Composer Hans Zimmer on Performing His First Concerts in the U.S. and 'Breaking the Image of the Pretentious German Composer'

Janos Marjai/MTI via AP
Hans Zimmer performs at the Papp Laszlo Sports Arena in Budapest, Hungary on May 11, 2016.

Before Hans Zimmer toured Europe earlier this year playing music from some of his best loved scores, the Oscar, Grammy, and Golden Globe Award-winning composer was wracked with doubt. “My whole thing is nobody will come. It will be a disaster,” he says, with a self-deprecating laugh.

He was the only one who had such a concern. Many of the 33 dates, including two nights at London’s Wembley Arena, sold out as Zimmer and a 70-piece orchestra revisited music from his 30-decade career, including selections from The Lion King, Gladiator, Pirates of  the Caribbean, The Dark Knight, and Inception

Now, German-born Zimmer, 59, is bringing Hans Zimmer Revealed to the United States in April for three West Coast dates in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, before embarking on an Australian and European tour that will last into the summer.

The concerts, promoted by Harvey Goldsmith, will also feature some of Zimmer’s rock friends as special guests. Though he didn’t want to spoil the surprise for the U.S. shows by saying who would appear with him, in Europe, the SmithsJohnny Marr (who has collaborated with Zimmer on a number of scores, including Inception and The Amazing Spider-Man 2) played on a number of shows.

Zimmer, who scored the upcoming Oscar contender, Hidden Figures, with Pharrell Williams and Ben Wallfisch, spoke to Billboard about playing banjo, overcoming stage fright, and the woman who serves as his nightly inspiration.

Billboard: Composers usually write in dark rooms alone. How gratifying it is to play this music and get immediate feedback from the audience?

Hans Zimmer: There are two parts about that. I always had really bad stage fright. I still have really bad stage fright. A couple of people who know me pretty well who do this standing on stage thing for a living -- Pharrell and Johnny Marr -- just kind of ganged up on me and said “stage fright is not an excuse, get out there. You can’t hide behind a screen for the rest of your life. You owe it to an audience, eventually, to let this music stand on its own two feet and look an audience in the eye and see if it works.” I thought those were compelling arguments. 

Though you play with an orchestra, you’re offering a much different experience than most movie music concerts. 

I wanted to break the image of the film composer, the guy with the large black grand piano and the orchestra and the conductor, so I figured out a different way of doing it. I wanted to take away all the barriers between the audience and musicians and what I really wanted to do was celebrate the musicians, all those guys that are amazing and a lot of people have heard them, but not a lot of people have seen them, so it really became about that.

How many musicians do you take on the road with you? 

I have about 22 people in my core band. They are people who have played on these scores and have found a rightful place. Then on top of that, what happens is per territory, we take an orchestra and rehearse them and they would come with us. 

What was the biggest challenge musically? 

It was literally about figuring out how to make each piece be a journey. I’ve done four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, so Pirates is a 14-minute piece. It’s a mini-symphony.  It was always written as a cello concerto, but it just happens that it upgraded to a bit more of a rock ‘n roll cello because it has Tina Guo playing it on electric cello. With The Lion King [and vocalist] Lebo M, they all know his voice, but no one has seen him, so just having the original of the opening of The Lion King suddenly kick in [with him singing] is quite something.

How hard was it to curate the evening into a cohesive performance given that your scores features so many different styles? 

It’s not quite chronological, but it’s about featuring certain friends literally since I came out of school, so these musicians are part of it and a lot of it has to do with that. The second half is considerably more dramatic since we’re doing  [The Dark Knight Trilogy], Inception, The Thin Red Line, all these slightly different pieces. One of the things that adds cohesion is our lighting designer, Marc Brickman. He’s done a lot of work with Pink Floyd. It wasn’t until our last show in Europe that someone told me they were flying 40 tons of lights above our heads. Had I known that, I would have worn a helmet every night in case everything fell down. The thing I always wanted to try out is not to have a conductor so there isn’t a man with his back to the audience and a bunch of guys reading the paper like a Sunday afternoon. I hoped that we could pull this off somehow. Lo and behold it works.

Plus, you’re all over the place: you play drums, piano, guitar and even banjo. 

Listen, if you want to break the image of the pretentious German composer, you’ve got to play the banjo. And Sherlock Holmes’ [score] was written on the banjo.

Why don’t you show music clips with the music? 

Part of that was I just wanted to see if the music can stand up on its own two feet. That was important to me. And if it all fell over, that was fine too, and I’d just have to try a little harder. But the second part to that question is our audience really comes from many generations. The comment that keeps coming back is that this music has been the soundtrack to their lives. If you take Lion King, that was very much written for my daughter who was six at the time and is 29 now. In a funny way, I’ve felt like I’ve been having this conversation with all these people via media for the last 30 years, but we’ve never really meet. By stripping things away that get in the way, it’s a bit more like we’re at a party having a chat.

Why only three U.S. dates? 

Because I want to see how it works. I want to see how different it is [from Europe]. I  want to see what the audiences are like. It’s a constant learning process. 

But after Europe you could possible come back and do more in the United States? 

Exactly.

What is your favorite theme to revisit?

I’ll get personal. Things start off with Driving With Miss Daisy.  The first thing my friend and publicist Ronni Chasen heard me play when I came into [Los Angeles] was Driving Miss Daisy and the last thing was just me sitting by myself at the piano playing [music from Inception], so there is that arc through the show there are at least two moments that I play for myself and I play for Ronni. Every night they still move me.  [Editor’s note: Chasen was murdered in 2010.] I have two mothers. Ronni was the other mother.  Every night before I go on stage, I make sure I have my shirt tucked in and I don’t have schmutz on my face because she would have done that. So I hear her voice every night. It was part of why I wanted to do it. What Pharrell and Johnny Marr said to me about stage fright,  that’s exactly what she would have said to me. 

Hans Zimmer Live On Tour 2017

April 14 -- Los Angeles, Microsoft Theater 
April 19 -- San Fransicso, The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium 
April 21 -- Las Vegas, The Park Theater
April 29 -- Auckland, Vector Arena    
May 2 -- Sydney, Qudos Bank Arena    
May 4 -- Melbourne, Rod Laver Arena    
May 6 -- Brisbane, Brisbane Entertainment Centre
May 8 -- Perth, Perth Arena        
May 16 -- Helsinki, Hartwall Arena    
May 18 -- Stockholm, Ericsson Globe
May 20 -- Oslo, Forum Copenhagen    
May 22 -- Copenhagen, Royal Arena    
May 24 -- Leipzig, Arena Leipzig    
May 26 -- Gdansk, Ergo Arena    
May 28 -- Lodz, Atlas Arena    
May 30 -- Krakow, Tauron Arena    
June 1 -- Budapest, Papp Laszlo Sports Arena    
June 2 -- Bratislava, Ondrej Nepela Arena        
June 4 -- Prague, O2 Arena    
June 6 -- Vienna, Stadthalle D    
June 9 -- Frankfurt, Commerzbank-Arena    
June 11 -- Paris, AccorHotels Arena     
June 13 -- Dublin, 3Arena        
June 20 -- Antwerp, Sportpaleis    
June 21 -- Amsterdam, Ziggo Dome 
June 23 -- Vienne, Theatre Antique    
June 24 -- Nimes, Arenes            
June 26 -- Zurich, Hallenstadion    
June 27 -- Zurich, Hallenstadion