Q and A with Danny Elfman

by Michael Snyder
The San Francisco Chronicle, 1994.06.12
At any given moment, there is probably someone, somewhere in the world, who is listening to the music of Danny Elfman. It could be his theme to the animated Batman television show, the score for Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, one of the blockbuster Batman movies, the theme to The Simpsons or the songs from last year's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Elfman the composer is inescapable. Now the Southern California native is presiding over a rebirth of his clever, bubbling and somewhat demented art-rock band Oingo Boingo, although its new name has been shortened to Boingo and its personnal has been scaled down. A new album was just released, and a summer tour has been scheduled with a stop at Berkeley's Greek Theater July 23.
Last week, Elfman was tracked down at a studio in Los Angeles, where he was adding guitar parts to a remix of "Insanity," the first single off of the Boingo album.
Q: Weren't you satisfied with the version of "Insanity" that's on the album?
A: After I record something, it's always like, "If only I had one more crack at it..." And for this single release, I'm getting it.
Q: But you seem so precise in your arrangements. Isn't everything ready to go when you enter the studio?
A: Usually, but not this time. We started to record in February of '93. There was a half an album done by March, but I got pulled into The Nightmare Before Christmas. That kept me going until October when it opened. The band went back in and listened to what we had done and said, "Fine. We'll keep 'Insanity' and dump the rest." "Can't See," "Hey!" and "Pedestrian Wolves" all came together when we went back into the studio. For example, "Pedestrian Wolves" was a total improvisation in the studio. Then I put lyrics to it. This was an enormous change for me. I've always been such a control freak, meticulously preparing and rehearsing for the studio.
Q: There are some lengthy tracks on this album. "Insanity" is more than seven minutes, "Pedestrian Wolves" is nine minutes plus and "Change is 16 minutes long. Why did you stray so far from traditional pop forms?
A: Don't worry. We'll edit 'em down for singles. In the case of "Change," I had a short tune and I knew I was going to turn it into an experiment in elasticity. The original version was 20 minutes long. It's the musical equivalent of a collage. I always wanted to do a piece which would alter as it went along, with one melody leading into the next.
Q: After a decade and a half as Oingo Boingo, why did you change the name of the band?
A: So many people have been asking us why we changed the name, but it doesn't mean shit. They can call us Oingo Boingo. They can put it on the marquee. I'm even sorry I did it. It was kind of an afterthought. We've been calling ourselves Boingo for the past nine years. The band was an outgrowth of the theatrical group the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Then, when we became a rock band, we cut it down to Oingo Boingo. Now, we're down to Boingo. We used to joke that we had a plan, that we were working down to "Ngo." Eventually, we'd get down to just "O," the indivisible number, the expression of negation. Since we're touring without the horn section, some people are saying that the horn section was Oingo, and they took the name with them when they left. That's not true.
Q: Those horn players have been with you for years. Why are they gone?
A: They'll probably be back at some time. There are just no horn parts on the new album. From the "Dead Man's Party" album on, I've had a philosophy. If there's a place for horns or keyboards, they'll be there. If not, they won't. Before then, I tried to force everybody into the arrangements. I would have had to force horn parts on this one.
Q: How will you handle their absence when you perform in concert?
A: When we tour, we're concentrating on the new stuff. We'll take keyboards and a percussionist for some dates, but we're not going to be a 12-piece. We're not going to play very much old material, so I made sure that we were going to play smaller venues and that's fine with me.
Q: With all of your success in the movie field, why did you come back to the band?
A: I was motivated by the same thing that drives me in everything I do: boredom. It was the great motivating factor in '89, when I let the band drift away and I concentrated on sound tracks. Lately, I found myself drifting away from film composing. I wanted to get it down to two movies a year....I'm having much more fun with the band, writing and recording. It's like a pendulum.
Q: You have at least two screenplays of your own in development—the live-action Little Demons musical at Disney and Julian, a ghost story that you're slated to direct. How do you fit everything in?
A: I get to my own projects during little windows of time. I had a total of three weeks in '93 for my own projects. I had a week and a half between the Boingo album and Black Beauty. This summer, I'm taking time between tours to do one more film score before the end of the year. I have three careers. It's like I have three hungry children. Whoever screams the loudest gets the attention.
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