I’d been digging through the BuzzMoo.com archives and found my 2003 interview with Chris Vrenna. This was “back in the OzForces days” when anything seemed possible. So, I’d decided to ask the man himself if he’d spend a little bit of time talking about video game music. To my surprise, he responded and agreed. I guess talking about the soundtrack to American McGee’s Alice sounded like a nice change of pace for the man responsible for Nine Inch Nail’s drumming. And who worked with Metallica, Guns ‘n Roses and Smashing Pumpkins, to name a few.
Since then, he’s been drummer and keyboardist for Maralyn Manson, worked with Meat Loaf, Evanescence and Bush, provided audio and music for Doom 3, The Sims 2, Quake 4, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. He also ended up in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2020. Not a bad effort.
In 2003 the video game industry was shifting to the current cinematic, epic, Hollywood style design ethos. Big names started to surface on a more regular basis (although David Bowie had already jumped in, and Michael Jackson’s crew did play a role in Sonic 3). Now it’s not uncommon to have the likes of Hans Zimmer, Harry-Gregson Williams, Snoop Dogg and Paul McCartney appearing in the credits.
This was the lay of the land, two decades ago:
“…Up till now, it was all about frame rate of the visuals, and memory space was at a premium. CPU speeds are now more than adequate, and CDRoms and DVDs have plenty of storage space to add full bandwidth audio, even in surround. Now that gaming is such a huge industry, I think you will see more “name” artists doing the scores, as well as licensed music, much like movies are now…”
The man behind American McGee’s Alice and with a Grammy award (For NiN’s live version of “Happiness In Slavery”) under his belt, Chris Vrenna has an impressive amount of accomplishments to show for his years of work.
“In addition to eight years with Nine Inch Nails and studio collaborations with Marilyn Manson and Smashing Pumpkins, Vrenna has production and remixing credits including U2’s “Elevation Remix” for the Tomb Raider soundtrack, Xzibit’s “X” featuring Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Nelly Furtado’s “Turn Off the Light,” Weezer’s “Hash Pipe,” Cold’s “13 Ways to Bleed Onstage” and Rob Zombie’s “Return of the Phantom Stranger,” among many others…”
I decided to get in contact with him and ask him “what’s it all about?” personally. After a few failed attempts at hooking up (which resulted in a late night and a game of email-tennis) we got it together and I started firing the questions…
BM: American McGee’s Alice is a very twisted project, and your score reflects
this – it’s not conventional by any means. Do you feel that it was dangerous
to create something so drastically different? How did the team react
CV: It wasn’t dangerous. It was challenging and exciting. American wanted
music that sounded antique, yet otherworldly. We went through several ideas
before we settled on the palette that we used consisting of toy instruments,
sound effect noises, female choirs, etc. The hardest part for American
and myself was defining this “sound” for the game. Once we
were there, it was fun to tailor those sounds for each level or boss.
BM: Were you worried your score may not be accepted by the public?
CV: Not at all. I enjoy making all different styles of music, and the Alice
score was yet another different style I hadn’t done before. It is very
specific to the game, however. It is much different than my Tweaker
record, or my remix work.
BM: As I see it, the audio side of games (and any multimedia) should be
given ‘equal rights’ when run along side visual matter but often isn’t
– do you think that music is neglected when it comes to games?
CV: Very much so, but it is beginning to change. Up till now, it was all
about frame rate of the visuals, and memory space was at a premium.
CPU speeds are now more than adequate, and CDRoms and DVDs have plenty
of storage space to add full bandwidth audio, even in surround. Now
that gaming is such a huge industry, I think you will see more “name”
artists doing the scores, as well as licensed music, much like movies
BM: Based on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’, did you gain any inspiration
from the book? Other forms of inspiration, other artists, composers,
visual stuff? (Do i hear some Danny Elfman in there??)
CV: Haha, yes, I do admire Danny Elfman ‘s work. I mostly used the book,
and the visuals from the game itself. American would send me working
levels to play, or sketches of characters as we went so I could live
inside the game.
BM: The music we hear in the Alice soundtrack is very dark, brooding at
times, is there more ‘to it’ than just scoring for a game? A personal
side to it?
CV: It’s not so much personal to ME, but I was attempting to make it personal
to Alice. I wanted it to be music from her mental state and time period.
A demented litle girl….
BM: The music is partly created with toy sounds, what exactly did you use?
CV: I got most of the toy instruments from Ebay or the local toy stores.
There were 4 or 5 toy pianos, 2 or 3 xylophones, about a dozen wind-up
music boxes that I sampled and manipulated…As for studio gear, I used
lofi vintage table Mics to mic everything, and cheap preamps so it had
a real lofi sound. Everything was recorded into proTools software and
mixed on The Yamaha O2R digital console. Not too many effects were used.
Filters, Phasers, and Flangers always sounded too modern, so mostly delays
and reverbs were used.
BM: Did you have trouble composing “A Happy Ending”? And have
you played the game through, would you have ended it the way it did?
CV: I like a happy ending. It was fun, and a breath of fresh air. It was the
last thing written as well. I have played the game…..but never thought
much about the actual end. I was just glad it was over. It’s a tough
CV: Word on the street has it that you like to play the odd game when you
have some spare time, what are the favorites? And are there any games
you note for having good scores, SFX etc. What stands out to you.
CV: I do like to play when I have time, but that hasn’t happened in months.
I have a Gamecube which I loved playing Luigi, Simpsons Road Rage, Resident
Evil, and Madden Football on. Next up will be the X-box, I think. I
can’t wait to play The Thing.
BM: Where would you like games and music to be in the future?
CV: Where movies are now. Fully interactive, 3D graphics with twisted surround sound music and sound.
BM: Hopefully we’ll be there soon. Chris Vrenna, thanks for taking the time.