Interview with Colin Stetson

(photo by Jonathan Durand)

Given his ability to conjure insanity with a distinctively terrifying and transfixing voice, one might imagine composer Colin Stetson straight jacketed into a lunatic’s cell with his gear, babbling about unimaginable monsters on the other side of hell and space. However, that void where most straight-laced film musicians might fear to tread is home for a rising, unclassifiable voice in a Hollywood whose scoring sound is increasingly mutating into a thing of melody, dissonance and sound design – a creature whose acolytes are becoming more popular than ever with the ear and mind-bending likes of Mica Levi’s “Under the Skin,” The Newton Brothers’ “Doctor Sleep” and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s “Annihilation.” Worshipped by hip listeners weaned on alternative music, it’s an unfathomable style whose tentacles are now spreading beyond the worlds of horror and science fiction – and perhaps are no more strikingly than in Stetson’s hands. 

With a horn as his first notable instrument, Stetson jammed with the likes of Arcade Fire, Tom Waites, The Chemical Brothers and Laurie Anderson. Developing his repertoire with saxophone and clarinet while songwriting, Stetson established himself in the alt-Avant garde world with albums that included “Those Who Didn’t Run,” “All this I Do for Glory,” the trilogy of “New History Warfare” and his interpretation of Gorecki’s third symphony for “Sorrow.” Stetson’s talent for disturbed melancholy would accompany the fact-based rampage of a shooter and his disciple in 2013’s “Blue Caprice,” a film he co-scored with then-wife and collaborator Sarah Neufeld. They’d hear the sins of the past in “Lavender,” with Stetson also scoring the dark western “Outlaws and Angels” (with Aleks de Carvalho). But Stetson’s ability to tap nightmare fuel would truly explode for Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.” With unbearable, grinding builds, nerve-shredding sustains, and relentless, slicing rhythm, Stetson’s God-knows-what embodiment of satanic evil gradually taking over a distraught family was nearly devoid of melodic nicety, perfect for one of the most unnerving films ever made, and more than likely to serve as a torture device outside of its confines.   

Stetson was able to return to harmonic earth by scoring Hulu’s Mars mission show “The First,” as well as lending haunting music to the devastatingly intimate foster-care-to-jail drama “Age Out,” – yet both with a tone still far apart from the scoring norm. Now Stetson is back on unearthly ground to embody the “Color out of Space.” It’s exactly the kind of Lovecraft bizarreness a cult fan would expect to mark the long-awaited feature return of South African filmmaker Richard Stanley, who’d assembled the killer robot of “Hardware” and journeyed with the mythical demon of “Dust Devil” before he career was derailed in an attempt to realize the manimals inhabiting “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Now with the support of Nicolas Cage, Hollywood’s reigning avatar of delightfully berserk acting, Stanley is able to rend an Alpaca-raising, back-to-nature family to purple pieces when a meteor lands in their property. 

Given Stanley’s strikingly hued, lovingly bizarre vision of being sucked into a body and vegetable-mutating alien power as the ultimate trip, Stetson’s music is a similar mélange of freak-out scares and insane intoxication. As opposed to “Hereditary,” it’s a weirdly, ultra-listenable soundtrack that works within and without its pulsating body. Steadily pouring on sampled weirdness with rock shades of Pink Floyd, the gurgling of unimaginable creatures and waves of chattering percussion amidst its sonic whirlpool, Stetson once again creates a soundtrack not of this earth. But like Lovecraft’s hapless humans who are pulled to take a mind-shredding glimpse into the unfathomable, Stetson’s use of haunted melody amidst all of the craziness is once again a siren call to a completely uncompromising wall of highly crafted sound. It’s a score that’s like nothing out there in an increasingly evolving and daring realm of what constitutes music. And for the daring, Stetson’s “Color out of Space” is a glimpse into madness that they’ll be happy to take for a composer who continues to step into unknowable Lovecraftian realms through his art.  

How did you go from alternative music to film scoring?

In 2013, Alexandre Moors made a film called “Blue Caprice.” He’d been listening to my solo music which gave him the inspiration to go in a specific direction with his score. He asked me if I’d ever considered a scoring a film, so that turned into my first soundtrack, which I did in collaboration with my now ex-wife Sarah Neufeld. So becoming a film composer wasn’t quite a whim, but something that I had been meaning to get into but had literally never had the time because touring had made it impossible. I scored “Blue Caprice” during every waking hour in the week here or the week there when I wasn’t playing with Arcade Fire. It was a wonderful experience, because it was all about Alexandre putting faith into people had been completely untested with within the medium. Then after that, things just started to gain momentum. Sarah and I went on to do two more films together, and then I started acquiring more jobs over the years. Between film and television, I’ve done around 15 projects in between all of the touring and albums of my own. 

Do you think that working with bands helped you develop as a composer?

(photo by Jonathan Durand)

The main thrust of the job is that you are working for a director and a producer. But ultimately, you’re working for this picture, this narrative story in whatever way it’s being told. So in a way you’re jettisoning ego. Your job is to simply to make this greater vision come to life and to enhance it in whatever way that you can. When I’m working with songwriters, I’m trying to like analyze what they already have within the song, and what I can add to it with the proficiencies that I already have in hand, or what it is that I can learn how to do to identify its structure. It’s the same kind of problem solving and world building when you score a film. There’s, a lot of creativity, but it’s a very pointed creativity that’s all bent towards a specific goal.

Was it the unconventionality of your alternative voice that was attracting filmmakers to your work? 

Yeah, for sure. There’s the allure of the unique. Beyond just being unconventional sonically, my music tends to have already within it a bit of an epic scope that’s oriented towards the visual. For example, my “New History Warfare” trilogy of records has a narrative that was always meant to be a graphic novel that fed the music and the narrative alongside of it like a kind of second skin. So it has not been a surprise to me to do the transition into film. It’s actually been quite seamless because I already functioned that way. To acknowledge that other people have noticed that through their own devices is certainly fortunate. It’s also a testament to how much can actually be conveyed when we take the time to try and imbue our creations with a level of intention. So scoring is something that cyclically fed out of the solo and the group work. 

Your score for Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” put you on the map, especially given how even more frightening it made the film. What’s it like to write essentially a melody-free score that could inspire madness?

 “Hereditary” is one of those rare films that’s truly perfect. It was very lean, and exactly what it needed to be. Not anymore or less. I read the script a couple of years before the film was made. From the moment of that infamous mouth “pop” I was hooked and realized that this was a thing that I had to do because no one else was going to be making a film quite like this. For me, the ease I had in doing “Hereditary” was that it’s not so much of a horror film as it is a very tense, very emotional drama of loss, grief and dysfunction that’s couched inside the vessel of a horror film. I consider myself as genre-less in regard to film as I do to music. I’ve been tapped to do a lot of horror and more suspenseful things because the sounds that come quite naturally to me make people uncomfortable and reliably induce feelings of panic (laughs). But for me, the, the main, challenge of that that film was to completely stay in the shadows the whole time. Because as soon as I stepped out and did anything recognizably melodic or thematic, something that you really could latch onto, even for a second, then it was too much.

(photo by Jonathan Durand)

There were a couple moments in the very beginning where I had sewn something melodic in, and they were quickly left on the studio floor. The whole of the score became a reverse-construction of that final scene and final track “Reborn.” So if you listen backwards, you’ll see that all of the bits and pieces that make up the whole of that score or basically just kind of a bread crumb trail leading to that theme. But it’s obscured, and very purposefully. I wrote the whole, I wrote and recorded the whole of that score out in my studio in Vermont, which is in a very isolated spot in the woods. I spent all of those months virtually all alone with that film and this music. People ask me a lot “How the fuck did you not go insane?” And I never really thought about it that way. There were a couple moments where I would work way too late and then hear everything in the house and outside of it. I was a little bit too hyper aware to sleep healthfully. But mostly that kind of exploration into those kinds of sonic spaces are in my wheelhouse. I don’t really find them terror in them, though I know that they do that to other people, But I’m quite joyfully in them. 

What was it like to be part of Richard Stanley’s long-awaited return to feature filmmaking?

Color Out of Space stars Nicolas Cage and Joely Richardson with filmmaker Richard Stanley

It was extremely exciting. I reached out to the producers immediately and began talks with them. I’d never seen the infamous documentary about Richard trying to make “Island of Lost Souls,” and purposefully avoided watching it because I didn’t want to have any preconceptions about the man. I just wanted to have a conversation with him about what we might do together. I’m very glad that I did because my time with Richard was truly a pleasure. He is such a sweetheart. He is brilliant, and he’s never boring. He has big ideas and an incredible intellect to convey them. It was a lot of fun getting into character with him. Where I’d been talking with Where I wrote the score for “Hereditary” from the script and gave music to the set that Ari would play for the cast, the process of “Color” was immediate. I wrote a few of the major themes and sonic concepts and we were rolling. The music was finished in under two months.  

(photo by Jonathan Durand)

Were you familiar at all with the literature or the cinematic universe of HP Lovecraft before taking this on? 

I was a big Dungeons and Dragons nerd and metal head when I was a kid. Being in that scene, you can’t not have been influenced by his imagining. His creature design is everywhere in all of that. You either peripherally or verbatim know about Lovecraft’s stories. I certainly would not ever claim to be anywhere near Richard’s familiarity with his work. His mother’s favorite stories which she’d read to him as bedtime stories when he was a kid. I had no upbringing like that!    

What was your collaboration like with Richard?  

The first thing I had read from Richard was him posing the question of what the sound of cosmic life form that manifests itself as a spectrum of light that does not exist in our reality would sound like? I love big, ridiculous questions like that. My partner at the time had been reading Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem” trilogy and brought up the idea of there being “density.” A common trope of mine is the exploration of hyper tense melodic, harmonic and rhythmic spaces in music. This just seemed like a perfect opportunity to go hog wild and run fast and far in that direction. So the concept at first was taking the underwater recorded sounds of coral reefs and layering them on one another to create this ultra-dense, cacophonous rhythmic space and then running that through various harmonic generators. Then I’d combine that with other extended techniques on conventional instruments, played unconventionally. That created the basis for what became the sound of the “color.” I think the task like that was to come up with something that was incredibly abstract and representative of the cosmic element, while at the same time  coming up with themes, an aesthetic and a tone that could play the idyllic and the quaint that was in the story, and the character of Gardener family, and then a kind of “Jaws”-level refrain that would be the musical element that would merge the two. So the first three things that I came up with was the theme for the Gardeners, what would eventually become the penultimate scene in the movie and its track “The Color” and the refrain that’s I the track called “Contact” which you hear with the falling of the meteorite.  

(photo by Jonathan Durand)

What’s the challenge of musically merging the two genres of science fiction and horror? 

I never really looked at it that way to be totally honest. Like I said, if, if I started thinking about the “genre,” then I that I’m doing a huge disservice to the whatever score I’m working on. If what I’m doing starts sounding like something that somebody else did for another horror film, then I feel like I’m doing something wrong. I don’t want to be derivative of a genre. One of the main puzzles to be solved in creating a character and a narrative arc musically for this score specifically was to have a feeling of otherworldliness, a sense of complete and utter alien tone that would be the undoing of the, the flip side of the coin, which is this very, very quaint, pastoral, incredibly conventional and melancholic, theme for this family that is upended throughout the course of the film. So if we know where the music is starting and ending, what do each of, what is the role of each of those themes in getting us there? For me, that’s the most fun part of the challenge of finding the very particular ways in which a film wants to be, as, puzzled out musically – to try and steer clear of the “genre” tropes.  

Watching the film is like being on an acid trip that’s both beautiful and horrifying at the same time. How did you want to kind of capture that hallucinogenic descent into madness? 

I felt that I had to be very unpredictable. I wanted the music to lead without pointing, as I would put it. When I did “Hereditary,” I was specifically tasking myself with the challenge of trying to “couch” the music in some way so that it was so that its true nature was hiding in plain sight. Everything there is just a very conventional instrument, but not in the way that they’re played or manipulated. Their identities had been obscured through different techniques and processes. There’s certainly that here. But I’d say that “Color” went a step further and is adding elements to it, like what is literally happening in the film. It’s polluting on this foundational level. 

(photo by Jonathan Durand)

For example, take the very first scene when Ward is doing the voiceover as we see this spacious, haunting forest. The primary melodic and harmonic mover there is actually a recording of a bull elk that is in the rut and screaming. I took that, floated it down with a modified pitch and ran it through processing to have it become this kind of adulterated, cosmic deformation of its original nature. So that was the big step. How do we take the inherent nature in all of this and twist it sufficiently so that it becomes something that is no longer recognizable? But if you’re told that used to be a cat, or used to be a person, like, um, you can see, you can see it’s, it’s the foundation then you can see the music’s roots. That’s what this score was all about for me. It was starting from something that was natural and then seeing how far things could be twisted, all while remaining as unpredictable as possible with regard to the movement and, the overall sonic structure of things. If your intended goal is a hallucinatory world, then you have to be more or less like what it is like to be in a state of hallucination, which for those of us who have spent periods of time in those states is one where even the absolute mundane and every day is made completely new, shiny and alien. So there was an absolute ton of sounds that I started with that eventually became “non-musical” sounds that became part of the backbone to music. And the first one is the terrifying suck-scream of the bull elk. 

Did you ever, did you ever feel you got to “out there” or musically insane at points? 

(photo by Jonathan Durand)

On that score? No! (laughs). The key to it was to never second guess how crazy it was getting because most people are not that crazy. Most people are used to things to be being quite run of the mill, whatever that mill is for that day on hand. I like to not really be influenced by the outside, especially when I’m working on something like this. I like to isolate myself from things and to make sure that if something gets crazy and I think that maybe it’s getting a little too crazy, then I take a step back and revisit it in a day. If I still think it’s too crazy, I’ll try to push it further. And usually that’s the way to go. If something sounds too crazy, chances are you’re just not selling it. And if you, if you push it harder, you can usually sell that “crazy.”

Nicolas cage is once again in his own universe in this movie. What’s it like dealing with that wild “Cage” energy? 

It’s the most fun shit ever. I cannot tell you how many times I just broke down laughing hysterically at not only his performance but then fucking around with music over his performance. It was so much fun. There’s a cue called “Peaches!” which is a very simple track, yet I had the more fun doing it than anything because I got to play it over and over again and hear his lunacy. It’s like what I was saying about keeping on your toes. He’s brilliant. He’s an absolute rarity. There’s nothing quite like him.  

For as absolutely insane as this score gets, it’s actually quite melodic in its madness, especially when compared to “Hereditary.” Do you think that will surprise listeners, who might not otherwise want to hear your previous score outside of its tremendous effectiveness in the movie itself?     

The thrust of all these things is ultimately if it serves the film. Does it serve the narrative? “Hereditary” had to be completely devoid of melodic elements up until the final payoff, because otherwise it detracted and felt conventional. “Color Out of Space” needed these epic themes. It wanted that. It’s a monster movie, which “Hereditary” isn’t. In between these two films I did a series for Hulu called “The First,” where I got to stretch out and do an enormous amount of really big sweeping themes. So people who’ve watched that, and know my solo albums, realize that I don’t shy away from melody. Part of the challenge and distinct pleasure of scoring “Color Out of Space” was that I got to utilize the same sort of heart-pounding, panic inducing elements that I got to utilize with “Hereditary.”  But at the forefront are these big, very recognizable themes was getting to play with their relationship with one another, the relationship to the overall narrative and to show how they also twist and devolve over the course of the film was a lot of fun. So yeah, if people don’t know anything of my work except for “Hereditary,” then this one’s fanfare-ish elements, especially when the shit is hitting the fan, will surprise them. But again, it’s exactly what this film wanted and needed to kind of do itself. 

(photo by Jonathan Durand)

When when you look at composers like yourself, “Under the Skin’s” Mica Levi and “Annihilation’s” Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, do you think you’re creating a meeting of the stylistic minds between sound design and music. I mean that’s becoming a new, experimental normal for film scoring?

When we go to the movies, we still see the majority of films being scored very conventionally. But there are elements of non-conventionality coming in. Right now, it is quite a fad in the industry, and everyone loves to chase the next hot thing in the industry. I see it as a welcome door opening – but not that if we’re lucky everything is just going to be a chaotic mass of just drones and chaotic sounds. I certainly don’t believe that film scoring is just about turning the whole notion of the score into sound design. But I am very happy that more and more people are recognizing that there is much, much more than what they previously accepted that can, and should be defined under the umbrella of the term “music.” Music should simply be the sonic element that we utilize to affect an emotional response in one another. That can be a lot of different things. For me, it doesn’t really matter if it’s weird, so long as it’s doing its job. If it’s just a weird sound. It’s just a weird sound. If it’s a beautiful, very conventional tone, a melody or chord and it’s doing its job, then it’s doing its job. It doesn’t have to be weird. It doesn’t have to be a “strangeness.” Nothing has to pass to be imbued with a strangeness in order to make it effective. But there are myriad ways of being effective at conveying those intentions and emotions. So I’m happy that people seem to be starting to really open up to the world of possibilities in film scoring. 

“Color out of Space” is now in theaters and VOD, and on home video February 25th HERE

Listen to Colin Stetson’s score on Milan Records February 7th HERE, and “Hereditary” HERE

Visit Colin Stetson’s website HERE