Hans Zimmer: 'I'm an embarrassing silence without my musicians'

Exclusive: Ahead of the 'World of Hans Zimmer' UK tour, The Lion King and Inception composer speaks to Roisin O'Connor about the daunting task of curating his new show, and why he thinks pop artists should throw away the rulebook

Wednesday 13 March 2019 08:27 GMT
Despite all his success, the composer still has crippling stage fright
Despite all his success, the composer still has crippling stage fright (Rex)

“We don’t build walls,” says Hans Zimmer, sitting on a sofa in a London hotel room. “We tear walls down.” The German-born maestro is explaining why his film scores are politically relevant. Take The Lion King, he continues. The 1994 Disney film, for which he won an Oscar, is not only an exuberant voyage into a vast African savanna, but a bold allegory on apartheid, released just after Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president of South Africa.

“We recorded the last two choirs two weeks before that election, and everything changed,” says the 61-year-old. “The choirs didn’t want to go home because outside a war was raging, and the studio was sanity, the music was sanity. People just wanted to make music and not get killed.”

The score, he says, was an attempt to capture what the singer Lebo M had seen in South Africa before he fled to LA as a political refugee. “I knew he had a story to tell. It didn’t really matter if you didn’t understand the words, you knew that whatever they were, they were incredibly important. The story is still vital, and we have to make people hear it. Right now, you journalists are the last defence against the world going completely to s**t. But there’s a weird truth in music, as well, that binds people or connects them, and makes them look at each other in a different way.”

Although clearly passionate about the importance of music and storytelling, Zimmer is self-effacing when it comes to his role within it. Especially for someone who has scored over 150 films, from Crimson Tide and Gladiator to The Thin Red Line and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. “I am an embarrassing silence without my musicians,” he says, as our conversation turns to the forthcoming World of Hans Zimmer tour. The shows – which come to UK arenas next week – aim to bring his work to a different generation.

“Everybody tells you that the youth of today, whoever they are, have a short attention span, and you can’t give them anything decent,” he says. “That’s complete crap. The youth of today, just like anyone else, like a good story and want to be transported, and to have an experience. They don’t want to be bored, so as long as you move the emotion along, you can do whatever you want to do.”

Sat next to him is the tour’s conductor Gavin Greenaway – Zimmer’s friend and collaborator for the past 25 years – whose own credits include conducting scores for Shrek, Pearl Harbour and The Prince of Egypt. Unlike in his 2016 world tour, Zimmer will not be performing onstage, having now handed the reins to Greenaway. Watching them interact, you can see they're a good foil for each other: where Zimmer is cheerful and full of energy, Greenaway is more reserved, as he recalls the gruelling process of selecting which of his friend’s hundreds of scores to include in the set.

“Hans had hours and hours of material,” Greenaway says. “Even once you’d picked tunes, there’s a 22 minute Da Vinci Code piece in the first half, and I said to him, ‘It’s too long, it’s not going to work in the arena’. And I was so wrong about it. We did it and the first time, I went: ‘This is incredible, it really works’.”

“Thank you!” says Zimmer loudly, before whispering to me: “He hasn’t said that to me before.”

“It’s opera, symphonic, it shouldn’t work in a 12,000 seat arena,” Greenaway continues. “But it goes from super quiet with one soprano singing, to a full-on orchestra, like gates of hell kind of stuff.”

Gavin Greenaway conducts a performance of Hans Zimmer’s Da Vinci soundtrack in Berlin (Frank Embacher)

Together, Zimmer and Greenaway have assembled a diverse set of virtuoso musicians, including Cuban-Argentinian pianist Eliane Correa, Brazilian percussionist Luis Ribeiro, Colombian bassist Juan Garcia-Herreros, and American-Israeli soprano Gan-ya Ben-gur Akselrod.

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“It really is so wonderful how music brings us all together,” Greenaway says. “It’s a family. You hear half a dozen languages round the dinner table, people jumping from one language to another, but the core is this musical storytelling that Hans has given us the framework for.”

“It’s been interesting going to places like Minsk, because Belarus is seen as this dictatorship,” he adds. “But they have clean streets, they have a wonderful opera house, and they have people that make great music. They’re desperate for cultural exchange. We [the British] are the ones putting up the barriers.”

Born in Frankfurt in the late Fifties, Zimmer lost his father when he was a child and, by own admission, wasn’t easy to be around. He made his first foray into the music industry as a teenager, playing keys and synths with the band Krakatoa. Ask him to write a song, though, and he’ll likely turn you down on the basis that he has a problem with “any form of authority, and the authority that is put upon you of writing a song”.

“Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight…” he says. “It’s always the same bloody structure. I end up going ‘no wait a second, this is not how life works’, and suddenly you go off and decide you need something completely different here, and that’s what film music allows you to do. People are desperately trying to reinvent pop music without realising one of its inherent flaws. They need to go and throw the structure out.”

His own work is impressive in its variety, with each of his scores indelibly tied to its accompanying film – and vice versa. Think of the bombastic horns and Romany jigs and reels in Pirates of the Caribbean. Or the booming trombone that heralds Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”, which he contorts into a menacing motif throughout Inception. Zimmer’s late father was an inventor who encouraged his early, Frankensteinian experiments on musical instruments. It appears to have stayed with him: for Sherlock, his team did “hideous things” to a broken piano to achieve those wonky, out-of-tune notes that ape the drunken movements of Robert Downey Jr’s famous detective.

And yet, for all his musicianship, Zimmer still suffers from crippling stage fright. Indeed, the 2016 world tour, which he performed alongside ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, nearly didn’t happen. Though he won’t be on stage this time around, he was nevertheless nervous about these shows as well. “It was these guys I worked with – Marr, Pharrell Williams and others – who sat me down and said to me: ‘It’s all very well being in a dark room hiding behind a computer doing nothing in real time. But there comes a point in your life where you have to actually be responsible, and accountable, and look the audience right in the eye’.”

“People come to see these shows because they loved the movies,” he continues. “Hopefully they will leave remembering something about themselves, having had a very personal experience where they were the star, and the music was playing for them.”

The World of Hans Zimmer tour begins in Manchester on 20 March

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