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DANNY ELFMAN On Big Mess, How Jack Skellington Brought Him Back To Life, Performance Anxiety, His Tattoos, His Love For Metal & Much More!

Plus his new album Big Mess.

Danny Elfman – Photo Credit Silvia Grav
Photo by Silvia Grav

Whether you know the name Danny Elfman from scoring films like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Edward Scissorhands, the voice of Jack Skellington, his days with Oingo Boingo, or even his new album Big Mess, it's certain his legendary presence has become synonymous with all things dark and theatrical. I'm stoked to share some time with the man himself to discuss his life, his work, and his love for heavy metal.

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I have the honor to sit down with what I consider to be the most recognizable composer in the history of cinema and music with over 100 feature film scores, TV, compositions, amazing rock records, and a return to the songwriting craft he began with in his new album Big Mess. I'm here with the one and only Danny Elfman.

Oh man. Thank you for that intro. I'm blushing right now.

I wanted to start with your history of scoring film and TV shows, and you getting away from that. Your new album Big Mess kind of begs the question of "why?" You're one of the most celebrated names in what you do with film, and you've been in that world for over three decades now. Why was now the time to get back to creating music for yourself?

Well I really have to say it wasn't planned at all. It was due to the pandemic, and of course, you know, I've got incredible luck. So out of 35 years, I decided to take one year off of film work; no film work for 2020 because I had a number of concerts that I was doing as I've been branching out into symphonic music. So I had two world premieres in Europe and in America. I had Coachella and I had the Elfman/Burton concert for The Nightmare Before Christmas. And I said, "I'm just gonna give the whole year over to concerts." And of course one-hundred percent of them got cancelled. And, you know, we're also in the era of this dystopian America that seemed inconceivable to me even a few years earlier.

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So I was holed up at this house I have up north where I went with my wife and my son and my dog. And I was filled up with so much frustration. And I had this song that originally was a conceptual instrumental piece for called "Sorry." And I wasn't even singing, not originally, but when I started putting lyrics to "Sorry" for my appearance at Coachella, I realized that I had so much venom in me that was gonna take me down. And so when I holed up in the house there, I had nothing but one guitar and one microphone, no working headphones, and I just started writing. It was all just spontaneous. So the answer to why now was because of COVID. I was there. I had no deadlines, no work, no concerts.

I did have a lot of anger in me and I had to channel it somewhere, so it came just through the guitar and the microphone. And I realized, interestingly, that I didn't even need my studio. And I have a lovely studio in LA. It's like all I needed was my computer and a guitar and a microphone and I was off and running. And that was April 2020. And somewhere around August, I called my manager and I said, you know, "I don't know what to do with this. I don't know. Do I even put it out?" And so we made an arbitrary deadline for the end of August. Because if I don't have a deadline, I'll never stop. If I didn't have a deadline, I'd still be working. And so I did have to get through that hurdle of, "do I wanna put this material out?" Because it was personal, it was angry. You know, I had to kind of get over that. And then finally it's like, "yeah, let's just put it out there."

I'm glad that you did. That also makes me wonder if a solo record of this nature is something that you've thought of previously at any point in your career? Or was it just COVID motivation that got you here?

No, I mean, I really hadn't thought about doing another record. I don't know why. I was just busy with stuff, you know? And rather than branching out back into solo records, I branched into classical music. I found that when I'm not scoring films, I'm working super hard on symphonic works and concertos. And that was me getting outta my comfort zone. You know, I have to constantly keep pushing myself outta my comfort zone. And in the last 10 years, the way I found I could do that was taking time off each year and doing a symphonic work, which is totally outta my range. And I don't know what the I'm doing, but I'm gonna do it anyhow. And that'll keep me going. Then with Big Mess, it was like Pandora's box. Once I opened that box a little bit I said, "You know what, I'll just start doing a couple of songs." And the next thing I knew, it was like, "oh. This is not gonna stop."

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When you announced that you were gonna put out a record, I looked the trajectory of where you were and where you're going. And I wasn't so surprised, because back in 2015 I was fortunate enough to see an intimate celebration of your work at the Lincoln Center in New York City where an entire orchestra filled the room with this tremendous vigor. It was simply one of the best shows I've ever seen. This of course, led you to creating The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack live as a full arena show. And the world started to see you coming back as a performer, and not just the guy behind keyboards and computers. Did those performances change your perception of what you're willing to do today?

That's a really interesting question. I hadn't thought about it, but you're dead on. It's weird. My relationship to performing and as a vocalist has been a real tough relationship in all these years, and I've been on stage for most of my adult life. You know, I started when I was 19 years old performing, but I've always had this uneasy relationship with it. I never got over stage fright and performing anxiety. One of the reasons I started Oingo Boingo was because of a band I loved called XTC. And Andy Partridge, the leader of XTC, stopped performing for a similar reason. I understood that psychologically it's sometimes just hard, you know, where part of us wants to be out there in the front and part of us wants to really be buried in a hole.

When I retired Oingo Boingo, people kept asking me, "don't you miss being on stage? Don't you?" and I said, "well, I miss those sweaty nights in the clubs and that whole interaction, but I don't miss feeling the anxiety of having to go in front of people." It was kind of a relief in a way that I could be in a hole, I could be in a bunker, and Jack Skellington was responsible for bringing me out of that. And it's funny, there's a story there too. Because I got the the gig to do this Albert Hall Music thing of the films of Tim Burton, and I was putting together 15 suites. But when I first said "yes," my agent who was producing it, he said, "would you be willing for The Nightmare Before Christmas suite to sing a couple of songs?"

And of course, you know, I'm distracted all the time. And I just said, "yeah, yeah, sure." Then six months later, I'm actually putting together all these suites and doing all this work. It was like three months beforehand. And I got to the Nightmare suite and I said, "oh." And I called him. And I said, "I didn't say that I was gonna sing. Did I?" And he goes, "yeah, you did." I go, "oh. Well call them and tell them 'no.' That's not gonna happen. I can't sing." And he says, "well, it's too late. It's been advertised." And I go, "oh my God. Did I really say that?" He goes, "yeah, you really said it." I was really scared.

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I didn't even know if any part of it was gonna work. It's what you saw at Lincoln Center. But this was the first night. We had no out of town dates. We had no dress rehearsals in front of an audience. We had nothing. This was the first time ever and I hadn't sung in 18 years. I was frozen at the door and Helena Bonham Carter was behind me, because she was gonna play Sally that night. And she's looking at me, she goes, 'Danny, what's wrong.' And I said 'I don't think I can go out there.' and she goes, 'Danny, it'll be alright.' And it was really the words I needed to hear because it's exactly right. I've got myself wrapped up in my head about how I'm gonna be tarred and feathered and paraded it through the streets in civil London, and then hanged over Trafalgar Square from the lamppost. They're not gonna do that.

That's the story of my life. It's been a series of like, "I can't do this." And oddly, it was just what I needed to. I walked through the doors and I had one of the best nights I've ever had in my life. And so Jack brought me back and after that show, I said "yeah, I can keep doing this. This is fun. At least for a while." You know, anything I do too much starts to make me crazy, but I'd never sung Jack Skellington live.

But when it came time to do Big Mess, I didn't know what my voice was because the only singing I'd done in 25-plus years was Jack Skellington. I knew his voice, but I didn't know what my voice was. So that was another huge hurdle to get around. Like "what do I sound like now? And what is my instrument?" There was an adjustment period there of like starting to sing and going "oh, this is interesting." It's different. I can do things. And then I hit the song "True" And I said, "I couldn't have sung this song 30 years ago." I didn't have the voice for it. I was like looking for a roughness then that was hard to find.

I could do things that I couldn't do before. Certainly there are things I could do before that I can't do now like hitting super high notes. It's like, you know, I just can't go there anymore. You don't use your voice in a quarter century and you lose your high highest range. But I don't care. That's fine. I don't need that for this. I'm looking for something different. I started to really enjoy it. So the whole experience then became really fun once I crossed that hurdle.

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I love your your acceptance of it all and jumping two feet first into it, even though you might be completely uncomfortable. I think that's the way to do it. That's the best message that you can have, touching on overcoming your anxiety. Was that what ultimately shifted you going from being in a new wave rock band to being a film composer? Was it just comfort in not being on stage?

Well, let me put it this way. I had 10 years of overlap where I was both in Oingo Boingo and doing film composing where I was really learning how to be a composer. And between '85 and '95 I reached that point where I just couldn't be in a band anymore. Being that I was successful as a composer actually kept me in the band longer than I would've done it. I was at that point where I needed to get out, and I needed to get away from performing, and I needed to get away from feeling boxed in where I was. You can hear probably in my last stuff I did with Oingo Boingo. I was trying to break out of the box I felt like I was in, but it's just hard to do in a band.

So when I stopped in '95, I didn't know what I was gonna do next, but I was relieved that I didn't have to face that… you know, I always felt that the real performers, like the good ones like Mick Jagger and Prince, they love being in front of an audience. They thrive on that. Frank Sinatra famously retired three times, you know? And then he just wouldn't stay retired. They needed that. But I'm not wired that way. I was relieved not to have to face that demon anymore. I don't need love from the world. You know what I mean? Like a lot of performers thrive on that, getting a lot of love from an audience, which is great.

And I'm not saying it's not a wonderful thing, but I'm not wired in a way that I need that to exist. Ultimately I see myself as an underground animal. So I was content to go underground and be a mole, you know, to live in my cave. I felt like my natural space is sealed off from everything and I love creating in that environment. So it wasn't a hardship for me. It was kind of a relief. But as I said, when Jack brought me back out in front of that London audience, I said "this feels good." And all this fear I had about failing, I remembered that a live audience, when they're with you and it's a good audience, they are like a safety net. You can fail and they'll forgive you. They don't kill you. You know, we don't have firing squads for performers that fail on stage.

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Exactly. You have devoted fans and, and I think that's proven itself time and time again.

I appreciate them. It's just, it's a psychological thing. I've got a lot of wiring problems in my head and that's just one of 'em. So it really is not that I don't love and appreciate this audience that I've had out there. It was just my own internal wiring, which was constantly telling you me to get out of the spotlight, get underground, and close the bunker, and I did. And but on the other hand, when the door opened up and I was dragged out into the sunlight, I have to say it was like, it felt good.

And that brings you to Big Mess, which is truly an amazing adventure of a record. To me, it's reminiscent of everything that you've done in life, from Oingo Boingo to your film scores. It's kind of like a culmination of everything that Danny Elman was, is, and will be. Did that thought process enter your creative atmosphere when you were putting all this together?

It's an interesting question. Thank you. It started with… the year before Coachella canceled, I was invited to appear at a live festival in Tasmania called Dark Mofo. And I had an idea for a piece of music, which became "Sorry" but I wasn't singing in it. It was a piece for female voices, rock band, and orchestra. And they said, "what do you call this?" And I said, "I call it chamber punk. I don't know what to call it." So they said, "oh yeah, we're into this." So I created this 12-minute suite instrumental called "I'm So Sorry," but that got me into this free state of mind. Then when Coachella happened. I said, "oh man, take, 'Sorry' and trim it down, cut it in half and turn it into a song and like blow your fans' minds."

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So I love the possibility of surprising people. It just felt like a fun thing to do. What I couldn't believe when I opened my mouth and started writing lyrics to "Sorry" was how much venom I had in me. You know, that was 2019 heading into 2020. Then when I finally sat down in quarantine not knowing what to do with myself, I said, "I'm gonna do a few more songs and get into this." I realized I had all this energy that had to come out. It was really heavy. I did have template in my mind of the orchestra as a driving engine rather than just as a pretty thing kind of driving along, and I still have this kind of description that I gave Dark Mofo, which was chamber punk. I said, "you know, I'm just gonna kind of keep this thing." So it kind of stayed from "Sorry" and transferred into all the other songs. I just said, "this is kind of an interesting thing. I never thought of doing this before." And I was always curious what it would be like to use a string section with rock songs. It just kind of became all right. I'm not gonna fight it. It's gonna let it happen.

It comes out across really interesting. I mean, you have elements of so many different things, and some people might be surprised that there's a lot of like industrial and rock and punk and metal in there.

I mean, people didn't realize that I listen to heavier metal, heavier music than I used to do.

I was gonna ask that. It seems that way, but are you like actively listening to extreme metal?

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Oh yeah. In the '90s we weren't wired in a way to do that. But in terms of what I would have listened to in the '90s into the early 2000s? If you looked at my iPod, before we had our iPhones, it was filled with Nine Inch Nails and Tool and you know, these were bands I just loved. And when I came across Einstürzende Neubauten you know, from Germany, it was like, "oh my God." If I'd have heard Einstürzende Neubauten in the '80s, you know, when they came out, I would've had a whole different life because I just would've said, "that's what I'm doing." You know, I came outta my past with percussion instruments, using percussion in rock. I got pulled into what I got pulled into just because I'm so susceptible to things at the moment and my own whimsy.

In the late '70s I heard ska coming out of England, and I'd done eight years of musical theater. You know, this weird avant-garde musical theater, and suddenly I'm gonna be in a ska band. Fuck it. Boom. It was over, like, start a ska band. And that's the beginning Oingo Boingo. But if I'd heard Einstürzende Neubauten, I would've gone in a completely different direction. So it was like, that just happened the way it happened. Even now when I'm finishing up 30 years or 35 years of my tattooing, I listen to Tool. They got me through those sessions, you know? It was Fear Inoculum. I just think is such a amazing album.

Yeah. Tremendous record. I'm actually gonna see them tonight. I'm really stoked about that.

Oh my God, how great. You know, it was like a playlist of Nine Inch Nails that I would be banging away in my head while I was suffering getting tattooed. I learned a really important lesson about tattooing, by the way. I see you've got a few. Oh yeah. Plenty. And I always tell people, I used to tell people, "wait until you're older and you know what you want. Now I say, "get it done young."

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It hurts more when you're old.

Right! It hurts way more. And I could attest to that because I did my leg 35 years ago. And I did my arm in the last couple of years and oh man. It was like every part of it, even the easier parts were harder than the worst part of what I did, you know, three decades ago to my knee cap and my ankles. It hurts way more. But once I start something I'm not gonna stop. So I just had to keep going. But I tell you, it was Tool that got me through that.

That's amazing. And I feel that because I gotta finish the rest of my arm.

I met another friend who took a couple decades break and you know, he's got a full torso and he started in his twenties. Now he's 40-something and he started again and he goes, "man, I used to be able to do seven hours on the table. Now two and a half hours I'm suffering." And I go, "yeah, try it when you're two decades more in my position and then see what it's like, man." And so it is interesting because your skin does get thinner and your nerves are closer to the skin. Or maybe it's just your wiring. But yeah, that is worse.

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But you know, I love eclectic music. I've always enjoyed the heavier side of it too. And you know, so it's like a love of heavy, a love of punk, a love of all these things. And I just kind of let all that stuff kind of come out now.

I can definitely say that the metal community loves you. So I think it goes both ways, you know?

Okay, well then that's encouragement for my next project. Then let's see where it goes because I was happy there. You know, it's like, I really couldn't let that out or express that in Oingo Boingo just because there's a certain point where you're pushing a band to be something that they're not, and it just doesn't work. But myself, I can go there comfortably. And I had so much fun just like playing nasty guitar into my computer in my little room up north where I was like doing Big Mess. I remember thinking, "you know what, I'm not even gonna replace this." You know, I got great people I'm working with right now, but I like what I was playing like on "True." I said, "I played a weird solo just as I wanted it. And I don't wanna replace it even though it's embarrassing, because it's not technically proficient." And I kind of guess I reached that point. I don't care what people think of me. It was like, that's what I wanna express. But I was having fun with my guitar and I was really having a good time.

I love it. And I can't wait to see what's next. The metal community has always loved you. And I think it's a mutual respect there. Danny, I know that we're out of time, but I know that you also announced that you will be at Coachella this year and I take it you're playing more than just two songs this time. So I'm looking forward to it.

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Yes. Thank you. Thank you. I'm looking forward to it too. And I, and I appreciate everything you've said. So it, it gives me encouragement to actually to like…

Just go full metal!

Yeah, exactly! Okay, man. Thank you!

Big Mess is available here through Elfman's website, and here digitally on Bandcamp.

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