When Danny Elfman Met the Wrath of Beavis and Butt-Head
Credit a little "Weird Science." That's all it took for composer and former Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman to eventually find himself being targeted by those arbiters of good musical taste, Beavis and Butt-Head. "I deserve this," he laughs wryly during an interview with UCR, recalling his reaction when Oingo Boingo's video ended up getting a thumbs-down from the animated duo.
Conversation with Elfman is jovial as he relates a variety of stories from his four-decade career. Deadlines, we learn, are important. "I'd still be working on Pee-Wee's Big Adventure right now, the film score," he says. "If I didn't have a deadline, I'd still be trying to get it right."
This will hopefully be the big year for Elfman that 2020 was supposed to be. He's celebrating the 2021 arrival of his first rock album in 25 years, Big Mess, with a new box-set edition, and in April he heads to Coachella for a headlining set that will include new songs with material from his Oingo Boingo days and music from his film career.
You've made a lot of videos for this new album. I would guess the process is somewhat simpler these days.
I didn’t really expect to do this many videos, but I’m really enjoying it. The process itself is not really that different. I mean, I really enjoyed making videos then, I enjoy making videos now. With the exception of “Weird Science.” That was the only time I didn’t get personally involved in a video. That was at the point where I started taking off as a film composer. I was in the middle of a movie, and they were like, “Oh, we’ve got to do this video.”
I was like, “Man, I don’t have time to fuckin’ do a video!” [Laughs] They’re like, “OK, we’ll bring in somebody. Just show up on the set.” That’s the only time, of all of the videos I did with Boingo that I literally just showed up on the set, put on makeup and shot a video. I remember when it came out, I was pretty horrified. Then a couple of years later, I’m watching Beavis and Butt-Head and sure enough, there’s “Weird Science!” [Laughs] My first thought was, “I deserve this.”
How did you arrive at the concept for the new "In Time" video?
I’ve been working with my creative director Berit Gilma, and we talk about each one. It’s like how do we do something different for each one? I had been interested in AI technology and she turned me onto some AI stuff, and I was really liking it. So I was like, “Let’s do something with AI.” It was kind of a whole learning experience of how to apply AI technology to a video. It’s very difficult with AI to get synchronized mouth movement because that’s not how AI works. That’s where Zev [Dean], the director, really came in.
He was trying to find ways to take this AI footage, which is somewhat static, and get movement out of it that felt like there was synchronicity with the song. It was really tricky, but we were all learning from scratch and that’s what makes it fun.
Watch Danny Elfman's 'In Time' Video
So all those tattoos in the "Kick Me" video are real?
Yeah, that was another thing I finished up during the pandemic, during quarantine. Quarantine provided me a couple of interesting opportunities. Because, of course, 2020 was the year where I took no film work. That’s because I had several classical commissions, I had Nightmare Before Christmas performances, Elfman/[Tim] Burton shows. I had Coachella. I said, “You know what? I’m going to take this whole year and turn it over to live concerts,” with all of these different types of concerts.
And then, of course, it all cancels! [Laughs] Of course, the first year in 35 years that I take off from film work so I could do concert work, all of the concerts are canceled. It makes perfect sense to me. But in that time, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was frustrated, and out came this double album [Big Mess] that I wasn’t expecting. I had no intention of doing a record. It was all spontaneous. At the same time, I was like, “Oh, you know what? I’m going to try to finish up some of this tat work.” It had a nice 30-year break between when I started it, and it was always my intention to do my left arm and my right leg.
I did my leg 35 years ago. So I started the arm, and I never finished it. I said, “You know what? I’m going to finish that.” Zoey, my tattoo artist, we would do this thing where we both quarantine for 10 days, isolate and test and then wait 48 hours. Then we’d do two- and three-day marathons of [tattooing]. It’s like, OK, it’s a chance to finish up this project. Because I literally had it in my head 35 years ago, and I just took a little break. [Laughs] It’s like every quarter-century or so you have to get around to finishing things, so I did.
You had to temper label expectations as far as what they were going to hear with this new album. As someone familiar with the final Oingo Boingo album from 1994, it's not completely alien going from that album to Big Mess.
That’s really exactly dead-on. I never thought about it, but what you’re saying is completely true. On that [Oingo Boingo] record, “Insanity” was [like] “Sorry” [on Big Mess]. That was the period where I was trying to stretch out and open up and expand. It was difficult because the Oingo fans weren’t necessarily kind of down for that. I understood that. That was the frustration of being in a band as opposed to being a solo artist. I totally get it. They had expectations of what Oingo Boingo was and what they expected from it in concert. I was wanting to break out of that, but it’s not easy. Unless you’re David Bowie and you’re allowed to change personas every couple of years, it’s really hard.
But I think you can feel on that record, towards the end, the last few records I did I was trying to push outside of the envelope that I felt like I was being sealed in. Starting up a hundred years later [with Big Mess], it’s like, “Oh, I can go anywhere I want now. That was interesting, to pick up the ball after such a huge pause. But like I said, it wasn’t something I felt, like, “I must do this!” It just happened. I was feeling so frustrated in 2020 between the pandemic, the quarantine, Trump, this weird dystopian America that I wasn’t understanding, this happening in my lifetime. This was like a George Orwell sequel to 1984, happening in my lifetime. That’s what I was feeling. It just all had to come out and it did.
It was an absolutely spontaneous outburst. Including even the lyrics to “Sorry,’ which hadn’t been there before. Those are the first lyrics I wrote, and when I started that song, I almost couldn’t believe how much venom I had in me. It was building up, and I think that was when I realized, I’ve got to let this out because this is going to destroy me.
Watch Danny Elfman's 'Sorry' Video
You had described your planned 2020 performances at Coachella as a "mixtape" of your 40-year career. Is the show going to change, two years later?
I’m still figuring that out right now, as we speak. I think it’s still going to essentially be a very similar show. The difference is that I’m probably going to include [more from] Big Mess in there, now that that’s out. I was going to come out doing “Sorry” as something nobody had ever heard. Now, I don’t have the advantage of surprise. The surprise attack! I lost my surprise attack. I was really looking forward to Boingo fans being out there with open mouths going, “What the fuck is this! You don’t even sing for the first minute! Is this even a song?” I was relishing that moment, and I don’t get that. But it doesn’t matter. It’s still going to be a crazy schizophrenic show. It’s going to be film, Boingo and Big Mess all thrown together in a wild, hopefully, mashup. But will it work? I have no idea! That’s the fun of live shows, is that I have no fuckin’ idea! [Laughs] It might be a disaster. I hope it’s not.
Do you think you'll do another album in this vein?
Possibly, yeah. The experience of doing it was really enjoyable for me. It felt very liberating. It’s kind of hard to imagine not wanting to do it again. Also, just the idea, [of] being able to collaborate - I never used to collaborate - with people I idolize. People like Trent Reznor and Blixa Bargeld. I’m so flattered that people like that are interested in what I’m doing. It really gave me a lot of encouragement. I never imagined in my wildest dreams two years ago, if you said, “You’re going to be collaborating on versions of your songs, remixes, with people like Trent, Blixa, FEVER333 and Rebekah Del Rio, plus these amazing remixers. It’s just been really great. That part of it has been so unexpected for me. I felt like regardless of what happens with the album, I came away from this experience really encouraged. I knew there was no way I’m going to get commercial success from this record. It doesn’t fit in anything. The one thing I knew about the market as it exists today, you have to lock into some audience or genre to have commercial success.
Albums aren’t the same thing. People pick up a song or two and put it on a playlist, and move on. But I didn’t care. I said it doesn’t matter, I’m still doing it. There was a point where they said, it’s insane doing a double album. People just listen to two or three tracks. I said I don’t care. Somebody will. I loved the experience growing up of listening to an entire album or a double album, top to bottom and hearing how everything interrelated. It was a great part of my childhood and I go, “Somebody’s gonna do that with Big Mess.” I don’t care whether it’s 10 people or 10,000 people or a million people, that’s not the point. The point is that that experience will be there for somebody out there. Maybe for years to come. That’s what to me makes it worth doing a double album like this in this way. Even in this day and age.