A conversation with Colin Stetson
Photos by Ebru Yildiz
Colin Stetson has worn many hats in the music industry, as a touring artist and collaborator with groups such as Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, and as a solo saxophonist to film composer. Through this multifaceted journey, Stetson has remained rooted in exploration to find a truly unique sound that incorporates many nontraditional elements. His sound is often associated with motifs of complex darkness — especially in its onscreen accompaniments.

Colin's introduction to the world of music

Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Stetson began playing music at age 15, and the very first pieces he played were (unknowingly) at the college level. This, of course, led to the very quick development of Colin's skills as an artist, and in a year and a half, he won a scholarship to play and study with his music teachers' professors at the University of Ann Arbor. He recognized this as an 'aha' moment, as it set him on the path to music school and ensured his sense of direction in music.
"Kids can do an enormous amount, especially when they don't think they're supposed to be able to."
Stetson moved to San Francisco fairly early on in his career, where another life and career-affirming instance occurred for him. He described that one of the main reasons he moved was in hopes of eventually working with musical legend Tom Waits. In turn, he manifested this exact dream, and whether it be by chance or talent (or a combination of both), Colin began collaborating with Waits within a year and a half after moving.

In learning from one of his all-time musical inspirations, his dreams were actualized, and Stetson began to realize his true potential as an artist in a much bigger sense. From there, Colin continued his talent on the road, touring with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, and collaborating with artists such as TV On The Radio, BADBADNOTGOOD, Feist, Lou Reed, Sinead O'Connor, and Animal Collective — just to name a few.

His transition to film composition

Colin launched his career in film music when Alexander Moors asked him to be a part of Blue Caprice (2013). At this point, film composition was something he wanted to do, but he thought it might be difficult to transition out of the mindset of a touring artist at the time — and having to navigate a new world entirely. However, when he began working on the project, Colin was surprised at how this transition ended up being a relatively easy segway from his prior work. "It helped that I already tended to think about constructing songs and album arcs with narrative in mind," he said.
Scoring has proven itself to be much more experimental for Colin than other work tends to be. He refers to it as "world-building," and describes the process as a hybrid of intellectual and physical, where he is involved in a hands-on creative process with the instruments, along with the cerebral act of manipulating and organizing sounds.

For a solo record, on the other hand, Colin finds that it is much, much more physically challenging than film scoring. He explained that through hours and hours of performing, there is a specific type of work that his body must perform to play the piece effectively. And this must be repeated; if it is not played at this same caliber consistently, the muscles lose their touch. Whether it be a solo project or composition, Colin's music always involves telling a story — the only difference is one of these stories is created in Colin's head, and the other is one that will be portrayed onscreen.

Stetson's groundbreaking work on Hereditary (2018)

One of Colin's most well-known projects has to be his composition work for the 2018 psychological horror film, Hereditary. Stetson shared with me that director Ari Aster was familiar with Colin's work prior to the film, and actually wrote much of the script with his music in mind. Thus, it is easy to notice many similarities to his solo work throughout the film — and the project comes across as a perfect marriage of music and image.

For one, he describes how the car crash sequence in the film was written as a solo contract bass clarinet piece that got built around in terms of its visual accompaniment. Additionally, "Reborn" was a solo Alto piece, showcasing many parallels to the sound of his prior records. By performing all of the instruments on the soundtrack, Stetson was able to create a sound that is uniquely his in this project.
One caveat Stetson pointed to in our conversation was how many people tend to know him as a film composer, whereas the bulk of his career has centered around his work as a touring artist and solo saxophonist. This is an interesting concept, and for Colin, he noticed this shift after Hereditary. Whereas before the film, directors tended to reach out in regards to his solo work — wanting to see if he scored films — Hereditary established (for many that were curious) that he did, in fact, compose for film.

Hereditary strengthened Stetson's status as a composer, as it led to more and more directors reaching out to him to score their projects. Since then, he has worked on numerous projects in just the past five years, some of them being Color Out of Space (2019), Mayday (2021), Disney's Among The Stars (2021), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022), and Uzumaki (2022).

A taste of his most recent work in film music

Colin's most recent project, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022), is a Netflix original and sequel to the original 1974 cult classic. As he described, the original film was groundbreaking in music, especially in the sense that it blurred the line between sound design and score by utilizing sounds that were nonmusical. In this newer, more modern take on the original story, Stetson wanted to see these ideas reimaged through a new lens.
"I wanted to build a sound world and character that was equally unique and evocative of the new story."
People who have heard the score actually think that Stetson used machines and chainsaws in the recordings for the film. While no saws or symbols were involved, he did take on several extreme and innovative processes to achieve its sound. Namely, Stetson described how he taped Tibetan bowls to the opening of his saxophone to mimic the metal-on-metal sound of the weapons central to the film. Additionally, he utilized bowls full of metal chains to create sounds reminiscent of breathing.

One of Colin's most innovative choices was to introduce animal noises such as turkey calls, squirrel noises, and pig grunts to the score. These achieve percussive effects and were stretched and squashed to create vocal, guttural sounds evocative of the tired, angrier villain of the legendary story.

Clearly, Stetson does not hold back when it comes to experimentation in his sound. In fact, this was one of the aspects he pointed to in terms of his love for the musical process. "Music brings you back to a childlike sense of wonder. And it requires it, as well. There is a necessity of exploring freedom — because in play is where you will find inspiration," he shared.

Colin's unique approach to music

Along with its curious and exploratory nature, one thing that is remarkably interesting about Stetson's musical approach is that, unlike many artists, he stays away from the idea of genre entirely. As he puts it, "the creation and placing of the genre is somebody else's job." He described how assigning a specific category to music is a limiting concept for artists altogether. "By not assigning it, the music then just gets to be this nameless, faceless thing that individuals can personalize, rather than something that I've told them what it is, which will then color their experience," he explains.
My last question for Colin was about the most rewarding aspect of the craft for him. He first discussed the highly tangible nature of music, where, in a live setting, you can feel people's experience of being moved in real-time. However, he also pointed to the opposite end of the spectrum and noted the artifact of music as a lasting experience and reward for him. "I love the idea of making sound and music as an object itself," Colin shared.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Colin's outlook on music lies in his selfless character. "If I could, I would just perform in darkness all the time. I want the persona aspect — the "me" attached — to be as minimized as possible. I want the music to be so singular and to be its own entity, so much so that I would remove myself from it visually as well," he described.

In just a short conversation with Colin, it is easy to distinguish him as a truly unique character within the world of music. His character, sound, and perspective create an authentically curious presence filled with sparks of genius in all facets of his craft. Whether it be solo work or music accompanied by picture, Colin tells a story that demands to be listened to.
Anna Kuelling is a Composium Ambassador who is currently expanding her knowledge of film music by studying Music Supervision at UCLA
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