to seeing the tour.