Danny Elfman
Photo by Jonathan Williamson

Danny Elfman: “I’m wired in this way”

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Short Profile

Name: Daniel Robert Elfman
DOB: 29 May 1953
Place of birth: Los Angeles, California, United States
Occupation: Film composer, musician

Danny Elfman's new album, Bigger. Messier. is out now via Anti- and Epitaph Records.

Mr. Elfman, can you remember what it was like hearing your music played by a full orchestra for the first time?

Oh, it was the score I’d written for Pee Wee's Big Adventure. It was a pretty game changing experience for me, for sure. Suddenly, I'd written an orchestral score, even though I'd never even stood in front of an orchestra before, ever! I never imagined that I would be listening to an orchestra play back my music… So it was very intense. I thought it was just a fluke; when I wrote Pee Wee's Big Adventure, I was expecting the score to get thrown out. I didn't think it would survive, so I was amazed that it even did.

Apparently when you first started out composing, something that helped you succeed was simply trying things out without the fear of failure.

Yeah, I expected my first orchestral commissions to be ravaged by the classical music community — but you can't be afraid of failure. It's been like this my whole life, I have always had to push myself out of my comfort zone. And the feeling of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone means you are at risk. And I’ve felt that at so many different points in my life. But the great thing about risk is the reward. As confident as I am as a film composer, I have no confidence in the other fields! I'm unwelcomed by the classical community in whole, I always feel like I'm breaking into a party that I'm not welcome in. With the first classical piece I did about 12 years ago, I was told, “When the critics hear this, they will hand you your head on a platter.” And I said, “Good. That just encourages me!” (Laughs)

“When I get hostile reactions, it really rubs me up, I love it. It’s that feeling of being onstage and you’re getting spit at, and you spit back!”

Did you feel that same sense of unwelcome in the film industry?

I was made to feel like the most unwelcome visitor for decades! I came from a rock band, and was suddenly out of nowhere doing orchestral film composition. They hated my guts! And I understand why, because they assumed that I wasn't really doing my work. It took 10 years for them to give up looking for the smoking gun of who was really writing my music. But again, I'm wired in this way. When I get hostile reactions, it really rubs me up, I love it. It’s that feeling of being onstage and you’re getting spit and booed at, and you spit back! And it was that vibe carried into the other stuff that I did.

How has it been for you balancing all these different realms of music, bouncing between rock, classical, and film for so many years?

That's been the dilemma of my whole life, is my inability to just be into one thing intently! My whole life has been one continuous identity crisis. For 10 years, I was happily spending half my year with a band and half my year as a film composer, and no matter which I was doing, I wanted to do the other one. And then suddenly, I was just a film composer. I had to find balance by going to really going to wild extremes with film; from something really big and action packed, to something very small and tender, and something really silly and quirky, to something very romantic. So I was able to keep that kind of bouncing effect.

Given that you’ve scored over 100 films, been Oscar nominated four times for your music, and formed iconic working relationships with directors like Tim Burton, Gus Van Sant and Sam Raimi, did you ever worry that you’d be pigeonholed into film composing forever?

Sure, I mean, I got such a strong association with Tim Burton — there was a point where it was really hard to get a drama, or a serious film, because I was the guy who did the weird films and the quirky films. I've always tried to avoid being pigeonholed, and sometimes you have to kind of fight your way out of that. Fortunately, with my solo albums Big Mess and Bigger, Messier, there’s almost no category to get pigeonholed into because all the collaborations are coming from such an eclectic group, we’ve got Blixa Bargeld, Trent Reznor, Squarepusher, Iggy Pop… That makes it so exciting.

Is your creative starting point the same no matter what kind of project you’re working on?

No, they are three completely different processes. In film, I try to really blank out my mind when I see the film for the first time so that I have no preconceptions. Early on in my career, I tried to do all this prep or even read the script and write music, but none of it ever survived. And I realized the best way to go at it was to be as blank as I can possibly be. When I'm writing classical music, it's much more nerve-wracking because I'm starting with nothing! And I don't have a picture to drive me on. I am wired now, for 38 years, that I see a moving picture, I hear music, you know what I mean? But with classical, I got nothing, and at first that was totally terrifying. But I forced myself into it, and then something develops, and it becomes very liberating. With the rock music, it's a whole different process. I mean, I can't do anything until I get the message.

“Composing was getting a little too comfortable for me. I needed to inject a higher level of risk and push myself out of that comfort zone.”

What kind of message has been fueling your work lately?

Certainly with Big Mess, I was angry and aggravated during 2020 as so many people were… When I started Big Mess, it was really just an explosion of pent up energy and venom. It was like a Pandora's Box, when I started the first couple of songs, I just couldn't stop it. I really had to make an arbitrary deadline, just because otherwise I wouldn't stop. So they're really different processes, but with film and rock music, I try to take a backseat to keep my brain open, or wait for some message from the universe that charges me up and gets me writing.

Does that ever slow you down? You can’t wait forever for inspiration when you’re on a deadline.

Well, the reason I've survived for this long is because any film composer that has an extended career learns to work within deadlines. The deadline becomes the motivating factor in the same way that a pro athlete can do these incredible things with two seconds left in the game. It forces them into their best mode. For film composers, the clock does get us into a higher gear. As I feel the clock running out, I push harder, and higher and higher. So I guess composing was getting a little too comfortable for me; there was that feeling of, “I could just do this until I retire or die.” And I needed to inject a higher level of risk and push myself out of that comfort zone.

How are you accomplishing that these days?

I've been performing as a solo artist and in my band Oingo Boingo for more than half of my adult life, and yet even today when I'm performing, I have to push against my natural instincts of stage fright, and feeling uncomfortable in front of people. I've never gotten over it! One part of me really loves performing, and the other part of me, just does not want to get out there and do it. It’s like, “Okay, get the fuck out of here, run! Get away from this!” I’ve never felt that more than this year before I stepped out on stage at Coachella to play a kind of retrospective of some of my work with more than 50 musicians. For the first time in my life, I felt like, “Okay, I've really screwed the pooch.” And it was a destruction of my own design!

But you seem to thrive on that feeling.

You know, my wife once said to me, and she really summed it up properly, she said, “You’re on a high wire without a safety net every time you go out there.” I think that's really true. Part of me must love the fact that there's no net. If I fuck up, it's really gonna be a nasty fuck up. When I’m on stage for whatever kind of show, there's a million reasons why things could fuck up; I make my shows, it seems, as difficult as possible. And I think that must be something I'm hooked on.