There are two people living inside Danny Elfman—possibly even more. When he wanted to expand beyond being the frontman for the weirdo new wave band Oingo Boingo in the 1980s, Elfman morphed into the ultimate shapeshifter: a film composer. At the movies he could—musically speaking—be as zany as Pee-wee Herman or as gloomy as Batman, he could become the soulful Edward Scissorhands or the real-life gay pioneer Harvey Milk. He split the difference as the songwriter and singing voice of his pumpkin-headed alter ego in The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington.
Then, his multiformity took him into the refined concert hall, as he composed ballets and violin concertos in yet another milieu that eyed him with supreme skepticism. He was actually preparing a new concert piece for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain when the pandemic hit, which suddenly left him holed up and staring at a completely empty calendar year. In a state of bummed boredom mixed with terror at the state of the world, he decided to mutate back into his original form: Danny Elfman, punk rocker.
“It was the last thing in the world that I intended to do,” says Elfman, 68, sitting on a couch in his Los Angeles studio, freshly vaccinated. “Except for Jack Skellington, I haven’t sung in 30 years. When I started writing this stuff, I was so frustrated and depressed and it was scary, because I’m revealing myself. I realized in hindsight that’s the protection of writing characters in third person—you’re also protecting whatever you are, keeping it at a distance. I felt too raw this time to do that.”
Big Mess, which comes out Friday, is Elfman’s first album of new rock songs since 1994. A deluxe vinyl version with some high-profile remixes will follow in the fall.
To be fair, Elfman had been eyeing a return to rock with a highly anticipated Coachella set scheduled for last year. He was following in the footsteps of another film composer with mainstream pop appeal, Hans Zimmer, who rocked the desert with a full orchestra and rock band in 2017. Coachella’s organizers had been trying to woo Elfman out for an Oingo Boingo reunion show for 15 years, which he persistently turned down. But after they flew him out by chopper in 2019 and showed him the vibe, as well as the impressive video screens, he got inspired to come up with a new set from scratch.
Of course, last March—after Elfman spent three months rehearsing with a band and commissioning ambitious films to accompany two new songs and some reimagined, politically charged Boingo material—Coachella was among the first wave of COVID-19’s event casualties. He and his wife, actress Bridget Fonda, escaped to their ranch north of L.A. With nothing but a guitar, a microphone, and a small room that was never intended for recording music, “I just started going at it,” he says. “Once that happened, it was like everything disappeared. It was really weird, because I didn’t expect that. I’ve used the analogy many times of opening up Pandora’s box, but this really was. It was like once I opened the box, it just wasn’t closing, and the stuff was just pouring out.”
He was going to open the Coachella set with “Sorry,” a loopy, looping punk anthem with angry electric guitars, a jumpy female choir, and an orchestra. Addressing the American president at the time, Elfman wails: “And all the hate that you collected / And infused into protected piles of shit / Glass-eyed devotees will flock to your gates / Your house is on fire, your house is on fire!”
Elfman’s been in a bit of a panic for the past few years, and says at one point he was seriously thinking about English-speaking countries where he could immigrate. “This is what it felt like for my own ancient relatives in 1929 in Germany,” he says. “When I was in Uganda in the ’70s and people were talking about Idi Amin, it felt the same way. There was this sense when I was there of like, ‘Oh, don’t take it seriously. It’ll pass. He’s just crazy.’ What I felt in 2018, ’19, ’20 was how easy it happens when people buy into a populist maniac and he becomes a godlike figure.”
So a lot of the songs pouring out of Elfman in his lockdown room were rages against the political machine. (Trump’s voice, sampled from a speech, even makes an appearance on one track.) On the syncopated “Serious Ground,” his voice laments over jagged stabs of strings: “And you thought that you’d never see the day / When the whole damn thing could be taken away / When the crowd starts waving that serious flag / And the boots start marching there ain’t no turning back.”
“It’s so compositionally overwhelming and assaultive,” says Henry Rollins, who recently played selections from Big Mess on his weekly KCRW radio show. “The lyrics are so smart and bristling. It’s like he’s taken all the skills he’s honed over the decades and weaponized them.”
The album “was extremely therapeutic,” Elfman says, “because you keep all this stuff in, it starts to make you angry and crazy. I’ve never done therapy, but I understand: OK, this is why people do therapy. You talk it out. Work it out of your system. And for artists, I guess—for centuries—this is how we work it out. I had a lot of pent-up energy ... and even still, part of it was still ridiculous and absurd. Because it always will be.”
Danny Elfman was a film guy at heart before he was ever a rock guy. The local movie theater in Baldwin Hills (in South L.A.) was his church as a kid, where he worshiped his holy trinity: Alfred Hitchcock, effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, and composer Bernard Herrmann. Elfman’s devilish mind was baked in a darkened theater, and he began thinking about life in terms of character and story.
He loved music, but he was an admittedly pitiful musician, “bombing out” of piano and violin lessons as a teenager. In a cinematically punk move, he dropped out of high school to roam around West Africa for several years with a friend, jamming with his violin in the desert. In 1971 he went to France to join up with his brother, Richard Elfman, in a traveling musical troupe.
Back in L.A., Richard formed the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, a street troupe that combined an eccentric musical repertoire with experimental films and costumed production. “The music wasn’t very good because most of the group weren’t real musicians,” Danny told L.A. Weekly in 1980. After he joined, Elfman winnowed their 12 members down to a nine-person cabaret ensemble of “real musicians” to perform his arrangements of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway music along with some original material. At that point the shows became “extremely ambitious. We played San Francisco and Tokyo, our 8mm films went up to 16mm, and our costumes and props were much more elaborate—rocket ships, dancing dinosaurs, mermaids, and frogs in tuxedos. ... But I was getting totally bored with all of the spectacle.”
So, for the first of many times throughout his career, Elfman transformed—audience reaction be damned. He shed the act and retooled the group into a sweaty new wave punk band with a horn section. He threw some of the ancient drum rhythms and Highlife style he absorbed in Africa into a blender with ’80s pop, creating extremely high-energy, danceable music for outrageously repulsive characters. “With lyrics that often lunge for the jugular, their songs deal with characters who dwell on the murky underside of life,” the L.A. Weekly wrote in a feature on the band—“nuclear babies, teenage monsters, commando girls, and sinister sexual psychopaths.”
“Almost everything Oingo Boingo did was third person,” says Elfman. “I was writing from a character. People have sometimes said to me: ‘Oh my god, you wrote that disgusting song “I love little girls.”’ And I go: ‘It is disgusting. That was the whole point!’ I was writing from the character of Jeffrey Epstein, before I knew who Jeffrey Epstein was.” After the change, they lost most of their original audience overnight. “People who had seen the Mystic Knights would come up to me with tears in their eyes and say, ‘What happened? It was so good and now it’s so awful and loud,’” Elfman said in 1980. “But I didn’t care. I never cared.”
If there’s another through line to his chameleonic musical career, it’s that. Elfman has always thrived off negative responses and suspicion. “I’ll show those motherfuckers” is his mantra to this day, and it’s evident in the earliest press for Oingo Boingo—especially when it came to the “establishment.” “The only response we’ve ever gotten from the critics, until now, has been kicks in the teeth,” Elfman told L.A. Weekly. “What they didn’t realize was that every kick in the teeth made us stronger and by now they’ve created a monster. As far as those critics are concerned, may they rot in Muzak hell for the rest of eternity.”
Elfman was particularly chafed at Robert Hilburn, head music critic of the L.A. Times, who ignored Oingo Boingo in a big write-up about the rejuvenation of the city’s clubs by local bands—and then, after Elfman called him to complain and Hilburn promised to attend one of their concerts, he failed to show. Elfman retorted with the song “Imposter,” which he would often dedicate to Hilburn, with lyrics like: “You’re just a critic, we know why you drink so much / Jealousy slowly consuming your gut.”
(Reached by email, Hilburn says: “Danny phoned me asking if I would personally check out the band. I thought, fair enough, and promised him I’d go see a show. ... Something came up and I couldn’t attend. My assumption is that is what led to ‘Imposter.’ As the pop critic for such a large newspaper, I was used to having artists call me out on stage and even write songs about me ... so it really didn’t matter to me. I’m not sure I even listened to the song.” He adds: “I am delighted by Danny’s success and wish him the best.”)
But Oingo Boingo quickly built a new, young, hometown fan base, thanks largely to the local rock radio station. Even though sales figures were never huge and their biggest hit, “Weird Science,” didn’t crack the Top 40, by 1990 they were selling out the Universal Amphitheatre five nights in a row. “It was the heavy rotation on KROQ in Los Angeles in the early ’80s that really implanted their music firmly in my brain,” says Weird Al Yankovic, who owns all of Boingo’s albums and wears their T-shirt proudly to this day. “The band is incredibly tight musically, and Danny’s singing is otherworldly, but obviously I have an affinity for groups with a refined sense of the bizarre. Of course, Oingo Boingo would in no way be considered a comedy or novelty act, but their body of work and their choice of subject matter belies a deviant humor that I find irresistible.”
“I would say they are easily one of my all-time favorite music groups,” Yankovic adds. “I even did an Oingo Boingo pastiche called ‘You Make Me’ on one of my albums. That’s an exercise where I write an original song in the style of a group I admire—it’s basically a sound-alike, and a true labor of love as well, because it involves studying an artist’s entire oeuvre and trying to discern what’s unique about it.”
Another fan was Tim Burton, a young animator at Disney who remembers seeing Oingo Boingo at Madame Wong’s and other local punk clubs. “I just found the music weird,” says Burton, “with all the different instrumentations. When they first started they were doing weird gamelan kind of drums. They had an interesting, hypnotic mix of things that I just found very compelling. And they’re like stories. Like, the weirdest thing I could say is ‘filmic.’”
Elfman’s obsession with film music began in that Baldwin Hills theater, and as early as 1980 he was saying he wanted the band to score films. “Film is my first love,” he told L.A. Weekly. “I have no musical background whatsoever, and most of my earlier inspirations for the group came out of film.” He’d gotten his chance earlier that year when brother Richard immortalized the Mystic Knights experience in the cult film Forbidden Zone. It was Danny’s first stab at an original score—a manic circus of retro sci-fi tropes and untethered new wave style—and also there amid the topless princesses, tuxedoed frogs, and Hervé Villechaize is Danny Elfman as the devil himself. Extremely on brand. (Here’s the NSFW scene in question.)
The film, as Richard Elfman recalls on his website, “did a summer of midnight shows in 1982, caused a minor stir and poof—it was gone.” But the people who saw it and loved it loved it ... like Paul Reubens, who was playing shows in L.A. as his own cult stage figure: Pee-wee Herman. When Reubens started talking to his managers about building a movie around Pee-wee, they asked him what it would be about. “I don’t know anything about the movie, except the score is written by Danny Elfman,” Reubens remembers saying. “And they said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because I just have a vibe about him, and I love his work on Forbidden Zone.’”
It was two years before the movie became a reality, and Reubens tapped the equally eccentric Burton to direct Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. He says Burton planned to use composer David Newman, who had just scored the director’s short film Frankenweenie. (Newman would go on to partner with director Danny DeVito, who had a similarly macabre, comedic aesthetic. His other films include The Brave Little Toaster, The Sandlot, Anastasia, and Steven Spielberg’s new West Side Story.) But “it wasn’t like Tim and I sparred over who was going to compose the music,” says Reubens. “As soon as he got told ‘Paul really wants Danny Elfman,’ then Danny Elfman wrote the score. Tim loved the idea, and Tim worked very closely with Danny—closer than I did, obviously.”
Thus began one of the most fruitful, freaky director-composer partnerships since Herrmann and Hitchcock. The Pee-wee score was a direct homage to Nino Rota’s circus-like 8½, but it was also uniquely Elfmanian, and it set the template for his trademark style of madcap, rhythmic humor combined with an abiding reverence for old-school movie music. Elfman went on to score nearly every Burton movie (they had a famous tiff before Ed Wood, but made up before Mars Attacks!), and their Hollywood stars rose in tandem—from Beetlejuice to Batman to The Nightmare Before Christmas and beyond.
“It’s a cliché thing to say, but he is a character in the film,” says Burton. “Whether it’s Jack Skellington or the score. From Pee-wee and Beetlejuice on, it helped inform the audience. It’s just an extra layer of what the movie is, you know what I mean? So that’s why I always relied on him, and treated him like he’s an actor and a character in the film.”
Over time, Elfman’s scores got more ambitious and sophisticated. He had a distinctive voice from the get-go, but he was also able to explore his multiple personalities in the blues-rock of Midnight Run, the balletic winter wonderland of Edward Scissorhands, or the pastoral sweep of Black Beauty. He was miserable being in a band, he says, because he “just always wanted to do different repertory, different stuff. Suddenly I become a film composer and I realize that quality worked to my advantage instead of disadvantage, because I can go from huge action, to tiny quirky, to very romantic, to fantasy, to very dark. And that constant switching up of personalities ... that’s where I’m happy.”
Elfman got so caught up in Hollywood that he abandoned rock ’n’ roll entirely. On Halloween night 1995, Oingo Boingo played their farewell show. Giving one last interview as a lead singer, he told the L.A. Times: “I plan to finish the last show, have a stiff drink, and go on a tristate killing spree.” Not quite, but he did go on a successful film-scoring spree that included Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man, Big Fish, Silver Linings Playbook, and Fifty Shades of Grey. In 1998 he earned his first two Oscar nominations—for both Men in Black and Good Will Hunting—finally sticking it to the naysayers who had doubted this rock poser daring to jockey for a spot alongside conservatory-trained legends like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith.
“When I was in theater for seven years, theater critics all hated what we were doing—this weird cabaret,” Elfman says. “I get it. It was weird. And then I start a band, and it’s like, ‘We don’t know what this shit is.’ And again we were reviled. And I loved that. I actually always wanted to take our worst reviews and print them in our ads. When I became a composer, it was already my third time around. It was like, ‘Oh my god, they hate my guts coming from a rock band, and bursting into film composition in a big way.’ They spent 10 years trying to find who my ghostwriter was, because everybody was sure that it wasn’t me.”
“And then suddenly I’m an old statesman as a composer,” he says, “and it’s like I don’t have that luxury of being the outsider anymore. I think that’s why I started getting into classical music, because I was so unwelcomed there.”
Elfman has now written more than five concert pieces, including a piano quartet and a percussion quartet—with more “serious” works planned. “I like the fact that it’s a party that I’m not invited to,” he says. “I just want to burst in there and create some chaos. When I did my first commission for the American Composers Orchestra in New York about 15 years ago, the music director said: ‘The press will hand you your head on a platter. You realize that, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah ... I can’t wait!’”
Elfman anticipates more backlash—or at least bewilderment—to his new album, which he’s obviously fine with. (He says his agent warned him that calling it “Big Mess” was providing low-hanging fruit for negative reviews.) But he’s already hearing praise from people he respects, like Rollins, who says Big Mess “is easily one of the smartest and hectic from start to finish records I’ve heard in a long time. Complex yet very listenable. He’s hit a fantastic balance of a lot of things. I like that he’s still mad and sharp. Success doesn’t necessarily have to soften people and he’s the proof. It’s quite inspiring and instructive.”
When Elfman started goofing around with songs again during lockdown, he thought he might spit out enough for an EP. But they just kept on coming—and in pairs. Some were rapid-fire riots with some of that old Boingo energy, but others were more subdued and somber. You might even say beautiful.
The duality of the material reminded Elfman of exactly what drove him crazy about being in a band, “because every year or two years, I wanted to be in a different band,” he says. “I didn’t want to do the same material, I didn’t want to do the same songs. Musically speaking, I’ve got like a goldfish attention span.” Elfman always envied the bands Boingo played with in L.A.—like X, Fear, and the Go-Go’s—because “they all seemed real clear about what they were.”
“For myself, I’m just a weird chameleon,” Elfman says. “In the ’70s when I started out, I didn’t even listen to rock ’n’ roll. I lived in 1933 Harlem, you know, old jazz. Then I got sick of that, and then ‘I want to be in a ska band,’ and I started Oingo Boingo. And then it’s like, ‘Well, that’s fine, but I want to do this, but I want to do this.’ I’ve never found anything that is me. I don’t know what I am.”
For this musical Gonzo the Great, movies were obviously the perfect platform for his Janus-faced self-expression. (His upcoming gigs are the Adam Driver sci-fi film 65 and a Sam Raimi reunion for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.) But in making the new rock album, something dawned on Elfman: “I said: I get it. I understand it now. There’s, like, these two writers. They live inside of me, and they don’t like each other. They’re not friends. And they’re both jostling for space.”
It became a double album not just because of the volume, but conceptually—alternating between the manic, thrashing “Kick Me” (“the perfect embodiment of celebrity in Los Angeles,” says Rollins, “and how they’ll put up with almost anything to be noticed and spoken well of”) and the slow-melting iceberg of strings on “We Belong.” With evocative lyrics (“We’ve mourned each other’s bodies / We’ve been inside the fire / We’ve touched the darkest water, and seen without our eyes”), Elfman stretches out in a haunting baritone that calls to mind an older David Bowie.
“The really interesting part,” he says, “was the writer who was into the more personal and the darker stuff had become more dominant since last time I was at this, where everything was just go go go. I was allowing myself a freedom that I never used to. And that was exciting to me. … I always wanted a roughness in my voice that I didn’t have back then, and then I found that I did have now.”
Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at timgreiving.com.