When he was preparing for his Coachella shows this year, Danny Elfman felt pangs of doom because he was crossing musical lines and he wasn’t sure how that would play out. Some fans would know him for his former band Oingo Boingo, others for his movie scores, and yet others might have only heard him sing as Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas. But he overcame his stage fright and drew such critical and social raves for his orchestral rock show on the first weekend that his audience tripled for the second weekend.
But that’s Danny Elfman. He pushes both himself and his audience to be uncomfortable and explore new vistas. Whether he’s rocking out or composing orchestral fanfare, Elfman has always expressed himself in his own unique way, often living on the outskirts of the mainstream while being embraced by it. His latest release is the album Bigger. Messier., a collection of remixed/reimagined tracks from last year’s Big Mess, his second solo album and first rock release in 27 years. His bassist Stu Brooks was the project instigator who helped get the ball rolling, including reaching out to Trent Reznor. Leading the charge of artists here are Reznor, Iggy Pop, Blixa Bargeld, Squarepusher, and Boy Harsher, who take a shot at interpretations that range from EDM deconstructionism to synth-pop revivalism.
Even though he has an acclaimed 37-year track record as a composer and now delves into modern classical compositions, Elfman still espouses a punk attitude that wants to break down musical walls and push borders. Prior to the release of Bigger. Messier, he sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the new album and the brand-new AI-created video for “In Time,” which we are exclusively premiering below. He also talks about being a musical disrupter, why he’s the “Godzilla” of composers, and the passion and negativity that fuel him to create new works.
The A.V. Club: This new video version of “In Time” with Blixa Bargeld was constructed using AI. The original version came out last year around the same time as Duran Duran’s “Invisible” which also used AI. Did you see that clip?
Danny Elfman: I didn’t see “Invisible.” The difficult thing with AI is to get any form of movement at all. The guy I was working with tried to cheat a little bit of how to get my mouth moving with the AI because it technically is not going to follow that. In other words, you’re sending all these pictures and the AI is interpolating it, but it’s not necessarily interpolating your lip syncing, so there was a separate process for that. It wants to interpolate photographs.
AVC: You obviously have to feed the AI some basic information like your images?
DE: Exactly. It’s complicated. We shot hundreds of shots—different lighting, different perspectives, different angles. Then the AI puts that all together with the other random stuff you’re feeding in. It’s all really interesting. It was something that fascinated me and this guy Francesco [Lorem], a Italian [artist], he’s really into it. It was a fun process.
AVC: It’s cool that you brought in one of the godfathers of industrial music, Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten, and modern industrial-rock Gothfather Trent Reznor. Had you worked with either before?
DE: I never actually worked with anybody before ever in my life. These are the first collaborations I’ve ever done with anybody.
AVC: You and Trent seem to have a similar trajectory in some ways, while Blixa is probably a little different.
DE: It was a shock on both accounts for me that either one of them wanted to get involved with me. With Trent, I was too embarrassed to even send tracks out. Stu was like, “Can I just send some tracks out to Trent?” I said, “No, it’ll put him on the spot. It’ll be uncomfortable.” Next thing I know, “Trent would like some actual stems to work with.” “Really? Okay.” And before I know it, he not only does two songs, he sends back all this intensive stuff that he’d done. No contract, no agreement, nothing. He’s just like, “Here it is, have fun.” He’s just such a generous guy, and I’ve so much admiration for him because I’ve also followed his film career, and I do think he’s one of the real geniuses of our era. It was cool. Then I found myself with his vocals on “True,” and now I’m recutting my vocals to work around him so it can blend better with his voice. It’s weird, I only just cut this track months before, and now when I hear the song I don’t hear my own voice anymore. In my head I hear his voice. I’ve never experienced anything like this, but it was great. Then Blixa jumps in, and Iggy Pop.
AVC: For Blixa and his German vocal version, was it done virtually?
DE: Berit Gilma is an artist in Berlin and my creative director who made the connection with Blixa. I sent him tracks. He worked with my tracks, and then we remixed it. I couldn’t go out there. This was [in] the middle of Covid. It was done remotely and worked out well. With Trent, he sent a bunch of instrumental tracks as well as vocals. Then Stu Brooks and I went back and remixed the new vocals and the new percussion tracks and things that Trent most generously sent along. The whole project was unexpected, and then suddenly there’s this bonus on top of this whole experience that I hadn’t even planned on, which is interfacing with all these people for the first time ever. I have done [only] one [other] collaboration in fortysomething years. When the second Batman [movie] came out, I collaborated with Siouxsie from Siouxsie and the Banshees. And that’s it.
AVC: Did you eventually meet Blixa?
DE: We did a photo session together in Berlin. I was in Vienna for a cello concerto and stopped in Berlin on the way back. That was in April. He was really cool. At first he was shy and a little bit like, “Why are we shooting? Let’s shoot two pictures and leave.” Then we start posing together and start talking about music. We start talking about Shostakovich. And I go, “Shostakovich is like my god.” In fact, I showed him these letters. I said, “This is DSCH tattooed on my arm in Syrian manuscript.” And he goes, “DSCH? Shostakovich?” “Yes. That’s the only initials I have on me.” He goes, “I like you.” We got along fine for the rest of the time. Then by the end of the photoshoot session, he wants to shoot more and he’s starting to ham it up. “Let’s do this. Let’s try it like this.” He really got into the spirit, and we had a good time.
AVC: Iggy Pop’s performances make me think of either a sarcastic talk show or game show host. He reminds me of Richard Dawson from The Running Man. He’s just really biting and snarky.
DE: I’ve got this lovely email, which I will treasure, from Iggy saying, “Danny, I really like this song. First of all, I don’t consider myself a singer, I consider myself a vocal actor. My take would be a broad conversation.” He goes, “If this isn’t a direction you’d like to go in, I understand. But this is where I feel it.” I just wrote him back saying, “Love the idea. Anything you feel I’ll be very happy for.” He’s got this fantastic reciting voice, and I think he could recite any classic work and probably do a great job. He’s got such a great speaking voice. So that was fun. Then he sent me another email just when it was done, before it came out. He goes, “I think this is the craziest shit I’ve ever done.”
AVC: You’ve talked about how other Hollywood composers didn’t like the fact that you weren’t trained, and once you became a success many had to imitate you. Later in your career, when did you feel that there was less resistance to what you were doing?
DE: I’ve had four careers so far—musical theater/cabaret, the rock band, my film career, and then the last 10 years writing concert music, which I’m just on my seventh or eighth piece [which just premiered]. Each of them have the same trajectory in the sense that I’ve felt like completely shut out and with great resistance for all four of these almost equally. The only one I actually feel I finally got some respect for was the film thing, and it’s only because I’ve been doing it for 37 years. It took about 15 years before people started going, “God, I guess he writes his own music.” Critics hated the [surrealist theater troupe] The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo when they came out. They didn’t know what it was. They didn’t get it. They hated it. When Boingo was a band, the critics hated it. We’re not a rock band, we’re not a pop band. What are we? It’s just stupid. I used to print the worst reviews, like Oingo Boingo was once called “dance music for kids who can’t dance.”
My film career was even worse. It was just pure, all out venom. They just don’t like people coming from a rock band and assume ... by the way, I have to add this caveat: I don’t blame them, and I do the same thing now. When somebody comes from a rock band to do orchestral film composition, I assume they’re not writing their music. And people assumed that about me. Then the stuff I was writing was just irritating to other composers. In hindsight, it’s just all the best thing that could have happened to me. This is what I need. I don’t think I would have actually gone as far as a film composer if I didn’t get all that negativity upfront. I’m like Godzilla. You try to drop an atomic bomb on him and what happens? He absorbs that radiation and gets stronger and bigger. That’s what the negativity does for me. It just fuels me. I went through 10 years as a film composer where everything I did was a big “fuck you, check this out, motherfucker.”
In all of Tim [Burton]’s movies, like “Check this out, motherfucker, you’re gonna be fucking doing this next year, you motherfucking shitheads.” That was my attitude, and ultimately that’s what I needed. That pushed me along. Then as a classical composer, the same thing again [with] symphony orchestras, but now it’s all reversed. “Oh, he’s such a successful film composer. We don’t want them coming over and messing with our world. Our world is more rarefied.” It’s like, “You’re so successful, I don’t want anything to do with you.”
AVC: Even though you have that horror and macabre side, you haven’t done many full-on horror soundtracks. The Tim Burton stuff often walks a tongue-in-cheek line, then you have superhero stuff like Batman and Hellboy. The new Doctor Strange movie allowed you to bridge those two worlds because it is like a Marvel horror movie. Was it fun to bring those two sides together for In The Multiverse Of Madness?
DE: It’s really fun because it really is like a strange creature with DNA hybrid between Marvel and Sam Raimi where it feels like neither a Sam Raimi movie nor a pure Marvel movie. It was really, really enjoyable. Not that scoring a straight ahead Marvel film isn’t fun for me because I like it when I can be aggressive with anything. In that genre I can be very aggressive with the music. But with the Raimi monster thing it allowed me to really open up and get very expressive and tap into some early references of monster music that both Sam and I grew up on. It also allowed me to get more romantic in the sad part of it with the emotional side with Wanda, which I also really love doing because I’m happy if I can go to any extreme with the music. If it’s very active and aggressive I like it, but if it’s very romantic I like it. If it’s very sad I love it. That’s my favorite. If it’s very quirky and silly, I’m fine with it. I just don’t know how to work in the middle of all that.
AVC: You did Wolfman, Eight, and Nightbreed many years ago and have done a few others. Would you like to work on a modern horror movie?
DE: My favorite movies each year are going to be [like] Hereditary or The Lighthouse. These are favorite films for me. I would love a chance to do one of those. I won’t tell you which one but I was offered a major horror film about five years ago, and I just couldn’t because I was in the middle of finishing my violin concerto. The problem with classical is I have to take off four months of every year, and I have to give up a film. Sometimes that’s painful. It’s Murphy’s Law. I’ll pick a period, this looks like it’s clear enough, and something’s gonna pop up right in the middle. I have a fractured life, and I just have to manage it somehow.
AVC: Even though you told me that you don’t see a thread running through your scores, I think there was a Danny Elfman vibe early on that connected them before you expanded in other directions.
DE: I did have a film not too many years ago where I was struggling with the scoring. [The director asked] “Can you be more Danny Elfman?” And I said, “Honestly, I think what you’re thinking of is for Danny Elfman. I’m being as Danny Elfman as I can. There are other people that could probably do me better now.” Eventually we were okay with the score, but it was an interesting criticism to get.
AVC: After all these years, is there anything that you think fans might actually be surprised to learn about you?
DE: I don’t know. I think a lot of people are surprised that I’m so shy of public, that I still struggle to get myself to walk out on stage in front of people. When I retired for all those years, I didn’t miss performing. I missed the raw energy of the clubs when I first started out. Those early days of Oingo Boingo were in the Whiskey a Go Go, just covered with sweat and the crowd was right in my face. I miss that combined energy, but I didn’t miss the feeling of trying to force myself to walk out on stage which was always a huge struggle. My first night singing Jack Skellington was about nine years ago at Royal Albert Hall. I hadn’t sung in 18 years, and I came really close to just running. I just couldn’t go out. I understood why [XTC’s] Andy Partridge had to stop performing live. I think it’s hard to explain that to people when I talk with fans or whatnot because they see me as somebody who loves performing, and they think I’m a natural performer. But there is a point where I get there and I’m locked in and I’m really happy, but getting myself out there is really a struggle. A big part of me wants to go the other direction and stay in the shadows.