Danny Elfman Talks About Making a ‘Big Mess,’ and Returning to Rock a Quarter-Century After Oingo Boingo Split

Elfman used his quarantine to take his first break from film composing for a rock record in 27 years. Just don't expect the album's remake of a Oingo Boingo song to portend any reunion shows: "Band reunions, they eat brains."

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Silvi Grav

“Elfman sings!” It’s almost as grabby a potential catchphrase as “Garbo speaks.” But of course, Danny Elfman has participated in the talkies before… or, to put it in plainer terms, his new album, “Big Mess,” does not mark the first time he’s stood in front of a rock ‘n’ roll band in the studio to make a vocal record. It’s just the first time he’s done it since 1994, when his band, Oingo Boingo, released its final album.

Since then, Elfman’s been content to let the orchestra do the talking, as one of Hollywood’s preeminent film composers, best known for his long association with director Tim Burton, along with many dozens of non-Burton titles. But somehow, when it came to his dormant rock side, he got the bug again… enough so to even include a cover of Boingo’s “Insects” on the new album. Will the crowd that’s waited for 27 years to get a new album of Elfman in lyrical form recognize what they hear? Yes and no; the trademarks are there, but the now horn-free, newly string-laden music is mostly darker, and closer to Nine Inch Nails than the show tunes and ska that informed Oingo Boingo. Most fans from that ’80s and early ’90s era will probably agree, though: It’s good to hear him seethe again.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Variety in his east Hollywood studio — full of bizarre art pieces like a Howdy Doody head attached to the top of a skeleton — Elfman took on a broad array of topics, excerpted here, like: why he will never unite Oingo Boingo; how a thwarted 2020 Coachella appearance resulted in a full-fledged return to rock; and how last year’s political climate made writing in angry verse even more imperative.

VARIETY: We weren’t sure if we were ever going to hear your voice again … at least as anything other than Jack Skellington. Why now?

ELFMAN: It was unplanned. I got into, psychologically, the mode of playing and singing for Coachella. My manager had been trying to get me out there for 10 or 15 years. They’d said, “Can you do an Oingo Boingo reunion? Or do you want to do a film night, like Hans Zimmer [had done at Coachella]?” I said I can’t really do either. But in 2019 I finally went out, and when I saw the screens and heard the sound system, I suddenly got inspired. I said, what if it’s like a mish-mosh of everything and put together like half live band, half film music? … So we rehearsed and prepared for a show for about three months, building a show that didn’t exist at all from the ground up. I was working up different kinds of reduced suites on a number of film pieces. And I went back and picked through Oingo Boingo material. Mainly I was looking for songs that seem to be speaking to the dystopian nightmare that I felt like I was living in in 2020.

And then it all collapsed, along with 25 or 30 other concerts I had booked for the whole year. Of course with my luck, I’d take a year off with no films, because I was going to do concerts all year – not just both of the Coachella concerts, but I had a violin concerto, I had two world premieres of classical music, and also “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Elfman/Burton” shows. So it was going to be a busy year of traveling around, and it all implodes. So for quarantine I holed up at my out-of-town house that I’ve had for a long time with my wife and son. In my writing room up there, I had one handheld mic, one electric guitar and. as it turns out, my headphones didn’t work…. And I thought I would maybe try writing a few more songs. I had this one piece I was going to premiere in Coachella, which was actually what I was most excited about, and it opened a Pandora’s box that I never could close — headphones be damned.

Was that new piece you had planned to premiere at Coachella, and that spurred all this, something that did end up on the new album?

Yeah, it’s the song “Sorry.” Originally the song was conceived as an instrumental, conceptual piece that I’d written to premiere at a festival in 2019 called Dark Mofo in Tasmania. I pitched it saying, “I don’t know how to describe this thing in my head. I’ll call it chamber-punk, because I can only tell you involves a chamber orchestra and a rock band. And the orchestra is very aggressive and the rock band is pretty aggressive.” I was only playing guitar on it. The festival never worked out, but then when Coachella happened, I got this idea to turn that into a song and open with that. … And I think when I sat down to write last year, I still had this sound in my head of band and orchestra, and it was a guitar-based energy … Were it not for Coachella plans, if I had sat to write songs, they would just as likely have been synth-based. But I had the feel of guitar in my fingers, and so I carried that energy into this writing.

A lot of your fans would have spent the last 25 years or so mixing scoring with making your own records. And so it may seem ironic to them — if ironic is the right word — that you’re now getting very excited about something they’d hoped you’d get excited about for the past quarter-century.

Well, I mean, for 10 years [in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s], I was doing both: I was in a band and scoring. And then finally for the next 10 or 15 years, it was like, “Aaaah, I’m just scoring. Thank God! I can really concentrate on getting good at it and doing that.” And then I started getting frustrated with (just) that. But then rather than thinking like (going back into) rock stuff, I got into classical music instead, doing commissions, and I’m on my fourth commission right now. So that satisfied the need to do something else; it just went the opposite direction of being in a rock band. Writing for symphony orchestras was very satisfying, and it just didn’t occur to me to write songs.

I think (returning to rock) took the frustration of where I was last year. I was really angry and really frustrated, and I was depressed, you know? These are the elements that turn you toward lyrics. Expressing anger with orchestral music is hard. Although every time I’m writing an action film, I’m writing angry orchestra music.

When I started writing lyrics for “Sorry,” I was shocked by how much venom I had building up in me. I started writing personal songs, which I didn’t used to do much in the past. Because most of what I did with Oingo Boingo was write in third-person, with a lot of sarcasm, obviously, but from the standpoint of a character. Sometimes it was a character I liked, sometimes a character I didn’t like.

People were really confused by what I was doing back in the ‘80s. I wrote this song called “Capitalism” and I’m putting down “middle-class socialist brats,” and they’re like, “Oh, so where are you? Are you right wing? Or are you libertarian?” I go, “No —I grew up a middle-class socialist brat. That’s exactly me! I grew up in a super liberal Jewish family. I’m making fun of myself.” “Ohhhh, I see. And they would say, “Don’t you feel bad in hindsight, writing lyrics like ‘I love little girls?’ It’s almost, like, disgusting.” I go, “It is. No, I don’t feel bad at all.” I was writing from the standpoint of a Jeffrey Epstein. I was trying to aggravate everybody, but always from the standpoint of a character.

And this time I felt myself liberated to just write from myself. There are a few times on the album where I go back to that third person. “Love in the Time of COVID” is a song written by a horny 21-year-old, living alone in a small apartment and climbing the walls. Clearly, that’s not me. A lot of the other stuff was (personal) literally to the point where I didn’t know if I’d ever play it for anybody other than a dozen close friends.

And it was also a discovery of finding a new (musical) voice to write in. Even back in the ‘90s, I was listening to much heavier music than I was playing. And Oingo Boingo just wasn’t a heavy band. So I couldn’t play what I was listening to.

What were you listening to that was heavy then?

In the ‘90s, you know, I was listening to Nine Inch Nails. Hearing Nirvana, it was like the first time I heard Jimi Hendrix — like, the world is about to change. On and off through many years, I’ve been a big fan of Tool. And you just wouldn’t hear that… Oingo Boingo had the energy, but not weight. I can do fast, high-energy, because that really was what we started as. I just wanted to be in a ska band! And the heavy stuff was just like, well, we’re just not cut out for that. So coming back later, I was really just returning to the roots that I would have had, had there been different opportunities.

Also, I felt more liberated with just my own voice. I haven’t sung, other than Jack Skellington, in a quarter-century. I did one single about 10 or 15 years ago for a movie called “Wanted”; that was it. And it was like finding, what do I have to work with? I described it to my wife as like a trumpet player who used to play in a big band. He was really good, and he retired for a quarter-century, and he decides to pull out that trumpet and starts playing and at first he’s like, “God damn, I used to hit a high C all the time.” But then he realizes that he could play tones in the middle with this tone that he never could before, and now he’s digging it. And that’s what was happening to me. One of the songs on the album is called “True,” and as I was singing that, I was going, I couldn’t have sung this 30 years ago. I wasn’t able to like allow myself to sing it with the rougher tones that I always wanted but never could find when I was younger. When I was younger, it was like I was almost engineered to be an Irish tenor. My vocal cords were wanting to sing “Danny Boy” in a bar, not rock ‘n’ roll on a stage, and that always frustrated me.

This album has been described as having an industrial-rock-type edge, which may surprise people who were unaware you were into heavier stuff.

Well, it’s true. And really the single most influential album of my young adulthood never expressed itself in Oingo Boingo, which was “Scary Monsters” by David Bowie. For me, it was the first time that I’d heard him. Because I came out of the ‘70s a complete blank slate, culturally. I had heard no contemporary music. You know, I’m very extreme. I’ve never been officially diagnosed as OCD or hyperactive or dyslexic or autistic, but I’m sure I’m all of these things to some degree, were I tested like we do our kids now. But in the ‘70s, in my head, I lived in 1933. I didn’t even want to listen to music recorded after 1938. That was about my cutoff; by 1940, it was done. I was totally infatuated with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Django Reinhardt and classical composers from the early part of the 20th century.

I wake up at the end of the ‘70s and I heard this ska music out of England, and I thought, I want to do that. … I’ve been doing theater for eight years, and suddenly I just want to be in a band. I’m hearing David Bowie, and people are saying, “Idiot, he’s been around since the late ‘60s. You never heard of Ziggy Stardust?” And I’m like, “Who?” Actually, the first Bowie album I heard was “Lodger,” but when I heard “Scary Monsters,” it was like, oh my God, this is like amazing. And if you listen to some of my guitar playing on “Big Mess,” you’ll probably hear a little bit still of wanting to sound like Adrian Ballew. It’s still like how I model a solo, like the solo in “True” — allowing yourself to play phrasing as if it’s a melodic solo, but allowing wrong notes, and embracing them. He had this free way of playing that stuck with me as the way to go. So I did return to a lot of my roots now — the roots not being expressed in Oingo Boingo.

But on the other hand, there’s still two of me going at it all the time. And one of them still wants to go fast fast fast fast fast fast! … This is why I went crazy being in a band. I wanted to be in a different band every other year. But as a film composer, that works for you. That schizophrenia quality that made me crazy being in a band worked to my advantage, because I can go in extreme directions. And that’s where I’m happiest: big action… or really small, intimate story; romantic, really laid-on lush… or quirky, ridiculous, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

With Oingo Boingo, was there a clean break at some point in your mind where you just thought, “I’m never going on a stage again,” or “I’m never going to release an Oingo Boingo or even solo album again”?

Well, by the end of the ‘80s, I was over it. I felt like, okay, I did what I had to do, spent a decade, 12 years, whatever. But at that point I’d already inadvertently become a film composer, and I was feeling a tremendous amount of guilt of abandoning ship and going for what seems like a more lucrative career. And every year I said to the band, “You know, this is going to be our last year.” It was like, “Yeah, yeah, right.” The next year, it was like, “Come on guys, get ready for this.” And I said it for five or six years. And then finally in ‘94, I said, “Next year, ‘95, we’re doing our farewell tour. Seriously. I mean it.” And I told our management, “Call it ‘farewell,’ because it’s farewell.”

Also. I was destroying my hearing. I had so many reasons for getting out at that point. … When we were preparing for Coachella, I was using in-ears and realized that could control the level. But I permanently fucked up my hearing, that last decade and a half with the band. So that finally is what put the nail in the coffin of Oingo Boingo and touring. I just said, I’ve got this in the family already, So I’m already working with a deficit, and all I ended up doing was taking 10 years off of my hearing. My father lost his hearing; he was a school teacher, and he retired five years early because he was just having too much trouble hearing in the classroom.

You’ve always resisted pressure to go back and do the nostalgic thing of a reunion. You and David Byrne are the two guys where it’s like, nah, even for a one-time thing. But Byrne has at least been out there doing the songs as a solo artist. And you haven’t even considered that, until, possibly, now.

Yeah. I’ve had a busy life. But it’s true. The nostalgia… I like the idea of, in the context of this new show at Coachella, pulling up a few of the Oingo Boingo songs that I still like reinvent and I could do stuff with. But nostalgia, doing everything just as it was for a whole set, I just couldn’t do that. I could do a half a dozen songs. But I wouldn’t want to do 20. It would just be too weird. … You know, bands to me are like zombies. There’s a certain point where it’s like, the dead should stay dead. You don’t come back and start walking. Band reunions, they eat brains.

Are you still planning to do Coachella in ’22?

We’re already talking about Coachella for next year, knock wood, but if it will be the same show or not, I don’t know yet. If there really is a Coachella, I’ll start thinking about it probably come September.

Would it be a one-time thing at Coachella, or would you go out to some different cities?

I don’t know. We’ve been approached about what would it take to take “Big Mess” out? And I go, man, could I have made it more difficult? It takes a chamber orchestra, at the very least, and extra percussion. It’s not just five players with amps and guitars and a drum set. I’ve just gotta make everything fucking impossible! The whole idea when I started it was, I had this thing in my head of using string section as if it’s part of the rhythm section, as opposed to embellishment, and make it part of the drive of the piece. It’s just not something I’ve heard a lot of, and I feel like it’s an integral part of the sound of the album. It’s not just a little color here and there that I could do without. But I’ll have to face that problem down the line.

You’re resuming “Nightmare Before Christmas” live-to-screen performances this year, and shifting from the Hollywood Bowl to this new venue, Banc of California Stadium, on Oct. 29.

We had to cancel last year, of course. And this year, the Hollywood Bowl was not comfortable with whether they’d be up to full capacity yet. This promoter came and said, “We’ll do it.” And I was like, okay. Because I don’t know how much… Every year I say this may be the last time. I don’t know how much longer I’ll do Jack. I don’t want to get into “ I’ll do it every Halloween for the rest of my life!” Because I did Halloween shows for 15 years with Oingo Boingo, and there’s something about me that’s like, oh my God, am I back in this? But I know that I did want to do him at least one more time, last year, and I was really ready for that. And when it fell through, it was really hard. Jack is definitely good for one more round, so I’m really happy about that and excited.

And it still feels a personal and fun and imaginative to you to revisit that role?

Yeah, it does. Because I never did it at the time. And I put more of myself into Jack Skellington and “Nightmare Before Christmas” than any movie I ever had, at that point. A movie I’m generally on for like 10 weeks, 12 weeks. “Nightmare,” I spent two years on. And I put so much of myself into writing his songs. It was totally Tim’s creation, but the intent of what he was doing within the story was what I was feeling in my life. I was, at that very moment, trying to find my exit from Oingo Boingo, which was my Halloween Land, and didn’t know how to do it. So when Jack’s trying to get out of Christmas Town, it’s like, “I get you. I feel you.” It was very personal for me.

When the movie came out, nobody knew what it was. Disney didn’t know how to market it. “Kids hate it” — that was the general understanding, and it went away really quickly, and I was really heartbroken over that. So the fact that “Nightmare” got a second life as a film feels like such a blessing, because that almost never happens. That’s like a one in a million shot for a film — “Wizard of Oz,” “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” these movies that suddenly get a second life. It’s so rare that for that to happen for the movie that I cared most about really meant a lot to me. When it came out, I did a two-day press junket and virtually every interview started with: “Too scary for kids, right?” I think that’s why Disney was like, “What do we do with this thing? We’re a family film company.” So to come back years later and to see families out there, and to be getting recordings of people’s kids who are 4 years old singing “What’s This” or “This is Halloween,” makes me really feel blessed. It’s like a second life and proving them wrong. And to Disney’s credit, after a decade or 15 years, they recognized that there was still this following, and they started putting energy back into it. This time they understood what it was. And not many companies would have done that — pick up a decade-old film and put energy into it. I consider the persistence of “Nightmare Before Christmas” to be one of my real pleasures in life.

To shift gears back to the new album…

Shifting gears from one extreme to the other, family to, like, not family. [Laughs.] “Big Mess,” it’s like, families, don’t play this for your kids.

You said you were feeling angry and depressed during the writing. How much of that was quarantine cabin fever, and how much was your political frustration? The songs lay some of your feelings about that bare.

It was a perfect storm of both things happening. Because even before COVID, I mean, I’ve never been more frustrated. I’m just old enough to remember the tail end of the Vietnam era, and I remember the divided America and the hostility and the protests that were happening then. But what I saw happening in the four years preceding 2020 defied anything in my imagination. Because what was there in the ‘60s wasn’t about a demagogue, or a personality cult. It was just really a fractured society about the war. And here, I’m seeing something that George Orwell wrote about. You could have “1984” and then “2020” as a sequel. This goofball comes up through being a television star, to become this populist leader. And if he says two plus two equals five, two plus two equals five. Why? Because he fucking said so, that’s why, motherfucker! It started with the birther movement for Obama and then went downhill from there.

But my anger wasn’t focused at Trump. My anger was focused at the party that enabled him. Trump should have been a fringe player. Putting him in the driver’s seat and empowering that? That’s the party. And that’s where my anger was. This is where you hand over a democracy — democratically, you give it up. I was in Uganda when Idi Amin took power. That’s called you wake up in the morning and we have a new government because they just basically moved in with the military. But in Germany, it was handed over democratically. And I have to make this perfectly clear: I’m not comparing Trump to Hitler. What I’m talking about is a society, with a democracy willing to hand that democracy over to a demagogue. And I saw us heading toward what we see in Russia with Putin: It’s a democracy, there’s elections — but not really. And so I was beyond angry; I was horrified and mystified.

Then on top of that, isolation in quarantine just brought everything to the surface. I was sitting up there isolated, like we all were, with these thoughts of: We’re going into four more years of this and there’ll be no recovery, because like Putin, he’s going to keep putting every loyalists in every position around him and create a shield that’s impenetrable with the justice department, with the entire judiciary, with everything. But I have to say that I was amazed, when the election went down and then the challenges, I figured, okay, he’s got his appointees in there and they’re just going to hand it back over to them. And they didn’t. And I was also amazed that Republican judges were turning down the cases, and that Republican attorney generals were validating the results. I was also amazed that there was an integrity there that I wasn’t expecting. That took fucking courage to stand up and go, “I’m sorry, but our elections were fair in this state. We ran it clean,” knowing that you’re going to probably get moved out of office for saying that. And so weirdly out of 2020, I saw what looked like the end of our democracy, and at the same time, I saw how it works, with individuals standing up to a populist wave and going no at the cost of potentially their own careers.

So it was an amazing year of contrasts and surprises. Because my argument isn’t with conservative versus liberal. I welcome debate, and I still read George Will every week. I’ve always felt like there’s conservative intellectuals, and I still listen to their arguments and go, “You know, I don’t agree with a lot of this, but their argument’s really compelling and smart and not without merit.” And when it becomes a personality cult, debate disappears. In fact, conservative intellectuals were obliterated. So I was really angry and frustrated and ready to toss in the towel. 2020 was a year that I’ve never seen and hope never to see again, in terms of feeling literally like I did at the end of the Bay of Pigs, where you go back and you think about how close we were to nuclear war.

Over the course of the last 40 years, I’ve been kind of warily trying to mock left and right. There’s an authoritarian arm of both sides that really wants to kind of enforce their values into law and make everybody live under what they feel like is the right way, and it’s gotta be resisted by the bulk of us. And I always felt like most people still sit somewhere in between those two extremes, and you feel a protection from that, like a bubble, of whether it be George Will on one side Bernie Sanders on the other, there are these reasonable, smart people, and you work the shit out. But then to the left of Sanders and to the right of Will are other forces that have to be resisted. If you’re in the right group of people, you’re going to benefit hugely, but  you don’t want to be standing against that because it’ll just be like a steam roller.

From the ridiculous  to the potentially sublime… abruptly: Do you have film scores in the works for this year?

Yeah. I have two films right now, back to back. I’m working on a film called “65,” a great science fiction/fantasy/action. And then I go on to “Doctor Strange 2” for Marvel. And I just am putting the finishing touches on a cello concerto that will premiere next spring in Vienna, which I’ve written it for a wonderful French cellist. And I’ve got my percussion quartet that I wrote to premier with a piece that Phillip Glass did last year up north, that got recorded; that’s coming out in a few months. So it’s still a busy, crazy time for me.