Chris Clark—the Berlin-based producer best known by his last name only—has built a career over the last decade and a half crafting brain-bending electronic compositions that are actually meriting of the descriptor "cinematic." like many a Warp-signed producer before him, the Hertfordshire, UK-born Clark takes dizzy synth riffs and unpredictable drum-programming and pushes them from the club into realms unknown. But instead of diving into Autechre-ian computer code bleeps or the fogged wastelands of Boards of Canada's best work, Clark's been holed up with a bag of popcorn, creating pieces that feel like soundtracks to technicolor dystopias shot on 70mm film.
That's never been his stated goal, but his just-released album, The Last Panthers, finally made the connection between sound and screen literal. Though he'd been commissioned to craft music for films in the past, it wasn't until last year's Canal+ crime-drama miniseries of the same name that he had a chance to space out and create an original sonic universe. Making the work was a fraught process for Clark, who says he is cautious of the pitfalls that befall so many big-budget productions. "I'm gauging how hateful to sound here," he says, laughing during a Skype call from his temporary home in Sweden. "I think there's a cynicism and cookie-cutter mold that a lot of soundtracks abide by. It's understandable because huge amounts of money are invested in films, but it's creativity by committee, really, and that can make for some quite bland music."
So he aimed for what he knew, funneling the world-rending approach of his solo work through the somber visual aesthetic of the show, which trains its lens on a group of diamond thieves. Maybe you'd imagine Clark's solo compositions working out better on that forthcoming Blade Runner sequel, but his airy, abstract pieces proved a perfect mirror for the frosty visuals of the show. The Last Panthers, which dropped March 18 on Warp, is the result of editing down the best bits of those interstitials into compositions as stratospheric as any he's produced.
To celebrate that release, we rung up Clark to talk about some of his favorite soundtrack work of all time, from a Herzog film that he kept on loop to the creeping horror of Jerry Goldsmith's Alien score—which he describes as "a good one to listen to while you're buying your vegetables."
What's the first soundtrack you remember having an emotional effect on you?
To be honest, it was probably Jaws, because I was playing piano. I was probably 8 or 9. That theme is the smallest space you can have between the keys. It's just two notes; it's amazing how simplistic it is. But so many producers rely on that semitone shift for rave riffs. It's a classic. I weirdly connect Jaws to a two-note rave riff. Another one is Eyes Wide Shut. It uses the same sort of two-note riff—just a different interval. If you've got a huge orchestra playing two notes, it's going to sound huge.
Tell me about a score you love for the way it interacts with a film.
The House of Cards music. That song ticks all of my "I don't like this" boxes. It's so grandiose, sleek, and overly finessed that it's not to my taste. But in the context of the show, it's amazing. There's so much artifice and pretense and grandiosity in the characters that it actually fits perfectly. But the idea of walking to the supermarket with that in my ears—there's no way that's going to happen.
The theme for [BBC miniseries] The Shadow Line is slightly less toe-curling than that, but there's this high-tension chase scene with a really simple guitar riff. It's just a perfect juxtaposition—the perfect sort of contrast to that nail-biting actions. I think timbre—the stuff surrounding the simplicity—is very important. What you embed the sound in is really important. It's this very stripped back soundtrack, but when it hits it feels massive. It takes confidence to show complete restraint, to not go all X-Men 4 on it, to understand that not every gesture needs some kind of literal bit of sound design or melody [ed. note X-Men 4 doesn't seem to exist, but point taken].
I understand that you're a fan of Popol Vuh's soundtrack work with Werner Herzog. Do you have a favorite of theirs?
I remember watching [Heart of Glass] around the time I was writing [2006's] Body Riddle. I had it on video, so I just kept rewinding it. I wouldn't do that now, but I binge on music and it definitely inspired that album in a very abstract way. I wanted to inject that essence somehow. I kept on watching the first scene all afternoon, then going and doing a bit of work in the studio and then going downstairs to watch it again. I was just blown away by it. The rest of the film's good, but there's this mental ambition in the first ten minutes.
There's these churning waterfalls and these majestic melodies. It's just so good. I'd never heard Popol Vuh before I saw that film. There are a couple notes in it that are a bit "God Save the Queen," but if you allow them that, it's amazing. I like all of their stuff. I respond to that slight naiveté in it. It's just so well done. It's just so unashamedly melodic, but it's beautifully simplistic rather than trite.
What's a soundtrack that you'd listen to outside of the context of a film?
Alien would be a good one to listen to while you're buying your vegetables. It's quite an obvious choice, but I had this weird moment. I used to watch it every week on video when I was a kid, but I hadn't watched it for about five years. I was having a little nap in the afternoon because I'd been making music since really early in the morning. But I woke up with the intro music—the descending creepy strings—in my head. It was chilling. It's just inside me—I wasn't dreaming about Alien I don't think. The whole film just has so much atmosphere and repressed terror that just becomes more prominent. What else could you want from the soundtrack?
The Last Panthers is pretty melodic, are you into any scores that are more sound-design focused?
I haven't seen it in a long time, but [Andrei Tarkovsky's] Solaris. There was a phase when I lived in Birmingham and there was this amazing video shop called Cinephilia. It was still in the days of video. They just had every film under the sun, and it was one of the only cool places to go to in Birmingham. I rented Solaris and was in this phase of half-understanding it. Because Tarkovsky films you have to really study. There's this piece on a motorway—it's just sound design. I think it's probably just the sound of passing cars put through spring reverb, and the shot just lingers far too long for it to have any narrative meaning. It could be a video installation. You wonder why he lets it linger for so long. Whatever it is, it's dark and mysterious and slightly terrifying.
Are there any scores that move you that you wouldn't reach for during your daily listening?
I've just finished a dance score. I'm working with this vocalist who also composes cello music. Her score for this piece was a little similar to [Justin Kurzel's 2015 adaptation of] Macbeth in that it's [composed of] these really grinding cello drones in a really good way. It just made me think oh she should be doing soundtracks. I don't know if I'd listen to it again, but it just really fit with the whole landscape of that film. It's quite a bloody minded soundtrack. There's not really any riffs or recognizable melodies—just heavy, murderous drones. And the smell of violence. Anything that can displace your immediate reality is to be commended. It's just indulgent escapism, isn't it?