Danny Elfman is giving us a video tour of his studio – a vast loft filled with marimbas, vibraphones and assorted drums, watched over by 18th and 19th-century wax medical models and old dolls/movie figurines housed inside glass domes.
“These toys are very dangerous, so they have their special protective domes that keep them from getting out and creating havoc!” he confides with a glint in his eye, showing us close-ups with his phone.
It’s a very Danny Elfman display. The 69-year-old musician and composer is renowned for his work with director and fellow oddball Tim Burton, for whom he has scored countless movies including Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas and recent Addams Family spin-off Wednesday, though his most famous work is The Simpsons’ theme.
He got his start at age 18, when he joined his brother Richard in French theatrical troupe Le Grand Magic Circus, playing the violin. Back in LA, he joined Richard’s performance group, The Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo, later reforming it as the rock band Oingo Boingo. His big scoring break came when Tim Burton asked him to work on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), kickstarting a partnership that endures today.
In June 2021, 37 years after his debut solo album, So-Lo, Danny released follow-up Big Mess. Last year’s remix record, Bigger. Messier, featured metal royalty such as Trent Reznor, Health and Ghostemane. In April 2022, shirtless and tattooed, he played a career-spanning, headline-making set at Coachella, which included a rendition of The Simpsons theme in front of an orchestra.
Warm and smiling beneath a shock of ginger hair, Danny is both self-deprecating and way more modest than a musician of his stature has a right to be. “I’m just a hyperactive, OCD musical chameleon with too much adrenaline and not enough time,” he says with a laugh.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
“A piece of music for Le Grand Magic Circus in Paris. I’d only been playing violin five months, but they hired me… I guess I didn’t have to be that good! Ha ha ha! The first piece of music I wrote for the Mystic Knights was called The Cheddaranian National Anthem, for this mythological planet of Cheddarania. It was all brass instruments and drums. For my brother and his pals, anything good was considered ‘ched’, or ‘cheddar’, and the planet of Cheddarania was a particularly fine place to be.”
How would you describe Oingo Boingo to a member of Gen Z?
“I couldn’t describe it then, and I don’t know how to describe it now. It wasn’t a punk band, and it wasn’t a pop band, and it wasn’t a new wave band. But we were called all of those things by different people. We inhabited some weird world between these three genres, I suppose, because we never could figure it out.”
Were you mixing with the punk and hardcore scene that was happening in LA in the early 80s?
“When I started the band, I was already like an old man. I was 27. And so it was like, ‘Oh, well I can’t be a punk, I’m old.’ I had bands that I really admired – X was my favourite LA band. I ran into Lee Ving from Fear a couple of times. We would play with Wall Of Voodoo, Suburban Lawns, and with incarnations of the Red Hot Chili Peppers before they were the Chili Peppers, and after.
“Some of the last shows we did when we were playing bigger venues, we’d have the Chili Peppers open for us. And that was crazy, because the audience would boo and boo, and of course Flea would just encourage it and flash his ass. I thought it was great, and I remember thinking, ‘Every one of you kids, you’re going to be huge fans of this group in another two years, and you just don’t know it yet, because they’re gonna be huge.’ And sure enough they were.”
You ended Oingo Boingo in ’95. What happened?
“It was a combination of several things. As soon as the 90s started, I already wanted out. And also, starting in ’85, I began scoring films. I was destroying my ears – especially once we started getting into the slightly bigger halls, 5- or 6,000-seat places, and the audience would be making so much noise. But almost more to the point, I was frustrated just being in a band. Bands tour for six months a year. We would go on the road for six weeks, and at the end of six weeks, I’d wanna shoot myself.”
Tim Burton was a fan of Oingo Boingo, but how did you two meet?
“I started with an incredibly lucky break, because I had two people – Paul Reubens, who played Pee-wee Herman, and Tim Burton, who was the director – and my name was recognisable for both of them. Five, six years earlier I did a weird, cult movie for my brother called Forbidden Zone, and Paul loved Forbidden Zone. He made a note: ‘Whoever that guy is, I’m gonna use him someday.’ And Tim knew of Oingo Boingo. And so, I guess between the two of them, they were like, ‘Oh, OK, let’s bring this guy in.’ And I didn’t meet with Paul, I only met with Tim, but we just hit it off.”
What did you bond over?
“We both grew up in Los Angeles, on horror films. We were both monster kids, really. And I think we were both kinda maybe odd kids. I understand Tim’s characters. They’re all alienated. And I grew up feeling like that. So I think that’s part of what breeds a kinship.
“I used to feel when I was younger that I came from some other planet, and was still watching and learning human behavioural interaction. So it was easy for me to understand Pee-wee Herman, and Edward Scissorhands, and Jack Skellington, and both Batman and the Joker. I’m Lydia and I’m Beetlejuice, somewhere in my character. I’m Lydia when I’m going through life, and then when I’m onstage, I’m Beetlejuice.”
At what point did you think, ‘I’m actually good at composing soundtracks’?
“The best thing coming out of that era – the late 70s, into the early 80s – was a total ‘fuck you’ about everything. And that served me well, because I went into Pee-wee’s Big Adventure going, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’ll do the thing, it’ll be good experience, Warner Brothers will throw it out, and fuck them.’ So I had an attitude for sure, which didn’t always serve me well. But, ultimately, it allowed me to develop my own voice and not care how I was perceived in my field.”
Was there a moment when the insecurity went away?
“Well, it really kind of started right away. When I heard Pee-wee’s Big Adventure played back with the orchestra, I was hooked, because I had never heard an orchestra play in my life. I made the mistake of admitting, really early on, that I was self-taught. And so it was just, ‘Clearly he has somebody else writing his music.’
It took about 20, 25 films for that to dissipate slowly. I think that’s why I started breaking into classical music in the last 10 years. I wanted again to break into a world that didn’t want me there. It’s almost like I want to break into a party that I’m not invited to, and that everyone’s gonna kick me out of."
Speaking of that ‘fuck-you’ attitude, everybody loved your Coachella performance last year…
“Oh my god. I really felt insecure about what I was doing there. The moment before I walked out onstage that first weekend, I felt like I was walking out to a firing squad. And it really wasn’t until I got offstage that my manager goes, ‘Hey, look at all these Tweets and stuff’, and it’s like, ‘What? They liked it?’ I couldn’t even tell.
There was just a point, about a third of the way in, exactly where I took my shirt off, where I decided, ‘I’m just gonna do this how I used to, because this is exactly how I was in the 90s.’ And feeling raw and exposed. If I could, if I was bolder, I’d be butt-naked, you know?”
I think people were quite shocked to see you had so many tattoos – was that your intention? To make a statement?
“I wasn’t expecting to shock people, necessarily, but for anybody who saw me 30 years ago, they’re gonna go, ‘Whoa’, you know what I mean? But I’ve been doing it for a while. I started tattooing 35 years ago, and I intended to do my right leg and my left arm, and I just never finished. And then about eight years ago, I remember saying, ‘You know what? I gotta finish this up.’ Every quarter-century or so, you’ve gotta finish old projects. Like cleaning your closet, reorganising your garage, finishing your tattoos…
I made a conscious effort to be in as good as or better shape than when I left in 1995, because there was no way I was gonna go out and be Elvis, in front of my old fans, and come back with an extra 70 pounds on me.”
What was your first tattoo?
“It was my leg, and I had designs for my arm, and I just got busy, and didn’t finish it. So, fortunately it was all black ink. My tastes didn’t really change from where I was in the 90s. I’m very OCD about the symmetry.
Whenever I’m recording, I’m scribbling black squiggles and black geometric shapes. And so eventually I just started taking that, and putting it on me. And then because I’m a fan – as you can see with the stuff with the 18th and 19th-century anatomical figures – I started putting those things out of old anomaly books, on me.”
What do you mean by anomaly books?
“The skeletons that are on me are from this artist in the 18th century that did these anatomical drawings but he would take his skeletons and his corpses, and put them in whimsical shapes, and I loved that attitude about death. These dancing skeletons.”
You collaborated with Trent Reznor on your songs True and Native Intelligence on remix album Bigger. Messier. How did you and Trent get to know each other?
“Well, I’d only met Trent once at a film composer event. After Big Mess, Stu Brooks, my bass player, was saying, ‘Danny, would you be open to remixes?’ And I’d go, ‘No one’s gonna wanna fucking do my shit, who’s gonna wanna work with me?’ Stu said, ‘Would you mind if I sent some tracks to Trent?’ I said, ‘No, I’m too embarrassed.’
And he did anyhow, and the next thing I know, Trent is saying, ‘Well, send over stems, and let me fuck around for a little bit.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?!’ Not only is he a fucking genius and amazing in so many ways, but he’s a real generous person in my mind.”
What did you and Ghostemane get up to? Did you hang out?
“Yeah, he came out to LA, and we hung out and took some pictures, and did some emailing, and he was just really sweet. I have a picture of him and I, and I said, ‘It looks like kind of father/son.’ And he goes, ‘Oh well, you know, I’m honoured to have you as my dad! Ha ha ha!”
A lot of people would have gone to big artists like Pharrell or Calvin Harris. What makes you attracted to these arty people?
“It wouldn’t even occur to me to send the track to Pharrell or God knows who else to work on it. My own tastes are probably a little more extreme than it appeared in the 90s, from Oingo Boingo, which is probably another thing that was frustrating me. It’s like, I’m listening to Nine Inch Nails, I’m listening to Tool – stuff that’s just a whole other kind of music that I don’t do. I don’t have a voice for it. It was fun, coming out in 2020 [with Big Mess] and finding a new voice to work with. Because I hadn’t sung, other than Jack Skellington, in 28 years.”
Wednesday blew up recently. Why do you think it’s been so successful?
“I have no idea why anything is successful! I think it’s just a combination of the tone, the setting and Jenna Ortega, who’s so fun to watch. Everybody feels some connection to The Addams Family, whether it be to the movie or the old TV show; there’s some kind of attraction to this macabre sensibility that’s just fun. I think with anything that catches on, it’s simply in the right place at the right time. Five years from now, it might not have been popular. If Batman had come out five years later, it might not have been noticed.”
Jenna’s prom dance went viral – what did you think of it?
“She was the fun of working on the show for me. I think she was perfectly cast, and she understood who Wednesday was, and so for her to do the choreography, it just made sense. She was like, ‘I know how Wednesday would dance, nobody needs to show me how Wednesday would dance.’ It’s like, ‘Of course you do, you’re Wednesday!’ I can’t give enough props to Jenna.”
Avenged Sevenfold have said you’re a huge influence on them. Do you know their music?
“Yeah, they’re great! But I hear stuff like this, and it’s just a constant shock to me. And when Trent told me he used to do an Oingo Boingo song called Nothing To Fear before he was in Nine Inch Nails, it’s like, ‘Really?! You’re fucking kidding me!’ I don’t feel like I had any impact on anybody, anywhere, and I just feel like a fucking freak in the world. And I’ve managed to find weird niches to live in as a freak.”
Do you think rock’s dead, or is it just something that people say?
“Well, let me put it this way: there’s not a lot of it. The reason why I was anxious to play Coachella in 2020 [it was postponed to 2022 due to Covid] is because Rage Against The Machine was playing. It’s like, ‘Fucking put me next to the stage where Rage is playing, because I feel more of a connection, just as a live band.’
And then when we appeared and Rage disappeared [the rap-metal band didn’t play the 2022 festival], I was like, ‘Nooooooo, don’t go, please!’ Ha ha ha! So, the fact is, it didn’t make any difference. But I still feel most at home with an electric guitar, and when I’m performing, I still like to perform very aggressively.”
Last question, and the most important one: is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Christmas movie or a Halloween movie?
“Ha ha ha! I still don’t know how to answer that! All I can say is that for me, personally, Halloween was always my favourite holiday of the year, as a kid, and Christmas was always a very depressing time. I was always alone and depressed. So for me, Halloween is where I feel my kinship. But it works for both holidays, you know?”
Wednesday is streaming now on Netflix. See more at dannyelfman.com