The Sounds of Terror: A Conversation with Charlie Clouser

Charlie Clouser is a Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalist composer, musician, producer, programmer, and remix artist who has worked with some of the most influential names in the music industry over the last few decades. Charlie gained widespread recognition as a member of Nine Inch Nails from 1994 to 2000, but before that had already built a following with his extreme synth work and remixes for Prong, Marilyn Manson, and White Zombie. During his time with Nine Inch Nails, Clouser co-wrote several high-profile songs such as The Perfect Drug (from the gold soundtrack to David Lynch’s Lost Highway), and The Way Out Is Through (from The Fragile, Spin Magazine’s 1999 Album of the Year). He also continued to apply his talents on albums and remixes for artists like David Bowie, Snoop Dogg, and Rammstein.

More recently, Clouser’s focus has shifted to composing music for visual media. Clouser’s first film score was the psychological horror Saw (2004), an instant cult classic among horror and music fans alike. Clouser’s scores are notable for their grinding, incendiary tones with deeply textured layers of sound and energy. Clouser has also scored films such as Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), The Stepfather (2009), and The Collection (2012), as well as television series including Wayward Pines (2015-present) and Numb3rs (2005-2010), and co-wrote the main title theme for FX’s American Horror Story (2011-present).

We recently caught up with Charlie in order to learn about his impressive career, his creative processes, and his upcoming endeavours.

The Big Picture: Have you always been musically inclined?

Charlie Clouser: My parents were very musical. They were much older when they had me, so most of the music I heard growing up was old Dixieland jazz, and my mom used to play the piano. She would play Scott Joplin ragtime pieces like you’d hear in The Sting. So I started playing piano and then the drums when I was six or seven years old, but I didn’t know that rock ’n’ roll existed at that point.

I randomly bought two records at a garage sale for a dollar. I bought Led Zeppelin’s first album because I liked the picture of the Hindenburg on the front, and a live album by David Bowie called David Live, which was a double album of him playing a concert in Philadelphia. Of course, once I discovered those then the die was cast and I had something better to play the drums along to than old Dixieland jazz!

Who would you say were your favourite musicians/composers? Who inspires you?

I always had very well defined boundaries of what I liked and what I didn’t like. I remember growing up through the ‘70s and thinking, “I like Aerosmith and I don’t like The Rolling Stones. I like Pink Floyd and I don’t like The Beatles.” I was always attracted to dark and ominous sounds in music and Pink Floyd fit right into that. Everything Trent Reznor has done both within Nine Inch Nails and in his scoring work is impeccably done and innovative.

Outside of the rock side of things, I remember when I first experienced film music as a unique commodity when my dad took to me see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music was all classical work that had been stuck into the movie and there were these atonal choir pieces in the early scenes on the moon base and later as we journey into the infinite. That was, I think, my earliest memory of hearing music and just being awe-struck at what I was hearing, not understanding how it was made or how it was put together. This just led to a domino effect of discovering one thing after another.

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Clouser’s studio. Photo credit: Zoe Wiseman

How did you make the shift from musician to full-blown composer?

I actually studied electronic music in college from 1981 to 1985, before MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was invented and we had the ability to easily connect computers and synthesisers. In those days, electronic music amounted to a giant synthesiser the size of a refrigerator with a zillion patch cables on the front. I was in college when the modern era of music technology really came into the scene and you could plug two or three synthesisers into a computer and start doing some rudimentary sequencing. I was always really into drum machines and beatboxes, even in the crude state that they were during that era.

Right after college I moved to New York City and the only real job I ever had was working at the Sam Ash music store on 48th Street in Manhattan, which was the mecca for music technology at the time because this one block had all of the music stores right there on this one street. So, if you wanted to see what the latest drum machine or synthesiser was, that was the place to go.

One of my customers hired me to come and help him on a television score for a series called The Equaliser on CBS in the late 1980s. Then I wound up taking fifteen years and messing around in the record industry, programming on albums, joining bands and that sort of thing. But when I left Nine Inch Nails in 2001 and decided to get back into scoring, I already had a good backlog of experience, even though I hadn’t been in the driver’s seat on a scoring project up to that point. So I was glad that I had that experience because I wasn’t coming into it strictly as a refugee from the record industry completely cold.

Your composing work is very heavily involved with the horror genre. How did that come about?

Well, it was a strange alignment of factors. Growing up I was much more a fan of science fiction than, say, comic book stuff or horror. But, as it turns out, the type of sounds and music that I’m drawn to are a natural fit for horror-type stuff. A lot of the bands that I was involved with, and the type of sounds and music that I would contribute to those projects, were always dark and heavy and ominous and evil-sounding, so I certainly don’t have the taste and the background to do romantic comedies.

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Saw (2004)

Your most iconic work is perhaps the musical score to the Saw franchise. How did you get the inspiration for that particular score and could you talk us through the composition of it?

Going into the Saw project with James Wan and Leigh Whannell, we knew that there was this big twist and reveal in the last five minutes. We knew we wanted to have the score have a big shift at that point, to make that corner that the audience goes around that much more shocking. The score and the movie get darker and murkier and more foreboding, building up to the moment when Dr. Gordon may or may not use that hacksaw… The score descends into this clattering mess of banging on pots and pans and some industrial drums, and it just turns into this murky hailstorm like a tornado going through a junkshop.

Then it all stops and when the final theme begins, the ‘Hello Zepp’ theme, as Adam first presses play on the tape recorder, then we wanted the score as though someone had turned on the lights in the movie theatre. When the Hello Zepp theme begins with the little jingly dulcimer sound and the very strident string quartet, all of these sounds in that final theme are sounds that weren’t used anywhere else in the movie, and it’s also in a different key to all the other music. My analogy for that whole process is that you spend the whole movie as though you’re watching across a darkened parking lot in the middle of the night and you’re watching a bunch of guys, and you can’t tell if they’re kicking a dead dog or beating somebody up; you know there’s something bad going on but they’ve all got their backs turned to you… and then at that crucial moment near the end of the film, that’s when all those guys turn around and face you.

How did you build upon the iconic score from the first film? The Saw films widen in scope film by film in terms of the elaborate nature of the traps, the number of victims, and the complex motivations and multitude of Jigsaw’s successors… is this reflected in the music?

The first movie had almost none of what became a trademark of the later sequels, which is the trap rooms. Many of the sequels would have more and more elaborate traps that the victims were subjected to. So the music to accompany each of those trap scenes became its own little genre. There was one trap where the victims had to hold their breath, and if they couldn’t, that would draw the knives closer and closer. We took an approach to the music where there would be these reversed, backwards sounds as if they were sucking in breath… and so the music would taper off and get smaller and smaller and go all the way to silence and then, when the victims couldn’t bear it any longer and drew a huge breath, the music would follow that kind of motion.

So there would be an approach similar to that for each of these traps throughout all the sequels. All the sequels also had a twist ending where we would roll out the Hello Zepp theme in some form or another. Usually it would be longer and more elaborate than the last. At one point, the versions become six or seven minutes long with new sections added in and fake endings where you think that’s the end but the music keeps going so you realise there’s another twist. That became a lot of fun, because it was almost like back in my record days of doing remixes where we would reinterpret a pre-existing piece of music, but try to make it more intense and more epic while still starting it all off with that little jingling dulcimer and little string sections. So it was always fun to try to reinterpret those and take it to a whole other level of insanity before bringing it back to its familiar ending.

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Charlie composing. Photo credit: Zoe Wiseman

The year after the purportedly final Saw film, you worked on the main title theme for FX’s American Horror Story. Could you talk us through that process?

It was a very circular path that resulted in the AHS theme. Back in the 1990s, there was a remix of the Nine Inch Nails song Closer by Peter Christopherson of the band Coil, which was used in the opening credits of the movie Seven. When creating the AHS title sequence, they found a piece of music that had been done by one of the video editors, Cesar Davila-Irizarry, who, when he was in college, had watched Seven and been inspired by the Nine Inch Nails remix. When it came time to create the AHS music, they wanted something in the same vein as the Seven soundtrack and used his demo as a placeholder.

When they found out one of the former members of Nine Inch Nails was now producing music for visual media, they called me to help out. I wound up taking little samples of sounds from Cesar’s original demo, like those distorted hits that sound almost like a chainsaw. I sampled those out of his original stereo mix, and I also sampled a sound he made by recording the dripping of water into a sink that sounds almost like a symbol or hi-hat sound that keeps the rhythm. I was able to isolate that and snip that out, so I cut out the five or six pieces of sound that I could extract from his original demo to create a hybrid mix that they were eventually happy with. They’ve been reworking it each season to fit the season’s theme.

You’re currently working on the next Saw instalment, Saw: Legacy, due for release October 2017. Is there anything you can tell us about that?

The directors, the Spierig Brothers, along with the scriptwriters, have figured out a very interesting approach to restart the franchise and carry the storyline into the future. It’s a very tricky storyline with a huge twist (as always), but this isn’t just another sequel – that’s why they didn’t just call it Saw VIII. The earlier storylines have been wrapped up with a nice bow. That phase of the saga is over, and this is a restart and a way to introduce new characters that can serve as the foundation for possibly even more sequels. Their approach to the story is much more suspense-, tension-, and action-driven, and less of the ‘five helpless victims trapped in a dungeon beset by trap after trap’ kind of thing.

Much more of the movie takes place outside of the dungeon and trap environment, in the outside world. It’s going to be an opportunity to take a less genre-specific approach to the franchise. I think it’s much more interesting for all those working on it and also the viewers. It’s a new look, a new approach, and a new sound, and I think it’s going be a whole new flavour that hopefully won’t alienate or disappoint any Saw fans, but will bring in new fans who maybe aren’t such die-hard horror freaks. My approach to the score is going to be a lot more percussive and driving and that’ll be a bit of a challenge because I won’t be able to rely on the traditions of the earlier Saw scores, but it’ll be refreshing to take a new approach. And, of course, there’ll be an opportunity to deploy a modernised version of the Hello Zepp theme at the crucial point towards the end of the movie!

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