INTERVIEW: Junkie XL (2013)


Dutch producer Tom Holkenborg, better known as Junkie XL, unleashed his first album in four years, Synthesized, recently.  A mashup of genres, styles, and production techniques, the album is actually meant to be listened to all the way through rather than as a series of singles –  a seemingly unique concept in the current hit single-focused world of EDM.  During the Amsterdam Dance Event, he premiered a lot of the songs during a sold out live performance at the Royal Concert Hall.  I interviewed him the next day about the album and his journey into movie soundtracking.

RS: I listened to the album and I love it. I like that the beginning part is like a mixtape that starts out slow and then builds up, was that what you were going for?
Junkie XL: Regarding the structure, I was going for an album that you could listen to as a whole. I know that the concept of an album is not commercial anymore and that people rarely listen to them, but I think that as an art form it’s not old and still valid.

RS: So you thought about that as you were structuring the album to make it with a beginning, rising energy, and then keeping its own way, like a DJ set.
Junkie XL: Yes.

RS: Very cool, I was also getting an ’80s vibe from it, was that in your head also?
Junkie XL: The ’80s is a part of it, but for me it was pushing over my record collection and seeing what records landed on top of each other. There were ’60s and ’70s rock stuff in there, ’50s psychedelic stuff, disco, late ’80s and early ’90s house influences, and of course a lot of production techniques from 1995 on to 2012.

RS: For example, I kept thinking the ’80s because there was the “Gloria” song, and it was like a J. Geils Band song.
Junkie XL: Yeah, J. Geils or for me it was Kiss “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” meets ZZ Top “Give Me All Your Lovin’,” it had an early ’80s vibe.

RS: How did you meet up with Curt Smith of Tears for Fears?
Junkie XL: Like all of the vocalists on this album, I sent them eMails seeing if they wanted to work with me. The guy that was important for this record was Joost Van Bellen, my creative A&R person, who is a legendary DJ that brought house to Holland. He booked DJs from Justice to Tommie Sunshine to Daft Punk far before anyone knew them. He was really the one that helped me get in contact with certain vocalists that I had no idea how to approach. I did approach Curt on my own, and he really loved the track and wanted to collaborate on it.

RS: You just mentioned Tommie Sunshine, what is the song “Love Machine” about?
Junkie XL: It is a cover from a German band. It was a hit in Germany in 1978, and for whatever reason, Joost, Tommy, and I all loved the song and decided to do something with it.

RS: So Tommy did sing that.
Junkie XL: Yes

RS: With “Bonzai,” I felt like you were going back to your soundtrack-type vibe. Since you did a bunch of film soundtracks in the ’90s, were you trying to bring that back with this album as well?
Junkie XL: Well, “Bonzai” for me was trying to combine the disco vibe of Renee’s  “Won’t You Take Me To Funky Town” and combine it with Steve Reich’s minimalist music and all of the little synth lines that turn into an epic, filmic thing that just builds.

RS: It is kind of like the climax scene in a movie, I kept seeing a film in my mind. Another soundtracky song was “The Art of Luxurious Intergalactic Time Travel” – what was the story there?
Junkie XL: First off, I love how people in the ’50s looked at SciFi, the future and the sounds that they used from the sonic library. At the same time, it is an homage to the Orb with how they did the ambient tracks on their first record. That is how it started, and from there I built it to become trippier and trippier, and then used ’70s porn vocals which are hissy, and I dub them out. It turns into a really epic, warm ambient track that gets freaky at the very end before the beat comes in.

RS: My Dutch is really bad, what does “Klatshing” mean?
Junkie XL: “Klatshing” is not necessarily Dutch; it is used in various different languages. It is basically the sound of an old cashier drawer. To me is sounds like a lot of the dance tracks coming out now, where there say let’s just make this track and we are going to make millions. It’s tongue-in-cheek.

RS: The first track Gloria has a great set of mixes, were you involved with choosing the remixes on it?
Junkie XL: Yeah, Joost, my manager and I would compile sets. It is always a challenge to find guys that are up-and-coming and we don’t go to the big guys right away. We like to go to the up-and-coming guys and have them do remixes. On previous tracks, we have guys that are blowing up right now like Azari & III, Nicky Romero, and a couple other guys. They are all doing so well; it is great to find young kids.

RS: Of Kurd Maverick, Prince Club, and Flinch, which one of those is your favorite?
Junkie XL: I think that they all did a really splendid job, they are all different and I think that they are all going to be household names a couple years from now.

RS: Did you play one of those in your sets last night?
Junkie XL: No, I don’t play remixes made by other people; I only play my own stuff and the remixes that I do myself. It was a great show and an amazing venue, it was streamed live on YouTube and a lot of people watched it, it was a sold out show and it was really great.

RS: How much of your set is your music and how much is other people’s music?
Junkie XL: It’s only my music.

RS: So when you DJ it’s only your music?
Junkie XL:   I don’t DJ, it’s an electronic live show, so I do it with laptops and I have some synths and things like that. I have never DJd in my life, I tried to put two records in sync back in the day when it was just turntables and it didn’t work for me. I only do electronic live shows and I have always done it like that. I restrict only to my own recorded material and the remixes that I make myself.

RS: In your live shows you are using a laptop, what software do you use, are you running with Ableton?
Junkie XL: I am using Albeton, which is the most flexible. I really miss the old days when I was carrying around flight cases with sequencers on top and a big 48-channel mixer. I did all my gigs like that, which was phenomenal, but it’s too expensive to drag all of that stuff around, and most of the clubs aren’t set up to use that amount of gear. They have a DJ booth and they expect you to set up with one or two laptops, which is a drag at times.

RS: Are you going to be touring a lot for this album?
Junkie XL: No, because my life has completely changed over the last 10 years. I’ve gotten so involved in film scoring and have been collaborating with Hans Zimmer for the last 3 or 4 years. We work very intensely and closely together on most of his films. For example, this year I have only been working with Hans on The Dark Knight Rises, and now we are working on Man of Steel, so my whole year is basically gone.

RS: Do you find yourself making better money doing film soundtracks than you did as an artist?
Junkie XL: Not necessarily, because when I started doing film scoring I took a backseat because I really wanted to get it down and a figure out what it really was. I know that there are many electronic artists that make music for films, but they are just making tracks and the tracks are being placed in a film or the director says “hey, I love you guys so much, can you give me 20 tracks and I will cut it around and work it in the movie?” That’s great, but what I want is to get the true sense of film scoring. I sit in on meetings with Hans and Chris Nolan and we talk at length about certain pieces of music that need to be made and how characters develop on screen and how it should reflect in the music. It is a completely different science, and that’s what I really want to get down and what I have been focusing on for the last 10 years.

RS: Do you think that you are there?
Junkie XL: I am close. Hans doesn’t often take people under his wing, and he has really passed all the knowledge down. He picked me two years ago and he does everything with me, the plan is to stick with him for a bunch of years and then go on my own.

RS: Do you see yourself moving completely away from electronic dance music and doing film scores all the time?
Junkie XL: No, I want to stay in dance music and I want to continue to make records. I see it as a challenge and a must do to bring true electronic music into film scoring, not just a licensed track or a dubstep track because there is an action scene, but a true integration with electronic music and an orchestra and what film scoring should be.

RS: If your fans want to follow you online, do you use Facebook or twitter?
Junkie XL: Twitter is personally my favorite, but I have a fan page on Facebook which is maintained by my record company and management. All of my tweets go directly to my Facebook, so that way it is always there.

RS: What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
Junkie XL: I want to thank them for all the support and as always stay open-minded to all the new stuff that is happening around you.


Interview conducted during Amsterdam Dance Event 2012.