by Julia Rubiner
Everyone knows that Cure fans are freaks. Their adoration of frontman Robert Smith, in particular, approaches religious zealotry. Chris Vrenna is one of these acolytes. The founding drummer and programmer for Nine Inch Nails, Vrenna is currently exerting his sonic energies as the leader of tweaker, a highly respected hotbed of creative collaboration. He will realize a sort of personal apotheosis when tweaker's new album, 2:00 A.M. Wakeup Call, is released in April: It features a revelatory contribution from none other than Robert Smith, on the track "Truth Is." Wow, I guess I can die now, Vrenna thought when Smith said he wanted to participate in the project. And this from a guy who, as a producer/remixer/engineer and/or programmer has worked with U2, David Bowie, Weezer, Green Day, Marilyn Manson, Smashing Pumpkins, Rob Zombie, P.O.D. and Hole, among others. Following are the reflections of a lifelong Cure fanatic.
"For me, The Cure has always just been there, like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin," says Chris Vrenna. "The Cure has been in my life ever since I've been musically cognizant, so I can't even say how I found out about them." The first Cure album he bought was 1984's The Top, "and I just went backward from there," he explains. "I've always liked bands who don't sound like anyone else, and who make sounds I've never heard before. On that first record I got, there was drum-machine stuff and tribal drums that just pounded, but then there was acoustic guitar and heavy, heavy synths, and then toy piano. That's something about The Cure that just amazes me, how they always keep you guessing. On Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me , which is still one of my favorite albums, they ran the gamut from some of their darkest and most somber material to some of the most upbeat pop stuff they've ever done -- all in the span of one double album."
And, of course, there was the identification with Smith. Vrenna was the first kid in his high school to (self-) pierce his ear -- no small act of rebellion in Erie, PA, at that time -- and at some point, he started dyeing his dirty-blond locks jet-black. "The image thing definitely got my attention," Vrenna confirms. "The crazy hair and the eyeliner and the lipstick -- Robert was way out there." Indeed, it was the face that launched a thousand Goths.
Vrenna cites the recurring Saturday Night Live sketch "Goth Talk" as an example of Smith's iconic stature. The parody is one of the funniest bits on the show, but as Vrenna points out, "When you get past the image and really sit down and listen to The Cure's songs, you go, 'God damn.' Robert's lyrics have always been immediately engaging, and he's always had something to say -- an authentic, thought-provoking point of view. His songwriting is intelligent and succinct. I could always grasp what he was saying and relate to it on an emotional level."
The voice delivering those literate lyrics was also uniquely compelling. Says Vrenna: "There are very few singers whose voices are instantly recognizable, and Robert is one of them. But it's a totally unassuming voice. It has an unmistakably melancholy, vulnerable-sounding quality that draws you in. And it's not some formula he's hit on and stuck with; that gut-wrenching sound is real and true -- it's just him."
Vrenna has seen every Cure tour since the release of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and he remains astonished by the intensity of the fan response. "The last time I saw them was when they headlined [Los Angeles radio station KROQ's 2003] 'Inland Invasion.' There were 60,000 people there. The first band went on at noon, and The Cure was the last band on the main stage, and I swear, not a soul left the venue until the show was over; the kids in their black shirts and black hair and eyeliner were there all day long. And when the band played, everyone sang every word. You'd think after a while it wouldn't happen, but when they did 'A Forest,' you could see and feel those 60,000 people in San Bernardino [California] in awe; a lot of them were in tears. You can't explain it -- it's magical. That's what makes that thing, the communal live experience, so special and so timeless. That's what The Cure is."
Asked about The Cure: Join The Dots: B-Sides & Rarities, 1978-2001 (The Fiction Years), a four-disc bonanza for the faithful, Vrenna states: "I own pretty much the entire Cure catalog -- all the records and most of the singles -- but there are a lot of tracks on Join The Dots that I've never heard in any form, that I didn't even know existed."
He says of an especially welcome find: "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me was one of the first things I bought when I was converting my vinyl collection to CD. But when they transferred Kiss Me from vinyl to CD, they had to drop one song because the double-vinyl record wouldn't fit on a single CD. They dropped 'Hey, You!!!' and I was really pissed off about it; I always felt I was owed that one song on CD." It has resurfaced after all these years on Join The Dots, albeit in an extended remix version courtesy of Francois Kevorkian (who has done much remixing for Depeche Mode and with whom Vrenna says he would love to work) and Alan Gregorie.
Vrenna comments on "10:15 Saturday Night," the first cut on Join The Dots: "I've always considered that song a Cure staple, so I couldn't figure out why it was on this compilation of B-sides and rarities, but then I did some research and I realized, Oh my God -- that was a B-side [to The Cure's debut single, "Killing An Arab"]. So even if there is material on this collection you've already heard, there's a certain educational aspect to it that, as a fan, I really appreciate. And it shows you: That song is a classic for a reason, whether it's an A-side or a B-side."
Even as the ultimate Cure aficionado, Vrenna says he was quite impressed with the depth of the esoterica found on Join The Dots. He recalls: "When I first got Mixed Up , with all those remixes, I thought, I don't know if I want to hear The Cure's songs done this way -- I had such a purist's view, this incredible emotional connection. But then Mixed Up became all I listened to. 'Never Enough' was the one new song from that album, and it was a big hit and I had the 'Never Enough' CD single, which had this other new song, 'Harold And Joe' [actually the B-side to "Never Enough"]. So for there to be a B-side on Join The Dots of a song that was kind of a bonus track in the first place -- it's this layer within another layer, and I'm just thinkin', Wow, this is so cool."
Another standout for Vrenna is "Splintered In Her Head," about which he says: "That was one of the songs I'd never heard before. The groove alone and some of the riffs in it have made it a new favorite for me. You can really hear where that song was headed -- it's a bridge to [1982's landmark] Pornography." Smith himself bears this out when he says of the song, in the liner notes to Join The Dots, "There are . . . definite signs here of the Pornography stuff to come."
Vrenna vaguely remembers owning a 12-inch vinyl version of "Breathe," which he calls "just gorgeous, with the cello and piano creating this very distinct mood." He continues: "That's one of the songs from the boxed set that is so great to have on CD. It catches me up and fills in some blanks. It's another of those things where I thought to myself, How could something like this have not appeared on one of their records?" For his part, Smith says of "Breathe," written at Miraval, the French countryside studio where Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me was recorded: "It's a song that means a lot to me. Lyrically, it deals with a recurring Cure theme, that hopeless wanting for what has been, whilst knowing that it is gone forever. Musically, it's trying to capture the feel of late-night Miraval . . . a beautiful world of stars and sighs."
"After the 20th or 30th Cure song I'd never heard before," Vrenna notes, "I was marveling at how prolific the band has been -- and then there are these covers! I've always been stunned by how much they've recorded above and beyond the studio albums."
The cover songs include not one, not two, but three incarnations of The Doors' "Hello I Love You," which is just fine with Vrenna. "Give us everything," he insists. "We're true fans; we're completists. That's what it's all about -- hearing everything this artist has ever produced." Of the Jimi Hendrix ("Purple Haze") and David Bowie ("Young Americans") covers, he says, "It's really illuminating to think about who Robert Smith has been influenced by, when for all these years I've strictly thought of him as the person doing the influencing. He has inspired so many artists."
Not least among them is Vrenna himself, who had the opportunity to meet Smith at that Inland Invasion concert. (In the age of Pro Tools and FedEx, Vrenna and Smith were able to collaborate on tweaker's "Truth Is" without ever having met face to face). "I've been to a lot of backstage areas," Vrenna says, "but in this case the musicians from the other bands on the bill -- and their crews and their girlfriends and their girlfriends' friends -- were lining up for Robert to sign their laminates, and these were jaded industry people! Robert had two security guys, but he still had 50 people following him around trying to shove pens in his face. I'd never seen that before. It just goes to show you how much other musicians respect and worship him, how deep his influence runs."
Vrenna concludes of Join The Dots: "After feeling I've known The Cure for 25 years of my life, this boxed set comes along with four CDs of material, so much of which I've never heard before, and it's like learning the band all over again. There's that same sense of excitement and discovery."
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"10:15 Saturday Night," "Splintered In Her Head," "Breathe," "Hey You!!!," "Hello I Love You," "Harold And Joe," "Purple Haze" and "Young Americans" are featured on The Cure: Join The Dots: B-Sides & Rarities, 1978-2001 (The Fiction Years).
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Before working for a decade as a corporate hack in the music industry, Julia Rubiner worked for several years as a corporate hack in the publishing industry. She has also served as a staff writer for the Benzie County Record-Patriot (summer circulation: 3,000), a cheesemonger, a combine driver and Madonna's lap dance stand-in.