Hans Zimmer, composer
I’m still driven to try impossible things out, to do something that actually has meaning ...
The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, The Dark Knight, Interstellar – these films are iconic and feature among the most acclaimed works of cinema created in the past 50 years. Do you know what they all have in common (aside from being great flicks)? All of these films have soundtracks composed by Hans Zimmer. Since the 1980s, Hans Zimmer has worked on more than 150 films, picking up a swag of awards along the way. For most of his career, Hans Zimmer has worked behind the scenes, weaving notes together to create the music that drives home the emotional content of the films. Recent months have seen Hans hit the road – reinventing his lauded compositions and performing them live around the world. On Saturday May 6, Hans Zimmer Live will arrive in Brisbane and the genius himself will guide us through the highlights of his career with help from his all-star band. We were fortunate enough to chat to Hans before he arrived in the country, touching on everything from his crippling stage fright, his love of reinvention and forgoing rock and roll for a career in film.
Before we get to your upcoming tour, I’d like you to take me back to where your love of composition and film began.
Oh, that’s an easy one! I have always lied about this because I get asked the question, “When did you get in to music?” I always say, “When I was six,” – but it’s a lie! I just had to go and pick a date because I can’t remember a life without music. My mum was a classical music fan and my dad loved jazz, so there was always music playing and there was a piano in the house and no television. My parents thought television was the end of culture as we know it. We’d go to lots of concerts and I played the piano, including the obligatory two weeks of lessons before the piano teacher gave up on me. Then when I was 12 I remember sneaking through the back door of the flea-pit cinema where they were playing Once Upon a Time in the West. That was my first experience of music and film – I remember sitting there and thinking, “This is it. This is absolutely it.”
How did you go about following that newly discovered passion?
At that point I had no idea how to get into it. I joined a band right after school and played every workingman’s club, pub and college. I had no money – the usual thing. I started working with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of The Buggles and a week before my 21st birthday, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ went to number one. It was one of the most miserable periods of all our lives! It really was, because we had a number one record everybody thought we were rich. Nothing had changed! I remember the day the record went to number one, Geoff and I were trying to push-start his car. That’s how glamorous life was. Around then everything around me started to go weird because everyone assumed I was rich. Luckily there was this film composer – Stanley Myers – who realised I was not rich and needed a job, so I became his assistant. Now I had this little foot in film, even though all I was doing was making espresso. It was around this time in England when Channel 4 came alive and they didn’t have content, so they let people like Tim Bevan at Working Title make movies. We didn’t know how to make movies, but we went ahead and made My Beautiful Laundrette. Suddenly, that was a success and by sheer accident I got a little closer to Once Upon a Time in the West.
So was it at that point that you decided to get out of the rock music game?
The whole rock and roll thing – the hit record and all that stuff – as soon as it happened I realised that was not my life. On top of not having any money, we only had one song and the record company said they needed an album now. The album was supposed to be exactly like ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, and there is a restriction you have as an artist then. It had to sound the same and that wasn’t my life. I was making espresso for Stanley and noticing that he could make any style of music and tell stories with music. I like making a bigger racket.
Did you ever miss the aspect of live performance?
No, you see one of the reasons why I left my very unsuccessful pub band was because I had really bad stage fright. One of the very attractive things about film was it wasn’t real time. You didn’t have to stand in front of an audience and when you played a clunker you didn’t have to dodge a can of beer thrown at your head. That suited me just fine! As the years went by I got to work with an interesting collection of directors on some really exciting projects and got to try some things out. Now, I have to name drop. Is it okay if I name drop and apologise for it?
That’s absolutely fine. Name drop away!
I started working with Pharrell and Johnny Marr. The two of them ganged up on me and said, “Hans, you’ve got to get out there. You owe the audience that you look them in the eye and don’t just hide behind a screen for the rest of your life.” I think it was Johnny that said I needed to get out of my windowless room and here is the thing – the first time I get on stage for this tour and look out across the audience and do you know where I am? I’m in a windowless room! In a funny way I suppose I am destined to spend my life in windowless rooms.
Do you still suffer from stage fright?
Oh, I am terrified! We did the first shows as a sort trial run in London at the Hammersmith Apollo. We were supposed to do two shows and the first one went brilliantly, even though I was… I am trying to find a polite way of saying shitting bricks, but I cant find it. After the show everyone was happy and I was thinking I could get through this, tomorrow would also be great. I woke up the next day with the same sense of dread and panic. I realised that’s who I am. Johnny said to me, “You can’t have your life and what you do dictated by fear.” For me, getting on stage is the performance. It’s the first few minutes – the audience is just watching a man having a slight nervous breakdown. That’s the performance.
Well, it’s a world tour now…
You want to know how I’m dealing with it? I’m not looking at the e-mails that tell me the dates where we are playing. Then I’m on Facebook and I see, ‘Hans Zimmer in Milan’ or ‘Hans Zimmer in Melbourne’ and I’m thinking, “Oh dear. Okay, fine.”
Tell me a little bit about how Hans Zimmer Revealed has come together. You are obviously drawing material from across your career – how did you go about picking the compositions to perform?
It was nearly a democratic process – because I have a strong-willed band. I got everybody into the room and asked what we were going to play. For instance, I didn’t want to play certain parts of Gladiator – that became a huge bone of contention with the others. One member of my band said, “They play that song at the Olympics and at ice-hockey games – you owe it to people that I play it!” Then the trick is finding a way to reinvent it so I would like it.
How did the reinvention process inform how the show was arranged?
Well, I said to Johnny and Pharrell that if I was to do this, I want to turn it around. I don’t want to do what other people are doing. I don’t want to have a conductor with his back to the audience for the whole evening, because I think there is something slightly insulting about going to see a concert and a man has his back to you for the duration while the band sits there reading the paper. We figured out how to do it without a conductor and that was a big step. The other thing was I didn’t want to show a single image from the films because I have a secret weapon. I have this friend – Mark Brickman – who has been the lighting designer for Pink Floyd for years, and I asked him to reinterpret the music with lights and make sure it’s about the musicians. In a weird way, I wanted to go about it in a way that honoured the musicians. All the pieces are rearranged – they aren’t the same as what you heard in the movie, because I am drawing on the strength of people I met after the films came out. Pirates has taken on quite a different vibe, because there is a new spirit in it and the same goes for Inception and The Dark Knight stuff.
I’m always curious about how composers let go of projects after completion and if they ever wished they could revisit pieces or add to them further down the line. Is it thrilling for you to be able to come back to these works?
Oh, completely! I’m fixing notes! (laughs) I’m revisiting parts that I ended up hating and there is a lot of reinvention going on. It’s a different animal now – and this is where my history of coming from rock and roll comes in handy – we are not quiet. I always fought against this idea of being seen as this pretentious composer sitting at his big black grand piano. For Christ’s sake I play a banjo during the show – how humiliating can you get?
No offence to banjo players there, I’m sure!
(laughs) Banjo players are thick skinned! You can say pretty much anything to them and they are okay.
It almost seems like the show is a retrospective of your finest work but your career is far from over. When selecting projects to work on, what does it have to have to make it exciting and engaging?
You have no idea how exciting my life is at the moment. It’s killing me, it’s that exciting. I’m in the middle of this new Chris Nolan movie – I got to sleep at 5:00 am this morning! There are two ways of going about that. I could have finished at 7:00 pm last night, had a nice meal and gone to bed but I’m still driven. I’m still driven to try impossible things out and right now this project has that impossible aspect. Take Hidden Figures for example – Pharrell told me about the story two or three years ago. He was telling me about the impossible movie – period piece, African American, women, mathematics. It didn’t sound commercial but we just had to do it. To me it sounded like the most exciting thing we could possibly do – we could do something which actually had meaning. Here is what my life is – I lift up the phone to the director and there is only one thing that happens. The director says in one way or another, “Let me tell you a story”. In Chris Nolan’s case it would be the story of The Dark Knight or Inception. As he is telling me the story you start hearing things, I get excited because I just love hearing the story and I want to go and be a part of that story.
Catch Hans Zimmer and his band in full flight when they take the stage at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre for Hans Zimmer Revealed on Saturday May 6.