Gorka Oteiza from SoundTrackFest met Hans Zimmer in Barcelona on April 5, 2019 to talk about childhood dreams, the intricacies of storytelling, the fascination of live concerts, the Starmus festival, and specially… about good music.
Hans Zimmer is one of the most well-known composers in the world today, and I have eliminated the “film music” tagline before the word ‘composers’, since his fame is so great that even people who are not fans of film music know his name. In his almost 40 years of career, he has left us amazing, innovative and risky works, but always with a common denominator, he always tries to look beyond the established limits.
On the occasion of the recent tour ‘The World of Hans Zimmer’, we were able to enjoy his presence in Barcelona on Friday, April 5, 2019. This show goes through Europe presenting symphonic versions of a great selection of his music, but Hans Zimmer is not part of the show, except in the places where he decides to appear by surprise (that is a privilege granted to big stars).
Appearing on stage with a t-shirt with the photo of another great composer, Ennio Morricone -who at 90 years is celebrating his farewell tour- Zimmer delighted the audience in Barcelona playing the guitar in one of the last pieces of the concert: “Inception – Time”.
Hours before, Hans Zimmer received a small group of representatives of the national press in the suite of the hotel where he was staying, and there I had the fortune to interview him for SoundTrackFest.
In a pleasant, relaxed, and very interesting interview, Zimmer spoke about what he would be if he were not a musician/composer, the use of film music to tell stories, his willingness to break the rules, the relationship that exists between art and music, his participation in the Starmus festival, live concerts, and also about his involvement in the creative process of composing for a film from an early stage, from its conception.
I hope you enjoy reading this interview, as much as I enjoyed having it.
Thank you very much for your time Hans. My name’s Gorka Oteiza from SoundTrackFest, and I’m following “The World of Hans Zimmer” tour to give our readers a taste of the experience. 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 had breakfast with them this morning, and we had a great time and a very entertaining conversation – they’re like a family!
I know! As much as I want to say something bad about them, I can’t, because not only are they lovely people but extraordinary musicians too. Pedro Eustache [the flutist in the show] is very close to me.
Well, he has worked with you over many years, and does amazing things with his flutes and 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. It was incredible.
Yeah, I know, he’s a master.
You’d need to know a lot about all those instruments, but also how to use them in the movies…
No, no, no… it’s easy! I’ll tell him I want to have a sound like (*da, da, da… Hans sings*) 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.
That’s very interesting! My first question is one that has really intrigued me: Why did you decide to become a composer? Why not a mathematician, or a lawyer… or a baker, for example?
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 that the world showed me – for example in 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 with other people. While other kids played with Lego, I played with the piano. So, that was it!
Are you saying you were building your own ideas with the piano instead of building things with the Lego bricks?
Yeah, exactly, but it was more than that. The people building with Lego, were later building skyscrapers, focusing on being property developers, building things that were going to 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 and I still play.
Were you were not a musician what would you be?
I wanted to be a fireman, of course! (*laughs*)
A fireman? Like in the movie “Backdraft”? Is that why you composed that soundtrack?
I’m not sure people realize this, but I’ve only ever written one patriotic theme, a pure theme, and that’s “Backdraft”. This is because I’ve always felt that the police, the military, and the firemen are all in the same kind of league. The firemen or the paramedics, when they come to your rescue, have a single aim; to save you or to make you better. So, I really admire them.
Well, the beginning of the movie is so impressive, the way they risk their lives for people… and then the way the main theme builds up, all the way up to a wonderful crescendo!
Following with the next question, you have said on many occasions that you have the best job in the world because somebody calls you and says “I want to tell you a story,” which is exactly what you want to do, you want to tell stories with your music. So, 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 that inspires you?
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 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.
For instance, I love going every Thursday to “The Simpsons”, to the writing room. They all sit there, as they have been doing for the past 25 years, and write the next episode. To me, it’s just sort of amazing seeing things being created from nothing.
So yes, the sooner I can be part of it the better, but 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.
Well, creating music for a movie is a collective art form. Unlike painting or sculpting, where mostly you are working by yourself, in a movie you are working with a team of other people.
Indeed, and let me tell you about an interesting experience I once had. I had been trying to write this tune but found out that I was completely stuck. There were 15 other people in the room and Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian, was there. At one point he just got up and walked out of the room, and the moment he left… I had the tune!
I left the room soon after him and said, “Hey, I think I have something.” He said, “Yeah, I thought you might.” Sometimes you have to change the chemistry in the room. He knew this, being a comedian. It’s just a matter of changing the balance, changing the scenery, and then suddenly things can come out.
When you’re creating music for a movie, you know that the music can substantially change the meaning of a scene, even the meaning of the movie. Do you consider music a basic part of the storytelling, or would you say you use music to drive the emotions of the audience, so you can take people to where you want them to go?
I really try not to tell people where they should be emotionally, but I do try to show them that they can feel emotions! This is very interesting in the 21st century, because some people then discover that they do indeed have emotions! They’ve just gone through life looking at filters on Snapchat!
Technology is driving us crazy…
Yeah, but my intention is not to manipulate people in a way that tells them what to feel.
So you want to give them hints, let them decide?
I like them to be co-conspirators in their own fate! (*laughs*) I mean, I think it is fun. This is why I like the live events as well, because suddenly I’m standing there, there are all these people I’ve never met, but somehow it feels as if we know a lot about each other. It’s as if we’re pen pals who’ve never seen a photo of each other.
Well, they know you and your music quite well. (*laughs*)
Sure they do! (*laughs*)
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.” Is there a rule where non-compliance with it made you particularly proud or happy? Is there any memorable moment you remember?
Well, rules and creativity… but let me explain, because we’re using words that 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. But 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 theme, you have the strings? It’s lazy, right?
It’s taking the easy route…
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 you want to do, but you’re not good enough yet. So, you have to get good at this, 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?
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. But in the theatre, in a music concert, you know it, and you can gauge the response.
You like to get that feeling from the audience…
Yes, right! The advantage for me is that I get to hear and watch all the other musicians and get to enjoy it. I see Guthrie Govan play guitar and I go, “Wow, he didn’t do that yesterday!” Every note he plays is a risk. It’s such a risk! And I love that!
He’s moving out of his comfort zone…
Always! He’s going on to something new, providing people with a new experience. And he wears his McDonald’s badge with the three yellow stars on his guitar strap. He wears it there to remind him that whatever it is he’s doing now, he’s not working at McDonald’s anymore: he’s making music.
Let’s continue with live events. Lately, I think, live events featuring film music are big crowd-pullers. Everybody wants to experience live music in concert. As an example we could mention 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 just as a trend that people may lose interest in after a few years?
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?” “Yes.” “Do you mean his music from Radiohead, or do you mean his music from ‘There Will be Blood’?” It’s all Jonny Greenwood!
I can’t remember who said it, but there are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music.
Duke Ellington said that!
Yes! That’s it! Well, some people are saying 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.
But why do we need to differentiate classical music? Why can’t we just have music now? It’s all just music. I mean, take classical music… Mozart wrote “Divertimento”, which is music that was played 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! The musicianship is so high… Mozart couldn’t write bad music!
So, I think it depends largely on who’s making the music. I mean, there’s some very popular music that we all know sounds awful. But not only is it awful, it’s also bad for us, like too much sugar.
I agree, there’s a lot of bad music today… but let’s continue with the live events and mix in a bit of science. You are going to be part of the fifth edition of the Starmus festival in Zurich if I’m not mistaken…
We think so and hope so. We’re working on it!
Yet, Starmus is not new to you, because you were involved with the third edition in the Canary Islands in Spain, with Diego Navarro and others.
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 was right. I think it’s very important that now, in these times, we… (*pauses*)… 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. And I know they’re wrong, because the world is being wrecked, and I think that art and science will save us and the planet.
Say that you want to become a good lawyer; you should definitely learn how to use the internet because you’ll find many of the answers you need there. What I’m saying is that you need science for every profession these days, because technology is everywhere. 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…
Yes, one’s got to have crazy dreams!
Yeah, I agree that you need to have crazy dreams. This is a good note to end with! Before we finish though, let’s go with the final questions. You’ve taken on countless projects in many, many fields… TV series, movies, shorts, and even music for the Oscars, but is there a dream project that you still haven’t had the time to complete or the opportunity to get into? Something you’d like to do in the future?
No, I have no dream project, but I like the idea of getting together with other musicians and having a musical conversation. Just taking whatever comes. If the project is interesting, go for it.
Are you saying that it’s important just always to be open to interesting ideas?
Yes! They come, and we have many!
Well, you are an open person, and you take part in many different projects. For example, you were in Las Vegas a few weeks ago with the “One Night for One Drop” charity project…
Yes, and it was great. The beauty and sincerity of it surprised me. Probably Las Vegas is the place of the least sincerity, yet the artists from Cirque du Soleil were so giving and so open. It was extraordinary.
Hans, my final question – not really a question at all in fact, but a space for you to offer us a personal message – knowing that over the course of your career you’ve given many interviews, been asked questions and more questions, and even some of the same ones over and over again… Is there anything you’d like to tell us to end this interview?
Well, I think what I’d like to say is what I always say in the concerts: The important part of music is playing. And we have come back to your first question actually, when you asked me what else I would have become had I not chosen being a musician. I chose music because I like to play, just as children like to play. It is our parents and the institutions – schools, the military, the government, etc. who tell us we should stop playing. So, what I’d like to say is this: Even if you’re not a musician, whatever you do, make sure that you live your life playfully.
Have a plentiful life, enjoy it, and if you like playing, go ahead and play.
Exactly: Eat good food, be nice to all animals, and be very, very, very nice to your spouse and your children.
Okay, so… in summary… live a plentiful, happy, and sincere life!
Yeah, sincere is good!
That’s a great message! Hans, thank you very much for your time!
Interview by Gorka Oteiza
Pictures by Gorka Oteiza and Josep Ferrer
Illustrations by Nikkolas Smith