[Interview] Chris Vrenna Revisits The American McGee’s Alice Soundtrack

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When I was in high school, I remember cutting out during lunch, hopping into my car, and driving to the local shopping mall to pick up my copy of American McGee’s Alice the day it came out. I already could tell that I would love the game simply on the visuals and my love of the books. But what I would never have guessed is how much I would fall in love with the soundtrack, which was composed by Chris Vrenna (of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson fame). Full of rich, haunting cues that perfectly used the themes of the game, story, and level design, it’s one of those rare albums whose music never seems to leave the mind, always lurking in the dark recesses, the melodies creeping forth when you least expect it.

And so, when I was given the chance to speak with Chris Vrenna, I couldn’t help but ask him about his work on Alice. Read on below for the full interview as we revisit Wonderland!

Chris Vrenna just released a new Tweaker album entitled Call The Time Eternity. Check out our review here.

Bloody-Disgusting: How are you doing?
Chris Vrenna: I’m doing good today! How are you doing?

BD: I’m doing well. Just getting over a cold. But that’s Michigan Fall weather for you.
CV: [laughs] I wish we would get some fall weather out here in Los Angeles!

BD: What’s new and exciting for you these days?
CV: Hmm, what’s new and exciting? I guess just the record [Call The Time Eternity]! That’s been my focus. I’m glad it’s coming out.

BD: I can imagine. I’m curious though, is it a relief when it comes out or does it add to any sense of nervousness?
CV: It’s a relief. I don’t feel any nerves about it or anything. It’s all relief. The time between when you send it in and when it’s released is so long that it’s like, “C’mon already!” It’s all excitement for it to actually come out.

BD: Alright, so let’s talk one of my favorite video game soundtracks ever: American McGee’s Alice.
CV: I’m very proud of that soundtrack. And it’s amazing to me that, over the years, people still come back to Alice quite often as it being one of their favorites. It’s always good to hear. And there’s something about this time of year, right near Halloween, it’s one of those records that seems to get pulled out.

BD: Let’s start simple: how’d you get involved with the project?
CV: I had met American [McGee] back in…Well, we had done Quake when I was still with [Nine Inch] Nails, so we had met all the ID guys. That’s how we originally first met. Then, ten years later, after I left Nails, I kinda always kept in touch with American and he reached out at one point about the game and I was instantly excited about it. It sounded awesome! It just worked out instantly well. Just the game design itself instantly led to, in my head, the idea for everything. It was one of those things that just happened and it worked out easily for me.

BD: What kind of history did you have with Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass at that point?
CV: Well, I had read the books, of course, as most people probably have. Also, it’s my favorite Disney movie, has always been. And so just seeing the twist on it was really exciting. I’m a Disney nut. I buy my annual pass to Disney, always have. It’s only an hour from me, so I go five to six times a year.

BD: The story of Alice In Wonderland is beloved and recognizable. The game took it to a far darker place than had ever been seen before. How much freedom did you feel you had in your compositions?
CV: Complete freedom! That’s why it was so exciting! Because of that, where each level had different weapons and toys, we wanted it to be soundscape-y as well. So levels that were based more around clocks, I used ticking clock samples. Levels that were based more on wood, I used more wooden type samples. Then there were levels that used toy samples and other things. Plus, the idea of making each level its own little nursery rhyme-esque song it was great.

BD: Something that always stuck out to me as being very creative and inventive was the use of clocks as rhythm. Considering that time is a strong theme in the Alice mythos, were there any other themes that you looked at for the music?
CV: Oh boy, good question [laughs]! The way I built a lot of it was based around nursery rhymes and traditional children’s songs. Because there is such a familiarity with Alice for most of the world and there is also this built-in connection with children’s songs and nursery rhymes, so I wanted to reach in and touch on that too, that connection. I tried to incorporate that as well, so that it would subconsciously take us all back to our childhood.

BD: So almost this sense of nostalgia and resonance?
CV: Exactly. Nostalgia. Good word! Thank you! [laughs]

BD: [laughs] Absolutely! I can still remember seeing footage from the game before it came out and reading how people thought it was one of the most unique looking games ever released. How did the visuals impact your compositions?
CV: Sure! Sometimes I would get a level that was pretty much finished. Sometimes I would get just a snippet of gameplay to show what the level would look like. Each level is so unique. Since you’ve got to compose while they’re still building the game, I didn’t always get a finished level to play or to have for reference or inspiration. But I would always have something from American. So I would just based it upon what I would see within the level.
There’s a song called “Flying On The Wings Of Steam” where there is a level that has Alice jumping from pipes, so I was trying to use more airy sounds. Water levels I tried to make sound more bubbly. I just tried to get inspired by each level and the uniqueness that each level had and I tried to capture something about that in the music.
Some of the levels were lighter and brighter while some were darker and I tried to match that. And that’s one of the things I miss about games today is back then, games were like Doom or Alice or all these games and the maps were fairly specific. You went in, did what you had to do to find the exit and move on.
But now these games have these complete open world maps where you can go anywhere, do anything. But because of that, people have looked at scoring for mainly the prerendered cut scenes, as if you’re watching a movie. But once you get to the gameplay part, since it is that way, the days of the little songs and the little themes are gone because game people think that it’ll drive you crazy to hear the same song over and over in the map. So game scoring style has changed over the years.
Now, when I listen to Alice, it’s nostalgic in a different way. I remember how game music used to be made and it’s totally different now. I can still sing level one of Doom 2 because I spent so much time on it [starts singing the music]. It was so cheesy with the sounds they had for the engine back then.
The only real cues now are these little stingers. You could get to it in five seconds or five hours but the moment you do something, the stinger activates because, I don’t know, the army is going to come out now or something else. Then there are the “ta-da!” moments of the “You Died” moments and that’s kinda it. Other then that, it’s become this ambient background almost afterthought, which is really kind of sad.

BD: One of my personal favorite tracks is “Wonderland Woods”, which I felt might have been the most emotional tracks. There was this sense of longing and yearning, enhanced by the long drawn out strings and the child-like xylophone. What can you tell me about this piece?
CV: Oh gosh! That’s going way back! That song happens early in the game. It does set the tone for Alice and the situation she’s in. And that’s a perfect example of where I used instruments that conveyed the tone. Since it’s called “Wonderland Woods”, I didn’t use metal sounding instruments. I went with more wooden ones to create more subtle nuances. That one was also one of my favorites.
Another one I loved was “Taking Tea In Dreamland”. It’s very sad. I’m generally a sad person. I like sad. I do sad well [laughs]! I steered towards a certain sense of melancholia in that score, which is my favorite form of sadness, I guess [laughs].

BD: In “Wonderland Woods”, there is this weird almost mechanical wheezing or breathing, as though it sets up the upcoming fights that Alice will face, like with the Jabberwocky, for example.
CV: You know what that wheezing was? It was the bellows of an accordion.
Now, there are samples online that are all toys. But back then, before samples made everything easy for everyone, I spent months on EBay buying every toy instrument I could find as well as thrift shopping and antique stores. I still have everything I bought. I bought toy pianos, toy drums, the toy accordion, a toy glockenspiel, I bought everything! Then I bought wind up music boxes and a lot of the samples are those wind up music boxes chopped up or reversed or cut into new things.
That was part of the fun. Everyday, it was like, “What are you doing?”, because I would be getting these giant boxes from random places around the world every day in the mail [laughs]. It made the experience making it, it never felt like work! It was just really different because I was actually playing with these toys every day. It was really fun.

BD: So, in a strange way, in as much as Alice was grown up but the music was meant to evoke a sense of childishness, you, as a composer for the game and as an adult, got to be a child playing with all of these toys.
CV: I would use the term “as an adult” very loosely when describing me! [laughs]

BD: [laughs]
CV: I still collect toys! I’m still 12 years old on the inside!

BD: Are there any other tracks that were never released that might someday see the light of day?
CV: Actually, no. As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite. With the game, we only needed so many minutes for the game because of the installation and space on the disc. But I had written so many extra pieces, I actually included it on the album. So the album has more songs on it than the game has in it. There’s a little secret nobody probably knew.
Then, going back and adding in voice samples to retell the story through audio only, we built some special things that way.
So, unfortunately, what’s on your computer is what there is. [laughs]

BD: How did it feel to see American McGee’s Alice rereleased alongside Alice: Madness Returns for consoles?
CV: I found it so awesome that [American] even did a second game, especially so many years later. And the rerelease was great because you don’t really see that happening much anymore. The plan always had been, back then, to, after the PC run, was a port to console. But something happened, I have no idea what, the port never happened. I was always bummed because you couldn’t see it on a big screen TV. So, I’m thrilled that it came out.

BD: What did you take away from the experience of composing Alice?
CV: I think the thing that stuck with me the most was how it made me try new techniques and the combination of melody with found sound, which has kind of become one of the things I continue with as a style. It was one of the first things I‘d ever done like that, so it helped me discover myself a little more. And it’s one of those things that people associate with “Chris Vrenna”, which makes me very proud.

BD: Chris, thanks so very much for taking time out to chat. It’s been an absolute pleasure and I wish you the best of luck with Call The Time Eternity. Also, thank you very much for a soundtrack that has been a big part of my life for so many years.
CV: Well, thank you! It makes me happy that, after so many years, people like yourself remember it and enjoy it. That’s the whole reason why people like myself do what we do. Thank you, you just made my day!

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