From Stourbridge to Hollywood, from Pop Will Eat Itself to blockbuster film soundtracks, we pick the brain of in-demand composer Clint Mansell, to see if we can get to the bottom of what it takes to be an, erm, in-demand composer…
Two street kids push an old-fashioned TV set along Coney Island boardwalk, past the abandoned structure of the Parachute Jump toward a pawn shop where they offload the TV to raise cash to score heroin. There’s something comedic, ridiculous even about the scene, until the music in the background – a haunting, repetitive string motif punctured by a fragile, bleak electronic rhythm – begins to gnaw away at you incessantly. Something untoward is about to happen; seconds later the screen shifts to rapid shots of drug paraphernalia and abuse.
That simple, devastating motif crops up repeatedly in Darren Aronofsky’s version of Hubert Selby Jr’s ‘Requiem For A Dream’, presaging another lurch downwards in the fortunes of its sundry doomed protagonists. The perhaps unlikely composer of that piece is Clint Mansell, formerly of Stourbridge group Pop Will Eat Itself. Mansell has two scores scheduled for release in the next few months – the first for innovative Van Gogh animated biopic ‘Loving Vincent’, and another for Duncan Jones’ much-anticipated dystopian ‘Mute’ – both of which are radically different, both of which take Mansell further from where he started out.
It’s 1996. Pop Will Eat Itself are concluding a tour to promote their 1994 album ‘Dos Dedos Mis Amigos’ which had been released through Trent Reznor’s Nothing label in the US, and which represented their most successful and mature album across their decade as a group. With ‘Dos Dedos…’ they had veered considerably from their grebo roots, and had largely ditched the sampleadelica that had dominated their earlier music. In spite of the album’s success, PWEI split at the end of the tour.
“I was 33, and I felt like the oldest swinger in town,” explains Mansell from his Los Angeles kitchen. “I couldn’t see where it was going, and I just didn’t like the landscape that we were getting into.”
The landscape he refers to was Britpop, and it came with a depressing realisation: PWEI had always embraced new things, from sampling, to hip hop, to techno, all of which were suddenly anathema during the Britpop era.
“This was just like normal music,” he sighs. “The counterculture that I’d grown up with had just become mainstream and if you weren’t part of that, you weren’t part of anything.”
Lacking any sort of plan, and deflated at the thought that nobody was especially interested in what he might have to offer, Mansell decided to move to New York and “noodle around at an electronic record” just to see where it led him. He ditched most of what he started.
“I didn’t have any discipline,” he admits. “With Pop Will Eat Itself, we muddled along, made some rough demos and then we’d finally get our shit together and go into the studio and do it. I wanted some producer like Flood to come in and make my ideas better than they were, but I didn’t have that option.”
It was Mansell’s then-girlfriend whose connections in the NY electronic music scene would ultimately allow him to make the jump into soundtrack composing.
“One of the guys she knew was Eric Watson,” he says, “and he’d written this script together with someone called Darren, but they didn’t know anybody who could do the music.”
The “Darren” here was Darren Aronofsky, and the film that he and Watson were writing was called ‘Pi’, which would become Aronofsky’s directorial debut, and its score would be Mansell’s first.
“They had no industry around them,” recalls Mansell. “This was a purely independent film. Eric, Darren and I met up and they gave me a copy of the script, and we talked about the film, and Darren showed me a lot of artwork by people who suffered from migraines – things like a still life picture, but with these shards of broken glass through it. He started introducing me to the idea of being inspired by what you see rather than what you’re thinking.”
At this point, Aronofsky hadn’t shot a single frame of footage for the film, and he was collecting donations to help finance his endeavour.
“There was a lot of time for me to just absorb the concept,” says Mansell. “Darren showed me films like ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ which I’d not seen before, and we talked about the film music we liked – John Carpenter, basically. We also bonded over the film music that we didn’t like. Eventually, I did a piece of music just based on all the conversations we’d had. At that point I’d never done it before, and had no idea how you put sound to picture, but it just seemed a normal way to approach it. None of us knew what we were doing, but we learnt as we went along that a piece of music written for a scene changes everything. After that I’d always write from the scripts and from ideas, without seeing footage of the films.”
The piece of music that Mansell wrote for the nascent ‘Pi’ project didn’t actually appear in the final film in the form that he’d originally created it, but it galvanised the team just enough to allow the project to move forward, and also set the overall tone for the film.
“Darren just wanted an opening title piece from me, and the rest of the film was supposed to be pre-existing electronic music,” he says. “When he tried to licence the tracks he couldn’t get them, so I ended up scoring the whole film.”
Nothing in the Pop Will Eat Itself back catalogue suggested that Mansell could slot into this world so readily. It was seeing Aronofsky’s passion and determination that lifted him out of his creative slump, allowing him to develop the discipline that he knew his early time in NY had lacked. He has since scored each one of Aronofsky’s films (with the exception of his recent, music-free ‘Mother!’), as well as working with a number of like-minded directors who share a similar creative vision.
I‘ve just got to put the kettle on and make another cup of tea. This one’s gone a little bit lukewarm.”
As much as Mansell’s career might have been undertaken a major pivot, he is still essentially a guy from Stourbridge, deep in England’s industrial heartland. His accent betrays no influence of 20-odd years living in America, and his relaxed demeanour lacks any of the pretentiousness that might come when you’ve worked on some of the most interesting moments in both independent and mainstream cinema of the past two decades.
If the move into soundtrack composing still seems a little strange, even as Mansell is now considered one of its leading lights, what’s even more strange is how effortlessly he was able to be drawn into what we might describe as a “classical” tradition; the haunting score for ‘Requiem For A Dream’ was realised with the venerable Kronos Quartet, and strings have been major components of Mansell’s scores ever since. But Mansell himself doesn’t think the evolution is that strange.
“When I first saw both ‘Halloween’ and ‘Assault On Precinct 13’, they struck me massively with their music,” he explains. “Your first forays into making music like that means you tend to gravitate towards what you’d like to be like, so for me that meant a brooding analogue sound. But, while you bring a lot to the table yourself, it really is about blending with other people and joining in with the project they’ve got going on. That leads you to all sorts of weird and wonderful places, and you find out you have a connection to a certain style, which for me is that blend of acoustic instruments, soundscapes, ambience and electronics.
“At the end of the day I just boiled it down to the Ramones,” he laughs. “Whether it’s the Ramones or Vivaldi or John Williams, to some degree they’re all connected in a similar way: you have rhythm, you have a chord progression, you have a melody – it’s essentially the same ingredients just reworked in different ways. I guess you don’t go from Ramones to John Williams overnight, but if you take a path from the Ramones to John Carpenter, suddenly you’ve connected a dot that you never knew you had before.”
Although Mansell is most often associated with the films of Darren Aronofsky, he isn’t the only director he is fortunate to win repeat business from. Another is Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie and director of ‘Moon’ and the forthcoming Netflix film ‘Mute’.
“In 2005, Pop Will Eat Itself did some shows marking the 10th anniversary since we’d split up, and Duncan had come to a gig,” Mansell recalls. “Around the same time I was doing ‘The Fountain’ with Darren and I was talking with Duncan’s dad about him singing on the soundtrack, and so I’d got to know him a little through that. Some time went by, and he got in touch out of the blue. I didn’t even know he worked in film at that point.
“He sent me the script for what would become ‘Moon’, and I was blown away. I still think it’s the best script I’ve read. It just touched on all these things that I like – loneliness and what it’s like to be human. Duncan was great and we got on really well. It was just a dream to do that film with him.”
Mansell’s score for ‘Moon’ tapped into a tradition of sci-fi soundtracks that started with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, using classical music that played to the film’s central themes of isolation and technology, only where Kubrick’s film used works by Ligeti and Strauss, Mansell’s score blended string arrangements with sparse electronics. It’s a pattern that is now familiar from most of his soundtrack work, and one which seemed especially suited to Jones’ singular vision.
Details on ‘Mute’, which is set in a nightmarish future Berlin, are vague with Netflix saying they plan to show the film “in 2017”, while Mansell can’t say too much about his music either.
“I really like it,” is what he does say. “It’s a bit more human than ‘Moon’. It was good fun to work on, and relatively painless. I’m not one of those people who subscribes to the idea that their best work happens when there’s lots of tension. It’s just a mantra that people who are shitty to deal with tell themselves. I always want time, ease, and anxiety-free scenarios to create and work in.”
Just ahead of ‘Mute’, Mansell will release the score to ‘Loving Vincent’. The film has the accolade of being the first oil-painted film and its narrative deals with the tortured existence of Vincent van Gogh. If Mansell enjoys having ample time to work in a project, this project afforded more than ever.
“The directors had been working on it for eight years,” he says. “They were adamant that no one else but me was going to score the film. The upside of all of that was that I had two years to work on the score. That’s an incredible luxury.”
Working on the film allowed Mansell the time and opportunity to research Van Gogh’s story.
“His melancholy, his loneliness, his utter belief in something bigger, was just astounding,” says Mansell. “His commitment to endeavour over skill made him the first sort of punk rocker to me. I found it all really inspiring. It made me feel the same way as I did when I wrote the scores to films like ‘Black Swan’, with all those attributes to his story that maybe we don’t even think about when we see somebody’s work.”
It’s work like ‘Loving Vincent’, ‘Moon’ and ‘Mute’ that allow Mansell the creative freedoms to craft compelling, intricate scores that unlock something in the visuals and the characters.
“I ask myself how I want to spend my time,” he concludes, as his cat starts to noisily demand breakfast. “I want to be doing something interesting, that people then might find interesting.
On my death bed, I don’t really want to look over and see loads of scores that I wrote for ‘Transformers 12’. Those things just don’t excite me. I want look at a body of work and go ‘I’m happy with what I did, and with what I contributed’.”
Clint Mansell’s ‘Loving Vincent’ score is out on Milan Records