Charlie Clouser Talks Making Music for Wayward Pines, the Saw Franchise, and Nine Inch Nails


You might not immediately recognize the name Charlie Clouser, but we guarantee you’ve heard his work. From performing with Nine Inch Nails to composing for projects like the Saw films right up to the M. Night Shyamalan television show “Wayward Pines,” Clouser has had a remarkable career.

charlie clouserClouser sat down with Dread Central to talk about projects past, present, and future. He began with a brief history of his career. “I studied electronic music in college, went to New York, did a bunch of session work in the late 80’s, and actually in the early 90’s was hired to be the programmer and ghostwriter guy for the composer who was scoring the original show ‘The Equalizer’ in its final season,” Clouser said. “So that kinda got my feet wet with composing actual picture and scene and how that’s all done.”

Clouser has dug in deep and crafted an intricate sound for M. Night Shyamalan’s “Wayward Pines” on FOX. “For the first few episodes, it’s all about Matt Dillon’s character, who’s been in a car wreck and suffered a traumatic brain injury,” Clouser said.

“So a lot of the stuff in the first few episodes is Dillon sort of being unsteady on his feet, kinda woozy as he’s recovering from this car wreck as he’s wandering around this weird little town he’s wound up in, trying to figure out what the hell everybody is in on. Everybody in the town is in on something, but he doesn’t know what. For a while, you almost don’t know if he’s hallucinating some of this, is he maybe still in a coma and dreaming all of this? For the first few episodes there’s an effort on my part to make the sounds sound like head noise, as though the score is taking place between his ears. So the sounds will be very claustrophobic…in my language, quiet sounds played loud. So every instrument that’s being used is being played as softly as possible, and then turned up. So I wouldn’t say it’s an intimate sound, but definitely not a huge, splashy expansive epic thing either.”

As the season moves on, Clouser changes the vibe of the music to fit the action you’re seeing on your television. “As the show progresses, things do get kinda epic,” Clouser said. “It was a nice opportunity to follow that kind of arc as the story and the audience’s perspective changes. Things kind of open up in the scores as we move through the 10-episode cycle. Because of that unsteady, possible brain trauma aspect to Matt Dillon’s character, there was an opportunity to use cool sounds, like very quiet guitar feedback and bowed metal sounds like bowing these metal rods that creates a slightly unstable sound, which is musical; it’s not some crazy sound effect, but with irregularity and unsteadiness as if the musical instruments have also suffered a brain trauma.”

It seems like the need for a diverse musical experience is one of the main motivators for Clouser when crafting the score. “It was a great opportunity to follow this arc, which is like a big triangle,” Clouser said. “It starts off small and then the wedge gets driven in further and further and things get wider and bigger and more expansive as we go through that 10-episode cycle. By the time we get to the end, it’s pretty freakin’ epic to be sure!”

Getting back to his beginnings, Clouser discussed one of the main turning points in his career. “I took a decade or so off to get into the record business and did a lot of programming and remixing for a lot of heavy bands like White Zombie and Marilyn Manson,” Clouser said. “I was working on Manson’s stuff right around the time I got sucked into the Nine Inch Nails orbit and wound up playing keyboards for the live band for eight years or so. I joined right around the time The Downward Spiral came out, and we toured on the back of that for quite some time. Then Trent (Reznor) built a studio in New Orleans, and we all moved there and made The Fragile album. I was also working on a bunch of Manson albums as well.”

It wasn’t long after his NiN days that Clouser began composing, and he found himself involved in an indie film that would simply explode. “I left Nine Inch Nails in 2001 and came back to Los Angeles and reunited with the composer who had hired me in the early 90’s and he was kicking around L.A. and said, ‘There are some more television shows if you want to get back on the horse,'” Clouser said. “So we reunited and scored a series on FOX called ‘Fast Lane’ that only lasted for one season. But right as that ended, I got a call from my lawyer, of all people, who said, ‘Hey, there’s these guys who have this little indie horror flick and they’ve used a bunch of your really obscure remixes in their temp soundtrack for the score. Do you want to talk to them and see about maybe scoring their movie?’ This was the first Saw film.”

He continued on the Saw experience. “At the time none of us could predict that it would become the behemoth franchise it was,” Clouser said. “Obviously, James Wan and Leigh Whannell knew what the hell they were doing and created something amazing on a very small budget. I think they spent less than $2 million to make that first movie. It was just a small, cool project that gave me an opportunity to have my first solo outing composing a film.”

Working on Saw was an unbridled experience for Clouser, who didn’t have a looming corporate specter overseeing his work. “We didn’t have a lot of supervision,” Clouser said. “It wasn’t like a big studio movie where we’d have a lot of people poking their noses into what we were doing. In their temp track for the first Saw movie, they had crazy stuff going on. Towards the end, when the shit is really hitting the fan, they had a Ministry song playing out of the left speaker and an Einstürzende Neubauten song playing out of the right speaker. They just wanted total chaos and mayhem, and I was like, ‘Hey, that’s fine by me.’ So it was great that my first project was kind of an underground project where we were free from adult supervision and we could go all out. And obviously, when the franchise blew up, we did a Saw movie every year for seven straight years. And I was fortunate to stay aboard that train and improve and build upon what we had done in the first one.”

While scoring seven Saw movies in seven years, Clouser also kept busy with several other projects. “Across those seven years, I also did another half dozen or so feature films, two more that James Wan created, Death Sentence and Dead Silence,” Clouser said. “I did one of the Resident Evil sequels and some other similar horror/thriller movies like The Stepfather and things like that, as well as doing two television series at the same time for that whole seven year stretch. One was called ‘Numbers,’ which was on CBS and was an FBI procedural kind of drama, but it was really cool. I enjoyed that because it wasn’t your typical ‘CSI’ type of show. And another was called ‘Las Vegas,’ which was on NBC, which was just big, goofy fun. And I had a blast with it. I’m one of those guys who can’t decide if he likes doing TV or movies better. When I’m doing them, they’re both fun, so I still kind of jump back and forth between them.”

Clouser discussed the vibe he traditionally sought when scoring all the films in the Saw series. “I’ve always liked movie scores that are darker and more muted,” Clouser said. “The score for the movie Seven was not full of pyrotechnics. It’s very somber and there’s not a lot of bright, percussive sounds to it. One thing that we tried to do consciously in the first Saw movie was to have it sound as though the score had its back turned to the audience. Like there’s a fist fight and a circle of guys in the parking lot and they’re beating somebody up, but you’re standing outside that circle and you can’t really see what the hell they’re doing. Until the final montage scene in the film when the voice-over starts and all is revealed through this voice-over and montage and at that point, that’s when the Hello Zepp theme starts and then it was a very conscious decision to have everything before that be dark and muted then, when that scene starts, it’s like those guys who are standing in that circle beating someone up, now they turn around to face you. Now you’re even more scared. First, you’re trying to peek in between their legs and see who they’re fighting with, and now they’ve turned their attention to you… the audience. From a sonic standpoint and a musical standpoint, the reverb goes away and all the sounds get brighter and more present. They’re staring you right in the face, nose to nose. That was something I tried to do in all the Saw movies, keep things murky and mysterious and indistinctive in the main part of the movie so you could have this real contrast when stuff shifted gears during the final montage sequences.”

Although Clouser works with and around orchestral sound, he isn’t a slave to it in his work. “My background is more in electronic music and industrial music,” Clouser said. “I use orchestra sounds and orchestral textures, but I’m not really trying to simulate an orchestra. I’m not trying to do Raiders of the Lost Ark over here. I’ll use some of those sounds and textures, but with a lot of processing and doing things like time stretching sounds in the computer so sounds have the footprint of a traditional orchestra sound, but have been put through some kind of wringer to better fit with this muted, bent out of shape character that so much of the imagery has.”

Finally Clouser discussed the different satisfactions he derives from playing live onstage and creating new sounds in the studio. “It really is two sides of the same coin,” Clouser said. “Coming up in my early years, what attracted me to music wasn’t to be onstage so much, but to be in the studio. That was my first motivation, and it was fantastic to be given the opportunity with Nine Inch Nails to be a part of their ridiculous and awesome live shows. The years I was in Nine Inch Nails was at the height of the destructive power with smashing guitars and toppling drum kits and all that. And it was freakin’ awesome and so much fun.”

He continued, “It’s such a different headspace at this ‘late stage in my life,'” Clouser joked. “I tend to savor being more of a studio hermit and that’s what I started off doing and that’s what sucked me into this world. Late nights in the studio with lots of interesting sound mangling toys, experimenting and searching for some sound I’d never heard before. That’s also kind of why I haven’t moved toward straight orchestral composing. I still love the sense of boyish wonder when you’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard a sound like that before. Let me see if I can work that into this project I’m working on.’ Obviously bands like Nine Inch Nails, Manson, and that kind of stuff is another perfect avenue for that because they were very experimental in the studio trying to find aggressive sounds and always a heavier guitar sound than the last song.”

Clouser concluded, “Put it this way: I wouldn’t swap my experience doing the Nails live thing for anything. But at this stage in the game, I love being the studio hermit and experimenting with tones and textures, trying to find a way to match them up against these ungodly horrific images that people like, that folks like James Wan and M. Night [Shyamalan] put on the screen.”

You can follow Charlie Clouser on Twitter (@CharlieClouser) for more info.




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