STARBURST caught up with Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, to chat about Justice League, Zack Snyder, Danny Elfman, Mad Max, Blade, The Prodigy, going from remixing Elvis to scoring movies, and even the Netherlands’ chances at Euro 2020.
I have a set list of questions about Justice League, but before I can ask anything, a friendly and talkative Tom spots my surname is ‘Anderson’ and asks if I’ve seen The Matrix. We talk about the upcoming sequel and I ask if the Wachowskis possibly approached him to do the score.
JXL: They had a really specific idea about what they wanted and how they wanted it and that’s the person they approached, but I’m not sure if it’s known yet so I won’t say anything.
[According to IMDb.com, Tommy Twyker has signed on and Johnny Klimek has been speculated.]
STARBURST: Your late ’90s electronic sound would have been perfect…
It happens a lot in franchise movies where a new movie is seen in the light of day of the old ones. I dealt with that on the other end of things with Mad Max where everyone did not expect Fury Road the way that it was, and also nobody expected the music to be so frantic and over the top as it was. The previous ones were done by classical composers.
It was intense! But it suited the movie perfectly.
You have to look at what the movie is, right? For instance, if you analyse Justice League, Danny Elfman’s music from the ‘80s, for Tim Burton, wouldn’t fit the score of this one. Or the original John Williams Superman theme, which is an absolutely brilliant theme. But it’s tongue-in-cheek, which made sense in the late ‘70s when Superman was made. But play the original score of Williams against the final act of Justice League and you’re going to start laughing, it turns the movie into a comedy.
For Deadpool, you said you used distinctive 1980s instruments and sounds to time-stamp that. As you said, certain sounds from 20-30 years ago aren’t taken as seriously now…
You’ve been scoring movies for over 20 years now, how has your sound changed?
The first movie I worked on was in 1998 (Siberia), but I wasn’t a film composer back in the day. I was a touring artist under the name Junkie XL and I was doing electronic festivals. It wasn’t until 2013 when I did my first movie on my own here in Hollywood. It’s a relatively short time period – eight years. In the case of Deadpool, you nailed it on the head. When Miami Vice came out in 1984, it was the coolest show on the planet. It was dark, it was serious. Watch it now and you’re going to fall off your couch laughing.We first heard of you as a musician when you remixed Elvis Presley’s A Little Less Conversation in 2002. But you’d been touring with bands such as The Prodigy in the 1990s. How did you go from that to movies?
The Prodigy was an amazing band. I saw their show in the early ‘90s when they were super-rave. Then it crossed over more. 1996/1997 was when my first album came out and it was an interesting year in electronic music as you had the crossover into alternative guitar music. Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Underworld. The festivals in those days – I played Reading and V Festival – you would go to the main stage and during the day it was Radiohead, The Verve, Oasis and then at night, Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Underworld. It was fucking insane. A year or two later it started drifting apart again. And even within dance music, crossover acts were not that appreciated in the trance world, the club world. It was a completely different audience.
Did you have any idea that would go into movies? Did you just want to be a DJ/musician, or did you have aspirations for movies? One of your songs [Dealing with the Roster] appeared on the Blade (1998) soundtrack…
The Blade soundtrack was the trigger. Because at that point it was just from one of my albums and they used it in the movie and I was like ‘holy shit, my music is in the picture’! And then I got interested. After the Elvis remix in 2002, I decided to move to LA to investigate. It was a very gradual process, it wasn’t ‘from now on I’m going to be doing this’. Also, I had to pay the fucking rent!
The Elvis remix became the anthem of the World Cup, it was being played around the world. How was it suddenly becoming a popular culture icon?
I ‘performed’ - as it’s all playback - on one of the very last Top of the Pops on the BBC, and no-one can ever take that away from me. That was one of my major achievements in my life. I was on Top of the Pops - what the fuck!!
So they didn’t let you do it live? I remember Moby appearing [playing Go in 1991] and none of his deck cables were plugged in and he had to pretend...
It was such a high-brow programme that everything needed to be tight. It wasn’t like Jools Holland where you can all have fun together. It was tight and choreographed.
You mentioned you worked on Mad Max: Fury Road before and we believe you’re working on Furiosa [the Fury Road prequel set for 2023] too?
Technically that’s not been confirmed as the movie hasn’t even started filming yet. So you never know what can go wrong!
You’re possibly going to be working with George Miller again, and you’ve worked with Zack Snyder a few times before. What is it like working with a director more than once, how does the communication and relationship develop?
It’s really great. Technically, Justice League was movie number six with Snyder so you know exactly what the person is all about. You know you can trust each other. Also, you’re involved in the process so early on. Even when it’s just a weird idea – ‘I want to make this movie in six years.’ ‘Oh, it sounds great!’ you know, then six years later it’s like, ‘boom, there it is’!
So do you stay in touch with Zack quite a lot?
Yeah, you just stay in touch. A couple of months ago, I had a long Skype call with Peter Jackson just to catch up. The last time we worked together was 2018 or something, but you stay in touch, it’s like ‘hey, what’s going on’. And especially when Covid started; you communicate in a different way with your friends, right? You Skype way more, you call way more. A similar thing happened with directors because everybody in the world was sitting at home. It’s pretty cool. Especially the fact that you’re able to start earlier makes it special – it’s less ‘here’s the movie, do your trick, and give it back’, it’s more back and forth, and that’s really great.
I’m working with George [Miller] right now on a smaller movie – Three Thousand Years of Longing – and I have already written two of the most important pieces of music for the film before he started shooting.
On your YouTube channel you have ‘Studio Time’ where you show people how you work. Do you often write music before the film?
Yeah, I do that quite a lot. It’s an infrastructural nightmare, it means that you have to devote time writing music for a film you haven’t seen, and then you go away, work on a different movie. The movie can take up to a year or year and a half, and then you come back and it’s like ‘so, what have we got?’
Do you know the theme of the scene the music is going to be used in, or do you have to alter it to fit?
I always get the complete movie. The director is expecting me to shape the music entirely to what the story has become. Basically, the music that I write beforehand is a sketch. It’s like, you’re a writer, you have a great idea for a book and you’re sitting in the pub with your friends, you say ‘give me a napkin’ and you write it down and put it in your pocket. Then later you have time to work on a book and you’re like ‘oh shit, what did I write down?’
You talk about coming back to a movie later; when Zack Snyder stepped down from Justice League, you stepped down as well. And you mentioned Danny Elfman. Did you listen to his score?
No. I’m not going to mention anything about it because Zack has already spoken about it, but the whole atmosphere surrounding his departure wasn’t a great time. So, for me to watch what Justice League became, with a different composer – what’s the point? I’m not going to find any joy in it. When the project got booted up again, I was happy that I didn’t, so I wasn’t influenced by it. Let’s make no mistake – Danny Elfman is an absolutely brilliant composer. I have so much respect for him, and I didn’t want anything weird emotionally by watching the movie.
What did you think about the massive social media outpouring regarding ‘releasing the Snyder Cut’?
It wasn’t like a night and day switch. It was in the making, let’s put it that way. I talked with him about it. The closest thing I heard that this actually could happen was in 2019 when he asked ‘what would it take to finish your work.’ That’s when I thought, ‘ah this actually could turn into reality’, and then several months later, there was the green light.
Did you go back to the score you’d already been working on or did you start afresh?
I started completely from scratch, because of what I said about us leaving the project in 2017, it was not a great time. But also, it shone a light on the music I’d made since. When I listened to that again, I was like ‘meh’. And, I felt that in the last four years I had grown so much as a composer. I felt that the power of the fans had made this release possible and so I owed it to them to do the absolute best that I had in me. What I did in 2017 was the best that I had in me then.
What do you think the next 10 to 20 years will look - or sound - like for film soundtracks?
It’s very hard to predict. There are stylistic approaches that could be different. We’re also talking about the development of artificial intelligence, auto-composing and things like that. Incredible things will happen in 20 years, I know that for a fact. If I had a crystal ball, I would tell you ‘Mr. Anderson, this is what the world’s gonna look like in 10 years,’ and I’m going to be a fucking idiot because I have no idea!
Is there any film you wish you could have scored? And what is your favourite film score?
I usually don’t answer this question and I’ll tell you why. What my favourite film is, is like the candy of the week. This week it’s The Matrix. Next week it’s The Godfather. The week after that it’s The Magnificent Seven. The reason why I’m not saying ‘I wish I could have scored that movie’ is it puts a smokescreen over what the composer did for that movie, and it’s a bit of false arrogance. I could say ‘I wish I had scored Blade Runner’ and people would say to me, where do you get the fucking arrogance to think you could even replace the guy? It creates a false impression. I feel super blessed with the directors I have worked with, from Peter Jackson to James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, George Miller, Zack Snyder, Tim Miller, and so I’m the last person on the planet to wish for anything!
We don’t know if you’re a football fan - but as mentioned, your Elvis remix was a World Cup anthem - the Euros are coming up, do you think the Netherlands have a good chance?
I’m a massive soccer fan. Holland are playing a friendly match tonight [they drew 2-2 with Scotland]. Holland blew it in 2010, 2014. Even in 2018, it wasn’t strong. 2010 and 2014 should have happened. Now there’s a lot of young, inexperienced guys. I’m not a fan of the coach [Frank de Boer]. I read he was called the worst coach in English soccer history [de Boer was sacked after five games in charge of Crystal Place, losing four games and winning one]. So that guy is leading the Dutch team, so go figure.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available now on digital download, 4K UHD, Blu-rayTM, DVD and Limited Edition Steelbook. Our review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is here. Check out Junkie XL’s YouTube channel here.