Junkie XL, also known as Tom Holkenborg, has taken a curious path to composing the scores for some of today’s biggest films. The Dutch DJ, producer, and engineer first broke out as an electronic musician, crafting a massive worldwide hit with 2002’s “A Little Less Conversation.” He eventually started dipping his toe into the film composing world, collaborating with Hans Zimmer on films like The Dark Knight Rises and Inception while also doing his own solo work on movies ranging from DOA: Dead or Alive to 300: Rise of an Empire and Divergent.
Holkenborg is currently writing the scores for two of 2017’s biggest films, Justice League and The Dark Tower, coming off his astounding work on Mad Max: Fury Road and a diverse range of compositions including Black Mass, Deadpool, and co-composing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In short, Junkie XL is the composer behind some of the biggest blockbusters around, bringing his own signature style to each, but through it all he’s maintained a passion for sharing knowledge and opening the process up to burgeoning artists and fans alike through his YouTube series Studio Time with Junkie XL.
Season 2 of Studio Time is currently underway, in which Holkenborg opens his studio up to viewers for free and explains his process. Episodes focus on different aspects like composing for strings, drum computers, and more. He also films short segments where he answers fan questions like what it’s like working with directors and why all films don’t have memorable themes.
With Season 2 now airing, I was able to hop on the phone with Holkenborg to talk about the inspiration behind Studio Time, his focus in Season 2, and his candid interaction with fans. We also discussed his process working with George Miller on Mad Max: Fury Road when Miller initially didn’t want score at all, his working relationship with Zack Snyder on Justice League, why he can’t wait for fans to see The Dark Tower, his thoughts on the current state of the film music industry, and advice he has for those looking to break into the business. It’s a fascinating, wide-ranging chat that I think fans of film music in general will enjoy.
Check it out below, and click here to watch Studio Time with Junkie XL on YouTube.
So how did the idea for this Studio Time series first come about?
JUNKIE XL: It had a little bit to do with my upbringing. The fact that I grew up in Holland and some other things that I’ve done. So for starters I grew up in Holland where education is practically free and my mom was a teacher, she taught young kids music theory and she also taught the flute. What she did is she had students that would pay her, it wasn’t much at the time but it was half an hour or an hourly rate, and then she had a couple of students in the beginning that had no money or came from low-income families and she would support that by giving those kids lessons for free. That became more frequent over the years and that really became a thing, so for me that was very normal in my upbringing and my surroundings. Now cut to 2003 when I just moved to L.A. and I was approached by the biggest music university in Holland called ArtEZ to start a student program for film scoring and for video games, electronic music in the broadest scenes of the word. So we started compiling a four-year study there and it became a very successful study—the year I left was 2014, 2015, so I did that for almost 12 years, 10 years. We started with nothing but when I left we had like 100 students a year and people came from China, Scandinavia, Germany, they came from everywhere. So it was very satisfying to see that.
So let’s now cut to 2016 when the first season of Studio Time came out. After leaving that university I was like, “I wanna do something,” and I didn’t know quite what. At a certain time the idea came to me to do really proper tutorials for film students and people who are interested in general in how I work, and therefore teaching a little bit about how this industry works, how it works in general to work with the industry, with a director, with film studios. The idea was, based on my experience in Holland, to do it for free and to get a lot of content out there. So this season we’re talking about 12-14 hours of content, which is huge if you can make stuff available like that for free. The first season was a lower budget and we didn’t quite know what we were doing and we got a lot of feedback from fans and I did a couple of Facebook Lives so people could ask me questions, and we compiled all that info and we put it to use by really figuring out what we could do better for Studio Time 2. Already now we’re in Episode 4 coming up, we already get like a lot of questions and requests. So this is a great way to do something online which is for free, which is educational in nature, it’s a real labor of love, and with people that watch it giving feedback so we’re constantly able to shape this into something better.
Well it’s really fantastic, and that was one of my questions, what are you planning on touching on in Season 2 that you didn’t get to in Season 1?
JUNKIE XL: Well Season 1 is not really structured, it was more like, “Okay let’s set up the camera guys and let’s roll, action!” It was barely prepped and we recorded for two days and that was that. This time around we actually planned the episodes beforehand. We checked through the hundreds and hundreds of requests from fans like “Can you do this? Can you tell me a little bit more about that?” A lot of fans from the first season were very interested in the string writing, so this year I would almost say we have two and a half, three episodes touching on string writing. A lot of people asked questions about the gear that I have and how I use it and can you please make good recorded sounds with it instead of doing it with your iPhone? So there are a lot of tutorials that go about all the synths that I have and guitars and basses and guitar pedals and drum kits and everything that I have, and we just go through it one by one. What you can do with them, what was great about it back in the day, what’s still useful today, and we show all these things back to back.
You have a really great and open interaction with fans, and this seems to be an extension of that especially with your “Ask Me Anything” segments. Is that kind of borne out of you wishing some of your heroes were as open and available when you were coming up?
JUNKIE XL: Well don’t we all? And the thing is, if you go back to the ancient cultures, the old Roman cultures, the old Greeks, the old Chinese, sharing of information was the basis for creating a really great culture, and we see that now a lot of it is freezing up. Now people see it as something unique when somebody like Elon Musk makes everything available that he figured out himself. Now that is a rarity whereas thousands of years ago, that would be the norm.
That’s absolutely true. And you’ve done a lot of interesting work over the years and I’m curious, as a film music nerd myself, what are your thoughts on the state of the film music industry right now? What’s happening in the film scoring world that excites you, or maybe disappoints you?
JUNKIE XL: Well that’s a really broad question. I mean the industry is changing rapidly, and it’s somewhat comparable to what happened to the record and CD industry in the 80s, going into the 90s and early 2000s. You see that the amount of films being made is also being shifted, there’s a great alternative scene at this point. The commercial scene has its ups and downs when it comes to the big blockbuster films, and musically that’s the same thing. So you see a lot of new people entering this field that come from completely different backgrounds and are a horror story to any film composer, which are people like me or Mica Levi from England or Johann Johannsson from Iceland. There’s a bunch of these really new people entering this world, which I think is very exciting but none of these people, like myself, are really like the traditional pencil and paper film scoring guys. We just look at this from a completely different angle, and sometimes sound design is gonna be the score. If you look at that great film that Johann Johannsson did, Sicario, with that movie a lot of traditional film scoring fans would look at that film and not even consider it music, because it’s just what it is. But I think it’s fantastic that we’re now entering this stage of film scoring where a lot of these things are welcomed and it’s possible now. So I find it a really thrilling time period if you ask me, but the competition has gotten more fierce. I speak with a lot of not only young kids but also people that are more experienced where they’re scratching their head, “How do I get work? How do I even get considered for a job?” Also hopefully these tutorials help out to—I mean I can only speak from my experience and I share that information with the people that watch it, and hopefully it’s of any use to them.
I think you’re absolutely right, I think what Johann and Mica are doing with blurring the lines between score and sound design is tremendous and it only serves to further immerse the viewer into the story and the mind of the character. Has there been a score recently that blew you away or made you want to step up your game?