The Interview: Tom Holkenborg/Junkie XL (Deadpool)

After last year’s stunning score for Mad Max: Fury Road, Junkie XL should need no introduction. The Dutch-born composer and musician, born Tom Holkenborg, went from a figure best known outside the dance music world for a remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” into a genuine force with which to be reckoned. Holkenborg’s work in film music has always been impressive, but his first full score absolutely left jaws dropped across the world. Now, there are two Junkie XL scores on the way, both for superhero films. First up is Milan’s release of Deadpool on March 4, followed by the Junkie XL / Hans Zimmer collaborative score to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice from WaterTower Music on March 25. Nick Spacek was lucky enough to speak with Holkenborg by phone about Deadpool and its fantastically genre-hopping score.

Nick Spacek: It seems that you have two very big movies coming up in the next few months.

Tom Holkenborg: In the next few weeks!

NS: I haven’t gotten a chance to hear the Batman v Superman score yet, but I’m rather impressed with the breadth and width of what you did for Deadpool. What was the baseline from which you were operating for that score?

TH: When I saw the film for the first time, not only did I have pain in my stomach of laughing all the way through – when you see for the first time, it’s hilarious – it was clear to me that you needed so many different types of music. There’s Wade, who’s a funny character throughout the movie, then transforms into Deadpool. He falls in love with this woman, then finds out he has cancer. He’s uncurable. Then, he becomes Deadpool – completely different character, somewhat based on the characteristics Wade already had, but then times a hundred. Then, we have Ajax, who went through the same process, but he’s a serious villain: very military, precise, goes straight to his goal. Then, we have these X-Men characters and we have all these crazy fights in the movie, so the music needed to go from almost a dark version of comedy / satire to extreme action music to emotional music to very dark sound design. So, I needed to go through all these different emotions and pallets to glue it all together. I have to say: it was pretty hard to do, because I’ve never worked on a movie where I had switch within five seconds between all these different emotions.

NS: I was noticing the stylistic switches, especially on something like ‘Liam Neeson Nightmares,’ where it goes – like you said – within five seconds from warbly synths to these very emotional strings. I was wondering, were you trying to complement the mentality and switch between Wade and Deadpool?

TH: Yeah, it was important, and in that particular scene, Wade isn’t Deadpool yet. He comes out of this very troublesome conversation with a doctor that tells him he has this uncurable cancer. We see him sitting in a chair, just collecting his thoughts, and at some point, he starts crying a little bit. In the beginning of that scene, he feels shocked. He’s not sad, but he feels shocked. He’s just thinking in his head, ‘How am I going to deal with this?’ So, that turns into an emotional piece, where his girlfriend starts talking to him, saying, ‘Hey, we can figure this out,’ then it goes into a section where he makes the decision to basically walk away from her, because he doesn’t want her to be there when he dies. It then goes into the next section where he decides to do this military program that can take care of the cancer, not knowing what to expect after that, and then he actually goes to that facility. It’s like five different things within one minute.

NS: Given the prevalence and emphasis on Salt-n-Pepa’s ‘Shoop’ and DMX’s ‘X Gon Give It To Ya’ in the marketing and promotion of Deadpool, I was wondering on how well you were aware of the various songs on the soundtrack, and whether you were trying to work that music into the score you made?

TH: You’re hitting the nail on the head. All the licensed music in the film was pretty much sorted when I started writing for the film, and so it meant that the score very much needed to have a tone, at least with Deadpool, that was connected to all these songs. Deadpool is a guy who basically stopped growing up after 1990. In the movie, he carries around a Walkman – he’s very much from the ’80s. That led me to the period that Deadpool’s music is very much rooted in, which is the ’80s. I dug up all my old synths and computers to recreate that sound, because I knew what these licensed tracks were, and it blended in really really nicely.

NS: It definitely shows through on that first cut, ‘Maximum Effort,’ especially with that – is that a Synclavier you’ve got going on there?

TH: To get a little technical on the instrument side, the synthesizer used is an Oberheim OB-Xa, which was made in the ’70s and made famous by Van Halen in the ’80s with ‘Jump.’ Another one I used is the Roland Jupiter 8 – also, famous early ’80s synthesizer. The other synthesizer I used is a DX5, which was an experimental FM synthesis model that came out in the early ’80s and was later followed by the very popular DX7. The DX5 was used a lot by Jan Hammer in Miami Vice, so it has that really typical metallic, clunky sound. The Synclavier I don’t own, myself, because there are only a few working units, worldwide. It’s very expensive to maintain and the same goes for the Fairlight sample systems. Now, I did approach a guy working in London who had a perfect working synclavier with all the original preset sounds, and he went to the trouble to sample them for me. And, you know, preset number four or five, when it originally came out is that typical ‘Beat It’ sound from Michael Jackson, and I always wanted to use that sound for something. Thank god for Deadpool: I was able to use it and now I can throw that sound away. I can never use it again for the rest of my laugh. [laughs] But, it’s the perfect sound for that, and the reference with ‘Beat It’ is just too funny.

NS: I also enjoy the fact that it pops up here and there throughout the score, rather than just being used that one time.

TH: Yeah, you know, if we talk from a thematic point of view – and you will see, when you see the film – the cutting is so fast, the switching between characters is so fast, I barely had time just to play the first four notes of that riff, and that would be it.

NS: You alluded earlier to the fact that you were trying to include elements of comedy in the Deadpool score. Is that where that elastic, rubberband bass sound in “12 Bullets” or “Watership Down” comes from?

TH: You know what’s really funny about the musical quotes from the ’80s? Whether it’s Miami Vice, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Art of Noise, obviously Giorgio Moroder – even earlier music like ELO – at the time, when that music came out, it was so serious. They took themselves so serious, which is one of the most beautiful things about the ’80s. I grew up and matured in the ’80s, as a musician. I’m 47, so I started playing in bands from 1979, 1980. I was 13 when it was 1980, and was 23 when the ’80s were over. When Miami Vice got aired, it was so exciting: it was dark, it was serious, it was cool music, and it was the coolest thing on the planet. Now, if we watch that same episode, break out the Coke and the popcorn and we’re going to laugh for an hour straight! It’s so funny when you see it back. So, the intention that I wanted to achieve with the music for Deadpool is not to create funny music, but to create music that in its origin, was very serious, but if you play it against Deadpool, it becomes so incredibly funny and it works so well with his character. It’s a very fine line to walk with a movie like this, and the picture editor on this movie, Julian Clark, he used those words: ‘The trick is going to be that we make music that makes Deadpool fun, but not funny.’

NS: I think that’s a very important distinction to make, especially for that character.

TH: Yeah, because then otherwise, it turns into a comedy score like you would make for a Ben Stiller movie, and that’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to honor the character.

NS: How is it switching gears between something so serious as a Black Mass or Batman v Superman, and then going to something like Deadpool?

TH: It’s quite a transition, I can tell you that. [laughs] You need time to roll into these movies. When I came off Mad Max and started working on Black Mass, it’s the same thing: okay, no drums this movie. No hardcore electronic bass lines. This is all about the subtlety of film scoring. You just need to grow into it, slowly, just by spending days and days in the studio playing your piano and doing something. With Deadpool, it was exactly the other thing: now, I”m done with Black Mass and it’s all very serious, and now we’re going to go into a movie that is all about action, bits of drama, and we need to find music for Deadpool. So, I hooked up all my synthesizers in the studio and played for weeks on end.

NS: After weeks of doing that, you’re completely in the groove for what it needs to be, and it starts rolling.

TH: You always need a transition time to move into something new.

Deadpool is in theaters now, with the soundtrack available now digitally through most major retailers. It comes out on compact disc through Milan Records on March 4.

Thanks to Tom Holkenborg and Costa Communications