CMA Awards 2018

Hans Zimmer Explains How His Radiohead Collab for 'Blue Planet II' Came About

Zoe Zimmer
Hans Zimmer

Radiohead aren't exactly the easiest band to get a hold of, but Hans Zimmer says collaborating with them for a song to accompany prequel footage of Planet Earth: Blue Planet II went off without a hitch. The new marine docuseries, presented by naturalist Sir David Attenborough, debuts on BBC America this Saturday (Jan. 20).

“When you read about musicians, it’s such an odd thing, it seems everyone has their own little pigeonhole they’re in and they’re just going to do that,” he tells Billboard. “But when musicians talk to musicians, you suddenly find out they’re all interested in what the other person is doing and most musicians I’ve ever met, all they’re dying to do is collaborate. Because really, that’s where we started. That’s the fun part.”

“(Ocean) Bloom” is a reimagining of “Bloom,” a track from the band’s album King of Limbs, itself a song Thom Yorke was inspired to write after watching the BBC’s original The Blue Planet in 2001. Here’s how it went down.

The genesis did not begin backstage at last year’s Coachella, where Radiohead and Zimmer shared the bill, as fans of both parties might have expected.

“No wasn’t quite like that,” the composer says with a chuckle. “It ended up being a conversation in London. A producer at the BBC called Thom in." While the composer didn’t know Yorke had been influenced by the original masterpiece, “it didn’t surprise me. A large chunk of my growing up was spent in England, and we all watched Blue Planet. We were all obsessed by the first time round. If Blue Planet calls, anybody and everybody will come.”

By the time Zimmer and Yorke met, Zimmer and his team already had been at work deconstructing the track. “We had done an arrangement and recomposed the song and we took enormous liberties with it, which is the only way to go and approach these things.”

Was Yorke cool with the changes? “I think he would’ve been really uncool with it had we not taken enormous liberties,” Zimmer says. “I know with remixes of new things of stuff I’ve done, I always like the ones that do really outrageous things. Don’t do a bad copy, go and make it your own.

The new version meant Yorke had to record new vocals, “which wasn’t as easy as Thom thought it was going to be,” Zimmer says. “Here’s the thing… if there’s an easy way to do it, it’s not on this project. There is a respect that comes from, we’re all incredibly grateful to David Attenborough. That he has devoted his life to doing what he’s doing. And so you can’t be casual about this. It’s not just the man’s work, it’s the man's work for our planet.”

To plunge viewers into the realm of the world’s waters, Zimmer and two composers from his Bleeding Fingers Music, Jacob Shea and David Fleming, were drawn to pointillism, a style of visual arts whereby a collection of dots together form a larger whole. Translated into the musical realm, it meant less focus on which instruments were played and more focus on how they were played to serve as a bridge for audiences to get immersed in the footage.

“We are so used to terra firma, but as soon as we are in the water, yes we have these big arcs these big waves but within that there’s constant movement,” Zimmer says. “The idea of taking an orchestra and saying to them, ‘Everything they taught you of how to become this one body, let’s just go and forget about this. I want to hear the individual players; I want to hear the ebb and flow’ - which is a pointillistic and impressionistic approach.

“We called this new style, this way of playing, the Tidal Orchestra, which I think is a lovely way to approach,” he says. When Radiohead came in for “(Ocean) Bloom,” the last piece of music composed for the series, “it was just about introducing Radiohead to the Tidal Orchestra.”

Having the song accompany the prequel is a nice connection to the original series, Fleming says. “With Thom being inspired by the original series, for this to be the trailer was apt because here’s something that was a jumping off point from Blue Planet for him, and now it’s talking you into this new word that’s Blue Planet II."

“In trying with the music to bring some humanity to stuff that felt very far away from my world view, I felt like I became more sympathetic to that side of the world than ever before,” Shea says.

The pointillism vibe “is very organic,” Zimmer notes. “That’s how choirs work, because they can’t hold the note. But at the same time I think subconsciously you’re just being made more aware of how hard it is. You’re going to run out of breath. And I think if you take an audience underneath the surface of the ocean, it’s not so bad to subconsciously remind them that you’re going to run out of breath.”