Charlie Clouser is a multi-instrumentalist composer, musician, producer, programmer and remix artist who has worked with some of the seminal recording artists of the last twenty years. Charlie came into prominence as a member of Nine Inch Nails from 1994-2000. Before joining the band as keyboardist/programmer, he’d already built a following with his extreme synth work and remixes for Prong, Marilyn Manson, White Zombie, and others. Charlie’s first film scoring effort, Saw, became an instant cult classic. His scores for the subsequent Saw series continue to define the films. Raw, grinding, propulsive, punctuated by incredible layers of sound and energy, they are classics in the horror genre. Charlie has also scored such films as Resident Evil: Extinction, Sony’s Pictures’ The Stepfather, and The Collection. In the field of television, Charlie has scored several TV shows, including CBS’s Numb3rs and NBC’s Las Vegas.
Most recently, Charlie created the score for the new FOX event series Wayward Pines, which stars Matt Dillon, Carla Gugino and Toby Jones and is produced by M. Night Shyamalan.
Let’s start by talking a little bit about your history before we start talking about Wayward Pines. How did you first become interested in composing music for film and TV?
One of my first ever jobs making music for money was actually before I started in the record industry in the late 1980’s when I was hired to be the programmer and sound designer and drum guy working under an Australian composer by the name of Cameron Allan, who was at the time hired to score the final season of a CBS TV series by the name of The Equilizer (the original). We got along great, he was very much into the same kind of things that I was into; Brian Eno, Roxy Music. Certainly he was coming from a similar background as he had been a record producer in Australia and was not classically trained himself.
So I worked with him for a few years, and that is what actually brought me to Los Angeles from New York where we had been doing The Equalizer. Once I was in Los Angeles I kind of got sucked into the record industry and kind of took a decade away from scoring to do the whole Nine Inch Nails thing and remixes and all that kind of stuff. In about 2001 when I left Nine Inch Nails I returned to Los Angeles (Nails was based in New Orleans for many years where I had been living with the band), I actually reunited with the Australian composer, Cameron Allan, and he said, “Hey there’s some TV shows I’m kicking around, do you want to get back on that horse?”, and I said yeah. It’s always been a little more fun and a little more freeform sonic playground to do scoring than record industry work.
What kind of differences are there for you when working in a band as compared to scoring TV or film?
Admittedly, Nine Inch Nails was a great environment to be inside of working with the record side of things because that was also very sonically creative, we weren’t just strumming out Bob Dylan covers. It was very fertile ground for the kind of stuff that I like to do. I’m a kind of lab rat as opposed to a road dog. I love to find new sounds and new ways to make sounds and so on. Nine Inch Nails was as good a match as there was likely to be. Still, once I got back into the scoring side of things I felt a little bit more at home in this world because it’s very much a more solitary pursuit. You’re in the lab, looking at pictures that need music. It’s less of a collaborative effort than band music is, and it’s more indusive to long nights of freeform sonic exploration. I think that suits my talents and skills and personality a little better. When you’re doing records you have a sort of finite roadmap of what needs to happen. Not that you are strictly adhering to “verse, chorus, guitar solo, fadeout” but there’s certain rules of form and structure that apply with varying degrees. When you’re scoring a picture, there are all kinds of different criteria that are in effect and a lot of the “rules” from the album side of things aren’t there anymore. It’s a much more, not abstract, but freeform. The possibility for new forms and strange shapes is often there. I guess I like that. I’ve really gravitated towards that.
It sounds like each project is a new area to explore. You’re not working off of the same “sheet” over and over again.
It’s much more of a strange and awesomely lopsided roadmap to what you have to do. That keeps it fresh. Sometimes on the record side of things you feel like the sherpa that the guide to help others climb Mount Everest. For those other people it’s like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They get to climb Mount Everest. And I’m just like, “Yeah which way are we going up this time guys? North Face? South Face? How do you want to do this?” On the scoring side of things you feel like the mountain climber, not the sherpa. There’s a different route every time.
How did your time working in the record industry influence your work when you came back and started scoring music for TV and film again?
I was glad that my first work was scoring and then I got into the record stuff because when I came back to scoring I wasn’t just some guy who used to be in a band who was now trying to figure this out. I already knew the work flow and the terminology and the parameters that were in play, plus the 15 years or so I spent doing record stuff, especially being involved with Nine Inch Nails and doing work with that very heavy, processed industrial soundscape really helped.
The first work when I returned to scoring had a lot of those same elements in play. The Saw movies had a very heavy influence from the kind of sonic footprint that Nine Inch Nails had where we had certain distorted drum machines, and very sample-heavy industrial soundscapes that were being merged into some of the slightly more traditional scoring elements. I was very glad that I was able to find a project that was well served by those heavy distorted soundscapes. The Saw movies were certainly ideal for that. That’s what they wanted and I was certainly equipped to deliver that. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to find projects that would benefit from a slightly aggressive sound design aspect to the scoring. I still have all the synthesizers and guitar pedals that I can deploy I often as I need to.
What was it like being a part of the Saw franchise? Like you said it was somewhat similar to what you had done before, was it a point upon which you could build? Once you had your feet in the water, was it more comfortable to get going again?
Absolutely, I got sucked into the Saw franchise partly because they had used some remixes that I had done in their temp music as they were assembling the movie. I was surprised at first to hear them because these were really obscure remixes, like some Nine Inch Nails remixes that had only come out in Europe. They were obviously fans of that genre and had dug pretty deeply. So yeah, it was a pretty natural progression. I wasn’t so much learning how to score things as I was figuring out how to integrate what I already knew how to do in the context of putting it together into a picture as opposed to just putting it on a record. Although, when we were doing the first Saw movie, none of us had any idea it would turn into the behemoth franchise that it did. We just wanted to make something cool and dark and scary. So, it was sort of like an underground project.
We weren’t really trying to satisfy anyone but ourselves, and we had a lot of freedom, there weren’t really that many people we had to answer to that would shoot down our ideas to have industrial soundscapes in the score. In the last act of the first Saw movie the score just turns into a clangorous banging on pots and pans with screeching metal. The music aspect of it dissolved into this trainwreck of industrial noise, and that’s what James Wan (director and creator of Saw) wanted. Sometimes we’d have two different pieces of music playing out of the left and right speaker at different tempos that were jarring against each other. We were doing things that might not make it through the filter of the studio system, but since this was very much James’ show we didn’t have those guys in suits telling us “Hmmm, I don’t know, guys we may have to tone that down a little bit.” We were able to establish this vibe that we could carry through after the first movie was a success. We didn’t have to back down as much as we worked through the other six sequels.
With horror movies the music is so important, it seems like lately we’ve had movies that are replacing those traditional scores that use a lot of strings with something a little bit darker and electronic.
The timing is sort of right in that James Wan and Leight Whannell had grown up listening to Nine Inch Nails, sort of like a younger generation of guys who are now at the controls of movies. That’s why you see things like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross doing very experimental distorted electronic music for their scores. Those people in places of power in the industry are part of a younger generation than they were 20 years ago, they grew up on this type of music and it isn’t foreign or strange for them. So I think we were in the right place at the right time with the first Saw movie.
Are there any differences between how you approach making music for film as compared to making music for television? How does the workload compare between the two medias?
When doing work for film you generally have more time and you can get a little more involved with in-depth sound design. You can spend a couple days running drum machines through guitar pedals and using toy keyboards with filters to see what comes up, and then chopping that up and digesting it and deploying some of those sounds you make throughout the score. Certainly with most TV shows you have to move fast. I did two weekly network television shows for like 6 seasons each, and those were long seasons. You don’t have the luxury of spending two days to spend with drum machines and guitar pedals to see what comes out of it. Therefore, in one sense, working on film is much more my style because you have that opportunity to get those more involved, labor-intensive soundscapes going.
But strangely it seems like there is a shift going on with all of the non-network TV programming. All of the success of the HBO series and Showtime Series and stuff on AMC like Walking Dead or Game of Thrones have production schedules that are not as rapid. You don’t have to deliver an episode every week like for CBS or NBC. Those non-network series are where all of the good stuff seems to be coming from these days. They have a really rabid fan base. It seems like the extra time that they spend is recognized by the audience. The audience is kind of thinking of these series almost as a territory between TV and movies. Technically they are on TV so they are a TV series, but because of the more relaxed production schedule they have the ability to inject a little more quality into everything, from the photography to the script to the set design, and to of course, the score.
That’s what was very much the case with Wayward Pines. We were working on it last spring through the summer and into the fall. We weren’t on a brutal week-to-week schedule. We did have the ability to spend, maybe not as much time as you would on a movie, but much more time than you would on a typical TV show. I’m quite pleased to be involved in projects like that where they are between TV and movies, with more ability to stretch your legs a little bit in the composing and sound design process of scoring. There’s a little more of a depth of what you can be provide versus what would be a mad dash to finish every week on a network TV show.
I think audiences are very receptive to it, they’re getting cinematic quality at home where they can enjoy it on their couch or somewhere convenient on demand. The production values are there, which viewers appreciate. From what I’ve seen of Wayward Pines, it seems like that is also the case with this series. It should be something that audiences can really enjoy. What’s it like being part of a project like this where there’s a lot of hype and excitement?
Well, in one sense I’m kind of glad that we finished all of the episodes before the hype started, otherwise I might get a little nervous. Now it’s sort of like, too late! The work’s done! When I first started, I thought what a fantastic cast to have on a limited run cable TV series. I’ve always been a huge fan of Matt Dillon, and you have other awesome quality actors involved like Melissa Leo, Toby Jones, Juliette Lewis, and Terrence Howard. That was a surprise at first, the great cast that they had assembled. Clearly this wasn’t going to be just another miniseries. They really took some time to tweak the script from the book and find an interesting cast. A lot of the characters come and go, some are continuous throughout the series, but some come in and shine brightly before going down in flames. It was very interesting to see how well thought out that was right from the top. The 10 episode run of Wayward Pines that is now on really just encompasses the first of the three books in the series. With any luck, if it continues on its meteoric rise, maybe they will think about finding a way to continue the story based on the other two books in the original series, which would be fantastic.
It seems like anytime you have a book or another source of media upon which a TV show or movie is based on, that’s something else that fans can consume. If they like the book, they have the TV show to watch. If they like the TV show, they can pick up the book. What type of tools and techniques do you use when you are creating music for a project like this? Did you use the books as inspiration?
Well, it’s interesting. When I got pulled into this project they had me start work right away as soon as I met with them and had a look at a few scenes from the first episode. So I didn’t even have time to discover the books until I was already up and running and into it. In fact, I had already finished the score for the first two episodes, I think, before it was revealed to me what major twists lie in the future. At one point I remember having a joking conversation with Donald De Line, one of the producers, and Chad Hodge, another producer about why they didn’t tell me about the huge twist. And they were like, “Well, that was on purpose. We didn’t want you to accidentally color your approach to scoring the first two episodes so that you wouldn’t be hinting at it through the music.”
In fact, the score winds up changing, not drastically, but changing once certain things are revealed. In the first couple episodes it’s just a creepy mountain town. Everybody’s in on something, but you don’t know what it is. Maybe Matt Dillon’s character is in a coma? Is this a dream? You can’t quite figure it out. Something’s wrong but you’re not quite sure what. So it was interesting that I didn’t get caught up in the story until I had already done the score for the first couple of episodes, and as it turns out, that was a good thing. I wound up with this sort of gentler, creepier soundscape in the first couple episodes which then gets more deadly and serious a few more episodes in. I didn’t accidentally use any of those deadly serious musical elements earlier on, and I think that’s kind of cool, because everything takes a left turn. The score as well as the show. I did get caught up. By the time I had done the third or fourth episode I had done my assigned reading and was well aware of what was about to take place. But it was funny how everybody was glad that I didn’t know what was going to happen. I think it was for the best in the long run.
What did you do with the music for Wayward Pines that you haven’t done in the past? What’s different about this project?
Because the first few episodes aren’t really chocked full of action, I was able to create a creepy but lightweight feel to the score that had things like very gentle guitar feedback and very gentle sounds playing off-kilter parts. Almost like a mistake or a wrong note in the score. Trust me it wasn’t, it was on purpose. These things added to the stumbling nature of Matt Dillon’s character, he’s trying to recover from a concussion, he’s trying to figure out where his wallet and cell phone are, everyone in the town’s acting weird. He’s kind of staggering down the street, his ears are still wringing from this car accident that he was in. So there’s some elements like that which I was able to really explore in the first few episodes that then kind of go away once it gets deadly serious. But a lot of those more delicate, softer and more subtle musical approaches haven’t usually been appropriate in some of the other projects, like a Saw movie, where things are kind of full-on right from the get-go. It was a nice change to be able to have some of the score have a small feel to it and a sort of lopsided broken feel as well, until things start to get really serious.
Was there an element of experimentation as you progressed through the episodes?
Absolutely! There were some of the themes, little musical motifs, established right at the beginning of the series, and we knew we wanted to be able to call those out at any point throughout the ten episodes. There’s a little three note vocal thing that’s in the main title sequence which we use throughout the episodes, whenever we want to call out the overarching scheme that is going on in Wayward Pines. It could be as subtle as one character looking at another, they’re both in on something, and one character raises her eyebrow as if to say “Ah ha! We’re going to deal with this guy!” And we might use that little three note vocal melody as if to signal “Yes, this is part of THE PLOT that is going on behind the scenes in Wayward Pines.”
So there were a lot of things that carry through from Episode 1 to Episode 10, and it’s sort of like the energy level and the underpinnings and the strength and diameter of the instrument sounds that I was using are changing and getting more dynamic as the series goes on, while still being able to refer to these little musical molecules, which is what I call them, that can work in a variety of different concepts. There were some, like that little three note melody from the title scene for one, and a couple others that I call bonkey percussions that are created with playing a piano with forks and pencils and things lying on the strings. It’s a rattly, broken feel, almost like a child’s music box that’s been knocked down a set of stairs. It’s still trying to play it’s melody, but there are notes that make a wrong sound when they shouldn’t be. So there are sounds that signify that connection and some little musical phrases which I could then use whenever, no matter what the Episode was.
At the end of the series, when the shit’s really hitting the fan I could still use these little motifs and sounds that I had used all the way back to the first episode. It helped to create a continuity even though the musical underpinning was getting more and more intense and large. To some degree I often categorize pieces of music being outdoors, indoors, or inside your head. To me it’s really easy to hear when a certain sound or a drum pattern or an orchestral sound sounds like it is outdoors versus indoors, or if it is inside the head. In the beginning of the series, a lot of the music was inside the head of Matt Dillon’s character, or indoorsy, meaning that the audience is kind of inside his head looking out trying to figure out what is going on in Wayward Pines. Later on in the series when something is more serious, that’s when I was able to deploy more outdoors sounds that have a bigger, wider scope. Now we’re on a much more wide-ranging adventure and it’s not just some internal head drama inside Matt Dillon’s character’s head. Now everyone’s involved and there are external forces at play so that let me use more epic outdoorsy sounds with a bigger and more aggressive feel.
Tell me a little bit about the instruments that you used for this score.
Charlie: There were a lot of imperfect instruments, some of which were what musicians refer to as prepared pianos where you have the lid of the piano open and you drop a handful of screws and pencils and forks and junk onto the strings so you get this rattling bonky kind of malfunctioning sound, but underneath it still has the DNA of a piano. It’s not some far-out synthesizer sound, it’s not R2-D2 coming into the mix. It’s a familiar sonic footprint, and it’s not jarring, but it has some hair on it. There are a lot of those sounds in use, as well as a lot of soft guitar feedback, a sound that reminds you of having a bad headache, because, of course, Matt Dillon’s character does start off the series with a head injury. We don’t know if what we’re hearing in the soundtrack is his ears ringing from this head injury or if it’s part of the score.
Then as things progress further through the series I used a lot of bowed metals where you might have some metal rods or a symbol or a dish. I used some aluminum serving trays that I got at Ikea. If you hold it and play the edge with a violin bow you get something that resembles a musical sound and has a pitch and isn’t some crazy sound effect, but has almost a nails on the chalkboard kind of quality. A bit of a screeching edge. Sometimes those bowed metallic sounds are difficult to record and difficult to play. It’s the kind of thing where you have to spend the whole afternoon bowing this thing until you get the 5 notes that you wanted out of it as it makes inconvenient screeches and scrapes. So there’s a lot of recording it and then editing out the bits that didn’t work and just using those.
A very popular instrument in the horror genre is called the waterphone, which I used quite a bit on this. That was invented by this metal sculptor in Hawaii who invented it actually to talk to whales. Imagine two pie pans, like frisbees, that are welded together to form a UFO shape, and a series of metal rods are along the edge of these welded plates are sticking up. Normally you play a waterphone by pouring water down into the enclosed space between the plates and then bowing the rods while wiggling the thing around. As the water sloshes around inside it, it bends the pitch to create the traditional eerie horror movie sound. The guy who invented it would wade out into the ocean and submerge the thing in water with the rods sticking out, and play them with a bow. The sound would carry for miles in the ocean, and in his words, he would be talking to the whales. It sounds almost like a whale call, and the whales would talk back to him.
I used the waterphone quite a bit on this score, but without the water in it, which eliminates the wiggly wobbly pitch that the waterphone normally has, and lets you sustain tones that have a recognizable pitch. They still have this nails on a chalkboard edge to them. So some of those textures that I got from the waterphone seemed perfect because they were like what was going on in Matt Dillon’s characters’ brain as he recovered from this head injury. Then as we move further through the series I fell in love with using these sounds in this context. They were relatively small but they had a lot of character. They weren’t some orchestral sound that occupies a lot of space, but it was always creepy and always hinting that something wasn’t quite right.
So we have the prepared pianos, the guitar feedbacks, and these bowed metal sounds, especially the waterphone, those established the foundation of the weirdness. This was along with more conventional sounds that as we get more into the epic adventure phase of the series we get pretty gigantic drums, and some dramatic strings and so forth, but always keeping these creepy/broken sounds present because that’s what I kind of established in the first few episodes and that had a great character of malfunction, which fit well with the town and what’s going on there.
Where there any pieces of music or other film scores that influenced your work or your experimentation with Wayward Pines?
I’ve always been a fan of the work of Cliff Martinez. A lot of his scores for movies like Solaris have a hypnotic, muted feel where things almost sound like they’re, not underwater, but coming from behind a closed door. The music almost has its back turned to you. So I did try to accomplish some of the character that he does from time to time, and have a little bit of a darkness and a hypnotic quality. There are quite a few cues through Wayward Pines that have this sort of hypnotic musical pattern that’s playing. It’s not a drum part, it would usually be on a harp or playing of guitar with fingers. Very simple, repeating phrases that gradually evolve and change key while keeping some type of internal rhythm and pace going. It’s something that Cliff does quite well in his scores, and that aspect of it is something I wanted to incorporate into this. Those hypnotic patterns can make you feel like the clock is definitely ticking, but again it’s not a drum that you are hearing, it’s not some percussion part.
There’s a hypnotic motion that at key moments of the dialogue or action will change key or modulate downward. It will raise the stakes without getting louder. We were able to have long chunks of the score where we are raising the stakes but not bringing in drums or other dramatic musical elements by changing key and slightly changing the patterns that have begun to hypnotize the viewer. When you do a jarring keychange like that, all of a sudden it’s sort of like you were about to drift to sleep and you were jarred awake.
There are some long cues where the key is continuously modulating downwards. So every time that there is a long scene with lots of dialogue, someone is talking and revealing some huge plot point, and at each juncture in their speech the key of these hypnotic patterns will go downwards, and then downward again, and never going upwards. It’s almost like as they are revealing more and more in their long dialogue section we don’t want to give any hope. Forever modulating downwards is like the more you learn about Wayward Pines, the deeper you are falling into the hole. So I tried to follow that sentiment with the music in those parts, winding up in a very low sort of girthy tonal range. You might start off at a much higher tonal register, one that is not heavy or with a lot of bass, then with every turn in the conversation it drops down a little more, and a little more. It’s the same instruments and elements that were there at the beginning, but now they have a different character.
You don’t want to lead the action and reveal anything ahead of time. Typically these scenes that I’m describing would be one character revealing through conversation the horrible truth about what’s behind Wayward Pines, and what’s really going on. As the other character is listening and getting more and more horrified about what they are learning, then we can follow them down into their disappointment.
Catch Wayward Pines on Fox Thursdays at 8/9C!
Follow Charlie on Twitter @CharlieClouser
Photo of Charlie Clouser credit to Zoe Wiseman.