Danny Elfman didn’t begin playing music until just after his 16th birthday — a date that he says “made me think I’d missed my chance and I was too old to pick up an instrument at all.”
He wasn’t even the first member of his family to enter the performing arts; that would be his older brother Richard, whose Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo mixed alt-rock eclecticism with avant garde theatrics.
Nevertheless, young Danny exhibited unusually keen instinctive gifts. “When Danny first started, he didn’t have any formal musical background nor did he have any interest in music, including rock concerts,” recalls Richard Elfman. “We got Danny a guitar when he was 16; a month later he could pick out a reasonably decent rendition of a Django Reinhardt solo. We got him a violin a few months later. After fiddling around with his fiddle for a week or two, he managed Stephane Grappelli’s violin accompaniment to Django’s guitar. … Danny has a capacity to play any instrument he picks up. … At the time Danny couldn’t read music, but he could follow anyone with the instrument.”
Danny seemed to already be following in his brother’s unorthodox footsteps by his late teens when he spent a chunk of time touring Africa with a French troupe called Le Grand Magic Surface. It was around this time that the brothers would attempt to unify their quirky artistic visions.
“Early on, the Mystic Knights were more a visual thing than a musical one,” Elfman recalls about joining the band in 1972. “We had costume changes and animation and things were very raw — at some points there were eight people banging on drums.”
Steve Bartek, a fellow Mystic Knight, says Elfman’s penchant for sonic exploration was evident early on. “He was always really influenced by Kurt Weill,” says Bartek, whose working relationship with Elfman is pushing the three-decade mark. “That was odd enough back then, but he also brought in things like Nino Rota, Balinese gamelan music. People thought the band was very challenging.”
For Elfman, who admits to having a seriously truncated attention span, steering a linear course proved to be more of a challenge. By the end of the ’70s, he’d taken his first stabs at celluloid heroism — working on his brother’s cult hit “Forbidden Zone” as well as Martin Brest’s surreal debut “Hot Tomorrows” — but found himself more drawn to somewhat more conventional rock sounds emanating from across the pond.
“I really thought we’d taken the theatrical thing as far as it could go, and then I started hearing stuff like the Specials and Madness, and I was fascinated,” is how he explains the evolutionary process that would recall Oingo Boingo. “It was really freeing to be able go onstage in shorts and just take part in a visceral sweat-a-thon.”
That abandon proved to be mighty contagious, particularly in the band’s Southern California backyard, where — thanks to the strong support of KROQ radio’s Jed the Fish — Boingo began to evolve from L.A. club band to theater-filling entity.
A series of major-label deals brought the band its share of attention on a national scale, with MTV hopping on the bandwagon for 1983’s “Nothing Bad Ever Happens” as well as the theme song from the comedy “Weird Science,” which skirted the top 40 the following year. But while the band’s public profile was one of quirk, strangeness and charm, darker, more experimental elements — creepy-crawly percussion, odd ethnic fillips and the like — were Oingo Boingo’s real fuel.
Elfman insists his film-scoring forays in the ’80s hadn’t derailed his rock career, at least solely. “I always hated the repetition of touring,” he says, “and after eight years of working 12 hours a day, going back and forth between (that and scoring), I realized I would go postal if I had to do that again.”
Oingo Boingo maintained a sporadic release sked through the early ’90s, finally calling it a day after a blowout finale at the Universal Amphitheater (captured on the aptly titled “Farewell” CD). “Had Danny spent more of his time on the band in that period, we might’ve gotten bigger,” muses Bartek, who has worked as Elfman’s film music orchestrator in the years since. “More likely, we would’ve burned out earlier. As it was, I think the crossover (into film scores) was very interesting for his work in both arenas.”
While cross-pollination is largely a thing of Elfman’s past, he still draws on the twisted pop of his early days — as borne out by his eerie “Corpse Bride” work and his vocal turns in Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (in which he voiced Oompa Loompas bearing traces of George Clinton and Cornershop).
That stylistic bent is but one of the hues that inhabit Elfman’s compositional palette, however. And his insistence on keeping that color wheel in perpetual motion has kept him from succumbing to a 21-year-itch in his current gig.
“I’m always happiest when I have a lot of contrast in my life, and (films) allows me to do just that,” he says. “I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what I can do, so I don’t think there’s any chance of me running out of things to say.”
— Additional reporting by Anthony D’Alessandro