If you’re familiar with Charlie Clouser‘s music work, then you know his scores for the Saw franchise, Resident Evil: Extinction, Wayward Pines, and the iconic American Horror Story theme embody a kind of creative, driving, industrial terror that is wholly unique and wholly his own. Check out how he’s developed this signature style through a library of original sounds and a decade-long stint with Nine Inch Nails, in the full interview below:
How and when did you first start composing?
I played in bands in high school, and had an all-electronic band in college, but the first time I was actually paid real money to make music was back in the late eighties, when I was hired by an Australian composer to be his right-hand man on the final season of the CBS television series, “The Equalizer”. We had a lot of fun, I made a lot of dark beats and scary sounds, and it let me see under the hood of the moody and minimal music that Cameron was doing for the series. Most importantly, it let me learn the terminology and workflow of the scoring process and get a sense of what kind of music worked and what didn’t when scoring for television.
What was the path or the turning point that landed your first big gig as an artist?
It’s hard to pin down what actually counts as my first big gig. Before officially joining Nine Inch Nails as the keyboardist in the early nineties, I had already been in a bunch of unsigned bands and one signed band, and done a ton of programming, co-writing, and remixing for artists like Prong and White Zombie. So I’d been kicking around the industry and doing decently well for almost ten years, but it was an old college friend who was a producer on a NIN music video who first introduced me to Trent Reznor’s world. I was brought in just to spend a day doing some sound effects programming and I didn’t leave for almost ten years.
You’ve had a really unique career as an artist and composer, working with NIN and other rock artists, and then transitioning into composing for film and TV. What initially lead you into scoring?
I had always preferred the more abstract forms of music over the more rigid confines of song-oriented music, and this made working with NIN a good fit since there was a lot of abstract structure and creative sound design going on in that world. The Australian composer who first hired me to work with him shared a lot of these interests, and that’s what I tried to bring to his world. So, when I finally left NIN in 2001 I was sort of returning to the path I had been on before that long detour. It was another semi-random bolt from the blue that got me started on the Saw horror movie franchise. James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the creators of Saw, wanted a score that was heavily influenced by industrial music, and by chance we had the same lawyer, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to get us in the room together. I met them around lunchtime and started on the score that afternoon.
Who/what are your biggest musical influences?
I really prefer moody, dark, and sometimes scary music – no surprise there. In my high school years it was all about Pink Floyd and Talking Heads, but in my college years I really latched on to Kraftwerk, the David Byrne / Brian Eno stuff, Killing Joke, Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, and stuff like that. In the world of film music I’ve never been big on the typical fanfare style of orchestral music with harp glissandi and flute runs; I’m mostly indifferent to that kind of stuff. It was the Ligeti, Bartok, and Penderecki music in Kubrick’s The Shining and 2001:A Space Odyssey that sparked my interest in film music in high school, and I’d say Bernard Hermann and Jerry Goldsmith are two of my favorite mainstream film composers. Lately I seem to prefer scores that are a little more minimalist and atmospheric rather than thematic, like Cliff Martinez’s work. I really loved Johan Johansson’s scores to Prisoners and Sicario, and Hildur’s scores for Chernobyl and Joker are favorites of mine as well.
We’d love to hear a little bit about your creative process. How do you usually get started on a piece?
I start by creating a family of new sounds to picture. I might pick four or five important moments in a film, and for each of those I’ll create a very rough tempo and meter map by just listening to click tracks against picture, trying to find the pace of the thing. Once I have some sort of framework for those cues, even before I start actually writing in earnest I’ll spend a while just recording new sounds using bowed metal instruments, treated guitars, maybe some hardware synths, and some drums if the piece warrants it. Then I’ll spend a while processing and editing that material, turning some of it into banks of samples in EXS-24 or Kontakt, and extracting loops and audio files from the recordings which I can then distribute throughout the score as things develop. Unlike many composers, I don’t have a huge, standard orchestral template running on five outboard computers; I build a new template for each project based around the new sounds I’ve recorded for it – usually it’s about half new sounds made from scratch and half old favorites. So I’m very much inspired by the sounds I’m using – that’s why I spend so much time making new noises, and why I buy so many sample libraries, hoping to find that one nugget of gold amongst the terabytes of stuff that I wind up with.
Do you ever encounter writers’ block; what’s your remedy to cure it?
I don’t have that problem all that often, I’m lucky I guess! For me, the only tedious part of the process is building tempo and meter maps for each cue, which I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on. Even for non-rhythmic, spacey cues I want there to be an underlying grid to give form and structure to the murk. So there’s always a few days at the start of a project where I’m just listening to click tracks against picture trying to find the natural pace and rhythm of the film, and endlessly tweaking Logic’s tempo list editor, trying to get all my bar lines to land where I want them. Once those frameworks are in place, to me they’re like the black outlines in a child’s coloring book – it gets much easier to color in the clown’s nose when it’s outlined already and all I have to do is decide whether it should be orange or green. Most of my stumbling blocks are usually related to logistics and technology; how to edit, process, map, and sort through all of the raw material I create, and how to roll through terabytes of sample libraries and extract the tiny bits that I want to use. It’s all worth it though, because having inspiring sounds, for me, is the one sure remedy for writer’s block.
Your scores for the Saw films have been so important to maintaining the identity of the franchise. What are the challenges as a composer in working on a multi-installment franchise like Saw? How do you keep it sounding fresh (which it does!) while still retaining the sound and feel of a Saw movie?
Well, there’s a lot of musical material that’s become linked to certain plot and character elements in the franchise, and while they might not be as obvious and overt as something like an Indiana Jones theme, they provide me with a whole set of go-to motifs that all link together. One approach that I’ve used in all of the Saw films is to be continuously modulating downwards in key, almost creating a subconscious Shepard-tone effect. This fits the mood of the films; since the characters are usually on a downward spiral I want the scores to drag the audience down with them. Once you have a game plan like that, as simple and dumb as it may sound, it becomes something that can help make musical decisions easier.
Besides musical techniques, there are a whole family of sounds I’ve made which are only used on Saw scores, so the sounds themselves have become sort of an identifying element, and I avoid using them outside of the Saw universe – which is why I’m glad we’ve done so many sequels as I love using those sounds! When I need to keep things fresh for each film, it’s often a matter of adding a few new motifs, as well as re-interpreting older motifs using different sounds, only using an old motif with its original sound when I specifically want to make a call-back to an earlier film. So that lets me stay in a familiar musical mode without just repeating old material. It might be more difficult to do it this way if I were only using an ordinary orchestral palette, but with the menu of weird sounds that I use it’s easy to play a familiar theme on some new odd-ball sound, and then things feel fresh but not different, if that makes sense. Another thing that makes it a little easier is that I’m always picking sounds, chords, and melodies in response to what I’m seeing on the screen, picking sounds that feel like indoors versus outdoors, or night versus day. As different directors have rotated in and out of the various sequels, they each bring their own visual and pacing style, so I’m responding to that as well. Some directors have a gritty style which lead me to use dirtier sounds, and some have an almost gothic element to some of their visuals, which leads me to use more epic sounds like choirs and more grandiose progressions, and hopefully that helps each film sound a bit different to the others.
What’s your studio setup like? (DAW/Hardware systems); do you have a favorite piece of gear (or plugin)?
I do most of my work in Logic on a Mac Pro with UAD boxes and MOTU AVB audio interfaces, and I use Ableton Live as a ReWire slave behind Logic to manipulate rhythmic material and do crazy time stretching and granular sample grinding, and I bounce the results back into Logic for further processing and mixing. I have another Mac Pro running ProTools that I print all my mixes into, it’s linked to the Logic rig via MADI so I can print 64 tracks in a single pass. I use a Mac Mini running VideoSlave to host picture; it’s synced to the Logic machine via MTC and this works great for me. I do have a decent collection of high-end outboard that is really only used during tracking, things like the CraneSong Spider, Kush UBK Fatso, Neve and UA preamps, Distressors, etc., and of course I still have the greatest hits of 35 years of synth collecting. I’ve ditched a truckload of synths over the years, but kept things like Prophet-VS, Xpander, Microwave IIxtk, Super Jupiter, Arp 2600, MiniMoog, MS-20’s, Emax, a huge EuroRack system, circuit-bent synths and toys, etc. I also have a substantial collection of guitar pedals, with 48 of my favorites permanently powered and wired into patch bays for quick experimentation, and this is a big part of how I create new sounds for each project.
My favorite synth from the last few years is the Waldorf Quantum, which to me is the absolute pinnacle of synth design and capabilities. It really is a monster and can sound just amazing, so that would be my desert-island synth.
If you could snap your fingers and have any virtual instrument custom-tailored for you, what would it be?
That’s a tough one, but I’d have to say the one thing that always seems to take me way too long to make are those filter pulse sounds that are part drum and part synth, both and yet neither at the same time. I’d love a VI that could do the kind of filtered pulses you hear all over Harry Gregson-Williams’ scores; I seem to spend hours fiddling with synths, filters, samples, and plugins just to get sixteen bars of useful pulses! So that’s one area where at first glance it seems like the ground is covered, but when I get down to work every bowl of porridge is either too hot or too cold. Maybe it’s just that I’m jaded from 35 years of twisting the filter cutoff knob and hoping something different will happen THIS time, but that’s one category of sounds that I always have to dig for.
What role do Heavyocity products play in your work?
The Heavyocity products do a lot of heavy lifting for me when it comes to the slightly left-of-center stuff. I use Master Sessions Ensemble Metals and Drums single hits to add weight and a sharp attack to my percussion tracks, layering them with my own performances and samples, and the Gravity and Evolve series have provided me with a lot of great ambient textures and evil drones, which I can never get enough of! Even though I come from a heavily synth-oriented background, I really don’t use synths as much as you’d think – I prefer to use acoustic sounds that have been heavily processed, because they don’t jump off the screen as much as synths might. For this reason, lately I’ve been really impressed with Heavyocity’s NOVO, FORZO, Ascend, and VENTO, They start with the DNA of familiar acoustic sources, but take them into new and often crazy territory, so those four are at the top of my list, and for good reason.