Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner takes us through the film scores that most inspire him

"I'm driven towards curious worlds like that"

“It’s something I’ve been gravitating towards more and more,” says Nick Zinner, best known as the guitarist in New York band Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The gravitation he speaks of is towards making more music for film. It’s not an entirely new venture for Zinner – he composed his first score back in 2009 for the film White Lightnin’ – but it’s something he’s been spending more and more time on. 

He’s recently composed the score for Knives and Skin, a mystical teen noir directed by Jennifer Reed that follows a young girl’s disappearance in the rural Midwest and its impact on the local community. The score is a considered yet immersive one to match the slow-build pace and tension of the film. Void of Zinner’s typical sinewy guitar work, it is instead full of enveloping soundscapes and layers of rich synthesiser. 

Scoring films is something that has long been on his mind, going all the way back to childhood. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “Even when I was a teenager it was a goal of mine to score films. I’d listen to soundtrack records like Twin Peaks and the score to the Krzysztof Kieślowski film The Double Life of Veronique. It sparked something in me.”

It also comes off the back of some of his pursuits outside of the world of Yeah Yeah Yeahs not entirely scratching his itches. “The more other projects that I would do and explore, the more it made me want to score films,” he says. “Like I was producing bands for a while and realising: this is not really making me very happy. But the one thing that kept coming back to me over and over was the desire to do a soundtrack – there still seems like there’s so much room to explore and that can be done in that world. There is a lot to learn and so lots of room to experiment. It’s very exciting to be a part of as I’m driven towards curious worlds like that.” 

As someone who has had control over his band’s output for many years, I ask him if the transition to making music for other people’s vision has been tough. “I don’t see them as being that different actually. Above all I enjoy collaboration. With Yeah Yeah Yeahs the underlying principle at my end is just: will Karen like this? It has to be something that she is going to respond to – she’s not going to sing to something that doesn’t move her. The band comes from a place of back and forth collaboration – that’s where I like to be. I like getting feedback from someone else; I like working towards someone else’s vision.”

Zinner also seems to have tapped into a place in which his creative pursuits feel unbound in this world. “I was reading a piece with Clint Mansell a few years ago and he was talking about how he would just sequester himself away with the script until he found the sonic world of it,” he says. “I took that route with Knives and Skin and spent a few weeks in the studio with the script and came up with 40 or so two-minute sketches to see what Jennifer [Reed] would respond to. It’s a really exciting two-fold process because at my end it’s just pure exploration with your creations and innovations; an anything goes situation. It doesn’t even matter if the answer to something is no, it’s just about that moment of pure creation.” 

There’s already more momentum to this pursuit too, with Zinner currently soundtracking a documentary on the OxyContin epidemic in America. “I would just like to keep doing more and more scores and have them be completely different from one another,” he says. “I really benefit from starting with a blank canvas to get into a new sonic world. Starting from scratch is the best way to be for me. With film scores, that’s where I am most comfortable. I’m happy to just see how things unfold.” 

Nick Zinner picks five of his favourite film scores

Dead Man
Dir: Jim Jarmusch
Score by Neil Young 

The first time I saw that film, I was like, ‘really, can you do this?’. It’s fucking amazing. It was this super mind-bending thing. The music fits so perfectly and it’s kind of like, fuck, why hasn’t anyone else done this? I can’t imagine that film with any other kind of score, it is just perfect. The thing with Jim Jarmusch’s films is that in principle it’s all so simple but it rides this wave across all kinds of different classifications, feelings and moods. It moves between all of these things so well – it’s a beautiful balancing act. I watch that film at least once every year or so. I saw it when it came out and I was in high school. I remember just sitting to watch it and thinking, ‘damn Neil Young is awesome.’ I don’t think it had actually occurred to me up until then. It was around this time I was also getting into Ennio Morricone, the Birthday Party and their guitar player Rowland S. Howard. There was a common thread between the guitar style of all those three for me. I probably hadn’t been exposed to that kind of guitar playing before; I was really into metal as a kid growing up. So that haunting, spare, slightly spaghetti western vibe, I don’t think I had ever heard anything like it. 

Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Dir: Andrew Domink 
Mars – National Geographic TV show
Scores by: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis 

I’ve selected these as a joint pick because to me they represent something of a bookend with those guys. Jesse James was the first score I heard from them and I just watched the TV show Mars and I was so blown away by that soundtrack. It’s just amazing – they have totally created a world for this show to exist in. The show goes between talking heads and then future sci-fi imagined worlds of humans colonising Mars, and there’s barely any sound in it; it’s almost all of their score and it’s just fucking amazing. It’s so beautiful and moving. The new season they didn’t do the score for and it’s terrible, I can’t watch it. It does not work. 

The difference between the tones and instrumentation on Jesse James and Mars is huge – Mars is mostly synth, piano and Warren’s weird but beautiful violin loops, and Jesse James is almost all acoustic instruments. Yet they can still make something, with both palettes, that sounds like something that is uniquely theirs. 

Beyond the Black Rainbow 
Dir: Panos Cosmatos 
Score by: Sinoia Caves

This film is super crazy. If you’ve seen Mandy as well then you know this guy has a very specific style. Even if you love it or hate it, I respect someone so much who sticks to their vision. The score is something I listen to all the time – it’s kind of the same thing over and over, creating a sonic universe that really stands apart from everything else. The guy that did it is in the rock band Black Mountain too. It’s so beautiful and weird and terrifying at the same time. It doesn’t sound like it’s from any specific era either – it maybe alludes to some of the 1970s prog stuff but it’s also really modern and timeless. In the context of the film it works so well – it heightens everything within every scene. 

Dir: Panos Cosmatos 
Score by: Jóhann Jóhannsson

I love everything that Jóhann did and so to pick one that crystallised everything that I loved about him was tough. I think this is his strongest but it’s hard to say. There’s a lot of his soundtracks where I don’t love the film: even something like Arrival, which I do love, I feel like I’m a little bit more in the know about how the sounds were made. But with Mandy it was so crazy because he really went out of his zone and incorporated a lot of collaborations. Like the doom metal guitar with Stephen O’Malley – those collaborations were so mesmerising. Also just thinking about it being his last project, there’s a lot of heavy things on that score. At the same time the love scene is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard from him. It feels like this soundtrack comes from such a pure place. 

Wings of Desire 
Dir: Wim Wenders
Score by Jürgen Knieper and Laurent Petitgand

I was thinking of picking Under the Skin here but I think that film’s score has had so much praise that there’s nothing new I could add to that praise. Wings of Desire was another film that I saw when I was a teenager and this one is definitely more soundtrack than score [Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Laurie Anderson, Die Haut, Tuxedomoon]. It was one of the first time’s as a teenager that I was really paying attention to the music being used and how it was being used. Also being exposed to all this new crazy music, like what is Tuxedomoon? Pre-internet, it led to me wanting to seek a lot of things out and just find out any information – it was really exciting and valuable. 

There were so many great musical choices made for this film to create that world at the time – it really made me take note. It was one of those films that made me be like: I have to go to Berlin. That film could have been sponsored by the Berlin tourist board.

Photo (top) by Nanci Sarrouf