Danny Elfman on Everything from Boingo to Burton to Bleakness at Coachella

Danny Elfman is a musician of many hats. He led the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo in the '80s, has penned iconic themes for everything from The Simpsons and nearly every Tim Burton film to Marvel's upcoming Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.

He's collected Emmys, Grammys, and Academy Award noms—and it was understandably a challenge to distill that vast career down into a Coachella set. Celeste Headlee, co-host of Newsweek's The Debate, sat down with Elfman ahead of his first of two sets to talk through how you even begin to collect all that music in one place. Elfman will once again take the stage this coming weekend, on Saturday, April 23rd.

In researching for this interview, I went back and listened to "You Got Your Baby Back," which was a song you wrote for the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo in 1976. I actually was surprised to find myself saying, you know, Danny Elfman probably could have written this today. Do you go back and listen to earlier tracks and hear differences in your style?

Well, I mean, yes and no. I don't go back and listen to earlier tracks unless I have to. I never listen to a song I wrote once it's recorded. So, for example, until I did the [25th Anniversary Tim Burton box set] and had to go through and put together these albums... I hadn't heard a single score I'd done for him. And with the Oingo Boingo, even more so, it really wasn't until I started talking about the Coachella show two years ago when I was like, OK, I got to listen to some of the Boingo stuff because I gotta find half a dozen songs that I can still be OK with doing. And it was interesting because I made a little list. It's like, "I think I could do that one, I think I could do that one, I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole."

And then the surprising thing was how many of them I didn't even remember doing.

Really?

I must say a good 25 percent I don't remember writing or recording it, it's like this vague recollection. And so it is weird.

I'm almost compulsively not into anything, you know? I don't have any paraphernalia. I don't have any collectibles. People are always going showing me, like, old Boingo stuff and film stuff. And it's like, "Oh, you must have that." I don't have one single T-shirt. It's weird. Once it's recorded and mastered and finished, unless I have a reason to, I'm never going to hear it again.

You said one time: "The way my mind works, unless I have some whistle blowing that cuts off, I won't stop. I'd still be working on Pee Wee's Big Adventure, trying to get it right if I didn't have a deadline." So I wonder, as you return to that old stuff, do you want to tweak it?

Sometimes I come up with a new twist on something I may want to do. But you know, I still go, "Yeah, I still like that song. That's still fun." I couldn't do it for a long time, but they're fun or energetic enough that I could just embrace it.

The deadline thing was another story because writing Big Mess was the first time in 35 years I'd ever written anything that didn't have a deadline. Every piece of music I've written had a deadline. Of course, one hundred and ten films, they all had deadlines. Writing is like, "Sh*t, we're supposed to be in the studio in three months. I got to come up with material."

[For] Big Mess, [I was] in quarantine. Nobody gives a sh*t, nobody knows I'm writing. There's no deadline. I remember talking with Laura, my manager, and she says, "OK, we're making a deadline. Deadline is late August. That's it. Cut off."

I'm always going to try to get it right. I can always write a better score. I can always write a better song. I never get there. I always get, you know, sometimes close to there. And so I want to try to keep topping it.

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Danny Elfman spoke to Newsweek about his career and Coachella. Elfman is shown here during his Coachella set on the first weekend of the festival. Frazer Harrison/Getty

The first song on the album, "Sorry"—was that the first one that you wrote?

Yeah. "Sorry" was the first one I had pre-COVID, and it was written as a different song. It was an instrumental piece of music that I conjured up. [It] was about a 10 minute instrumental, which I wasn't singing on. I was only playing guitar.

So then Coachella appeared [in 2020]. And it's like, OK, let me turn this into a song. And I started putting lyrics to "Sorry," and I realized how much venom I had in me because it just came pouring out. It shocked me, in fact.

I was really raw. I mean, first off, I was frustrated and angry and feeling a huge sense of disappointment—not disappointment, but disbelief. I'm a child of the '60s and the '70s, so I remember the protests, the Vietnam War. But I'd never experienced anything like I felt in 2020, where I felt like George Orwell called it. It was unfathomable to me that we were where we were, that people were buying into this kind of insanity. And the funny thing is that during the run up to the election, the two people I was really afraid of [were] Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

You didn't think Trump could get elected?

No. I was rooting for Trump... because he didn't have, to me, a possibility of succeeding. You know? He was the crazy guy... Donald Trump's not scary. Donald Trump's a clown. So, you know, you don't be afraid of a clown.

But I should've known better, because I was in Uganda in the early 70s when Idi Amin first took power. And at that point, he was just doing kind of crazy stuff and people openly called him the clown. He's a clown. The week I was there in Kampala, in Uganda, he'd made mini skirts illegal. That's the kind of stuff he was doing. But he's saying all this crazy stuff. It's very similar to what Trump is doing. He was building anti immigrant resentment because all nationalist movements [start] with them versus us.

And so I was angry and I was frustrated.

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Danny Elfman played a mix of songs from his film-scoring career, his latest rock album "Big Mess" and from his iconic band Oingo Boingo. Frazer Harrison/Getty

I have to ask you how you're going to get all this together in one show for Coachella. How do you landscape this?

It started with this split [concept]—half rock, half film. Now it's thirds—one third film, one third Big Mess, one third Boingo. And I've mashed it together in a way that I have no f*cking clue what it's going to be like. It'll either be like one of the best or worst ideas I ever had, because to my knowledge, no one's ever done this kind of thing before. And it's going to be really weird to be in the audience because it's jamming this energy in with orchestral, big, sweeping film pieces in a way that makes no sense.

So are you going to have a full orchestra on stage with you?

Yeah, yeah.

And a rock band?

Yeah, all of it. It's just like me saying, "For better or for worse, this is what I am." I'm just presenting myself. It's going to be interesting to see how an audience perceives it, because you could do an evening of film music and you get an audience that really appreciates the film music. And obviously, you know, you could do a night of rock and roll and you get a lot of people. But putting it together is what I pitched to [Coachella]. I'm not going to chicken out now.

I have to ask you the last question, which we're asking all the artists we're speaking to at Coachella. What was the last, the most recent song that you got stuck in your head?

Oh, my God. Well, it's a bad question to ask me because I get things relentlessly stuck in my head all the time. But because I'm in rehearsals for this last month, I'm getting my own stuff stuck in my head. Usually it's not—usually it's something else that I just kind of heard. So it's kind of unfair! I've been in 12-hour production rehearsals. So I'll hear like, you know, something that I was working on and maybe struggling with.

Last night, it might have been the song "Happy," which is a Big Mess song. I designed it to be like the nastiest pop tune ever. It's just me being malicious and dumb. And of course, last night it was stuck in my head and it's like, "Oh God."

Well, is there a song that often gets stuck in your head? Like, there's this one Harry Connick song that I have no idea why, but it's stuck in my head all the time. Do you have a song like that that shows up in your headspace?

No, it's constantly changing. You know it could be a Billie Holiday song. It could be a Radiohead song. It could be a Cat Power song. Or, you know, it could be a random pop song that I heard a little bit of that I can't stand. In fact that's why I try to, like, listen to certain things before I go to bed after rehearsal, because I don't want my own music stuck in my head. So you know, I'll put on a favorite Radiohead or something just to kind of clear my head of my own stuff before I go to sleep. If I'm going to take a song [to sleep with me] I'd rather it be Radiohead than me.

Newsweek's continuing Coachella coverage can be found online at newsweek.com and on On Beat, available wherever you get your podcasts.