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In the press materials that accompanied the 1992 EP Broken, Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor wrote, "Nine Inch Nails is still not a real band with real people playing real instruments." Today, drummer Chris Vrenna insists that's all changed. Sort of.
"We're much more of a band now than we ever were before," Vrenna says. "But it always has been, and probably always will be, a one-man band project. It's Trent's brainchild. It's what he is and what he's been doing for a long time."
Which calls to mind a couple of very pertinent questions: Who the hell is Chris Vrenna? And what qualifies him to talk about Nine Inch Nails, a blistering act that's managed to sell boatloads of records without much more than a whisper of compromise?
The answers to these queries say a lot about the level of fame to which Reznor has risen of late. You see, Vrenna does have a connection with Nine Inch Nails, but a somewhat tangential one: He's been the drummer whenever Trent has taken NIN on the road. On Broken, an amazing fuck-you of a platter, he's credited with contributing "extra real drums" on two cuts; Reznor played practically every other instrument. Similarly, the liner notes from this year's impressive The Downward Spiral list Vrenna as drummer on one of the disc's fourteen tracks; he also receives kudos for "assistance," "additional engineering" and "additional sampling and sound design." But Vrenna's most important job, it seems, is being an FOT--Friend of Trent. And now that Reznor's been on the cover of Rolling Stone (and, according to his publicist, buried under the details involved in buying a new house in New Orleans), he can't keep up with all of the interview requests coming his way.
Enter Vrenna, Reznor's faithful sidekick. Who has, he points out, "been fortunate enough to have been around since way back when."
According to Vrenna, he and Reznor hail from neighboring small towns in Pennsylvania; they first met when Vrenna, fresh out of high school, bought a drum machine Reznor was selling. Reznor subsequently moved to Cleveland and began hanging out on the periphery of the local music scene there, while Vrenna enrolled in a Cleveland-area college. Vrenna didn't pursue his music during this period until Reznor called and asked him to take over the drum seat in a group he was in at the time.
Vrenna declines to name that act, brushing it off as "bad local-scene stuff that never went anywhere. But that was the first time Trent and I actually played together."
In short order, the combo was history, but Reznor and Vrenna remained close, sharing a series of apartments while Reznor struggled to get his music career off the ground. After cajoling the owner of an area recording studio into giving him free time during the middle of the night, Reznor began working on the material that ultimately became Nine Inch Nails' debut, 1989's Pretty Hate Machine. Reznor made virtually every sound heard on the recordings, setting a standard that he's maintained, with minor exceptions, on all of the CDs that followed. Still, Vrenna had something to do with the resulting music. When asked about his contributions to the demos, Vrenna says, "Trent would be singing and I'd hit `record' and `play' on the tape machine. It takes more than one set of hands to reach all the buttons in the studio, you know."
Nine Inch Nails soon was signed to a contract by TVT Records on the strength of Reznor's early tapes--"We never played local clubs hoping that we'd get spotted by some A&R guy," Vrenna notes. Reznor recorded the final version of the album in England, then returned to the U.S. and put together a band intended to replicate the sound of Pretty Hate Machine live. Vrenna was the drummer on the very first Nine Inch Nails date--the band opened for Meat Beat Manifesto at a small club in Washington, D.C., a few weeks before the disc was released--and for the remainder of the tour.
From the beginning, NIN on stage was different from other technologically based alternative/dance groups. "The industrial thing, where you've got two men and a DAT machine and everything's on tape and one guy's grunting and the other guy's sitting on a rubber pad but it's obvious that there's no cord attached to it--that makes for a really dull show," Vrenna states. "So we've always tried to make our shows much more intense."
Indeed, the mere presence of Vrenna behind a drum kit added a human element that struck many industrial fans as strange. "People are like, you don't need a drummer--you've got a drum machine," he says. "But with Nine Inch Nails, the drums have always been live, even if some people don't believe it. They'll come up to me and say, `Man, that sounded awesome--but, of course, it's all sequenced.' And I'm like, `What are you thinking? What do you think I'm doing? Faking it?'"
Nine Inch Nails toured again as part of the 1991 Lollapalooza festival. Once that jaunt was completed, Reznor retired to the studio to begin work on Broken, with Vrenna assisting whenever the master called. Because the EP was considered a stopgap between Pretty Hate Machine and the next true NIN album, the band didn't travel much as a unit during 1992 or 1993. But as the finishing touches were being put on The Downward Spiral, Reznor decided it was time to face the public again. The lineup for the band he subsequently assembled solidified around Vrenna and guitarist Robin Finck, who'd played on the first two Nine Inch Nails tours. They were supplemented by multi-instrumentalist Danny Lohner and keyboardist James Woolley.
"We were looking for people whose personalities fit with us," Vrenna notes. "It's nice to have people who have the chops of a professional studio musician, but that's not all that important, because our parts aren't written for that kind of player. It's much more important that everybody be able to get along and work together."
The quintet engaged in extended woodshedding before taking to the highway, and in the process, arrangements of familiar NIN cuts such as "Closer" and "Reptile" were altered. Still, the continuing use of some taped backing tracks prevents off-the-cuff improvisation. "I have to play with a click track the entire show," Vrenna says. "Sometimes there won't be anything on the tape, but I have to keep the headphones on, because eventually something will be. Something will come in and I still have to be completely locked. So Trent can't be doing a guitar solo and think, `This is going pretty good. Let's extend it for another sixteen bars.' We could never do that."
Even so, NIN '94 quickly earned exceptional notices that culminated in a press frenzy brought on by this summer's Woodstock extravaganza, where the band played its set caked in mud. "It was totally weird the way they raved. I mean, USA Today spent all its time talking about Trent instead of Crosby, Stills and Nash," Vrenna recalls. "And the funniest part of the whole thing was, we played horribly that night. It definitely showed. It was fun, but we didn't play very well."
No matter. The media covering Woodstock needed a contemporary band to anoint to classic status, and Nine Inch Nails was it. The entertainment industry took notice as well; during a program following the festival, David Letterman spent most of a Late Show broadcast talking about how much the group frightened him. The Rolling Stone cover and the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's pretentious, scattershot film Natural Born Killers, which Reznor oversaw, followed in short order. Suddenly, Nine Inch Nails wasn't a cult band anymore. "Last month we were driving through upstate Washington, and we stopped in a little town at a McDonald's," Vrenna says. "And every single kid there knew who we were. It's taken five years, but now Trent has trouble going to the mall.
"It's been a long uphill climb. As opposed to these one-hit wonder bands that come out--their first record goes double-platinum in two weeks, and then a year later they're gone. There's no credibility there, because there wasn't any to begin with. But nobody's shoved us down people's throats. We don't give a shit about what people think. You know, fuck them. We're going to do what we're going to do, and if people follow it, great."