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Tom Holkenborg: “I think I paid about £15 for my Memorymoog synth - in 1983 you couldn’t give them away”

Tom Holkenborg
(Image credit: dirk kikstra)

“This is definitely up there with some of the longest scores in history, it’s been intense,” explains an excited Tom Holkenborg (widely known as Junkie XL).

Tom is delighted that the long-anticipated Justice League: The Snyder Cut is finally seeing the light of day. This substantial re-edit of 2017’s superhero extravaganza Justice League is a labour of love that culminates a relationship Tom has had with director Zack Snyder since 2013’s 300: Rise of an Empire.

“Zack and I have been talking about bringing this out for years,” the Dutch polymath tells us. “It’s really thanks to the power of the fans that this happened. They have not only been harassing Warner Brothers for the movie, but also to release the score. So, we really owe it to them and their tenacity that this finally got made. We felt it coming.”

One of Hollywood’s most in-demand composers, Tom’s acclaimed soundtracks have fused electronic music with classical approaches, cacophonous, relentless percussion and visceral rock elements. An ongoing love of modular synthesis permeates nearly all of his diverse projects, using the potential of a breathtaking modular ‘wall’.

With this four-and-a-half-hour new score, Tom was given free rein to pull all the threads together. 

“This is movie number six that Zack and I have collaborated on. I decided to do this new score from the ground up. I listened back to what I had originally planned for it [before Tom and Zack left the project in 2017, replaced by Danny Elfman and Joss Whedon respectively] and felt that I could do way better.

Zack said: ‘keep in mind that the shackles are off’. That’s where the project began.

“I’ve learned a lot from all the great directors I’ve worked with: Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, George Miller; I learned so much from all these people. What I had originally planned wasn’t up to scratch.

“I called Zack late April last year and said, ‘Would you mind if I start over?’, and then he said ‘By all means!’. Zack said: ‘keep in mind that the shackles are off’. That’s where the project began.”

Tom has still not seen any of his friends or family over the last 12 months: “I’ve been pretty careful. Making this score has been like climbing Mount Everest - it was a solo affair. It’s something you have to do on your own and no-one will carry you on your back. I finally reached the top of the mountain in the first week of January.” 

A deep dive

Working in isolation, and without any studio or creative interference, Tom’s creative process was free and unfettered: “I could really explore everything that I have in me as a composer. So starting with the most conventional side, this was my moment to dive deep into my admiration for classic Hollywood movies from the 1930s to the 1960s, and at the same time my love of classical music between 1880 and 1925.

“On the more unconventional side, I decided to bring in some noises made using my modular wall and also explored some odd ways of thinking about sonics - like what would happen if I put a guitar on fire, for example.”

Tom laughs, “So what you find in the score is a combination of modern sound design pieces that are really on the cutting-edge of what you can do with sound design at this point. On the other hand, there’s an Adagio for one of the characters that is almost 12 minutes long. That piece is almost exclusively orchestral.

“Then there are sections that have stoner rock guitar sounds and other sounds that have a hip-hop approach. Other sections are a blend between all kinds of different styles. There’s a choir from hell in there that gradually detunes and gets more and more evil as it goes on,” adds Holkenborg, tantalisingly. Of course there is!

Locked down

Due to the global pandemic, and its resulting lockdown, Tom was forced to tackle this mammoth project without his usual studio arsenal, and without his creative team.

“For us to move everybody home with their own computer setups and stuff was not that hard,” he tells us. “We started doing that from the last week of February 2020 - so we actually locked down early.

What is a ‘full-contact’ composer?

Famously self-defined as a ‘full-contact’ composer, we asked Tom to detail exactly how that process differs from the norm in soundtracking terms.

“It’s not only the fact that I want to be turning knobs and playing instruments, but it’s the fact that I want to be in control of every step of the process. When I can, I love to record the orchestra myself. I still mix all my film scores by myself. I still master all my recordings myself. I deliver all these stems to the final product also myself. I want to be in control as much as I can. Every step of the way I feel I can add more identity of what I am as a person.

“My career started in my late teens as a very traditional recordist, recording bands and mixing and then I grew into being a producer, working with international acts. But my core career was to make sure that the music being produced had a strong identity and sound, purely based on how you record and how you mix and how you guide the musicians into a certain type of performance. That’s stayed with me throughout.” 

“For the process of it, things weren’t majorly different, but there were a few things that required rethinking. When I started working from home, I worked in my spare bedroom of 8x8 feet, so it was pretty limited. Normally, I surround myself with all the gear and drum kits I can. I’m a ‘full-contact’ composer which means I love to touch things, play things, experiment with things, but here I had fewer options. I had just one guitar, one bass, a few percussion instruments and one or two favourite synths.

“I wrote the entire score with those limited options and some plugins. It was quite revealing. I was always thinking about how to get the most out of that one instrument, rather than switching between multiple things for different purposes.” 

Limitation was what really forced Tom to explore every possible permutation of his reduced toolkit. “Every now and then, I’d throw one synth in the car, drive up to my studio house, and replace it with something else. It reminded me of doing my first four-track recordings back in 1981 and 1982, when I was 15 years old. One track recorder, one drum computer and maybe one guitar and a bass. I was not a singer, I was a screamer. So it was always really limited, it often led to baffling results. It had a magic to it, though.” 

Tom Holkenborg

(Image credit: dirk kikstra)

The only contact Tom had through the entire process was with Zack Snyder. “Normally, composing a film score is a team effort, with the director as the most important member - and a lot of cooks in the kitchen. I do like working that way. But the fact that I was able to work on my own with nobody asking me questions and not hearing other people’s music throughout the building was freeing.

“I was living alone, and getting groceries delivered and that’s it. It made everything SO intense. It was a very pleasurable experience, though - I just missed human contact. On the back end of this, I’m not sure if we’ll ever go back to how we worked before. Some of my assistants love it, too. They loved being able to schedule their own time and work how they wanted to work.”

Out with the old

Last year, to everyone’s shock, Tom announced he was shedding his treasure trove of vintage gear, and selling it via Reverb.com. Out went more than 200 synths, samplers and close to 100 pedals, as well as a selection of older guitars and kits. So, what prompted this dramatic ejection?

“I didn’t know how much I’d hoarded over the last 40 years!” Tom admits. “I started buying stuff when I was 13. The stuff that I bought was stuff that was ridiculously cheap when I bought it. I then worked in a music store where instruments were traded in that nobody wanted. I always give the example of the Memorymoog. I think I bought that for 60 or 70 Guilders (which would be around £15). In 1983 you couldn’t give them away.

“People wanted the DX7 and then they wanted the Roland D-50, they wanted the Korg M1. Nobody cared about the old, massive analogue boxes that had no presets with limited options and weren’t capable of the sounds they were hearing in the ‘80s that they loved so much. The bass sounds, the pads and the strings were elsewhere.”

Tom continues: “So I bought all that older stuff and kept buying, and kept buying. It wasn’t that I had a brilliant future plan, or knew it’d be worth loads of money later on. I just loved the sound of these things. They were well-built boxes that were purely mechanical wonders.

“The problem eventually became that, because the tech was so old, if I wanted to use it, I’d have to spend $2,000 getting it fixed. By the time it was fixed I’d lost interest in using it because it was a spur of the moment thing. If I thought ‘ah, let’s use the Jupiter-8 today’ I’d turn it on and ‘bam’, one oscillator is out and the other one is horribly out of tune and needed to be completely re-tuned by an engineer. At a certain point I was done. I made a deal with Reverb.com and eventually they sold everything for me.” 

Where does this leave Tom now? “Well, I just started to buy analogue synths and digital synths again - but the top-class, modern stuff. At this point I have the Waldorf Quantum, I’ve got the Modulus 002, I’ve got the Moog One and Matriarch. I’ve got the GRP Synths A4, I’ve got an Erica Modular System, and also their Syntrx. The Yamaha Montage, I’ve got the Code 8 and the Midimoog by Studio Electronics and I’ve got the Dave Smith Prophet-12.

“Then I’ve got the Analogue Solutions Vostok semi-modular system. I’ve got the Motor Synth from Gamechanger Audio - I was actually part of their startup around three years ago. I’d forgotten about it, but it arrived a month ago!” 

Tom Holkenborg

(Image credit: dirk kikstra)

Tom had previously retrofitted his older selection of synthesizers with Kenton Electronics’ MIDI converters so that they could be routed into his computer.

“The Kenton converters meant I was able to sequence a lot of them in Cubase, which is still my DAW of choice,” says Tom. “Since they were analogue and vintage and unreliable I’d just record everything in. I’d then chop up all the recordings and work with little pieces. I’ve still got libraries, that are well in the terabytes, of sounds that I made with that older kit. In this lifetime there won’t be enough film score projects to use all of them.

“But the modern synths don’t have any of those vintage pitfalls. You can actually work on a sound that’s amazing, store the preset and switch it off. Next day, come in and switch it on and hey - the oscillators are in tune and the preset is still there and it sounds exactly identical to what it did yesterday!”

That being said, the potential for sonic discovery is still high: “My new modular gear is so intuitive - the Vostok, the Syntrx, the Motor Synth for example. When you turn all those knobs, all kinds of new sounds can reveal themselves, so it’s still great to record everything that you do with them.

“The same with the Montage. I bought it for the 8-operator DX and TX sounds. While I’m editing, loads of unexpected things can happen. You go through all these algorithms and sounds will jump and distort. It’s hard to sequence that later on.”

But how does Tom go about channelling this diverse sonic arsenal into Cubase now? “It’s a little easier now. I have this professional USB hub that is connected to my PC which has 16 USB ins. That’s able to get all that information without any delay or buffer hiccups into my PC. Most of the analogue synths, even the ones that are 100% analogue, have USB out. 

“Then, I go through a PreSonus StudioLive 32 digital mixer. With my laptop I program the channel configuration and everything comes into Cubase. When I’ve done any kind of summing in the past with vintage gear, the amount of noise coming into Cubase was insane. With these new ones, they’re all on, and there is maybe a slight little hiss at loud volumes, but then when I turn them down to a level that I actually work on, they’re remarkably clean.”

Rack and roll

Tom equates his active passion for the modular synth world to the car world: “If you want to drive a really good car, you get yourself an Audi A4 or A6,” Tom chuckles. “But, if you want to drive a good car and show everybody around you that you make a shitload of money, you get a Lamborghini.

“It’s similar in the modular world; if you want a really good modular sound, in the 5U format, then there are so many incredible modular builders making very affordable, superb sounding stuff. To name a few, there’s Moon Modular in the UK, there is Crisp Brown, Synthcube who is from Spain and is really great. There’s a German guy called Kazike who runs cluboftheknobs.com. Then there is Analogue Haven and The Harvestman. But if you want a great sound - and also show off - you need to buy all the Moog vintage stuff. But that was never my aim.”

What you do in the modular world is so unpredictable and that’s what makes it so great.

“What you do in the modular world is so unpredictable and that’s what makes it so great,” evangelises Tom. “If you ask me to patch you up a percussive bass sound with five oscillators, I can do that in five minutes, or if you want a sound that has waveshaping and really cool frequency modulation from two different oscillators on two different pitches, sure I’ll patch that up for you.

“But the beauty really happens when you start stacking up that wall, and it gets kind of out of control. It’s a house of cards. As your patch becomes ever more complex you might have a problem somewhere and not know where you went wrong. You then have to go back.” 

Tom admits that he has a slight phobia of performing live with modular gear, and has nothing but respect for those who do. “It’s precarious. I once did a live show with modular gear, and I realised just how limited a live performance is with a 5U setup. With a Eurorack setup it’s a lot easier.”

Studio time

A big focus for Tom right now is his Studio Time educational series on YouTube. Over the course of this show, Tom has demonstrated some of the techniques and his approaches to recording and production, yielding millions of views and subscribers. We wonder where the idea to launch this began?

“My mum was a music teacher when I was younger. She made her money with it, but in the evenings she would give free classes to people from less fortunate families and arrange instruments for these kids to play on. She was really considered like a charity worker in the countryside of Holland where I lived. She made sure that music was accessible to everybody. So I already grew up with that as an important ideal. When my mother passed away in 2002, it always stuck with me, to take her legacy and do something cool with it,” Tom shares. 

“Back in 2005, I got approached by one of the bigger music universities in Holland, ArtEZ, to help set up a four-year course with them for young students. So I was doing lots of masterclasses there and writing the curriculum

“It was around 2016 that I left, but I got together with a bunch of advisors to discuss what to do next. The idea was born to do high-quality YouTube videos with an average length between 50 mins to one hour. Talking in-depth about what it’s like to be a composer, the struggles that everyone has. Practical and technical things as well as broader mental health, and personal growth topics.

“Studio Time became a great success. It was not my interest to make money out of it - it’s my way of continuing my mum’s idea of spreading music. I make my music as a composer. We do it for free. We’re about to start recording some new episodes in VR, that will be a great experiment.”

Crossing careers

With not just one, but three long, prolific careers behind him, divided between his work as an electronic musician, producer and film composer, Tom has finally decided to settle his course to one path, and focus solely on film scoring. 

It’s funny, even when I started doing films I was still being called a ‘DJ’ which is very strange, because I actually never was a DJ - I made electronic music. I guess the perception a few years ago was that because I was playing with computers and laptops, the naked eye would think ‘oh, that’s what Tiësto does as well, he must be the same’.

“But I technically was never a DJ. Now that there is a body of film work out, some people actually don’t know that I have an artist history, too, or a producing/recording history. The last gig that I did was ten years ago, and the last album I released was seven years ago. It’s almost like a different generation.”

With clear focus on the big screen, Tom’s status as one of the world’s most high profile movie composers now seems assured. “It only took 20 years!” grins the sonic mountaineer. 

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available on streaming services now.

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