Musician rises to Hall of Fame
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOSHUA BERRY
Madison is now home to rock royalty.
Chris Vrenna, drummer for industrial rock bands Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, will be inducted, along with his fellow band mates from Nine Inch Nails, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in November as part of the Hall’s class of 2020. The 53-year-old now calls Madison home and is teaching his crafts as part of the Music Technology program at Calhoun Community College in Decatur.
On the Warhawks’ campus, Vrenna can be found in his office surrounded by a wall full of platinum records, along with a nearby recording studio where a small group of students learn the craft of the recording music business and how to make music magical.
“I love helping my students. You can read and watch about the business, but until you have the equipment in your hands, you can’t grasp the soul of recording,” said Vrenna. “I’ve been incredibly busy since arriving here last year, as I modernized the program already in place at the Alabama Center for the Arts, where we have two recording studios and a computer lab. Some of the program and equipment were outdated, so I completely changed the course.”
Vrenna made his way to north Alabama from another city named Madison. To the far north, in the state of Wisconsin, Vrenna shared his knowledge and talents in music with college students working through a one-year teaching contract. He made his way to the Badger State after years of calling Los Angeles home.
In 2013 the music industry was struggling, and Vrenna was too – sparring with the demons associated with drug addiction and alcoholism. He left playing with Marilyn Manson and volunteered for the art program of a high school in Hollywood.
He was invited to speak to an arts college in Wisconsin for one-day lectures. After 40 years of drumming, his body began to deteriorate, and July 13, 2013, he underwent surgery for a rotator cuff injury.
He was scheduled for two tours but was soon offered a teaching position in Wisconsin.
“I’d been in L.A. for too long and made the decision to try teaching. I knew right away this was good for me,” said Vrenna. “I had won a Grammy Award, played Woodstock ’94 and was a star in the world of rock music. I felt it was time to help the new 20-year-olds in their experiences, just as I was in my 20s with Nine Inch Nails.”
Vrenna had a second rotator cuff surgery in 2017 and hernia surgery in 2019. He said he knew his days as a traveling rock drummer were over, and he was headed into a second career in music. Vrenna said he is proud of his history and his knowledge to be able to teach what’s hot in today’s music industry. “I applied
for jobs from Vermont to California to Texas, and I came here
knowing I liked the people here,” added Vrenna. “I know what I’m doing because I’m still active in the music industry, mixing albums for several acts. I even score music for video games.”
With Nine Inch Nails (1989-1997), Vrenna was behind classic No. 1 albums “The Fragile” (1999) and “With Teeth” (2005) and hit singles “The Day The World Went Away” (1999), “The Hand That Feeds” (2005) and the 1995 song “Hurt,” which was covered by Johnny Cash prior to his passing in 2003. He also played with Marilyn Manson from 2004-2011.
Vrenna received his first starter drum set at age 6. He said he remembers attending parades and watching music on TV and would tap along in time with the songs. “I was lucky to find my life passion early in life. I was in my school’s marching band and drumline. All of that paid off pretty well, I would say,” added Vrenna.
His desire to become a rock-and-roll musician came in 1978. He said he vividly remembers his father taking him to his first rock concert to see the band Boston. “When we went to the arena, I saw the tour buses, air-brushed objects, and from that point on I was obsessed with it.” His father used to pile his son’s drum set into the family’s Buick Century station wagon and drive him to numerous gigs when Vrenna was 14-15 years old. He was the perennial opener for several puck bands but never got to stay around long enough to see the main bands as he was too young for the clubs and had to return home. After hitting the stage to play his music, he knew he wanted to be a performer.
Today, along with his work at Calhoun Community College, Vrenna is also on the Education Board of Directors of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. He visited the space museum as a selfproclaimed “space nut” while on a visit to the area for his final job interview with Calhoun. Most people, Vrenna said, do not know he’s an avid LEGO builder; he even has a 3-foot tall Saturn 5 Rocket LEGO replica in his Decatur office.
Vrenna has a bachelor’s degree in education and telecommunication from Kent State and is pursuing a master’s degree in music technology, which he is slated to complete in December. The degree will come a month after Nine Inch Nails becomes rock royalty when the band is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which Vrenna calls a huge honor. “I’m proud of my contributions to music, and my students think it’s important.”
Vrenna and his girlfriend of eight years, Melissa, spend much of their time on his work and her career in social media and as a jewelry maker. The two have a black and white dog named Otis, who is 5 years old. Vrenna said Otis loves the recording console and seems to enjoy music, as he’s always around the beat of the music.
“I love this community, and I came here at the right time,” said Vrenna. “I love my students and care about them as if they were my own. I see their desire to learn what I have learned since that first drum set almost 50 years ago.”