Composer Hans Zimmer Talks Coachella, Rock 'N' Roll, and Keeping 'Score'

Chris Willman
INDIO, CA – APRIL 23: Hans Zimmer performs at the Outdoor Theatre during day 3 of the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival (Weekend 2) at the Empire Polo Club on April 23, 2017 in Indio, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Coachella)

If there was any one contemporary composer that the makers of Score: A Film Music Documentary had to be certain to score as an interview subject, it’s Hans Zimmer, whose still evolving legacy merits its own segment in the movie, in addition to the commentary he provides on some of the greats who came before him. He’s the closest thing to a John Williams successor we yet have, achieving not just esteem among film buffs but the kind of popular ubiquity that’s allowed him to become the first composer to headline an international tour of sports arenas.

Since he and his orchestra — which, still being a rocker at heart, he refers to as his “band” — rocked the Coachella festival in April, he’s been touring Europe, and will return to the States in July for a run of shows that includes gigs at Radio City Music Hall (July 25-26) and L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium (August 11). Meanwhile, he’s still had day-job gigs like wrapping up work on Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Dunkirk. (Or has he? If you read to the end of this interview, you’ll see that he alludes to having some tweaks to make on something or another in-between tour stops.)

This all adds up to a series of good excuses for not yet having seen his starring role in Score, which is now playing in theaters in New York and L.A. and moves into other cities in the coming weeks. “I know people are really liking that somebody has put a visual spotlight on us that make the noise,” Zimmer says.

As for what he expects to like about it, ”I can answer that easily: everybody other than me. I can’t stand watching myself. And I’ve seen those clips of John Williams and Steven Spielberg working together, and I think they’re gold… I will see it, but as you know, I have been a little busy.” He talked with Yahoo Music about that busy-ness from a tour stop in Europe.

YAHOO MUSIC: In the movie Score, they introduce the segment about you by showing a clip of you with the Buggles, playing keyboards on “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the first MTV video in 1981. Now that you are back on stage as a performer, playing some guitar, is there any sense of something kind of coming full circle for you?

HANS ZIMMER: Well, it came full circle the other day, because Trevor Horn actually came around and we did “Video Killed the Radio Star.” We always thought it was un-performable. We never thought was that we could ever be in a position to perform “Video Killed the Radio Star” live. But I have enough people on stage that we can actually do it. We did it as an experiment in Frankfurt, and it went so well, we did it another couple of nights in London. [The song] was really Trevor’s idea, telling a story about technology, and you know, it’s like all good science fiction stories: it’s inherently nostalgic. So maybe it’s not full circle. It’s more like throwing a pebble into a lake and you just see the circles getting larger and larger. I think that’s what’s been happening to my life.

One of the things one of your fellow composers says about you in the film is that “Hans brought an unconventional rock swagger to film scoring,” and that you “took the string section and made it like a guitar — they’re playing rhythm.” Does that description resonate with you at all?

Yes, I suppose there is some truth to that. When I first came to Hollywood, there was a set way of doing film scoring. And in a peculiar way, the way they recorded and mixed it… yes, there were great mixers, but still, it wasn’t as produced and polished. Nobody paid as much attention to the mixing details as we did in rock music. I thought it was crazy that the orchestral score was being beaten by a three-piece band song that was coming up right after your cue! So I started to use rock ‘n’ roll production techniques. I never quite believed that thing that we were supposed to be background music. I remember reading a Jerry Goldsmith quote where he said, if he wrote it, he wanted to hear it. So, yes, I come from rock ‘n’ roll; I come from a record production background. So it just seemed natural to me to embrace that, and slightly re-train the orchestra as well, and get a slightly different sound out of them. I mean, isn’t that the job? You’re supposed to push the envelope. And then somebody else comes along and does it differently.

One of the things you say in the film is that “without us, the orchestra might disappear,” which would be “such a loss to humanity.” You could easily do all-electronic scores, at this point…

Yes, of course I could easily do electronic scores. Just like McDonald’s can easily do something that they call hamburgers. But it’s not quite the same thing, is it? Something where the emotion of a group of people are giving everything they have for that moment. I think it’s protecting the emotion, which is a big part of the orchestra… Orchestras are an incredibly necessary thing for our human culture. Just because we can pretend electronically to do something like that, it’s not the same thing. When I fake up an orchestra — which I do in my demos that I play to the director all the time — it’s absolutely a singular point of view. As soon as you then add the emotion of 40, 50, 60, 100 players, you not only get a singular point of view but you get the energy from all these people adding to that point of view. And that’s the thing that’s irreplaceable.

In the movie, you say, “The blank page is always the blank page. Plus I have no idea where music comes from, so there is always the fear that somebody is going to turn off the tap.” Fortunately the tap has never turned off for you. But a lot of composers describe in the movie being stricken by fear as they see the ads for a film they’ve been assigned to appear.

I used to have my studio opposite a billboard, and I remember that feeling of seeing one [for a film he was scoring] that said “May 28,” and it was April and I hadn’t written a note yet. I kept seeing that billboard and thinking, “I can’t afford to go home. I can’t afford to go to sleep.” Look, I always push it as far as possible. I suppose I’ve gotten it down to a fine art to make the last second count, and were it not for the last second, there would be nothing.

You’ve been doing this touring, but in the meantime, you still have film scores coming out, like Dunkirk.

I did finish that one. I was good! I wrote the last cue on the bus to the gig in San Francisco (April 19), so I did get it finished.

You’ve had an incredible run with Christopher Nolan, but mostly with more futuristic films like Inception and the Batman films. Now that he’s doing a period film, does that mean you go more traditional with the score?

I’m going to be really awful and not answer any questions on Dunkirk. We’ve always been really good about letting the audience be surprised by what we do in Chris’s movies. When we were doing the second Batman movie, The Dark Knight, everybody knew we were doing the Batman movie, but by us completely keeping our mouths shut, nobody knew what to expect, and we still managed to give the audience the delight of discovering something, as opposed to the way things are these days with everything leaking out in trailers. So… I am not Sean Spicer. I do answer your questions, but not that one!

There aren’t many antecedents for film composers who’ve gone on tour the way you’re going on tour now, are there? Obviously Bernard Herrmann never out and did the Psycho theme and all his greatest Hitchcock hits around the world…

I wanted to reinvent it a little bit. I wasn’t that keen on showing the movie with the orchestra playing, because you can either concentrate on the movie or you can concentrate on the orchestra. I remember seeing Gladiator with an orchestra, and within five minutes I’m truly engaged in the film. So I thought, let’s do this differently. Let’s take away the images. Let people make their own movies in their heads. And let’s take away the conductor, so you don’t have a guy with his back standing to you all night. All I wanted to do was just gather all those amazing musicians that have contributed to the scores over the years and actually make them the main event. Make them the main actors in this movie. It seems to be working pretty well. And I do have enough material to pull this one off.

It wasn’t even in your mind that nobody in your shoes had really done this before?

Yes, it was, and I kept saying, “And there might be a really good reason, which we haven’t figured out yet.” But so far, no, it’s been working really well. It’s a very ambitious way of doing it. But have you ever known me not to try to do something really ambitious?

It’s interesting to hear you say that about seeing Gladiator with the live orchestra, because I’ve had that same experience, going to see a film with a live score at the Hollywood Bowl and then thinking afterward that I wasted a hundred bucks because, despite my best efforts, I was only paying attention to the film after about the first five minutes.

Right. It would work really well with bad movies. But if the story is compelling, you want to be in the story. And especially with my stuff, which involves a lot of production… I remember when they were going to do [the] Pirates [of the Caribbean score] live, and I said to them, “Well, you have to hire twice as many French horns as normal.” And they’re going, why? And I said, “Because we recorded it over a week’s period so that the French horns could actually rest their lips. You are actually asking something physically impossible of the musicians by playing 100 minutes nonstop.” People forget that. “So if you want to get a performance,” I said, “you’d better hire twice as many people, so that they can get a little bit of a break.” And even every night now, when we play [a] Pirates [excerpt], there are a couple of notes where I just look over at the French horns, basically apologizing, because there’s a nasty, horrible leap to just above what they are used to as the highest note. They’re doing it. But I give them a break afterwards!

The fact that you went with abstract visuals on screen for this tour instead of a parade of endless film clips indicates you’d like the audience to identify with the music as music, not just what it reminds them of from a film.

Not just that. First of all, the idea for the lights basically comes for my friend Marc Brickman, who’s lighting designer for David Gilmour and Pink Floyd. We’ve been talking about this for a long, long time, saying that there’s a different way of interpreting the movie. By making (the visuals) as abstract as possible, I just was trying to give each member of the audience, and each member of the band in a funny way, an autonomous relationship with the music. I’m not telling you what to feel. All I’m doing is opening the door and saying, “Here is the possibility that you can feel something.”

When you’re composing, do you think about how much you want the score to stand alone as something that can be experienced on its own and still work?

Yeah, I think so. It’s part of the job. Not with hubris, but you’re supposed to write something decent, something memorable— well, it doesn’t have to necessarily be memorable, but it has to set an interesting mood. Not everything I’ve written, obviously, can stand on its own. And some films lend themselves better to it than others. You know, part of it is just guilty pleasures. They’re just pieces that I like playing that we get to play. And some of it is a guilty pleasure because I like to hear another musician play. I mean, Thelma and Louise for me is all about (the guitarist), and he plays something completely different every night. So every night I get to be like the audience; I get to experience something new and fresh and different.

Anything else for you in the show that’s like that?

Oh, Angels and Demons, with the choir… Lion King is this weird anomaly where a movie went to become a Broadway musical and has a life of its own, but I get to go and play it every night with my friend Lebo M., who was the original singer on it. So every night the audience actually gets to see the guy whose voice they really know, as opposed to an actor doing it. In a funny way, what we do live is closer to the movie than the musical could be. There’s a life to it that does surpass the recording.

You went over like gangbusters at Coachella. Probably every other date you’re doing on this tour is for people who already know they’re going to love it, so playing a rock festival had to be a different kind of energy and anticipation.

Yeah, Coachella was a surprise for the audience and a surprise for us. They didn’t know what to expect from us; I didn’t know what to expect from them. And in a funny way, I suppose Coachella is the proof that it’s working. It wasn’t just the reviews. It was the other artists writing on Facebook about it. I suppose at that moment we became a legitimate band that can play legitimately in front of audiences. And it’s not about film music fans, it’s just music that people enjoy. And yes, I was really, really nervous beforehand (laughs).

After you finish the European tour, you have a two-week break before you resume in the U.S. You’re doing amphitheaters and sports arenas — not exactly traditional concert hall settings for an orchestra.

We haven’t done a single concert hall yet. Each country is different, and each audience is different. So we’ll figure it out—we’ll adjust. I mean, the set is really tight, and the band is really tight and really good at adapting. So we’ll see how America receives it. But, you know, I have to laugh about your idea that I have a two-week break between Europe and America. You have no idea how much stuff people have put on my plate already when I get back.

What do you have to squeeze into that two-week break?

Uhh… I’ve got to go and work a little bit on The Crown. I have to go and work a little bit on some outstanding movies that might be coming up. If you don’t mind, I am going to be Sean Spicer and not tell you!