Interview with Colin Stetson

(Photo by Ebru Yildiz)

There are several menaces that you don’t want to be alone in a dark room with, let alone the wasteland of an abandoned Texas town that a clueless bunch of social media influencers want to woke up. Because if you’re hip to the utterly bizarre, genre-forged music wavering in the mad realm between what some might call music and others would label sound design, then you’d know that few composers wield their sonic weapons with the nerve-ripping experimental scares of Colin Stetson. Sure you can nail bodies with percussion and scratch down a string blackboard in a way that makes any sense of melody a memory. But it takes a whole other kind of composer to turn it into a thing a terrifying art. 

(“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” on Milan Records)

Crafting the twisted morass of arguably one of the scariest films ever made with “Hereditary,” then pouring on the purple-tinged Lovecraftian bad acid trip of “Color out of Space,” Stetson now embodies an icon’s Excalibur like a metal shop from hell, as turned to 11 for “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Among the franchise’s seemingly innumerable spins and reboots, this is arguably the goriest salute to an original that’s positively Pollyanna-esque in comparison with actual violence shown, but positively brutal in terms of its intensity. Here “Tejano” director David Blue Garcia seeks to fuse both approaches in visually striking fashion as a direct sequel of sorts, with the original’s sole survivor Sally (played here by “Mandy’s” Olwen Fouéré) comes to the final girl rescue of Melody (Sarah Yarkin) and Lila (Elsie Fisher), the latter with her own history of violence. 

(Photo by Daniele Maldarizzi)

With his background in brass and such works as the “New History Warfare” series, Stetson here creates a beyond unsettling atmosphere, at once evoking a haunted wasteland while delivering on the jump scares with rusty, blood-drenched steel teeth ripping through a busload of selfie victims. There’s barely anything conventional to cling onto here if you’re a music fan as such, which is exactly the idea with horror scoring that really goes for it. That’s certainly Stetson’s M.O. as his “music” bellows, eviscerates and mentally claws to become instrumentally spine-ripping  one with a man-child out for revenge, ultimately hammering out a screaming rock “western” showdown. Sure tenderer horror score fans might run for their lives, but this isn’t made or composed for them. Instead, Stetson’s “Massacre” is sinisterly transfixing for the insane level of creativity going on, all of which makes for another primally terrifying, relentless notch in a composer’s horror belt as he captures  a methodically brutal antihero, one that you’d imagine approving of this sonic experimental madness before getting back to business. 

Colin Stetson at Aarhus Festival, Denmark, 2017

How do you think your work with such alternative artists as The Chemical Brothers, Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem prepared you to become a film composer? And was that a direction you ever saw for yourself?

I’ve always been attracted to filmmaking. In my youth as a visual artist, I  had imagined a career in film in some way related to FX and design, but ultimately my path arched toward music very soon after and I figured I’d make my way to film in that capacity at some point.  As for your question regarding collaborations with bands and song writers, I’d say that the common thread here is that in both instances you’re serving both the object and vehicle itself (the film or song/album) and also the originator/maker of that thing (the director or songwriter).

What kind of horror music scared you before you found yourself in the genre?

I don’t think I’ve ever ascribed to a particular “kind” or “style” of music, in horror or otherwise.  If a score serves the film, helps it to  do what it sets out to do as best can  be, that’s the  test to me. Jerry Goldsmith’s scores for “Poltergeist” and “Alien” are among my favorites in the genre. Tobe Hooper’s for the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” of course, was absolutely groundbreaking, and I’d include something like Johann Johannsson’s score for “Prisoners” as well. Though not a true “horror” film, nonetheless “Prisoners” is a near perfect vehicle of suspense and dread, and one that I find endlessly inspiring.

What do you think it was about Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” and your score that struck such a nightmarish nerve?

“Hereditary” isn’t really a horror film. Or rather, it’s more of a dysfunctional family drama couched in the vessel of a horror film. I think that the ways that people are truly disturbed by it have much more to do with the stark realness of the impossibly fraught relationships between these family members and it’s that truly accessible reality that puts people into a place of vulnerability and unrest.  

Tell us about scoring the often-brutal TV series “Deliver Us” and “Barkskins?”

I adored working on both of these series. “Deliver Us,” for those who haven’t seen it, is just an extremely well made and wonderfully dark, yet still quite mundane feeling, small town drama. It is curious and impulsive and sexy and full of very real-world dread, and I loved writing to all of its twists, turns, and characters. “Barkskins,” though dealing with some similar dark and human themes, was a chance at approaching a period piece in a completely “un”-period like manner, musically speaking. There were things that I wanted to keep employed here, like the aesthetic timbral quality of strings, but turning them on their head and transforming the usual manner of their deployment. Namely, when writing for strings here, I never wrote grid or step wise counterpoint, and only used  my own voice to sing in  a very loose and serpentine way all of the string parts. That, mixed with an enormous amount of brutal low-end woodwinds and Tibetan bowls, give this score it’s undulous and creaking character — like the sounds of the forest on a dark and forceful night.

You had a peaceful change of pace with the Disney NASA documentary series “Among the Stars.” What was it like to create a sense of wonder for outer space?

I had the pleasure of scoring Hulu’s Mars-centric series “The First” a few years ago, which gave me the opportunity to really play to a wide range of epic uplift, tension, and drama. I leapt at the chance to do more like this for a documentary about the actual men and women forging humanity’s next steps into the cosmos. I love getting to write huge sweeping themes and playing to these enormous vistas of outer space and of that inward turned look back at our own vulnerable little “pale blue dot.” At the same time, the score is illustrating just how horrific and consequential so much of what these people are doing day to day can be. It’s an extreme contrast of portrayal of emotions in our human experience and one that I enjoyed immensely.

Before “Yellowjackets” became a thing, you scored the female “Lost meets Lord of the Flies” movie “Mayday.”  

“Mayday” was a joy to score. Such a unique and gorgeously filmed piece of work. Copius flutes, airy and yearning, and a kind of pulsating woodwind and synth approach I hadn’t ever employed, made this something that truly stands out in my body of work and is something that I’m extremely proud of and happy to have been a part of.

Anyone can create abstract music for the genre. But what do you think it takes to create experimental scores that go beyond obvious, often non-melodic effects?

It comes back to theme.  To iconic, to memorable, to haunting.  And in the case of “experimental,” “abstract” or “non-melodic,” you’re still dealing with theme and the notion of burning yourself into the brains of your audience. Without employing conventional melodic/harmonic methods, you’re relying on shape and timbre, texture and weight, in order to make something that is impactful humanly, in a way that truly supports the whole of the film in eliciting an emotional response.

Do you think horror scoring creates more possibility for invention?

Not essentially.  I think that currently there are a lot of people and production companies creating a ton of content within the genre, and there’s maybe more appetite for variety and “risk taking” in creating these specific films at the moment. But there’s nothing essential to the genre of horror that creates more possibility for invention in scoring, no.

TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE Cr. Yana Blajeva / ©2021 Legendary, Courtesy of Netflix

Where you’ve scored “art horror” films, “Texas Chainsaw” is determinedly, yet still visually striking in-your-face genre work. What’s the difference between scoring existential and flat-out terror?

The whole of it is to identify and create the character of the score, and then to “point” in the direction of where you want your audience to look.  I don’t think there’s really any difference fundamentally or functionally in how either type is scored. Ultimately you’re still dealing with the same set of human variables at the audience end.

Were you a fan of the Chainsaw series before taking on the film?

Oh yes.  Or rather, I’ve been a huge fan of the original.  From both a filmmaking and especially a scoring perspective, it was an enormously groundbreaking and transformative piece of music that paved the way forward for all sorts of composers, very much including myself, to do with much freedom the things that we endeavor to do with our current work. 

Director David Blue Garcia

Talk about working with director David Blue Garcia, and what he wanted the score to accomplish?

David and I talked extensively in the beginning of the process and both of us were in agreement on the fact that what we were making here was a direct sequel to the original, that in turn, its score had to be something that wasn’t couched in any conventions, horror or otherwise, and had to be similarly built up out of its own unique sonic landscape and really tethered to nothing other than itself.   

As a brass player, did you warp any of those sounds into “Texas Chainsaw?”

In  order to find my way to a truly unique and sourcelessness sort of feeling for this score, I looked to sound sources infrequently or straight up unused in pursuit of other scoring ends in the genre, and utilized things like the Tubax (a modern design of contrabass saxophone), bowed Tibetan bowls, and even less conventional methods like turkey hunting calls and samples of hog grunting.

You could saw that the score sounds like a tool shed from hell. In that respect, how did you want to emulate the sound of a chainsaw and to make it “musical” as such?

I set out to build this sonic world that really felt like the old abattoir come back to life, but not literally pulling those sounds as such.  I always find that coming at a thing from an unexpected angle is so much more interesting, once you’ve found your way to it.  In this case, where you hear the sounds of a saw blade whirring or an engine chugging and belching fumes, those sounds were likely gotten to by a series of steps, taking an unconventional approach to playing an  instrument like a saxophone  or  a piano, and then heavily manipulating that sound until it becomes this thing I set out to build. 

Leatherface is given an unusually sympathetic orphanage backstory here, as well as a motivation for his revenge. How did you want to hear the wounded little boy behind the human mask?

In the twisting and stretching of the sounds of bowed Tibetan singing  bowls, I found the sounds that felt to me to be so intrinsically akin to the original Leatherface’s upward horrific scraping totemic sound. It was here that I relied on to create a myriad of moments, from those implying his origin to others more urgent and contemporary.

How important is silence to a horror film, particularly this one?

Silence is important to every film.  And especially it’s the attention payed to the specific sounds juxtaposed with every silence that makes the most difference to the propulsion of the drama and narrative.

Did you go for a particularly ugly, guttural feeling in the more “music concrete” scoring?

My goal was to create a musical landscape that reeked of its locale.  I wanted the music to feel as if it were the voice of the machine and industry of a long defunct and decrepit abattoir, just sputtering and chugging to life after decades of unuse, rusty gears and blades shaking off dust as they grind back to purposeful action. It should be ugly and guttural, yes. And proud and defiant.

There’s a cool, furious heavy metal energy when Lila and Sally finally decide to take the battle to Leatherface. Did you want to create a western showdown feel to those confrontations?

Yes, definitely. For both of these cues, there’s an utter determination in the drive and wail of the music, a swagger and confidence and a cruel countenance.  I wanted these moments to show that resilience in these two as they both were living the overcoming of their respective fears.  

How difficult was it to score the film through the pandemic, and do you think the isolated situation gave the score more of a nightmarish quality than it might have had?

I have always worked primarily alone, for the most part I perform and record all the instruments of my scores myself and do all of the mixing and engineering.  And so here, as in the numerous other projects I’ve worked on during the pandemic, there hasn’t been much of a difference in my working process, to be honest.  

TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE Elsie Fisher as Lila, Sarah Yarkin as Melody, Nell Hudson as Ruth and Jacob Latimore as Dante. Cr. Yana Blajeva / ©2021 Legendary, Courtesy of Netflix

How do you hope that this “Texas Chainsaw” and its score fit into the franchise? And where do you see the score going if a sequel would return to the O.G. cannibal family horror aspect?

As I’ve alluded to earlier, I would hope that this iteration of LF and the TCM lore exist as something that simultaneously gives homage to its origin and exists in its own creative world.  In the event of a sequel, I would approach that film in much the same way.

What can we expect from the upcoming miniseries adaptation of the pattern horror anime “Uzumaki?”

“Uzumaki” is perhaps my favorite score of mine to date.  It was the first project I scored in the pandemic, was written and recorded during a time of extreme sequestering and insecurity. It has a character unlike anything I’ve heard.  

How do you like to use samples?

The only samples that I used in “Texas Chainsaw” were the sounds of several animals. There’s a healthy dose of hog grunts and pine squirrel barking. Those moments where it just sounds like the music is laughing at you and taunting you while you lay helpless, that’s the squirrels! I tend to use  a lot of animal sounds, honestly.  In “Color Out  of Space” there was a ton of elk bugling and sparring, In “Uzumaki” there is quite a lot of crane calling.

Photo by Ebru Yildiz

Do you ever end up scaring yourself with your work? And what do you think will happen to listeners if they play “Texas Chainsaw” really loud?

I always hope and strive to scare myself with this music. That’s how I know that it’s working! And honestly, I would hope that listeners all take the opportunity to play these things loud, to sit with them entirely and be fully absorbed in them. We rarely let ourselves just be fully present with any music we listen to in our daily lives, let alone that of scores, apart from the films they accompany.

Watch “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” on Netflix, with Colin Stetson’s score available on Milan Records HERE

Listen to Colin Stetson’s soundtracks HERE

Visit Colin Stetson’s website HERE