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How the composer of Deadpool and Mad Max is changing the way we score movies

The Future of Music season 2, episode 2

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Sitting in a room that looks more spaceship than studio, movie composer Tom Holkenborg (also known as Junkie XL) tells me about the first time he heard his music in a movie. It’s an iconic scene you might know — the blood rave from Blade. “It’s a track from my first album,” he says. “It’s a very aggressive breakbeat track, and it plays when all that blood comes out of the ceiling.” The track worked so well, that he “really got interested in pursuing [movie scoring] myself.”

Even if you’re not familiar with the name Tom Holkenborg, there’s a good chance you’ve heard his music. He’s a Hollywood go-to for blockbuster action flicks, composing the scores for Deadpool, Mad Max: Fury Road, Tomb Raider, Mortal Engines, and Alita: Battle Angel, among others. Now, he’s working on scoring the upcoming film Terminator: Dark Fate. Holkenborg’s style is a complete departure from the golden era of orchestral film scores, combining everything from hardware analog synths, digital workstations, and classic amps to Frankensteined homemade instruments and the twinkling rainbow of Eurorack modules that fill an entire wall of his studio.

Sure, he also works with orchestras, but he’s not bound by their traditional sound. He can also make, as he describes the sounds of Deadpool, “Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Miami Vice, but then on acid.”

He describes the ‘Deadpool’ score as “Frankie Goes to Hollywood and ‘Miami Vice,’ but then on acid.”

Walking through Holkenborg’s home in Los Angeles is like touring a Smithsonian collection. There’s a room stacked with drool-worthy synths, like an ARP 2600 clone, which he used for the dark, wobbled timbres of Deadpool. Classic amps line the living room hallways, including a set by Orange used to grunge up the flame-throwing electric guitar in Mad Max: Fury Road. A garage is filled to the ceiling with all sorts of hand drums, including a custom-built set used for Tomb Raider to get very specific sounds from various parts of the Pacific. Then, of course, there are hundreds of analog and semi-analog modules surrounding us in his main studio, which get swapped out on a regular basis when new toys are delivered. He hasn’t thrown out a single item since he started collecting in the ‘80s.

For decades, directors relied on orchestras and big bands to provide a film’s musical drama. But that’s been shaken up as things like synthesizers, soundtracks, and music production software have come into play. Some films still go with an orchestra, but Holkenborg says they’re being used less and less in favor of a hybrid of methods. “For a lot of people,” he says, “they feel that the orchestra sounds old-fashioned and therefore not applicable to a certain type of film score.”

Holkenborg represents a new generation of film composers who can kind of do it all. He’s as comfortable patching together old analog gear as he is with sound design, computers, playing multiple instruments, creating effects, and writing traditional arrangements. He has scored movies in weeks, although he admits that kind of time crunch is not ideal. And it makes him as adept at making the extreme, ominous tones of 300: Rise of an Empire as he is at crafting the delicate, uplifting strings in Alita: Battle Angel. A composer in 1960 wouldn’t have this array of knowledge, and now Holkenborg is rewriting the rules.

Holkenborg represents a new generation of film composers who can kind of do it all

His style comes down to the fact that he loves to make music with his hands. “The physical aspect is very important,” he says, gesturing to the cables and knobs and strings around us. “It’s one of the reasons why this room and all the other rooms where I work look more like a music sandbox where kids love to play for hours on end than a very stylistic, clean, writing, scoring environment with just a piano and a paper and a pencil.”

Although he’s now known for movies, Holkenborg rose to fame under the moniker Junkie XL in the ‘90s and ‘00s. He was a mainstay in the electronic music scene, performing across the globe and releasing chart-topping hits, including a remix of Elvis Presley’s 1968 single “A Little Less Conversation.” He credits this background in dance music with his ability to be a bit more 360 in the studio. It gave him a predilection for experimenting with twisting and chopping up sounds, making his scores immediately stand apart from the current landscape.

Tom Holkenborg demoing one of the synths he used in Deadpool.
Tom Holkenborg demoing one of the synths he used in Deadpool.
Photo by Wes Reel

We walk into a room with one of his altered creations: it’s an upended piano with the wood hacked away, exposing the wires inside. He slaps on the ropes of spring steel, and it lets out a thunderous, unsettling boom. It’s the same sound that can be heard throughout 300: Rise of an Empire, and Holkenborg calls this thing the “piano from hell.”

“The picture is now in flux until the very, very last day.”

Holkenborg might be extreme with his obsessive curiosity, but overall, he notes DIY is a trend that’s accelerating with newer people getting into scoring. DJ Le Castle Vania has scored for two John Wick movies, and DJ Kill The Noise has scored for movies like Captive State and XXX: Return of Xander Cage. Both created the electronic tracks in these films without the help of orchestras or big, professional studios. “That’s the benefit of the younger, newer composers that get into this business,” he says. “The younger the people get, the more they do themselves.”

DIY doesn’t mean fewer people are involved in a film’s score. “I would say it has gone up,” he counters. Holkenborg has a small horde of assistants that help find instruments, record samples, or pull up project files. And he still deals with orchestras, which can have upward of 150 musicians.

It all sounds daunting, and Holkenborg knows this. To help others learn about the new landscape of movie composition, he runs a YouTube channel filled with tutorials and “ask me anything” sessions. He also runs a program called SCORE Academy that admits two students a year and teaches them how to become a film composer for free. “I strongly believe,” he says, “that it’s critical to a society that the information of things like science and music theory and tricks and tips that people have found out to do certain things should actually flow more freely.”

Computers have both made things easier and more time-consuming for composers like Holkenborg. “More things can go wrong,” he explains. “So now you need technicians that help you keep these computers straight. You need more assistance because the picture is now in flux until the very, very last day.”

Movies used to be finished months ahead of their release date and then handed to a composer to work on music. But the advent of digital in both film and audio now means things can be tweaked or completely changed right up until a few days before a movie hits theaters. Holkenborg says it’s not uncommon to have to write multiple scores for different endings or be “subjected to dramatic changes in the cut that you thought yesterday were staying in permanently.”

DIY is a trend with newer people getting into movie scoring

On the upside, this fluidity means there can be more of a collaborative relationship between director and composer. Holkenborg recalls an emotionally charged scene from Mad Max: Fury Road where Furiosa finds out the Green Place no longer exists. The orchestra asked to play it slower than what Holkenborg intended, and director George Miller liked the result so much he re-cut the scene to make it line up with the recording. In the past, these back-and-forth edits would have been impossible.

Holkenborg’s fascination with combining electronic elements and organic elements, old music and new, is not only his signature flair, but it’s a view into the open future of movie scores. “If you say, ‘Oh, I’m going to combine ‘50s orchestral music with heavy metal stoner rock and 20 blaring drums,’” he grins, “people look at you like, ‘That’s impossible.’ But that became the Mad Max: Fury Road score.”

Make sure to check out other episodes of The Future of Music here.

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