On the Road With 'Dark Knight' Composer Hans Zimmer

Academy Award winner is on tour with his band, drawing audiences eager to hear his iconic work live

Hans Zimmer, the 59-year-old Academy Award-winning composer behind 'Dunkirk,' 'The Lion King,' 'The Dark Knight' and 'Inception' – performing a soundcheck at Radio City Music Hall on July 25th, 2017. Credit: Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone

The last time Hans Zimmer was a touring musician, it was around the time Margaret Thatcher took office. Having moved from Germany to England for school as a teenager, opting out of college and having no more formal music training than two weeks of childhood piano lessons, he was playing keyboards for Krakatoa, an ultimately unsigned hard rock band.

"And it was just these Working Men's Clubs with endless tables with people nursing their pint of beer which they'd been nursing all day," he says. "And usually … we were either the support act for the strippers or the strippers were the support act for us."

Now, in a seventh-floor suite in a Four Seasons outside of Dallas, Zimmer – the 59-year-old Academy Award-winning composer behind The Lion King, The Dark Knight, Inception and this year's critically acclaimed Christopher Nolan film, Dunkirk – is hours away from the first of 20 North American tour dates with a decidedly fuller set up: six buses, 10 semis, 19 touring musicians, pick-up orchestral players and choirs in every city – and a setlist featuring nearly 30 years of soundtrack music. 

Fancifully clad in pinkish pants and colorful striped socks, Zimmer asks his tour manager if all of the musicians have arrived in Texas. It's been about two weeks since the European leg ended in Milan, Italy, and his band members are flying in from their various home countries – including, he says, Tasmania, South Africa, England and Switzerland. His own break wasn't much of one. He says he went back and worked on a soundtrack until 2 a.m. every night. (As for which movie: "My lawyer actually said to me, 'You know when you sign these non-disclosure agreements, this one, please take it seriously and don't even tell your family.'")

Together with his band, they will approximate the composer's eclectic repertoire, which leaps between electronic experimentation and orchestral bombast, heart-tugging melodies and anxiety-raising sound design. His discography is dotted with unorthodox methods: For The Lone Ranger, he banged on a train that was in the yard of neighbor Chris Carter of X-Files fame; for The Dark Knight, he took razor blades to piano wire; Sherlock Holmes was recorded on an out-of-tune piano he bought for $200. His most invasive sound, the foghorn noise playfully referred to as "braaams" throughout Inception, was made after Zimmer put a piano in the middle of a room, put bricks on the pedals and had more than a dozen brass players blast at the strings.

Though he's scored and co-scored some of the highest grossing films of all time – including three Christopher Nolan Dark Knight movies and four Pirates of the Caribbean films – Zimmer is the rare film composer that can draw a passionate live audience billed under his own name rather than the franchises he soundtracks.

"I had Johnny Marr and Pharrell," he says, recalling a pivotal moment in his Santa Monica studio. "I remember sitting on my couch, and I think they were sitting either side of me, and saying, 'Come on Hans. You gotta get out of this room. One of these days, you have to look your audience in the eye. You not only have to look them in the eye, but in a funny way, you have to sort of say 'thank you' to them.'"

Zimmer does look his audience in the eye, since he spends each show playing piano, keyboards and guitar instead of conducting. In fact, there's no conductor during his shows, his band instead following a teleprompter system in order to, as he says, "tear down that wall that seems to be artificially created." 

"You can find it on YouTube. It's my favorite bit of conducting ever," Zimmer says. "It's Leonard Bernstein in Vienna, with the Vienna Phil. and they're playing Haydn. And he knows how they play Haydn, so he just folds his arms, and he just raises an eyebrow occasionally, and he just gives a smile to somebody who played something beautiful."

"Hans has got a band together," says Nile Marr, son of Johnny and one of Zimmer's guitarists. "It's hard to see when you're immediately faced with so much gear, so many people. But when you really strip it away, it's a band at its core. … It's basically like, if someone took a band and were like, 'We want to do every one of your wildest ideas. Let's make it happen.'"

Zimmer bringing orchestral music around the country almost like a rock band. He says when they did their first show in London, producer Harvey Goldsmith didn't suggest the stuffier Royal Albert Hall, but instead the Hammersmith Apollo where Zimmer saw bands in high school. Zimmer brags that guitarist Guthrie Govan never plays the same solo twice. Percussionist Aicha Djidjelli comes from playing kit in punk bands and says she learned the arrangements by ear. Zimmer describes the music stands on stage as "safety blankets." He thinks this may be his last tour, partially since he'll doesn't think he'll never be able to assemble this band of friends and collaborators again. And at no point during the show will you see a single frame of a movie.

"Pirates and Gladiator became one of those things that they were touring, you know, the movie with the orchestra. And I went to see one of them and I just remember my reaction of being really excited about seeing the orchestra for the first five minutes, and then I was completely sucked into the film," says Zimmer. "It neither served the film nor did it serve ... Certainly it did not serve the orchestra. And then I was thinking about this whole idea of orchestral film music and how it's presented if it's not with a film, which is really, you have a man with his back to you for the whole evening and a bunch of people reading the paper. I just sort of had this image of a marriage gone south. … Unless it's an amazing conductor, it really is a wall between the audience and the musicians. And the thing I really love is the musicians."

Zimmer got his start as a musician, playing keyboards in rock bands throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Krakatoa never officially released a single, but his time with them left a lasting impression. He remembers a gig in Sunderland where the shipyards had closed down, looking off the stage and seeing the "monumental hopelessness" as the band provided entertainment for people who were out of work.

"And I realized that," he says with a pause. "Do I really want to tell you this? Yeah, fuck it. I carried something away from all those tours. ... I have a fictitious person I write for. And she's called Doris, and she's from Bradford and she wears a raincoat and she has two horrible little kids that are giving her nothing but grief. And you know, the man left her a while back. And she just, in the rain, everyday, trudges to work and she works hard. … And so if she puts her hard-earned money down, we better give her an experience. And we better put everything in just like she put everything in to get there. ... When I finish writing a piece. Sometimes my music editor says to me, 'What do you think? Do you think Doris will like this one?'"

Zimmer went on to work with the synth-pop crew the Buggles, whose single American hit, "Video Killed the Radio Star," is best known as the first video played on MTV. During the video's outro, you can see a young Zimmer playing an enormous synth rig. He says that particular synth was purchased by Mick Jagger for the 1970 film Performance and then sold to Christopher Franke of komische drone crew Tangerine Dream. Zimmer "inherited" it, and it still gets used.

"Anything that pins you in your seat in Dark Knight," he says, "is... you know."

Although that synthesizer would have a long career, Zimmer's time in the Buggles was short-lived. They never toured, and he was gone before the second album.

"We were recording in this studio that belonged to some famous record producer," Zimmer says. "And occasionally, he'd just wander through the studio, and he'd just drop comments like, 'I don't know why you guys even bother to finish this thing.' It was just so disheartening."

"Video Killed the Radio Star" became a hit and Zimmer says the record company had gone from disinterest to asking for an album – but Zimmer says they didn't really have any other songs. "In the nicest possible way being told, 'Well just do the same thing over and over,'" he explains. "And it really was at that moment that I went, 'Hang on. That's not how I want to spend my life.'"

Zimmer spent the early Eighties doing sessions as a synth programmer until he met The Deer Hunter composer Stanley Myers. Myers began to mentor the young composer after Zimmer figured out how to work his espresso machine. He did a few years of collaborative scores with Myers, but it was his solo score for 1987 anti-apartheid film A World Apart that intrigued director Barry Levinson, who tapped Zimmer for 1988's Rain Man. At age 31, it garnered him his first Academy Award nomination and launched a career that covers everything from The Thin Red Line to Madagascar to this year's war epic, Dunkirk

Zimmer, who seems like a big hugger, engages in multiple embraces as he reunites with his bandmates in the lobby and porch of the Four Seasons. He makes his way past the bags – organized by their numbered yellow tags – onto the tour bus, which has a cluster of bunks and his private bedroom in the back. After some discussion about why American tour buses can only have a single level, Zimmer, assistant Cynthia Park, singer Lebohang "Lebo M." Morake and drummer Satnam Ramgotra take a more than 30-minute ride to the Verizon Theatre in nearby Grand Prarie, Texas. Zimmer met Ramgotra as a beatboxer when he was working on the score to 2001 film Black Hawk Down.

"I had this insane track which was really fast and it was 22 minutes long and I didn't tell him," Zimmer says. "He was doing really amazingly well but I was actually thinking, 'He's gonna die. He's gonna run out of air, he's gonna die.' That was the worst thing I ever made you do right?"

"No," Ramgotra replies to assorted laughter.

Zimmer has spent his career working in "windowless dark rooms." Photos of his studio in Santa Monica reveal a plush, dimly lit room full of walls of knobs that he once said was designed to look like "a 19th-century Viennese brothel." Touring has been somewhat of an adjustment.

"Firstly," he says, "I don't know what day it is."

"I think it's Friday," says Ramgotra.

"It's Thursday!" counters Hill.

"Right now, it literally is in the moment," says Zimmer. "So my whole – like everything I've known, everything I've done, everything I've gotten good at – is meaningless."

Lebo M., 53, sits across from Zimmer. He wears an unassuming polo shirt, camouflage pants and a hat that reads "DAD." Lebo's so soft-spoken that he's hard to hear over the rattling of the bus, but he's responsible for some of the most iconic vocal belting in movie history, the "nants ingonyama" that opens "Circle of Life" and 1994's Disney animated film The Lion King. Though you can currently hear a version of "Circle of Life" on Broadway and in touring companies around the world, in what is the highest-grossing musical of all time, only Zimmer's tour has the actual singer.

"When I first met this guy, he was a political refugee working in a car wash. And he was doing such a terrible job at that car wash," says Zimmer. "I just had to go save all those cars from getting scratched up."

When composing 1992's The Power of One, Zimmer needed a co-writer who understood the music, culture and conflicts of South Africa and was recommended Lebo by a friend.

He recalls a 6 o'clock meeting with producers and directors when he had "no Lebo, no nothing," just a track that was an arrangement of Elton John's "Circle of Life." He says Lebo rang the studio doorbell around 5:30. Zimmer says he played him the music and said to do something.

"And if you listen very carefully to that beginning chant, right out in the first note you can hear a fader move because he was just belting," says Zimmer. "And that was the take. It's the only take."

"When we started doing this, 'cause I was between Los Angeles and South Africa, my headspace was in South Africa, and the taking over of Simba was not a cartoon to me. It was literally when Mandela was about to be president," says Lebo. He sings the line "Ndabe zitha" from "King of Pride Rock" and explains the lyrics as a statement of taking over a country. "Ndabe zitha – king of kings, rule this land, rule with peace, heal the land, heal with peace," he says. "Scar became the old apartheid system and then Simba became Mandela, so there's this duality in both worlds happening at the same time."

Lebo explains that the famous opening line, "Nants ingonyama," is a mix of Zulu and Xhosa and therefore not especially impressive when directly translated (the Internet offers: "Here comes a lion.")

"But it metaphorically means the entrance and the power of what the lion represents ... therefore the power and the entrance of a king when a king enters," he says. "It's a calling to alert the nation, whether it's in animals or in human beings, the king is arriving. So metaphorically, when you look at both, if you imagine everywhere Nelson Mandela entered, it was a huge power in his entrance that represents the power of a lion."

Lebo, not Zimmer, ended up recording the choirs weeks before the South African election as a civil war raged outside. As Zimmer explains: "The studio was like sanctuary and none of the singers would leave the studio because they didn't wanna go. Music was sanity."

The bus arrives, Zimmer drops his shoulder bag and jacket in a dressing room and immediately heads to the stage. ("First thing I have to do, I have to smell the room," he said earlier.) He sits down at the piano (topped with a martini glass and shaker) at center stage and starts plunking out his theme to 1989's Driving Miss Daisy. Around him, the shell of the evening's show is mostly in place – tympani, a modular synth set up, bell chimes. The guitar tech, Graham Merchant, plays Kendrick Lamar from a UE Boom speaker.

"What I do like are the seats are pretty close," Zimmer says about the venue. "I do get to look in people's eyes."

Before sound check, Carl Kleinsteuber, a local tuba player in the pick-up band, approaches Zimmer to tell him he's a fan.

"No, no," Zimmer demurs, "after tonight, I will be your biggest fan."

That night's show was bombastic, majestic and occasionally avant-garde (especially thanks to the slow-climbing glissando of The Dark Knight's Joker theme "Why So Serious?"). Cellist Tina Guo whips her hair and Marr raises his guitar. Lebo put his arm around Hans, sang with his daughter Refi and received no shortage of standing applause. Zimmer thanks a section for being noisy.

He admitted to being a little worried before he got on stage that night ("It's called free-flowing anxiety. Who knows?") and has dealt with stage fright in the past. Zimmer says that Pharrell even knew about his stage fright after the singer invited him to play guitar on the 2015 Grammys. He says the superstar made a lot of eye contact as a "brotherly gesture."

"To go from Milan to Dallas seems very different and I didn't know what to expect from the audience," Zimmer says, now backstage, already in his button-up pajama top and eating a banana. "And then, straightaway, I mean, literally, just being up on stage and just seeing the first few rows being totally with me was great."

Behind him in his dressing room is a Sohmer piano with a musty smell and some dirty keys. So far, he hasn't played it.

"I, on purpose, haven't played the piano because I looked at it and I thought, 'It's going to be... " he interrupts his own thought and says, "Well, come on let's do it."

He wanders over and meanders through the Sherlock Holmes theme with a few pauses and bum notes.

"It's a perfect piano to do Sherlock Holmes," he says before two more starts. "I can't remember how it goes. See, I can play it on the banjo, but I can't play it on the piano. I thought it would be a real disappointment but it's actually a really nice, moody piano," he says, before playing wordlessly for more than a minute.

He starts Beethoven's "Für Elise," talks about the theory that the "Elise" in question was actually a transcription error, and starts the composer's "Sonata Pathétique" mid-story.

"Doesn't that just kill you how simple and perfect that is?" he says.

"One of my favorites," says Nick Glennie-Smith, film composer and Zimmer musician, who had wandered in.

Zimmer's bus heads for Houston that night, the rock & roll summer of someone who gathers orchestras and plays Beethoven backstage rolls on. Does the successful composer have any long-held fantasies about being a touring musician?

"No, weirdly there never were," he says. "No, look, my long-held fantasy which will never happen is that I could play guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughan and play the blues all night."