"I got clocked in the head during the second song, and I bled all over the place," he recounts from a tour bus en route to Boston. "Trent [Reznor] used to throw things around, and this mike stand got away from him and clocked me in the face and split my head open."
It's one of those now-legendary stories among the roadies and stagehands who work the concert circuit, one that Vrenna has grown sick of retelling when his current band, Tweaker, shows up to sound-check during this, its first-ever tour, as the opening act for industrial music's founding fathers, Skinny Puppy.
"A couple of days ago," Vrenna explains, "we were on a stage and one of the local guys was like, 'Which one of you guys were in Nails?' I'm like, 'Uh, that was me.' And he's like, 'Were you the kid that got hit in the head with that mike stand?' And I'm like, 'Oh boy, here we go again.'"
Things could be worse. Vrenna could never have met Reznor in high school and joined his then-all-electronic Nine Inch Nails project in 1988, when (in an ironic twist of fate) Skinny Puppy desperately needed a band to open a few dates on the last leg of its East Coast tour and offered Reznor the job. Faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Reznor tapped his drummer friend, and the two invented NIN's live show in one short week. The rest -- the Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Performance, the world tours, the band's famous mud-covered set at Woodstock '99 -- is history.
"When I was a little kid, my dad would take me to rock concerts, and I would say, 'I want to do that,'" says Vrenna. "I don't want to say my dreams were fulfilled, but I guess they kind of were."
There was only one problem: Nine Inch Nails was never Vrenna's band, never his music, never his vision. It was (and remains) Reznor's, who is notorious for being one of the freakiest control freaks in the business.
"There was a glass ceiling," Vrenna reveals. "I had pretty much done everything that was able to be done within the confines of that organization. It was time to just go find something else." In 1997, Reznor and Vrenna parted ways. It's a testament to his talent not only as a drummer, but also as a producer and songwriter, that that "something else" quickly found Vrenna -- in a big way.
In the years following his departure from NIN, Vrenna worked as a remixer and producer-for-hire, collaborating with everyone from Marilyn Manson to U2 to Xhibit. He made a good living, but it wasn't until his first full-length release as Tweaker in 2001, The Attraction to All Things Uncertain, that he really began to develop his own voice as an artist. Not surprisingly, that voice had a few kinks that needed to be worked out.
"After so many years with Nails," he says, "I just kind of burned out on playing drums. Hence the first Tweaker record was all just noises and difficult sounds, if you will. In the last couple years I've rediscovered my own instrument again."
In addition, Vrenna found a full-time collaborator in Clint Walsh, a guitarist whose classic-rock upbringing helped temper Tweaker's more cerebral electronica side. As Vrenna puts it, "I like having a partner with me. I never wanted this to be some solo-project, mini-Reznor thing, any sort of bullshit like that."
On Halloween night in 2002, the duo began writing songs for what would become the just-released 2 A.M. Wakeup Call. As he had done with Attraction, Vrenna, working with Walsh, composed and recorded all the music for each track, then reached out to a list of handpicked vocalists to add their own lyrics and vocal lines. The singers' only guidelines came from Vrenna, who asked each, "What keeps you up at night? And what do you dream about?" He culled together an impressive cast of very different types of vocalists, among them Will Oldham (of Palace and Bonnie "Prince" Billy), the Cure's Robert Smith, Jennifer Charles (of Elysian Fields and Loveage), and David Sylvian from Japan (the band, not the country). The resulting concept album, which traces the arc of one long night of insomnia from bedtime's hopeful beginnings to daybreak's desolate resolve, is a dark, disturbing, yet highly listenable work.
The curtain rises with "Ruby," its plucked acoustic guitar notes pinging over whirring washes of electronics to create a frosty, white-capped sea on which Oldham sends his trembling voice a-sailing. "The color of my dreams, they would be you ... ruby/ Oh if I could close my eyes and bring you to me," he sings, before distorted waves of noise crash down. If fans of Oldham are thinking that this doesn't sound much like the pensive folk singer they're used to, they're right -- and wait till they hear his heavy-metal banshee scream toward the end of the track.
The album marches on through the foreboding woods of "Cauterized" and into the sweeping, weather-beaten piano ballad "Worse Than Yesterday." Robert Smith's contribution, "Truth Is," in which the singer chides a lover over some deceptive pillow talk, is an itchy, lascivious drawl of a song, its warbling synth lines dripping over a drunken waltz of beats like so many Dali clocks.
Says Vrenna, "Some people say, about the Robert Smith track, 'It doesn't really feel like a Cure song.' And it's like, 'Yeah, that's why Robert picked it. He wants to have fun.' I think that's why we've been so lucky with a lot of people who worked on the record: They get to step outside of what they do and do something different."
On "It's Still Happening," Hamilton Leithauser takes a break from his role as frontman for New York's chic, retro-rocking Walkmen to belt out lines such as, "I guess I'm staying here tonight/ So shut the door, turn off the light," amid throbbing, thrashing beats that echo the singer's sleepless dread. The aptly named closing track, "Crude Sunlight," ends the show on a melancholy note, with Jennifer Charles languidly whispering over a cello, whose slow vibration mimics the rising sun.
All told, it's a stunning song cycle, and longtime fans of both Vrenna and NIN will be pleased. But the real achievement here is less that Vrenna has created a great industrial album than that he's created one that transcends its influences. The tunes, while haunting and drenched in industrial's signature feedback and synths, are also full of deceptively memorable melodies that sneak up out of the distorted guitars and chaotic drumbeats. It's these camouflaged hooks that should draw a wider audience to Tweaker's music, much the same way that barbed-but-catchy songs like "Head Like a Hole" and "Hurt" made NIN's Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral, respectively, the mainstream crossover successes they were.
Indeed, it's for those less familiar with Vrenna, NIN, and industrial music in general that the album holds a special treat, best expressed in the words of Brian Burton, aka hip hop producer Danger Mouse. While Burton and I freely admitted to knowing next to nothing about Vrenna's background or influences, we found ourselves singing Tweaker's praises to one another backstage at a recent Danger Mouse show, much to our shared surprise. Later, I called Burton to ask him to explain this appeal: "It's like a movie you haven't seen a trailer for. You just put it on and it's like, 'Holy fuck!' It turns left, right, up, down -- you don't expect anything. That's why I was so open to this. I didn't know anything about it, really. I knew he used to be in Nine Inch Nails. That's all I knew. I didn't know what kind of following he had, what he was like, any of that stuff. I just put it on and it was like, 'Yeah.'"