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Sunday, 6 February 2011

"They were throwing shoes, umbrellas, anything they didn’t want to take home with them." Clint Mansell, 2009

Back when Clint Mansell was a rock star of sorts, he looked like, well… a sort of rock star. At the time of our last encounter, he had red dreads piled on top of his head and several piercings in his nose and ears. In 2009, even the most committed fan of Pop Will Eat Itself – the band with whom he notched up eleven top 40 hits – would stroll right by if they passed Mansell in the street. Somewhere along the way, as he gradually set about becoming one of the world’s most sought-after film composers, he changed. On the afternoon I walk into Air Studios in Hampstead, there are three soberly-dressed, sensible-haired middle-aged men hunched over a mixing console, all in some way involved with a timpani session for Christian Carion’s upcoming cold war thriller L’Affaire Farewell. Until a deep Black Country greeting – “Hello mate! How long has it been?” – leaves Mansell’s mouth, it isn’t altogether certain which of those is him.

Though my memory fails me on this count, it’s also likely that, as the frontman with Pop Will Eat Itself, Mansell wasn’t drinking red wine with the slow, appreciative sips of a man who, in time, would own a house in the Hollywood hills that came with its own wine cellar. It’s fair to say that there’s nothing in his old band’s cartoonish indie-rap canon to suggest that they were a dry run for the exquisitely understated neo-classical scores of films like The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream and Duncan Jones’ acclaimed new sci-fi tale Moon.

But then, it’s remarkable just how much distance you can put behind you in 15 years. This Monday when Mansell – flanked by Los Angeles string ensemble The Sonus Quartet and assorted other players performs – at the Union Chapel, he’ll have 20-odd scores from which to choose. Flying in to introduce him will be Darren Aronofsky, who has used Mansell to score his films ever since the two worked on π (Pi) eleven years ago. Mansell remembers that at the time both found themselves uncertain about what their immediate future held. Aronofsky settled in New York with the screenplay for π but no immediate funding prospects. Having dissolved Pop Will Eat Itself, Mansell also found himself in New York for no greater reason than his girlfriend lived there. “I had this idea that I’d do something different,” he remembers, “I couldn’t tell you what it was, but obviously my ego thought it was something that would change the world.” Without any clear idea of how to proceed, Mansell says he “lost any sort of drive.” Being so far removed from his bandmates and his family in Stourbridge was “a pure shock to the system. I had a lot of growing up to do.”

Mansell and Aronofsky met through mutual friends. That Aronofsky had never heard Pop Will Eat Itself almost certainly counted in Mansell’s favour. After all, when picking likely composers to score a psychological thriller about a man who builds a computer to find predictable patterns in the stock market, it’s unlikely that you would turn to the frontman best known for songs such as their paean to Italian porn star politician Touched By The Hand of Cicciolina and their not-about-the-animal early hit Beaver Patrol. “I’m not sure he had me in mind as someone who [ital] could [ital] score films,” confides Mansell, “There was this idea that I might write the opening title piece, and then the rest of the film would use pre-existing electronic music. He was going to license all these songs for use in the film. But the reality was that he had no money and no track record. So every time we were denied permission to use a song, I had to write a piece to replace it.”

Asked how he was supporting himself at this time, Mansell laughs, “Like all musicians, I had a girlfriend. In truth, it was hand-to-mouth.” No matter how bad things were, however, he could at least tell himself he was in New York. “If I had gone back to signing on in Stourbridge, it might have been more of a reality check. Time to put my rock star ego behind me and get a life.” As his relationship foundered, calling an end to his time in New York, Mansell realised that, at least creatively, his decision to place himself outside his musical comfort zone was yielding music that he had previously thought beyond him.

In particular, Lux Aeterna – the musical leitmotif at the heart of Aronofsky’s second film Requiem For A Dream – seemed to assume a life of its own well beyond the circumstances of its original creation. In 2002, four years after writing it at “a particularly low personal ebb”, Mansell walked into Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood where he had gone to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. But it was his own Lux Aeterna he heard booming out in surround sound, over a trailer for the upcoming Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. Momentarily mislaying all residual self-deprecation, Mansell chirps, “It blew my mind! It sounded incredible. I kept looking around to see if anyone else was listening to it, but everyone else was talking!”

The intervening years have elevated Mansell to his current position as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after composers. Throughout it all, his working relationship with Aronofsky has endured. A few Christmases ago, he recalls the producer staying at his parents’ house in Stourbridge and watching his reaction as Mansell’s father played him a choice selection of old Pop Will Eat Itself videos. “There was one where I had my leather trousers on and a headband. He turned around and said, ‘Why are you dressed like a pirate?’ In my head I’d been going for more of an Axl Rose look… We weren’t very good at concealing our latest obsessions.”

Whether they even tried to do so is a moot point. Barely two years into their recording life, the group embraced hip-hop with precisely the sort of guileless glee that enraged purists. Displaying a naivety that almost proved to be their undoing, the group accepted an offer to support Public Enemy on a string of European dates promoting the rap troupe’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. Just to recap, then: the militant black New York collective affiliated to Nation of Islam, supported by four white middle-class boys from Stourbridge. “We thought the first two dates at Brixton Academy might be a bit rough,” smiles a rueful Mansell. “There were no two ways about it. It was a black hip-hop audience. And we come on with our long hair, our leather jackets and guitars – I mean, maybe if they’d listened, they’d have gone, ‘Hmm… interesting hybrid!’ We lasted four songs. Once our roadies picked up all the coins that were thrown at us, it added up to about ten quid. But that was the least of it really. They were throwing shoes, umbrellas, anything they didn’t want to take home with them. In the heat of the moment, I was even goading them a bit, but then I turned around, tripped over a monitor and fell flat on my face. The place erupted. The worst of it was knowing that we were going to have to do it all again the following day. I mean, we were little kids really. We were shitting it.”

The life of a band is a distant dream, but by the same token, Mansell has had to work hard to feel a sense of entitlement to his current job. For the longest time, he was worried that he was going to be found out – “that somebody was going to spot the cheat sheet in my back pocket.” He admits that when he first dabbled in composition, he laboured under the misapprehension that “a jobbing composer goes, ‘You want a little bit of jazz? Here you go. A bit of reggae? Coming right up.’ With me, it’s less tangible than that. It comes from a different place.”

If, in recent years, Mansell felt he has anything left to prove, it’s a desire to convince the wider world that he can deliver exceptional work on a film that doesn’t bear Aronofsky’s imprint. This month, when the wider world finally gets to see Duncan Jones’ Moon, any lingering doubts should be kicked into touch. By sidelining almost all electronic embellishments for some of his most traditional-sounding arrangements to date, Mansell brings out the human frailty in Jones’ sinister space-age parable. “All my favourite themes were in there,” he smiles. “Isolation, melancholy, nostalgia. Plenty to get stuck into.” The same themes also loomed large in The Wrestler, Mansell’s most recent Aronofsky score. At the end of that film, of course, we see Mickey Rourke returning to the nostalgia entertainment circuit, realizing that whatever else happens in life, his old fans will always love him. Could that have been an option for Mansell, had things not worked out as he would have liked?

“Well, Pop Will Eat Itself did do four or five shows over here about four years ago,” he says, “You wouldn’t have heard about it. We just did them for fun and put the word out among the old fans. I tell you what though. It was knackering. After we did our last show, I could barely walk for the next three months. I took that as a sign.”