We met Hans Zimmer, the man responsible for all your favourite movie soundtracks, in Barcelona, to talk about his tours and the meaning of the arts and science in his life and work.
Text: Gorka Oteiza | Illustration: Nikkolas Smith
Gorka Oteiza: I’ve been with the band today, and I’ll be with them in Spain for the two concerts. Let me tell you, I love them all! I was having breakfast with them and we had a great time.
Hans Zimmer: As much as I want to say something bad about them, I can’t, because not only are they lovely people but they are extraordinary musicians too.
Pedro [Eustache, the flautist in the show] is very close to me.
Well, he has worked with you for so many years, and he does amazing things with his woodwind instruments. I saw a documentary about him, where he had hundreds or maybe thousands of instruments in his studio, as well as small gadgets so he could do sound variations with them. Surely, you’d need to know not only a lot about all those instruments but also how to use them in the movies, because really the results are incredible.
Hans Zimmer: No, no, no … it’s easy! I’ll tell him I want to have a sound like, say, “da, da, da,” I try to explain it to him, then he goes to the hardware store, and for around a couple of dollars he buys some PVC piping and makes an instrument. It’s a really good way to work.
The first question is one that has really intrigued me: Why did you decide to become a composer? Why not a mathematician, a lawyer or a baker, for example?
Hans Zimmer: Well, I didn’t become a composer I became a musician! My first memory is of music. I never did anything else. I think I was only two or so when I went to see my first opera. Nothing the world showed me – starting school, learning maths, or other disciplines – nothing struck me as interesting as music. None of the things came close to the delight I felt with music. Then, I started to play music with other people. While other kids played with Lego, I played with the piano. Then that was it!
Are you saying you were building your own ideas with the piano instead of building things with Lego bricks?
Hans Zimmer: Yeah, exactly, but it was more than that. The people building with Lego, later building skyscrapers, were focusing on being property developers, building things that were going be there forever and all that sort of stuff. I was still playing, but I could play a piece of music with my friends, and we could just go, “Hey, fine, let’s throw it away and try something else.” Not even bothering to record it, but still having fun. That’s what I like – playing – I still play.
Were you not a musician what would you be?
Hans Zimmer: I wanted to be a fire-fighter, of course!
A firefighter? Like in the movie “Backdraft”? Is that why you created that soundtrack?
Hans Zimmer: I’m not sure people realize this, but I’ve only ever written one purely patriotic theme, and that’s “Backdraft.” This is because I’ve always felt that the police, the military and firefighters are all in the same kind of league. The firefighters or the paramedics, when they come to your rescue, have a single aim – to save you or to make you better. I really admire them.
In which part of the creative process do you like to be involved? When there is just an idea floating around and the creative team wants to start discussing it with you, or when there is some concept art, sketches, or a storyboard, and you can have something visual to hand to inspire you?
Hans Zimmer: I like the I-think-I-have-a-story, but-I-haven’t-got-an-ending-yet” stage. The stage where I don’t quite know how it’s all going to work out: they could all die, or they could all fall in love. I like the stage when anything can happen, because it’s entertaining as well. So yes, the sooner I can be part of it the better – well, it’s not necessarily that I have to be part of it – sometimes the best thing I can do is not to say anything and just listen.
There’s one phrase, which I know you’ve used many times, but to paraphrase: “If somebody tells you there’s a rule, break it, it’s the only way to go forward.”
Hans Zimmer: Well, rules and creativity
… but let me explain, because these words can mean many things. Yes, you have to use the rules of music for the music to make sense, to make it good, for it to be elegant. There has to be a rule or a balance. Then there are certain rules that have just become clichés, where nobody knows why the rules are there anymore. Why is it that when you have a love song, you have the strings? It’s lazy, wouldn’t you agree?
It’s taking the easy route …
Hans Zimmer: Yes it is! So what happens if you don’t take that way out? Maybe you do have to have the strings, and accept that the first three, four or five experiments might not get you there. You need to practice emotion as much as you need to practice your scales: If you want to say something new, you might know intellectually what to do, but you’re not good enough yet. You have to get good at this [creative digging into the emotions], which is a fun challenge as well.
Maybe this is why you enjoy doing live concerts, because you get to see the reaction of the audience?
Hans Zimmer: Absolutely! You know where the audience is going with it. Because when a movie plays at the cinema, you can’t know what’s happening and nor can you change anything. You don’t know if the music is working, or what’s driving the audience. In the theatre, in a music concert, you can gauge the response.
Lately, live events featuring film music are big crowd-pullers. There have been successful tours like “The World of Hans Zimmer,” or your earlier tours “Hans Zimmer Live” and “Hans Zimmer Revealed.” Do you feel that film music has arrived in the concert halls to stay, or do you see it as just a trend that people may lose interest in after a few years?
Hans Zimmer: I’m not sure whether it’s a trend or not. I feel that what needs to happen is we need to stop calling it “film music” and just call it “music.” Then we can ask do you like this? Do you like Jonny Greenwood’s music? If yes, then you ask, do you mean you like his music from Radiohead, or do you mean you like his music from “There Will be Blood.” It’s all Jonny Greenwood!
Well, I can’t remember who said it, but apparently, there are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music.
Hans Zimmer: Duke Ellington said that!
Of course! Well some people are predicting that film music is going to be the classical music of the future, that maybe in 100 years from now we’ll treat music from films as we treat classical music today.
Hans Zimmer: But why do we need to differentiate classical music? Why can’t we just have something called music? It’s all just music. I mean, take classical music, Mozart wrote divertimento, which is music that would have been playing during dinner parties. In other words, not too loudly, so that everybody could talk but nobody was supposed to be listening to it. The purpose of divertimento was not to listen to it, but when you do listen to it, it’s so beautiful and well crafted!
To round off this conversation, can we talk about a special kind of event that you’re involved with. The Starmus festival mixes the arts and the sciences, and you’re going to be part of its fifth edition this summer in Zurich. Starmus is not new to you, however, because you were involved with the third edition in the Canary Islands in Spain, with Diego Navarro and others.
Hans Zimmer: Yes. That was the edition dedicated to Stephen Hawking. Stephen believed that the arts and sciences are connected, and that art is a way of communicating science to the people. I happen to believe that he is right. I think it’s very important that now, in these times, we ... Let me put it this way, there are too many world leaders telling us that art is useless, that we don’t need music, and that science is useless. I know they’re wrong, because the world is being wrecked, and I think that art and science will save us and the planet.
However, you don’t really need science to write a great piece of music, because you can do it in your head, or to tell a great story, because you can do that in your head too. I think what we need are great storytellers. We need storytellers to motivate science, or to give science ideas. I mean, would we have landed on the moon without Jules Verne?
Possibly not … So you’re saying that if somebody doesn’t dream it, then perhaps nobody will go out and realize it ...
Hans Zimmer: Yes, one’s got to have
Read the full interview at soundtrackfest.com, an independent source of information and a growing reference for film music festivals, concerts, tours and events.
Gorka Oteiza is the founder-director of film music website SoundTrackFest. Born in Bilbao, Spain, he graduated with a degree in computer engineering before comple-menting this with music studies and two years of piano. This shift focused his mind on the world of film music and journalism. Gorka has attended and reported on many European film-music festivals over the last 10 years, writing articles, publishing daily news, interviewing composers and moderating panels. Among the interviews of which he’s most proud are names such as Lalo Schifrin, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Alexandre Desplat and Bruce Broughton, but he is still dreaming of an interview with his lifetime idol: John Williams …
Do you want to listen to the music or see the show live?
The official album was released in cooperation with Sony Classical and is available in retail stores and on all streaming platforms. The recording took place at the famous traditional concert hall Wiener Konzerthaus.
Videos and tour dates at:
Starmus Festival V: “A Giant Leap,”
June 24–29, 2019, starmus.com
Red Carpet Opening Gala, June 24, 2019,
at Samsung Hall Zurich: “Once Upon a Time on the Moon,” starring Hans Zimmer, Brian May and Rick Wakeman.