Back to Boingo
by Chris Willman
Los Angeles Times, May 15th, 1994
Danny Elfman may have exhausted himself composing movie scores and
tv themes, but he's getting renewed pleasure from the oddball rock
band he founded and twice thought he'd retired.
Danny Elfman's longtime 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 convient in a way, because you don;t have to answer many
questions: People say, 'Man, how are you feeling?' And I saw, 'How do
I look?' And they go, 'Oh, OK.' I've got the coffin maker calling
every now and them about measurements, wanting to give me a proper
It's not that Elfman is unduly morbidthough 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 alloweds by the fates to live two lifetimes in one,
In one incarnation he's the founder, singer and songwriter of
Boingo (formerly Oingo Boingo), the big-band, new-wave combo that
rose to LA 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 rehersing 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 teenage daughters, Elfman and his
gilrfriend of several years, Caroline Thompsonthe Scissorhands
screenwriter who's making her directing debut with Black Beautyhope
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-fashoned 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 alwasy 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 agression" 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 tha
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 hyopcrisy 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
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 timeinstead of directing the players to replicate his
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 studiodoing
the next Boingo albumthan 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 Boing 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 schol. 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 LA, 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 thimselves as much as possible from
the concurrent punk movement.
"I've never really identified with any segment of youth culture,
particularlynot 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 inger 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-Republian "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 everything 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."