During his widely varied career, Danny Elfman has become celebrated as a composer for a long list of iconic films and television shows, including Batman, Good Will Hunting, Men in Black, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Spider-Man, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and The Simpsons. But recently, he’s returned to his rock music career, putting out singles on the 11th of each month leading up to the June 11 release of Big Mess, his first album of this kind in more than 25 years. Calling from his L.A. home, Elfman admits that this has been an unexpected development.
“I never would have thought of doing another [rock] album,” Elfman says. “What triggered the mindset change was Coachella 2020.”
He’d agreed to perform at the influential California music festival and spent months putting together a band and preparing intensely—only to have the COVID-19 pandemic result in Coachella’s cancellation. After that, “I kind of went into a month of just deep depression,” he says. “To come out of a quarter-century of retirement and to be bursting out again and get the energy and enthusiasm to do that, which I hadn’t really thought of doing—[then] suddenly the rug’s pulled out from under me and it’s all gone.”
Elfman didn’t stay down for long, however. He finished writing a song, “Sorry,” that he’d previously begun, “and I found that I had a lot of venom in me just piling up, so I said, ‘I’ll just do a few more,’” he says. “The next thing I know, it just started pouring out. As I was writing, I just realized that in 2020, both the pandemic [and] living through the Trump years, I had a lot of anger in me that needed to come out.”
As Elfman continued writing, “Songs started coming out in these weird pairs, like one really dark and heavy and the other really crazy, fast, [and] sometimes absurd. And I’m like, ‘These are the two writers that are always jostling for their screen time when I’m writing for film.’ It works out great for film because they each take their turn and I can go really heavy to really light to really silly to really romantic. It’s one then the other, one then the other.”
Elfman first noticed this particular dynamic in his writing while he was fronting the successful New Wave band Oingo Boingo, starting in 1979. “That same part of me drove me crazy when I was in a band because there was never one band that I wanted to be in. I wanted to be in a different band every other year,” he says. “That just doesn’t work well for people, unless you’re like David Bowie, who was able to just reinvent himself many, many times. It was frustrating for me—and eventually frustrating to the point where I didn’t want to be in a band anymore.”
Although Oingo Boingo had hits with songs such as “Weird Science” and “Dead Man’s Party,” Elfman dissolved the band in 1995 and focused his attention on film and television composing instead. It was a career change that he says he never would’ve predicted: “It’s been an interesting, fun journey into a world that I never wanted or intended to be part of. And the thing that excites me most is being somewhere uninvited, [where] I’m not welcome.”
Elfman says this “outsider” status actually began when he was with Oingo Boingo. “When I started a band, I felt very unwelcome in that world because nobody could figure out what our identity was. Because what we were doing, it wasn’t punk and it wasn’t rock and it wasn’t pop. And I liked that,” he says. “I liked the fact that we were betwixt and between. We got a lot of hostility from critics and reviewers, and that egged me on.
“And then in ‘85 when I started as a film composer [with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure], oh my God, I never encountered that level of hostility,” Elfman continues. “It was really intense. It was a total, ‘What the fuck are you doing on this side of the fence?’” He says this attitude toward his work continued “for the first twenty scores I did. Everybody was convinced I was just bullshitting.” But, he says, “That hostility really fueled me. In hindsight, it couldn’t have worked out more perfectly because I thrive on negative energy. For ten years as a composer, everything I did was, ‘I’ll show these motherfuckers!’”
Elfman has gone on to do work for more than a hundred films and television shows. He won an Emmy award in 2005 for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music for Desperate Housewives, and a Grammy award in 1990 for Best Instrumental Composition for his theme song for Batman, among numerous other awards and nominations.
“Now I’m a veteran composer and everybody accepts me,” Elfman says, but adds that this only spurred him on to seek out that outsider status once more: “I had to do it again to myself five years ago, which was to break into classical music.” Elfman premiered his first orchestral work, Serenada Schizophrana, at Carnegie Hall in 2005, and he’s also written a violin concerto and a piano quartet, among other classical works. Still, he says, “I’m totally unwelcome in that world. So once again, it’s like, ‘Ahhh—I’m back where I belong, at a party that I’m uninvited to, that nobody wants me there!’
Deliberately subjecting himself to this hostility, Elfman says, is something he does because “I have to challenge myself, because if you don’t get out of your comfort zone, you die. It’s just that simple. As an artist, if you stay in your comfort zone, you don’t grow, and you get complacent. And I just won’t allow that.”
Elfman first began his musical explorations when he was growing up in Los Angeles—though he admits that he went down this path rather by chance. “I didn’t grow up with a musical background, and I really only got into music by the fact that I went to a new high school, and I made new friends, and a lot of them were artists,” he says. “I was getting exposed, suddenly, to all this stuff because of them. I was the only one who didn’t play a musical instrument in my group of friends.”
After high school, Elfman decided to begin playing the violin. At the same time, he began travelling for a year, heading to Africa and Europe. He eventually ended up in Paris, where his brother was performing with an avant-garde musical theatrical troupe. Elfman also joined the troupe, gaining his first performing experience.
Returning to Los Angeles, Elfman joined the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, an eclectic musical ensemble. “Everybody had to play at least three instruments, and there were twelve of us,” he says. “We could switch from being a string band to a brass band or do a percussion ensemble. It was real crazy. We started doing arrangements of early ‘30s music. I loved the music of Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt, and Cab Calloway. I learned to transcribe and put together these arrangements. I trained myself, writing down Ellington arrangements.”
During his time in the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, Elfman realized he could sing, thanks to covering Cab Calloway songs. He also discovered his talent for writing original music, recalling that his first song was a “crazy marching brass band tune.” In 1981, the band (now with a smaller lineup and calling themselves just “Oingo Boingo”) released their debut album, Only a Lad. Throughout the rest of the decade, they established themselves as a popular New Wave band, finding particular success with the title track for the 1985 film Weird Science.
Elfman’s career took a dramatic turn that same year when he met director Tim Burton, who showed him some clips from the film he was making. “I went home and I wrote this piece of music and made a demo on a cassette tape with my 4-track tape player. I played all the parts,” Elfman says. “That piece ended up becoming the main theme to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
“I was just having fun,” Elfman continues. “It wasn’t until I started writing the whole score that it became very intimidating because now it’s like, ‘I’ve got to write all this shit down!’ Fortunately, I’d done just enough of it with the Mystic Knights that I remembered how to do that. Because with the band Oingo Boingo, you never had to write down any music. If I hadn’t done [that] prior work, I never could have done it. I don’t know what I would have done. I was really grateful at that moment that I had spent those years transcribing and writing those early compositions.”
Although Elfman has gone on to become one of the most recognizable and in-demand composers in film and television, he is still modest about his accomplishments. “I tend to be very dismissive about my own work,” he says.
Elfman also insists that he has had quite a lot of good luck along the way—such as when he wrote the theme song for the long-running animated television show The Simpsons, which premiered in 1989. “The Simpsons was just a lucky break,” he says. “When I saw the pencil sketches for the opening, I met [creator] Matt Groening and saw what they were doing. I thought, ‘This is going to be a really cool show, but no one’s going to see it. It’s not going to ever get past the pilot and maybe a couple of episodes.’ Because at that moment, it looked too weird. But I didn’t care. It was just a fun thing to do.”
Being in the right place at the right time may have helped Elfman along, but he’s also put in plenty of hard work too. He cites his 2017 violin concerto, “Eleven Eleven,” as a point of particular pride in this regard: “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the hardest challenge I’ve ever had for myself. There was a point in the middle where I thought, ‘I just can’t finish this. It’s too much for me. It’s bigger than I am.’ Yet somehow, I did finish it. Those are the ones that you feel most proud of.”
This takes Elfman back to his point about artists needing to continually push themselves. “The bigger the challenge, the higher propensity there is for failure, but then if you manage to get to the other side, the greater the feeling of accomplishment,” he says. Given this approach, there’s little doubt that Elfman has many more notable achievements to come.