If you’ve watched a lot of blockbuster-type movies in the last few decades, chances are you’ve experienced the music of German-born composer Hans Zimmer. He’s scored over 120 films—from those of The Dark Knight Trilogy to Gladiator—in various genres; next up is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
However, about three years ago, Zimmer decided to step out from behind the screen and perform his music in front of audiences around the world. Earlier this year he played his first U.S. concerts, including a much raved-about performance at Coachella.
Zimmer’s live performance features two distinct sections: The first showcases some of Zimmer’s classic movie scores, including those for The Lion King and Pirates of the Caribbean, while the second part re-imagines versions of music from films like The Dark Knight and Inception. The latter often includes special guest musicians, invited to join Zimmer and his bandmates.
The composer recently wrapped up a European tour, and will return to the states for a month-long stint, starting July 13 in Dallas, before crisscrossing the country and finishing in Santa Barbara on August 13.
Paste recently caught up with Zimmer by phone from his final European stop in Milan to discuss what’s it like taking his music on the road and what keeps him going after all these years.
Paste Magazine: Earlier this year you expressed your amazement at how the Coachella set went. How are you feeling about the live show now?
Hans Zimmer: Still amazed. [There]’s a big difference between doing a movie as opposed to the live show—every show is different. The problem, of course, is that I have a band that is very musically ambitious and adventurous. So, you never quite know what you’re going to get every night. They’re spending their time at the edge of the abyss, with myself hanging on for dear life. Like “Are we going to make it through the next track?” So, it’s not getting boring, if that’s what you mean.
Paste : You’ve mentioned in the video promo for your MasterClass sessions that with your music you’re basically having a conversation with your audience. How does that convert to the live setting?
Zimmer: It’s the truest version of that statement. Because real time is very different from hiding behind the screen during things. It’s not in real time. You react obviously to what your audience is putting out. So, in a peculiar way, it’s almost like playing a duet. It’s between the audience and you. The audience is absolutely part of the performance. Basically, it’s a completely different way for me to look at music.
Paste : You also said that, “If somebody tells you that there’s a rule, break it, that’s the only thing that moves things forward.” Can you expand on that statement?
Zimmer: It’s not so much breaking [rules] as opposed to constantly evolving things and moving boundaries aside and building bridges. The constant idea is to invent and never stand still. In a funny way, you have to be virtually completely passé and oblivious that there are any rules. The most fun I’ve had—I haven’t really thought about it most times—was starting a score and going, “Well there is a set way of doing this.” Even just harmonically and just with music. There are certain rules. Let’s figure out what the biggest no-no is and just see if we can make something really beautiful or great or exciting out of that. So as soon as someone tells me a rule, I somehow feel challenged by that to go prove them wrong.
Like playing film music at a festival like Coachella. Even I had my doubts, let’s be honest. But you know what I suddenly figured out? One of the rules that we all live by, including myself, was there are different forms of music—there’s rock music, there’s pop rock and heavy metal, and then there’s film music. [But] it’s all [just] music. It doesn’t matter [what genre it is]. I think the audience was surprised. But I think I was more surprised than the audience, quite honestly. I think the audience came to Coachella with more faith in what I was going to do than I was having about the whole thing. And it turned out it was just music. It was like any other music. It was either good music or bad music. It takes you on a journey or it doesn’t. If anything good came out of Coachella, [it] was to stop putting film music into its own little pigeonhole of a box. Just call it music.
Paste: Do you hope you’re a trendsetter for composers with touring like you are currently?
Zimmer: No, I don’t hope to be a trendsetter for anybody. I want everyone else to be their very own trendsetter. My friend is going to go out and do some shows. But they’ll be very different from mine. That’s sort of the great thing. You need to go and do something that everyone told you shouldn’t do. And you either pull it off or you don’t pull it off. In that case, it was a successful experiment [for me]. I don’t want to be a trendsetter because I love that other people are [touring] in a completely different way. I would never want to take away from the pleasure of seeing a John Williams concert, who does it in a completely different way.
Part of the problem with [being a] trendsetter is you try to be relevant. Or slightly ahead of the curve. And trendsetters have a nasty habit of trends growing boring and unfashionable and the trend dying very quickly. I’ve never tried to be a trendsetter or fashionable in any way. I just stick to writing my music that I like enough, and that I was hoping other people would like a lot too.
Paste: Are there songs that are tougher to translate to the live stage than others?
Zimmer: I think in one way or another I can make them all translate. Yes, I’m slowly starting to think about what’s the next thing we’re going to do. But I’m doing it very cautiously and very carefully, because I have to be mindful that I don’t get distracted from the task. Which is to make every night of this show count with the music that I’ve picked. But I have a few ideas of what the next thing could be and how it could be completely different. I mean, I do have enough material in my back catalog to make something interesting happen.
Paste: You’ve had some guest musicians join you on tour. Who are some of your favorites?
Zimmer: Obviously Pharrell [Williams]. Coincidently, they’re musicians, but I’ve had friends join me on tour. Which is really great fun. Pharrell came and did something at Coachella. I have a very strong connection with [him] because of Gladiator. Johnny Marr had to sit in for his son because his son had food poisoning on Father’s Day. So it was sort of a perfect Father’s Day event, that the father had to play for his son. It was in Liverpool, so that was in good territory as well.
Trevor Hall and I had the first video on MTV, [“Video Killed the Radio Star.”] We finally performed it live for the first time in Frankfurt. We enjoyed it so much that we did it two more times in London.
And I’ve been a huge fan of this French violinist Didier Lockwood for years. We were in Paris and the violinist for my orchestra sent me an e-mail saying, “Oh my God, Didier Lockwood is playing a gig tonight.” I thought I could do one better. And I phoned him up and invited him to come out and do our show. That was a complete blast. Especially because I could make a great violinist in my band very happy.
So it’s a bit like that. You get to a town and suddenly go, “Who do I know?” We are very good at working out things in ten minutes during the soundcheck. Just let anarchy rule and see what happens. With Pharrell, we had absolutely no rehearsal. We just went on stage and did it.
Paste: How do you keep yourself motivated in coming up with fresh ideas for film scores these days?
Zimmer: Because I love it. I always loved it. I’ve loved music as far back as I can remember. I’ve loved storytelling and film, and the excitement of a director telling me a story. It’s not a job, you know. How to keep motivated doing the thing you love doing the most? It’s exciting and new. If you just looked at the stuff with Ridley Scott, Thelma and Louise felt completely different than Gladiator, felt different from Black Hawk Down, felt completely different from Hannibal. Part of the motivation is that I get to tell different stories in styles that are unfamiliar to me.
What keeps me motivated is what keeps me hungry to learn something. Or keep surrounding myself with musicians who are constantly kicking my ass with their musicianship. You have to remember, I’m a composer, not a performer. So a lot of the music was written for people who play much better than I do. So I’ve been the one there learning how to play my own stuff, which I’ve written for virtuosos. And some of it they do a lot better than me.
Paste: Have you been working on any film scores during your downtime on tour?
Zimmer: I can’t do both. I finished Dunkirk literally one day into the tour. But you can’t do both. You just have to commit your body and soul to what you’re doing at any one point. And right now, I’m 100 percent committed to these shows. Because my job is to go out there and hopefully provide a certain measure of experience to the audience, to give them something that they didn’t have [before]. And we’re certainly not phoning it in. It’s a true commitment.
Paste: Speaking of Dunkirk, how did you try to differentiate that score from other war film scores?
Zimmer: I’m not going to talk about Dunkirk. We have a very good habit of never talking about a movie until it’s out. Even Interstellar, I didn’t even release the score until it was already out for two weeks. I wanted people to come to it fresh. So yes, obviously I have differentiated it from Thin Red Line and Black Hawk Down. But go see it and go figure it out. Otherwise, what is the point of me telling you and taking away the possibility of you having the surprise of being excited about something that you didn’t expect? In an interview, the best I could possibly do is give a snippet of something, like a snippet of a sentence that was a year in my life.
Paste: What does it mean to have your fingerprints on so many corners of film and pop culture?
Zimmer: I was lucky. It means I was lucky that people offered me good stories to work on and I got to work with great musicians. I feel lucky that people booked interest in me to elevate their stories. I mean it’s as simple as that. It’s been an extraordinary life of being able to work with that many musicians and that many filmmakers. And it means having had conversations with audience[s] that now I actually get to look in the eye. So it’s interesting to find out if any of this even resonated. By me going out there and taking the images away, and not showing any film clips at all, that’s really the dare. Will the music stand up on its own two feet? And you’re catching me on the last show in Europe and unless I make [a] complete mess of it tonight, we’ve gotten through Europe and Australia and New Zealand and a bit of America in one piece. And actually managed to do a fairly good show. But what does it mean? It means that I didn’t waste my life.