Nine Inch Nails picture featuring Charlie Clouser, photographed left of Trent Reznor
Charlie Clouser is perhaps best known for being a member of Nine Inch Nails. During the years of 1994-2000, Clouser was the bands keyboard player, co-wrote numerous songs such as “The Perfect Drug” and “The Way Out is Through,” and served as Trent Reznor’s electronic set-up/sound-sample guru. Like Reznor, Clouser has the creative music wizardry gene that allows his versatility and talents to lend themselves to various outlets. His work can be heard intertwined within tons of TV series, films and records. Such works include TV series’ – Wayward Pines, Fastlane, The Equalizer (to name a few), the Saw film franchise and of course, the multi-platinum Nine Inch Nails records – The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. It’s his stories of how he got looped into these projects however, that are most compelling. In almost every scenario, it was an established relationship with a random old, non-music-biz, friend that led him to a by-chance opportunity that he would grab and run with.
Shortly into our conversation, I began to understand part of what I think is Clouser’s secret. He is incredibly captivating and his deliverance had me feeling like I was sitting wide-eyed on a relative’s porch as they were telling me their amazing army stories. I did not want the conversation to end.
Going back to your days working at Sam Ash in New York City, it seems like that’s where it all began for when you happened to meet Cameron Allan?
I started working at Same Ash on 48th street two years after Midi had been invented. The brave new world of hooking up computers to synthesizers was just starting. One of my first days on the job, they basically appointed me to work the computer-midi-interface-software section, which was in this tiny room at the back of the store. That became my gig because nobody else wanted to do it and I was the new guy. At that time, huge advancements in technology were being made and new stuff was coming out every week. I had to really learn about it so I could speak to it.
Cameron Allan was an Australian record producer who would come over to America once or twice a year to pick up some gear, software and any other hot new stuff that was out. Back in those days, in Manhattan, 48th street was the epicenter of music technology. You couldn’t just go on the internet and read reviews; you had to physically go check stuff out. Cameron and I became friends through the relationship we established by him coming into the store. I would really look forward to this dude showing up a few times a year. I’d spend an inordinate amount of time with him based around how much stuff he would buy and just conversing about music. He was into the same artsy style that I liked. Eventually after a few years, he moved to New York to take over doing the score for the final season of this CBS TV series, The Equalizer. Stewart Copeland from the Police had been scoring it, but he got busy doing other gigs so they hired Cameron.
Cameron showed up in New York with a very small amount of gear. I ended up being his third man in the operation. He brought over a buddy of his from Australia, John Clifford, who was a keyboard player, and I was doing the drum programming, the sound design, manipulating samples and doing all of the background noises. Then I’d help Cameron mix the show. It eventually got to the point where I was spending so much time with them after doing a full day at Sam Ash that my boss at the store knew something was up. It was funny though, he made sure I had a good gig lined up before he fired me. But working with Cameron on The Equalizer was my first professional gig in the music industry.
That’s fascinating. You then continued to work with Cameron on other projects after the Equalizer correct?
The following autumn, Cameron went out to L.A. to do other TV scoring projects and he brought me along with him. Then I was able to reunite with some old friends from both college and folks from my high school in Vermont who had moved out there. The guitar player from my high school band happened to be out in L.A. working as a session player and songwriter. Being in L.A. enabled me to not only continue working with Cameron, but also I started to network and make some solid contacts that would lead to a lot of great work in the record industry.
Had you not met Cameron, did you have a plan to pursue music in New York City?
Yeah. I was in an Alt/Rock band called Nine Ways to Sunday. We recorded, played CBGB’s a bunch and went on a small tour, but then it eventually dissolved. My personality and talents are more suited towards studio work though. I’ve always been a fan of records that were made by studio wizardry like Pink Floyd, Devo, Talking Heads and David Burns. I never wanted to play guitar solos on stage; I wanted to be in the studio making sounds that nobody ever heard before. That’s why I ended up working with people like Rob Zombie, to add a cybernetic layer to the music. That’s what drew me into Trent Reznor’s orbit.
How did you meet Trent Reznor and end up in Nine Inch Nails?
It’s crazy. It was not actually through any music business connections at all. It was through a buddy of mine from college who was out in L.A. and was working as one of the many producers on a Nine Inch Nails music video, for the song “Happiness in Slavery.” That video is extreme and they needed to do some sound effect overdubs. My buddy who I had reconnected with thought there was an easier way to do it instead of the big production they had planned. He called me to come over and give it a try at Trent’s studio. They asked me to do a day’s worth of sound effects. I came over with a bunch of samples; we used the samplers and computers that Trent already had set up for making The Downward Spiral. It took us four hours so we spent the rest of the day just talking shop and fiddling around with the gear. Then I sort of never left. (laughs) I finished up that job then Trent called and said “I’m producing this band and I don’t like the way the drums came out on the recording. Can you come in and duplicate the drum sounds with samples? It will fatten up their live performances.” That turned out to be Marilyn Manson’s first album. I was then completely in his circle.
Shortly after that, the next thing I knew, I was out on the road with Nine Inch Nails. Not playing in the band yet but taking care of and setting up the portable studio. Whenever there was a few days off and we’d be staying in one place, we would drag out all of the road cases, get an extra hotel room and I’d set everything up so that Trent could work on a song.
Eventually, the keyboard player, James Wooley, had gotten over being on the road. So they turned to me and basically said “you’re up!” I had to explain to Trent that I had never played keyboards live before. I came up as a drummer and had only played the keyboard in the studio. I remember telling Trent that I wasn’t even a keyboard player and he said “nobody is, you got this.” So I took over for James in the middle of a tour in 1994. The first time I had ever played keyboards on a stage was in front of 22,000 people at a Nine Inch Nails show in Detroit.
Were you a fan of Nine Inch Nails prior to all of that?
I had been turned on to their first record by a college friend of mine from who had been in Ministry, Killing Joke, Fear Factory and lots of ultra-heavy bands. I wasn’t the diehard fan that had the logo tattooed on my neck, but I knew what Nine Inch Nails was all about. I knew it was a seriously great opportunity because it fit with the kind of thing I like and was exactly what I was good at. It’s just funny the way that I fell into it was through a college buddy who was not a musician. None of the music business connections I had made brought me into the Nine Inch Nails world. It was just this random connection through a friend.
As soon as I started working with Trent I knew he was unbelievably talented. This was when he was about halfway done with The Downward Spiral album so he was at the top of his game. It was a total high point in creativity and production so it was a no-brainer for me to toss everything else aside and jump right in.
How did your time with Nine Inch Nails come to end?
I started playing in the live band in 1994 and that lasted up until 2001. When I first joined the band, we were out on the road and we toured forever. When the tour cycle for The Downward Spiral ended, Trent moved from L.A. to New Orleans and bought this big funeral home that he converted to a big studio and rehearsal space. He invited me to join so I ended up moving down to New Orleans as well with a few others. We helped set up the studio and a few us even had our own little mini studios up on the second floor of the complex. I had been doing some programming and remixes with other people like David Bowie, White Zombie, Jamiroquai and Type O Negative. I kept my hand in it because even though we were all down there with intent to contribute to the next Nine Inch Nails record, we knew it was really Trent’s show. I ended up writing a bunch of music with Page Hamilton from Helmet, who had opened up for Nine inch Nails on some shows, so we became friends. After we had finished with The Fragile album and that touring cycle, there was sort of a lull going on in the Nine Inch Nails camp. One by one people started to drift away. I was the second to last to leave. We just weren’t busy so I went back to L.A. and figured I would then produce alternative and metal acts. The first thing I did was help Page Hamilton with the Helmet album, Size Matters. It was based partly around the songs we had already written together.
It was also around the time where the iPod and downloads started to take over. The records I was used to making where expensive productions. Things started to really change in the record industry. All of a sudden, the funds that were available to record an album were not what they once were.
I had stayed in touch with Cameron Allan and he asked me if I wanted to get back on the horse of scoring TV shows. The two of us then scored the series, Fastlane on Fox.
Was this around the time where you began working on Saw?
Yes. I was still working on the Helmet album, recording vocals at my house, and I get a call at to do the first Saw – horror movie. That too didn’t come from conventional channels. It was a strange encounter where my lawyer called me about an indie movie he came across where they had a lot of my music in their temp-score. He suggested I go meet the guys. I went and watched what was the first cut of Saw, and they had dug up a lot of my music and put it in there. We didn’t know this was going to be a blockbuster franchise. It was a very inexpensive movie where I did the first score in five weeks, while Helmet was recording vocals in the other room at my house. It was very much a blend of my skills from working on industrial rock records and remixes, as well as a lot of the skills I developed working with Cameron on TV scoring. It was a lucky break, what I was good at was exactly what they were looking for. Then there was one Saw movie a year for seven straight years.
What is something about Nine Inch Nails that people don’t know?
How versatile Trent’s skills and talents are. It’s becoming a bit clearer now that he has branched off into scoring. It’s calmed down a lot now, but it was full-on Rock N’ Roll mayhem back in those days, especially when you have Marilyn Manson and company in one room of the studio and Nine Inch Nails in the other room. In the midst of all the craziness, Trent was always still such a hard worker. He never took time off. He could’ve been just sitting back and enjoying the fruits of his labor, but he was always the hardest working guy of all. His work ethic has always been incredible. Even if we had three days off on tour, he would still be up working all night or would find a studio to go work in on off days. Most people would sit by the pool and order room service. He was never that guy.
In many cases, on some of the tours, he would sacrifice majorly from a financial standpoint in order to bring a quality production out to the fans. He would smash so many instruments and would insist upon so many different visual elements, that it was definitely eating into the profits. But at no point did he think we would have to cut back on that so he could have money left over when the tour was done. That always impressed me. I remember playing in Buffalo one night and there was a huge ice storm. The number of people that made it to the gig was way less than what we were used. Even still, the same show went on and the same amount of gear got destroyed. The same intensity went into his live performance. That’s not something that’s always been apparent. He never relaxed. Here we are 25 years later and it’s still true. He’s still at the top of his game creatively.
Have you and Trent Reznor ever scored music together now that he is in that field as well?
The only thing we did like that was when he was brought on to do the soundtrack for the film Natural Born Killers. It wasn’t a score per say, it was more complete songs. Trent did write “Burn” for that compilation. We recorded that song in South Beach while on tour. He had a great idea when compiling the soundtrack which was to take bits and pieces of dialog from the movie and incorporate that with the songs in the correct chronological order, so when listening to the album, it was much like the experience of watching the movie. We did that together, but it really wasn’t scoring. We did most of that work in hotel rooms while on tour.
Scoring to me seems like writing the music to a song where you already have the lyrics. How does your writing approach change when scoring as opposed to writing a song?
Well, that’s a great analogy. When you’re working on songs, there are certain conventions that work, like having an intro and a verse then chorus, bridge, mid-chorus and so on. That roadmap doesn’t really apply when scoring to picture. The roadmap in scoring is what’s going on in the screen. It’s almost like the difference between painting a portrait and doing something totally abstract like a Jackson Pollack painting with all the squiggles and shapes.
It was like a natural progression for me, after years of working on album based songs it allowed me some creative freedom because I’m not constrained by feeling like I need to adhere to forms that are prevalent in album and rock songwriting. It’s liberating to not having to stick to the established template but there is still a roadmap. It’s not totally random in scoring where there are no rules and you’re wandering around in the desert wondering where to turn next. You simply follow what’s happening on screen. You’re basically trading one set of rules for another.
Has TV become the preferred outlet to contribute songs to as opposed to film, now that buying a single has overtaken buying a full soundtrack?
I think so, but soundtracks also seem to have more of a pointed angle now. I just finished writing for the TV series Wayward Pines on Fox. We released an album of all of the score that I wrote. In the past, it wasn’t all that common to put out an album of the score. When we approached Fox as to whether or not they would allow something like that, they said absolutely. I think the studios are realizing the more ways they can put their product out now the better. There’s a mindset that if people are fans of the music or the composer, well then maybe they will get sucked into the show. It was amazing how quickly we were able to get all the clearances.
Did you consider touring and writing again with Nine Inch Nails when they reconvened in 2005?
Well, by the time Nine Inch Nails was regrouping and “With Teeth” was coming out, I was neck deep in movie and television scores. I had two hour-long weekly network TV series going, and was squeezing movie scores each year during the breaks, so it wouldn’t have really been an option for me. I went to see a couple of shows in that era, and as usual the production was amazing and the band sounded great, but I think Trent had moved on to trying new people and new approaches and I wasn’t really a good fit anymore. It was nice to be able to see the production from the audience perspective though, and I really like the different approaches he’s taken on the last few tours, including the How to Destroy Angels show at Coachella which looked just amazing.
What’s up next for you now that you wrapped up writing for Wayward Pines?
There are a few things I’m looking at, a few TV series for this coming season. I’ve also been going back and forth with a friend of mine, Alec Empire from Atari Teenage Riot, who had toured with Nine Inch Nails. He and I had really hit off and actually played a few gigs together when he was on the solo circuit. We’ve been writing together and hopefully something will become of it, whether it’s a score or a one-off record. He’s another guy who never stops, so I’m looking forward to finding another avenue for us to collaborate. I’m also finally going to do a little traveling. The past seven years, I’ve been so booked with doing two TV series at once and two movies a year, that I never had any time off. While I have the chance, I’m going grab this next month or two and get out of town.