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Pause Screen: Chris Vrenna, Musician of All Trades
Chapter 21
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Pause Screen: Chris Vrenna, Musician of All Trades

One of the music industry's most accomplished polymath's opens up about how he cultivated his many talents and how he conquered addiction.

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Over months of interviews and research, I got to know the names behind the credits screens on each Quake game. These profiles dig deeper into a developer's career beyond analysis of id Software's culture and the Quake franchise.

Don't try to put Chris Vrenna in a box.

An accomplished musician perhaps most well-known for playing drums with Nine Inch Nails from 1989 through 1997 and touring with Marilyn Manson in the early aughts, Vrenna made a name for himself in the industrial music genre. While critics and even fellow musicians think of him as "industrial rock guy," he detests labels.

Chris Vrenna is a drummer, producer, engineer, keyboardist, guitar player, songwriter, Grammy-award winner, programmer—and that's just for starters. There is no instrument he can't learn, no style or sound he won't add to his repertoire. When soul duo Gnarls Barkley needed a drummer, Vrenna filled the spot nicely, even going on tour. (He has yet to try his hand at country western, but is open to invitations.)

Vrenna is also no stranger to videogame soundtracks. After making waves producing the Quake soundtrack as part of NIN over 1995, he kept in touch with his friend American McGee to produce the soundtrack for 2000's Alice. Since then, he's scored games from Doom 3 and Quake 4 to Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.

If you've partaken in Quake Champion's betas over 2017, Vrenna's latest works have flowed through your speakers, his dynamic range always providing the perfect backdrop for rocket jumps and rail shots to the head.

Vrenna and I talked extensively about his work on Quake and other game scores, but before that, he opened up about his formative years as a developing musician, how he and Nine Inch Nails helped put Marilyn Manson on the map, his full-time job educating aspiring musicians and engineers at Madison Media Institute, why we're both so fond of Ohio, and his recently won sobriety.

Thanks for taking time to chat today.

Chris Vrenna: I just walked in my door and saw this package, and I was like, "What did I order from Amazon?" It's the 40th anniversary edition Blu-Ray of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I don't know how old you are, but I'm 50. Have you ever seen Close Encounters?

No, I haven't.

Vrenna: Oh, man. It's my all-time-favorite alien [movie]. I saw it in the theater when I was a little kid. I was 10 years old when it came out. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and when my girlfriend and I were driving cross-country to move here from L.A., we stopped at [tourist locations]. We stopped at the Badlands, we stopped at Wall Drug, we stopped at Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse, all that stuff.

We were driving, and I said, "Well, we've got to go to Devil's Tower." She's like, "Really? That's two-and-a-half hours off the freeway." I said, "I don't care. It's [a big part of] Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I've wanted to see it my whole life with my own eyes. I'm never going to be this close again." She said, "All right, let's go."

We detoured and got there right at sundown. We got all these awesome pictures of us in front of it. Then, as soon as the sun set, we got the worst rain and lightning storm I've ever been in. Thunder shook the car. There's no lights because we were on a two-lane highway out to nowhere. Every time lightning flashed, you'd be blinded going from total darkness to bright light. It was one of the worst storms I've ever seen in my life. I'll never, ever forget it as long as we live.

But, I got to relive my [childhood] looking for aliens.

Let's go back there, if you don't mind. Growing up, how did you develop your interest in music, and your love for rock and metal in particular?

Vrenna: I'm a child of the '80s. I've been playing drums since I was six years old. That's when I started taking lessons. Growing up all through the '80s, I played in new wave bands. When you're [growing up] in the '80s, electronic music is really coming up. You know, all the synth pop and new wave. I always preferred the darker stuff, anyway, like Depeche Mode, and a band called Tones on Tail.

But I had my A Flock of Seagulls, I had my Berlin. That's a pretty dark record, with The Metro and all that. Alain Jourgensen will kill me, but [I also liked] Ministry's With Sympathy, which he refuses to acknowledge ever existed.

At the same time, being a drummer, you have to belong to the school of Neil Peart from Rush. Neil Peart is the god of all drummers. So I was into the metal thing and the rock things, and playing drums, but I loved all these synth bands at the same time. Those two loves kind of meshed in the mid- to late-'80s when industrial music came up. You know, Skinny Puppy, and then of course Ministry.

So I was playing in bands like that. I was buying drum machines, Simmons electronic drum kits. I was always playing with click tracks, because there was always a synth player or sequencer running. I was kind of this weird hybrid [musician], which is why I've always loved industrial music: It takes all the synth elements of new wave, combines it with the aggressiveness of metal, puts the two together, and wahla. You've got industrial rock. It was a genre made for me.

Did playing in all those different bands and being able play different kinds of music let you cross paths with Trent Reznor?

Vrenna: I met Trent Reznor in... god, probably 1985. I was still in high school. I'm from Erie, Pennsylvania, and he was from a little town about an hour and 20 minutes from me called Mercer, Pennsylvania. I was playing in a band in the city that was exactly halfway between Erie and Mercer. The keyboard player in my band was a friend of Trent's, and told me that he was selling a drum machine. I said, "Oh, I want to buy it off of him. Tell him."

We ended up driving down to Mercer one weekend and I bought his drum machine. We became insta-friends, and that started that whole relationship. I played in a band with him in Cleveland, a synth-pop band called the Exotic Birds. Eventually, Nine Inch Nails was born.

I don't know. I've always had this passion for both [synth and metal]. I've played in so many different bands, you know? NIN was one of my main bands, but I spent seven and a half years with Marilyn Manson. I've known [him and his band] since '90, and worked on a lot of their early material. I played drums on about half of Anti-Christ Superstar. In 2004, I reconnected and joined the band for about seven to eight years, somewhere in there. I was in a band called KMFDM for a tour, a German industrial band on Wax Trax! Records. I lived in Chicago, so I was a big part of that whole Wax Trax!, early-'90s-industrial scene.

I helped Stabbing Westward get started, back in the day. I was the original drummer. Anything. Anything and [all kinds of music]. That passion still lives today, I would say.

How did you meet Marilyn Manson?

Vrenna: NIN was on tour for Pretty Hate Machine in 1990. It was one of our very first, if not the first national tour. We were in Florida, where Manson was living. I know he's from Ohio, but he was living in Fort Lauderdale at the time. He was writing for a fanzine and did an interview with Trent and me on that tour. Afterwards, like a lot of people would do, he said, "Hey, man, I've got this band. Would you listen to my demo tape?" And we're like, "Yeah, sure."

He handed me this cassette tape. I may have a copy of it in my archives somewhere. It was this cassette tape [labeled] Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids. It had about four kids on it, including Lunchbox, Cake and Sodomy, some of the bigger songs that were on the first record, Portrait of an American Family.

Back then, you could listen. Nowadays if anybody gives you a demo tape and you listen to it, they will sue you for stealing it. It sucks now, but back then it wasn't like that. So we popped it in while in the van and listened to it, and we were like, "Holy crap, this guy's amazing."

We kept in touch with him, and as soon as Trent got his Nothing Records imprint in '92, I believe that was, he went to [co-founder of Interscope Records] Jimmy Iovine and said, "I've already got the first signing. I know exactly who it's going to be." Jimmy said, "Oh, cool. Who is it?" Trent said, "It's this band from Florida called Marilyn Manson." Everybody went, "Uh, what?" Trent signed him.

Manson and I go back that far. There was the Wax Trax! Chicago camp, and NIN and Manson had our own camp, the Nothing Records [label], because Trent also had a band called Prick [and other groups]. It was turning into its own cool thing.

I'm from Ohio, too. In fact I live there now. It's kind of weird, but when I lived out west, not a lot of knew were familiar with Ohio, so when I hear about a celebrity in any industry who's from Ohio, I get this twinge of personal pride.

Vrenna: Oh, where are you from in Ohio?

From the Canton-Akron area.

Vrenna: Well then you know that's Manson's hometown. It's a cool thing. Ohio gets the credit for NIN because we were living in Cleveland when we got signed and when it was all taking off. I actually went to college at Kent State. When I talk to people who don't know about it, I always say, "Four dead in Ohio?" And they're like, "Oh, that school!" I would go to school during the day, and drive up to Cleveland at night to help Trent in the studio. If he was singing, I was engineering; usually something like that. But yeah, I'm with you. In Akron you've got the Black Keys you've got Devo.

Even though I'm from Erie, I don't consider myself a PA kid. I mean, I do, I guess, but Erie's just a shade under two hours from Cleveland. When you live in Erie, the minute you're old enough to get the heck out, you go two hours south to Pittsburgh or two hours west to Cleveland.

Nobody went to Buffalo. That was worse than Erie. My sister went to Pittsburgh, I went to Cleveland. I'm definitely more Cleveland, Ohio in my leanings. But that's cool, man. I was just in Canton last year for an interview at the [KSU] Stark campus.

That's where I went to college.

Vrenna: They're building a whole recording studio. They have a recording technology program there, and they're building a whole new building that will be open next year, maybe the year after, with three recording studios or something like that. It's going to be awesome.

I've noticed a parallel between the games and music industries that kind of applies to you. When games were getting started, you did everything. You were a programmer, an artist, a musician, a writer. Nowadays, larger studios are very specialized: You're a tools programmer, or you're a concept artist. You can play all these instruments and do so many different things like engineer and program. Did you pick up a lot of that by osmosis?

Vrenna: Definitely by osmosis, and just repeated [practice]. In our world, it was always a DIY [culture]. If Trent was playing guitar, well, somebody had to record it. You did whatever. I picked up keyboards and synths because programming has always gone well with drumming, because back in the '80s [you had to program] drum machines.

When MIDI was created, everything started to be programmed. I had a natural inclination for the programming side of things. I've been doing that since the late '80s as well. Trent had a Mac Plus, one of the very first ones. I started learning programming on that, and have [kept up with it]. They've always gone hand in hand. I've never understood people who--and I have friends like this, and no offense to them--who say, "I'm a guitar player. That is what I do."

I say, "Okay, so what happens when there are no guitar gigs? Then what will you do? You're a great musician, but you don't even know how to turn on a Macintosh. How are you going to learn how to run Pro Tools or do anything else like that?" I've always been a Jack of all trades: The more things I can learn, and the more things I'm good at, the better for me. I've always loved learning. I loved school. I'm a teacher now; I teach at college. It's one of my jobs. It's my full-time job, but I still make tons of music and soundtracks for games. I like to learn, so I try to pick up as much information as I can from anybody I'm working with at the time.

If you go from one band to another that's pretty different, how do you adjust your play style, or your sound?

Vrenna: I don't have any trouble with that. You know who has trouble with that? The general public, and people in the industry. Once they pigeon-hole you into something, that's what they picture. Could I join a country-western band and kick its ass? Of course I could. Would anybody ever think to call me for something like that? Heck, no, because I'm the industrial rock guy, you know?

Right.

Vrenna: I kind of smashed that stereotype, though. I was in the band Gnarls Barkley. One of my former managers who I was with for many years, managed Danger Mouse. When Danger Mouse did that first Gnarls Barkley record, he knew it was going to be a massive hit. He said, "I need to put a live band together for this project. It's not really a band; it's a studio thing. You know how to sample, how to play click tracks, how to make stems in Pro Tools"--because we were going to have to play some of the stuff with a backing track, but they wanted to do as much live as possible--he's like, "You've been doing that your whole career, basically with every band you've ever been in. Would you help?"

I said, "Sure. Send me some MP3s so I can hear what they sound like. It's a weird name." That came out, and I'd get comments and interviews from people who said, "Oh, I never would have expected you to play in Gnarls Barkley." I'm like, why? I don't want to sound horrible, but, is it because I'm white? You don't think I've got any soul in me? What makes them think I couldn't have done that gig?

We were amazing. That band was smoking. Man, we were good. Do you know who the keyboard player is in that band?

Not off-hand, no.

Vrenna: It was Josh Klinghoffer. He's a guitar player by trade, but he played keyboard in Gnarls Barkley. He's now the guitar player in Red Hot Chili Peppers. He took over for [John] Frusciante when Frusciante decided to take a step back. Josh is a monster musician. That's the kind of quality that we had in that band. It was just beyond anything.

You've become a prolific game soundtrack composer since Quake. If I had to guess, I'd say the soundtrack you're most well-known for outside of work on id's games is American McGee's Alice. Did that project stem from your friendship with American during Quake's development?

Vrenna: I always kept in touch with American. He and I kind of clicked. I left [NIN] in '97. When I had my falling-out with Trent and decided to strike out on my own and move to LA. One of the hardest things is being in business with best friends who are practically your family. In one conversation, you can be hanging out as best friends. In the next conversation, somebody's the boss and somebody's the employee. Things can go horribly wrong. Things can be taken personally.

[American and I] reconnected in about '99 when he was working on his first game, which was American McGee's Alice. He'd originally worked with [Marilyn] Manson on a couple of ideas for it. Something didn't work out, there, and either he decided to call me or Manson suggested it. He and I reconnected and I said, 'Absolutely, dude. I'd love to work with you again.'

I love Alice. I loved the story. It was right up my alley. That game has gone on to be one of the things that I'm most known for: The way I used toy instruments, a choir, and weird sounds. It was a magic thing that just kind of happened.

So, you had two soundtracks for popular titles under your belt. Did that help you get your foot in the door elsewhere?

Vrenna: I've done a lot of different stuff for a lot of different games. Then I got back in touch with id around 2003. What was weird was that there was no music in Doom 3. They wanted to make Doom 3 the most realistic game possible. I went down to Texas and got so drunk. I remember puking my guts out on the plane the next day coming back home. We'd gone out for sushi after all the meetings and everything, and oh, man, I got lit. Oh, god. I'm glad those days are over.

Doom 3 was quite different in atmosphere and pacing than Quake or the original Doom games. How did that difference affect your approach to the soundtrack?

Vrenna: They said, 'No one's running around a dark, quiet place being chased by the worst monster ever listening to Boots in Pants.' I said, 'Yeah, you know, you're right.' So, I did what we called musical sound design. You'd walk into a room and [sound effects] would come in and fade out. I did that, and the theme song.

Doom 3's theme kind of blends the franchise's action and horror flavors. It starts out low and moody, then transitions into metal. Was that the goal?

Vrenna: They wanted a big, kickass theme song. They wanted something between Nine Inch Nails, Tool, and other big rock bands. Other than American McGee's Alice, Doom 3 is probably my second most-well-known [game score] that I've done. Quake 4 came up, and I did a theme song for Quake 4. I've just had this running connection with those guys.

You've scored games besides ones made by and connected to id, but you fell off the map for a while in terms of game soundtracks. What brought you back to the industry, and to Quake Champions?

Vrenna: When I joined Marilyn Manson's [band], I kind of fell off everybody's radar for several years. Probably because I was in a deep, dark, black hole of drugs and alcohol—Marilyn Manson's lifestyle, which is what it is. But at the same time, I was Manson's producer, engineer, live keyboard player, occasional drummer when Ginger [Fish] wasn't around. I was full-time; I wouldn't have had a free day to do any game scores, so I fell off the map for a while.

I left [Manson] and moved here, and shortly after I moved here, I was doing something on LinkedIn, and lo and behold, I saw Tim Willits. I clicked 'Connect with Me Please!' and we started talking. He said, 'You know, you've been on my mind lately. I'm not quite ready to talk to you about [my current project], but I'm glad we reconnected because I was going to have to track you down in about six months.'

Six months later, almost on the dot, I got an email from Tim. He asked when I had time to talk. We hopped on a phone call one Friday afternoon, and he told me what [he was working on], and it was Quake Champions. Because of my history with id and Quake, he asked me if I would score it. To which I replied, 'Absolutely not.' [laughs] No, no, I said, 'I would drop everything for any [project] you would ask of me. Let's do it.'

How did recording music for Quake Champions differ from the original Quake?

Vrenna: I purposely went a different route with Quake Champions. In the '90s, you had to spend a lot of time designing, coming up with your sounds. Before you could write something, you had to sample. For Alice, all the instruments you hear in that—the toy pianos and children's instruments—I spent almost a year on what was, at the time, a very young eBay, looking at vintage music boxes, toy pianos, the wind-up, clapping monkey with the cymbals. You name it, I went out and bought it. I still have everything in a giant box in my garage.

There's a company that came out with a sample [application] called Toy Box. For $350, you could buy a 4GB, multi-sample library of toy guys, toy pianos, toy this, toy that. That would have made my life easier back in 1999. I would have totally done that. That is something that I still think is nuts, just how much has changed. Everything has gone to software, so I kept Quake Champions as analog as possible. I tried to get back to designing my own sounds.

They wanted seagulls, for example. Well, it'd be really easy to go out and find seagull samples anywhere on the Internet, but instead I took my field recorder out to the lake and spent a morning at sunrise sampling seagulls. Now I can say they're my seagulls, not the Internet's seagulls.

Do you find that projects go more smoothly if you kind of toss out what you did on earlier games?

Vrenna: One thing I've always done is I never save anything from any project. I design stuff for a project, I use it, and then [I'm done]. I just don't, because I never want to [start a new project] and say, 'Oh, that's that really cool patch I used three years ago for Call of Duty' and pull it back out. Every time I start something new, I want a blank slate. I like doing it that way. I know it's a time thing when you've got 10 [contractual] gigs; maybe if I had 10 gigs, I'd reuse them. But I usually do one gig at a time, and I give that gig 110 percent of my life, and develop things specially and specifically for that game, and I never want to reuse the same patch or drum sample twice.

Quake Champions was in beta for a while, and is still in early access. How soon into the development process did Tim and the other guys at id gave you material to reference for your music?

Vrenna: I saw concept art for each world. They gave me [direction], like, 'Each world is based on these adjectives and these elementals, these gods, or these color palettes.' They might have a basic idea of, 'Maybe something like this with something like that,' or 'We like these six songs as a starting point for where to go for that level's feel.' For one world I used piano, and it's very pretty, and there are samples of seagulls and other birds. There's another one that has full-speed, metal guitar. No two [tracks] are at all the same, and I think that's really cool.

Who is collaborating with you? Or are you tackling the project on your own?

Vrenna: If it has more than one string, I'm out. I worked with a couple of guitar-player friends of mine here in Madison. I co-wrote the main theme with my friend Ken Pearsall; he's my best friend here in town. Early Endres, played the in-game guitar stuff for me. I just hate guitar. I can hold down bass guitar okay because it's singled out and rhythmic, but man, you try to put a chord in my hands and I'm out.

Do you try to seek out different sounds to challenge yourself? Just do something different?

Vrenna: Not really. But when it comes to me, I always try to make sure I can do those types of projects because they're different. I don't necessarily seek them out, but when they do pop up, I go, "Wow, that's something I haven't done. I definitely want to make sure I can do that."

That's the one thing about going into teaching college full-time. I teach at a small arts college, Madison Media Institute. We have three massive recording studios and 50 different Pro Tools stations. We have recording and live sounds program. There's also a program for graphics where you use Final Cut, Adobe Premiere. We have a green screen, a full TV studio with cameras and teleprompters. Then there's a game design program.

So, really, the only thing I can't do anymore is tour. I can take on as much studio work as I want. I've been asked by a couple different bands to go out on tour, but I can't just tell the school, "Hey, I'm going away for eight weeks!" Right in the middle of a semester? That won't fly, but that's the only thing that really won't fly with them.

How did you get the opportunity to teach? Was that something you wanted to do?

Vrenna: After I quit Marilyn Manson, I decided to do something stupid, which was try to get sober and get a personal trainer and join a gym. The sobriety thing didn't work out, and in the gym, I ripped my rotator cuff. It was a really bad tear. When they got in there to surgically repair it, they said that over half of the ball socket of my left shoulder was nothing but bone spurs. Playing drums for 40 years, with that repeated motion, those bone spurs kept sawing and sawing through tendon. Lifting weights, which they say is stupid for anybody my age to do, was the final straw. It cut right through the tendons.

I was out of commission for a year because I had to go through all the physical therapy to get strength and mobility back in my arm. During that year, I did some guest lecturing at different colleges, and I was volunteering for the Hollywood Arts Foundation. It was a donated space right in the heart of Hollywood. They did music upstairs, and Photoshop and things downstairs. It was for at-risk users in an after-school program, and I volunteered some of my time there.

It turned out that just like I've loved to learn from people my whole career--sitting next to Flood, sitting next to Nellee Hooper, sitting next to Trent, sitting next to Billy Corgan, U2, whoever I was working with and picking their brains--I enjoyed sharing my knowledge with other people. This happened organically. I was offered a job. They offered me a one-year contract while I was still recuperating.

They said, "Teaching's not for everybody. Maybe I'll hate it. If you do, you can always move back to L.A." So I said, "Let's try it." I fell in love with it, and I've been here ever since. Plus, I love living in Wisconsin. I hate L.A. I would never move back to that city. Eighteen years there was plenty.

May I ask how your efforts toward sobriety are going?

Vrenna: Thank you for asking. I'm almost three years totally sober. It was an absolute nightmare to get sober. I had admitted [I needed help]. I'd seen counselors, I was going to meetings. It still didn't work. I'd get a month to six weeks under my belt, but then I'd have a bad day and I'd be like, "Eh, let me just get one shot." There was no shot thing as one shot. One shot turned into a full bottle of whatever. I'd black out, and come to the next day, like, "Oh, shit. I don't even remember what happened."

Quitting drugs was easy. Quitting alcohol? Hardest thing I've ever done. For a lot of people in our industry, sadly it just goes with the territory. Twiggy [Ramirez] got sober back when I was still in Manson. He's probably five or six years sober, now. Trent's been sober for a long time. Rich Patrick, my friend from Filter, who was the original guitar player in Nine Inch Nails before he left and started Filter, he's been sober for 15 years, maybe 20, now.

A lot of my other friends are dead. It kind of goes one way or another by a certain age if you can't do it. But I'm awesome, now. Don't miss it, don't think about it. But man, getting to this point was [difficult]. Anybody who's been through it will immediately attest to the same: It is hard, and I share that with my students. I see some of them come through who have problems, and I try to be there for them.

It's good for them that you can be there, especially because you're someone who's been in the industry and understands that struggle, as opposed to someone else who might just say, "Well, you shouldn't do that because it's bad."

Vrenna: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. I had that experience. I always equated [drugs and alcohol] to--and I know this is a horrible example--when you wouldn't eat your brussel sprouts and you go, "I hate brussel sprouts!" and your parents say, "Well, how do you know? You've never eaten one?" If you don't try brussel sprouts, you can't make a decision. I'm not saying everybody should go do drugs so they know how bad they are, but I was like, "You can't tell me they're bad. I'm making my own opinion."

For kids that age, there's also an attraction to taboo. They want to go against the grain.

Vrenna: It's one of the oldest rock clichés in the book, but it's true. It just really is. You have all that downtime when you're on tour. [Addiction] tends to crop up on tours. That's where it starts. You have a lot of free time, free booze in your dressing room every night, after-show parties every night. Every city you're in, you're the reason people are partying. It's your band and your show. Who wouldn't want to have fun? It's like every night is Saturday night. All you've got to do is sleep for 20 hours and make it in time for sound check the next day.

It's just brutal. It's shocking, though, when you actually do get past it and your brain isn't thinking about it every day. All that extra free time, all those good nights of sleep because blackout-sleep is not real sleep.

Congratulations on your sobriety. That's awesome.

Vrenna: Thanks. I've never been happier.

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