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Wayward Pines - Interview with Composer Charlie Clouser

FOX's Wayward Pines is halfway through its second season, and its unique concept and unpredictability is a hit among its fans. I put 10 questions to the sci-fi thriller's composer, Charlie Clouser, for some insight into his inspirations for the alluring scores he produces for the series, as well as some of the other projects he has worked on, including the 'SAW' franchise and television series 'Las Vegas' and 'Numb3rs'. Charlie has given some very detailed and fascinating answers. Here's what he had to say:

1. Your scores for Wayward Pines are some of the most unique and compelling I’ve heard on television. What do you turn to for inspiration?

For inspiration I’m often attracted not to film and television scores but to more album oriented work, from well-known music by Pink Floyd and Brian Eno to more outsider artists and sonic experimenters. Eno and David Byrne’s "My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts" and Byrne’s score for "The Catherine Wheel" are still big influences on me, even thirty years later, because they had such groundbreaking musical sound design and are very free-form and almost abstract at times, but each piece holds together and is listenable as a "song". Compared to arranging rock songs, scoring is very free-form, and since the structure is dictated by the action on the screen, songwriter conventions of the eight-bar chorus or the "middle eight" go right out the window.

I’ve always been a bit of a sound hound, trying to find expressive new instruments and sounds that I can mash together into interesting combinations, and those Byrne and Eno albums are right down that road. Other favorite influences of mine are guitar manglers like David Torn and Chas Smith. Using his considerable talents as a metal fabricator, Chas builds amazing instruments and sound sculptures in the tradition of Beroia and Partch, and that type of haunting, ringing, metallic resonance is a quality of musical sound that I love and am always trying to work into my scores wherever I can.

2. The storylines in Season 2 are quite different to Season 1, and your scores have developed as a result. How have you gone about changing your scores across the two seasons?

In the first season of Wayward Pines, there was a bit more creepy mystery, as the story lines gradually revealed the bigger scope of the thing, so for the first few episodes there were a lot of smaller, quieter cues that had some qualities of innocence and "odd-ness". In the second season, the storylines are more about conflict, both between the humans and the creatures, and also between the different factions of humans jockeying for control over the town’s future, so there’s been less of the off-kilter stuff and much more tension and dread.

Musically, that means less light and quirky melodies, less bonking marimbas and tuned percussion, and more girthy low brass chords and bowed metals, and chord progressions that are always heading downwards, trying to drag the listener down with them. There’s also been a lot more high-energy action scenes in this second season, with big battles between the humans and the creatures, so I definitely had to break out the war drums and fast tempo stuff in more scenes than I ever did in the first season.

3. Each character and location has a distinct flavor that is evident in the score. How do you approach scoring for the various characters and environments?

I don’t assign sounds or melodies to individual characters so much as I assign them to situations. Since a variety of characters might wind up going through similar situations, I find that this is a more clear association to make at first. There’s a little three-note high vocal melody that appears here and there throughout the series, and this is meant to indicate that something on the screen is part of the "grand plan" of Wayward Pines, so no matter who is in the scene or where it’s taking place, if we want to point out that a certain story element has roots in the bigger picture, we roll out that little motif and hopefully it points back to that "grand plan". There are other similar examples, like the quirky, non-menacing marimba-type sounds that play a sort of innocent little melody in some cues. That motif is meant to signify just how off-kilter and weird the behavior of some of the characters is, without dwelling on the evil motives that may lie underneath.

There’s also little chunks of guitar feedback that’s intended to indicate confusion, or a feeling of "brain fart" on the part of characters as they get confused while trying to decode what the hell is going on with this weird town. By associating sounds and musical motifs with the situation rather than the person or the place, these elements become more "portable" and can work together in various combinations as the story progresses.

Zooming out for a minute, I usually think that the musical motif, the notes and chords, are more closely tied to elements of the plot or story, while the actual sounds of the instruments are more closely tied to a person or place. That way I can use a chord progression or melodic phrase to reinforce WHAT is happening, and choose the appropriate instrument or sound to help indicate WHO or WHERE it’s happening. That’s just how my brain works I guess, and it seems to be a method that works well and ties the music to the picture while still allowing me to shuffle and rearrange these elements to suit the story.

4. You’ve worked on two other long running series previously – Las Vegas and Numb3rs. What are the main differences between these shows from your perspective as a composer?

Each show is it’s own little world, and there’s not much that’s portable between them. Las Vegas had elements of deadly serious plot lines, like a bomb planted in the casino or a kidnapping, alongside warm emotion and romantic story lines, but there were constant elements of "big fun" and "comedy caper" as well. So the score wound up veering from Pink Panther mode to hostage standoff mode every couple of minutes. It was a blast! There were so many musical styles that I’d never have an excuse to explore if it weren’t for that show, like frantic zany jazz with upright bass and wacky bongos, slinky "raised eyebrow" cues with congas and electric piano, just lots of fun stuff.

Numb3rs was very different tonally, but still had some parallels. On that series the score would go from nail-biting tension cues while snipers are staking out a bank robbery in progress, to lighthearted cues meant to reinforce awkward campus romances, to warm family emotions, so the parallel with Las Vegas was that the score would have to veer all over the place in terms of mood while still having some continuity of tone. The methods I described above were really refined on those shows, using melodic themes to indicate WHAT was happening while using certain groups of instruments and sounds to indicate WHO and WHERE it was happening. From my point of view, this kind of approach really helps give a sense of continuity and flow to the score.

5. With the first half of Season 2 done and dusted, what can you tease about the back half of the season?

Let’s just say that things to not go as planned for the residents of Wayward Pines! David Pilcher’s grand plan for saving the future of mankind is kind of coming unravelled, and the surviving humans are frantically trying to patch the holes in a leaky boat. As the humans learn more about the origins and nature of the creatures, they come to a few startling realizations that narrow their choices in the fight to survive. The humans do make it out alive, but just barely, and drastic measures are taken to save as many people as they can.

6. You scored all seven movies in the SAW franchise. How do you go about scoring a movie as opposed to a television series? Has your work on SAW influenced your work on Wayward Pines?

Doing the SAW movies had some parallels to doing a television series, because there were themes and sounds that appeared in all of the films, but this is a rare case. Seven movies in a franchise, one every year, and all with the same composer is not at all typical! But in general I try to give each movie its own set of sounds and motifs that appear nowhere else. This might be easier for someone like me, who uses a minimum of "conventional" orchestral sounds, than it might be for composers who work exclusively with live orchestra, because I like to create a bunch of recordings at the start of the project that I can use as fodder for the score and then put those sounds on the shelf, never to be heard again.

So at the start of a project I’ll spend a few weeks in the woodshed, recording percussion, weird bowed metal sounds, and mutated guitar noises that I can then pick and place throughout the score as it develops. If I can get the tone and texture correct when I’m designing the sounds at the start, then that allows me to rely on those sounds more than good old strings and brass, and hopefully will give the score a little bit of a unique flavor. I do have some favorite techniques I keep coming back to when building up the palette for each score, but I really try to generate a fresh batch for each project. I equally love doing films and television, and I could never really walk away from either side since each has their good and bad aspects. Films are often more fun because of the "thrill of the new" and the experience of generating a whole new sonic and musical landscape from scratch, but television is rewarding because you can continue to refine and hone the ideas you come up with at the start, hopefully making them better as you explore all of the permutations and try to wring out just a little more juice from the stone.

7. What kind of equipment, software and instruments do you rely on for your scoring work?

I compose mainly using Logic software on a Mac, but I also use Ableton Live (as a ReWire slave behind Logic) for manipulating sounds and rhythmic material. Live is great for working with anything rhythmic, since you can time-stretch and re-pitch things by huge amounts, but it’s also amazing for generating tonal sounds and drone scapes by taking little molecules of audio and stretching them to twenty times their original length. The combination of Logic and Live is an amazing sonic playground. I have every plugin and Kontakt library that ever looked remotely interesting (and had a holiday sale!), but some favorites are synth plugins that can manipulate audio, like Granite, Omnisphere, Padshop, and Alchemy. I have most of the modern orchestral libraries but use them very sparingly, usually only if I need a realistic solo cello to play a five-note phrase or something. I still rely on orchestral sounds from twenty years ago because I like the tone of the recordings. Old string libraries from Kirk Hunter and Denny Jaeger are still in use every day over here because I just like the way they were recorded, even if they don’t have all of the features like multiple microphone positions of more modern libraries. I use ProTools on a separate Mac to record the output of my Logic system as stems for easy delivery to the dubbing stage.

In terms of non-computer stuff, I have a pretty wild collection of guitars and effects gathered over the last thirty years, and more than a few synthesizers, but I really use very little synth stuff these days. I’m more interested in manipulating acoustic sounds and guitars to get new tones, so I have some favorite instruments like the Moog guitar and Moog lap steel, the Parker Adrian Belew model guitar, a GuitarViol, and a variety of Line6 modeling guitars that I can use to get wildly pitch-shifted tones that still have an acoustic fingerprint. I do still have most of the high-end outboard gear like mic preamps and compressors from my record-making years, and a nice collection of drums including a Ludwig Vistalite John Bonham kit that sounds thunderous and a set of Roto Toms that go all the way up to 18 inches. Along with a small collection of ethnic instruments like dulcimer, koto, and ghuzheng, and a bunch of metal instruments and sculptures that can be struck and bowed to create haunting, scary tones, and I’m all set!

8. Since you started out, what do you think are the biggest changes that the film and television industry has experienced from your point of view as a composer?

When I first worked on television scores in the eighties, we were using a setup that would be laughable by today’s standards, but when I go back and listen to that music I’m pleased to say I’m not cringing at all. Somehow we made it sound murky and dark and interesting even with gear that you can buy for $200 on Craigslist these days. When I got back into scoring in 2003 or so, after a decade or two spent making records with Nine Inch Nails and others, I was able to bring a lot of the tools, toys, and techniques we used in the big-money glory years of record production in the nineties, and that was the sonic route I chose because that is what I know best, and orchestral "simulation" and "mockups" were still pretty painful and crude just fifteen years ago. This has all changed radically in the last ten years or so, and I am constantly amazed at the quality, realism, and variety of sounds that are available to anybody with a decent music computer.

At the same time, I am glad that I did not pursue straight-ahead orchestral composition, which I was never all that interested in anyway, because the barrier to entry has become so low that anyone can jump on board these days and create convincing simulations. In hindsight, I’m glad that my natural inclination is to making strange and unusual sounds and trying to work with them to come up with compelling music, because it seems as though that’s a much less crowded field than the world of "epic film score" music. So the tools have really leveled the playing field over the last fifteen years or so in terms of the barriers to entry and being able to get your musical ideas down, but you still have to have those ideas in the first place!

I will say that it seems that over the last fifteen years or so the middle range of the market has been eviscerated. It seems like there used to be movies in the A, B, C, D, and E list, with budgets and schedules that corresponded to that scale, but now the C list is gone, and you have the big A-list movies like the comic-book stuff, with just a few B-list things going on, then a big gap, and then the D and E list stuff crowding the bottom. So lots of composers (and directors, producers, actors, etc.) that used to be quite happy in the B and C-list projects are all crowded around the lower end projects. I am quite happy to be in the middle of the pack, but it seems like that middle portion of the pack of projects is getting smaller over the last few years. Most of my favorite movies to watch were those middle-of-the-pack movies that might not have set the world on fire but were good, solid films. Movies like "The International", "District 9", "The Ghost Writer", "Syriana", "Michael Clayton"… those are the type of movies that I love and that there seem to be less and less of in recent years. Still, I’m quite happy over here in my strange little corner of the industry, and I’m just glad that there are producers, directors, and viewers for whom my music resonates.

9. From your unique perspective, where do you think the film and television industry is heading in the near future. Are there any new innovations that are in their infancy? In particular, what do you see as the biggest opportunities and obstacles you'll have to face as a composer?

With all of the new outlets for material, like Netflix and Amazon series, it seems like there’s more opportunities than ever before, but as I hinted in the question above, the incredible quality and low price of the tools used to create the products is driving production budgets down, or at least the budgets aren’t skyrocketing except for the big VFX-heavy movies like comic-book stuff. Whether it’s incredible and affordable cameras like the Red stuff, or amazing editing software that allows you to edit and post 4K material on a simple desktop computer, or the sound libraries and software we have for composing these days, the price of the tools is no longer such a barrier to entry. That means 100x more projects competing for only 10x more outlets. Sure, we have new streaming and cable channels that are hungry for product, but we have a hugely increased number of producers and composers competing for a slightly increased number of outlets. So the competition is still fierce and getting fiercer, even with all of the new outlets for product.

Carving a unique musical and sonic identity will always be a good route to success and a way to rise above the crowded field. Another mildly disturbing trend is the rise of "buy-out" or "royalty-free" production music libraries. While these can serve as a way for young composers to get some experience and a foot in the door, and helps to keep those folks off the streets and out of trouble, it’s the pointy end of the spear of the devaluation of bespoke music composition. While that segment of the industry doesn’t really impact my world, I will say that, speaking as a grouchy old man, from a moral standpoint it’s a trend I’m not too happy about.

The composer I first worked with back in the eighties told me to expect to be unemployed two-thirds of the time, and to plan your finances accordingly. During the eight months of the year that you’re not working on a specific project, I was taught to make new sounds, build or learn new instruments, travel, visit museums, look at art, read a damn book, avail yourself of any and all means to increase your exposure to the myriad of cultural influences that can broaden your view and hopefully give your work a more mature and worldly quality. The trend toward lower budgets (and decreased royalty income) means that for many creative types there is less and less time and money to participate in those enriching aspects of life in general, and I think the quality of the work can suffer if this is the case.

10. To finish up, what are the most challenging, and the most rewarding parts of your job?

The biggest challenges in my world are the deadlines! I love that period of time when a piece of music is halfway done, when it’s still a loose playground and there’s room for experimentation and heading down paths that wind up being creative dead ends. The shorter the deadline gets, the less time you can spend fooling around and making mistakes, hoping for a happy accident or unexpected beauty just around a blind turn.

The most rewarding part is exactly that thing that short deadlines infringe upon - the amazement that comes from an unexpected happy result of an ill-advised experiment. Most of my favorite musical discoveries were not the result of a careful route down a well-known road, they came from fumbling in the dark, wandering through the creative underbrush with a dull machete, with a vague idea of a destination and an even more vague idea of the route. For me, that kind of caution-free experimentation is where the fun is, and where the best results can often be found.

That's all from Charlie. All of his answers were very thorough and insightful, and he made a lot of interesting points. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieClouser. Thanks for reading, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on Charlie's answers in the comments below.

(Photo credits: Zoe Wiseman)