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Interview: Colin Stetson

Interview: Colin Stetson

“You can’t title anything in that fucking movie without giving everything away.”

Woodwinds and brass are not the scariest instrumental families—unless you put them into the brutal hands of Colin Stetson. The multi-instrumentalist, famed for work with TV on the Radio, Arcade Fire and Tom Waits, has obliterated the boundaries of what can be done with clarinets and saxophones for years. His solo work sounds like a collective effort from dozens of musicians, and his avant-metal project Ex Eye is one of the most pummeling rock experiences of the decade.

With that in mind, it fits that he was recruited to score the dread-infused horror film Hereditary. The soundtrack isn’t just terrifying, it holds up as one of Stetson’s most accomplished works. We spoke with Stetson about his scoring process, the saxophone dark arts and making angry bird noises with his instruments.

Making a horror soundtrack seems like a license to use all the synths and strings you want, but you made all of this with sax, clarinet and your voice. And yet it’s such a strange sound, so I was wondering what effects, if any, you used?

Yeah, there’s a lot of processing on things. Some of the clarinets are—there are certain things that sound like suspense strings in some sense that are modified. It’s a combination of clarinets overlaid on mass and doing specific things to rub each other differently harmonically. Then taking that whole thing and running it through certain processing and getting these unexpected results out of it. Some unique-sounding things that don’t quite map onto expectation, although on first pass you might find them familiar, but they are kind of out of left field.

That answered one of the questions I was thinking about. At the end of a few songs there are these super high, almost bird-like sounds and I thought that has to be clarinets in some shape, but I don’t know how.

The stuff that almost sounds like a swarm of bats chirping?

That one.

That’s probably saxophone being tongued in a very aggressive way. There’s a lot of that flutter, that kind of double tonguing and massive overlay of double tonguing on soprano, alto and bass saxophones. And a lot of the lower, throughout the scenes where—guess I’ll try not to be spoilery—there’s an insectile tone to the score and that was done by this very rapid double tonguing.

There are a couple of motifs that reappear on the score, but they get mutated as the album goes on. “Charlie” offers the most traditional-sounding sax, but as the score goes on, it gets more and more chaotic. And that’s just you mirroring the movie I assume?

My goal with the whole of the score was to establish its character and tone right out of the gates. Then to practice a colossal restraint throughout all of it and never do anything that wasn’t mirroring picture. Just to serve as—it was kind of a study or a project of restraint. Just seeing how gradual the music could be when only reacting to the picture. The character of the score having relationships with the different characters in the film, unfolding and unveiling things only as they were unveiled in the narrative. If you’ve seen the film, the whole score is a reconstruction of the last cue. It’s this backwards—study of hiding in plain sight. How to have all of these active elements but so minimally and sparingly represented throughout the course of the film that nothing ever attracted attention to itself. And yet it was always there, the whole of the mystery was always there in front of you.

I had a shocked moment when I re-heard the theme from “Mother and Daughter” come back at the second to last track “Reborn.” I was like “oh I get it now!”

(Laughs) Yeah there are all these little pieces that are scattered. Certain little moments when there’s obviously a reticular interaction between score and character in their arc. As it’s gradually mounting and putting together, hopefully it’s seamlessly creating tension and darkness and further unrest and confusion. And ultimately all tying into the goal of the whole film and the dark narrative.

And the film does a great job of subverting expectations. It’s not like the Shyamalanian twists, and I think the score reflects that. There’s no two-note Jaws theme or Psycho strings. Audiences can kind of use those as references for “Oh, now I should be scared,” but the score here doesn’t give that.

I started writing off a script. The majority of the main themes and sonic material was written before I even started seeing pictures. There would be moments where my kneejerk was to start laying in more recognizable themes—but as soon as it hit picture I just pulled it. The restraint was what worked. As soon as big motifs came in, there was something about how this particular film made it, it just felt heavy-handed and it detracted from the mystery and confusion. This was very early on in the process that this became established as the way going forward and that this was going to be an exercise in minimalism. I had a lot of fun doing it. It’s very rare that you get an opportunity to write an 85-minute long minimalist piece of music.

“Minimalist” was not the first word that came to mind. There are these moments that have these huge buildups. How do you score the “aw shit” moments?

The pulse behind those scenes was all a contrabass clarinet. All the low end, throughout the film pretty much, is contrabass clarinet. And that scene, it’s the first time there’s real urgency in any bit of the narrative. Everything has been very staid, slow, kind of creepily unveiling bits and pieces of itself. But that’s the first time where we know something dangerous is happening. The whole tone I wanted to change there. It’s the access point. I really wanted it to stand out. So that track is recorded entirely like a solo piece of mine would be recorded. It’s contrabass clarinet rigged up with a couple of contact mics and my throat is rigged up with a microphone and the percussion. The basis for that whole scene is rooted in one live performance. And obviously there are some overdubs for the bigger ensemble that make those hits and the high clarinets that happen over the top of it.

And parts of the score sound like a full chorus of singers. That’s from voicing right? Which honestly baffles me.

When reed players talk about voicing it’s actually not using your voice. That’s one thing. And what you’re talking about is just actual singing through the instrument. Singing through the instrument while you’re playing is not called “voicing,” although it would be more intuitive. Voicing in the context of playing the horn and manipulating the overtone series of it is a process—it’s the same thing a singer would do to change the shape of their throat to change the shape of the sound of a particular vowel. But when you do it with the horn, you’re doing the same thing but it’s manipulating the resonant inside your throat and your mouth which in turn impacts the overtone series that’s coming out of the horn itself. When you’re voicing your manipulating the overtone series.

Something like the very beginning of “Funeral,” where as soon as you pan across the workshop and there’s this team of five contrabass clarinets sweeping on a low C. Those when you heard what sound like synth filter sweeps, they’re not synth filter sweeps, it’s me using voicing to make the overtones, the higher overtones of that drone go schhhhhaaaaawww so it’s all played in real time with the instrument acoustically. What you’re talking about is using the actual voice while doing it. Which can yield a whole lot of different things. You can get the tone that you’re singing and you can sing with different amounts of intensity and with different amounts of interaction with the reed and the acoustics of the horn so you can create natural distortion. There’s a lot of what I was just talking about with that track with the contrabass clarinet near the end when the tone starts to split and you get these what sound like (makes angry bird noises), like synth patches distorting out. That’s just natural distortion having to do with singing through the instrument while playing a certain way and having them interact. There’s a lot of different fun little things.

On a funnier note, congrats on making a song called “Steve” sound horrifying.

(Laughs) I never thought of it that way. That’s hilarious. The title of that thing, I just wanted to make it as rudimentary as humanly possible. Because you can’t title anything in that fucking movie without giving everything away. But “Steve” is kind of my favorite of all of it. When things come back around, you start to hear elements of the very, very beginning again, but now they’re all altered slightly. In a narrative where a majority of the cues of the music, the way that it interacts is quite sinister, cold and calculated, that’s the one place where there is acknowledgement of real mourning. If only a brief glimpse of something that resembles sentimentality. I love how that is kind of snuck in. It’s almost a moment of weakness in the score, in the character of the score, where it allows itself to feel something for Steve for this brief moment.

There are also some motifs that are pretty beautiful, like the opening of “Reborn.” But it makes the tension so much more because you know there’s going to be some contrabass clarinet rushing you eventually. You just don’t know when.

(Laughs) Yeah, when we finally get to the end there, it’s the literal endgame. It’s the revelation of the machinations of the whole thing. It really was time to let everything come to light and play out in the light of the day, no longer hiding anything. It was a lot of fun to have that massive contrast yet still, all of it is still stemming from the same material that’s been couched in this dread and recontextualized at the end. Again, hard to talk about this without spoiling everything.

Moving on from Hereditary, I first got into your music with the song “Judges,” but what really brought me in was “To See More Light” from New History Warfare Vol. 3. Even within your own discography it still seems pretty singular in your work. Here’s 13 minutes of terrifying yet captivating bass-sax.

Yeah, it’s like that to play. That’s how it sounds, that’s how it feels.

When that album came out, you talked about the concept of the New History Warfare series. It seemed a very personal thing, Vol. 3 being about death. There seemed to be a lot of tension in that album between life and death. You have the sea and coming back to the land. And Justin Vernon’s vocals come down very angelically but are then followed by something brutal. It almost felt like a conversation with yourself.

I was trying to do my best at epic storytelling, so they’re really big, broad themes. Juxtaposition of extremes is one of the methods that I’ve used for many years to a great extent. It gets used a lot there. Also using contrasting elements to portray an unexpected side of something. Having Justin—I see certain elements in “Who the Waves are Roaring For” as that’s coming; it’s the knowledge meant, and it comes in this gorgeous form. And 2 is a meditation on fear and its opposites, then 3 is zeroing in on the greatest root cause of said fear in our and whatever other animals who truly have a self-awareness to the degree where they can understand and contemplate their own death outside of the moment of it.

3 is a magnifying glass on that and a study into what all the contemplative practices in human history have been centered around, finding your way in the present moment and realizing there is no death. Because it’s not something that you can experience, so it’s not something to be feared. It’s transcending that fear by acknowledging it. I think it’s a really beautiful understanding of our mortality because it only shines as the brightest light of every moment that you are alive and feeling. Because you get to. (Laughs) You have the opportunity to be alive in this moment.

I don’t usually get existential pep talks during interviews.

(Laughs) Yeah, so that was 3. And the last one that came out was a much more specific character study. In as much as making records, pure records, can be a prequel, the one that came out last year and the one that will come out next year are two halves of this character study of this couple whose story is a bit of an origin for the trilogy. I can step away from these really, really broad, quite epic tales and get into something much more specific. Much more homogenous in terms of the character represented and the scope of everything that transpires. Not to say that there’s not a developing narrative throughout them, but they’re very different from 1-3.

You were talking about how brutal “To See More Light” is to play. Has your relationship with that song changed? I read an interview where you said that song was about grasping the eternal, trying to live forever, finding an afterlife. Then your next solo album was All This I Do for Glory, which seemed to say “here is my monument.”

All This I Do for Glory in the context of that story’s narrative, is the undoing of the character. It’s actually facetious, not to be taken literally. Or it’s taken literally by the character, but it is his undoing. In this kind of moral fable, it’s the grand mistake: striving for that. I don’t know; it’s all very straightforward to me (laughs). When I interviewed for that record, very few people talked about that so I think that most people think I have a really weird sense of myself and the music. But no, it was never intended to be taken literally or autobiographically (laughs). It’s a bit of a treatise on an anti-religious sort, as I am about as irreligious as one can be. So it’s a study of that. Those intuitions and the faultiness I see in them. That was something I thought I was going to have to deal with a lot in interviews last year. “Oh man, I’m going to have to say a lot about religion, and they’re going to get really touchy. Because people get really fucking touchy about that shit.” And then nobody said it! (Laughs) So it was great. Nobody had to get upset.

I know chronologically, the next two records come after Never Were the Way She Was, but before New History. Does the For Glory guy pop back up on “To See More Light”?

Not literally pop up, but that is the moment where—I guess, yeah—in the narrative the last remnant of what he left behind is engaged in the story in that action, in that climatic turning point. So yeah, totally, good ear. And then the next record is his counterpart character. She’s defending this thing against his falling or undoing. It’s a Greek tragedy, it’s ultimately everyone’s undoing. It’s a shitstorm for everybody. Glory was trying to carry this façade, a big, aggressive, confident façade. Which was not quite masking the uncertainty and vulnerability underneath it all. And this next one has a sense of knowingness to it all and an imminent darkness. So Glory might be more akin to electronica and have kind of a jovial quality to it, there’s a lightness of touch. This next one is more of a drone metal record.

Last question on New History. There’s a video of you performing “Part of Me Apart from You” live, which is my favorite song off the album. And you said that it was based off, in part, the 52-hertz whale, the loneliest whale in the sea. And I was wondering how that connected with the larger concept of that series. The story ending with people living out at sea and coming to land and, is that song someone being left behind? Or is that just closure with death?

We go through life being told by every story and bit of media that we can consume that for everybody there’s this corollary person or soulmate. And you’ll know each other and they’ll just get you and know what’s going on in your heart and mind. That terrible narrative that’s sold to us, prepackaged in every form, pretty much ruins every relationship—romantic, friendly and otherwise. The acknowledgement of the real rub of being conscious, to the degree that we are, is that no matter how much the company of others we seek, the underlying source of our discontent, and constantly looking for or describing different causes for it, is that ultimately you’re alone in your head. You’re the only thing that will ever think those thoughts. And there’s no amount of companionship, comradery or family that will ever penetrate that barrier. Your life and death, there’s a solitude to it. The story of that whale, I just always thought was a very good metaphor for every creature that has consciousness to the degree that we seem to have it.

And to the final bit, how’s Ex Eye going?

It’s going great! We haven’t had enough shows. We did some more in the spring over in Europe. We’re kind of on hiatus right now because I am in the middle of a crazy scoring job. We’ll be getting back together to write the new record relatively shortly, but not soon enough, because that’s my favorite band.

And in Ex Eye, so much of the upfront stuff is centered around you and [drummer] Greg Fox. But it feels like Shahzad Ismaily’s work holds all the madness together.

Oh absolutely. Shahzad’s a freaking genius. He really does come up with things that are so uniquely intuitive, but are such rare ideas that work so perfectly, that so few people would actually discover them. It’s his superpower.

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