For many the highlight of Coachella 2022 was Danny Elfman’s triumphant walk through his more than 40-year career, from his early days with Oingo Boingo to his critically acclaimed film scoring, like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Spider Man, and his surprising recent return to rock with the album Big Mess.
To hear Elfman tell it, however, he expected his Coachella set to be a disaster. “When I walked down on stage on Coachella before the show, I felt like I was walking out to a firing squad,” he tells me. “Literally mentally, I was like, ‘None of this makes any sense. I don’t know who the f**king audience even is out there for Coachella and they’re gonna kill me.'”
Spoken like a true artist, who expects the worst. But even Elfman now admits that after the rave response to his Coachella sets, and subsequent sold-out Hollywood Bowl shows around Halloween, he has raised his level of optimism ever so slightly — from glass a quarter full to half full.
That was just part of my absolutely fascinating conversation with Elfman, which touched on muiscal heroes of his like Trent Reznor and Tom Waits to great rebels throughout history. And why Elfman will always crash the parties he is not invited to.
Steve Baltin: We’ve spoken multiple times in the past. I was going to say it’s a busy time for you, but when is it not a busy time for you?
Danny Elfman: And these days? Yeah. I don’t know the answer to that. This has been probably the busiest year of my life actually. And I don’t know what to say. I should be golfing or something and instead I’m having the busiest year of my long career.
Baltin: Do you golf?
Elfman: No. Unfortunately I do no daytime activities at all. Nothing in the sunlight ever. And if it’s tennis, if it’s golf, if it’s anything that involves sunlight, just figure, I’m not there.
Baltin: Do you feel like that busyness started during COVID because also you had time to take on all these projects?
Elfman: Well, it was heavenly for me, which I hate to say, because all of my family and most of my friends were really suffering in that period. So many of my friends and family worked in film and/or musicians and every performer was just going through hell. And for me, I’d set aside a year, 2020, where it’s the first year in 38 years I took no film work. I elected to take no film work. I was really just gonna do live concerts, because I had a bunch of different concerts booked. First, of course, there was the original intention of Coachella in 2020, but there was Nightmare Before Christmas, there was Elfman Burton and the violin concerto was opening in London. And I was scheduled to do my first of three commissions. I had one for 2020, ’21, ’22. And so, it just looked like it was gonna be a busy year between classical, between film, concerts and return to some rock and roll. And of course it all went away, just weeks before Coachella was gonna happen. So, I found myself with more free time than I ever imagined what to do with. And, of course, out of that came Big Mess, which I wasn’t expecting to do. And so, it wasn’t a busy time. It was a really fertile time. But it’s the first time in 40 years I haven’t had a deadline, let me put it that way. So, it was a really interesting and novel feeling to be doing a project that had no deadline. And literally my manager and I, we had to make a phony deadline. I started writing in April and come August, it’s like we gotta make a deadline, ’cause I’ll never stop. And then, what happened in ’22 was everything that had cancelled in ’20 and ’21 all rescheduled for the same period. So, I had this totally insane thing of three concert pieces with world premieres, in Vienna and two in London, happening within a couple of months of each other. And literally I was going Vienna, London, Coachella, then Costa Mesa for the second performance of my percussion concerto. And it’s like, “Wow, who in the world ever gets to do this?”First off, having three concert premieres in the same year is ridiculous. And then, adding a 30 year comeback on a rock and roll stage added just total insanity to everything. So, yeah, it’s been crazy. And then I finished Coachella, then I had the third commission, which was originally the first one, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and the proms in August. And then soon thereafter, we’re already starting to prep for, oh, Hollywood Bowl. And already I’ve got my next commission that I’m also on, plus finishing White Noise and Dr. Strange. And Wednesday.
Baltin: Have you found that happy medium for you yet?
Elfman: No, but I hope to return to a happy medium. Right now I’m just jammed into two things that have been waiting that the Hollywood Bowl kind of interrupted. And it’s like by the time November started, I was already a month behind in my next commission. It’s like having 20 deadlines and no matter what you do, you’re behind on all of them all the time. And that’s a little too insane. It wouldn’t be so bad if I were a film composer with a big crew and there’s a bunch of projects, TV projects and film projects, but the modern way, which I’m trying hard not to fall into is to have a crew. And it’s like you could take two things on at once, you could take three things on at once. You could do whatever you want, ’cause you’ve got this big crew. And I still pride myself in having the smallest crew in Hollywood for a film composer. I have a total of three and that’s compared to more than one person that have 20 or 30 people in their crew and it goes up from there.
Baltin: How much fun is it to be able to mix all of this stuff now?
Elfmn: Mixing it up is fun. I love contrast. And the reason I started doing concert music as well as film music was to get the contrast, because the classical commissions allowed me to write in a way that I simply can’t write for a film. And I love that contrast of going from a concerto to a film to a concerto to a film and doing that. But adding now the new element with the Big Mess and the new performance, that took it to a whole other level of intensity. Like I said, within one week going from the concert hall with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra to Coachella was pretty glorious. I loved the extreme contrast of that.
Baltin: Did you reach a point where you’re comfortable with embracing what rock and roll and Oingo Boingo and everything that happened with that has meant to you?
Elfman: Yes and no. It’s complicated because first off, up until two years ago, I never intended to do any of it. There was no desire on my part to go and do a new album and there was no desire to start performing. But it literally just happened spontaneously like most things in my life. My manager for 12 years has been trying to get me out to Coachella. I finally went out in 2019 after literally a decade. And what actually tipped me over was not what most people expect. I didn’t see people on the concert stage and go, “I wanna get back on that concert stage.” I saw the big screens and I said, “Oh s**t, I could do something and put some wild stuff up there.” So I went and saw some of the shows and I went into the trailer of Paul Tollett, the promoter and he said, “So what do you think?” And I said, “Well, how about something where I mix everything up?” And it was just totally spontaneous of that moment. Old stuff, new stuff, film stuff in the mishmash that makes no sense at all, but I will fill those screens with some crazy f**king s**t that will really excite me. And he just said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” [chuckle] Now, cut to two years later where I’m actually putting it together. And I thought I’d come up with the worst idea of my life. Literally. It’s like, “I’m never gonna just blurt stuff out without thinking it through again.” And then it’s like, “Oh my God, now I have to do it.” It seemed like a spontaneous idea of mixing this s**t up. But when I was putting it together and trying to rehearse it, I realized I don’t know who this is for. This doesn’t make any sense at all. And it’s almost like I’m putting together a show for four different audiences; Oingo Boingo fans, any fans that I may have picked up on Big Mess, my film music fans, and then there’s a whole separate audience just for Nightmare Before Christmas. And so, my name is known throughout totally separately in these different worlds. And I literally felt like I had built a train and I got on it and I was heading towards a train wreck guaranteed by my own design. I already knew that the track stopped right at the bottom of a big hill and I’m going off. When I walked down on stage on Coachella before the show, I felt like I was walking out to a firing squad. Literally mentally, I was like, “None of this makes any sense. I don’t know who the f**king audience even is out there for Coachella and they’re gonna kill me.” And I deserved it, because I put myself out here. It’s like, I created my own ruin and the fact that it didn’t work out that way is astonishing to me.
Baltin: I love this ’cause I’m a big believer in the subconscious. I think most good writing comes from the subconscious. The audience for this is Danny Elfman ’cause I think at some point, as an artist, all those pieces come together. So can you look at it now and understand who the audience was for that?
Elfman: Now I can grasp it a little more, especially since the Hollywood Bowl, ’cause even after Coachella went well, when they offered me that show I said, “It’ll never work.” I said the beauty in hindsight of Coachella was that it’s a surprise attack. The people that buy their tickets for Coachella don’t even know who’s gonna play there when they buy the tickets. They don’t even know who the headliners are. So you have a built-in audience and you don’t know who they are, but it’s a built-in audience. I said, but I’ve never sold a ticket for a solo show in my life. And I said, “Jack Skellington could play two nights at the Hollywood Bowl but Danny Elfman can’t.” And I said, “It’s gonna be embarrassing when we cancel the show or we cancel both shows ’cause of lack of ticket sales. And the other thing, it’ll be embarrassing to go into a 16,000 seat hall with 750 people sitting out there. And it’s just gonna look kind of empty.” But it didn’t work out that way. But again, that’s the way my brain is wired. It’s like, “Okay, you wanna do it, but I’m telling you, it’s not gonna work. It’s gonna be a disaster. Danny Elfman doesn’t sell tickets. I’m a guy with no hit records.” You gotta remember that. I’ve never had a hit album. I’ve never had a hit record. And people who come back and do tours from stuff it’s like they had dozens of hits. They had million selling albums. They built up this massive fan base and I have none of that. So, it’s crazy.
Baltin: You look at someone like Tom Waits who never had a hit record in the States. But can sell out every show he does.
Elfman: Good point. And look, any sentence that puts me in the same universe as Tom Waits, I’m so happy with. I couldn’t be more pleased than to just be referred to even in the same paragraph because he’s seriously one of my idols.
Baltin: You say this is the way my brain is wired. Every artist is wired to think the worst.
Elfman: I think I’m a little more wired to expecting the worst than most people. I’ve always been that way. I’m the eternal pessimist. I’m the guy who looks at the half filled glass and I only see a quarter filled. It’s not even like, is it half full or half empty? There’s only 12 drops in that glass. There’s not even a question. So, I’m a little bit extreme on that side.
Baltin: So with all the success you’ve been having and all the interest in it, does it allow you to at least to see the glass as half full?
Elfman: Yes, [chuckle] it does bring me up to the glass half full, because the shows at the Bowl I was astonished. First off, it blew my mind that so many people came out to see me and the energy in the house was so great. I just couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wow, here I am going from weird new stuff that they barely know to old stuff from 30 or 40 years ago to film music and I can’t seem to derail them.” I was ready for mountains of criticism. For a rock and roll musician, you’re supposed to identify clearly with what you are. And I’ve never been able to do that. I gave up even trying to figure out what I was many years ago, because I just realized that most of the bands I really love, there’s very strong and clear identity of what and who they are. And I’ve always envied that because I have no idea. I’ve never had any idea. I’m a chameleon. I’m in a theatre group. I’m really happy then I hear ska music from England and I just go, “Oh, I want to start a ska band.” Then suddenly I’m in a rock band and then Tim Burton comes along and offers me a film and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, I want to be a film composer.” Then I’m film composing that’s like, “Ah, I need a bigger challenge. I want to try to write a symphony or a concerto.” And then I’m doing that. Then Jack Skellington enters my life and it’s like a whole other thing. And so it’s just all is a series of weird accidents that just keep pushing me through doors that I find myself. The only common denominator I can think of is that most of these doors I’ve gone through I’ve not been welcomed and that’s worked strongly to my favor.
Baltin: Are there other artists that influence you in the way that they could walk into every world?
Elfman: The first one that kind of comes to mind, I had the pleasure of collaborating with on the Big Mess, which would be Trent Reznor. I’ve got just a huge respect for Trent and what he’s done and how he managed his career going from rock and roll to film in the way that was completely unique and with a strong identity yet not leaning on his rock and roll roots in order to create his film identity. He just created an absolutely fresh new identity and, to me, that’s what it’s all about. Trent did it the way I would try to do it, which is just to approach it absolutely fresh. It’s the new medium, you start from scratch and you develop a new sound. So he he’s a one that I feel has really pulled it off with great success.
Baltin: He was one of the two I was thinking of. And the other is David Bowie, the greatest chameleon of all time.
Elfman: The greatest chameleon of all time. Now, I have absolutely no doubt that if Bowie had ever suddenly approached classical music or film music, which unfortunately we didn’t really get to hear that, he would have done something really fresh and really great because of that chameleon quality. I think he would have embraced it just from the ground up and don’t you wish you could have heard Bowie’s first orchestral film score? Don’t you wish you could have heard Bowie doing a symphony or a concerto? How great would that have been?
Baltin: When you start to look at the other people who’ve done this or Joni Mitchell, in the way that she was able to go from pop and folk to these intricate amazing jazz pieces, does it give you a different appreciation for what you’ve done?
Elfman: Of course it does because to me it’s all about eclectic. Before I became a film composer, before I even became a musician, I was a fan of Bernard Herrmann. I only became a film composer because I was a film music fan. The thing I loved about Herrmann and why he was always my inspiration was how incredibly eclectic he was as a composer. He could do any genre. He can approach heavy, light, funny, intense and still put his personality into it. And so from even before I was a musician, the eclectic musicians were always the ones I was really most fascinated by. And of course you mentioned Bowie and even though he didn’t move into these specific realms that we’re talking about, but as a pop rock artist, nobody to me was ever more eclectic and had the ability to completely reinvent themselves so many times. That was always the beauty for me. Reinvention, to be eclectic, to move into, to move. It’s moving out of your comfort zone. That’s everything to me. Every door I try to smash through is motivated by the fact that I got to get the f**k out of my comfort zone or I’m gonna die. And if I can burst into a world where I’m extremely unwelcome, better for me. And if I feel like there’s a lot of hostility in this new room I’m in, I’m just going to turn it to my advantage. And that’s exactly what happened with film music. And that’s what’s happening with classical music. The classical symphony orchestras don’t want to know who I am. I’m a successful film composer. It’s like, “What are you doing on our side of the fence?” And when I became a film composer, it’s like, “What are you doing? You’re a rock musician. You didn’t go to music school. Get out of our world. It’s like you don’t have a place here.” And that attitude was the best thing that could have happened to me because then I’m out to prove something and negative energy really fuels me. So it’s been a constant series of moving into things, feeling unwelcomed at the party and going, “This is exactly the party I want to be at, nobody wants me here. Good.”
Baltin: Who is the greatest rebel of all time?
Elfman: The first that comes to mind would be Igor Stravinsky, a total rebel when he came along, it just turned classical music on its head. Louis Armstrong, an incredible rebel. When he embraced jazz, he was just inspiring musicians everywhere. Everywhere he went, he was doing something completely new, completely fresh. When Miles Davis came along, John Coltrane, complete rebels. Again, they were turning things around in a way that was like nobody had heard what they were doing. When Marlon Brando became an actor, it’s like “Wow, nobody’s seen this kind of thing before.” The world is filled with these rebels that have just gone, “Where did this come from?” Trent Reznor’s one. Kurt Cobain was certainly one. He changed rock music completely overnight, almost. These are rebels. They just came out of nowhere. And three years, four years later, it’s like everything’s trying to imitate that.