Danny Elfman Is a Big Mess
The acclaimed composer's first album in 37 years is out Friday
Within seconds of joining a Zoom interview, Danny Elfman is already running at speeds that would make the White Rabbit feel like the calmest being in Wonderland.
“That’s where my name came from, I’m pretty sure,” the composer hurriedly explains. “Elfman means ‘11th man’ in German, and in the Jewish religion, all ceremonies start with 10. The 10th man into the ceremony is called the minyan, and when the 10th man arrives, everything begins. My ancestor was always late. He was always the 11th man. The one who comes in and says ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ and they’re already going, like ‘Yeah, yeah, sit down. You’re late.’ Well, this is my own personal theory at least. I have absolutely nothing to back it up with, but it just makes sense. Where else does ‘11th man’ come from? Especially with the significance of 10 in Judaism. My guy was late — always late — so it makes him the Elfman. So there it is. OK, now that we got that out of the way, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?”
In a music industry where even the most prompt of individuals use the college classroom policy of “If they’re not here in 15 minutes, we can leave,” Elfman was so concerned about being four-ish minutes late that he opened with his hypothesis about tardiness being his familial heritage instead of the fact that he’s putting out his first solo album since 1984’s So-Lo this Friday (June 11).
But it’s also perhaps a good indicator as to where Elfman is at leading up to the release of Big Mess. At this point in his career, the 68-year-old can do pretty much whatever he wants. After two decades leading Oingo Boingo and nearly four crafting some of Hollywood’s most memorable scores, theme songs, and other tracks, nobody at Anti- (his label) is going to tell Elfman what he can and cannot do.
So now, Elfman is putting forth perhaps the best representation of himself he’s ever created in his half-century career. Big Mess has been a labor of love born out of quarantine frustrations and general anger, but all put together with the artist’s signature offbeat style.
“[Big Mess] was me writing out of necessity, as opposed to writing out of obligation — obligation meaning ‘Oh my God, we have another album due this year. Let’s get some songs,’” he explains. “I don’t mean ‘obligation’ as a negative thing, but that’s the reality when you’re in a band. This was quite the opposite. The last thing in the world I expected to be doing was working on songs for an album, and it just happened totally on its own and caught me by surprise.”
Pre-pandemic, Elfman was working on what figured to be the biggest, wildest show he’d ever done. After going to Coachella in 2019 and seeing the sheer scale of the stages, light displays, and special effects, he was inspired to follow Hans Zimmer’s 2017 example and bring his own music to the desert festival. But a regular set of his well-known soundtrack hits wouldn’t do.
“The idea for Coachella came about as this hybrid of half-film music and half-rock music, where there would be this crazy mashup of stuff,” Elfman says. “I thought it would be really fun, and I’d do something really visual and come up with some great content for this really wild, extremely eclectic show going in different directions that has everybody always off-balance and not knowing what’s going to come next. I had one new song, and I was intrigued by the idea of opening with this song that nobody knew what the fuck it was. Because I knew that I would have a lot of fans out there and that they’d be looking at me like ‘What the fuck?’ To me, that’s priceless.”
Of course, we all know what happened next. Not only did Coachella get canceled, but Elfman’s entire global touring plans for 2020 fell through. As someone who was scheduled to hop on a plane to London for the final rehearsal and premiere of his latest violin concerto immediately after his second performance (“Now, that fucking rocks in my world, because that’s about as extreme as the extremes in my life could possibly get!”), the COVID-19 shutdown hit the iconic songwriter as hard as anyone.
“It all implodes, and I’m fucking depressed,” Elfman says flatly, almost irritated at remembering how upset he was. “And on top of that, I’m in this non-reality version of America that was beyond anything I could have anticipated in my lifetime. I was frustrated and angry, and I think Big Mess just kind of had to happen.”
The one new song he’d planned to open with at Coachella quickly grew into a half-dozen for an EP, and by July, that half-dozen was nearing 20. Knowing himself, Elfman called his manager to get things under control. Without a deadline, he would’ve just continued to write songs for the entire quarantine without a goal or purpose.
“I never would’ve fucking stopped, because I’m always just going to do another song, another song, another song,” Elfman says. “That’s how I’m wired. That’s how my brain works. You never get it right, so you just keep trying to get it right, and doing another one and again. I said ‘We have to make some kind of arbitrary deadline or I’m just going to be doing this for years. I’ll just end up with 170 songs, and it’s going to be ridiculous.’”
Once the album itself was sorted, Elfman got to work on another outlet where he could flex some of his creativity. Instead of simply dropping singles on a digital storefront or streaming service, he released one full-production video per month leading up to the album, bringing in a different artist to carry out his artistic concept each time without breaking the indie label’s “very limited” budget.
But while Elfman and his collaborators might be finding the cheapest possible way to execute his visions for the music videos, his first post-pandemic performance will be anything but thrifty. His Halloween weekend live-to-film performances of The Nightmare Before Christmas in Los Angeles are about as grandiose of a rendition of the 1993 classic as can be. Performed live in a sold-out soccer stadium with the film playing on an impossibly large screen, it’s the kind of celebration of work that most composers never even dream of. And as much as the film and score might mean to the fans who will show up and sing every tune, just the fact that it’s happening is something that Elfman is incredibly thankful for — because there was a long time when it looked like his biggest project to date was a huge flop.
“At that time, I’d poured myself into it more than anything I’d ever done before,” Elfman recalls. “As a composer, you generally spend about three months on a score. For Nightmare, I was [working on it] for almost two years. It was a really different thing because it was a musical, and I was there from the ground up with Tim [Burton]. As it was coming out, there was so much misunderstanding of what it was and how to market it. It was very depressing. I did a press junket in Key West, Florida where I did interview after interview for two days — like until I was crawling. I couldn’t even stand up. Every journalist I sat down with would say ‘So, I’ve heard that this is too scary for kids. Who’s it for?’ I would say ‘Are your kids scared of Halloween makeup? This isn’t any scarier than Halloween.’ But there was this vibe out there. ‘Too scary.’ ‘Kids hate it.’ I remember one journalist — or several — asked me ‘I hear Santa Claus gets tortured…’ ‘No, I promise you. He’s inconvenienced, but he’s not tortured. And actually, by the end, he’s not even that upset by it. We’re not talking about him getting his fingernails pulled out.’
“They didn’t know how to market it because there was nothing like it,” Elfman continues. “Disney was coming out of the world of Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid, so they’re looking at Nightmare Before Christmas and going ‘What is this?’ The movie came out and disappeared really quick, and I was really tragic over it because I had high hopes for it.”
It wasn’t until years later when Elfman was in Tokyo with Burton for the opening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) that the duo realized Nightmare was back from the dead. The two began going into local toy stores — a tradition for them based on their shared hobbies — and found themselves surrounded by Jack Skellington and Sally merchandise. Hell, they even stopped by a Nightmare-inspired nightclub on the same trip before fully realizing the cult following the film had developed.
“Disney was smart enough to pick up on that and put some effort into re-releasing it and building on it,” Elfman says. “Whereas they didn’t understand what it was the first time around, they got it a decade later and gave it continuing support at that point. I think that’s really to their credit, because very few films get a second chance. It’s so rare that a film ever comes back from the dead. It’s like how The Wizard of Oz got rediscovered via television or how Donnie Darko got a bit of a revival through getting rediscovered by an audience. It does happen, but it’s so seldom. The fact that it happened with Nightmare — and not only that, but that it’s parents bringing their kids in every generation — it feels like this great vindication.”
While people may forever associate Elfman with his work on The Nightmare Before Christmas and other Tim Burton productions, there’s a singular track he’s penned that will likely outlive him, his other work, anyone reading this, and most other media.
“If I die right now, I have no doubt that there’d be a gravestone, and on it would be Homer [Simpson], and the word ‘D’oh!’ carved into the stone,” Elfman laughs. “That will follow me to my grave, and I really consider it to be a crazy lucky break. When I wrote The Simpsons theme, I honestly did it for almost nothing as a total goof, just because I didn’t expect anybody to see it. I didn’t think it would play more than three episodes before it was canceled.
After meeting Matt Groening and seeing a pencil sketch of the show, Elfman decided that he’d never have a better opportunity to do something so zany. He liked Groening, and the show reminded him of an insane version of the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, so he agreed to do it on a whim as long as he could make it as wild as he wanted.
“I literally got it in my head on the way home, and by the time I got home from that meeting with Matt, it was done in my mind,” Elfman remembers. “I ran down to my studio, spent about four hours, and made a demo on a 4 track tape recorder in which I played all of the parts. I sent it to him the next day on a cassette, and got a message back saying ‘Yeah, we got it.’ It was so stupidly simple and quick, and absolutely just done for my own gratification and amusement. Obviously, I was wrong, and the rest is history, but I’m not ashamed of it. These are all parts of me — whether it be Nightmare Before Christmas, early Oingo Boingo, The Simpsons, or the heavier shit that I’m into now. It’s all me. That’s why I called this record Big Mess, because that’s exactly what I am.”