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How Junkie XL went from making junior varsity electronica to blowing cinematic minds with his scores for ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and ‘Black Mass’

When Tom Holkenborg moved to Venice, California, in 2003 to start a career scoring films, he bought a turquoise 1964 Chevy Impala, the monster ride made famous in hundreds of rhymes by Los Angeles rappers. It’s the kind of car you can’t find in Holkenborg’s native Netherlands, but one befitting a producer who played snotty, hyperkinetic dance music under the name Junkie XL. In hindsight, a ride the size of a small humpback whale in the narrow confines of Venice probably wasn’t the smartest choice. Now Holkenborg lives on a quiet street in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Encino. He still owns the Impala, but doesn’t drive it much. These days he usually takes one of the two practical, nondescript Audi hatchbacks that sit gleaming in his long driveway.

As Junkie XL, a name he works under less and less, Holkenborg was part of dance music’s not quite realized moment back in the late 1990s, when it was still “electronica.” He was successful, though not a superstar — the type of act to appear in a music magazine’s review section but not get mentioned on the cover. His tracks were frequently licensed for racing video games like TD Overdrive: The Brotherhood of Speed; his remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” was used in Nike’s 2002 World Cup commercial, and subsequently reached no. 1 on the charts of more than 20 countries.

As the century turned and Holkenborg found himself comfortably in his thirties, he began tiring of the recording artist lifestyle. When he was recovering the day after a long night, he’d put on a movie like The Godfather. By the end he’d be thinking about learning Italian and moving to Sicily. No longer feeling inspired by the electronic music world, he decided to build a different kind of career in music.

Now, 13 years later, the 47-year-old Holkenborg has reached his breakthrough moment. His signature modulating sound, filled with lung-collapsing tension and bone-obliterating percussion, led to a 2015 in which he’s racked up composer credits on five feature films: Mad Max: Fury Road, Run All Night, the forthcoming Point Break remake, the Toronto International Film Festival–screened Kill Your Friends, and Black Mass, the Johnny Depp crime drama that opens Friday.

In today’s EDM-driven industry, a SoundCloud account and a cosign can slingshot an act to fame — Holkenborg’s decade-plus development is more traditional, more earthbound. “In the artist world, you can make a track, and if it connects with 50 million people, boom. … Film scoring doesn’t work like that,” Holkenborg says. “What does work is that if you’ve done two or three scores in a row with directors that are hot or directors that are respected, and the films commercially do really well, then the film people will go, ‘That’s really interesting music, let’s call that guy and see what he’s up to.’ Having not done one Hollywood film on my own three years ago, to now doing Black Mass, that’s the equivalent to what happened with the Elvis remix.”

Holkenborg explains that he realized film work was a possibility after his friend Jason Bentley, the influential DJ on KCRW who is now also the radio station’s music director, recommended him to the Wachowskis. Bentley was moonlighting as a soundtrack consultant and the filmmakers were interested in finding an electronic musician to team with composer Don Davis on The Matrix sequels. Holkenborg recorded a song with Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan that didn’t make the cut,1 but the experience changed what he thought was possible.

Talk to enough recording artists and you’ll get bored of the refrain, “I’d eventually like to get into scoring films.” The reality is that few of them are willing to put up with the hobnobbing, expectation-managing, and ego-sublimating that the gig requires. Of Holkenborg’s peers who have ventured into this realm, it’s mainly been one-and-done situations: the Chemical Brothers for Hanna, Basement Jaxx for Attack the Block, Daft Punk for Tron: Legacy, and the Crystal Method for London. Figures like David Holmes and BT have found success in the scoring world, but have rarely been trusted with properties as big as Holkenborg’s.

“There are a lot of people, especially in electronic music, who oversimplify it and think, Im writing these imaginary film scores in my mind anyway; I can just make the jump,” says Bentley. “And it’s just not that easy.”

tom-holkenborg-junkie-xl-press-photo-15-downloadJunkie XL

Holkenborg’s home studio is connected to the garage of the house he shares with his wife and young son. The woman who previously owned the house used the spacious room to practice ballet and paint. Holkenborg kept the concrete floors and then filled the space with his menagerie of gear: speakers, monitors, keyboards, stray parts of drum kits, old records, a modern Eurorack modular synthesizer that looks like the control panel of a spaceship, and another vintage-styled 5U modular synthesizer that looks like the control panel of an even cooler spaceship. Holkenborg believes there are two types of composers: those who work mostly in their heads and those who need their instruments at hand. He is firmly in the latter camp. “I can be super-jealous of people like John Williams or Ennio Morricone,” he says. “They go sit in the park for a day with a piece of paper, then they come back and they’ve written five minutes of the most heart-wrenching, beautiful music.”

A few years ago, Holkenborg kept a studio at Remote Control, a massive complex in Santa Monica owned by Hans Zimmer, the prolific composer and Holkenborg’s sometime collaborator. But having his own workspace just footsteps away from his home better suits his restless tendencies. “Last night, I went to bed at 1 and I couldn’t sleep, I had a lot of stuff on my mind,” says Holkenborg. “Then it was like 3:45, 4, and in my pajamas I just made a coffee and walked in here and noodled with some knobs and next thing you know it’s 6:30.”

About four hours later, Holkenborg sits on the studio’s green couch, charging through a pack of cigarettes and yet another cup of coffee. With his black-framed glasses perched on the top of his head, closely cropped hair blending into his stubble, and raw denim jeans paired with scuffed white sneakers, he looks like one of the many well-paid “creatives” that populate Los Angeles’s open-floor-plan ad agencies. With his measured enthusiasm, he seems like the type of guy you’d trust to sell you an expensive stereo system or perform your ligament surgery.

The real start of Holkenborg’s career in the film industry began when he took a job as an assistant for Harry Gregson-Williams, a frequent collaborator of both Ridley and Tony Scott. Holkenborg’s move also happened to coincide with Junkie XL’s commercial pinnacle. “I had a no. 1 hit in 28 countries or something, and at the same time I was chopping up audio in the basement,” he says.2

After his time with Gregson-Williams, Warner Bros. teamed Holkenborg with composer Klaus Badelt on 2004’s floptastic Catwoman adaptation so he could deliver music for a series of scenes that needed a more modern sound. It meant greater responsibility, but Holkenborg describes the experience as perfunctory, dropping in tracks rather than actual scoring. Still, in these apprenticeships he was able to learn about the complex dynamics among composers, directors, and studios.

“If you talk to other film composers and to people who work in the industry, the fact that you’re an original, talented musician is a given fact,” says Holkenborg. “What is left then? It’s, how are you as a person in a room? Do you deliver on time? Do you make the movie better? Do you understand what the director wants? Can you walk that really fine line of politics when things get sour and you help solve the problem? If you have a good handle on that, you might become a successful composer.”

According to Bentley, what made Holkenborg attractive was that his work lacked a particularly distinct identity. If a director had edited a film to a temporary score he Frankensteined together from dozens of preexisting pieces, Holkenborg could give him something that sounded relatively similar.

“The thing about his music is that it’s always been fairly pliable,” says Bentley. “This is kind of a knock on him, or a backhanded compliment, but it’s always sort of been like Junkie XL was the poor man’s Prodigy. He’d always do a really good interpretation of something. And to his credit, as he continued to work over the years, he really continued to come into his own, but especially in the early days, he was sort of like a copycat artist. He was just behind the trend, as opposed to a musical thought leader.”

When Holkenborg felt he had learned what he could from his time as an assistant, he set out on his own, working mainly on European films. Then his old boss Gregson-Williams introduced him to Zimmer, who would become a mentor. The two worked together on Madagascar 3 and Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, with Holkenborg’s dance music heritage and speaker-stack-busting drums influencing the master’s more grandiose approach. Zimmer also included him in the Magnificent Six, a studio supergroup he put together for 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that also included Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr of the Smiths, Michael Einziger of Incubus, and Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro — two of Zimmer’s young acolytes.

Holkenborg downplays his job as a composer, emphasizing its quotidian requirements. Zimmer is the opposite, identifying film composition as an elevated position for an elevated art form that goes beyond traditional musicianship. “The conversation at the end of a day in a band turns to, ‘Why did the drummer not get laid?’ and, ‘What’s the new guitar you’re going to buy?’ That’s actually pretty dull,” says Zimmer. “But when you’re surrounded by filmmakers, there’s inevitable conversations about painting, there’s a level of conversation about story and story structure, there’s a richness of dialogue that you’re allowed to participate in. You’re treated as an equal and you’re part of that family, and you need to hold your own. If you go to the filmmaker and say, ‘I think this next score should really be psychedelic country-and-western,’ people will actually listen to you and let you have a go at it.”

Junkie XL at Coachella in 2008.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images Junkie XL at Coachella in 2008.

Sixteen years before he teamed with Zimmer, Holkenborg met Darren Higman, a onetime executive at Atlantic Records. Higman got into music supervision and routinely called on Holkenborg for tracks on projects like the Scooby-Doo movies and Shark Tale. Eventually Higman ascended to the role of executive vice-president of music at Warner Bros. Pictures.

Holkenborg created an alternately assaultive and shimmering score for the hugely successful teen dystopia fantasy Divergent, but he really showed his abilities when things were going bad on 300: Rise of an Empire. The studio pushed back its release date by seven months, changed its marketing material, and brought in producer and cowriter Zack Snyder for more involvement. It also needed a new score, and Higman approached Holkenborg for it. He created a 45-minute suite of original music to give a sense of the direction it could go sonically. Snyder was impressed.

These preview scores of Holkenborg’s, in which he fleshes out ideas and teases themes, are an unusual step that most composers don’t take. It’s essentially scoring on spec. Most composers aren’t capable of generating so much so quickly, but these musical sketchbooks have become a key part in Holkenborg’s ability to convince directors to hire him. Also, the directors can’t complain on the back end that the completed music is not what they expected and then demand that it be redone or that they bring in a new composer.

Executives on the studio side also like Holkenborg because he works fast. The longer a film stays in postproduction, the bigger the financial drain it becomes, so they’re happy if they can shorten the timeline at any point. “Other studios were like, ‘Wow, you’re taking a lot of risks on him,’” says Higman. “But it wasn’t a risk because we were getting the music up front and the directors were really responding.”

When legendary director George Miller entered postproduction on Mad Max: Fury Road, he didn’t want a musical score. He thought the sounds of the cars, the drums of the war party, and the riffs from the flame-spitting guitar of the Doof Warrior were all the music he needed. Higman, who had worked with Miller on the Happy Feet movies, was dispatched to the auteur’s Metro Theatre facility in Australia to persuade him otherwise. Unbeknownst to Holkenborg, Higman brought a collection of his music with him and played it for Miller, who was intrigued. That night Holkenborg got on a plane to Sydney.

The day he arrived, he watched an unfinished cut of the film, and what was supposed to be a brief introductory meeting between Miller and Holkenborg turned into an epic conversation about how magical numbers and Fibonacci sequences inform their respective work. That night in the hotel, jet lagged and unable to sleep, Holkenborg storyboarded what he thought the score should be. The next day he delivered a two-hour monologue to Miller detailing his ideas. To capture the madness of the chase, he would write an over-the-top rock opera. Then, to underscore the more human relationships between the characters, he would use string arrangements and melodic structures of the 1950s to recall a world that had been destroyed. Referencing the postapocalyptic setting, he’d repurpose certain instruments to serve the function of others — drum sounds could be dragged through processors to make them resemble acoustic basses, violins could sound like guitars, guitars could sound like violins. Once Holkenborg finished his pitch, Miller smiled and hired him on the spot. Mad Max: Fury Road consumed the next 18 months of his life.

'Mad Max: Fury Road' director George Miller.

Jun Sato/WireImage ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ director George Miller.

Holkenborg holed up in his Los Angeles studio for six weeks and wrote the music for the film’s entire first act and the night sequence of the second. He sent it to Miller, who approved everything. Holkenborg figured things would continue to move along just as easily, but the more emotional moments became a challenge. He wrote string piece after string piece. Miller would tell him he had just one note for him and would then proceed to talk about new ideas for an hour. “He demands a lot of you,” says Holkenborg. “What George did with my head was insane.”

With 11 weeks until the deadline, Holkenborg packed up his entire studio and brought it, along with his family and his two assistants, to Sydney so he could sit with Miller every day from early morning to late at night. Still, Miller kept changing things. Two days until the film had to be finished, they watched yet another playback of the film’s final chase. Once it was over, Miller said, “It’s done, it’s fantastic.” When Holkenborg realized what he meant, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. He cried there for 10 minutes.

“The only time I truly humiliated myself in front of Warner Bros. was when I sent one of those dorky fan emails to the executives to beg them for tickets to the premiere,” says Zimmer. “I just said, ‘I must see this movie before it comes out. I’ve been waiting for this movie for the last 20 years and my friend Junkie has been doing the music.’ The email was far too long, and the groveling and the begging was far too over-the-top, because the answer was, ‘We’d love you to come.’ But in my head, I had to go and see it in the best possible circumstance in a great theater, I had to go see it on the first night, and I really wanted to go and celebrate what Junkie had done.”

Holkenborg’s score for Mad Max: Fury Road will likely be considered a defining moment in his career — it could even result in his first Oscar nomination. It’s also earned him a greater amount of respect and interest around the industry. “Mad Max was very important, because people in town know how detailed George is and how much of a strain it can be on your system,” says Holkenborg. “If you can get out of that not only in one piece, but actually become really good friends with the director, then they know something really special happened. And if the movie does well and people write about it, then it gets into a snowball.”

Holkenborg could now be at the crest of an avalanche. Black Mass had already cycled through two composers before director Scott Cooper became intrigued by the approach Holkenborg took on Mad Max. After checking out Cooper’s movie, Holkenborg told him he’d record a four-minute sketch. Instead, he delivered 45 minutes of ideas. “There was a lot of stress on that movie, what the right musical tone was supposed to be,” says Holkenborg. “By delivering that piece of music, that stress was gone with everybody.”

Zimmer brushes off the idea of Holkenborg becoming overexposed. “You’re talking to the guy who did 14 movies in one year,” he says. “Yeah, it was a mistake doing 14 movies in one year, but the only mistake was that I learned a lot and I was extraordinarily exhausted by the end of it. There’s a big difference between being a Kardashian and being a musician. If you’re overexposed for your talent and you’re actually moving people and you actually have something to say and you are actually moving the art form forward, that’s not such a bad thing.”

When Holkenborg’s film scoring career was still building, he continued to release and perform music as Junkie XL, the artist. He says he’s done with that part of his life, even with the high-profile Las Vegas residencies and huge performance fees DJs now command. He laughs about how he made a track with Steve Aoki back in 2008 when nobody knew who he was, or how he played the Ultra Music Festival six different times.

Holkenborg still has his coffee and cigarettes to keep him going, but he’s also started to eat healthfully and practice yoga when he can. Today, he’s readying for his last week on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, for which he is once again teaming with Zimmer. Then he’s off to check out another screening of Point Break. Then he’ll head over to Analogue Haven in Santa Monica to check out a synth module he’s been hearing about. By the time he’s done with all that, his son will be back from daycare, so he can play with him for a bit. And when night comes, he knows there are a couple more scenes he can get to. 

Eric Ducker (@ericducker) is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

Filed Under: Movies, Music, Junkie XL, Tom hOLKENBORG, hans zimmer, Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller, Black Mass, Catwoman, point break, EDM, Electronica