Jun 11, 2021
By Jake Uitti
Photography by Jacob Boll
The famed, prolific composer, and multi-instrumentalist, Danny Elfman, is a walking, talking opus. While some artists make a career of performance art, Elfman’s career is often seemingly performance art, embodied or personified. The artist, who just about everyone knows from is work as the composer for Batman, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Men in Black, Spider-Man, and many more globally-famous movies, got his start in the theater, performing avant-garde works. He’d later achieve some fame with his band, Oingo Boingo.
Elfman, who found himself involved in music later in his life than most professionals, has an affinity for pushing boundaries and buttons. Creatively, he’s always wanted to enter spaces where he wasn’t initially allowed. As such, he’s lived many careers, from composer to performer to rock musician. In that vein, Elfman is set to release his latest solo album (and his first in 37 years), The Big Mess, today via ANTI- and Epitaph. We caught up with the artist to ask him about his life, career, and what went into this new provocative work.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first find music? And, I should add, I believe I read that it was a little later in life?
Danny Elfman: Well, it really coincided with my getting to a new neighborhood for a new high school. I was 16 or 17 and I hadn’t even thought of music up until then. But luckily for me I made new friends at this new school and they were all arty and musical and it realigned me. So, in this new group of friends, I had an avant-garde composer-trumpet player already. He turned me onto jazz, he turned me onto Stravinsky. It really changed my whole reality.
Another good friend of mine was a crazy drummer and he also was way into jazz and also into modern percussion like Steve Reich and Harry Partch. He turned me onto that stuff. I was like, “Oh, I dig this, this is cool!” But I didn’t play an instrument. So, I was the only one in there that never really played anything. [Laughs]
Had you really never thought of participating in music prior? Or was it just that you didn’t think you had a place in music but you had considered it?
No, not at all. My artistic interest when I first started becoming a teenager was maybe leaning to film. But not music. I was imagining maybe I’ll go study to become an editor or a cinematographer. It was visual. The music and acting side never seemed to have any possibilities for me. They were things—I knew I couldn’t act and I thought it was way too late for me to start with music. Because everybody I knew who was playing music had been doing it since they were kids. So, if you’re 17 and you’ve never taken a lesson or learned anything, it seemed really late.
Around high school, you traveled a lot. Where do you think this global interest comes from for you?
Yeah, I don’t know. Wanderlust, you know? It’s the fancy of the young adventurer. It started in high school, my middle year, it must have been between junior and senior, I took off and spent a summer traveling and bumming around Europe. My mom thought that I was in youth hostels and it was all organized. But, in fact, I was sleeping in abandoned railroad houses and caves and city parks.
So, I began to get a taste for that. And when I got back for my senior year, already my friend and I were planning a year off for world travel. All my focus, really, my last year of high school was just about that trip, which ended up being a year in Africa. I’d planned to go around the world but that didn’t work out! It took me almost a year to get across Africa and by the time I got to the other side, I was pretty sick and ready to come home.
I’m sorry to hear that!
Oh, no, no. It was just part of being a kid traveling around the world. I got malaria three times. I believe I had my life saved by a German doctor in a remote village somewhere in the north of Senegal. I had some crazy shit going on.
In a way, that’s sort of fitting. At least from my perspective, as an observer. You’re willing to go places, both in your mind and in the world. From the theatrical to the grotesque. Where do you think that willingness comes from?
Well, I mean, the infatuation with the theater and vaudevillian stuff started early. I was only 18 when I went to visit my brother in Paris. He was playing with a musical theatrical troupe, an avant-garde cabaret troupe called Le Grand Magic Circus. I’d only been playing violin five months at that point, I’d only picked it up to travel. And they hired me. I actually toured with this troupe. So, I started getting a taste for wild street theatrics pretty young.
Then when I got back from that year, my brother didn’t invite me to join—you know, he founded his own version of that troupe, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. That was also a street troupe. He literally picked me up on my second day home, drove me to a rehearsal and said, “You’re the musical director. Now, I know you’ve got hepatitis so you probably wont’ be active for a few weeks. But you can start listening and soaking it up!” So, it wasn’t even like I was given an invitation. It was more like, “This is your new job. Here you go. Get to work!”
Trial by fire.
Yeah. But we did have a mutual love of wild theatrics that came out of living in the ’70s. We were also infatuated with art from the ’30s. At that point, I entered almost a decade-long phase where I only listened to music written before 1938. I was obsessed with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway and these early vaudevillian, crazy films. Also, stop-motion animation and animators. That caught my attention in a way for many years.
In 1978 when I kind of came out of that, maybe ’79, I don’t know what year Lodger and Scary Monsters came out, by David Bowie. But I’d never even heard of David Bowie before that. I didn’t even know who Ziggy Stardust was. [Laughs] It’s like, “Oh, this guy I’m really into, he had this whole other thing going?” I was totally removed from popular music and Western culture for almost a decade. In my head, I lived in 1933 New York and Paris.
That speaks to your willingness to go places and be your own unique self. Also, I ran into your Master Class commercial on YouTube one day and I watched it and in it you talk about learning to be okay with failing. That seems baked into your work and I wonder if you can explain it more?
Well, kind of everything I did throughout my life was predicated on the idea that more likely than not, this will be a complete failure. I was entering stuff backwards. I entered—my first career was in this musical theater and we were doing this, like, intense, crazy shit that had nothing to do with theater in the ’70s. It had no place. It got terrible reviews! And I got to kind of love that. Then when I started a band in the late ’70s with Oingo Boingo, it was like, “I don’t know what this band is. It doesn’t fit in with any scene.”
Again, the critics hated us. And I loved that. But it was like, “I don’t know where we fit but this is what we’re doing.” My first impulse was that I just wanted to be in a ska band. But as we were playing the first couple of years, we did ska but we weren’t a ska band. What were we? I have no idea. Other than I was out, essentially, to aggravate everybody all the time. You know?
People much later would ask me, “Oh, my god, aren’t you ashamed by these songs?” Like, “Little Girls.” And this and that, Oingo Boingo stuff. And I go, “No, not at all, I’m proud of that. That character’s really disgusting. That’s the whole point!” I was provoking responses through character, third person. I was really critical of left-wing middle-class kids. And I wrote this song about a middle-class socialist brat, called, “Capitalism.”
And people thought, “Oh, so he’s really right-wing.” And I say, “No, no, I was and am a middle-class socialist brat. That’s me!” But I can still make fun of it, you know? So, it was just kind of like seeing if I could annoy everybody. That was my approach. Then, as a film composer, again! Here, I go, round three, my third career. Reviled in Hollywood, a guy from a rock band, coming from nowhere, becoming really successful.
That drives composers crazy! No musical background—composers are really adamant that you have to be trained. I always thought it was really weird because directors can become a director from being a writer, a cinematographer, being a writer. And nobody thinks twice about it. But a composer? Uh-huh. You have to be trained. And I came from nowhere and they hated me! Of course, in hindsight, that’s the best thing that could have happened.
Isn’t that funny? Looking back, the difficulty is the best thing for you, but in the moment it’s so hard.
It’s so hard in the moment! But it’s what I needed! It’s not what I wanted. I was hurt by it. But in hindsight, that was my nuclear fuel rods, that’s what drove me. It was all like, “I will show those motherfuckers what I can do.” It also had to do with me coming out of a punk era. I was a never a punk but that attitude definitely, coming out of the ’70s, was part of my personality. Like, “Oh yeah? Fuck you! Check this out!” I wanted to be everywhere where I’m not wanted. If I feel unwelcomed in this new world, that’s exactly where I want to be.
That’s interesting. Because a lot of people feel unwelcomed but they don’t always have the gumption to want to fill that space despite it. But you did.
Well, it was just a lot of angry energy, really, that I just picked up through that era of just get in people’s faces—fuck you! It’s like, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” Then in the classical world, my fourth career, it was like, “Oh yeah, mega successful film composer, we don’t want you here!” It’s like, “Our world is our world, and your world is your world!”
My first commission I got, 15 years ago, the conductor told me, “You know, they will hand you your head on a platter in the New York press.” My response to him was, “Good, I can’t wait!” [Laughs] Because at that point, it was like, “Oh, yeah, okay great, here we go again!” So, again, it was banging down where I felt unwelcome but that made me want to do it even more.
Now, here I am unexpected fifth career, which goes back to my second career, rock ‘n’ roll, which I never expected to do again. A year ago I would have never planned or guessed that here is where I would be now.
Okay, let’s talk about the new record! It’s very lush, dense. You’ve put a lot into it and the album is your first solo release in 37 years. I understand that at some point last year the muse struck you and this giant sound came forth. But how do you feel about the album now that it’s finished?
Yeah, I don’t know how I feel about it. I know that it was a Pandora’s Box when I started it. And it kind of began a year earlier with this one piece of music, which wasn’t a song. It was actually an idea I had for an instrumental concert that I wanted to take to a festival in Tasmania called, Dark Mofo, that I was really into. The piece became the song, “Sorry.”
I said, “I got this idea for, I don’t know what to call it—I’ll call it Chamber Punk—of how a rock band and an orchestra and percussion could all work together in this weird way”. They were into it and I created—at that point it was more like a 10-minute composition. It had no vocal, I was only playing guitar. But I couldn’t end up putting the show together for Tasmania.
But when Coachella approached me, I thought, “Oh, okay! I could do this crazy show, half-film, half-revamped songs from my past. And make it really insane.” But really the thing that was motivating me was the idea of taking this piece, “Sorry,” making it into a song and opening with that. So my own fans would look at me with the expression of, like, “What the fuck is this?” That’s priceless to me! If you can come out and have them go, “Well, what are you doing?”
And to have an apology motif built into that is so perfect, too.
Yeah, exactly! So, I was really excited about that. But when it all collapsed, of course- everything collapsed, the whole year collapsed—I was holed up with my family in a place I have outside of town, and I still had that feel of a guitar. I’d been rehearsing with this band and I was really excited about it. We were starting to sound good.
First off, I was surprised that when I put lyrics to “Sorry” how much venom I had inside of me in that moment. But secondly, when it all collapsed and I sat down, I said, “You know what? I’m going to write three or four more songs to go with ‘Sorry,’ just to be a companion piece.” I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was depressed, I was angry. I was isolated, like we all were.
And I started to write. But I think because of that mindset, I was thinking guitar-based, rather than synth-based, for example. Because I could have gone that direction just as easily. But in that moment, I still had the feel of the electric guitar in my hand and that became the center. It was really like a Pandora’s Box. Once I opened the lid, I just couldn’t shut it.
So, what was supposed to be three or four songs became 18 songs. Even at that point, I called Laura, my manager, and said, “We have to make a deadline or I’ll never stop!” Because I’m just not used to not having—everything’s deadline based. I’d still be working on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. So, we made the cutoff around July. I think I had 16 songs in July and I started playing them around July, August, September and by September I had 18 and that was it.
But even at that point, it was like, “I don’t know what this is!” It evolved in these two separate directions. Slowly, I realized, well, of course, that is what I am. We talked briefly about maybe dividing into two separate albums and hold one back for a couple of years. But I said to my manager, “You know me, two years I’m going to be into something completely different!”
Another 18 tracks!
Yeah and everybody was saying it’s suicide to put out that many tracks because “these days,” you know, audiences have such short attention spans. They want two or three songs and they move on. But I finally realized, that’s okay. People will take from it what they will, whether it’s two songs, six songs, or 18 songs. It’s all there. And they can dive in as deep as they wish into this world and that’s fine. But it just felt like I did it and I should put it out there.
You mentioned Pee-wee. I have to ask—I’m such a big fan—if you had a favorite moment in your career from any of your signature compositions like The Simpsons, Pee-wee, or The Nightmare Before Christmas?
You know, I don’t really have single favorite moments. If I look back, I’ll always have real strong feelings towards certain scores, especially ones where, in the beginning, with Tim [Burton]—Pee-wee, Beatlejuice, Batman, Nightmare, Edward Scissorhands—all of those were very special in a way that there was no template of what to do for any of those movies. So, it was just diving into nothingness. There was absolutely no direction of where to start.
In hindsight now, I look at that now and go, “What a luxury.” Because it’s so rare for that now. But, I mean, I put the most time and effort of all those projects into The Nightmare Before Christmas, so I think that will always be special for me. Generally, a composer spends six weeks to 14 weeks on a score and for Nightmare, I was on it for two years. So, I definitely poured more of myself into that than anything else I had done for film.
And you’re performing that score live around Halloween this year, right?
If you had told me a few years ago, or certainly when the movie came out that, you know, 20 years from now, you’re going to come out and do this live on stage at the Hollywood Bowl, I would have said, “You’re fucking crazy.” It barely made the needle move when it came out. And it was lucky enough to get a second life, which is very, very rare.
But the passion and devotion to that film has been just remarkable and certainly one of the luckiest things that I’ve been blessed with in my life. Because I feel like the film got a second life, which is almost one in a million. Also, the thing that I think meant the most for me out of that was, when it came out, everybody thought it was too scary for kids, it’s not for kids. Nobody knew who it was for, what audience it was for.
But the great thing is that generation after generation, I keep getting videos and recordings of people saying, “This is my daughter singing, ‘This is Halloween,’ at four.” You see how many families and kids are still coming to the movie. It’s a great vindication because, at the time, the general thought was: Not For Kids. But I knew that they were wrong. But there was nothing I could do, it was very frustrating.
People underestimate kids all the time.
Oh, yeah. I did a press junket and every interview, they said, “Too scary for kids, right?” And I would go, “No, no. It’s not, it’s not!” They would ask me questions like, “We hear Santa Claus gets tortured!” And I would go, “No, he’s not tortured, he’s just inconvenienced!” He’s not even really upset! There was this weird perception and that’s one of the reasons why it didn’t do that well when it came out because they already determined that “kids hate it.” So, the most gratifying thing with Nightmare is that they’re wrong! And it hit a number of generations with kids and that really pleases me to no end.
I live in Seattle here and there are a number of drag troupes who have taken the story and put it on stage in their own way around the holidays, which is great.
I’m proud of that, too! If I can attract families, drag queens, and Goths all to the same source. That’s fucking crazy! How do you put something together that’s going to attract families, kids, a large component of Goths and drag queens?
Amazing! Okay, let me ask you my final question here, Danny. And that is, what do you love most about music?
What I love most about music is the ability to just constantly shift, shift, shift, move, move, move, move. To do something and then do something that’s just exactly the opposite. It made sense for me—finishing The Big Mess, the thing that I dived immediately into was a cello concerto for a fantastic French cellist, Gautier Capuçon. That juxtaposition, going from one extreme to the other, is what really keeps me going.