Atra Aeterna is the solo musical project of Zack Mitchell, who creates haunting, cinematic pieces that blur the line between electronic and neo-classical music. Influenced by the likes of Akira Yamaoka and Clint Mansell, Zack seamlessly melds subtle fields of static warmth, complex piano melodies and dark atmospherics into a bleak and ethereal blend of melancholia.
Oddly enough, my first encounter with a film soundtrack cemented my love for electronic music, not the traditional piano and string compositions that are so prevalent in modern cinema. In 1995 I saw Mortal Kombat (I was nine years old), and I was blown away by the music used in it. I distinctly remember watching a VHS of the film and trying to record the song that played over the credits, onto a cassette tape.The quality of the tape was terrible (which taught me my first, very early lesson about audio recordings!) but I eventually got my hands on the official soundtrack. I listened to one song on that cassette obsessively, Orbital’s ‘Halcyon + On + On’ and I never tired of it because it sounded so different from every other piece of music I’d heard up to that point in my life. That was definitely a musical turning point for me.
What was it that first attracted you to horror?
Growing up, my family watched a lot of movies, and I remember going to rental stores with my parents at an early age. Being the inquisitive child I was, I would routinely sneak off to the horror section to look at all the covers and posters of the movies I wasn’t allowed to watch. One poster that stuck out to me was that of The Silence of The Lambs. It was different from the bloody, blatant style of horror that most of the other posters were depicting, and that uniqueness made it easy to remember over the years, even though it would be at least a decade before I eventually saw the film for the first time. I find it funny now, because that balance of darkness and light captured in the poster (the sinister Death’s Head moth, juxtaposed against the beauty of Jodie Foster’s face) is something I now strive to attain musically.
What are you working on now?
I am a little bit in between projects right now. After releasing Machinations last October and the Of Fractures and Light EP this February, I’ve spent most of my time working on a couple of film score projects which I have just recently finished up. In terms of creating new material strictly for another Atra Aeterna release, I’m taking a bit of a step back because the software I use (Propellerhead Software’s Reason) is going to be getting a pretty drastic upgrade sometime soon. The new functionality the upgrade will provide me should hopefully translate into some new ideas to work with, so I’m on ‘pause’ now, but very excited for the near future.
There are definitely things I’m proud of, but I’m pretty even-keeled when it comes to a sense of accomplishment, so there’s not really one specific thing I can think of. I will say that the best part of making music is the responses I get from people that do appreciate it. I consider myself to have been incredibly lucky thus far, as the people who like the music tend to be very vocal in sharing their experiences and encouragement with me. I had a fan post on the Atra Aeterna Facebook page that my music was the best therapy he’d ever encountered, and that really hit home, to think that the music was actually affecting other people’s lives in a significant manner. It was very powerful to hear something like that.
Who do you most admire musically?
It does seem a little cliche to me to namedrop the biggest active band in the world…but that said, I’m still going to go with Radiohead. No other individual musician or group has inspired me more, or driven me to improve and experiment musically in the way that they have. I’m always hesitant to list them as an influence, lest people get the impression that I consider myself on their level (I don’t), but it seems dishonest not to credit them with helping to shape my sound in some way, given the massive amount of time I’ve spent poring over their albums.
Talk us through your musical training and background.
This could be a very short answer! I started producing music in 2004, and have been doing so ever since, and my formal ‘musical training’ consists of taking a handful of piano lessons in elementary school for a month or two, from which I remember nothing. I am actually pretty ignorant of musical theory, something I’m not proud of, but not ashamed of either. I usually just start with a single note that sounds ‘right’ to me, and input other notes that sound ‘right’ in the context of the first one. I suppose I’ve listened to enough music over the years that somehow I’m able to navigate different key signatures that way. I still haven’t learned to play any specific instrument proficiently, so when people ask I just say I play ‘laptop’.
I rarely sit down with the intention of writing a piece about something, and instead tend to give things the freedom to develop however they may. There are certain things (events, people, etc) in my life that I draw upon emotionally of course, but it’s almost never a conscious attempt to channel them individually. I do have specific moods and tones I tend to gravitate towards but again, that’s more a subconscious aspect, related to my own personal tastes. I love miserable, dark music, whether it be the instrumentation or the lyrics of a song, and I think that’s reflected in my work.
Recommend a score.
The first score from a motion picture (as opposed to a soundtrack of individual songs) that I purchased was that of Darren Aronofsky’s film Requiem for a Dream. It was my first introduction to composer Clint Mansell, whose work I have followed closely ever since, and the most powerful piece from the film, ‘Lux Aeterna’ was the inspiration for my own alias. However, if I’m going to recommend something by Mansell, it would have to be the score of The Fountain (also an Aronofsky film). I’ve found that The Fountain holds together much more cohesively than most scores, and when listened to from beginning to end, the whole album flows beautifully.
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