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Interview: Danny Elfman Talks  About His New Album 'Big Mess'

Interview: Danny Elfman Talks About His New Album 'Big Mess'

C.C. / Interview by Luke Rowell / Photo credit: Jacob Boll / Friday 11th June, 2021 2:44PM

Legendary US composer Danny Elfman has made his own indelible mark on the pop cultural landscape of the late 20th / early 21st Century, both through his instantly recognisable works for The Simpsons, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Pee Wee's Big Adventure and countless others, and as leader of new wave pioneers Oingo Boingo. The Grammy and Emmy Award winning artist has today released Big Mess, his first solo album since 1984's So-Lo, a development described by Elfman himself as unexpected. Created during 2020's tumultuous months, we leapt at the opportunity to learn more from the maestro about his scathing and deeply personal new double record, and who better to tackle the task than internationally acclaimed Aotearoa electronic artist (and cartoon soundtrack composer) Luke Rowell, aka Eyeliner and Disasteradio. Hit play on the stream below and scroll down to read Rowell quiz Elfman about the origins of and ideas behind Big Mess, out today via Anti- and Epitaph Records...

Luke Rowell: Okay, let's get straight into this one. This is for UnderTheRadar, New Zealand — sometimes they like to pair up artists with interview subjects. And I'm a synthpop musician who is doing cartoon soundtracks... a few similarities, so it was really inspiring to do the research for this record. And it's an amazing record! It's so good.

Danny Elfman: Thank you.

There were so many points where it was laugh out loud. It's so good to hear something so effective about COVID... about the last twelve months — did you intentionally go out to make an album that was encapsulating the feeling of particularly the United States? At this time?

No, I hadn't intended to make an album at all. It was an absolutely unintentional album. Getting into the beginning of 2020, I had made this great psychological leap of going back onstage to Coachella, where they'd been trying to get me to appear for a long time. I prepared the show and I worked up some new, re-tooled versions of some of my early rock-and-roll stuff with Oingo Boingo. To balance against half the show would be film music. It was going to be this crazy show.

But the thing that had me the most excited was this one piece of music, which had no vocal called 'Sorry'... and 'Sorry', which leads off Big Mess now, at that time was an instrumental piece, designed and written to premiere at Dark Mofo in Tasmania. I had this concept, I don't know what to call it — "chamber punk", for lack of a better term. Instrumental music for a rock band and a chamber orchestra. When Coachella (announcement) happened, I went out there and saw it and said, Oh my god, I gotta make this a song. I had this piece of music, I went to Coachella and I saw it and got really inspired. I said, “I'm going to do a show”.

As I started to put lyrics to 'Sorry' I realised, to no surprise, that I was filled with venom. My venom levels were just overflowing. I was surprised myself, as these lyrics came rolling out to me, that they were as bitter as they were. And then Coachella collapses, as well as the rest of the year, because I had concerts all year! I actually took no film work, to leave myself open not only for Coachella, possibly more concerts. I had a violin concerto on commission for a world premiere at the Proms in London. I had a concerto for percussion and orchestra to premiere also, with a British percussionist named Colin Curry. Elfman-Burton concerts... Nightmare Before Christmas concerts... and it all imploded — of course! The year I picked to take off is going to be the year everything cancelled.

So I went into my studio to finish a commission for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (an orchestral work for The Proms) and I knew in my heart that The Proms weren't going to happen. You know, it's like they hadn't cancelled, but it was at that point where everybody knew that there was going to be no fucking concerts in 2020. So I just lost my energy, my steam, for that, because I’m without a deadline. And I said, You know what? I'll write a few more songs maybe, I don't know what to do with myself. I'm really depressed.

I have a house outside of LA, in Santa Barbara... it's a place where I have a little writing room. It's not a studio. It's just a very simple little room. I have my synthesiser, my computer, like I could write in it. I had one electric guitar, one microphone, and no headphones that worked. I started writing songs, and to my shock — I thought I'll do three or four — it was like a Pandora's box. This was in in April.

By July, I called my manager and I said, “I’ve got sixteen songs, we gotta stop this, we got to start playing them around”. By the time I made the record deal, sixteen became eighteen. I will not stop without a deadline without somebody saying we have a date or finishing... we have to record, mix and release a record. So finally Epitaph and Anti- stepped up. Okay, I have a time frame. Now, I have a reason to stop writing songs, because I have to start recording, and I had this band that I put together for Coachella.

We were just at the point where we were getting together and really starting to sound good, it was exciting. I wrote everything in my little room and played everything, but I wanted to replace at least many of the guitars and all of the bass and drums. So I came back to Los Angeles, and we recorded one at a time, and we came up with a system... Josh Freese (the drummer) was recording. He came in for like a week. Stu Brooks, the bass player was quarantining. Josh finished, Stu would get tested. Stu would come in one while Robin Fink was quarantining. Everybody took their turns and came in one at a time, which was really hard. And it's a shame you know, we were deprived of the pleasure of ever standing together and playing.

It doesn't sound like that. I was listening to So-Lo (1984) and if you compare that to Big Mess there's something a bit more sharpened, and a bit more straight with it. I'm guessing that if you were locked in a room with a guitar and a synth and a laptop, you are going to be quite concise.

Yeah... I think I'm different. I'm a completely different person. All of my sensibilities are different from 1984 when I wrote So-Lo, my last solo record. There's no doubt about that. The interesting thing for me that I was able to do - that I never could do in the Oingo Boingo days - was almost everything I wrote in my old recording days was third person. I was writing from the perspective of a character... that was my protection. Also, I now realise in hindsight, when you're writing sarcastically from a standpoint of a third person, you're protecting your own. And then as I started writing Big Mess, I saw that the songs were coming out in pairs. Part one of each pair was completely personal, in a way that I didn't really allow myself to do very often, only a few times in all the 17 years I was with the boys.

In a quite personal sense which I got from the record is that, with a lot of your work... that there's a sense that you're the hero playing the villain. And for me on this record, it contrasts with this kind of Trumpian idea of the “villain playing the hero"... I was really struck by this kind of “lie that tells the truth.”

...I think the rawness of the quarantine and isolation really had a big part of that. Because I was writing songs that I had not intended to write. I was like, I don't even know can I put this out? You know, when I wrote 'True', 'In Time' and 'Everybody Loves You' I just was like, I don't know! .. I was surprised. I do think that that was influenced by just the weird surrealistic depression of 2020. And also... I felt very strongly at the beginning of the pandemic, that we were, that America was gone. It was just gone.

We're going to head into another four years. And who knows, maybe 12 because they're going to change all the rules. We're heading into Putin's style... democracy. It was very depressing — the first time in my life I had to start thinking, well, where could I live? Where else can I go? My choices are: Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand. It's like I only know English.

And good that things seem to be coming back, better from the States. I love it so much. You know, the there's a comedic tradition, the postmodern tradition, which I consider you very much a part of — this kind of the kind of Gen-X / postmodern creativity is totally inspiring, inspiring to me, kind of heartbreaking to see that that kind of stuff.

But that’s how it felt in 2020. Yes, it’s ironic that it took a pandemic to break that grip. Yet, even though that grip is broken, the Pandora's box of law of disinformation of Orwellian alternate reality has not gone away at all. I read last week that 70% of Republicans (which is half the country) still believe that Trump won the election by a landslide. There need be no facts, there need be no proof. There's no evidence, it’s because he says so. The power of a kind of a celebrity, authoritarian — it was George Orwell! it is. If he says two plus two equals five, and you have to buy into that, you just buy into it. Qanon is two plus two equals five.

I feel like on Big Mess has this strong sense of the emotional personality, the visceral reality of the emotion really carries. There’s a feeling for me a lot of mass pop culture seems to be confusing at first and then totally underwhelming when you find out what it is... In 'Happy' there’s this bit where you're listing off Snapchat, Minecraft, Cheerios. How do you feel about you know, Snapchat? Minecraft? Was that a sort of a condition of 2020?

'Happy' I just kind of wrote for fun... as a counterpoint to 'Sorry'. I wanted it to feel in the beginning it was going to be the poppiest bubblegum tune ever. Yep. And that it would just degenerate. Really like, “Oh, my God, this is just like, awful.” So it was really like a self degenerating pop song was what it was designed to be.

That’s conveyed in the videos, which are all very, like, very hip. Very “new”... this new 3D aesthetic is very, very cool to see combined with your work.

Thank you. Oh, my God. See the one that I saw the rough cut of today, for the song 'Insects'. The filmmaker is really wild. I don't know how to explain it. He does live motion capture animation creations. I love his works. Sam Rolfes. We did this motion capture thing, and he's turned me into this insect avatar. While I was performing, I was wired up with all these motion captures and he has the avatar on the screen. That's actually going to be this insect... I'm hiring people, and turning them loose with just the basic concept, and letting them do their thing. With him, it was like, “I don't know what this thing's gonna look like, because his world is so insane!”... but I love it. I saw my first rough (cut) this morning and it's like “Oh, My god, yes!” I'm more whacked than I had imagined. But I think it's gonna be a lot of fun.

Does this video curation feel a bit like the Mystic Knights days where you are "curating an experience”?

In those days, it was just it was kind of just scrambled together what you can. It was one video per album. It's like: Okay, we got this budget, let's pick a song, and we'll just get who we can get and, and just kind of get up there and do something crazy.” As I did more videos, I tried to step out more in bits & pieces, so by the time I did my last video - which is my favourite - for a song called 'Insanity'. That's where I found this great stop-motion animator named Fred Stuhr. I really was a fan of his work — he also worked with Tool. He had a very dark sensibility. Fred and I collaborated on 'Insanity', that was the first time I felt like I'd really gotten something that I could stand by — it wasn't just like, “let's do something crazy to a song”.

For this album, seven videos for one album because of the pandemic... no performances — really a challenge. My creative director Berit Gilma and I began charting out a course of different directions to go in. Once Sarah Sitkin stepped in with the artwork, that was defining the look and the feel of the album, then also (directing) one of the videos ('True')... Coming up with a concept of each one, taking a very different aesthetic, and hiring artists that we really liked, and letting them really take it themselves.

I would talk through a concept and maybe even do a little performance for them. But they're people with strong sensibilities. And trust them to do something interesting — it may not be what you're imagining, but it'll be interesting. I find that it's a much healthier approach, because you're bringing in artists and just say “do your art”.

Me as a composer, when somebody hires me... to craft me into the score that they want to get, I'll do a good job and I'll do as best I can do, but it's not going to be my best work. As opposed to somebody coming to me and saying, “just do what you do.” For example the two documentaries I did for Errol Morris where he gave me no input, just “do your thing, do your thing.” There are two of my favourite scores that I've done in my work. I kind of thought about that. I said, I should really hire artists that I respect and take a chance, take a gamble, let them do their thing. It may not be what I was imagining. And it may be great, they may be terrible — take the gamble — and so far I think the whole body of it all comes together. It's going to be really interesting at the end by June, all seven videos back to back. It will make a real interesting group.

For sure. It's funny, I had the same thing with Simon Ward, the video director who really introduced me to Oingo Boingo. We shot a video and I said “don't worry about me, make me look completely ridiculous.” And it was like the biggest video we did... it's like giving that that gift to video makers is incredibly relieving...

You know if you take your gambles your chances of getting something really great is better.

To the victor the spoils, right?

Yeah, exactly. You know, you have to give up control to get surprises that hopefully, you know, sometimes they'll be good or bad surprises, but those surprises are what makes it interesting.

What have you got coming up? You've got this new film 65 (that you probably can't talk about) or...?

Well, I can't talk about it a lot, but I can say that I'm working on a really wonderful science fiction-fantasy called 65. And from there I go into Dr. Strange with my old collaborator Sam Raimi. I'm also finishing the last touches on a Cello Concerto for the French cellist Gautier Capuçon. You know, it's a busy, crazy time. I'll cope.

Oh, Nightmare Before Christmas! We got cancelled last Halloween for the Nightmare Before Christmas show in Los Angeles, unfortunately, but we found a promoter that's willing to take a chance for this year. We're just about to announce a live Nightmare Before Christmas show in Los Angeles. Because that's happening, hopefully that will start to travel around some more of the world again, because we have four or five different concerts in different countries already planned for that.

So hopefully, Jack Skellington will also be back on stage. And / or I'll be back on stage being both Big Mess and Jack Skellington you know, in two different shows. Yeah! That would be a real interesting thing. If that ever happened. Like I go somewhere, and both happen at the same time.

Awesome. Thanks so much. It's been amazing talking to you.

By all means, rattle the cage and get us to New Zealand please. Elfman-Burton show, Nightmare Before Christmas show, Big Mess shows... the violin concerto, any of them! I want to come to New Zealand!

Luke Rowell is a computer musician & animator from Lower Hutt with two solo projects: Disasteradio and Eyeliner. His latest release 'Drop Shadow' is out now via Ohio-based experimental label Orange Milk Records HERE.


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