ROCKING into NEW CAREER
After three decades working and performing with blockbuster
musical acts, including U2, Marilyn Manson, Gnarls Barkley
and Nine Inch Nails, drummer Chris Vrenna, at the age of
51, traded in arenas packed with 50,000 fans for classrooms of 20
students at Decatur’s Alabama Center for the Arts.
“You can Google my past, but I don’t think about that. I think
about what’s next. I think future, not past. Don’t get caught up in
what happened a week ago. It doesn’t matter who you are or what
you’ve accomplished, you can always be better, you can always learn
something new,” the now 53-year-old Grammy-winning artist and
Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame member Vrenna said.
A torn rotator cuff , which impacted his ability to perform,
spurred Vrenna’s transition from performer to teacher seven years
ago. That transition would lead Vrenna to becoming the head of
Calhoun Community College’s music technology program at the
Alabama Center for the Arts in August 2018.
His classes range from mass communications to recording
technology to publishing.
“What I teach here didn’t exist when I was going to school. You
didn’t go to college to be a recording engineer, record producer
or a live sound mixer. You learned that by delivering pizzas or
hanging out with bands. I was that guy in the control room going,
‘What are you doing? You need any help?’ That’s how I learned,”
Now, Vrenna is sharing his musical education, which spanned
four decades, with north Alabama students.
“Students are fortunate to have someone with Chris’ extensive
life experiences as a professional musician and recording artist,”
said Bubba Godsey, chair of Calhoun’s Fine Arts department.
Vrenna’s musical experiences started at the age of 6 while
watching marching bands with his father.
“He noticed I would stomp in time to the music and asked if I
wanted to play the drums,” Vrenna said. “This old jazz guy took me
on. I didn’t even touch a drum set for six months. I had to learn on
a practice pad how to hold the sticks, how to work the sticks, how to
play rudiments. Drumming is not about sitting down and making
noise, drumming is an art.”
He played in the youth orchestra and the marching band,
accompanied the community musical theater group in productions
of “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Joseph and the
Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and founded an original punk
band called Eyelidz.
After graduating from high school in Erie, Pennsylvania, he
attended Kent State and studied telecommunications. He dreamed
of becoming a cameraman and either covering wars for CNN News
or football games for the NFL.
When his former bandmate Trent Reznor reached out to him
about joining a new rock group called Nine Inch Nails, Vrenna
placed college on hold.
“When it comes to school or the band, I chose the band. I’ve
always chosen bands. If you don’t take that chance, you never know.
You know in your mind if what you are producing is really good. I
knew that about Nine Inch Nails,” Vrenna said.
With Nine Inch Nails, Vrenna performed in front of 300,000
at Woodstock in 1994, won a Grammy for best metal performance,
toured the country and sold out Madison Square Garden. In
November 2020, the band was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall
After leaving Nine Inch Nails in 1997, Vrenna worked in the
studio with Metallica, The Smashing Pumpkins and U2. From
2004-2011, he played the keyboard and drums for Marilyn Manson.
“Even after winning a Grammy, having huge records and selling
out Madison Square Garden, my parents would talk about me going
back to fi nish my degree. A few years ago, that’s what I did. If they
were both alive, they’d be really proud,” Vrenna said.
He became interested in teaching after the Hollywood Arts
Foundation, an organization focused on using music to get kids off
the streets, asked him to volunteer in the after-school program for
at-risk youth in 2012.
Inspired by the program, he started traveling around the
country, from Wisconsin to Florida, to speak to youth about music.
“My thing became, I will go anywhere to talk to students about
learning any time, any place. Just send me a ticket, tell me what do
you need me to be there (for) and I will drop what I’m working on
and go. I loved it. I loved being with the students,” Vrenna said.
When rotator cuff surgery derailed Vrenna’s plans of touring as
a drummer, a school in Madison, Wisconsin, off ered him a position
as an instructor.
“This was that weird ‘when one door closes, a window opens’
situation,” Vrenna said. “I was so scared. The fi rst two semesters I
felt like the biggest faker, but I knew the minute I started that I was
never going to stop.”
He taught in Wisconsin for fi ve years before coming to Calhoun.
“There are so many options out there for my students. There is live
sound, post production and sound eff ects for TV, fi lm and video games.
That’s what I want to teach them. My goal is to take the blinders off
and show them the big wide world of what audio can be,” Vrenna said.