Interview: Junkie XL, Composer of “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Posted on May 19, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers

It was a treat to talk to Junkie XL (aka Tom Holkenborg), the award-winning, multi-platinum producer/composer who created the sensational soundtrack for Mad Max: Fury Road, ranging from orchestral to heavy metal, and now available for purchase. Coming up next, he is working on the remake of “Point Break,” “Black Mass,” and “Batman v. Superman.”

Junkie XL told me about working side by side with writer/director George Miller and about the unexpected member of his household who is heard on the soundtrack.

I’ve been listening to the score and the track called “Escape” sounds Metallica if its lead singer was a Tyrannosaur Rex.

It’s a part of the movie where Max breaks loose from his capturers but this is a really strange world. It’s so over the top, the scenery is so intense, all the detail that goes into the set and the costumes, what these people looked like, the cars, it’s unheard of. And so the music needed to live up to that standard. I said to George, “Let’s do this insane rock opera where everything clashes and there is like choir and there’s sound design and there’s mad drums and mad electronic sounds and over the top strings and very small strings and very emotional little things and he said, “Yeah let’s do it.”

And so “Escape” was one of the earlier cues that I started on and it needed to be crazy. Max in this case is a very troubled character. He’s not the stable, funny guy that we know from the earlier Mad Max movies in the 80s. He’s been through this so many times and he’s got post-traumatic stress and whatever he has, he’s very troubled. And so the music needed to be very troubling too.

Is that all together electronically? did you have an orchestra?

There’s an orchestra in there but I actually set with the string players and the bass players and we created these really crazy tones that normally do not come out of these instruments. They have to play them in a certain way. They have to get really out of tune. There’s that whole string section in there with a really haunting motif which was very inspired on the great late 40s, 50s, 60s, the golden era of Bernard Hermann and some other classical composers. It’s really like a golden time period and we really have to record it multiple, multiple times to get the right feel and the right tone.

Yes, some of the tracks are very lush and orchestral.

I grew up classically trained and I have a really strong relationship with pieces written, let’s say from 1850 to 1950/1960 and it was played a lot around our house. George is very familiar with that time period too and he loves that style. So that is what we use when there are parts of the film where these characters step out of that dystopian madness and they actually warm up to one another as human beings. That’s when we need to go to that tone. That’s when we need to go to that musical language and again we discuss the 50s, late 20s, 50s early 60s and we took best elements out of that era and we use it in a very modern film score.

Everything in the films looks like it has been assembled from pieces in a junkyard. How do you reflect that aesthetic in the music?

It’s like there’s a lot of sounds used in the score that actually come from a metal cans, oil drums, all kinds of metal objects that I sampled and did some sound design on that are being used. I mean, generally, in music, I come from a world where you sample bits and pieces from other records so you compile it together into what then becomes a dance track. That’s the world that I come from, so when George starts talking about creating objects out of other objects I was like, “Oh I know that world.”

What were some of the more exotic sounds that you sampled in the soundtrack?

Animals. There’s a lot of those sounds are in the score. The sound that you hear right at beginning of “Escape” is coming from my dog. You need some electronic treatment, and then you get it pretty far. He’s the sweetest dog in the planet. But if he bark and you treat that a certain way, yeah it becomes really scary.

The last time we talked it was about “Divergent.”

“Divergent” is quite different. It was this movie about a young girl that grows up and becomes this heroine. In “Mad Max” you get thrown into the film. You see all these really tough characters that tried to survive had to find their own methods of surviving. So we meet Furiosa played by Charlize Theron, who did a stunning job playing this character, and you meet these other extremely tough women. It’s almost like the reverse. We start with all that violence and throughout the film we warm up with these characters as we get to know them. Whereas in “Divergent” we definitely know the characters and then once we know the characters we go through the story and she becomes this really powerful heroine at the end.

How closely did you work with writer/director George Miller?

It was a remarkable process. George and I worked really intensely on this. It was a true collaboration where he got inspired by the music and to change certain things with the scene and then I got inspired because he did that and then I would do something else and we went back and forth like that multiple times. Eventually I packed up my studio with my assistants and my family and music editors and we all went shooting for eleven weeks roughly and worked with George from early morning till late at night until we were really satisfied. He’s fantastic and we have two things in common. One is we’re extremely precise and we put the bar really high for ourselves and we won’t rest until all the details are right. I drive my assistants to absolute madness and when I was in Nerv in my artist era, I would drive my fellow band members completely to madness because I wanted to do it again and I want to make it different, I wanted to try something else and then back and George is exactly the same thing, the same way. So we really admire that with one another, that you can only strive for the best constantly. You constantly have to second guess, “Is this the best I can do?”

And the second thing is we’re both extremely curious. So when certain things work out a certain way we always start wondering why and we want to know why and then when we know why we apply a little theory to it. We try to understand why it’s so great and then we apply that theory on another scene of the film. Could this be potentially as great as we did there? And how should we do that? Constantly being curious is frustrating but it also enriches your knowledge and your work ethic and also ultimately your results.

At Comic-Con last year, George talked about how excited he was to use the Edge camera car. How did that affect the way you thought about the score?

The first thought is how can we make this experience as thrilling for the audience as possible? So the fact that these cameras make the audience almost part of what you’re going to be seeing on screen, and that goes for the music too. When I saw the movie I know there’s no way I can get away with a cello and a flute.

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