×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Danny Elfman on Losing His Shirt and Owning a Wild, Web-Busting Coachella Show: ‘I Thought, Can They Hang Me for This?’

He remembers joking, "Look, we have 30 minutes to set up a show that's never been performed before with 50 musicians on stage. What can possibly go wrong?”

Musician Danny Elfman poses in his
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Danny Elfman saw his career flashing before his eyes during his performance Saturday night at Coachella, in more ways than one. Yes, there was the 40-year-plus, career-encompassing aspect of the setlist, from Oingo Boingo new-wave evergreens to score chestnuts from “Edward Scissorhands” and “Batman”; from his recent orchestral-rock comeback album to a deeply viral concert breakout of his “Simpsons” theme. But aside from that, Elfman also says he experienced just about every mood he’s ever had on stage over the course of that hour on stage, from a dread about technical aspects not going as planned to an ebullience in the show’s final stretch.

Elfman’s appearance would have inevitably have been one of Coachella’s most talked-about even if it hadn’t been gleefully received as a fast-forward tour de force — by untold millions watching the livestream at home as well as the thousands on hand. Variety spoke with him Monday about how he felt coming off the adrenaline, with a repeat performance scheduled for weekend 2 of Coachella in five days.

We discussed the possibility of this last year, when already so much time had passed since you first coming up with the idea of planning to do this Coachella performance in 2019 and then having been on the verge of it before the festival was canceled in 2020. How are you feeling about it now that the first of two performances is under your belt?

I was just relieved to have made it through in one piece. I was joking to a friend before the show, “Look, we have 30 minutes to set up a show that’s never been performed before with 50 musicians on stage. What can possibly go wrong?” And then I’m sitting there before we went on, thinking, “Fuck, man. That was a joke, but it’s no joke.” There were a hundred things to go wrong. But in the end, the one thing that I really wasn’t planning on was a dust storm, an actual sandstorm, in my face. Everything else came together really well.

I read a lot of tweets and stuff where people were kind of confused and rattled and startled and like, “What’s going on?” — and ultimately that’s what I wanted. I wasn’t expecting to get such a reaction, and some of the crazy headlines — like, Yahoo said, “68-year-old Elfman and 20-year-old Eilish make festival history.” And I just thought that was hilarious, Billie and I being the wunderkind and the elder statesman of Coachella. Stuff like that was priceless in its weird way.

It’s been amazing and an intense and insane feeling. Going into it I knew it was going to be a really risky endeavor. I don’t think anybody’s tried that before, mixing up these kinds of elements in this kind of insane musical mashup. When you’re trying a conceptual idea, you don’t know what’s going to happen. But in the end, not having a safety net is also extremely exhilarating. It’s what it’s like when you’re up there on the high wire and the net is down and you know that the chance of just like falling into an abyss is extremely high. That, of course, is super exhilarating in itself.

Your set list was kind of a dream set list for anybody who is a fan of everything you do — from the new album [2021’s “Big Mess”] to the “Simpsons” theme to the “Spider-Man” theme to [Oingo Boingo’s seminal hit] “Only a Lad.” Did it seem all along like it would be OK to cram all those styles into one hour-long show?

Let me put it this way. I was very relieved yesterday, my day off, and I was pretty catatonic too. Believe me, I had a lot of mental hesitation and anxiety of: Am I putting all this effort into the craziest, most ridiculous idea ever, or will it work on some weird level? And I was just going to have to find out. There was no taking it on the road and trying it out. I was just putting myself out there and saying, “Look, I know this is crazy, but this is me, for better or worse, it’s me, this crazy, combination of stuff.” All that was rolling around in my head as I was walking out there. There was no sense of, “Oh yeah, this is going to knock ‘em dead.” It was more like: “Can they hang me for this? Is it a felony, or is it just a musical misdemeanor, if it fails?”

You said this was “my first time onstage as ‘myself’ in 27 years.” You’ve performed very occasionally since you effectively retired from rock ‘n’ roll, but Saturday night you did some things you haven’t done an opportunity to at orchestral shows that reflect your scoring life or even “Nightmare Before Christmas” shows. Like… taking your shirt off.

To anybody who saw me in the late ‘80s or ‘90s, that’s exactly how they saw me. The only difference is that back in the ‘90s, I would have been barefoot on stage, and they made me wear a pair of shoes at Coachella because with all the acts going on and off, they just didn’t know if there’d be nails in the stage, or splinters. But other than the shoes, I just wanted to come out exactly like if you saw me 30 or 40 years ago, and here I am now. And to not be embarrassed or ashamed by that. It’s like, “Yeah, I’m an old man. Fuck it — here I am.”

And so that [taking the shirt off] was kind of spontaneous. The sixth or seventh song, I just remember going, “The hell with it. I’m just going to take it right back to, if there’s somebody who saw me in 1990, this is what they would have seen,” and just go for it. It was just part of putting myself out there. That was the last layer, I guess, of protection, of armor, and I decided to give that up too. [Laughs.] That was kind of a surrender of the last tiny bit of protection I had between me now and my past and what I am and what I was. And it was just not something I thought out in advance.

It’s funny because there was a conversation happening online that we didn’t see in online discussions back in the ’80s and early ’90s, partly because there were no online discussions then. But people were saying things like: “Have we talked about how hot Danny Elfman is?”

Really?

And I thought, OK, here’s a conversation I didn’t expect to be witnessing in 2022, for probably a few reasons, but there we are. So you’re getting a lot of compliments.

All that hard work pays off, I guess. You know, I’ve tried my whole life to stay in shape, and I guess I’m glad I did now! Because I thought this was likely going to read like, “Oh my God, I wanted to throw up when I saw him take his shirt off. He looked horrible.” You know, I tend to think of myself that way. So to hear what you’re saying is a surprise for me.

When we talked last year, you said you really didn’t miss performing live, that you were never really one of the people who lived for that, and you had too many concerns about shows to lose yourself the way some musicians describe. So people might legitimately wonder over the course of a rare performance like this one whether you’re having fun.

I think really at the moment I threw my shirt off, that was the point where I just said, “Fuck it, I’m just having fun tonight. I don’t care, and I’m just going to enjoy this.” And so that was kind of a turning point in the performance for me. It was actually more than just a gesture. It was also tossing in the towel and going, “OK, here it is. I don’t care. I’m going to enjoy this crowd. I’m going to enjoy the music. I’m going to enjoy the band. Technical difficulties be damned.” So that’s all I can say. And I did! I mean, I really had fun up there. I didn’t know how people were taking it out in the world, but I had fun. And I’m unrelieved and glad that I was able to find that place and not get obsessed in the things that… You know, there’s that perfectionist side of an artist that’s like, if I don’t hear these things (in the mix), it throws me totally off balance. And  was most proud of myself at the end of the evening for being able to push past that and enjoy it regardless of the part that was difficult for me — the handicap.

What was happening that threw you off initially?

The thing that was most unexpected was that the wind was picking up in my microphone and creating a roar on stage, which annihilated my mix. But at a certain point, if you’re having a very difficult time onstage with what you’re hearing, but you just trust that the people out there are not hearing the same problem. And I think now that it’s over, they weren’t, and I’m much relieved. So if it happens again next weekend, I’ll be ready. It’s like, “OK, I can’t hear enough of the band, but I can hear myself, and the energy feels good, and I’m just going to ride that.” It was just a really strange, surreal, interesting experience. When I walked out there, it’s like, of all the things I anticipated potentially going wrong technically, I didn’t anticipate a huge wind blowing on me and into my microphone. I’m explaining something in the worst possible stumbling words because it was like an intense mix of excitement and adrenaline and a bit of panic over technical ability to hear what I needed to hear and then, finally, “the hell with it.”  I’m not sorry I did it, at all.

Then there’s the whole aspect of people around the world watching the show streaming, and your live audience being a tiny fraction of those experiencing it.

And that will be a lot better Saturday night too. Because I only just learned today that they were trying to do their own mix from scratch in the audio truck, with 50 players, you know what I mean? And so a lot of the band didn’t make it into that feed out of the music. I just assumed they were getting the same feed that we were giving the house, but they weren’t, so next week they will, and it’ll be even better because you’ll hear the guitars… It was a little bit shocking for me, but there’s so many moving parts in this type of thing. And ultimately the feedback loop, the feedback I’ve gotten, still, even with the mix being partial and so incomplete, I still got such great feedback that I’m really shocked, and encouraged. So now it’s just like, all right, make it better.

This weekend you may go in with more of a sense of how people are receiving it, now that you’ve read the comments.

I didn’t have any sense at all of what was happening in the crowd. On stage, I could only really see the very front, and all I was hoping was that they weren’t hearing out there what I was hearing on stage, which was a giant rumble of low end that never stopped. I really had no idea how it was communicating. Just from the limited view of the people up closer, I saw a lot of wide eyes — and that was interesting. If you see somebody and their mouth is open, you’re going, “Are they shocked and loving this, or shocked and hating it?” But I knew that I was surprising people, and a big part of me was really enjoying that.

People will be wondering if there will be any possible touring version of this. It would be a huge challenge to take a 50-piece string section out, but the more chamber-punk version of strings you did on last year’s album wouldn’t be enough to handle the film-score stuff.  Do you have plans, or did this change your thinking about anything?

I really have no plans other than just do the shows and then just talk about it and see where it is. It’s all just been about: Let’s just get it out there for Coachella and then just see. Obviously, I couldn’t make things more difficult for myself than doing this kind of show. If I were touring (just) with “Big Mess,” it would be a lot easier, because I could do that with a much smaller string section and singers. But I think we’ll just see.

You know, after all this, I’m not sorry at all about the crazy idea that I called Paul Tollette [president/CEO of Goldenvoice] with in 2019. I’m not sorry. At that point it was just a nutty idea, and Saturday night it was a reality — and I’m glad that we did it, that I stuck with it. it was intense and very interesting and cool. And it was a strange kind of a lifetime of experience all in one hour.

Elfman’s Coachella setlist:

Sorry (from “Big Mess”_
Insects (Oingo Boingo song)
“Spider-Man” Main Title
Nothing to Fear (But Fear Itself) (Oingo Boingo)
Just Another Day (Oingo Boingo)
Jack’s Lament/This Is Halloween/What’s This? medley (from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”)
Breakfast Machine (from “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”)
Kick Me (“Big Mess”)
Insanity (Oingo Boingo)
The “Batman” Theme
True (“Big Mess”)
“The Simpsons” Main Title Theme
Only a Lad (Oingo Boingo)
Love in the Time of COVID (“Big Mess”)
Ice Dance / The Grand Finale (from “Edward Scissorhands”)
Dead Man’s Party (Oingo Boingo)
Alice’s Theme (from “Alice in Wonderland”)
Happy (“Big Mess”)
Who Do You Want to Be (Oingo Boingo)