Interview: Clint Mansell speaks ahead of Birmingham performance

His accent hasn’t changed a bit. Clint Mansell may have become one of Hollywood’s most important and successful soundtrack writers and been nominated for an Oscar but he still sounds like the same guy who drank too much at The Mitre, in Stourbridge, back in the day.

Interview: Clint Mansell speaks ahead of Birmingham performance

Clint Mansell at work

The former leather-trouser-wearing, dreadlocked-hell-raiser and lynchpin of The Stourbridge Scene, who led Pop Will Eat Itself into the charts during 10 inglorious years, has not developed any airs and graces. There are no delusions of grandeur, no ideas above his station. He’s the same humble and intensely creative man that he ever was.

“Y’alright, man,” he says, down the line from Los Angeles. He’s in poor shape today, he’s only had about four hours sleep. “I’ve got this right stinking cold. I can’t shift it. I’ve had it for four months.”

On stage in his PWEI days

Clint’s story is one of the most remarkable in the West Midlands. He formed PWEI and gatecrashed the charts on a wave of sample-driven, industrial indie rock. Get The Girl! Kill The Baddies! hit the top 10 while X Y & Zee, Dance Of The Mad, Touched by the Hand of Cicciolina and RSVP weren’t far behind. But it was tunes like Beaver Patrol, Def. Con. One., Can U Dig It? and Wise Up! Sucker that cemented their status as cult heroes. They paved the way for The Wonder Stuff, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and a plethora of others.

“I still come back to Stourbridge,” he says. “I see my parents there three or four times a year. That whole scene was good to me. We had the best time. I remember signing on on a Wednesday and the van would be waiting around the corner to take us out of town and do a gig somewhere for £50. We weren’t The Rolling Stones. We were renting vans from Value Van Hire at Brierley Hill then hitting the road in search of a good time. It was seriously the best of times. We were a million dollars shy of being millionaires.”

Can U Dig It? – Clint Mansell, front left, in his Pop Will Eat Itself days

Clint and bandmate Graham Crabb wrote most of the Poppies tunes until the band split in 1996, having run its course. It was the bleakest of times.

“We’d been doing that for 10 years and Adam, Graham, Richard, Fuzz and myself had been together as friends for the best part of 15 years. We were all very much at a loss. The band sort of becomes your identity. I imagine it’s similar to anyone who’s been made redundant. You identify yourself through the things that you do. It took me at least three or four years to get back on my feet.”

Clint hightailed it to New York. “I was lost, really. I was pretty broke as well. Suddenly you go from being in a successful band to not doing a great deal. 

“The thing that kept me going must have been some kind of delusion. I was 33, I had no experience of anything other than writing songs. I just wanted to give it a shot in New York. If it hadn’t have worked out I’d just have gone back to Stourbridge to do whatever I would have been doing if I hadn’t taken a chance and moved to New York. Sometimes you have to chance. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a lot of hard work. I’ve done 60 film scores. But without having taken that risk I’d never have gotten here. Sometimes you have to jump in. There’s delusion and denial about life when you take those risks. But I’d missed the train to settle down and have kids. There were no other options.”

In New York, Clint hooked up with the film director Darren Aronofsky, a Harvard University alumni who has subsequently been nominated for an Oscar and created such films as Pi, Requiem For A Dream, Below, The Fountain, The Wrestler, the $300 million-USD-grossing Black Swan and last year’s $350 million-USD-grossing Noah.

Oscar-nominated Clint has ditched the dreadlocks

“Initially, I took any job that I could get. I had to pay my dues. Back in the day, with the band, I’d pay my dues by playing JB’s, in Dudley, or The Hummingbird, in Birmingham. When I started writing film scores, it was the same. At first, I was totally out of my depth. But I learnt a lot. After I’d done 10 or 12 films, I felt like I was getting the hang of it.

“It was very fortuitous to meet Darren. It changed the course of both of our lives. Darren could have found somebody else to score his films but they might have had a different approach if he’d done that. It turned out that our sensibilities matched up. Because he delves into the dark side, if you like.

“For me, there were a lot of dark times during that transition from PWEI to being a film score writer. But those dark times gave me fuel.”

Clint’s brilliantly moody and elegiac music dovetailed perfectly with Darren’s films, which have focused on the search for perfection, the search for happiness, longing for love, intoxication with publicity, the pain of alienation and the burden of responsibility.

“It was totally different from being in the band. Then, we’d write songs for ourselves. We’d write about anything we liked. But when you write for a film you have to serve the film and go with the director’s wishes.

“But in a weird way, that’s very liberating. Because within that framework, you can do anything you want. I explain it like this: if you’ve got a studio with every instrument in the world you don’t know where to start. But if you walk in and there’s just two pieces of equipment, you know what to do. It’s liberating to have those boundaries. It forces you to think in a certain way.”

  • Listen to Clint's composition for the film The Fountain:

Clint’s career took off after his early days in New York. He scored Darren’s debut film, Pi, and was retained to score the next, Requiem For A Dream, which featured the composition Lux Aeterna. The piece has been used in film and teaser trailers while a version was re-orchestrated for a choir and full orchestra on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Not bad for a fella from Stourbridge who used to spend most of his time drunk in sweaty leather trousers.

There have been more successes, most notably the scores to The Fountain, Smokin’ Aces, The Wrestler and Black Swan, not forgetting Moon and others. Clint’s work is ubiquitous; featuring on Top Gear, Lost, The Da Vinci Code and on TV series and computer games.

He follows his own path and sets two single criteria before agreeing to a project: 1) does it inspire him, and, 2) will it make him happy.

“I’m not rebellious to a fault but I just know that I’m not happy if I’m not doing the things I want to do. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to do what I’ve wanted while putting some bread on the table. I know I’m not right for every other film. I don’t compete with film composers. I look at it from an artistic perspective. It has to speak to me. It has to draw on something that’s within me because I feel then that I can bring something to the table. 

Clint needs to be inspired and happy to compose

“The Fast and the Furious is popular but it wouldn’t speak to me, I wouldn’t be inspired, so I wouldn’t want to do it. I like to work with people I like. Black Swan is a case in point. From the moment Darren came to me with the project I knew the best approach would be to rework the music from Swan Lake. The ballerina who is the lead in the film was rehearsing every day and she would have been driven insane by the same music in the end. She’d have been hearing it and just going mad. So I just thought that was the way to do it. It was thrilling to take Tchaikovsky’s music and create something new. Finding those elements of horror and mania and paranoia; that was exciting.” Exciting indeed: it earned Clint an Oscar nomination, though Alexandre Desplat’s score for The King’s Speech won out.

“The Oscars are interesting,” he says. “I grew up watching the Oscars and we all like shiny baubles. But these days, the Oscars is like everything else. It’s just bought and paid for. People lobby so hard for them. They do seem like trinkets and it would be a wonderful achievement to win. But you can’t set your watch by that, I guess. You have to follow what inspires you.”

Clint will return home again in spring to headline Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, on March 23. His expected setlist will feature extracts from Pi, Moon, England’s Dreaming, Stoker, Meltdown, Lux Aeterna, Not At Home, The Wrestler, Stay With Me, The Last Man and Death Is The Road To Awe.

“I’ll be on the road with a nine-piece band: a string quartet with piano, bass and drums and two guitars and keyboards. We only do four or five shows a year. We play Requiem, Moon, Fountain and Noah. We have projected visuals. It’s quite an emotional event. The audiences have been very responsive. Back in the day when I was in a band it was all about energy and leaping around but this is quite moody. You can hear a pin drop.”

He can’t wait to make his debut at the Symphony Hall. Having previously played just about every lowdown and dirty club in the Second City, he’s excited about headlining one of the world’s greatest concert halls. “The acoustics are first rate, you know, so it really is an honour and a pleasure to play these sort of venues.

“I hope people will enjoy it. This will be the first one back home in Birmingham. The leather pants and dreadlocks have long since left the building, but I’m looking forward to being back on home turf.”

By Andy Richardson

Uneasy Listening: An Evening With Clint Mansell plus special guests features at Symphony Hall on March 23 and tickets, priced £22.50 and £27.50, are available here or by calling the Box Office on 0121 780 4949.

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