[SoundCheck interview with Danny Elfman]

by John Schaefer
New York Public Radio, 2006.09.28
Transcribed from the audio by Bluntinstrument

[Serenada clip]
JOHN SCHAEFER: This is SoundCheck, I'm John Schaefer. In the past 20 years composer Danny Elfman has turned many small movies into big hits. He's written scores for over a hundred films including nearly all of Tim Burton's work, from Beetlejuice to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He's also done the scores for Good Will Hunting and the Spider-man series. He is the composer of TV series themes like Desperate Housewives and The Simpsons, and he's been nominated for a slew of Oscars, Emmys and other statues. Lately, though, he's turned to orchestral music - in the background you're hearing Serenada Schizophrana, a concert work that's coming out in a new recording next week. Danny Elfman joins us here in our studio today, Danny, welcome.
DANNY ELFMAN: Thank you very much.
JS: Now there plenty of straight-ahead classical composers who wrote, and wrote well, for the movies, I mean virtually every major English composer of the 20th century and Prokofiev and..
DE: Korngold
JS: ...and Korngold and Shostakovich and Philip Glass. And yet film music composers seem to kind of be, in this country at least, sort-of grouped into a little musical ghetto of their own. And .. it's sort of rare to have a composer who is seen as a film composer given a commission to write a piece that's going to be played by an orchestra in Carnegie Hall. How did that happen.
DE: Ahm, well. I don't know HOW it happened, I just know that noone had ever asked me before, and when they did I just kindof thought, ah, sure.
JS: [And] was it really that easy?
DE: When I first got the proposal it was because originally it wasn't going to be for the main hall. It was going to be for the little room - I think a 3-400 seater underneath..
JS: Zankel Hall, right.
DE: Yes exactly. And that seemed like 'oh great, low pressure, off-the-radar, it'll be a small orchestra, maybe a chamber orchestra, maybe I'll just do a small ensemble piece'. I always say yes to a challenge, so - I was thinking: small ensemble, small audence - fun! Great. An then I learned that we'd bee bounced upstairs and then I started getting a little nervous.. so.. the worst thing I did was fly out here and, like, actually go into the hall and look around and look at the manuscript on the wall. And I found that to be .. paralysis-invoking, because, you know, when you have to see manuscript of Prokofiev or Stravinsky .. it's like no no no no, this is wrong, I'm in the pantheon of the gods and I am but a gnat. Why would I be here. So I went home and for about four weeks did virtually nothing but shake and shiver, try to figure out 'can I get out of this?' and then I decided (as I have, you know, several times in my life) [to] hell with it. I mean, the worst that can happen is that I make a fool out of myself, and I've been doing that my whole life, so what am I afraid of?
JS: So you got out of the foetal position and you started composing.
DE: Yeah well I'm used to responding to deadlines. Essentially it's like 'ah I have 10 weeks, I have to deliver a work' and since... I'm so deadline-driven my whole life -I mean I'd still be working on Pee Wee's Big Adventure if I didn't have a deadline.
JS: I mean but you had deadline buit you didn't have the kind of visual cues...
DE: No.
JS: ... the visual imagery that has driven so much of your film music.
DE: No no, I have the backburner emergency plan - was that I could always put on a silent film and just start writing, but I said 'that's cheating', so I put myself though an exercise. Um, two weeks I'm going to write a little piece of music every day. And I did. I wrote fourteen pieces of music ranging from about forty-five seconds to a couple of minutes. And at the end of that I started, like, letting them develop, and fourteen became twelve became ten became eight, and now six-seven of them were really starting to expand and not only expand but present themselves in a certain order. And I said, 'I have to control this, and clearly I'll lose half of it and get some thematic unity as I'm used to doing (um) as a film composer - keep themes going...'
JS: Right?
DE: And they just kept growing and they did not want to move. And finally I said, 'Alright, I get it, this is six different things want to create this whole it's a manowar, and its the result of two competing dislikeable composers who live inside my head, each vying for airtime, and each movement is a reaction to the one before it.'
[Music has been playing quietly in the background]
JS: So this movement is called 'I forget'.. you do have this kind of musical split-personality going in the composition process of the piece, hence the title Serenada Schizophrana. [taling to us:] My guest is Danny Elfman, here's some of the music.
[Music takes to the fore at ca.5'30"]
JS: Some music from the Serenada Schizophrana which is kindof a six-part suite for orchestra...?
DE: Correct, with a bonus track. [Laughs]
JS: ...with a bonus track, by my guest Danny Elfman. You mentioned you have these sortof two competing composers locked inside your head. You know Robert Schumann referred to the two sides of his split personality, you know, Florestan and Eusebius - I think those are the two names - one being sortof this really romantic emotionl character, and the other being a more classical and reserved sort of person.
DE: I didn't know that. This is the same thing.
JS: Well, let's hope you don't end up like Schumann did though.
DE: I let's hope not. Buit definitely one of them likes to think of himself as more serious and romantic and under control; and the other one just likes to mess up everything, that's the musical messer. And it's present all the time.
JS: Now that's gotta actually serve you pretty well in the world of film music where it seems like so many composers build upon a shared vocabulary with ther film composers, and that voice saying lets mess this up a little buit, you know, that must give your music a little bit of an edge that sets it apart I think.
DE: Well I don't really know... I'm the worst judge of my own music and probably my harshest critic - I've never been totally happy with anything I've written - but I think maybe the messer-upper keeps things a little more interesting or from taking myself too seriously too much, and I think what allowed me to write this piece was.. no longer worrying about "this is my great work!". This isn't my great work. I listened to Shostakovich's jazz suites before I started and I said he had fun with this.
JS: Right
DE: He was being irreverent. Why don't I be just myself and not worry about this being [deep voice] my great work [/deep voice]. It's just a piece of music. I think it's kind of interesting and fun and I accomplished some things I went after and didn't accomplished others that I would have liked to have, but that's the same with everything that I do, and once I got going it got to be great fun.
JS: Well now I mentioned at the beginning of the segment, you know, you've done all these film scores and TV themes and stuff like that, but the fact is, most of us who know your name from long ago know it from the rock world with your band Oingo Boingo. That is kindof a strange transition as well.
DE: Ya. (That was a very....)
JS: The funny thing is that we have this 1994 record called 'Boingo' by your band and as you listen to this excerpt which is called 'Insanity' and seems to be thematically related to the Serenada Schizophrana, it seems to have a lot of the... it's almost like a preparatory sketch in a sense. I mean here you've got the kids chorus, you've got the horns, the orchestral horns going and stuff. Let's give a listen - this is a 1994 piece by Danny Elfman and the band Oingo Boingo.
[clip from 'Insanity']
JS: Alright so even Danny Elfman, even with your rock band, the orchestral forces, the kind of cinematic horns, the children's choir adding perhaps a disquieting note to this whole thing. It's called 'Insanity' and it really does seem like it wasn't such a big leap to go from this to the current orchestral music or the film scores?
DE: Well, yeah, but you have to take that in context. That was the last album of a ten year overlapping.
JS: Right.
DE: 'Cause it was a huge leap in 1985 when I began to split half my year into writing-producing-touring for Oingo Boingo and trying to sneak in two film scores, one or two a year if I could, because I had my first door opened with Pee Wee's Big Adventure and I loved it so much that I didn't want to close the door but I didn't want to give up the band for that. So for ten years I kept them both alive, and in that last album, before Boingo left, I did bring in orchestra and some of these things but it wasn't common to Oingo Boingo: that was the first and only time I used orchestra. So I think if you look at the body of like ten albums of work of Oingo Boingo and listen [for] orchestra you're not going to hear a lot of overlap, 'cause was pretty kindof crazy intense sca-driven - you know my motivation to wanting to be in a band was just "I want to be in a sca band". Now Boingo became more diverse than just a sca band but that all I wanted to do when I started.
JS: So you like this kindof pre-reggae Jamaican music sound and..
DE: you know, I spent a year in West Africa when I was 18 and I came back and I got into an avant garde musical theatrical troupe for 8 years, and when I heard a sca come over from England - this pumped up reggae with bits of salsa, it reminded me of the music I used to listen to in Africa called highlife. And I said, 'I wanna do that. It has enough energy that I could do it.' I was pretty manic and nothing was really catching my attention. When I heard this really fast beat, that's it - that's what I want to do, and I just let the Mystic Knights ended and Oingo Boingo the band started up.
JS: So actually, the Mystic Knights, this theatre thing came first.
DE: Yeah.
JS: So did you have kind of musical training in part-writing, voice-leading, orchestration and all that kind of stuff?
DE: Well I had to do everything in this troupe. That was my training. And I would not have taken my first.. Pee Wee's Big Adventure when Tim Burton came to me had I not had 8 years of street music experience. And I really mean "street" because I built, with my brother, we built this ensemble up, everybody had to play 3 instruments, we weren't proficient but we were crazy and versatile, and I started writing material. And the last piece I wrote for them was a thing called the Oingo Boingo Piano Concerto umber One-and-a-Half, and it was a five-and-a-half minute, 12-piece, 12-part orchestration for... inspired loosely by Kurt Weill and Le 'L'histoire du soldat' by Stravinsky and a little bit of Prokofiev and all the things that I love. And so remembering later how in 1985 when Tim came to me I had to go "Alright, when I wrote that so-called piano concerto" - (which I am saying as a joke was called a piano concerto..)
JS: Right
DE: I said, "It's been 7 years since I've written a note on paper, I have to remember how did I do that?" Because I was writing Duke Ellington arrangements, learning by transcribing music, and I went through a period where I taught myself by listening and transcribing, but I had no training.
JS: So, what did Tim Burton hear that led him to you?
DE: Well, my whole life has been a series of bizarre coincidences. Getting into music in the first place was a bizarre coincidence because I wasn't in a musical family and I never played an instrument. But it happened, and.. I won't go into the whole thing because this interview's not long enough [laughs]. But in essence, at the end of the Mystic Knights, that theatre group, my brother went and did a film, a cult film called Forbidden Zone. I wrote the music and the Mystic Knights played it. Pee Wee Herrman aka Paul Ruben heard the Forbidden Zone score and said, "Well if I ever do I movie I want to hire that guy" and he made a note of my name. Now Tim hadn't seen the Forbidden Zone but he used to come and see the band, Oingo Oingo.
JS: Wow.
DE: So they're talking about who do we hire who do we hire, my name came up, and I swear it's true, when I met them both I just said "Why me?"
JS: [Laughter] And did they have an answer for you? I guess that was the answer.
DE: Tim just said, "I listened to your band. I just think you could do, you know, other stuff..".
JS: Well man, you know some of the stuff you guys have done.. look the Nightmare Before Christmas, that's like a baroque oratorio. It's almost completely sung - the music has this kindof neo-classical sensibility and scoring to it - did you approach it as a film score? It seems like you and Tim were really working to something a little different there.
DE: Well, we were trying to do something that was off the mark. Tim had the idea for Nightmare. There wasn;t a script yet, but he had all the drawings and he had the story in his head. And we decided let's start with the songs, otherwise we're falling behind schedule. So we just worked together for a month and I wrote all ten songs with Tim in 30 days. And the only concept I had was that (and Tim agreed with) we didn't want anything to sound like it could possibly have come from contemporary Broadway, in any way shape or form a musical. And that all the references had to be archaic in some way. I wanted the songs to have a timeless feel - is this from the forties? is this from the twenties? is this from the sixties? when is this from? So I mixed up Kurt Weill and Guilbert & Sullivan and vintage Rogers & Hammerstein which were all big for me - especially the Guilbert & Sullivan and Kurt Weill - and out came Nightmare. And so we weren't after a specific goal other than not wanting any song to sound like you might have heard this on Broadway, so it was kindof an anti-Broadway statement... and I knew that would catch lots of flack, and MAN did it ever.
JS: Oh but man did you succeed. In doing what you set out to do.
DE: Well I got my worst reviews of my life for that work.
JS: Danny Elfman is my guest. His new CD, Serenada Schizophrana, featuring his first major orchestral piece, is being released by Sony/BMG Masterworks on October 3rd. Tell me a little bit about the Batman theme, I mean I understand there's a story to how this music was written.
DE: [Chuckles] [evil voice:]There's always a story. [old man yank:] I got a story for every one of those scores. [normal voice] The funny story about the Batman theme is Tim flew me out to the Gotham City set - and he was only half done shooting - showed me a little [assembly?] and they just walked me through the set, and I was just soaking up the vibe. And on the 747 on the way home this kindof melody starts in my head, and this feel, and it's like "I don't know, what is this thing? Is this Batman?" And I don't have the ability to write music without having some kind of keyboard. It could be a Casio, it could be a grand piano it doesn't matter, but I have to have some kind of keyboard if I'm going to put out chords and melodies on paper. So I can't grab a napkin and write all these parts down. But I always carry a tape recorder with me because my bets ideas have always hit me while driving in the car - I live in L.A. ... So I get this [thing] and it won't get out of my head so I start rinning into the bathroom about every 15 minutes and I'm like furthering this idea but I'm trying to do it in layers - okay this is the beat, the theme, okay here we have the French horns coming in, okay first have to bring the trombones bom-bom-bom.. trumpets... - and I'm kindof doing it like that. I sounded rather like a Salieri, you know, Mozart in the film Amadeus, dictating, but..
JS: Well, let's hear how it turned out. This is the Batman theme from my guest Danny Elfman.
[Batman music]
JS: Alright, so here is the Batman theme as we all eventually heard it, but it began, Danny Elfman, with you making frequent trips to the bathroom onboard a 747.
DE: .. and the stewardesses are starting to freak out, because I'm like running in every 15 minutes and now every time I come out "Sir, can we help you? Are you alright? Is there anything we can get?" "I'm fine, I'm fine." Now every time I leave there's more than one of them, and they're looking at me - what going on in there? Is he shooting up? What's he doing? Whatever it is we don't like it. And it was very tense, but I was able to nail it enough that when it landed and played the muzak which erased my memory - you see when the plan lands and that landing music..? that they used to do?
JS: Yeyeyeye.
DE: That's like, you know, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 's like the memory music eraser. I knew it wouldn;t survive the landing, so I had enough notes to be able to get it back.
JS: Alright. Now do you still lock yourself into your basement to compose? Is that your emo?
DE: Yah, I'm still in the basement.
JS: And, ah, you know, what about the much-rumoured group of musical elves. People say you've got a whole bunch of people to help with arranging and composing and orchestrating and all that?
DE: I wish. Because if I had them I would have had a lot more fun over the last 20 years.
JS: Yeah. Well it sounds like you've had a fair amount of as.. you know, in doing what you've done with Tim Burton and..
DE: The work is fun but as any of my friends and family will testify, I'm the least free person on the planet. You know, I'm working most of the time and when I work I don't go out. So if I start a film I have a going away party because noone's going to see me for three months, and it's pretty intense. I work really hard. I'm looking for those elves! The much rumoured elves! It's like I say my little prayers at night and say,"Where are you?".
JS: Where are my elves? The Serenada Schizophrana, first major orchestral piece... did you like it? Will there be more?
DE: Oh there'll be more, and I really enjoyed doing it. And I hope I get to do more, and I hope people get a chance to check out Schizophrana.
JS: The CD is out on October 3rd. Danny Elfman. My guest on Soundcheck. Danny, a real pleasure to finally meet you. Thanks very much for joining us.
DE: Thank you. The pleasure was mine.
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