‘Batman v Superman’ (and ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Deadpool’) Composer Tom Holkenborg on His Method and Massive Year
By Gil Kaufman
Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) could have been another Stereo MCs or Prodigy: a one-(or two) hit electronica wonder from the ’90s whose career peaked before quickly flaming out. Instead, he’s reinvented himself as Hollywood’s ace soundtrack superstar, providing the pulsing scores for two of this year’s biggest superhero smashes: the $700 million Deadpool and the about-to-explode Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
“I love how muscular his score for Mad Max was,” Deadpool director Tim Miller tells Billboard of why he tapped Holkenborg, 48, to write the ’80s-rific score for the year’s biggest, raunchiest superhero hit. “Clearly he had the talent and the resume, but he was so enthusiastic about the work… I loved the fact that he wasn’t at all about ‘let me show you what I can do,’ but was more interested in honoring the pop-culture music we wanted and then using elements from it to create something entirely new.”
Plus, Miller said, Grammy nominee Holkenborg is “just a great fucking guy to work with,” who always has a big smile and hug for everyone. Billboard caught up with Holkenborg less than a week before he dropped his latest mega-score, for the eagerly anticipated Batman v Superman. We talked about his deep bench of vintage synths, his sweat-filled Hollywood apprenticeship and the great responsibility of providing a soundtrack for the two biggest heroes in the DC universe.
You started playing so many instruments as a kid (guitar, bass, violin, keyboards, drums, piano), plus performing in rock bands. Was any of that useful in your second career as a composer?
It doesn’t matter what instruments you play. When I moved to L.A. in 2002 to become a film composer — I had worked on The Matrix in 2001 but they didn’t use my music in the film — I realized this is what I actually want to be, not an artist. I took meetings with composers and it sank in pretty quickly that this wasn’t going to be easy, so I decided to start from the ground up. At the same time that I had a worldwide hit with Elvis [Holkenborg’s remix of “A Little Less Conversation” went to No. 1 in 10 countries] I was a low-level assistant, chopping up samples, doing whatever I had to.
What made you realize that composing was the right path?
I have this hidden talent I had no idea about, which is “picture sense.” It’s when you instinctively know what you should be doing when you see a picture or a movie scene. [Batman v Superman score collaborator and composer] Hans [Zimmer] has told me many times, ‘either you have it or you don’t.’ It’s not something you can learn. You can learn how to make music for a string quartet or a rock track, but knowing what to do when you see a piece of film… I discovered I had that.
Did you use that skill when Batman v Superman director Zach Snyder gave you your first solo shot, with the score to 300: Rise of an Empire?
Scoring one emotion is easy: I’m angry so I’ll make an angry piece of music. What’s more difficult is when you have a thing like Deadpool, where in one minute he hears he has cancer, then he’s on the freeway chopping people up with swords, then in bed with his girlfriend, then he leaves her to go to a secret military center… all in a minute-and-a-half. It needs to shift instantly, and the true art is knowing when to shift. It took me 10 years to get to the point where I am now. I worked as a studio engineer, producer, remixer, I played in bands, toured, but being a film composer is the toughest.
I’ve seen YouTube series from your studio in Amsterdam, and it looks like a mad scientist’s lab/vintage synth graveyard. Watching you play the signature “Thriller” synth, the Van Halen “Jump” one, the Miami Vice keyboard and the actual “I Want To Know What Love Is” Foreigner synth that you used in Deadpool is like a trip through sounds of the ’80s. Where did you score all that gear?
In the 1980s and early 1990s I worked in a music store, and that’s when the first digital synthesizers were introduced. All these people came in with analog synths that they weren’t interested in anymore. They would trade them in and I would buy them, and I kept all of them. Now ones that I bought in 1985 for $300 are worth $20,000! I call myself a full-contact composer, I want to hold things in my hands, so I have a big collection of drum kits and guitars to make noise with. All those tools I’ve picked up over the last 30 years have become so handy for films.
Each one of those keyboards is so iconic, but you use them in Deadpool as if they are their own unique characters. Was that your intention?
For sure. I take care of my instruments like they’re my children. The secret is we didn’t have a lot of money so we had to come up with creative ideas to make it special… so on every level we found the right solution to deal with each problem. Tim said we really had to come up with something that works for this character, not your standard bread-and-butter action score.
The first idea was an Ennio Morricone-like western score music, which was really funny… but too funny. We needed that balance between music that was fun, but not funny. The next experiment I was sitting around the studio looking at all these synthesizers and I thought, ‘what if I did a very serious ’80s action score?’ I played around and made something that mixed Michael Jackson, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Miami Vice, played it to picture and played it for Tim and he was like, ‘boom, that’s it!’
One of the other iconic things you’ve done over the last year is write the crazy guitar parts for the Doof Warrior in Mad Max. You wanted to honor bands like Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age, not exactly your typical Hollywood score inspirations. How did you arrive at that sound?
There are session players out there that are 100 times better than me — but I have so much fun playing it myself. The Doof Warrior was so much fun when I saw that character that I just hooked up to my Orange amp and started playing for this guy. I love to create music that at least I’ve lived through. With Deadpool it was all these crazy synths that I made music with in the ’80s. With Doof it was the music I really loved — Audioslave, Kyuss — and it was fun to bring that back.
What’s the unique challenge of writing superhero music? Is it daunting to be the one [along with Oscar-winner Zimmer] who has to find the sound of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman? With great power comes great responsibility, right?
Hans and I feel exactly the same way about this. The fascination with these superheroes, these half-gods with extraordinary capabilities goes back to Greek mythology and the Bible. Batman has been around for 76 years and Batman will be around when we’re long dead and someone else will have a crack at it. The only thing you can do is really embrace the character of this specific movie at this specific time and look inside yourself and find something connecting yourself to Batman and Superman. That’s exactly what we did.
So what got you charged up to make music for Ben Affleck’s Batman?
Hans came off an incredibly impressive legacy with Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale, and told Zach he wanted me on this, for some fresh blood. I saw the film a year ago and thought about it for a really long time and then started analyzing, ‘who is Superman in this movie?’ He’s a quite different Superman than he was before. Batman is too. He’s older, he’s an alcoholic, he’s very mean to his victims… he’s a very dark character. He’s a very scary guy. That’s the film you have in front of you, and we analyzed it and talked about it and then we started trying stuff.
You also gave Wonder Woman a really big, bold sound of her own that you called a ‘banshee cry’ that people are already commenting on.
A woman at a Comic-Con mentioned that I’ve done three features in a row that have strong female characters [Divergent, 300: Rise of an Empire and Batman v Superman]. I didn’t realize that, but it was clear to me and Hans that we needed to come up with something special. We experimented with a vocalist at first, but that sounded too standard. And then Hans had this idea to use this cellist [Tina Guo] who is the sweetest girl, but when she starts playing her cello like a sword… it was the perfect match for this character.
It seems safe to assume you’ll be writing for these half-gods and monsters for the foreseeable future. What’s next?
It’s frustrating, because I have a whole lot of stuff lined up over the next two years that I can’t talk about. In the composing world I’m like a green boy, when you look at guys like Ennio Morricone and how much joy they have in their ’80s. Man, if I can do this for the next 20 years…