Danny Elfman’s longtime home in Topanga Canyon is a veritable museum of small sculptures and objects he’s collected from all over the world, a good portion of them exotic skulls and skeletons and assorted Day of the Dead art pieces.
And he’s not feeling so alive himself right now. Picking Elfman out from his crowded house of death figures is almost like a live-action game of Where’s Waldo?
“I’m used to being intensely overworked,” explains the always-pale singer and composer between sips of tea laced with the no-lactose milk his doctors have put him on.
“But I’ve never felt as tired physically as I have this last month. It’s convenient in a way, because you don’t have to answer many questions: People say, ‘Man, how are you feeling?’ And I say, ‘How do I look?’ And they go, ‘ Oh , OK.’ I’ve got the coffin maker calling every now and then about measurements, wanting to give me a proper fit. . . .”
It’s not that Elfman is unduly morbid--though the kid who grew up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland and “worshiping that magazine and everything that it represented” certainly has demonstrated a taste for the macabre.
It’s sheer exhaustion, thanks to the fact that he’s one of the rare people allowed by the fates to live two lifetimes in one, concurrently.
In one incarnation he’s the founder, singer and songwriter of Boingo (formerly Oingo Boingo), the big-band new-wave combo that rose to L.A. cult stardom in the early ‘80s. Though Elfman all but broke up the band on a couple of occasions, he now professes to be as excited as ever about rock ‘n’ roll. The act’s first album in four years and most eclectic offering ever, “Boingo” (see review, Page 62), arrives in stores Tuesday, to be followed by a tour in June.
In another incarnation, he’s one of the most well-known and sought-after orchestral composers in the film industry, with both “Batman” movies, “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” the “Nightmare Before Christmas” song score and the “Simpsons” theme among the dozens of credits he’s accrued since making his scoring debut with “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” nine years ago. He’s on the verge of leaving for England to score the summer theatrical release “Black Beauty” and, he sighs, “the very last energy in my life force is going into finishing this big, lush, romantic score.”
Most musically inclined aspirants would kill to have either one of his careers. But some left-brainers don’t know when to quit. If rehearsing a rock band and writing an orchestral score weren’t hyperactive schism enough, Elfman has lately been busily rewriting several original scripts with a bloodshot eye toward embarking on what would amount to a third distinct career, as a screenwriter and, he hopes, director.
The divorced father of two teen-age daughters, Elfman and his girlfriend of several years, Caroline Thompson--the “Scissorhands” screenwriter who’s making her directing debut with “Black Beauty"--hope to start a small, independent film company that might focus on classy Gothic or horror films. He’s written two live-action musicals that are in development and has yet a third screenplay, an old-fashioned ghost story, that he hopes to be directing this time next year.
Meanwhile, “Boingo” is only his group’s second studio album since their most popular effort, “Dead Man’s Party,” came out in 1986. With four years transpiring between new releases of late, the cynic might wonder whether Elfman really has much of a taste left for rock ‘n’ roll. He’s been defensive when accused of leaving pop music behind before, but now admits he went through periods where the tedium of continuing Oingo Boingo got to him.
“I reached a point in the ‘80s and the beginning of the ‘90s where I started drifting,” he allows. “And I probably was more into film scoring than the band at that point. I think I kept the band together more for the sake of the band than for myself. I get bored really easily, and I don’t always find what it is it takes to get un-bored. . . . I really retired the band twice already.”
Elfman had decided to “let it go” a full 10 years ago, but after writing the song “Dead Man’s Party” he felt that he had hit upon a new style worth pursuing, a shift from the original “energy and fun and aggression” to something a tad more toned-down and complex. The resulting album alienated some fans but was the first gold one (sales of 500,000) for Oingo Boingo, which had long been legitimately huge in Southern California but only moderately popular elsewhere.
But he was bored again after the follow-up album “Dark at the End of the Tunnel” was released in 1990. Thence came the 20-odd film scores, the screenwriting efforts, the yet-to-be produced musicals, all of which provided more than enough outlet for his purely aesthetic drives.
Fortunately for Boingo fans, Elfman was and is a first-class, A-level crank. And there’s still no medium quite so conducive to crankiness as rock ‘n’ roll.
“When we started out, the intention was just to have fun and rankle people, throw some little jabs and barbs out at things that annoy me. It’s kind of become more a therapy for me over the years. A lot of the stuff is just letting off steam about something, and keeps me from becoming a serial killer.”
During the 1992 political campaigns, Elfman felt sufficiently disgusted by what struck him as hypocrisy in the “family values” rhetoric of Dan Quayle and the religious right to pen a diatribe in reaction.
This new song, “Insanity,” represented as interesting a stylistic break from Boingo’s standard M.O. as “Dead Man’s Party” had earlier, and he took it to longtime lead guitarist Steve Bartek for a reaction.
Bartek encouraged Elfman to write more along those lines, and soon he’d come up with more tunes that, like “Insanity,” went on for six or seven minutes or more, eschewing the standard pop song limitations.
In the studio, things got even more expansive, as Elfman threw out most of what he’d come in with and started working on songs with the reconstituted band for the first time--instead of directing the players to replicate his demos.
The lyrics range from Elfman’s most overtly political statement, “War Again,” an angry response to Gulf War patriotism, to his most unusually personal song ever, the affecting “Can’t See (Useless).”
“Half the songs on the album were improvised in the studio, which is a completely new thing for me and really fun,” Elfman says. “I started to feel really excited for the first time since ’80, when we first started out, and ’85 or ’86, when we did ‘Dead Man’s Party.’
“This album caught us in transition. It’s almost like catching something at the point where you’re shedding out of one skin and you don’t know what the new skin looks like yet.
“So now it’s like I’ve swung back to the other side, at least for this moment, in my enthusiasm. I’d rather be back in the studio--doing the next Boingo album--than on another big film score.”
Boingo fans without a taste for orchestral music might feel jealous of the time Elfman devotes to the movies. But Bartek, who is also Elfman’s orchestrator on the movie work, doubts the band would have lasted nearly as long as it has if the two of them hadn’t ventured beyond pop into film music.
“Had Danny and I not been doing projects in between, I think the whole process would’ve been sped up a bit,” says Bartek, surmising they would have burned out on Boingo without other outlets to retreat to. “The time in between has helped keep it going, actually, so each time we got together, it seems fresh. There’s always been enthusiasm when we reconnoiter.”
Time and maturity have pared Boingo down in several ways. Though the new album is the band’s first to use strings, the old trademark horns make only a token appearance, and the coming tour will be Boingo’s first without a brass section.
The name has been streamlined too: The group that started out as the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo is, with this album, just Boingo (though Elfman says it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to go by the band’s de facto moniker, and anyone’s welcome to continue using the discarded Oingo ).
“There was originally a desire to continually have the name shrink, so that by now it should be Ngo --or just O , O being the smallest molecular matter that cannot be halved.”
Rock’s critical community was never too kind to Boingo. But fan or not, you do have to credit Elfman with what would pass, by most criteria, for a certain level of inherent musical genius, especially considering that he never had an overwhelming interest in music or even played an instrument until he was out of high school. In 1972, he picked up the violin on a whim while traveling in Africa, and three months later was playing with an avant-garde musical theater troupe throughout France and Belgium.
Back in L.A., his theatrically inclined brother appointed him musical director of an absurdist American troupe, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. There, Elfman began to learn a host of other instruments, as well as how to render notations of, for example, Duke Ellington and Stephane Grappelli solos (a skill he had to relearn in a big way once he took on orchestral scoring).
Out of this finally Oingo Boingo emerged, an oversized, smart-alecky, insanely quick-tempoed group of guys who looked like nerds, Elfman says, to distance themselves as much as possible from the concurrent punk movement.
“I’ve never really identified with any segment of youth culture, particularly--not even when I was a kid,” says Elfman, at 42 a grudging member of the Woodstock Generation. “I never felt any alliance toward anybody, unless my generation consisted of maybe four people.”
Putting a finger on the pulse of Elfman’s political alliances has been equally difficult. Early on Oingo Boingo got a peg as a “reactionary” band, pretty much on the basis of two songs on its debut album: “Capitalism” (pro-free market) and “Only a Lad” (seemingly pro-capital punishment, anti-criminal coddling).
Yet the new album’s anti-Republican “Insanity” and anti-sortie “War Again” would indicate a far different orientation, one more aligned with the liberalism usually expected of rockers.
“I was hard-core left-wing growing up; I was a radical. And when I left that, I left it in a big way,” Elfman explains. “And of course I went and embraced anything that was against what I then saw as the hypocrisy of the left-wing movement. Since then I’ve become a radical reactionary, I suppose, and my views are really mixed. I don’t embrace either side at all, because there’s just as much bull on the left as on the right. But it is amazing how that follows you.
“That’s the problem with being around a long time, you get all these labels stuck all over you. It’s like I’m a walking suitcase.”
Do any others particularly bother Elfman?
“The one that I hated the most was quirky . But the fact was, we were quirky, and I can’t undo that,” he adds with a laugh. “Actually now, I’ve begun to like it again, so it’s OK. Now, as of this new album, I suddenly find myself going, ‘Yeah, OK, I’m quirky, all right.’ I guess I’m coming full circle."*