Danny Elfman on “Bigger. Messier.” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, April 17th, 2024  

Danny Elfman on “Bigger. Messier.”

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Aug 08, 2022 Photography by Jonathan Williamson Web Exclusive
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The oldest recollection I have of Danny Elfman’s music revolves around one scene from 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, when Pee-wee hitches a nighttime ride with a trucker named Large Marge. For a certain set who grew up in the ’90s or grew up with this film on VHS, this scene might be familiar to them. It’s the first time I can remember feeling absolute terror because of something fictional. Pee-wee jumps into the cab sitting next to Marge, who says nothing when he thanks her for stopping. Marge wears a black and red plaid hunting coat, her gray hair styled up high like the Bride of Frankenstein. And out of nowhere, she starts telling a scary story. There is no music until she speaks and what plays is both suspenseful and hilariously off-kilter. A piano slowly ascends and descends ominous bass notes, creeping along at the same time that a higher-pitched synthesizer punctuates the rhythm of the piano. The effect is that of a child imitating an adult, the familiar sonics of horror film scores accompanied by the wacky slapstick of Scooby-Doo. This combination of moods seems like it shouldn’t work given how over-the-top the film itself already is, Paul Reuben’s cloying, juvenile performance doing so much work to exaggerate the absurdity of the situation. And yet, the momentary shocking turn the scene takes, much like Elfman’s work, is unpredictable and exciting.

That was at the beginning of Elfman’s studio film career. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure marked the composer’s first time working with director Tim Burton and the start of one of Hollywood’s most consistent and prolific collaborations. But Elfman’s composing genesis began earlier, in 1972, with The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, an LA theater troupe formed by Danny’s older brother, Richard. Danny was recruited to be the group’s musical director and it was during those years, between ’72 and ’79, that Elfman taught himself to write music. “I transcribed old jazz. We did a lot of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. I had to learn to transcribe those parts and I had to teach myself to write. Then I started doing my first compositions,” Elfman told me when we spoke over the phone recently. His first non-studio film score credit came from Forbidden Zone, a cinematic encapsulation of all The Mystic Knights’ oeuvre that also acted as the group’s swan song before they disbanded.

Originally a 12-piece ensemble, Danny pruned the musical arm of The Mystic Knights down to a smaller, tighter, and altogether drastically different entity, which became the ’80s band Oingo Boingo. “I thought, ‘All those years with The Mystic Knights were wasted years for me,’ because I spent that time writing music and learning how to put music on paper. In a band, those skills are useless. I never wrote a note on paper the whole time I was with Oingo Boingo.” Elfman is playfully critical of the impact his band had on the culture, especially in the context of his wide-spanning career in film and television and his recent foray back into the world of rock with 2021’s 18-track solo album Big Mess. “Easy” is one word he uses to describe the songwriting process with Oingo Boingo, a contrast to the excitement and challenge that composing brought.

Almost 30 years after Oingo Boingo disbanded, Elfman’s path as a musician plays out like a montage of some of Hollywood’s greatest hits: Batman, Edward Scissorhands, The Simpsons, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mission: Impossible, Men in Black, Spider-Man. Sprinkled throughout his many composing credits is Elfman’s voice, notably the singing parts for Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas, along with various one-off songs where Elfman utilizes something like the sound of a rock band. But Elfman never fully committed to that return until last year, with the release of his heavy, complex, and brash Big Mess. Sonically, the songs on the album may come as a surprise to fans who associate Elfman with the playfully absurd and off-kilter. That expectation was something he’d been wrestling with for decades.

“It was one of the things that kind of frustrated me back in the day,” he says. “When I started Oingo Boingo in the ’80s, I really enjoyed it. In the ’80s. But by the time I got to the ’90s, I was over it and I wanted to move on, but I couldn’t. It was a dilemma because I had this new career as a film composer. I couldn’t bear the idea that I was jumping ship for something more lucrative. And that probably kept me going for another five or six years.”

Elfman is also, by his own admission, a naturally changeable person with a short attention span, fascinated by one thing now and onto another thing entirely not long after. Beneath this lay an appreciation for a variety of genres, including heavy metal and industrial rock. “I had this desire to do music more like what I was listening to, but I couldn’t,” he explains. “And then I became a film composer and just let it all go. If I had followed what I would have wanted to do, around ’89 or ’90, I would have left the band and started another if film composing hadn’t come along. But composing was really challenging and exciting and I could really apply myself to it. I just dived in one door instead of the other.”

Given the timing of Big Mess’s release, it’s easy to guess what occasioned Elfman’s shift in musical focus. “A thousand years later, I find myself in quarantine and, fuck all. I’ve got no films, I’ve got nothing to work on. I was also really frustrated and angry at what was around us all. Quarantine just focused it and exacerbated it. And I just started writing.” Viewed this way, lockdown seemed to create ideal working conditions for certain musicians, a seemingly endless amount of time to work coupled with either a very clear and obvious set of themes to work with or, alternatively, no direction at all. For Elfman, it was therapeutic, the songs ballooning from one to multiple album’s worth. “I remember talking with my manager saying, ‘Laura, it’s already going from a single album to a double album. Without a deadline, it’ll be a quadruple album.’ Me without a deadline, God help me. I’d still be trying to perfect Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”

There was talk of a staggered release, with one album in 2021 and another a few years after. “I said, ‘No, in two years, I’m going to be into something different.’ So we were going to put it all out there or not. It’s interesting that the thing that frustrated me about being in a band was being pulled in these competing directions, which worked to my favor as a film composer. As a composer, you’re switching gears all the time. I think I realized that this weird schizophrenic attention span is actually a good thing.”

Now, comes the release of an expansive remix album, Bigger. Messier, featuring work from Boy Harsher, HEALTH, Squarepusher, and Xiu Xiu, plus vocals and covers by Trent Reznor, Blixa Bargeld, Iggy Pop, Fever333, and Zach Hill of Death Grips. More than the studio album, Elfman believes the remixes to be the best part of his public return to rock. “Really, the most amazing part of Big Mess is how many people did want to step in,” he says, sounding genuinely surprised. “There were two sides to it: the remixes and the vocal reinventions. So I said, ‘Who are my favorite vocalists? Well, David Bowie, John Lennon, Trent Reznor. And Trent’s never gonna want to do this stuff.’ Stu [Brooks, bass player] was like, ‘Let me just send him some tracks’ and I said, ‘I can’t do that. It’s so embarrassing to be asking someone that.’ Obviously, it wasn’t the case!”

Elfman’s shock can sound like exaggeration, especially from someone whose music has become so ubiquitous throughout the years. It is often arrogance and sometimes narcissism that compels artists to self-deprecate as a way of inviting restorative praise. But, speaking to Elfman, he seemed genuinely moved to know that both his heroes and everyday fans connected with his work. I assume that’s because he’s often already thinking of what comes next, without trying to anticipate how his finished work will be received. “I saw myself as the least cool guy on the planet who was in a weird quasi-pop-something band that had no real impact on anybody outside of southern California,” Elfman says, in one of several underestimations. “These people aren’t going to know who I am or want to do my shit. I’d never done anything like this before.” Which, of course, begged a question I didn’t even have to ask because Elfman is, above all else, an effusive and good-humored conversationalist. “Now, the door is open. You know, Pandora’s box. It’s considerably more complicated since I’m splitting my year between film and classical work and now, songwriting. But I think it’s a pretty sure thing that there will be more.”


Also read our 2021 interview with Elfman on Big Mess.

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