"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
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.