Though Chris Vrenna has black hair and drinks coffee devotedly, don’t mistake him for the man on the cover of his debut solo album.
“My head is not nearly that round,” Vrenna said, chuckling, from his home studio in Los Angeles.
The curiously curved figure in question is the title character in “Elliot’s Attraction to All Things Uncertain,” a painting by Joe Sorren. Vrenna — the former Nine Inch Nails drummer-turned-producer and remixer (Marilyn Manson, Smashing Pumpkins, U2) — was so inspired by the piece, he set out to tell Elliot’s story on his first album.
Due Tuesday (September 18), The Attraction to All Things Uncertain — a cohesive collection of 13 ambient tracks recorded by Vrenna under the name Tweaker — is as sonically distorted as NIN’s The Downward Spiral and as candidly dark as Cold’s 13 Ways to Bleed Onstage, which Vrenna produced.
The seeds of the project were planted five years ago. Vrenna was finishing his last track with Nine Inch Nails (“The Perfect Drug”) when drummer Brian Reitzell (Redd Kross, Air) invited him to record a track for Flyin’ Traps, an album featuring all-star drummers such as Stephen Perkins and Matt Cameron (see “Porno, Soundgarden Drummers Featured On Flyin’ Traps” ). “I did it all in my kitchen in New Orleans, and it was the first thing I sat down and did on my own,” Vrenna said. “It turned something on rather quickly.”
Vrenna moved to Los Angeles shortly after and began a career as a full-time producer, part-time solo artist. “I was listening to a lot of experimental, electronic ambient music at the time,” Vrenna recalled. “For some reason, it always seemed cold. There didn’t seem to be a lot of emotion in it. I thought, ‘If this stuff could tell me a story or make me think about something specific, maybe it would reach a broader bunch of people — people who aren’t into it for the pure form of what it is.’
“It is kind of hard to sit through a nine-minute track that barely ever changes,” he added. “Your average person who isn’t exposed to Autechre, Add N to (X) or Aphex Twin — all of the bands I was really, really into — doesn’t understand that concept.”
The Attraction to All Things Uncertain varies from many other electronic music albums in that the songs top out at three minutes, there are very few continuous loops, and, of course, it tells a story.
“As soon as I first saw the painting that would became the cover of the album, that triggered everything,” Vrenna said. “I was at a gallery and I was there to see a different show. ‘Elliot’ was in the back room. I was immediately drawn to it. It’s three feet by three feet … pretty much sized to be an album cover. I thought, ‘There’s my guy.’ ”
Intrigued by the skewed features of “Elliot” in the emotive painting, Vrenna continued to visit the gallery for weeks. “My music is melancholy and murky, and so is the painting,” he said.
A friend of Vrenna’s at his record label eventually bought the painting for him. Vrenna then called up Sorren, who, much to his surprise, was also a drummer in a band. “We hit it off,” Vrenna said. “He was always way down with the idea, and we developed a friendship over the years.”
With The Attraction to All Things Uncertain coming together, Vrenna made up a wish list of singers he hoped to bring on board. David Sylvian was at the top, followed by Will Oldham and Craig Wedren (Shudder to Think) — all three are on the record. Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan and other singers from Vrenna’s past, however, are not.
“I thought that was kind of obvious,” Vrenna said. “I wanted to do something different and work with people who I had never worked with. There are very few men out there with beautiful singing voices that aren’t afraid to use them. I wanted something beautiful.”
Vrenna sent a copy of the painting and music he had recorded to each of the singers. The finished products, “Linoleum” with Sylvian, “Happy Child” with Oldham and “Take Me Alive” and “After All” with Wedren, are among the album’s standout tracks. “Linoleum,” the first single, is charting on college radio.
The Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary, Josh Wink, Wamdue Project and King Britt are among the remixers who reworked “Linoleum” for a Tweaker EP of the same name that also features non-LP tracks. Vrenna plans to shoot a video for the song that is “unexpected, inexpensive and artistic — like everything I have done.”
Vrenna has a slew of other projects in the works as well. He just finished producing albums for up-and-comers A.I. and Red Delicious and remixing singles for the Calling and Trick Turner. On Halloween, Six Degrees Records will release his soundtrack to the “Alice” computer game from designer American McGee (“Doom,” “Quake”).
“It’s very gothic,” Vrenna said of the game, which portrays the darker side of “Alice in Wonderland.” “I used female choirs. It’s pretty creepy.”
Vrenna is putting together a Tweaker live show he plans to take on the road in November. He has recruited two other musicians for the tour, and he plans to creatively use the guest vocals featured on the album.
“I have the concept in mind,” Vrenna explained. “My goal is no piece of gear with a start button. It has to be triggered live. There will be some things that will make it incredibly interesting.”