Charlie Clouser Talks Scoring "Saw X"

It’s likely that you’re more familiar with Charlie Clouser’s work than you realize—his career is storied to the point of being almost unbelievable. A mixture of expertise, curiosity, and right-place-right-time serendipity has led him down a path to becoming one of the most quietly important figures in electronic music. He worked at the Manhattan Sam Ash location in the early 80s, becoming the go-to guy if you wanted to learn about synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines. Later that decade, he cut his teeth as a composer, working with Cameron Allen to score the spy thriller TV series The Equalizer.

Charlie Clouser
Charlie Clouser. Photo by Zoe Wiseman.

After being hired to add sound effects to a scene in Nine Inch Nails’ “Happiness In Slavery” video, Clouser hit it off with Trent Reznor, who invited him to help finish The Downward Spiral. He remained an integral part of the band, acting as an in-house engineer before joining as a member keyboards and rhythm programming until his departure in 2001.

In the early 2000s, Clouser was a sought-after remix artist, reworking songs by the likes of Deltron 3030, Esthero, Type O Negative, and David Bowie. His version of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” ended up on The Matrix soundtrack. He also delved deeper into composing for film and television, working on shows like Las Vegas and Numbers and penning the theme song for Ryan Murphy’s long-running American Horror Story anthology series.

Clouser’s longest and most notable gig, however, is composer for the entire Saw-niverse. With this year’s Saw X, the tenth installment of the horror series, he’s scored every film in the series, breaking John Williams’ record of nine films in a franchise. When looking for someone to score the first film, James Wan and Leigh Whannell wanted a composer with a background in industrial music, a genre that focuses heavily on gnarled synth textures and upsetting sound design. They found the perfect collaborator in Clouser.

I spoke with him over Zoom in mid-September, shortly before the release of Saw X. Clouser’s energy was exuberant, almost giddy. He’d zip around his studio, picking up his laptop to give me detailed views of instruments he’d used in the score and demonstrate how they worked. Platinum plaques for his work with Rob Zombie hung on the walls and the room was packed with an eye-popping, enviable array of synths, pedals, and all manner of recording gear.

Our sprawling conversation touched nearly every part of his career. We spoke about his time as a music store clerk, the recording system he created for Nine Inch Nails, and the library of sounds and samples he’s built to augment and expand the sonic universe of Saw.

"Parker Arrives", from Charlie Clouser's score of the 2023 film Saw X.

I understand you have a pretty legendary collection of synths.

It used to be really extreme in the Nine Inch Nails years. For the years when we were in New Orleans, each of the band members had our own little studios within this complex that Reznor built. Tthere wasn't a fucking synth known to mankind that wasn't already in [Trent's] main control room. I'd wind up scooping up weird stuff like Quasimidi Rave-O-Lution 309 drum machines, JoMox drum machines, and the stuff that was too oddball for him. A lot of that stuff is thankfully gone now, but the stuff I kept was stuff that had actually been used on a record. I still have twoProphet-VS and an Oberheim Xpander that are loaded with the patches from early Nine Inch Nails records.

Oh, wow.

There's sentimental, historical value. I still have a Waldorf Microwave II XT keyboard. Those XTk's used to be this heinous orange color. The one and only time that Nine Inch Nails played at the MTV Video Music Awards, Trent was like "We should use those XTk keyboards because they look cool, but the orange is not going to fly. So we're going to spray paint them black unless you can get Waldorf to make them in that dark gray." They did like an edition of the rack units in a dark gray.

We had contacts at Waldorf, so I hit them up like, "Any chance?" and they were like, "Sure!" They made us two of them and I wound up with both. For some reason, I sold one, I don't know why. This was 15 years ago or so. I was like, "What am I doing with two of these fucking things?" And not really thinking about like, "Oh, it's super rare and it was custom made for Nine Inch Nails by Waldorf," I sold one for a more or less normal Microwave II XTk price. I've watched it change hands like four times since then at drastically inflated prices because it's the ex-Nine Inch Nails Video Music Awards keyboard. So I kept the other one. And then I did the OLED display upgrade, put the voice expansion board in, and swapped out the knobs. I learned my lesson—don't sell ex-Nine Inch Nails gear for less than Hard Rock Cafe museum prices.

Do you still use that Waldorf?

Once in a while. It was on the Nine Inch Nails album, The Fragile, so I still have a few sounds in it from that. I've used it probably five times in the past 10 years or so. There are two things that it does really well — the sweepy ambient texture pad, which I have very little use for, and hyper-aggressive digital hammer synth sounds. Utterly hard sounding, sharp fronts on the sounds. With the wavetables and the internal weird distortions and filters, you can get some really painful old-school industrial kind of things out of it.

When you said that you each had your own studio in the compound, were you tracking your own parts in isolation for the records?

Yeah. You gotta remember, this was '94, '95 when we set up that studio in New Orleans. It had formerly been a funeral home. It was enormous, like a quarter of a city block, and hadn't been in use in years. Trent found it and said, "Guess what, we're all moving to New Orleans." They shredded this building and renovated it. His main studio, which there's a lot of pictures of online, had this gigantic SSL 80-input console that I think came from Larabee Sound Studios—Alan Moulder now has that console—and the two Studer 24-track tape machines, all his synths, a zillion guitar pedals, and racks and racks of outboard.

Nowadays, file sharing is like, "I'll just AirDrop it to my phone." Back then it was kind of esoteric knowledge. We didn't know how to set up file servers and networks and shit. I was kind of the point man for all the high-tech stuff since I worked in a music store in 1985 and had been tight with a lot of the people at Digidesign, who made Pro Tools.

Peter Gotcher and Evan Brooks would come to the store where I worked with a briefcase full of chips for drum machines — replacements sound chips. That's how that's how they started. They would sample alternative snares and kicks and burn them onto little ROM chips that would go into a Linndrum or an E-mu Drumulator, right at the dawn of MIDI in like '84, '85.

I worked at the Sam Ash music store on 48th Street in Manhattan, way pre-internet. That block in Manhattan had all the music stores—there was Manny's, Sam Ash, and We Buy Guitars—they were all in this half-block area. It was like ground zero of music tech. If a new drum machine or synth came out, it was always a battle to see whether Manny's or Sam Ash would get it first—would get serial number one. I was the guy at that store who was sort of the software and sampler expert. The other guy who was also in that position was an old friend of mine from college in Massachusetts, named John Bechdel, who's now the keyboard player for Ministry.

The two of us were, we were roommates for a while and we both worked at the store. We both smoked a ton of weed. Richie Ash, the grandson of Sam Ash, who ran the Manhattan store was like, "Hey, you two, get over here. The new SP 12 sampler drum machine just dropped. Take this home, I know you're gonna stay up all night smoking a ton of weed, but when you come back to the store tomorrow, I want to have not one, but two experts on this drum machine because this is the only one in New York City."

Me and JB were in the right place at the right time to get serial number one of something and it was our job to be the expert on shit like the fucking E-Mu EMAX rack. The plan was always, yes, smoke a ton of weed and read every page of the manual, go to every like system settings menu on the unit, and figure everything out. Because the next day, Stevie Wonder's guy is going to come into the store and buy four of them and then he's going to call up the store and go, "Hey, how do you set the MIDI channel" or whatever. They really wanted to have a couple of guys that had been inside that new piece of gear.

Nine Inch Nails perform "The Fragile" at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards.

That sounds like a lot of fun, but a lot of pressure as well.

It was, but I was super into that kind of stuff anyway. Nowadays, people don't read their manuals. Back then it was always a paper manual, it wasn't a fucking PDF file. The EMAX manual was like a spiral-bound book. After you get into the flow state of how to learn a new piece of gear, it's not a hassle anymore. I'm really glad that I did that because I still kind of operate in that mode. When a new piece comes in, I still go through, maybe not every possible sound it could make, but learning how to operate the motherfucker. (laughs)

So 12 years later, when we're setting up the Nine Inch Nails studio in New Orleans, I'm setting up multiple Pro Tools rigs. In those days, it was a lot more finicky than it is now. I spent a lot of time on the phone with my guys at Digidesign. We were doing stuff like locking the Pro Tools rigs to analog tape. And, of course, analog tape drifts. How do you maintain precise—and I'm talking about pre-fucking-cise—sync between, not just one analog tape deck, but two of them that are synced together? How do we get Pro Tools into the mix so that we can transfer stuff back and forth and not have it be out of sync? So, I'd spent a lot of time [figuring that out].

In those days, I would spend a lot of time talking to Digidesign tech support. And eventually, they said, "Look, we're gonna give you a dedicated phone number to this guy, because you got 12 systems you're dealing with. Yes, he's young, but he doesn't just read the manual and recite it back. He knows—he understands." That guy was Steve Duda, who developed the FXpansion BFD drum sampler plugin and later started his own company to develop the synth plugin called Serum, which is a huge favorite in the EDM world. Steve Duda comes from a family of computer scientists—his older brother, like, invented the internet or whatever—so he kind of grew up doing that shit. I talked to him so often in those days that I eventually said, "How do you like working at Digidesign?" And he's like, "I fucking hate it, but whatever." I was like, "Do you want to move to New Orleans and work for Nine Inch Nails as our in-house expert?" And he's like, "Hell yeah, I'll be on a plane tomorrow." So I hired him and he moved to New Orleans. Long story short, he was the guy who set up our file servers and file-sharing network in the building so that we could keep all the songs living on a server.

So, Trent would have some sketches. He would [say], "I had a little drum beat and I recorded some guitar shit in Logic and loop record, so there are 800 eight-bar loops of me noodling on the guitar. Someone needs to sort through that and find the good bits." And he would put it on the server. We had a couple of other guys who weren't band members who could also do that kind of thing, like stay up all night editing down the raw takes. We would take that sketch of a song, load it up in our room, and try to add stuff to it. Next time Trent loaded up the song, he could be like, "Oh, wow, looks like Charlie put some hi-hat parts and like a weird kick drum thing. Let me see what that is." We were able to collaborate in the same kind of mode that a lot of people do now, just using Dropbox or whatever. We're using janky Macintosh Quadra machines as file servers.

That's how some of the songs on [The Fragile] occurred. Like the song "Starfuckers, Inc." — I was messing around with that Quasimidi Rave-O-Lution drum machine and a bunch of DOD guitar pedals. I recorded a pass of me going nuts with the thing. Then I chopped it up and edited it into something that sounded useful, and that became the rhythm track that Trent then wrote the rest of the song around. So having that file server sharing thing — we thought we were the high-tech kings. This is, you know, 1995, '96 when we were doing this. It wasn't as everyday an occurrence as it is now for music technology. But it really was useful and helpful to us, because each band member had their own room and they could see all the songs in progress and pick one. At one point, there were more than 100 things in the question mark folder. People could load up a [song on] Logic and be like, "Looks like nobody's fucked with this in months, so let me see if I can do something to it."

Sounds like you're all together and collaborating, but it's kind of an exploded view of songwriting.

Yeah, because when you're working with this kind of technology, it's one guy hunched over the mouse and keyboard and then four other guys sitting on the couch in the back of the room, waiting. So being able to split that up so that everybody could be hunched over their own little keyboard and mouse really helped. You don't want to waste time in the main control room when Trent and Alan Moulder and everybody's in there. You don't want to be like, "Let me just spend four hours tweaking the filter cut-off on this thing." You want to go up in your own little cubbyhole and let them get on with business.

Are there similarities between that kind of workflow and what you're doing now as a film composer?

Yeah, maybe not so much in that distributed workflow, but because of that experience in Nine Inch Nails, I know how to create a version of something that I can give to someone else to overdub and to work on. I'm well accustomed to that kind of workflow of being able to create a reference version that can go out of house, be messed with, and brought back or the workflow of taking the material that someone else's recorded remotely and integrating it into my current live version of the piece of music. It's easy for me. I tend to not do a ton of that kind of collaborative work in my film scoring but when I need to, it's never a panic.

Charlie Clouser gives Spitfire Audio a tour of his studio in 2016.

I know that you brought in Wes Borland to work on Saw II. Did you bring anybody into work on Saw X?

Not in the same way that I worked with Wes on Saw II. On this one, I did use a lot of the sound material that was created by Chas Smith, who's a metal sculptor dude and incredible experimental musician. I've used a lot of the sounds that he created in his own studio as samples, but it wasn't him overdubbing to a half-finished piece of music. So it's sort of remote collaboration with another level of remove. He creates sounds that he thinks might be good for the type of stuff I'm doing, and then I just get a pile of raw material that I can then sift through and deploy at will.

I have used him in all the Saw movies. He's also worked on a lot of Hans Zimmer's stuff. There's a great little mini-documentary on the making of the score for Man of Steel, which Hans did. In that mini-documentary, there's a special little featurette about Chas Smith, his experimental instruments, and the other things that he did for Hans. He assembled the Pedal Steel Guitar Army which was ten pedal steel players all set up in a room together with amps to create these pitch bending, roar type sounds. Chas is a really unique, creative fabricator, instrument builder, and musician. He recently came out with a sample library through Spitfire Audio that encompasses a lot of the sounds of his hand-built and experimental instruments. His stuff has always been a big part of the sonic landscape of all the Saw movies.

I read that after the first Saw came out and there was the idea that, "We're going to try and get one of these out around Halloween every year," you went into this mad dash of trying to create a library of sounds that you could use. Was most of that coming from Chas Smith?

Well, his stuff is sort of one category, one flavor. There are a lot of sounds in my collection that are sort of exclusive to Saw movies and they wouldn't be appropriate nor would it feel right to use them on other projects. They're so intrinsically—they sound like a Saw movie to my mind. Of course, Chas's metal instruments are one of those categories.

And then there's a lot of other stuff that I created, which I haven't really been able to use on other types of projects, but a Saw movie is a perfect, receptive environment for them. I have a decent collection of circuit-bent, cheap instruments. You know how guys will circuit bend little Casio SK-1 toy samplers? There's a great circuit bender dude in England named Shane who I've gotten a lot of instruments from. Things like Yamaha DD-5 and DD-10, which are almost toy drum machines with little pads that you can play with sticks. They're sort of in that similar vein to little Casio SK-1 and SK-5 samplers in that they're cheap, so a circuit bender can buy one for a couple hundred bucks, and if he accidentally catches it on fire and ruins it, it's not the end of the world.

There's a certain era of electronic instruments that can be circuit-bent. Like a [Waldorf] Microwave II can't really be circuit bent because it's all just code running on a Motorola DSP chip. But on the earlier, first generation of digital instruments — including some of the AKAI samplers and a lot of toy-level digital instruments, and even some of the early and mid-90s professional instruments — can be circuit bent.

I have a bunch, probably have a dozen various things like that. In fact, I was looking — I have one bookmarked right now on Reverb (laughs). There's a circuit-bent Casio SK-5 that is ready to go, it's already been bent. It has a little patch bay that you can use mini cables to connect to different points on the circuit board without opening it up. And it's on Reverb right now for $241. A lot of those kinds of things are worth the risk. They're the price of a guitar pedal, basically. And that's one little category of devices that I use to create samples. Then when I'm in the midst of working, I don't actually break out the unit most of the time. A lot of times I'm just looking at my folders of greatest hits of samples and recordings that I've done on those instruments, either in the downtime or in the first week of production. I might say, "I need some new noises for this movie," so I'll leave the movie looping on the big screen on the wall while I just fiddle with the instruments and try to create new raw material that has the right vibe.

You're so immersed in this world—you know these movies, these characters so well. Do you find yourself wanting to challenge your approach with every new movie?

Yeah, I do, especially with this latest one. In Saw X, I was led by the story and the images on the screen down a path to an approach that was a little different from some of the sequels in the middle of the run. A lot of the story of Saw X is not just a bunch of hopeless victims locked in some dungeon. The first third of the movie is our antihero-slash-villain John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, searching for an experimental cure for this brain cancer that his character has. He gets this experimental treatment and he's going to live! The surgery worked! There's a whole arc at the beginning of the movie that is not evil music. There are warm chords and gentle cellos and a very emotional backdrop to his desperation, search for a cure, and eventual successful surgery. All of a sudden, it's a bright new day, and the sun is shining, and the air smells sweeter, and food tastes better because he's going to live, you know? And of course, then it all goes horribly wrong.

But for that arc of the first third of the movie, I definitely had to go in some musical directions that were not typical for a Saw movie. I really had to bring warmth and sincerity in a way that I've never had to do, or had an opportunity to do, within the Saw franchise. It's all credit to the writers and producers who keep thinking of new avenues to take those characters and the story down. That gives me a natural setting to go in new musical directions for it.

It must keep things fresh since you've been doing this for 20 years now.

Yeah. On the other hand, even the sort of traditional Saw scoring elements like the trap scenes and the sort of dank, abandoned warehouse type of soundscapes, with each Saw movie, we always have to turn it up one more notch. We started at ten, so I guess now we're at 20. (laughs) In some of the trap-type scenes in this latest one, the music that I wound up doing is even more bonkers than in many of the previous movies.

That need to keep upping the ante with each sequel in this series is good for me from a creative standpoint, because I have to keep searching for things I've never heard before — sounds I've never heard and things I've never done. I keep reminding myself that's why I got into this whole life. What's interesting to me is the search for a sound that I've never heard before. If I was composing sort of epic, heroic, orchestral themes, for a Marvel movie or whatever, there would be much less of that, because I would be relying more on traditional orchestration, and sounds that are familiar. I'm most excited when I hear a sound that I've never heard before and that immediately conjures up an emotion to me. I think, "This sounds like somebody sawing their leg off," which is perfect for a Saw movie!

This weird instrument I got, The Apprehension Engine, is this sort of acoustic playground. It has a hurdy-gurdy element to it. When I got this thing and was fiddling around with it, the first thing I did when I turned this crank was, I thought "That sounds like somebody's sawing. I know how I could use that! I'm sure we'll have an opportunity to use that in a film." And sure enough, that gadget saved my butt on one of the big cues in this latest Saw movie because I needed exactly that. The sort of bows being dragged across cellos to create the audible illusion of somebody operating a saw. Fortunately, within the Saw franchise, I can find an application for all this utterly crazy musical sound design.

The theme of "American Horror Story", composed by Charlie Clouser alongside Cesar Davila Irizarry.

What stage in the editing process do you get footage to score?

It's usually when they're at what they call the "director's cut," which is the edit that the director thinks he would like. The director always knows it's too long, but it includes most of the material that he wants to use, and it expands upon the story points enough. It doesn't leave anything out. So when I get that first director's cut, we all know that it's going to change once the producers, the movie studio, and other people start weighing in. They also have to trim things for reasons of length, but also for reasons of — in the case of a Saw movie — keeping it in an "R" rating. (laughs)

They'll work their way from the director's cut through what they call the producer's cut. Then there might be a studio cut, which is when the executives are in the room. They've trimmed another six minutes, and we're almost at our target length. Then it goes to the MPAA, which is the ratings board that determines whether it's PG-13 or R or X or whatever. They are notoriously opaque about their process since [they don't] want to be considered as a censorship board. They will never tell the producers or the director what needs to be cut. They may say, "We have some concerns about the scene where the woman is cutting her arm off with a saw. Why don't you take another swing at it and see if you can make it a little less unpalatable." But they don't want to be specific about stuff. Usually, by the time it's going to the MPAA, the trims are so slight — like eight frames here, 12 frames there.

It's a bit of a guessing game on the part of the filmmakers. I'm glad I don't have to be part of that, but it does affect my work. A lot of times they may come back and say, "So, this elaborate scene where you've created this precise tempo map that gets faster and faster and it ends right when the door slams shut? Well, that's now one second and five frames earlier." So now [I] have to adjust [my] delicate tempo map in Logic and all of the rhythmic loops and performances that [I've] created so that it's exactly 16 bars from the gunshot to the door slamming. So because of all that, on those tricky scenes that are very elaborate in terms of their rhythm and tempo, or there's the potential for changes because it's so violent, and I know that they're going to be fighting with the MPAA on the scenes—on a lot of those, I try to leave them very skeletal until we are at a point where the producers and the director say, "Okay, the picture is now locked. Nothing will change timing-wise in terms of where the edits are and how long things are."

For most projects, you'd prefer to just wait until it's a lock and start then, because you don't have to manipulate through changes. Because of the sheer magnitude of how much and how elaborate the music for a Saw movie is, I usually need to start when they're still moving through the process from the director's cut. Sometimes the director might say, "This whole sequence here in reel five is not going to change. That's as tight as it's gonna get." Those are the spots that I'll focus on finishing even when the picture isn't locked.

So, generally, you're not going to start creating what will become the score until you have at least a director's cut. Do you get notes from the director or do you get to see early scenes to get a sense of what you want to do?

I always get the script to read through, but not being a filmmaker, a lot of times that doesn't tell me as much as it might tell an actor or a director, but at least I'll have some idea of what's going on. I can understand that, "Oh, this whole first third of the thing is not crazy violence. Okay, so I'm going to need to make sure I have a solo cello ready for this." And when there are early cuts of particular scenes, like trap scenes, or other things that might be labor intensive for me, I will get early versions of that. So even if I've gotten the director's cut, I can start creating new sounds because I have some understanding of what the vibe will be. And I can also start writing some themes, a lot of which is done with very basic sounds.

In the first step in the process of actually writing the music, I'll just use a piano sound, a harp sound, and some very generic string patch just to give me some idea of what the musical data within all these wild sounds is going to be.

In Saw X, I worked very closely with director Kevin Greutert. He would come over every week to review where I was at and to discuss what changes needed to be made because of a new picture edit or to just give his take on how the music should fit into the movie. Early on in the process, I had a little harp pattern for one of these sort of warm, sentimental moments that was just being used as a placeholder. I knew I wanted some kind of hypnotic, arpeggiator-like pattern that would be a through line across a couple of pieces of music around which cello melodies and other stuff were going to happen. As I was playing that for Kevin, he said, "I really liked that little interval. That sounds hopeful, but not happy. We want our audience to feel some hope, but it's not a happy movie."

As we moved through the process, he would say, "Can we use our hope theme in this spot? Or can we just have just a little sniff of it?" And so I would do things later in the movie, like just playing three notes or four notes from that little harp pattern [with] a completely different sound to give us just a whiff of that musical element, which helped to keep continuity within the music. When you have a good relationship between the composer and the director, they're not afraid to say "I think it should be like this." Having that input from the directors is so valuable, it makes my job so much easier because that's one more decision that I don't have to make. It's like working with an artist and they say, "I think the guitar solo should start at the end of the chorus, instead of waiting for the downbeat." Any kind of decision like that where someone feels strongly about something — I love that, because then I don't have to sit there all night going, "I wonder if I should do it this way, or do it that way." Having that input makes my whole process much easier. And both Kevin and James Wan both had that thought process, and it made doing the music so much easier.

I was gonna say it sounds like being in a band, or like the two of you are making a remix together.

Yeah, there's a lot of parallels, especially to how I fit into the Nine Inch Nails world and workflow. Trent is driving the ship—it wasn't like a band of guys sitting around jamming, finding cool chord progressions. It wasn't that at all. But the analogy is Trent's within Nine Inch Nails was very much like the director of a film. He was pointing the story in a certain direction and knew the flavors that he wanted to add to the gumbo. He could advise, but he still welcomed collaboration and input from me and my little cubby hole upstairs with my collection of weird European drum machines or whatever.

And I like not being the director of the film, and I like not being Trent Reznor. (laughs) Because it's nice to have a springboard against which you can work instead of a completely blank slate. Trent is exceedingly talented and skilled, but I know the terror of the blank page, and I'm sure he does, too. So it's nice, either to collaborate with an artist like him or to work on a film where I'm collaborating with the director and the actors and the writers and everybody. Then you don't have to make every single decision yourself. In some decisions, you're guided to your destination.

I've seen you say you're not a huge horror fan, but do you pay attention to other horror composers?

I do keep my antenna tuned to the scoring work on movies that are within the same genre that I work in. But they might be movies that I wouldn't otherwise have gone to see. Partly because I want to be cognizant of what my contemporaries are doing, mainly so that I don't accidentally do a half-assed version of something that somebody else is doing really well. Part of the guiding principle behind my whole career is I don't want to be the seventh version of something. If I can survey the landscape and see that there's a bunch of people who are just killing it at one particular thing, and I'm so far behind their development in that skill or talent, my first reaction is not, "I gotta work hard and catch up." My first reaction is to just grab the wheel, swerve completely off the road, and go in a different direction. The analogy I make is that I don't want to be on a freeway at night and see tail lights off in the distance, and they're getting [closer]. If that means that I slam on the brakes, drive off the frickin' road into a ditch, and go bushwhacking, I might only be moving at five miles an hour, but I'm moving across ground that no human has tread upon before.

That's why I don't pursue the same kind of career goals that a lot of film composers, mainstream ones, seem to. They have assistants and interns in a big operation and [they're] doing five things at once. I would much prefer to have a smaller sphere of influence but have more creative freedom and hopefully a more unique result. Both Nine Inch Nails and the Saw movies have been great for that because they're so their own little weird thing. Nine Inch Nails isn't directly in competition with Foo Fighters or Green Day. They're roughly within the same segment of the entertainment industry, but sonically, workflow-wise, and results-wise, it's its own weird thing that, fortunately, has found an audience. Same with the Saw movies. They're not all that similar to the broader genre of horror flicks — or even other things that James Wan has done, like The Conjuring series. Saw movies are doing their own utterly strange thing, which, fortunately, has found an audience and dedicated fan base.

But, to circle back to your actual question, I do try to keep myself aware of what others are doing in the horror genre. And that's led to some great discoveries. There's one composer, Mark Korven, who did The Lighthouse. The scores that Mark does are very minimalist. They're not like a Saw score where there are a thousand circuit-bent drum machines — it's not utter mayhem. But it's very evocative of what the story is, and what's going on in the mind of the characters. I actually sought him out, because he was one of the inventors of that weird instrument, The Apprehension Engine. There's a great video called [Sounds of the Nightmare Machine] about [Korven's] process. He found a guitar maker to build this [electro-acoustic] instrument that would have some unusual capabilities. The exposed spring reverb where you can touch the springs and these weird rulers and antennas that you can pluck and strike. So [Korven] commissioned this thing and helped to design it, and then made a little video saying, you know, this is this weird instrument that I use on my horror scores. And of course, then me and a bunch of other people immediately were like Googling and emailing like, "Who built that thing? Can I buy one?" Eventually, the guy who built it for him said, "Okay, I'm gonna make 20 of them."

I'm always interested in composers that do music that I think fits the picture really well, and has some unconventional sonic footprint, you know? There's a two-man team called Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. Those guys did Ozark, that series with Jason Bateman. They did a couple of other movies that Jason Bateman produced and starred in, one called The Gift, which was a great little psychological horror movie. And their music is not the kind of — I wish I would do a movie that could have that minimal of a score, and didn't have such a pile of sounds like a Saw movie. I am always attracted to interesting sounds that can work by themselves or with only three tracks of audio in a cue. Bloody luxury! My shit's a thousand tracks deep — it sounds like crap! (laughs) I'm always envious of musicians and composers who can have effective results that aren't maximalist — unfortunately, I have to operate in maximalist mode a lot of the time. So, I do try to keep my antennas up more for those kinds of guys, than for the more traditional, orchestral type of horror stuff.

I interview a lot of musicians who are about to put out records or about to go on tour. This is the first time I've interviewed a film composer before a movie has come out. I'm curious, what is this time like for you right now?

I maybe have a funny relationship with music, compared to some other musicians or composers, because once the piece of music is finished, I kind of don't care anymore. (laughs) The most fun phase of the entire process is when I'm about halfway to two-thirds of the way through. There's no more terror of a blank page. I kind of have a sketch. I've unlocked some of the mysteries of what I have to do, but I haven't yet gotten to that point of tedium of just tweaking and fixing and finishing it. It's still a playground and I can still experiment. I don't have to worry about the technical aspects of the production as much. The closer I get to the finish line, the less I like the process. (laughs) That last day of getting the cue to absolutely slam and peaking at one dB below clipping and all that kind of production stuff — which I am good at and I do know how to do — isn't as much fun. It's like when a song is half finished and you're like, "Oh, this is going to be great," but you haven't yet gotten to the point of ruining it by the simple act of finishing it. (laughs)

So, in this run-up to the theatrical release of a movie, you know, I finished the music three months ago. So, as I'm now going back to edit together the album release, it's almost like looking through a high school yearbook from 20 years ago. You're like, "I remember that cello solo that I did on this one scene. That was in April when I did that!" It's not at all the same as the run-up to an album release — for me anyway —partly because I just enjoy a different phase of the process. I'm [grateful] that I'm naturally like that because you don't know if an album or a movie or whatever is going to find an audience. So, if all your enjoyment comes from the process, then if the thing sinks like a stone on release day, it doesn't bother you, because you've gotten your enjoyment out of [it]. Even if twelve people went and saw it, it went straight to DVD, and now it's over, well, then that's okay. You already had your fun. I'm glad that my natural tendency is to enjoy the process, not the result.

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