Charlie Clouser has taken a circuitous route to becoming a composer for television. After helping create some of the most well-known industrial music of the ’90s as a member of Nine Inch Nails, as well as working with Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson, the musician-producer moved into composing for film and TV. In addition to the abovementioned shows, he’s also scored every film in the Saw franchise—and a few unexpected projects, as well. The A.V. Club spoke with him recently about how somebody goes from playing keyboard in one of the most famous bands of the era to concocting some of the most recognizable themes on TV.
The A.V. Club: Most kids probably don’t join hardcore industrial bands thinking, “Maybe someday I’ll compose music for a Fox TV show.” Was there a plan early on, or did you sort of fall into this by accident?
Charlie Clouser: [Laughs.] Well, I actually had worked in the field. The first job I ever had where I was getting paid to make music was fresh out of college. I was living in New York City, and I wound up working for an Australian composer who was scoring the final season of the CBS series The Equalizer back in the late ’80s. There were three of us on this little team, and I was the guy doing the drum programming, making scary sounds, working with samples, and mixing the score and just kind of doing everything but the piano and strings. I did that for a few years with him before I went off to spend 15 years mucking about in the record industry, so I already had that in my back pocket and had a bit of experience doing that.
The unifying thread through all these different aspects of music business is just my attraction toward working with sounds and designing new scary, evil, dark sounds—and Nine Inch Nails was a very sound design-heavy kind of band. It wasn’t four guys sitting around the campfire playing Rolling Stones covers. It was very much trying to push the boundaries of the technology and the technique and make something that none of us had ever heard before. So that fits in with a lot of the stuff that I wound up doing on the scoring side since leaving the band in 2001. There’s some slightly twisted aspect to the sounds that come out when I play my instruments, and that is, in my mind, kind of a continuous thread through the remixes and Nine Inch Nails and the scoring stuff.
AVC: So if you actually started out doing sounds for The Equalizer, how did you get hooked up with Nine Inch Nails in the first place?
CC: A similarly strange path. The composer that I had been working for on The Equalizer came to Los Angeles to do some movie-of-the-week type of work and brought me out here with him. I reunited with some old friends from college, one of whom was one of the producers on a Nine Inch Nails music video—this is for “Happiness In Slavery”—and they needed the sound effects for this torture chair that was going to torture and eventually consume the performance artist Bob Flanagan, who was the main focus of that music video. And rather than go to a conventional audio post facility with a conventional sound designer, my buddy from college said, “Hey, I’ve got this friend who is a wiz at manipulating samples and that kind of stuff, and he probably could do this in a day instead of us booking time at a post facility,” and blah blah. And he was suggesting this to Trent, and Trent said, “Sure.”
And so we laid out two days we thought it would take us to do the work, and we wound up doing it in about three hours and spent the rest of the time playing video games. [Laughs.] Trent said, “I’ve got this band I’m producing called Marilyn Manson, and we need to augment and repair their live drum recordings, and I just don’t have time to deal with that now. Can you maybe tackle that?” So I tackled that. One thing led to another, and I just sort of never left the camp. And eventually it was my turn to play keyboards… that was about ’94 when I officially joined the band as a live keyboard player, and we moved to New Orleans and did tons of tours and tons of remixes and a couple Marilyn Manson albums and a very involved Nine Inch Nails album. Then I eventually left the band in 2001 and came back out to Los Angeles, where I actually reunited with the composer that I had worked with so many years before in New York. He said, “Hey, there’s a few new TV shows kicking around if you feel like getting back on that horse.” And so I did, and here we are.
AVC: You were in Nine Inch Nails for the majority of the ’90s, but you were working with other artists, especially Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie. Did that just sort of stem naturally from encountering those guys during your time with Trent Reznor? Or were you always interested in continuing those projects even as you were doing Nine Inch Nails?
CC: I was always really into the glory years of industrial rock remixes, where the time and the budget were available to spend a long time creating some of that stuff. I had done all the drum programming and sample work and synth programming on the White Zombie album Astro-Creep: 2000. That led to me remixing five or six tracks off that album.
When you’re in Nine Inch Nails, it’s still very much the Trent Reznor show. And he’s up on the bridge of the Titanic steering the ship, and the rest of us are down in the boiler room shoveling coal. And the loud speaker would come on and say, “I need more speed,” so you shovel a little faster. And working on all those side projects, programming on different artists’ albums and doing remixes and stuff, was a way to exorcise some demons and use some of the techniques and sounds and things that I love doing that might not have been appropriate for whatever Nine Inch Nails had going on at the moment. White Zombie is very much big rock, and a lot of those sounds don’t work in the context of Nine Inch Nails—but they were still things that I enjoyed doing, and so that was a good way to get that stuff out of my system.
AVC: You mentioned that you were called in the first place because of visual sound effects for the video. It sounds like it wasn’t that big of a transition for you when you actually moved into the world of TV and film.
CC: Oh, absolutely, and that’s sort of what attracted me more toward doing remixes than album work, per se, because remixes were much more free-form, and it wasn’t, “Okay, we’ll have an eight-bar intro and then verse one and then chorus one and then guitar.” The tight and almost preset arrangement of many rock songs and album-type work was less thrilling to me than the approach of a remix, where I might have a 64-bar-long intro that goes directly to the first chorus without any verse. And of course Nine Inch Nails’ song arrangement and layouts also had that aspect to them, and on many of the Nails albums, there would be strange little instrumental pieces of music that didn’t fit the format of a pop song or a rock song or whatever. So even working in the context of the band, I had a lot of opportunity to do stuff that wasn’t just the same old rock song arrangement.
Of course, when working to picture, the form is dictated by the edit and the action on screen and the dialogue, and so you might have pieces of music, all verse and no chorus or something like that. And that’s always attractive to me, to work with music whose form is a big question mark. Even many of my favorite bands growing up, when I was just a kid learning to play drums and guitar and everything, were bands like Pink Floyd, where the arrangement, the number of bars in each section is unconventional and often lopsided, and there will be small little instrumental interludes and that sort of thing. So those odd forms, as well as dark content, are the things that I think are continuous through all the type of projects that I’ve been attracted to.
AVC: What would you say was the biggest adjustment in how you went about creating music when you moved to the visual mediums of TV and film? Many composers say that simultaneously the best and most frustrating part is the collaboration with the directors. Is that the case for you as well?
CC: The only part that’s ever frustrating is just the deadline. If left to my own devices, I’d work for a year on something that doesn’t need to be worked on for a year because I enjoy it. There’s this sort of portion of the process where a piece of music is about two-thirds finished. You’re over the hump, you know what it’s eventually going to be. You’re not wandering around in a field wondering which way is north, but you haven’t yet completely ruined the piece of music by finishing it. So there’s this phase in the middle of the process where there’s still the potential that this will be great, but it’s not a blank sheet of paper anymore, and that phase is always my favorite part and the part that I tend to want to stretch out and spend as much time in as possible.
But in terms of adjustment, I guess I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had a lot of tussles and arguments in working with directors about trying to find the right approach for a score. I think to some degree, it’s because I already had an established body of work from the record side of things. I’m not a one-stop music shop with jazz improv in aisle 3 and country and western in aisle 4. I have a fairly focused and established kind of melody and approach, so people know what they’re getting into when they go into business with me.
And I’ve got to say, it’s not necessarily because I’m good. It’s just that I’m in tune. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on projects that are naturally down my alley so that it doesn’t seem to be a struggle. In terms of adjustment, the big adjustment is just adapting to the brutal deadline schedules involved in a lot of TV work, compared to Nine Inch Nails, where we’d spend months working on a drum sound or something. In movies, the schedule is generally much more lenient, and I have more time to experiment and go down some blind allies and decide an approach isn’t working, and try something different. But in TV, it’s sort of like, you better make the first try a good one, because that might be the only try.
AVC: Despite the through-line for a lot of your work being darker, grittier stuff, in terms of TV, you’ve actually done some much lighter projects. You did Numbers, and Las Vegas—and of course, who could forget the short-lived Fox series Fastlane?
CC: It’s interesting. On something like on the show Las Vegas, there was a lot of music that I did, which I would never have had a reason to do that type of music in any other situation in my life—almost goofy comedy caper music where I’d have bongos and stand-up bass, almost Pink Panther stuff happening. That’s a style of music that I had no idea how it’s constructed and I‘d never done it before, and I just kind of had to feel my way through it. The analogy I make is that it’s sort of like popping wheelies on a rented moped on vacation in the Bahamas. You’re wearing flip-flops and a goofy-looking pair of shorts you bought at the gift shop hotel because you forgot yours, and you’re on a rented moped and you’re doing wheelies and you look like a dork. But at the moment you’re doing it, you’re totally having a good time, and you’re like, “Please don’t take any pictures of this and put them on Facebook. But I will admit, I’m actually enjoying this.”
And there were some aspects of doing shows like Las Vegas that were like that. It was fun because it was something completely new—I wasn’t stuck in a rut doing the Seinfeld theme for the thousandth time. I’m like, “How the heck… What kind of chords do they use in a Pink Panther cue anyway? Let me try to figure that out.” So conquering something new becomes fun, even if that thing you’re conquering isn’t what you’d normally do.
AVC: You had already been doing music for the Saw franchise during that time, which seems like it’s right in your wheelhouse. How did you get involved with that?
CC: That was one of those serendipitous moments where I got a call from the lawyer that I’ve worked with for almost 30 years now, and he said, “I’m representing these kids that have this independent horror movie, and they’ve got a bunch of your remixes in their temp score.” I had already done Fastlane, so I wasn’t completely still on the record side of things, and my lawyer said to give these guys a call because there might be a chance I could score this movie they’ve got. And so when I got in touch with James Wan and Leigh Whannell, they were Nine Inch Nails fans, and they had dug up obscure remixes of mine that are difficult to find, that only came out on a Nine Inch Nails EP in Europe, or were buried on side D of a compilation—that sort of thing.
But they had found all this stuff I had done in the ’90s and had used a bunch of it in their temp score for Saw. So they were of the generation, they didn’t grow up listening to the Raiders Of The Lost Ark theme. They grew up listening to Nine Inch Nails and Ministry and a lot of industrial and aggressive music. So for them, it wasn’t a weird or daring concept to get someone like me to compose the score for their film, and I think over the past 10 to 15 years, that’s what we’re seeing as kind of a generational shift, that the directors and producers that are making decisions about who they want to score their project are now of a younger generation. They grew up listening to the same music that we did and the same music that we made. That’s why you see this sort of acceptance of people from my side of the tracks working on more mainstream projects. In the ’90s, Danny Elfman was the only refugee from a band that was scoring big pictures. But now, everyone from Trent and Atticus Ross to Clint Mansell and Clint Martinez and myself, we’re all kind of coming from that more rock-oriented, less classically trained side of things. And I think me getting hired on to do the first Saw movie was very much in keeping with that trend of younger directors and producers who are not afraid to work with artists that made records they liked.
AVC: And in doing that series and being with it through thick and thin, do you have favorites from the series, either in terms of your music or the films themselves, that you thought ended up working really well, that stand out to you over the years?
CC: It’s interesting. The first movie was very different to most of the sequels. The second was more in keeping with the first. But from III to VII, it became more about the traps and the torture rooms. In the first movie, there’s almost no actual gore. It’s mostly suspense and anticipation. And in the first movie, I was able to make sort of a philosophical decision that the entire score would sound as though it had its back turned to the audience, and like you’re seeing some guys across the parking lot and they’re beating somebody up, but you can only see from the back and you don’t know exactly what’s going on. Are they trying to change a tire, or are they beating somebody up? And then at the crucial moment—almost at the end of the film when the ending montage begins with the voice-over—I wanted the score to turn and face the audience nose to nose. And so that’s the ending montage theme that appeared in all the movies, the “Hello Zepp” theme.
And in the second movie, I was able to work a bit with Wes Borland, who’s an amazing talent, an incredibly innovative guitarist from the much-despised band Limp Bizkit. But I’ve always loved his guitar work, and he’s just such a musical guy that even in the years when Limp Bizkit was at the height of their dubious popularity, the guitar riffs were just awesome in terms of heavy guitar-riffing. I always loved them, and that was one of my guilty pleasures, so it was great to be able to bring Wes in on five or six cues. It wasn’t like Limp Bizkit-style nu-metal riff. It was just him being innovative and interesting and playing guitar over some half-finished cues. So in the second Saw movie there was a wider palette and variety of stuff.
In the sequels, I had a great time doing ever-increasingly complex music for the trap scenes, and there were some—like there was one called the breath room, where a guy had to hold his breath to prevent some gear-driven mechanism from tearing him apart. And some of the sound design that I was able to do in the score for that, I still listen to it and I’m like, “That came out really good.” Maybe not necessarily good music, but in terms of being a tasty piece of sample manipulation/musical sound design, some of those trap scenes in the later movies were a lot of fun to climb those mountains, and it creates some weird nugget of sonic mayhem that might not even be music but was fun to do. And even listening back to it now, I think, “How the heck did I even do that?” The first one was the best philosophically, the second one was the best musically, and three through seven were the best in terms of sheer sample manipulation and odd musical sound design.
AVC: That’s a great place to pivot into the creation of the American Horror Story theme, because that’s also really unique. The source material is pretty odd, right?
CC: Yeah. It’s a strange circular path in that, as the visual artists who created the main titles for American Horror Story were beginning work on it, one of the touchpoints for them was the opening credits for the movie Seven, which had a remix of a Nine Inch Nails song done by the band Coil. It’s virtually unrecognizable as a Nine Inch Nails song. There’s a lot of crazy, distorted sound design in that remix, and so they wanted to have something that echoed that feeling. And one of the visual artists had an old friend from college or something who in his dorm room in college had done a piece of music inspired by that remix from the opening credits to Seven. So they used that as a template to cut the rough versions of American Horror Story opening credits to.
But the musician, this guy named Caesar, had moved on and become a visual artist and a film editor himself. The original files from that piece of music were long lost to the sands of time, and all they had was a stereo mix of this thing. So they came to me and said, “You were at least peripherally involved in the original Nine Inch Nails song that was the inspiration for this. Maybe you could do something along those lines.” And I think I did three or four different attempts, somehow trying to channel that vibe, and everybody kept coming back to how great Caesar’s original demo version was, even though it was scratchy and not necessarily suitable for broadcast. So I wound up extracting some of the samples, whatever I could, from his original stereo mix. Those sort of distorted noise blasts that almost sound like chainsaws, I was able to cut those out of his original mix and then rebuild an updated piece of music underneath it. In the end, it was a collaboration that spanned 20 years of digital files, and so he and I share the writing credit on that because a lot of what you hear is from his original piece of music he did in his dorm room in college many, many years ago after hearing the Nine Inch Nails remix in Seven.
AVC: You’ve worked on both seasons one and two of Wayward Pines, which became such a different show this year. What was the biggest change for you in terms of musically responding to such a profound shift in content?
CC: When I first joined the production, all I knew was that Matt Dillon’s character has a head injury from a car accident and wakes up in a strange little town in the mountains where everybody is in on something, but we don’t know what. I had no idea that it was going to turn into this epic tale spanning thousands of years of human history and mutant creatures trying to climb a fence. None of that was apparent in the first few episodes that I scored. I thought it was going to be almost a Twin Peaks-like creepy town, where everybody’s involved in some secret scheme. Of course, they are, but that scheme had a more epic and grander scope than was apparent to me.
Now in the second season, that aspect of the story line continues. So there’s this epic battle between the troops and the hoards of creatures, but there’s also an ongoing struggle between the factions that are vying for control of the settlement and the creepiness of the backstory of how this little town came to be. So some of the aspects of the score in the second season do have a lot of continuity going all the way back to the first couple of episodes from the first season where there is something creepy and unsettling—but there was a lot of adding this epic-battle-scenario type of music, [whereas] I didn’t think we’d have to deploy the full-strength war drums when I started doing it in the first season. So it was definitely adding two levels of massiveness, but fortunately, the story line is compatible with me keeping one foot in the original template that was established early on and that creepy, slightly out-of-tune, slightly wobbly-head drama that is still very much present in this season. So it’s been a really cool project to work on from my standpoint.