Keeping Score – Nick Zinner on his Breakthrough Score for “Knives and Skin” | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, March 30th, 2020  

Keeping Score – Nick Zinner on his Breakthrough Score for “Knives and Skin”

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs Guitarist Expands His Comfort Zone with a Beautifully Eerie New Work

Feb 25, 2020 Photography by Nanci Sarrouf
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One of the best things about speaking with artists you admire and learning what has shaped them is discovering shared interests and inspirations. There's a reassurance that comes from finding out that an accomplished and fascinating individual whose work has uplifted the artforms you hold dear is not all that different from yourself. For this kind of work, acknowledging that an innate passion for music has transferred into and enhanced the appreciation of film is not that profound. That's not what I'm getting at. It's more like finding out that a particular soundtrack, even a particular point of its demonstration in a film, moved you in a similar way. Or discovering that you both share a fascination with another artist from a different medium altogether. It can even be something like learning that you both frequented the same record store, and were both friendly with the same clerk.

In speaking with famed guitarist and blossoming score composer Nick Zinner, and through learning more about him before I did, I found a few such commonalities. We both attended small liberal arts colleges at the same time—Zinner went to Bard College in upstate New York while I was at Oberlin College in Ohio—and me being a native of NYC, we both got to know the downtown music scene in the early 2000s, one that he would soon help to redefine.

Then there's the affinity of photography, and the keen awareness of its relationship with music—how the two play off of and inform one another. Zinner studied photography at Bard and has continued to shoot avidly. But without question, the thing we had in common that I got the biggest kick out of was how, when CDs were the mode of music consumption, we would both purchase soundtracks of films that stood out to us and listen to them independently.

This is the frame of reference for my response to Zinner's creative output. When you discover things about an artist that make you feel like you're cut from the same cloth, their work can resonate more. This has culminated in my undeniable connection to the tone and texture of his most recent expression—the score for the indie film Knives and Skin.

Zinner, of course, is one part of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a trio that refreshed and reconceptualized rock music in the early 2000s. His guitar articulation was the perfect counterpoint to Karen O's irresistibly sexy frontwoman verve and Brian Chase's percussive flurries. To be sure, people identify Zinner with his axe. But with his score for the Knives and Skin—a story of the turmoil coursing through a suburban American community in the wake of a mysterious disappearance of an adolescent girl—he had the opportunity to explore other modes of sound creation and break out of formula.

The guitar is still present, but unlike the angular shards and shreds that punctured Yeah Yeah Yeahs tunes, meeting Karen O's high pitched vocals that fluctuated between furious and innocent, they are delicate, resembling the batting of eyelashes. Along with other mesmeric uses of strings, they come in and out of the shoreline sands of synth like low tide.

Something else I sensed in speaking with Zinner about the background to this new project is that his personality may have made an imprint on its production. It takes more than a good ear and instrumental-tech know-how to write music for the medium of film. It can be said that the most valuable effect of cinema is that it makes the human being feel something he or she is not immediately tapped into, and reflect on that feeling afterward. As it absorbs, the human being you are, hopefully, grows some, in the way a flower or leaf perks up just after it receives a drink of water. The most accommodating creators of film music are vitally connected to the gamut of human emotion. The score composer should have access to what it is to be vulnerable, insecure, sentimental, strong, confident, angry, and afraid. What I gleaned from my conversation with Zinner is that he has, in the past and presently, been intimate with all of these states of being. Such intimacy serves great film composition.

Zinner's score for Knives and Skin is his most comprehensive soundtrack work to date. He had written more interwoven music for small features like The Fourth Dimension (2012) and Blood Surf (2016) and for a handful of short films, but his work here fully inhabits the film and locks in its atmosphere. What you get is almost like a darker version of the music you'd find in a John Hughes film where similar tropes are examined: teen angst that vents out in confused ways, small suburban communities where the proximity of people breeds cliquish and tribal behavior where people think they know one another more than they actually do. In Knives and Skin, a girl's disappearance heightens and tightens the behavioral archetype and gives Zinner a pitched surrounding in which to apply an aural atmosphere.

For those like myself who only really knew of Nick Zinner the artist from his Yeah Yeah Yeahs albums and performances, and some of his photography, acquaintance with his scoring presents a portal to another dimension of his creativity, and I'd like to think, his character. Much like the ambitious and sweeping orchestral ensemble work "41 Strings," which he co-created and led in 2011 to honor the 41st anniversary of Earth Day, a project like Knives and Skin, indicates a conviction to test limits and routines. Perhaps we've only just begun to see Nick Zinner at his most daring. 

Over the phone from his new home in Los Angeles, we spoke about his shift into music that exists outside of band life, what makes writing music for film a welcome challenge, and a little, unassuming synthesizer with a big voice that he used for most of his enchantingly eerie new work.

Charles Steinberg (Under the Radar): Is part of the reason you're in LA now because of the proximity to film music? Are you going to be doing more of that?

Nick Zinner: I hope to. There are a lot of reasons and that's one of them. I've been going back and forth between LA and New York for about five years now and I just got a house out here. The biggest reason was needing a change from New York. I lived there for over 20 years, so yeah. But what I realized is that going back to New York when I have to, and when I can, is a complete luxury. It makes me appreciate the city so much more. It's still the best.

I always followed what you did when you lived in New York and played with Yeah Yeah Yeahs but only just discovered the depth of your interest in film scores. When and where did that bud for you?

It's something that I've always been interested in. When I think back to high school and college, I really loved listening to film scores...

On their own apart from the film?

Yeah. I would just buy the CDs or however people were consuming music at the time.

That's what I did too. In fact I've been enjoying your latest score on its own.

Oh great! Well, thank you. But yeah the interest has always been there and when I was in college I studied photography and I still try to practice that as much as I can in terms of every day documentation. I feel like that relationship between sound and image is something that I've always thought about and been inspired by.

Do you listen to music when you're taking photographs?

Sometimes. I feel like I think about images when I listen to music and vice versa. I feel like certain photographs can convey a mood or atmosphere just as a piece of music can. 

I noticed that you have collaborated and performed some with Bobby Krlic [aka The Haxan Cloak]. Have you taken cues from him in any tangible or conceptual way? I think his score work is incredible [Midsommar, Triple 9].

Definitely. I love what he does and we talk about film scores all the time and send each other bands or scores that we like. That guy is just a genius. I feel like having people like that who on the one hand are getting totally weird and on another hand really achieving success in terms of having their work be heard and used in large productions is inspiring. It's so great for him but also in conjunction, I see music listening audiences looking more towards enjoying film scores. It has moved from something that was super fringe to something that is much more commonplace to consume in the last five years or so. That's awesome.

Yes, I've noticed that too. Even back in 2011 when the Drive soundtrack came out, people were buzzing about it. Not just the amazing source music that was on there but people seemed to really love the Cliff Martinez score that blended into it.

Yeah, you're right. That was a really pivotal moment for soundtracks. I feel like every conversation I had about that film centered on the music. It was like, "Have you seen Drive?", followed by, "the soundtrack is amazing!" I think that happened again with Stranger Things and that was so cool to see.

Totally. That makes me think of one of the things I noticed about Knives and Skin, because like Stranger Things, it deals with strange occurrences in small or any town, USA. There's something about science fictional stories in film that take place in these midwestern communities and the eerie music that seems to accompany them. There are a lot of examples you can point to—like a lot of Stephen King, Donnie Darko, Poltergeist, etc. Was any of that on your mind or [director] Jennifer [Reeder]'s in the approach of how to score this?

Probably subconsciously. I also grew up in a small town and I think the thread is in the alienation and isolation one feels—very specific teenager type feelings that for some of us linger forever. Being misunderstood and wondering why is something only happening to me and that can range from the paranormal to acne. Some of that is what I draw from in doing music or even photography—looking for a fragility and melancholy that [is captured]. Hopefully [that motivation] isn't too transparent.

No. I mean there's a melancholy to the score but that's not all that it is.

Yeah, there's the eeriness also. When Jennifer originally told me about the film, it was a bit more of a soft horror concept. But I think it turned more towards creepy and uneasiness than horror.

Right. It wasn't as harsh as something like It Follows. There's that electronic, synth foundation but it's not scary. I really love the cohesive feel of the score. I love it when you hear something that you feel you've encountered but don't know where. It has this sort of degraded quality to it—filtered and distant or as if it was passed through gauze. I'm curious about some of the synths you used to get that sound and your experience using keys to score as opposed to your regular instrument, the guitar.

The way I like to work, and the way that Jennifer and I started out was that I took the script into my studio space for a few weeks and made about 30 or 40 sketches so that I could feel her out and see what themes she responded to.... The other thing was that I get so overwhelmed by having too many sounds to choose from, so I try to put a limitation on myself in an "Eno rule" kind of way. I mostly used this synth called the OP-1 by Teenage Engineering. It looks like a toy casio keyboard from the '80s but more suped-up and it's only ten inches long. It's fucking amazing.

You used that mostly?

Yeah, I'd say for about 70 percent of the score.

Holy shit!

Yeah. I had it [before this project] but I was a little unfamiliar with it. For any new project that I do—and this is the same for Yeah Yeah Yeahs too—introducing a new element that you don't quite understand can be used for motivation. For me, not knowing everything about something and the act of exploring what an instrument or tool does is the most inspiring thing. Because all these crazy accidents can happen. It was so helpful to use that instrument for this because it allowed me to break all these patterns that I have.

One of my favorite cues in the film is "A Way Out" which ends with that Vangelis-esque booming synth drop. It's distinct from most of the other cues, which are a little more dream-like. That came from the OP-1?!

Let's see, I'll have a listen.... Yeah that's the OP-1.

Wow!

It has some backwards guitar loops in the beginning, or that might be some other synth, but yeah, that little thing does very big things.

So, what made you decide to use it here? You say you had it before?

I had it for a few years before, but it is one of those things that has all these functions and it is something where you really need to read the manual and spend time with it. I was a little too lazy to get into it before but it was perfect for this because of what I was saying—it was unfamiliar and new.

I also noticed all of the student choir versions of all of the '80s pop songs interspersed through the film. There was one in particular—"Promises Promises" [Naked Eyes] that you played off of with your score to great effect.

Yeah! I was really psyched about that one. I don't think there's OP-1 on that piece; those are all pitched down string samples.

I thought that blending was really impactful for that moment in the film, [spoiler alert] I think it was just before the missing girl's body was discovered. [spoiler alert] Was that planned or did that happen more organically with you writing to picture?

It was sort of planned and also wasn't. Jennifer had shot the actors singing along to that song "Promises Promises," and my music was done in conjunction with that. It turned out to be one of my favorite things from the score, instrumentally.

Do you feel like there's more leeway in scoring for odder, more impressionistic films? I think of Mica Levi in this way. The idea that continuous synth scores like this one don't utilize themes to illustrate character and story arc as much in the way that orchestral ones do. With this score, it felt like you were creating atmosphere more than narrative themes.

This score was more applicable to the atmosphere. There are also so many characters in the movie. Maybe because they're all going through a singular experience, that sense of atmosphere can convey a theme. As far as what you started out saying, I think that's the most exciting thing about scoring. I was having this discussion with another sick scorer and we were saying that the great thing is: there are no rules. Coming from a rock band background, there's something really liberating about that because you can fuck around with something and put it through some effects and peddals, but you can also take a proper instrument and play it straight. Both of those sounds can be equally valid and equally powerful and fit the scene; you don't know—it's just whatever works. Really for the director [laughs] but hopefully for you as well. That's so exciting.

Liberating, yeah. Well, there's one more thing I wanted to get at, and thanks for all of the time you've given me. I know that you used to play violin and you haven't played it in a long time. Do you see yourself reconnecting to some of your classical roots, the more scoring you do?

It's definitely something that I would love to do. When I was younger I was a really good violin player and I can't for the life of me play now...

No muscle memory there?

No. It's crazy. There's nothing. [Mutual laughter] But I do think about it. My interest in neo-classical music has really grown in the last five years since becoming more focused on doing scores. I did this piece like seven or eight years ago called "41 Strings"...

I was going to ask you about that. "Fall" was my favorite section.

Oh rad, thank you. I keep meaning to release that because we have a good recording of it. I want to keep doing performances of it as well. I feel like that was the thing that set me off about being really excited about acoustic classical instruments again; the power and potential and effectiveness.... I would love to learn how to read and write music also and that's all floating in the same to-do list.

Well hopefully you will. I was really inspired by the Sydney Opera House performance of "41 Strings" that I saw on YouTube. There was something that I noticed in watching that always gives me chills when I see it: You were right in the center of all this big orchestra of classical performers and I noticed this eye contact that some of them gave you, followed by a smile. It's almost like there's a collective energy that everyone is feeding off of. Maybe it's that they're playing music that they aren't used to playing and they get a big kick out of that.

Yes, for sure. We've done like four performances of it now and I try to have young orchestra players; ideally high school or college age because that makes it so fun and exciting. They're also not going to complain about the drums being too loud. [Laughs]

Well it's a different thing right? Being in a room full of trained instrumentalists as opposed to being at home in a room alone with a cut of a film and a small keyboard.

Totally. Hearing a string section playback things that you wrote on a mini keyboard can be so powerful.

Is there something you're scoring now?

Yeah, I've been working on a documentary about the oxycontin "cartell" industry for the past month or so. It's much more of a mixture of sound elements and styles because there's more of a defined set of characters; There are the lawyers and the drug pushers and the people in the pharmaceutical industry, so it's more divided into the groups that make up a story.

Well I'll be looking forward to that—and hopefully more from Yeah Yeah Yeahs! Thanks, Nick.

www.twitter.com/nickzinner

www.instagram.com/little_vampire/

www.yeahyeahyeahs.com

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