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Question Time – In conversation with Yannick Zenhäusern

When it comes to composing music for James Bond, you immediately think of industry greats such as John Barry, David Arnold, Michael Kamen or Bill Conti. They all have greatly contributed to the way James Bond sounds on screen. But there is a Bond music world outside of that in which fans create tunes for trailers, tributes, game music and even the occasional film score. Swiss composer Yannick Zenhäusern has undoubtedly left his mark on all four of those.

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The Bond Bulletin: Yannick, in Bond fandom you are known as a gifted composer who has taken on many challenges. Your musical works come into being with a lot of dedication and sensitivity for the distinctive Bond-Sound while also managing the balancing act between being classical and modern. What drives you? How does a typical day in your studio look like?

Yannick Zenhäusern: Goodness, is there another Yannick? The description cannot possibly apply to me (laughs). First off, thank you for the overwhelming compliments! Music is my passion. I invest so much time in it because I just love it and have an urge for it. It’s like escaping from reality into other worlds. Bond is one of my biggest soft spots. I love to take familiar elements and turn them into something new. Something that seems familiar to you but delivers a fresh approach.

A typical day in the studio looks like this: I get up at about 9 o’clock, make a cup of coffee first, smoke a few cigarettes and off I go. For most of the time, I have precisely planned what I want to realize and set myself daily goals the evening before, sometimes even days before. Then I usually work more or less until late in the evening, with 2-3 short breaks to eat and perhaps to relax a little bit. These are my days off work. However, since I have a full-time job, there is often no choice but to invest a few hours in the evenings after work. Most of the time I come home from work, eat something fast and then work 3-4 hours.

The Bond Bulletin: The 17th James Bond film GoldenEye has a special place in your heart. Right now you’re working on the music for a PC single player port of the famous N64 game, a fan project scheduled for a 2022 release. You have placed special emphasis on an authentic sound which is closer to the soundtrack of the film. Can you explain what that means?

Composer Yannick Zenhäusern

Yannick Zenhäusern: I was already lucky enough to contribute the music to the multiplayer game ‘GoldenEye: Source’. Here, I did many covers of the original N64 game soundtrack. What I noticed then was, that my desire to cover those was already more or less fulfilled. You can especially hear that in the last titles I did for ‘GoldenEye: Source’ which are rather new compositions, deviating strongly from the game soundtrack. Source also builds on the old principle of playing a single music loop per level.

However, when I came across ‘GoldenEye 25’, we soon agreed that we wanted to build a new, dynamic music system – music that adapts to the actions of the player. Compared to the Nintendo 64, we have the advantage that the technical obstacles are much smaller. We can make the movie feeling even more convincing. That’s why the soundtrack should not sound like the game, but like the movie. I’ve been on this project as a composer and sound creator for about a year now and I have to say that I’m just starting to feel right at home. It took a while to get the right balance between synthesizer sounds, orchestras, composition styles and so on. But now everything is taking shape and I can’t wait for fans around the world to experience this game.

The Bond Bulletin: How difficult or complex is it to create one of these close-to-the-film tracks à la Eric Serra? This certainly requires special instruments and equipment?

Yannick Zenhäusern: For years I have been working to recreate some of the core elements of Serra because I like them so much. I now have a catalog of around 5-10 sounds that are modeled on his. I have developed around another 20 myself, but very inspired by him. That was a lot of work, but if you can load up and use these things, it gives you a sensational feeling! Serra has many small elements that are special. They appear simple, but are incredibly hard to duplicate. Here, necessity begets ingenuity. If I am not satisfied with an instrument or effect, I make something completely different. It would only remind me of my own inability when I listen to the music later, constantly thinking “I should have made this effect better …”.

In addition to all the software, I now have a number of synthesizers from the 1980’s and 90’s. I started putting them together when they were still dirt-cheap as they were being massively removed from studios because of new technology that had come up. These devices are full of treasures and barely explored depths. Sometimes you can play around here too. You pick up sounds and let them run, for example, through an effect pedal of a guitar and develop totally new sounds. This is partially wanted, in part it is a quest for Serra’s sound. Unfortunately, his equipment and procedures are poorly documented and you won’t find much information about the devices he has used.

Zenhäusern working in his home studio in Switzerland

[su_quote class=””]“I’m not so sure what bothers me more: criticism or indifference. Criticism, even if unjustified, is after all a kind of reaction or sympathy.”[/su_quote]

The Bond Bulletin: Some of your work is on YouTube, Spotify or iTunes. Occasionally there is criticism. How do you deal with it, especially after you have invested so much time in creating the tracks? Are there moments when you question your own work? If so, how do you recharge your batteries?

Yannick Zenhäusern: These moments are permanently present. The doubts about my own work constantly accompany me, but I have learned to handle it. I believe, as you get older, you also realize that precisely these doubts stop you from resting and never being quite satisfied. That’s the engine that drives a person forward. I actually take criticism relatively calm. However, I have to confess, I omit it in the course of self-protection to post my works everywhere.

I used to post everything on Bond forums, Bond Facebook pages, etc. But I’ve witnessed it a lot there – some dodgy characters are just hanging around, just waiting to rat somebody out. I don’t need something like that. So I just put my music on my own pages and think to myself: “Whoever wants it will find it.” In the meantime, I’m not so sure what bothers me more: criticism or indifference. Criticism, even if unjustified, is after all a kind of reaction or sympathy. Nowadays, indifference almost annoys me more.

The Bond Bulletin: Bond music is both legendary and unique. Many of the tracks, if not whole albums, have a very high replay value. Why, from your point of view, is that increasingly not the case with current soundtracks? Are the composer lacking ideas, empathy or are there other reasons?

Yannick Zenhäusern: Over the last few years, I’ve heard again and again that big tunes are outdated in Hollywood. This astonishes me, since we love and adore all these great, timeless movie tunes. But soundtracks are no longer supposed to be noticeable, but replaceable. This is often not even due to the composer but to the studios and production companies. Now, the Bond producers are trying, as always, to stick to modern practices in order to remain relevant. That’s why maybe they desire a film score that is not too penetrating, not too noticeable. I’m only speculating here, but what else could be the reason to have a Bond soundtrack no longer sound like Bond?

Composer Yannick Zenhäusern with five-time James Bond director John Glen

The Bond Bulletin: Which composers do you admire and in what way have they influenced your work?

Yannick Zenhäusern: I have four main pillars: Eric Serra, John Barry, Randy Newman and Huey “Piano” Smith. Serra has inspired me with his experimental synth music, which often sounds very organic, although much is electronic. John Barry is, as we all know, a genius in orchestrating, writing melodies and generating mood. Like him, I come from Rock’n’Roll (he started with the ‘John Barry Seven’). Rock’n’rollers are, in contrast to jazz musicians, prescribed to rather linear arrangements. Simply put, jazz can be very wild and unpredictable. Rock’n’roll has clear structures, chord progressions and is easier to consume. That’s why I like Barry’s arrangements. They are very clearly structured, comprehensible.

On the other hand, if you take someone like John Williams who comes from jazz, the music is sometimes very sprawling and unpredictable. He’s a genius in it and probably the only one who can write music in a way that it’s audible while actually being a huge mess. If I tried to write like John Williams, listeners would think that it was the warming up music before recording, that’s how much of a mess it would be. Randy Newman I love as a songwriter and film music composer. His style is immediately unmistakable and often has that New Orleans touch that I love so much. Huey “Piano” Smith is rather unknown but was one of the pioneers of all New Orleans music.

The Bond Bulletin: What scene in a James Bond film has ever shocked you? Is there one and, if yes, why was that so?

Yannick Zenhäusern: Good question…I thought about it a lot, but I can not think of anything. At most, scenes that look weird in the present time of politcal correctness. When Connery gives the “continuity girl” a smack on the butt or stuff like that. Some places in License to Kill are still unusually brutal for a Bond movie from today’s perspective, but nothing that really shocks our generation.

[su_quote class=””]“As children, we used to play good vs. evil and not “emotional, self-doubting agent” versus “sensitive, insecure villain with a turbulent past and father complexes”.”[/su_quote]

The Bond Bulletin: What, from your point of view, is currently the greatest problem of the James Bond franchise? What must happen to propel Bond to new heights?

Yannick Zenhäusern: I’ve never made a secret of the fact, that I do not like Daniel Craig as a Bond at all. For me, he has no qualities that make him appear like Bond. That this seems so is not alone his fault. The films always adapt to the times and reflect society. We now live in times where everything is a bit softened. In addition, political correctness and no international crises that can serve as a film plot are not necessarily conducive to the fictitious agent life.

Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but Bond must, in my opinion, again have clearer structures. I do not want a Wimp-Bond, I want a Bond that’s like a superhero. A Bond who whacks six enemies without getting a scratch while he himself is surrounded by machine gun fire. We are talking about fiction, dream worlds that somehow appeal to the child in us. As children, we used to play good vs. evil and not “emotional, self-doubting agent” versus “sensitive, insecure villain with a turbulent past and father complexes”. Bond would have to show his colours again, be more straight-forward, have a simple and clear mission, save the world and get the girl. And the music has to be much more bond-like again!

The Bond Bulletin: Let’s assume you were asked to write the title song for a Bond movie and have full creative control. How would it sound? Who would you hire as a singer to perform your song?

Yannick Zenhäusern: My Bond song would be along the lines of GoldenEye in nature. A couple of cool, groovy electro elements and an orchestra. In any case, the bond theme would be sufficiently present. It would rather start like a lounge song but gradually develop into a bombastic suite with a big bang for the end “BAM BAM BAM BAM!” As a singer? Good question … Even if it would be tempting to bring Shirley Bassey or Tina Turner back on board, I think those times are over. Much of what we hear today sounds consistent, which makes it difficult to choose a specific artist. But black women always have a very special vibe that I like in their voice. That’s why I would probably pick one of the modern artists who still have a lot of soul in their voice like Tina Turner or Gladys Knight.

The Bond Bulletin: If you were to officially swap the soundtrack of a Bond movie and replace it, which one would that be and why?

Yannick Zenhäusern: First impulse would be Never say Never Again. But since this is not a real Bond movie for me, we’ll let it go. Because it is not a Bond film and even the original themes could not be used, this would also be unfair. The soundtracks since Die Another Day did not convince me, so I would swap them all out. The films, however, mean too little to me for it to make a difference to me. On the whole, I am quite satisfied with the rest. They all fit in with the movies. Sometimes a little more Bond theme would have been desirable, but that is more likely to affect individual scenes in the respective movies than entire soundtracks.

The Bond Bulletin wishes to thank Yannick for his time in answering these questions and wishes him a lot of success with all future musical endeavours.

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