Clint Mansell: Aronofsky, Reznor and Me, Part One

After shaking up the nation as part of Pop Will Eat Itself, Clint Mansell reinvented himself as a superstar film composer. Ten years ago, I interviewed him about his career change and creative partnerships.
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It's nearly midnight, Sunday, and as I write this introduction to a 10-year-old interview I'm reacquainting myself with one of my favourite albums of all time. I couldn't be happier. Well I could. Of course I could. My god. But the point is, Clint Mansell's score for Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream does things to me. When it was released in 2000 I didn't stop listening to it. For a long time. I was working at a film magazine and remember my editor finally cracking one afternoon and yanking the CD out of the office stereo, forbidding me to play it any longer. Too depressing, apparently. I disagree. Melancholy, intense, haunting, yes. But depressing? Not whatsoever. To me, Mansell's score is a lush, warm and comforting piece of work, even the bits that make you feel like you're having a panic attack.

The fact that I was a fan of his former band Pop Will Eat Itself is irrelevant - there's no musical correlation between his two careers. But needless to say, the fact that Stourbridge's finest dreadlocked grebo rapper had disappeared for a few years and re-emerged as one of the 21st century's finest film composers was extremely exciting and inspiring to me, and still is. In fact, some of today's best scorers - Jonny Greenwood, Trent Reznor, Danny Elfman - all started out in (for want of a much better term) alternative rock, not that you'd know it listening to their soundtracks. And since getting his first film gig on Aronofsky's Pi (1998), Mansell has scored all of the director's films, including The Fountain, The Wrestler, and the forthcoming ballet horror masterpiece (and it is a masterpiece) Black Swan. His work on each is majestic, sublime, transcendental.

Last year I had the pleasure of seeing Mansell, along with a band and string quartet, perform a selection of his soundtrack work (he's written the scores for lots of non-Aronofsky films, including Duncan Jones' Moon) at Islington's Union Chapel. Ten years earlier, he told the throng seated on the pews, he wrote the Requiem score whilst broke and living in a tiny New York crawlspace he called a 'suicide loft'. "The music might give you a feel for the state of mind I was in," he said. His misery paid off. His beautiful Black Swan score was released last week, and reminded me of an interview I did with him when Requiem came out in 2000, in the office of the film's UK distributor. It was a joy to sit down with him for an hour and talk to him about what was going on in music at the time and about how he created such a great piece of work. I felt pretty shitty when I got back to my magazine and my editor told me there was only space for a 200-word interview on the soundtrack page. Reading it again the other day, it was fascinating to hear his thoughts on what was, more or less, the beginning of what has since grown into a magnificent director-composer partnership. Here's the interview in full. Sorry it's late, Clint.

Did you like Radiohead’s Kid A?
Yeah, I did. I’ve not really been much of a fan of them in the past, but then again I haven’t really been that exposed to them. I don’t generally like a lot of guitar music, although that’s a rash generalisation, but, you know, sometimes you can’t help it. I’d read a lot about that album coming out and it seemed pretty intriguing to me. What I’d read about it reminded me of things like Low by David Bowie, and that sort of period, and I was pretty interested in that.

But depressing? Not whatsoever. To me, Mansell's score is a lush, warm and comforting piece of work, even the bits that make you feel like you're having a panic attack.

One interview with Thom Yorke had him talking about trying to break down some musical barriers, and about him listening to the Warp Records back catalogue, and there's an obvious Aphex Twin influence there.
Yeah. Well it’s got to be difficult in that sort of position really. Modern music on all levels is no longer really an art form as such, it’s much more a business move now. To me, that’s the way it seems at least, everybody’s worried about their careers, which is fair enough I suppose, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of art in mainstream music, so for somebody who has a career, and who people look at for… The problem is that people just churn out what makes them successful, so it’s pretty cool when somebody just goes off at a tangent to explore what actually excites them, which is actually why they wanted to be in a band or create music in the first place.

Is that how you felt when you left PWEI?
I got to the point where I didn’t really know what else we could do, but I don’t think that was as much a factor as I just didn’t feel very comfortable in it any more. I was 33 at the time, and playing songs that were written 10 years before, and it just seemed like this wasn’t what I wanted to do; I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I was just becoming more and more aware that I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to find something else to do.

Was it a gradual shift towards electronic music?
We’d written our stuff with computers for quite some time in PWEI. We did the first album for RCA in 1988 with [producer] Flood, and he’d used a computer, that was our first introduction to it. And with sampling and getting into hip-hop, that sort of brought out knowledge of how machines work in music, and then it sort of coincided with the acid house movement of '88 and all that. The first album we did we recorded in Sheffield and we got to know The Designers Republic, who did all our sleeves, and people who later would be making those electronic records that you’re probably talking about, they’re from Warp, Crush and people like that. Those that did The Funky Worm. In Sheffield everybody was into that Detroit thing, and that opened our minds to that side of things, but we were still very much coming from a whiteboy guitar sensibility, so just bringing those types of things in. But as time went on, obviously technology advanced and became more accessible to people with not a great deal of money, and so you could expand your horizons a little bit, with a bit of extra new gear you could buy. But since leaving the band and working on my own it’s made it a little bit easier just to work in an electronic vein because it’s just one guy and a bunch of gear. And again the price of gear has really come down to the point where I can work with a Macintosh - you've got many software synths that are a lot cheaper than hardware synths, that you can put in a computer, and it just makes it a lot easier for one guy to work. Real drums don’t excite me that much. With guitars I can plug them through effects and record them straight onto computer, and it’s just easy to do.

How did you hook up with [Nine Inch Nails'] Trent Reznor?
He'd been a fan from the first album for RCA, This Is The Day, This Is The Hour, and he’d seen us play on our first tour in America in Cleveland, and we’d got to know his manager and he’d come and see us play whenever we were in America. And when we got dropped by RCA, my then manager asked Trent’s manager if he knew of labels that were actively looking, and he said "Well, strangely enough we've just started our own label and we'd like to sign you," and it was simple as that really. So we made our first record for Nothing Records, which was the last Pop Will Eat Itself album, but we toured with Nine Inch Nails over there, and when I moved to New York I saw more of Trent and we just became friends. When I was living in New York things weren’t really working out for me as one might like, and Trent said to me, "Why don’t you come down to New Orleans for a bit and hang out in the studio and just get back in a creative atmosphere?" So he’s been a great friend and great inspiration to me, he’s really been helpful, he’s really looked after me and I really appreciate it.

"The problem is that people just churn out what makes them successful, so it’s pretty cool when somebody just goes off at a tangent to explore what actually excites them, which is actually why they wanted to be in a band or create music in the first place."

Were you a fan of his music?
Yeah I was, well I still am, and being around him, I’ve learnt a lot from those guys, not just on the technology side, also on a work ethic side, an attention to detail and a strive to make what you want, be what you want it to be, and look outside of just making an album just to have a record out and get out on tour and have hits and whatever. It’s made me focus more on an artistic side of it, which has been really liberating.

The great thing about his music is that he's been pioneering while making music that's still accessible.
Yeah… and he’s done it by taking chances and not really playing the game too much. And in a way that that Radiohead album goes off at a tangent, he’s gone off at a tangent from what perhaps people want and expect from him. I suppose that’s down to being an artist as opposed to being a pop-star.

Do you like what he does live? He certainly has his guitars and drums plugged in.
Yeah, there’s a huge amount of energy to it, and the last tour was very cinematic in feel and atmosphere at a lot of times, and to see somebody push it, it’s like… a lot of rock shows don’t really do it for me, because people don’t really put a lot into it, and he tries to take it to another level, which I totally respect.

Click here to read Clint Mansell: Aronofsky, Reznor and Me, Part Two.

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