Tweaker Interview

Tweaker band leader Chris Vrenna has been in the music industry since the 1980s, when he played drums for Nine Inch Nails. Since then, he's played, produced or otherwise worked with a laundry list of musical heavyweights like U2, Guns 'N Roses, Robert Smith, David Sylvian and many more. We had a chance to speak with Chris in person at the Grand Ballroom in San Francisco, where Tweaker was nearing the end of a tour opening for fellow 80s industrial veterans Skinny Puppy. We spoke during a break at soundcheck, sitting backstage while crew and friends wandered about. They had a deli tray for catering, identical to the infamous scene in the seminal spoof rockumentary This is Spinal Tap. Vrenna is highly animated in person, with a fast paced speaking style and funny voices galore, almost cartoonish. We spoke about touring, the current album and the music industry in general.

Better Propaganda Editor Terbo Ted talks to Chris Vrenna of Tweaker.

betterPropaganda: So, when I start interviews, I always like to have the artist have a chance to describe their project in their own words, so how would you describe Tweaker?

Chris Vrenna: And that's the hardest question you're going to ask me. Which I've been puzzled with this entire tour. I don't really describe it as anything. I just think it's been hard, it's almost like I've had to explain it because everybody assumes it's going to be like one thing because of my past with Nails, and it doesn't sound anything remotely like that, so people are always a little confused by the band. Let's see, we're an organically drived electronic band now, I think. It's weird, because it's not industrial I don't think by any means, although there are some distorted-y bits, but that doesn't make something industrial, and we're too organic to be an electronic band, but we have too much electronics to be just a typical rock band, so it's been very confusing for everybody. Then they put it on me to do it and I have no idea, so... (laughter)

bP: So, right now, you're touring behind this album, 2 a.m. wakeup call, it's called?

CV: Yep.

bP: And that's a home recording you made in your very fancy home studio.

CV: Not super fancy, but fancy enough to get the job done, I guess, yeah...

bP: And the mood of the album is very sophisticated considering the past you're talking about, the mood's sort of tranquil, or you feel like you're at home. It's definitely different from your earlier work.

CV: Yeah, totally. The first Tweaker record was more noisy and just kind of more fucked up. I think I was sick of playing drums because of all the Nails touring and so on. ...I didn't really care about songs, I really just cared about the craft of making something weird. ...The first record came out basically 9/11, the Tuesday right after 9/11 it came out. So... um...

bP: No one ever heard it. (laughter)

CV: Probably not a lot of people heard it. Yeah. There's a few who heard it, but not as many as me or my previous label would have liked. (laughter) But for this record, it was like I kind of rediscovered my drums, playing drums again. ...and I have a partner now, Clint. We definitely took a more songwriter's approach to it, and actually I've changed how my thing works. Noises mean nothing unless you have something emotional to convey musically through chords and melody and then lyrics. Hence, way more guest vocals on this one than the first one as well.

bP: You've worked with some good vocalists. Weren't you in Guns 'N Roses for a little bit?

CV: Uh, briefly.

bP: Briefly?

CV: Briefly. And the funny thing is, I saw Robin Finck today. He was in Nails with me back in Downward Spiral, and he's been in GNR since they've started the new GNR, whatever, that thing. I haven't seen Robin in seven years, and I was in Chinatown eating lunch, and there he was standing in front of me yelling "Chris! Chris! Chris!" His wife is here doing a show, she's in a theater thing and she's here, so he flew up to visit her. That's totally random. Anyway, that was off topic... (laughter)

bP: That's fine. So the mood of your studio thing, I mean, I feel you sitting there at home, the mood of it's like that, it's like the middle of the night like you're talking about in the liner notes...

CV: It's definitely pretty raw, and we did that again on purpose. It sounds like everything's just so overproduced to me. Everything's so Pro Tools, and so auto-tuned and so chopped and so sampled and so this... We did work on the record mostly at night, after we'd finish working on other projects during the day, and it just kind of took on that vibe. We just really wanted to make a very human, emotional record. You know, just something like kinda raw, something a little more pure. So we left it... the playing... I want to say it borderlines on sloppy at points, it's definitely kinda loose. I didn't do any real editing at all, you know, it was just play it until you get the whole thing right. And if you have to punch in, you punch in, you don't just grab the one bar and loop it. We really went for this performance thing, and we would just jam with each other in the studio and everything. So, we kind of left it that way, because it just seemed- again- more raw, more emotional, more pure. You know what I mean? It definitely has that vibe. Underproduced, I guess, whatever or anti-production at points. There's some stuff that's somewhat produced on there, and "Crude Sunlight" is fairly produced sounding. But, for the bulk of it, yeah, we kind of went with an anti... forget the gloss and wacky sounds and actually try to make people feel a little something maybe when they hear it, you know.

bP: It's funny, because I work on an independent-focused music site, and we hear a lot of legitimate bedroom recorders, like guys with, you know, $5 plastic microphones, and they've barely got a digital 8-track thing going, or there's people still releasing stuff on cassette 4-track...

CV: Wow.

bP: ...and when I hear your stuff, I mean, it sounds incredibly mature and developed...

CV: I mean, I do have Pro Tools, I do everything in Pro Tools, I have a Mix Cube at home, and I mix everything through an O2R. I still have my old O2R I've had for like seven, eight years now. I think she's dying on me. As soon as this tour's over I gotta go... I've been having some weird phasing issues on some stuff I've been doing, and I'm like, "ah, nothing's been rewired since I've moved into my house," you know, so I'm like, "what? NOTHING'S CHANGED." So something tells me I'm blowing some DSP chips are finally started to give out. I've actually spent half this tour just kind of researching like "What am I gonna do? What am I going to replace it with?" I'm going to finally have to break down and buy a new console I guess. But, yeah, maybe it's a little more elaborate than whatever, but still... all things considered, the whole thing's done at home, everything was recorded there, mixed there, everything. Which I think is cool. I think a lot of people are going that way. I think people should go that way. You can pick up used Pro Tools stuff on eBay. It all opens up creativity, because... if A, you don't have means of a major label, writing you a big fat check to go sit in the studio, but even if you did have that kind of cash, I mean, for a lot of people, why spend it?

bP: Let's talk about your label. You're on a small independent label, Waxploitation in Los Angeles. It's a great label, you've got Teargas & Plateglass, you're doing work with Danger Mouse, your guys' album. Your guys' song with Robert Smith, "truth is" was number one on our site.

CV: Oh, no way, awesome.

bP: What do you get by working on an indie label that you wouldn't get with a major label?

CV: Well, I mean Tweaker is... we do so many other things, scoring, production work, things of that nature. So I think anybody who does anything creatively for other people also need that one pure outlet simply for themselves where they answer to nobody, that whole kind of vibe.

bP: So Tweaker's that for you?

CV: Exactly. We don't ever have to go "Where's your radio hit? Where's your radio hit?" because nobody wants one. It's not what it's about. Indie labels definitely offer you more flexibility in that realm. ...You get much smaller budgets, but you keep everything smaller and tighter, you keep more control over your own stuff, there's less people in the middle of it. Again, Tweaker is just that one pure thing. I think it's like anybody, you know, if you write for somebody all the time or whatever, for pure fun you work on your own book or whatever. Painters, the same way. Graphic artists have to do things, but then they paint for themselves. Tweaker is that kind of thing for us. It's just pretty pure. And the whole indie thing... you have certain limitations, mostly financial. They just can't endlessly spend money. It keeps everybody more in check: that's half the reason the industry's fucked, because everybody just overspends for no reason. On an indie level, yeah, you're limited in certain ways.

bP: But isn't the truth with an artist, is that they work with whatever materials they have?

CV: Absolutely.

bP: I mean, if you're painting, you get the paints you can afford, and you paint on the canvas you can find...

CV: just have to make it be more creative on that level. And it's more creative like in a business way or something, you know. How can we get out there and do things? We're not going to get a half million dollar video for MTV, or, you know, full television ads, and all that stuff on MTV every day kind of a thing. So you've got to figure out better ways to make better use of less money.

bP: Can you give me a story of some ridiculous thing that happened on a major label that is the kind of thing you want to avoid and you're away from right now?

CV: Aw man, let me think...

bP: Just one story...

CV: Well, yeah, sure. The singer who's on tour with us, Nick Young, he's in a band called A.I., Artificial Intelligence, they were on Dreamworks. I met them, I produced their record for Dreamworks about 2, 3 years ago. And they're a really really cool band. Kind of drum and bass, but not really drum and bass, kind of almost jam band, but not really. Anyway, we spent months making this record for Dreamworks. We took it in steps, and just spent all this time and we finished it, and Dreamworks loved it. ...they actually called me to ask about singles and marketing ideas, because they are a unique sound, but I totally understood it. All these talks about how we could do all this stuff. So anyway, they sit on the record for months before they released it, and they released it right before Christmas, which you never do for a baby band. If you don't get a baby band out by September, you just wait until March. So they didn't, they put it out like November or December somewhere, with no promotion. And then we're like "we're just going to put it out now and let it simmer." And then in the beginning of the year, then we're going to launch a campaign, but the record will have already been in stores, so the really hip people who have already picked up on it can also help be the word of mouth thing, you know. And I'm like, "that seems dumb, but okay, cool." So then, first of the year rolls around, and they start doing the accounting, and they're like "hey, we put this record out and it didn't sell anything, we're gonna drop the band." "Why are you going to drop the band? You said that you were going to do that because you wanted to wait..." "But it only sold, it didn't sell anything." "Yeah, because you weren't going to start promoting it until March, but you wanted to put it out, and that's what your whole marketing plan was." "Huh?" And they got DROPPED.

bP: You saw that Warner Brothers just cut half their roster.

CV: Oh yeah. I have friends that work there and stuff like that... a couple who made it through on that side, on the business side, and some didn't make it through. Yeah, it's grim everywhere. But that's just one story where it's like you don't even get a shot sometimes on a major, you don't even get the opportunity. Because they'll do stupid shit like that. Now the industry's almost out of business, fuck 'em. Running a business that way, you deserve to go under in my opinion. (laughter)

bP: Fair enough. Let's talk about your band name Tweaker. I mean, it's real easy for someone to have like a, you know, club party called Tweaker, or, even in your case, a band called Tweaker, or say an album named Tweaker. And really, you know, I mean, you're referring to methamphetamines, and that's some pretty serious stuff...

CV: I never was referring to that. Back when I started using the name in the late 90s, it was studio guys who sat at home...

bP: Twiddled knobs, tweaked knobs...

CV: That's what... I didn't even know the speed reference AT ALL. And then, uh, I finally learned that and I went oh, that's kind of funny, you know, just because the music is so slow and sad and somber, it's like the antithesis of what you think that would be. So, from that angle, it's a bit of a joke, but I actually didn't even know that reference when I picked the name.

bP: Take the black humor and run with it.

CV: Oh sure. It's too late now, what are you gonna do, you know, you can't change your baby's name after the baby starts growing up, you know what I mean. (laughter) You can't go, oh, it's not cool to name your kid... Apple (laughter). See what I mean, you're kinda fucked. So Tweaker it will be. Sorry about that Chris Martin, I didn't mean to make fun of your baby's name.

bP: Is he a friend of yours?

CV: Nah, no.

bP: So who would you consider your peers? I mean, I listen to your album and I hear some industrial music that's grown up, I mean, all of a sudden, you know, it's an adult thing you're doing, some real serious music...

CV: You know, you get older, you know. You're not a bunch of people in their twenties running around screaming and breaking stuff anymore, so...

bP: Who are your peers now for what you're doing? You're sound's pretty original right now.

CV: Well, thanks. I honestly don't even know. Crap, I don't know. We never really think too much about it. You know, when we're working on the records and stuff like that, I don't know. I don't even really know who I'd want to be paired with right now. I mean, there's some bands I definitely admire. I would certainly not want to call myself their peer at the moment, because that would sound horribly pretentious. (laughter) RADIOHEAD.

bP: Okay.

CV: I guess we're just going for something more adult and a little more mature. After awhile, you grow up.

bP: You're gonna play music your whole life, aren't you?

CV: Yeah, probably. Every once in awhile I get all frustrated and go "FUCK THIS, I'm gonna go do something else. I'm gonna sell the studio and open up a Starbucks near my," you know, and just serve coffee. And that lasts about a night, until I sober up. And then I realize, what else am I gonna do, really. So, I'm stuck.

bP: Do you collect mp3s?

CV: No. Not at all. I don't have anything to play them on. Clint's got an iPod that we loaded up before we came out on tour. Just packed it. ...we listen to it in the van and stuff, stuff we got from our collections. But nah, I don't go online, I don't download anything, I don't have the time to be honest with you.

bP: Do you pay much attention to up and coming music? I mean, you know a lot of industry people, and you've been in the industry for your adult life pretty much.

CV: I try to. It's hard though, because I'm so far out of the demographic of what anybody wants to market to, that it gets difficult, you know. It's like unless you're a teenager or whatever, it seems like they just don't even care about anybody my age. And I know there's tons of good shit out there. I tend to just get turned on by friends. We all just "hey, have you heard this? No." If it's coming from a friend of mine that I trust, I'll be like, okay, cool, I'll check it out. It is hard. And the internet thing is difficult too. Where do you even get a start finding something that you may like of the millions and millions and millions of websites out there, you know. (laughter)


CV: Yeah yeah yeah. I was actually gonna go there, you beat me to my punch line. (laughter) But you know, it's hard to search stuff out and everything like that. And that's why you've got to have cool sites that people can start hearing about, and that can become like a trust thing, where people will know, you know, to trust opinions and stuff.

bP: Do you trust the big mainstream anymore? I mean, you've got this Clear Channel situation, the big five majors...

CV: Not at all, I don't trust any of it. I mean, do you still read Spin or Rolling Stone?

bP: No.

CV: Exactly. It's all like lifestyle now, and video game reviews, and what sneakers are cool. We play this game, every single issue of Rolling Stone where it comes out, and it's like, "ah, here's the new whatever record. Oh, uh, three stars. Yep." (laughter) Literally, and I'm not even kidding. Out of like 40 reviews, there will 34 of 'em that are three stars. And I'm like, boy, don't be afraid to put your balls out there and say you like something or you don't like something, you know. And they'll give a one star review to something, some band that's safe to hate. So they can still look like they have any amount of credibility left. And I'm like YOU GUYS SUCK. (laughter) Everything's so corporatized, nobody wants to offend anybody. You put your balls out there as a reviewer for something, want to do an article, and then that band all of a sudden gets big. Nine months later everybody's all like "you gave us a bad review." Everyone's a pussy. Because everyone's afraid to take a chance or say what they really think. (laughter)

bP: That does come out in your album, you're willing to take chances. And I think everyone benefits from that, you're definitely not copying anybody, you're definitely doing something original...

CV: Thanks, I mean, that's the most important compliment right there... Again, I still think we're still fighting uphill a little bit, because nobody really knows who we are yet. Hence, we're doing this tour to try get out there, this is the first tour we've ever done as Tweaker. We're playing for Skinny Puppy, who... yeah, they and I share similar pasts. The very first Nine Inch Nails tour EVER was opening for Skinny Puppy on Vivisection 88. They didn't forget it, that's for sure. First date of this tour they were all like "So we meet again, fourteen years later. Time to debut another band, are ya?" Making fun of me for days about it. You know, it's just winning people over, and hopefully they'll dig it, that's pretty much all you can do. You know, get back in the van and drive again.

bP: So, you're at the end of this tour, you've played a bunch of dates. But what I'm wondering is that, like, with your band, you know, after doing all these shows, does that change your sound quite a bit? I mean, you started this as this thing where it's you at home, you're not reacting against people or...

CV: Well... We're playing the music, adding William. And me and Clint will be on stage, looking at each other like, I can't believe we're playing this shit live now, especially some of the more somber stuff like "Worse than Yesterday" and everything. But having the other guys in the band, everything, it's become, definitely... it's weird, out of compliments I've heard, is that people are like, "I couldn't believe, like I wasn't sure how you guys were going to be able to play this live, if you were going to be able to play it live at all." ...It's very live. But at the same time, it's also, very much the record. It's a great representation of it. That's been the greatest compliment, is still trying to figure out a way to play something that people that two people do in the middle of the night alone and turn it into something live that people will recognize as the record. You don't want to come out and just hit play on some sort of sequencer, and just basically mime the record again or something like that. Or not even mime it. It's definitely not a verbatim re-creation, but at the same time, it's close enough that it's been working for us. And we are doing the whole thing live, the four of us, no sequencer, no computer, no tape on stage. Because we are all musicians, and I think we are all pretty actually good players, we should be proud of that. It seems with the age of Garage Band and Acid and Ableton, it's like all these programs for people who don't even know how to play music, and anybody can spend fifty bucks and sound like BT. So we really kind of wanted to come out- we felt that we had something to prove- that we are musicians and we can play this and this is actual music. That's been the focus on how to perform.

bP: So you're ending the tour at home in L.A.

CV: Tomorrow.

bP: And then, what's the band going to do after that, what's your next project?

CV: We have a couple of one-offs in August. And the label wants us to go out again. There's a possibility of going to Europe, and there's a possibility of doing like a club run in the States. Obviously, opening for Puppy, we get to play these kind of larger venues, we've been doing all 1200 to 2000 seaters this whole tour, which has been great for us our first time out ever, to get in front of that many people. We're talking about maybe going around and doing more cities, this tour's only three weeks. So, maybe doing like a slightly longer tour but playing clubs, smaller places that we can do on our own. So hopefully the one or both of those before the year's out. And then Clint and I know what we want the next record to do, we know where we want it to go, kind of in our heads, we've been talking about it endlessly, just as far as vibe and how to expand upon this last record a bit more.

bP: So we're going to see Tweaker III, I have a feeling that that's going to happen for sure, you have enough control over your work that no one's going to stop that.

CV: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. There's infrastructure already in place...

bP: So there's no guy with a cigar in a back room that's gonna decide if you continue?

CV: No, no, not at all. Just me. (laughter) As long as I want to do another one. Which we totally, totally do. The first one coming out at 9/11, then we didn't get another one out till NOW. That's too fucking long to wait. So we actually want to have one out next year, late. That will be our thing, a couple tours and then start writing immediately to get another record out by next year.

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