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Charlie Clouser Talks Nine Inch Nails Past, Film + TV Scoring Present

Photo by Zoe Wiseman
Photo by Zoe Wiseman

Most rock fans will recognize the name Charlie Clouser from his stint as a multi-instrumentalist with Nine Inch Nails, playing keyboards, synths and doing some programming for Trent Reznor‘s outfit during the mid-to-late ’90s up until 2000. He also spent time behind the scenes on music with Marilyn Manson, White Zombie and Prong among others, but these days Clouser is devoting the majority of his time to working on TV and film scoring.

We recently chatted with Clouser about his ties to the rock and metal world and how they’ve influenced his scoring, his work on such projects as Wayward Pines and American Horror Story and he also shares his thoughts on his time with Nine Inch Nails as a recording and touring member and if he’d ever consider returning to the band life. Check out our chat with Charlie Clouser below.

Charlie, I know you were in bands, but you also did TV and film work with Cameron Allan before Nine Inch Nails. Which came first for you, the band life or the scoring work?

Well, I discovered the world of scoring through, working for that composer, Cameron Allan, who hired me to be his tech guy and drum programmer. I guess I was two or three years out of college, and I had been in bands as a youth and played drums and played keyboards a little. And then in college, I actually studied electronic music, and was able to cut my teeth on what was state of the art in the late ’70s, early’ 80s, which was big ARP 2500 modular synths and 4-track machines, just before MIDI came out. I was interested in, you know, dark hybrid bands like Joy Division and Killing Joke and bands like that, that sounded heavy and dark but had some advanced production techniques maybe and some electronics in there. And when I was hired by Cameron Allan, that was kind of the background he was coming from, too.

He had produced records in Australia for bands like Icehouse who had a similar kind of approach – some synthesizers, in, you know, rock context. So it was kind of a good fit. He was very much influenced by Brian Eno and minimalist composers, so it was a good fit in that I wasn’t all of a sudden trying to learn how to arrange a boys’ choir or something, you know. We were scoring very much in the context of electronically influenced hybrid stuff. So that got my engine started. And then, of course, we worked together for four or five years or so, and then I took a decade-and-a-half off to make records and be in bands and stuff. But when I came back into scoring around 2001-2002, I wasn’t just starting from scratch. I was kind of picking up where I had left off.

You mentioned Joy Division being a touchtone there and some of the darker music and sounds, but did any of the TV themes you were listening to growing up influence you?

Growing up in small towns, before the Internet and before even cable TV, TV was your lifeline into the culture. And of course this was before MTV, so all we had was Saturday Night Live and Friday Night Videos. Remember that show? An hour-long show on Friday night where you could see music videos. And, of course, I loved all the classic TV themes, like Rockford Files and McCloud, and all those. Not that that was a musical influence so much, but I’m sure that somehow the consciousness and formatting of some of those classic TV themes sank into my subconscious. Cause I’ve had to do a few themes in the past 15 years or so, and I was able to recognize the need for concise organization and formatting to make something interesting that has a beginning, middle and end, but is only thirty seconds long.

I know you play a bunch of different instruments but when you’re getting ready to score, is there a “go to” instrument that you start on or does the project necessitate whatever the instrument is you’re working with?

Well, the project definitely dictates the choice of instruments, but also the deadline. And that if there’s time, then I can spend a week wandering around in my guitar pedalboard and fiddling with different guitars and bows and stuff like that. Sometimes in television, you don’t have the luxury of having that lenient of a schedule, and you have to just sit down and do it. But what I generally do on film projects is spend a couple weeks at the beginning of a thing just making sounds and recording bits and pieces of various guitars and bowed instruments through a bunch of effects. Maybe mess around with a modular system for a day or two without any clear idea of what the music content might be for the score, but with an idea of the sonic footprint that I want it to have. And I’ll kind of accumulate that stuff in very skeletal mockups of cues, which I then wind up pillaging and some of the material that I record in that initial phase will get turned into instruments in a sampler where I can play individual sounds from the keyboard.

Some of the stuff, if I’m messing around on the modular synth, I might create a bunch of pulses and rhythms and other metric kind of stuff, rhythmic stuff which I can them manipulate and copy and paste and also adjust its tempo and pitch using Ableton Live. So, a lot of times, I’ll create this initial sort of bucket full of noises and sounds and rhythms that at least have the character I want. And, then as I’m actually deciding on what the musical content will be, I pillage that bucket in hopes that some of that stuff will work in the musical framework that I’m doing as the score develops.

Most people here know you from Nine Inch Nails. You’ve worked with Trent Reznor over the years, and we’ve seen him go into film scoring as well but can you talk about the initial bond that brought you two together? Did it have to do with scoring at all?

I think what first sucked me into Trent’s world was, at the time, this would have been about ͛92 when I started working with him and at the time, I was doing a lot of drum and synth programming for hard rock/industrial acts like Prong and White Zombie and things like that. Originally, the first thing I did for Trent was programming drum reinforcements on Marilyn Manson‘s first record. He was busy with three or four things at once, preparing for a tour, finishing the Downward Spiral album. And, Manson had recorded their basic tracks for their first album and Trent thought the drum needed to be beefed up. So I, being a sampler jockey and sequencer wiz, was brought in to just, not to create anything new, but just to stack and add fatness behind the basic tracks for Manson’s first album. And, he allocated “X” amount of days or weeks or whatever it was for me to do that and I finished it a lot quicker than he thought and then he started saying, “Hmm, this guy is a wiz with some of this program stuff. Maybe we should bring him into the loop.”

Of course he already had Chris Vrenna, who’s an excellent programmer and wiz behind all this gear but comes at things from a slightly different angle. So, I think it was love of early ’90s high-tech music technology and my abilities on that kind of stuff that was the first thing that attracted Trent to maybe bringing me into his loop. But, also we shared a kind of a common kind of background growing up. We’re about the same age, we grew up liking a lot of the same bands and having a lot of the same influences. So, it certainly wasn’t a stretch by any means and by that point, I had already been in a band and made a record and done a tour and had it dissolve.

I wasn’t planning on joining a band again. I thought I would just go through life being a behind-the-scenes studio wiz which I did for Trent for some — for a couple of years until finally filling the slot as the keyboard player in the live band. And, so I think it was just our shared background of the bands that we grew up loving and our attraction toward dark and heavy sounds. You couldn’t quite figure out where they were coming from. Is that a guitar, a sample? What is that? So, I think that was deciding factor in bringing me into his loop and probably what helped our working relationship last for, I think it was almost eight years or so.

While we’re on Nine Inch Nails, do you have a favorite period of creativity while working with Trent and why does that stand out to you?

It’s funny, when I joined the band we were touring on the back of The Downward Spiral album and playing a lot of songs from Pretty Hate Machine, Broken and A Downward Spiral. That was very harsh and aggressive and very in your face and destructive music. I was surprised that the direction we took for the Fragile album, it was much more experimental and had a lot more nods to other influences like Eno and Bowie that had a much more expansive music palette. I was pleased but surprised. It was great to see that Trent’s vision encompassed those bands and some of that less intense music and that he found a way to encompass and embrace some of those influences through the course of making the Fragile. I didn’t predict that that was going to happen. For all I knew we were going to make Downward Spiral Vol. II, which would have been great, but it was a testament to his vision and ability to see the future that he didn’t just (and he never does) just repeat what worked last time. He’s always trying to push his own boundaries and get on unfamiliar territory, which I think is key to having a long career that grows with your psyche and your audience.

The Fragile took years and the first couple of years as we were struggling to find a direction it was going to go in and laying down, I think there was more than 100 sketches that might have turned into songs for that album. That period, and this is true with a lot of musical production, the best part is when it’s about 2/3 finished and the song is still having the potential to be awesome. You haven’t completely ruined it by finishing it. Once you’re in the home stretch, and you know what the song is going to be, then it’s less thrilling because you’ve decided. So, that first sort of year and a half, two years as we were piecing the bits that would later become The Fragile, that was one of the most fun and experimental times where there was no deadline and no budgetary concerns and we had a huge studio and lots of toys and could really just experiment. The resulting album, The Fragile, was a pretty wide spectrum of sounds and approaches. I gotta say, it was daring and visionary move on his part which I never could have predicted.

You also mentioned the fact of working with Rob Zombie. I see you’ve done stuff with Marilyn Manson and Prong. They all have dark themes in common. I’m wondering how much of working with each of these musicians factors into what you are doing now in terms of the music scoring and do you see some of that still carrying over? 

There’s definitely a thread of influence that I bring with me, I think more so in the movies and the Saw film series, which they definitely used. I was able to use a lot of the techniques and approaches that I would have used on Rob Zombie or Prong or Manson. Some of those approaches that would not have been appropriate in Nine Inch Nails, whereas Zombie just needs to sound badass. Some of the things that I think sound badass, might not work in a Nine Inch Nails context because they’d be too … I won’t say cheesy, but maybe normal. Whereas they would work for the more rock influence things like Manson or Zombie. Those kinds of techniques and approaches, bass lines or whatever do work in the context of a Saw movie where it wants to be terrifying and rugged and kind of badass. So throughout that series of seven movies, there was definitely of continuity of approach and some of the effects units I would use, and some of the ways I would mess up guitar sounds and stuff definitely helped to form the foundation of the sonic footprint for the Saw movies. Less so in some of the other films I’ve done and even less so on the TV stuff, which the TV stuff tended to be more atmospheric and rhythmic pulsey but not gigantic and rugged.

Some of the other non-Saw movies that I’ve done also needed to be a little more, have a little more emotion and finesse than you’d find in a torture scene in a Saw film. But across all of these, the studio trickery and techniques for manipulating sound that I developed through the years of working with Trent, definitely have made an appearance.

I’m glad to see he has moved into scoring because that’s a natural fit and his approach to sound and minimalist composition is a natural fit. I love his score for the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I think that works wonderfully. So, it’s not a huge leap, I think. Another thing that is at work here is that the directors and producers of movies these days are our same age. We’re not just 22-year-old kids with a crazy sounding band that some 50-year-old director is going to try to squeeze into his movie. A lot of the directors and producers are our age. They grew up listening to our bands and to the bands that we liked. So, it’s not a struggle for them to figure out how to fit the kind of songs that people like us work with into their movies. I think that’s been a huge, opened up a lot of doors and opportunities for people who come from my kind of background.

American Horror Story … Let’s talk about how you got involved with that and your thoughts on the piece you did.

All I did was the main title theme. I didn’t do any of the under score for the various episodes which for a while I believe was James Levine and then later Matt Quail. The theme is a funny circular story. When they were cutting the main title sequence for AHS, they wanted it to be influenced somewhat by the main title sequence in the movie Se7en. The background music for that, in Se7en, was a remix that Coil did of the Nine Inch Nails song “Closer.” So, the guys that are cutting the main titles say, “Oh we’ve got this piece of music that a friend of ours did back in college after he saw the movie Se7en and he did this piece of music that was kind of influenced by that. Let’s use that as a temp track to cut these main titles to.” So they did. Then, they needed to beef it up, change it around, have separate stems for mixing and so forth. But, the musician who had done that piece of music didn’t have any of the — he just did it one night in his dorm room or something. He didn’t have the multi track or the splits or whatever.

So what wound up happening, they came to me figuring well you were involved in NIN, you know what that remix was, how they did that and maybe you can improve upon this and change it around a bit. So, I had made three or four attempts to capture that vibe but everybody still loved this scratchy demo track that this guy had done in his dorm room. His name is Cesar DaVila Irizarry. He didn’t have the elements that we could use to reconstruct a more modern version. So I kind of, using his track as a jumping off point, I sampled a few sounds from his original demo track and added new ones, recreated some things that I couldn’t sample and basically created a more modern hybrid version of this track that had been done as an homage of a remix to a band I used to be in. [laughs] So it was like this circular path that wound up at that end result but that theme owes almost all of its destiny to that original demo that Cesar had done, I think, in his college dorm room 20 years ago.

One of my favorite series from this past summer was Wayward Pines. Talk a little bit about how you got involved with that. That’s grown more into you doing more than just the theme … 

Absolutely. I did all the underscore for Wayward Pines and we put a lot music into it. Out of 42 minutes of running time in an episode, there’s probably 35 minutes of score. It was interesting because there’s a big twist in the storyline and when I started doing the first pilot episode I didn’t know about the twist and so I was scoring based on what I saw on the screen that is this weird little mountain town and everybody is in on something, but you don’t know what. Maybe Matt Dillon’s character is actually hallucinating or dreaming all of this as he is lying in a hospital in a coma. You don’t really know whether this is a brain malfunction in Matt Dillon’s character or whether this stuff is really happening. You don’t know that until a few episodes in.

It’s interesting, because as I began scoring it, I was approaching it from that point and then, had to adopt a slightly different approach once the big twist was revealed which became interesting and I kind of gave the producers a hard time, like, “Why didn’t you tell me that this was going to turn into this epic tale of humanity spanning thousands of years with mutant creatures, hibernation chambers” and he goes, “Well, we’re glad that you didn’t know that because now the score in the first few episodes has a different feel than in the later episodes and maybe if we had told you what was going to happen, you might have accidentally been influenced by that in your score.” Although it was kind of an accident, my lack of knowledge about where the series was going to wind up, I think actually helped in the long run.

Now that we’re coming back for a second season, a lot has changed in the storyline but there would be a lot of threads that link back to the stuff that was done in the first season. It’s been a very interesting palette to work with. It’s not big and rugged and distortion of a score. It’s much more acoustic. There’s almost no synthesizers are used, anywhere, because the show kind of takes place, for the most part, it’s not in a hi tech environment with — it’s not like a Saw movie where you have these big mechanical traps that distorted drum machines and crazy programming fit with that. So it was interesting project to develop a new sound palette that had a lighter weight but was still a dark sound.

I know you’ve got a few other things in the works. What’s on your plate right now?

We’re going to start up Wayward Pines season two in a month and a half or so. Also, I’ll be scoring another series from one of the creators of Wayward Pines who has moved onto another project, he’s moved on to another project called Good Behavior, which will be on TNT this summer. That’s also not some hi-tech cybernetic robot battle, [laughs]. It’s bad people doing bad things, but in the normal world and it takes place in Georgia and North Carolina. There are drifters, crystal meth freaks and assassins. Bad people doing bad s–t. So, it’ll be interesting because again, it’ll either be dark in color but light in weight. That can be a little tricky but it’s fun when you get it right. There’s another movie knocking on my door that is trying to squeeze in before we start on Wayward Pines II and Good Behavior. If I have time, I may knock out a top secret movie project in the next month but I don’t know if the schedules are going to work out. But, those two TV shows will keep me busy until July or September. It’s going to be a long summer.

Scoring seems to take up all of your time these days. Do you ever have any pangs or thoughts of maybe going back to the band / tour world?

I certainly would if the opportunity presented itself. The landscape of the record industry has changed, obviously, drastically in the 15 years or so since I was last on tour. Of course touring with Nine Inch Nails was always fantastic and was never a struggle and if there was some greatest hits reunion tour, sure I’d jump on board that. I don’t know if I would start another band from scratch at this point, but I wouldn’t rule anything out but it is just more of the case, the scoring stuff has been pounding on the door and I’ve just been stacking up projects one after another.

Nine Inch Nails was one of the few band situations that offered the same fertile ground for experimentation and sonic trickery that scoring does. Scoring is very similar to making a Nine Inch Nails record. It’s not four guys in a rehearsal space trying to work out guitar riffs. It’s sonic experimentation and finding new sounds and new ways to solve musical problems and there’s very few band situations that are like that. I was lucky enough to stumble sideways into one of them. If I was able to stumble sideways into something like that again, I sure would. The thought of that happening twice in one lifetime? Maybe wishful thinking at this point. [laughs] I’m much more of a studio guy that a road dog. NIN was a great fit and scoring is a great fit because it’s essentially a studio process. Sure, I’d head out on the road again. But I would miss those long nights of experimentation in the studio if I did.

Are there any of the younger acts these days that are influencing you?

I still follow many of my old favorites, Killing Joke is still out there killing it. Atari Teenage Riot and Alec Empire, still doing what they do which I love. But when I discovered Die Antwoord, I thought it was remarkable because I thought, “Wow, I haven’t hear something that has sounded this fresh and new and my way of thinking is, essentially punk rock — utterly upside down version of what music is supposed to be.” So when I first heard Die Antwoord, I thought, “This is freaking fantastic. Whether or not it’s good music, I don’t know.” But as a cultural movement and as a daring exploration of sideways cultural art tuff, I thought Die Antwoord is great. I always enjoy their tracks and their videos and think to myself, “Wow, that’s something I wouldn’t have thought of or might not have had the balls to do.” Of course they have nothing to do with the heavy / dark bands I grew up listening to, but I remember when I saw their first music video and heard the first few tracks, I thought, “Wow, now this is something fresh and new.” There’s no denying it, whether or not it’s any good, I don’t know, but I like it.

Our thanks to Charlie Clouser for the interview. Check out some of Charlie’s film and TV work below and keep an ear out for his music on Season 2 of Wayward Pines on FOX and the upcoming TNT series Good Behavior.

Charlie Clouser, Saw Main Theme

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Charlie Clouser + Cesar Davila Irizarry, American Horror Story Theme

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Charlie Clouser, Wayward Pines Soundtrack Preview

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