If you're any bit of a horror or hard rock fan, Charlie Clouser has already been in your rotation.
Think, when your heart races a little more to the strains of the macabre theme to “American Horror Story,” or if it's altogether stopped during this first season of “Wayward Pines.” If Nine Inch Nails' “Downward Spiral”; or Marilyn Manson's solid '90s albums; or Rob Zombie, White Zombie, or select albums from A Perfect Circle, Killing Joke, Helmet or Puscifer have been in your spinlist, then Clouser has likely already left a mark on you. And if you've ever survived a “Saw” series movie, then Clouser's compositions may still be floating through your veins.
The writer-musician recently wrapped on scoring aforementioned FOX show starring Matt Dillon. Today, we exclusively premiere two of Clouser's score selections from the show — “Climb Out” and “Leaking Oil” — and discuss just how one SHOULDN'T write a horror theme.
HitFix: How did you get into this project, and how did your music change as the story has unfolded?
Charlie Clouser: I stumbled into it through my agents who hooked me up with Donald De Line who was one of the main producers. He was, interestingly, not secretive about the story, but he wasn”t explaining the whole extent of the twists that go down in the storyline.
As we began work on the thing, nobody told me where this thing was going to go. After I was hired we started right away. And by the time I realized where the larger arc was in the storyline, I had already completed the music for the first couple of episodes. I jokingly was giving the guys a hard time about “Why didn”t you tell me that this was going to go to all these bigger places?”. And they said “Well, that was kind of on purpose so that you wouldn”t accidentally let that color the music that you were doing in the first few episodes.”
So as a result, the first couple of episodes have a more internal non-epic feel to the score, because we”re really focusing on Matt Dillon”s character”s possible brain trauma and “Is he still in a coma and hallucinating?” And so it was kind of interesting that they, on purpose, didn”t say “Okay, here”s the roadmap for this whole series.” They kind of let me crawl into this claustrophobic music space for the first couple of episodes and only when the story becomes more epic does the music kind of follow that along.
It was lucky on my part that I didn”t know what was happening, and it was smart on their part to not fully brief me.
You would do it the same way all over again?
Absolutely, since I might have accidentally use sort of larger sounds in some of those earlier episodes. I very much categorize some instrument sounds and some musical approaches as being either outdoors — big and epic — or indoors, being slightly claustrophobic or inside the head like when we”re dealing with Matt Dillon”s character possibly hallucinating. So I was glad that I didn”t have to remind myself to use only “head space sounds” on the first episode.
I”m told that I guess this week”s episode and next week”s are supposed to be pretty different. Can you kind of tease what”s happening?
Well it”s – we certainly go well outside the scope of this tiny little weird town where everyone”s in on something and we”re not quite sure what it is. We find out what it is, and it”s definitely of an epic scope that extends well beyond the boundaries of this weird little town. And it was completely a surprise to me when I first became aware of the longer storyline and I”m hoping that the viewers will be like, “No way.”
I assume after working on the “Saw” series and writing the theme for “American Horror Story,” you must be a horror movie lover. What are the biggest sins in making music for a horror movie or show?
The thing that I try to avoid is overuse of easily identifiable musical themes. And I”m always trying to camouflage and to hide what”s really going on in the music so that when it finally is revealed that it kind of has more of an effect.
I think an example of it was in the very first “Saw” movie. My thought process behind that was to make the whole movie sound as though the score had its back turned to the audience so that the audience is always trying to sneak a glance and look over the shoulder of this murky, dark thing. Until the final montage sequence when the very identifiable “Hello Zepp” cue begins. It”s as though the lights have switched on, in terms of the musical phrasing and how identifiable it is in the sound quality. If the score was a character, the score now turns around to face the audience and doesn”t have its back turned anymore. When that piece of music hits the amount of reverb goes down and the sound quality becomes much more present and forward.
Although it was very tempting to use more of the lights-on mode earlier in some of the movies, that was something I definitely had to consciously remind myself to not do until it was time.
You”ve worked and played with Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, White Zombie, Rob Zombie. Similarly — in the hard rock, metal, industrial zone of record-making these days — what do you think is the biggest sin in making records? What are the biggest mistakes bands are making today?
My favorite bands were always the ones that had the most mystery about them that you couldn”t quite figure out how they did what they did or even who was involved. And certainly over the past decade or so, the trend has been to give more information. Bands have Twitter feeds and hourly updates and so forth.
But my favorite bands were always the ones that I couldn”t figure out every nuance about their process and their personnel. Bands like Pink Floyd or Killing Joke or Kraftwerk where it was this sort of mystery. And that made me, as a consumer of the music, much more curious. It kind of drove me to consume more, in an effort to try to learn more about these guys, especially bands like Pink Floyd. They were just from some other planet.
Most of my favorite bands these days still fall under that category of there”s a lot of mystery behind their process, both technologically or their thought process behind writing the music the way they do. Artists like Aphex Twin where you don”t know what he”s up to until he drops some sonic bomb load on you. “Oh, by the way here”s 135 new tracks. You haven”t heard from me in a decade but here you go.” One of my favorite artists back in the 90s and early 2000s was Autechre — you couldn”t figure out how they did what they did or their musical influences.
And I”ve always loved the balances of Maynard [James Keenan] is really active, but then shows nothing at all during live shows.
He”ll be standing behind the drum kit with his back turned.
It”s been an interesting evolution for Nine Inch Nails in that regard. It”s been about 15 years since you”ve played with them, so what”s been your own personal evolution about that time? Do you think about your experience in that band much differently now than you did, say, five or ten years ago?
Not so much. I tend to sort of move in phases through life, and after about seven or eight years in one spot or one mode, I start to get itchy. My tenure in Nine Inch Nails was kind of at the right time in my life and in my creative growth period or whatever you want to call it. I had already worked on a bunch of scoring projects before Nine Inch Nails working as a programmer and ghostwriter on various TV series and things like that. But the moment that I fell into Nine Inch Nails was the right psychological period for me and it was also at my favorite phase of the band”s output, when things were still very kind of agro and raggedy in the studio and in the live performance.
When I joined the band, it was in the middle of the “Downward Spiral” touring cycle, which was when I was just full-on destruction on stage. Keyboards flying and drum kits toppling over and just mayhem. And that really fit with where I was at, where my head was at in those years. It was absolutely an influential period because the kind of sonic destruction work that we would do in the studio is still very much a part of my like sonic vocabulary.
I still certainly use a lot of the techniques and even a lot of the guitar fuzz pedals I did during those years, that certainly remains an important influence.
And I didn”t get into scoring because I wanted to conduct a symphony orchestra. But it was more about the fact that the world of scoring seems to be a much more kind of freeform sonic environment with fewer limitations than making records.
I”m more of a lab rat than a road dog. I certainly enjoyed and treasure the memory of the years spent touring with Nine Inch Nails but my general personality is more suited to long nights in the studio tinkering than long nights on the tour bus. I”m glad I did it but I don”t know if I would do it right now.
Interviewer: I have a feeling Trent Reznor feels the same way too.
I love the opening sequence of “Wayward Pines.” I love the dollhouse kind of feel to it. Do you have any fun stories about how that all came about?
The final theme that everyone hears on the show was actually the very first thing that I wrote. And I put it aside for a second thinking “Well, that”s just an early attempt. That can”t possibly be the one that”s going to work. Let me try five or six other different approaches, some of which were further away than others from that initial approach,” and I didn”t even submit that early version at first.
I didn”t expect that my earliest simplest and sort of scratchiest demo would be the one that Chad and Ashwin and M. Night and Donald De Line — who were the power structure on Wayward Pines would – would be the one that they latched onto. There was a little sort of female vocal line in there that”s almost opera singer. And it was just a tiny little sort of icing on the top of this little piece of music but all four of them, whatever that sound and that little melody is, that has the quality that they wanted to carry throughout the show. It”s wistful, almost not-quite-hopeful, but there”s a gentle wistful quality to that that is going to help mitigate some of the big action and violence that happens later on in the show.
That sounds very comforting, though, that first time you kind of took a stab at it you were already on the right course.
I mean that”s similar to what wound up happening with the main title theme for “American Horror Story.” They wanted the main title sequence for “American Horror Story” to be reminiscent of the main titles from the movie “Seven,” which had a piece of music under it which was a remake of a Nine Inch Nails song that was done by Coil. It bared almost no resemblance to the original Nine Inch Nails song. It basically was a Coil track that was made with some samples and bits from Nine Inch Nails songs. But it had a great aggressive, slow and under watery murky quality.
So when they were cutting the main titles for “American Horror Story” they didn”t want to just use that piece of music from the movie “Seven.” But one of the visual editors had a piece of music that was done by a friend of his in college like 15 years before, who literally did this piece of music in his dorm room after seeing the movie “Seven” and liking this Nine Inch Nails remix.
So they used that as a rough piece of music to cut the visuals together for the main titles for “American Horror Story.” So they contacted Cesar [Davila Irizarry] said “Hey, do you have any of those files? We want to use that track.” He said “I don”t know where those files went.” Cesar is now a picture editor as well. So he didn”t have like the stems and the splits that they could use to rebuild and reconstruct this ancient piece of music, but they came to me figuring I had had some peripheral involvement with Nine Inch Nails at about the time when that Coil remix was done. So I had some stylistic connection to it.
This is another case where I figured we”re starting from scratch. So I wrote five or six different attempts to capture that vibe but not park my car in their same parking spot, you know. And it was a case of no matter what I did, everybody –including me — still liked this rough piece of music that Cesar had done in his dorm room many years earlier. So we wound up sampling and extracting bits from his original demo version of this piece of music and then I augmented it, added new things. But it”s still fundamentally based on his original piece of music from his dorm room which was inspired by a piece of music from the band.
It”s like a copy of the copy”s copy.
Exactly. A circular path that took 15 years to come around to basically where we started.
To wrap things up: what is your favorite song from a movie or a television show, of all time?
One of my favorite themes was from the show “Medium.” Remember that show? The Patricia Arquette series. My wife was really into the show, and I didn”t watch it religiously but I always thought that that main titles with the sort of Rorschach ink blot kind of animation. And the theme was just a really great – it really captured the vibe of what you were about to watch. And I kind of had a soft spot in my heart for themes because I”ve done a bunch of them and I”ve battled that 30 second demon a bunch.
And, you know, in the movie world that”s tougher. I would probably have to give it to “Halloween.”Just because it”s been so memorable and it”s instantly identifiable by the third note of the phrase you know what you”re about to see.
Yeah, I was thinking about that because you were talking about “Medium”s” theme, which had me thinking about “Unsolved Mysteries” on TV. It was so bite-sized.
There was another show – one of my guilty pleasures shows was this thing called “The First 48” which was on A&E. They had a music package that they used for many years with – it was very simplistic and sort of electronic and very small. But their main title theme and the music package they used throughout the show always seemed really appropriate and understated but really correct. And I”ve always liked that one. For all I know the composer dashed it off in an afternoon, as opposed to slaving over it for months. But it always seemed like it was right on the money for that type of show.
I mean I also would have to – I”d go further back – “Mission Impossible.” The original TV series which, you know, that Lalo Schifrin”s original theme to that show. You knew that you were about to watch some spies creeping through dark alleys.
The original Mission Impossible TV series from I guess it was the 60s or early 70s. That was the first time as a child that I thought “Wow, this music is good” and I actually read the credits to see who did that. And I remember thinking “Lalo Schifrin? What an exotic name.” Very much like what I was describing about wondering where people like Pink Floyd come from.
With a name like Lalo Schifrin. Where did someone like that get a name like that? Where do they come from? And so I”ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Mission Impossible because that was the first time I ever read the credits and kind of, you know, I”m only seven years old or something and it was kind of the first time that I ever thought “Ah, a person is responsible for this music and his name is Lalo.”