Studio Visit: Film Composer JunkieXL

Multi-instrumentalist Tom Holkenborg's creative space is brimming with equipment and inspiration

by Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick

Musician Tom Holkenborg works under the pseudonym JunkieXL and has created soundscapes for films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool, Black Mass, Dark Tower, and the upcoming Tomb Raider among many, many other projects. The Tarzana, LA-based artist works in a garage he converted into a studio that’s bursting with equipment, from classic instruments like guitars and keyboards to synthesizers that line the walls, nearly touching the ceiling.

Holkenborg’s practice is years in the making after he transitioned to Southern California from his native Netherlands in the early 2000s—shifting careers, from law to industrial rock to electronic breakbeats and producing pop songs to his current role as a film composer. To understand how Holkenborg works—and how movie music is made—we sat down with the artist in his studio.

What attracts you to film composing?

A lot of disciplines come together in film that is really awesome, from script writing to acting to set design to special effects. It’s a mixed process. It’s team work. That really appealed to me, to be a part of that industry. It’s easier said than done though. I came here in 2002, met some composers, and realized it wasn’t going to happen overnight: it was going to be a long, long road. I maintained my career as an electronic musician and remixer for a while, while I was really trying hard to get to get into the film industry. There were a couple of times where I thought I’d go back to Amsterdam but, after a lot of persistence, finally it happened in 2013 when I did my first movie. It’s a great feeling when you finally get there. Making your career is one thing but switching your career two times around is not necessarily the best thing to do.

That’s absolutely true.

It was an interesting road. I feel like a fish in water right now. As an artist, weirdly enough, I felt constricted by what fans maybe wanted to hear or what I thought it needed to be or what my record company wanted. It’s really funny because I’m working on something that is super restricted but, for whatever reason, I feel super inspired. I always compare it to art painters. If you walk into a room with all the materials for you to choose and pick from—any color and material—and you say, “Make your masterwork,” I get lost. But if you send me into that same room with only one piece of canvas and only blue and yellow and one pencil to do my masterwork? Then, in my head, something starts to burn. Just two colors! Pencil! I find that really inspiring. That’s what film scoring to me is.

What is that process of composing music for a film?

For a first-time director, usually my agent tells me there’s an interest for you in this-and-this film, I say that looks great, and starting Googling the director. Then they send me the script and I read it—but they do that with other composers too. It’s not just me because you never want to bet on one horse. Then you meet the director—and that’s the most important part of the whole process because that’s when you find out whether you click or not. It’s a human business, it’s about people working together pretty intensely.

After meeting with the director, then I get to see the film and I get super-inspired about it and I usually start making music, sending MP3s to the director, saying, “Do you recognize your movie in this?” When the director feels like I got it, then we start talking about what would be the most important scene of the movie and we nail that first. Then you know how you need to get there.

Making music for a film is like a film itself: it’s storytelling, through music.

We have to talk about all this equipment. How is your process informed by your tools?

For me, the creative process for gear is really important. You don’t use all this stuff all the time. For every project, you need a new best friend for that project and that’s three or four things. It could be that guitar with those pedals. I have 30 more guitars and hundreds more pedals, but for this project, it’s that guitar with those pedals. You play on it and you feel excited, like a young kid. For me, sitting behind a computer every day is really boring. I need stuff that is going to spark some enthusiasm. That’s why this room is constantly changing. It’s important to have stuff that keeps me excited.

How often do you find yourself shifting the room around?

Around every five or six months. It was really empty at the beginning because I wanted to have it clean so I could just grab something when I needed it. But, pretty soon after that, I was working on a project that was more guitar and bass driven so there were amplifiers and guitars and pedals everywhere. It was…nice! Then the projects were more synthesizer heavy so all the guitars went out. Now I’m working on a project that has a lot of really weird percussion instruments that come from the Fiji Islands and Tahiti so I’m going to need to clear this out in a couple of weeks.

What is an ideal project to work on, for you?

It’s a project with people that you’ve worked with before, who you completely trust and who completely trust you. Everyone knows what needs to get done. At the same time, it’s a very good film and eventually it comes out and people want to see it. and they’re very positive about it. And the new ones, where you work with a director for the first time, are very exciting too. With Dark Tower, I worked for the first time with Nik [Nikolaj] Arcel and we got to know each other really well, in six months. I wouldn’t say it was easy because we’re both very critical of the music and, many times, I’d play him music and I knew, “Damn. It’s not good,” and I had to do it again. We constantly kept pushing each other and, at the end, we did it. It’s done. It’s awesome.

Images by Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick