In 1995 Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails won a Grammy award for their live performance of the song ‘Happiness in Slavery’ as captured on Woodstock ’94. The category was ‘Best Metal Performance’. I’m not sure anyone watching the recording – with its military assault on the senses and body-surfing audience – would have seen a possible David Sylvian collaboration on the horizon for one of the musicians… but that was how things panned out. Chris Vrenna had been a performing member of NIN since 1989, contributing powerful drums to their hard-edged live industrial rock sound.
Before any Sylvian connection was made, there was the small matter of double-billing with David Bowie on the US leg of his tour to promote 1. Outside which took place in the autumn of 1995. Nine Inch Nails opened the concerts before Bowie and band joined them on stage for a ‘bridge’ set leading into their own, including songs such as Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’ and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ and NIN’s ‘Reptile’ and ‘Hurt’. Bowie gifted Chris Vrenna a head-and-shoulders portrait he had painted of the drummer when the short tour came to an end. At around the same time Reznor and Vrenna combined to produce an alternate mix of Bowie’s ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ which appeared on the cd single release.
Vrenna left NIN in 1997 and having been inspired by the challenge of creating a track for a drummer’s compilation album called Flyin’ Traps, he started thinking seriously about producing music of his own. He said later, ‘I did a track at home in my little kitchen in New Orleans before I owned any gear of my own, and I had so much fun doing it and found it very fulfilling – and I kind of flipped the switch to continue making music for myself. So when I eventually left the band and moved back to L.A., I set up a little writing room in a spare bedroom and continued with experimenting with music for myself.’ (2001).
Recently I had the opportunity to explore with Chris how David Sylvian came to appear on his debut album, released under the name tweaker. For a start, how did he become familiar with the music? ‘I discovered Japan in 1984 or 1985 while I was in high school. I was playing in a synth band called The Transmuters. My keyboard player, John Trevethan, was a bit older than I was and turned me on to them. He introduced me to a lot of cool, but perhaps a bit obscure music, given where we grew up.’ The school was on the banks of Lake Erie in Pennsylvania, so it’s pretty remarkable that Japan’s music should reach them.
‘Japan was just a “total” band if that makes sense. David had the greatest voice I had ever heard, both tonally and melodically. And since I am I drummer, I loved Steve Jansen’s awesome polyrhythmic beats which became a huge influence on my own drumming. Add to that Mick Karn’s fretless bass (including Dalis Car!) and Japan was just so far ahead of everyone. Oil on Canvas was the first cd I ever bought! I’ll never forget it. I bought it in a record store in the Coventry neighbourhood of Cleveland where Trent and I were living at the time. I am still in awe how they performed those elaborate songs live. They are all amazing musicians.’
Chris kept up with David Sylvian’s musical activities after the break up of the band. ‘Did I love his solo work… Everything from Brilliant Trees and Dead Bees on a Cake, but probably my favourite album of them all was Gone to Earth. That was my evening/go-to-sleep cd all through college. I listened to it every night for years! I love how David would collaborate with musicians like Robert Fripp and Ryuichi Sakamoto. I am also a pretty big King Crimson fan as well.’
It was more than the music on Gone to Earth that he adored. ‘I’m not sure how well this is known, but Trent and I were such fans of not only David, but of his art designer, Russell Mills. His artwork for David is why Trent got Russell to do the cover and packaging art for The Downward Spiral.’ The latter was Nine Inch Nails’ second studio album; released in 1994 it proved to be their most commercially successful.
Artwork would prove to be pivotal for Chris’ first solo release as tweaker. Quite unexpectedly, as he was putting together the ideas for his debut, he came across the painting that would be the cover art. In that image by artist Joe Sorren he found the defining concept for the album. ‘I love Joe’s art so much. I saw that painting in a gallery in east L.A. called La Luz de Jesus. I lived a few blocks from the gallery and found myself walking over and just staring at it over and over. The look on Elliot’s face just got me.’ The painting is called Elliot’s Attraction to All Things Uncertain, and it was the catalyst that Chris needed. ‘I think it’s that fear that creative people have of being all ready to get started… coffee in hand, and a blank sheet of paper loaded (or blank canvas, or blank Pro Tools session, whatever) and then the self-doubt creeps in. Where do I even begin? I was incredibly lucky to get to meet Joe and have him agree to allow me to license that painting for the cover. Joe and I have remained friends ever since. I really am inspired by art… my home is completely covered in art. It’s our (Melissa and my) mini-museum.’
Chris’ record company went on to buy the painting for him. Tracks were constructed and the idea was born that Elliot’s story would be told through songs by different vocalists alongside instrumentals bringing a sense of his progression. ‘Elliot is on a journey of self-discovery and coming into his own, so my goal was to have each guest vocalist convey that story. I had the order of the tracks already fairly well sequenced in my head, so depending on which track a singer chose, that would more or less give a framework of where Elliot was emotionally at that point within the overall story arc. Then it was completely up to each guest vocalist to write what they felt.
‘I simply reached out to singers I was a fan of. David was literally number one on that list. And he said, “Yes.” I couldn’t believe it. I sent him a few of the tracks I had, and he chose the music that is ‘Linoleum’.’ Chris confided that he always believed this would be the piece that David would select: ‘there was a certain vibe to that music that I just felt David would connect with as well. Of all the songs on that album, that music just felt like him, if that makes any sense at all. The music was completely finished when I gave it to David. I tried to have all the tracks as finished as possible to give each guest vocalist as complete a picture as I could.’
Sylvian gave his perspective when the track was released. ‘Chris sent a few tracks to me, asked me to select the one I’d like to work on and return it with my contribution. The usual method of working in this day and age with the affordability of quality recording technology and ever diminishing recording budgets. The album has an underlying concept which appears to be based on a specific period in Chris’ life. He gave me an idea where this particular piece I’d selected came in the emotional journey the album attempts to make. I took that into consideration when writing the lyrics. As I remember it, I was working on a mindset that was a cheery mixture of fear, anger and paranoia. That burdening sense of misplaced attachment mixed with the inability to take positive action that can come to a head just before life changing decisions are sometimes made.’ (2001)
The ep of ‘Linoleum’ and the album from which it is drawn, The Attraction to All Things Uncertain, were released in 2001. They were both delayed by record company issues as the ALMO label to which Vrenna was signed folded and he was forced to find an alternative home for the album. The track actually dates from 1999, the year of Sylvian’s return after a long absence with Dead Bees on a Cake. I really enjoyed Dead Bees…, but what really attracted me to ‘Linoleum’ was that it had an entirely different energy, not only in the music but also in the pervasive menacing feel. Playing a role in someone else’s story seemed to spark Sylvian’s imagination in a new way, pushing him beyond his normal sphere – and it suited him well.
Vrenna’s rhythms are constructed electronically, built from the crunch of metallic sound and static interference, but whilst there is a chill in the air, the music is not without warmth as pools of glistening radiance are over-laid. ‘That entire record I was attempting to build rhythms from very non-traditional sounds, hence the strange noise-based loops and beats. But then I wanted to juxtapose cleaner, warmer analogue synth sounds on top. For ‘Linoleum’ I also had my friend Petra Haden play live violin over the top. I love experimental electronic music, but rather than long, slow-building tracks, I wanted to construct actual pop arrangements.’
The battery of guitar sound that comes storming in before the first call of ‘what do you really want from me?’ takes the breath away. Underneath the onslaught of the lead is a bass that revs like a threatening motorcycle. Yet in the midst of all this Petra Haden’s violin cuts through. Who was responsible for that pugnacious guitar? ‘It was either (or some combination of) Dallan Baumgarten and Mark Blasquez. I was so fortunate to have so many amazing musicians and singers contribute on that album. It is incredibly special to me.’
Sylvian’s words and vocal delivery capture the ‘fear, anger and paranoia’ that he had in mind when he responded to Vrenna’s direction. For some reason the lyric doesn’t appear in Hypergraphia; I’m not sure why that is, given the words are some of his most intriguing.
A mysterious scene is set at the outset, with a claustrophobic sense of vulnerability:
‘I hear them breathing
They know what I have done, all that I’ve been through
I tell them secrets
And who’s to say it isn’t so?’
The apparent confinement of the protagonist in a tight location or situation is painstakingly pictured – surely the freedom required to ‘walk a thousand miles’ is not consistent with a spell on ‘my linoleum’?
‘Move, don’t move
Stay a little while on my linoleum
Breathe, don’t breathe
Walk a thousand miles on my linoleum’
The lyrical contradictions underline a feeling of disorientation and dread. Teetering on the edge at the point where ‘I’ve really just about lost all control’, the explosion of guitars dramatises the moment where raw emotion spills over:
‘What do you really want from me?
What is it?
I just really want to leave
I just really got to…’
And then the apparently accusatory question ‘Angry?’ posed uncredited by Ingrid Chavez, and the cowering whisper of Sylvian’s manifestly disingenuous response, ‘No’.
The confusion mounts as the song moves on, with questions raised of alcohol use/misuse, before a glorious final line:
‘Drink, don’t drink
Still I’m lying drunk on my linoleum
Dream, don’t dream
All the patterns fade on my linoleum’
The patterns of life and behaviour, even consciousness – those constructs we rely on to make sense of existence – are fading away like decorations on the kitchen flooring.
Does Chris recall how he felt when he received the Pro Tools session back from Sylvian and heard the piece for the first time? ‘Oh, I remember. I cried. I’m not much of a crier in general but when I heard it, I literally wept. Partly because it was so beautiful and perfectly melancholy, and second because up until I actually received the vocal track I wouldn’t allow myself to truly believe that my idol was going to sing on one of my songs. So when I got it, it made it real.’
Another treat was the video for the song which was directed by the film-maker David Gordon Green. In his mid-20s at the time, he had received critical acclaim for writing, directing and producing the independent movie George Washington, the story of a group of children in a depressed small town in North Carolina dealing with tragedy and its consequences. The ‘Linoleum’ video remains the most recent example of Sylvian singing to camera in a promo; the close cropping puts every mannerism under the microscope, adding to the claustrophobia of the song. ‘We just wanted it to be super intimate,’ Chris told me, ‘and the obscure images were chosen to help tell Elliot’s journey.’
The cover of the ep of ‘Linoleum’ was adorned with a detail from Joe Sorren’s painting, whilst the disc contained no less than six different mixes of the track. It was an approach that Vrenna believes worked well, ‘I think because of the simplicity of the song itself. It has a feel and tempo that just seem to work well. And, EVERYONE is a fan of David Sylvian, so it wasn’t difficult to get people to want to remix the track!’ One of my favourite interpretations is the ‘Wamdue 2-Step Vocal Experience’ created by Chris Brann. It’s an opportunity to luxuriate in the vocal alongside those expansive synthesiser pads. It’s great to have these various interpretations as different elements of the mix come to the fore including the violin and that growling bass, but the album version will always be the definitive one for me with Chris’ rhythms and that guitar break.
On my playlist I like to accompany ‘Linoleum’ with ‘Full Cup of Coffee’ from The Attraction to All Things Uncertain. The title references the cover painting where a black coffee sits on Elliot’s desk. The track is from the final sequence on the album and you sense that Elliot’s emotional turmoil is becoming more resolved. Characteristic beats constructed from the unusual and warmer synthesisers are present here as on the opening track.
So how does Chris look back on his first collaboration with David Sylvian now? ‘While doing this interview, I listened to both Oil on Canvas and The Attraction to All Things Uncertain and it brings back such great feelings and memories. I am incredibly proud of that record, and the fact that David anchored it with the amazing ‘Linoleum’ is still to this day, kind of mind blowing to me! I am forever grateful to him for that. David is not only one of the greatest singers… he is also an amazing person. A true inspiration to me.’
Dallan Baumgarten and Mark Blasquez – guitars; Ingrid Chavez – voice; Petra Haden – violin; David Sylvian – vocal; Chris Vrenna – all other instruments.
Written by Chris Vrenna and David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced by Chris Vrenna. From The Attraction to All Things Uncertain by tweaker, six degrees, 2001.
David Sylvian recorded at Synergy, Napa, California
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
Physical media: The Attraction to All Things Uncertain (Amazon)
Thank you to Chris Vrenna for contributing his insights for this article and for permission to use his photograph with Joe Sorren’s painting. This painting is Joe’s copyright and was used by permission for the cd covers. You can see more of Joe’s work here.
Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
‘We come from different backgrounds but not that we are much different. David’s work is much more organic and less electronic than mine but I think we both try to do something emotional and try to do something that has an impact on that level with people, so to certain degree I think we’re somewhat compatible and I’m ever so grateful that he did it.’ Chris Vrenna, 2001