D//E Interviews: Colin Stetson

Colin Stetson, experienced musician, multi-instrumentalist and composer, collaborator of many acclaimed works in underground and film music, and member of EX EYE, among other things he has turned heads his way the last couple of years for his scores for Hereditary, The First and most recently the sci-fi horror flick, Color Out of Space, starring Nic Cage.

The multifaceted artist discusses his recent work and more in an interview with D//E.

Although you’ve been involved in many films as a performer and composer, you have rightfully earned a reputation as an upcoming composer for the horror and sci-fi genres through Hereditary, The First and now Color Out Of Space. For which other cinematic genres do you think your music is a good fit? 

I honestly don’t have any genre of film I wouldn’t do. The First was mainly a character driven drama of very human stories, though one that dealt with themes of an epic and cosmic scale; Hereditary was a horror film on its face, but really more of a character study in grief and familial dysfunction; and my previous films like La Peur (a WWI period drama), Lavender (a psychological thriller), and Outlaws & Angels (a western), though all quite dark, are definitely not all cut from the same cloth. COOS is the most classic horror film in the lot, to be sure, but I don’t think of myself as only oriented towards horror and am looking forward to the next opportunities to tell stories I haven’t told before.

How did you approach Color Out Of Space musically? How did you create the score’s character? 

There’s three basic pillars to this score. Firstly, the SOUND of the color; which I approached by establishing a bed of hyper dense layering of underwater recordings of coral reefs and processing that through various harmonic generators and then adding more conventional instrumentation, played very non-conventionally and again processed in similar ways in order to create an otherworldly “voice” for this cosmic being that manifests physically as a distinct color spectrum of light that doesn’t exist in our reality; Second, the quaint, pastoral, and melancholic Gardner Theme, for which I wanted to use extremely known instrumentation and started with piano, building on top of that with chamber strings, winds, and brass; And the crux of the whole thing, the Color Theme, which is a figure that interweaves throughout the entirety of the film, though mainly emerges in that explosive Contact scene where the color touches down in the Gardner family farm. The idea was to mirror the narrative arc and action present in the film, and to manipulate, effect, and modify one with the other, twisting and transfiguring it throughout the course of the picture.

What drew you to this particular film? 

I read online that Spectrevision was reuniting with Nic Cage after Mandy to make an adaptation of a Lovecraft story with Richard Stanley and I was immediately and thoroughly sold on the idea. I wrote some music later that day with that film in mind and two months later when I had gotten the job, I made that music into one of the main themes of the film.

Tension-building feels like one of the trickiest things a film composer has to achieve. How do you do it? 

So many ways to create and build tension! but I’d say the core to all of it is to have patience and let the sound develop slowly and organically and to avoid telling an audience exactly which moment they should be looking forward to. So, maintaining a sense of musical spontaneity and unpredictability is essential, especially when dealing with horror or suspense type of narratives.

How different is it for you working on a film score compared to your solo material? 

The main difference is that in a film score I’m working with a director (and producers, execs, etc.) and ultimately serving their vision and storytelling with my contribution of music to the narrative. While my solo albums are largely a solitary endeavor. So, there’s an enormous collaborative nature in the former that isn’t present in the latter. That being said, I use many of the same methods in creating imagery and moving a story along in both instances and I find that I learn a lot about each from the other, as I go on.

You are primarily a saxophonist but also a multi-instrumentalist. How do you decide which way you want to go instrumentally for each film or project? 

Every instrument has it’s own character, or range of characters, and so the first step is always to identify the specific character of the score (in the case of film and TV) or what purpose I’m fulfilling in the greater compositional arc of a song or record. Knowing that then is what informs the choice of instrumentation, and subsequently, how exactly said instrumentation will be performed and manipulated. I try to work primarily within the physical limits of my own abilities, and to test those limits with each new project in some way, in order to utilize the unique relationships I have to many of the instruments I already play, and to set me up into spaces of discomfort and challenge so that I’m always driven to discover new ways and methods going forward.

You’ve been part of a couple of our favorite Tom Waits albums. How was it working on Alice and Blood Money back in 2002? 

Working with Tom and Kathleen on those records was a literal dream come true, and still one of my most cherished moments and appreciated learning experiences. In a very large way, the things I learned about character, scene, imagery, recording processes, and above all, EGO (or rather, the dissolving of ego from the creative process) were absolutely paramount for me in all of the things I’ve done and accomplished since.

You have worked alongside countless different and diverse artists, spanning a lot of genres. How do you manage to maintain your own identity as a musician after going through all these different styles?

Similarly to my listening habits, I really don’t have any one genre that I consider “my sound” or that I’m particularly more fond of or gravitate towards. Growing up, this was always the case. So, I suppose the long and the short of it is that I don’t think about genre all that much. My focus is on emotionality, storytelling, imagery, and effect, and so if music I listen to, contribute to, or create myself has those things, then it’s doing it’s job and the idea of genre classification (which is really just there for marketing purposes) is obsolete.

What is the current status of EX EYE? Should we be expecting anything new from the band in the future? 

EX EYE is currently working on some new material, so there will definitely be another record, but the exact when isn’t something I know right now.

How would you describe your live act as a solo performer? 

I wouldn’t, honestly. I try to avoid describing my solo music as much as possible, but I suppose a simple description of the act itself would be that I perform my solo music exactly as I record it, that being alone, without the use of outside electronics, loops, tracks, or effects. If people know my records, they’ll have some idea of what to expect.

What are you currently listening to mostly? 

I listen to a lot of baroque music, mainly Bach and honestly, mainly Glenn Gould playing Bach. As well as a great deal of old gospel like R.H. Harris, the Soul Stirrers, and Washington Philips, and tons of sixties and seventies soul by Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke, North African and Middle Eastern musics from artists like Mahmoud Ahmed and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and of course a lot of metal, of which some current favorites are Meshuggah, Vildjharta, and Krallice.

Top photo  by Ebru Yildiz
Second photo by Nicolas Padovani

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