Magic, Mystery and Sharing the Knowledge: Interview with Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL)

Dutch film composer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) talks with about his work on the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower

Tom Holkenborg nel suo studio

Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg, also known with the moniker Junkie XL, has quickly become one of the most sought after musicians in the current Hollywood musical landscape. Holkenborg is perhaps one of the composers who better represents the change of course and the evolution of the contemporary Hollywood film music arena. Holkenborg was born as a DJ and producer of electronic music, where he spent most of the 1990s and early 2000s, collaborating with artists such as Dave Gahan (Depeche Mode), Robert Smith (The Cure) and Chuck D, as well as becoming one of the most renowned "remixers" in the world (his cover of Elvis Presley’s classic "A Little Less Conversation" was a huge international success). His arrival in Hollywood took place in the mid-2000s, when he began collaborating with composers such as Harry Gregson-Williams and Klaus Badelt. But it was Hans Zimmer who gave him the launch pad that led him to his current popularity. Together with the German composer, Holkenborg collaborated as assistant and additional composer in many projects such as Inception, Megamind, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Man of Steel. Holkenborg then began to write scores of his own, including films like Divergent, Deadpool and the hugely popular Mad Max: Fury Road. But it's not just this impressive streak of huge blockbusters that characterizes his work. Holkenborg is indeed very active in education and mentorship, which also includes an intense activity through his YouTube channel, where Holkenborg offers many videos illustrating his own creative process and his thoughts about the art of film scoring.

We met Tom to talk about his recent work for The Dark Tower, the adaptation of Stephen King's famous novel starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaghuey.

ColonneSonore: Let’s start talking about The Dark Tower. It’s a very interesting work because it combines your trademark electronic sounds and stylings, but this time together with a more traditional, orchestral sound. Was this the overall approach that you and director Nikolaj Arcel settled on since the beginning?

Tom Holkenborg: We discovered it throughout the process. When I first saw the movie, I realized that I had to deal with a huge canvas. We travel through different worlds and there are background stories about what the Dark Tower is, where it comes from, who Roland is, who the Man in Black is and so on. You can’t get away just with electronic music, that was very clear to me. It’s not necessarily that I don’t want to use the orchestra, it just depends on the film and on what the director wants to achieve. That’s always the most important part. I saw a previous film that director Nikolaj Arcel had done called The Royal Affair and that film had 100% orchestral music, so I knew he was gonna like that. Together we found a tone that would achieve everything that the movie needed, as it goes from fantasy to horror to action and so on. There were a lot of different elements that needed to be addressed, so this is what eventually became. And it’s always like that, it’s never a case where the composer decides on his own what the film score sounds like. You get asked by the director because of the talent that you have, based on the things that you’ve done before. But it’s really a journey you take together with the director to get to the end result.

CS: Yes, it’s always a collaborative process. Film music is probably one of the most collaborative musical environment a composer can find.

TH: Yes. I’ve worked in all other areas of the music industry, so I can say that you’re right. It’s also the toughest profession you can get. It’s the most stressful, but it’s also the most rewarding. But it’s not for everybody, let’s put it that way! (laughs)

CS: It seems that the symphony orchestra and the orchestral environment convey the emotional aspects of the movie and the characters, while the electronic elements instead go deep down into the horror part of the story.

TH: Yes. The bad guy in the film, Walter (Matthew McConaghuey), manipulates people, but he also controls these creatures and also puts new faces on people’s heads. It was important to have a sound for him and everything he stands for. I went for a more synthesized approach and it makes sense, because that’s what he does to people and with these creatures, he changes them into something else. On the other hand, Jake and Roland are very pure characters, they don’t have that much to hide. They’re very open to what goes around them and also in their search for the Dark Tower. When it came to their side of the story, it made total sense to have a more straightforward musical approach, so to speak, and therefore more orchestral in nature.

CS: The action cues instead are mostly pulse- and groove-driven, even though in this case the role of the orchestra is much more prominent than in your previous scores, especially in the use of heroic brass. Anyway, this pulse-driven approach is one of your staples that we can find in many of your works for film, like Mad Max: Fury Road and Batman v Superman. Would you agree that groove and rhythm are your main focus when you’re writing music for action scenes?

TH: I wouldn’t say that it is my main focus, but rhythm is very important to me. It’s because I started as a drummer, so it’s in my DNA. If we look at any type of composition, usually we can follow the melody, the harmony, we can see how things come back later on, but usually there’s not much attention given to the rhythm. More often than not, there isn’t a specific thought process going into the rhythm. For me it’s different, I treat rhythm as an equal partner to the orchestra or the electronic world. In my action cues all just comes together and everybody is having an equal part. Rhythm in action music is a driving force. I think what I introduced in film scoring that wasn’t really used before is actually using a drum-kit as a device for rhythm. Other people before would use a big taiko drum here and there, or timpani, or the concert drum. But it’s actually a completely different sound in quality with a drum-kit. It’s more aggressive, more visceral. You can also play faster rhythms on it, as it’s designed to do precisely that.

CS: I think in your case rhythm always does something, it’s not just there. Even the way you use dynamic, from loud to soft and back again, is quite peculiar. How much time you spend thinking and working on the dynamic of the overall sound?

TH: Very much. Again, it has to do with my background. Even though I started as a traditional musician, I got into electronic music live shows very soon. In the early days of electronic music, dynamics were very important, while today this approach seems completely disappeared. When I was playing in the electronic music scene, it was always very important that you had a section with rhythm and then you change to another rhythm and then you get very ambient and space-y and then you would build up again to climax. That is still very important to my music, especially in a film score. It’s so important to have a dynamic and give the scene what it needs. I made lots of mistakes in my work, but the beautiful thing of film scoring is that you learn as you go. When I look back at some of the earlier films I did, I usually say “Ah, I would never do that again!”. You progress as you go. Especially with this film, I thought that I could use rhythms, but slightly different than I did on Mad Max. I could use the orchestra better than I did on other films, and so on. You grow and you learn, you talk with other composers, you talk with other directors. That’s the beautiful thing of film scoring. I’m sure if you talk to Ennio Morricone, he would say he’s still learning, even though he’s already so incredible.

CS: Yes, even at almost 90 years old!

TH: But I’m sure sometimes he writes a piece of music and he’s like “Why I didn’t do this 30 years ago? Why am I coming up with that idea right now?”. You know… I’m sure it happens to everyone.

CS: Another interesting aspect is the lyrical, almost pastoral sound you used in several scenes. Did you have to get out of your comfort zone to write in this specific style?

TH: Absolutely right. That is what we just talked about—when you’re out of your comfort zone, that’s when you learn. If you stay in your comfort zone you never learn because you fall back on things you’ve already done. A score like The Magnificent Seven, that feeling of western, was very important to keep in mind, even though I wasn’t gonna write a western score. Roland’s theme could remind you of some of those western films, so that was the inspiration.

CS: In several of your interviews you talked a lot about the importance of production. How much production you have after you recorded with the orchestra on the stage? Do you tinker a lot your acoustic sounds?

TH: Yes, a lot, and I’ll tell you why. When I was 14-15 years old, I started assisting in a recording studio. Later I became an engineer and then later on I became a producer. I found out soon that the more I did mixing on the desk, using compressors, effects and a lot of that stuff, the more the studio became an instrument for me. I saw what you could do with it. It wasn’t like “Oh, the violins sound beautiful, let’s add a little reverb”, but I was more like “Hey, there’s a guitar’s pedal here, let’s stick that on to the violin and see what happens!” (laughs). And it got crazier and crazier. It was always very important. I think it’s also one of the signatures of my sound, and it also makes easier to distinguish myself from somebody else. At a certain point, I realized that pretty much everything has been written for an orchestra. If you start as a film composer to make something that is uniquely identifiable, as a person, that’s harder if you do it with an acoustic guitar. If you and I start playing an acoustic guitar, after half an hour we will probably play the same chords, you know what I mean? But if you would have all kind of different pedals, and I would have all kind of different pedals, the odds that we sound the same would be less.

Tom "Junkie XL" Holkenborg nel suo studio

CS: When you started working with Hans Zimmer, what was the most important thing you learned? Was it important for you to have an environment where you could experiment and exchange with other composers?

TH: It actually started way earlier. I came to Los Angeles in 2002 and I wanted to become a film composer. I met a lot of people here in town and I understood immediately that this would take a long time. For eight years I was interning with other composers. I saw them work, I made coffee, sorted out files and just learned. Then I started doing some alternative movies in Europe. When I thought I was ready to do it, I wasn’t getting work as a film composer here. Then I met Hans and he saw the talent in me and he said “You should just work for me for two years and I’ll show you the last bits and pieces you need to know”. Hans was constantly tapping me on the back saying “Tom, you can do this. Just go and do it”. And I just did it! (laughs). From that point on, all started to work out fine. Those two years with Hans were extremely important to find the way into the city and to become confident that I was able to do this.

CS: He did this with a lot of other composers since the beginning of his own career. He gave opportunities to many talented people and gave them leeway to adapt and survive within a very competitive environment. I suppose it could be a jungle if you’re alone all by yourself.

TH: Yes, and I’m doing the same with my own assistants and it’s also one of the reasons why I’m releasing all these YouTube videos—taking that jungle a little away. There’s so much mystery about what film scoring is. I hope that with the knowledge I got from Hans, the way I work with my assistants and the release of these YouTube videos more aspiring composers will get a better idea of what this industry is and what is the best way to find a job.

CS: I was impressed about the video where you’re playing with the huge modular synthesizer… It’s fascinating to see how many different sounds you can pull out of that machine.

TH: The modular synth featured in that video is actually a very conservative instrument. It’s almost safe when it comes to electronic sounds. But it does have really lovely sounds that reminds us what Moog synthesizers look like, whereas on the other side of the studio I have a different type of modular system which is called Eurorack—that is super-experimental! You can do really crazy stuff with that instrument. I will feature it in a future video and it’s probably interesting for the synth nerds out there that understand the logic behind it, but don’t necessarily know how to make music with it. That’s another interesting thing, all that stuff is widely available and it’s being used mostly by people that have good salaries and work in the computer business because they understand the logic behind it, but they don’t make music! (laughs)

CS: About your YouTube videos and your presence on social media, do you think it’s a way for you to give back something you learned after all these years?

TH: Yes, absolutely. My mom was a music teacher and she would teach for free at night to people from poor families, to make sure more kids would have access to music education. I’ve been involved years ago with universities in Holland setting up a four-year study program and I’ve done that for almost 12 years. Now I want to do these videos to give something back, exactly like you said. I do it without sponsors, I’m not making money on it, there’s no advertising, we pay for it ourselves. It’s really a labour of love. It was the same for me when I was younger. I had four or five people in my life, and the last one is Hans Zimmer, that taught me everything I needed to know. You can’t figure out everything by yourself, you need people around you that every now and then lead you to the right way. In all civilization, way back to thousands of years ago, it was the most normal thing to share information with everybody because that is the way you create a really great culture. By keeping things to yourself and if just a few can benefit from it, that’s not good for society in a long row. I also feel that education should be cheap, as it is in Europe, whereas here in the US, if you want to go to the best schools you have to pay a lot of money.

CS: This is remarkable. If more composers would embrace the same philosophy, a lot of the mysteries surrounding the creation of a film score would suddenly clear and it would be also beneficial to the industry as a whole.

TH: The real mystery is: if I look at the Mad Max movie with no music, how do I come up with the music that eventually ended up in the movie? That is the real mystery and that is hard to explain because that’s the creative process that goes on in your brain. Therefore, I’m also not afraid to share everything because I can’t share my creative thought process, it just happens, it’s hard to explain. Sometimes you come up with something great, sometimes it’s not so great and sometimes you come up with something super-melodic and sometimes you come up with something that is very sound design-y. Why? I don’t know, that’s how my brain works. But I’m not afraid to share all the techniques, how I work with software programs, how I make music. I can show a cue and explain afterwards because now I remember how I did it. It still doesn’t show the real magic that is going on in your heard, however. You can study Bach for all your life and admire how wonderful a composer he was, but you still wouldn’t understand what went on in his brain when he came up with that brilliant music in the first place. That’s so fascinating.

CS: Is there a type of film or a genre you still haven’t touched that you’d like to work on?

TH: I worked with Hans on comedies and I really like doing that, so I’d love to do a comedy of my own once. But you can’t characterize. When people see Mad Max and their phone rings, they say “Oh, the guy from Mad Max wants to do a comedy… Are you kidding me?” (laughs) That’s always a hard thing. I’d love to do more serious drama, where music is minimal and it’s barely there, but when it shows, it’s very important. I’ve done a few, I did a movie called Black Mass starring Johnny Depp. But that movie flopped and when a movie flops, it does affect everybody who worked on it. If that movie had been a success, I probably would have done more drama movies. That’s how it works, for better or worse.

CS: When you first became aware about film music? Do you have a personal favourite film score?

TH: The first movie that made an insane impact on me about the music was Saturday Night Fever. It was actually not a film score, but I was 8-years old when the film came out and that music just blew me away. I was always a fan of music that makes you travel, like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I had that album in 1974 and it was like a trip for me, when I played it I could see different things in my head. Then I saw Blade Runner and that score changed everything for me. I still play it every now and then. I was also a fan of Ennio Morricone and John Williams of course, but there is something in Blade Runner that really stands out for me and it’s so exceptional. Another score I really admire is Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood, it’s so remarkable.

CS: Tom, thank you very much for your time!

TH: Thank you!

Tom Holkenborg nel suo studio

Photography by Dirk Kikstra, used under authoriziation. Many thanks to Alastair Duncan and Alec Morris for the help and support. A special thanks to Antonio Di Iorio and, of course, Tom Holkenborg.

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