An Interview With Charlie Clouser
Scene Magazine 09.96

Anyone even remotely in touch with today's music scene is well aware of the success of hard/industrial music in the last few years. Leading the way in this genre are two of today's most popular groups, Nine Inch Nails and White Zombie. Both bands rely heavily on the use of samplers and taped effects during live shows. SCENE recently talked to drummer/keyboard player/programmer/engineer/editor/producer extraordinaire Charlie Clouser, who hasworked extensively with both of the aforementioned artists and is indirectly a large part of each band's own unique sound, both live and in the studio. Currently in New Orleans where Nine Inch Nails is converting an old funeral home into a studio/rehearsal space/living compound, Clouser is involved with other projects as well while NIN is on touring hiatus.

SCENE: When did you first get into music?

CC: I started playing drums when I was six years old. Technically, I don't really play drums anymore. But, I did end up getting to play drums on five songs during the NIN/David Bowie tour. I guess I can say to some degree that I still know how to play. In high school I was in many different bands playing drums, then one day I borrowed a synth from a friend of mine and kind of thought I had it figured out. In college, I went to a strange school that lets you avoid classes and design your own weird academic program if you want to. Hampshire College in Amherst, Ma., is one of those "hippy-dippy" colleges that has been around for about 25 years and it doesn't work for most people. But, it worked great for me because they had an electronic music studio. Basically, I took classes for about three semesters and for the remaining five semesters I was locked up in the studio. I was learning as fast as you can hands-on. That experience enabled me to learn a lot about the old modular synthesizers. This was before MIDI and computers were happening. So I had learned sort of the hard way on the old refrigerator- size synthesizers that made one note at a time. Then, all of a sudden you've got DX7s and computers and it's like "Hey! This is easy!"

SCENE: How long were you involved in session work?

CC: I didn't really do sessions. It wasn't like I just went out and did any kind of session I could grab just for some bucks. I did scoring for TV shows and a bit of drum programming on some rap stuff out in L.A. About three years ago I started getting into the Prong, Marilyn Manson, Wite Zombie type of things. Before that I was into techno and stuff that didn't really relate to this type of music. But, that gave me experience with computers and samplers and so on and so forth.

SCENE: What was your involvement with White Zombie's ASTRO-CREEP: 2000?

CC: They had the songs pretty well written and they would give me a demo that had just guitar bass and drums. I would basically take that and expand upon the drum part. The beats were pretty well worked out in terms of what the rhythm pattern was going to be. What I was doing was adding a thousand more elements doing the same thing.

SCENE: What did you do, sampling-wise, on the record?

CC: Rob Zombie is a big collector of weirdo movies. He would usually bring in eight or ten samples per song and ask me to put them in. I would chop them up and insert them where I thought they should go in the track. This whole process was done on a Mac system using Digidesign Pro Tools and their Sample Cell Sampler which is built into the Mac.

SCENE: What was your role on the NATURAL BORN KILLERS soundtrack?

CC: Nails were going on tour in Europe and this project had to be finished by the time Trent (Reznor) got back. Trent called me about three days before they left, saying, "Why don't you come with us on tour. We'll bring a Pro Tools system in the bus and we'll set it up in the motel." We had all of the original cuts of the music that were used in the movie and we had the edited version as the music editors had used it. The music editors on the movie were very creative in the way they would make compilations out of three or four songs and you wouldn't even notice things were changing. Basically, we were adding dialogue over a semi-edited soundtrack of songs. Trent didn't really have that much experience with that type of thing and I've done a lot of soundtrack work for television shows and things like that. I knew a little bit of the terminology of how film editors work and how cues are numbered and so forth. So, I was brought in to operate the computer and helped out because of my editing experience and a small background of film editing.

SCENE: Was that the first time you had worked with Trent?

CC: No, I had worked with him in the past. I edited THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL album, putting it all together into a finished piece. Also, I programmed sound effects for the "Happiness In Slavery" video. They were sound effect overdubs and that was really the first thing that I ever did with Nails. I did that gig and a year went by, then I did THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL and another year went by, and that's when I went to Europe with Nails and ended up joining the band.

SCENE: With all the different parts going on in Nine Inch Nails' stage sound, how did you figure out what parts to play?

CC: I replaced James Woolley, the old keyboard player. All that stuff had been worked out at the beginning of the DOWNWARD SPIRAL tour. When I joined, the tour was half over, so there was going to be no changing of anything. They had made a tape with the old keyboard player on one channel and all the rest of the band on the other during one of their concerts. I would just listen to that tape and isolate what the old guy had played and I had all the banks of sounds for his sampler so it was a simple matter of reverse engineering the whole thing.

SCENE: Are you responsible for any of the rhythm tracking parts?

CC: It all comes from the drummer. If you hear a song that kind of starts out with a beat boxy-type sequence and you see Chris (drummer Chris Vrenna) isn't playing, then that part is on tape. Little 808 drum machine-type patterns that you hear are also generally on tape. There's a couple songs where we all have drum sounds on our keyboard. At the end of "Piggy," it winds up with us all kind of hitting drums on the keyboard. But, that's not really so much playing a precise part as it is just wailing on it.

SCENE: What are your feelings about using tape onstage?

CC: Computers would last about one-third of a song onstage. The only thing that will work is a tape deck. There's a lot of times when there's three guitar players and no bass, so the bass is obviously on tape. It's also obvious that it's on tape because it's a synthesizer doing a jackhammer rhythm that no one could or would try to play. If it's an obvious sequencer part, I'm not going to try to play it. Nobody ever played it. It was programmed on a typewriter. I feel sorry for bands that try to duplicate something and feel it's wrong to use tape. Screw em'. White Zombie uses tape and that's a rock band. It's really all about not having to hire six idiot-looking musicians to try to replicate what you did all by yourself in the studio.

SCENE: Any incidents where the tape has shut down when playing?

CC: That has never happened. We have complete duplicates of the entire rig with a custom built master switch. If something breaks, you hit a switch and the next one kicks in. We have battery power supplies for all that stuff, so if the power goes out, the tape keeps running. Great care is taken in making sure it's located backstage with somebody tending it and watching over it with loving eyes.

SCENE: What does your live keyboard setup consist of?

CC: All of the keyboard sounds are coming from E-mu Emax II samplers. All of those samplers are rack-mounted and have an internal hard drive. We keep them far away from everything onstage. The keyboards on the DOWNWARD SPIRAL tour were Yamaha DX7s, the original brown metal ones. However, during the tour with Bowie, we had these custom-made keyboard enclosures built with smaller Yamaha MIDI-controller keyboards which don't make any sounds. They're just a remote. They were both very similar to each other. On [each] Emaxs in between songs, we would all have to load a new bank on our keyboard. You hit one button that tells the Emax to load and you hit another button that tells what bank on its hard drive to load. Each song has its own bank. It takes maybe three or four seconds to load. Potentially, that can be problematic if you hit the wrong bank button. Then, you've got to sit around for four or five seconds while it loads the right one.

SCENE: Did you ever have any chances to cut loose and kind of play whatever you want?

CC: On the DOWNWARD SPIRAL tour, there were more opportunities like that. "Happiness In Slavery" was just an all out bash-fest. You kind of had to play it by rote for the first verse/chorus/verse and then by the second chorus things started to disintegrate. From there it was a 162-bar chaotic jam. That was one of the best times because right after that was a very long period of quiet music and the curtain would come down in front of the stage. We could destroy everything and there was 15 minutes while Trent was singing by himself after this that allowed us to repair all of the gear and get all new keyboards. The ending of the song was such that you could jam for a while, or hit drum sounds on your keyboard, and then if you got bored with that you'd wind up on the front of the stage Paul Bunyaning a keyboard in half with somebody's guitar.

SCENE: How many DX7s do you think you went through on the tour?

CC: I have no idea! It was often three or four a night. Our keyboard tech was able to build new ones out of what was left from the old ones. If the metal part of the board was still good but the keys were all broken, he would just put 52 new keys on it. But, if the metal got bent then the DX would get trashed. That was his job all day long was to just build new keyboards. We brought with us two dozen to start the tour. In any given small town one of the roadies would go on a mission to try to find more DX7s. We would check the local recycler paper or pawn shop and if they had any for 300 bucks we'd take them. They're the most rugged device of its kind ever built.

SCENE: What are you going to be doing before Nine Inch Nails gets going again?

CC: I just wrote a song for Rob Zombie that he and Alice Cooper are going to sing for THE X FILES album and TV show. I went up to L.A. for five days and wrote that with Terry Date and Rob Zombie co-producing. They recorded all the vocals for that and I think it's mixed and done. White Zombie's also doing a K.C. and The Sunshine Band song, "I'm Your Boogieman," and I'm involved with that. It's gonna be heavy as a motherfucker.