SynthesisRadio Danny Elfman interview

Podcast by Maurise Spencer Teilmann
Is this the ORIGIN of the interview or...
Messagewboard link from Dain [] says "Danny Elfman podcast interview from Synthesis Magazine."

[Soundclip from Serenada Schizophrana]
MST [whose questions sound like statements. Call yourself and interviewer?]: Hi, thanks for checking in with Synthesis Radio. This is Maurice Spencer, Synthesis Magazine editor and music geek. Fellow music geeks are going to immediately recognise the name Danny Elfman, but for those of you who might not know why his name seems so familiar, Elfman is a highly sought-after film and television composer. His works include ... [snip] ... Elfman's latest album, entitled Serenada Schizophrana is his first solo work composed specifically for a live performance. It's not bound to the limitations of writing for film. Released on Sony Classical, its truly some marvelous stuff, and it draws upon a variety of influences - everything from 19th Century French impressionists, Duke Ellington style jazz and early film composers such as Bernard Herrmann. We spoke with Danny Elfman during a hectic New York press stay while he navigated the mad traffic of the Big Apple.
[Compressed phone/radio audio for interview]: Do you know how much stuff there is on YouTube?
DE: On YouTube?
MST: Yeah.
DE: What sort of stuff?
MST: Oh, a phenomenal amount of interviews with you talking about your process for.. geez, probably I found you talking about, er, 20 of your scores.
DE: No sh**.
MST: All fo that, not to mention Oingo Boingo stuff and other little tit-bits like that.
DE: Um, no I didn't know that.
MST: You're big on YouTube! [laughs]
DE: Well.. I'll have to check that out. When I go on YouTube it's to, you know, check out some talking cats.
MST: So my first question for you is: Are you a geek?
DE: Yeah, I definitely am a lifelong geek.
MST: What about you makes you immediately identify with.. being kindof a geek?
DE: Well I mean look at it this way, in my 20s I wouldn't listen to music recorded after 1938. That's pretty geeky.
MST: That's super music geeky!
DE: Yeah... I've always been archaic in the extreme in one form or another.
MST: And that's really helped you forge what would eventually kindof be your style?
DE: I guess. I mean, that's the kind of stuff that I have really no idea, you know, what would or wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been into what in what way, you know what I mean?
MST: Sure.
DE: It's like I don't get it myself, so if anybody else does, they can explain it to me.
MST: What was the true integral factor for you transitioning from, you know, Oingo Boingo and kindof a new wave rock format into becoming a sought-after film composer? I know that you formed a band for your brother's movie but after it kindof took off..
DE: [interrupting] ..actually the band for my brother's movie had been together for six years already. That's where I got my initial experience. We had this 12-piece rag-tag ensemble but everybody had to play two or three instruments, performed on the streets for years and then finally developed a multimedia surrealistic cabaret show, and so for all of eight years of my life that's all I did was rehearse and play, rehearse and play, and learn how to do transcriptions, and we did a lot of old jazz, and that's where I started writing original compositions.
MST: So it was like real Gorilla Theatre music stuff?
DE: Yeah, I mean, I don't know if it was Gorilla Theatre. It was weird musical cabaret.. Somebody once described it as surealist musical cabaret - dark surealistic cabaret, that was what it was - and that was probably the best fitting description.
MST: How did you transition from being more of a live performer to scoring more and more orchestral works for film?
DE: Well it was pure coincidence. I've had a lot of happenstance in my life. Getting into music in the first place was pure.. unplanned. I never played music as a kid, I wasn't trained. I loved film. I thought I wanted to be an editor or cinematographer or something. Ended up picking up an instrument, my brother ended up working with a musical theatrical troupe in Paris, I was beginning to travel round the world, and started out visiting him, and got hired into his troupe in Paris. I was 18 and had only been playing the violin for four months and I was touring with a French musical troupe, and then he started the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo back in L.A., and I joined up many months later when I finally returned home. So finally one day when I woke up after eight years of that, I'd heard ska music out of England. I said,'I wannt to be in a ska band. I don't want to do this any more. I'm sick of costumes and sets and film clips and screens and the big productions we were starting to do,' and started a rock band. And I was happy [plunking?] away at that for five years - six years, really - when Tim Burton [and] Paul reubens, Pee Wee Herman appeared out of the blue, and said, you know, 'We like your music and we think you could score a film.' And I thought they were crazy. So, once again, it was kindof happenstance.
MST: And they'd just heard you at some club or something?
DE: Yeah, Tim used to hear me in clubs, and Paul knew me via the film my brother made - The Forbidden Zone. The Mystic Knights played the music and I wrote it, and it was performed by the Mystic Knights.., that 12-player ensemble. And my name came up on both their lists for different reasons. And I met with them.. - it seems crazy to me - but I went and recorded a piece of music at home and sent it to them, and.. I got hired. And that piece of music ended up becoming the main credits to Pee Wee's Big Adventure
MST: You know, film music, it leads and audience [through the film in a direction the composer or director wants] to take them, and.. [garbled] you've released Serenada Schizophrana, and this piece doesn't subscribe to that because it's not composed to a visual. How is it working for you to orchestrate music that didn't have to follow that kind of paradigm.
DE: It was really weird. It was very very difficult at first. I mean, being able to do what you want to do is a double-edged sword on the one hand you think not being confined by film (is that what you're asking? MST: Yeah.. you're on the right track. DE:).. okay, you start on ideas when on a film, when I'm writing something I go, 'Oh that would be keep going with that,' but I can't - I get exactly 31 seconds with that. I [can't?] because then the scene changes, and I have to follow the movie, and so think it should be fun if I can just keep going [with] whatever I have in my head and not be confined. On the other hand, when you're stirting with a film you have a place to start - always. You're looking at something and it's a certain type of character and a certain type of scene and a certain type of setting, which would indicate some type of music. So if nothing else it gives you a place to begin. And so not having that made it insanely difficult to start, and, um, once I got started it became reallyreally fun. But it was really like.. it's walways a bit, starting with any of these compositions it's like.. trying to, like, push a train, you know, a locomotive, from behind.
MST: MM-hmm, but once it gets momentum..
DE: Once it gets momentum you can jump on and go along for the ride.
MST: Right.
DE: Getting to that point is a motherf***er [chuckle].
[Soundclip from Serenada Schizophrana]
MST: You know it trikes me as kindof odd that Serenada Schizophrana is your first orchestral work that was composed (you know) specifically for (like) presentation in (like) a concert hall. You know, you've done so many memorable film scores it seems that you would have tackled this type of a project before now.
DE: Well, um, noone's ever asked me. Honestly I did it because they asked.
MST: It wasn't an aspiration before? Wasn't something that you'd really wanted to do? [The first time the interviewer sounds like he's asking a question, although the text is still a statement.]
DE: Let me put it this way: it's one of many aspirations. I never have less than a dozen things that I really wanna do, but having them in the back of my head and really wanting to do them doesn't mean they get done. So, yeah, it's like, 'One of these days it should be fun to blah blah blah blah blah,' but.. that's just kinda sits there. I'm mean I'm busy all the time.
MST: MM-hmm?
DE: So suddenly.. someone came along and asked, 'Would you like to do it?' and I think, 'Oh well.., now I'm being put to the test.' Am I willing to omit a period of time to not take any film scores, and do this work? And I thought about it and said, 'Yeah!'
[Soundclip from Serenada Schizophrana]
MST: I've listening to a lot of late.. 19th century composers like Satie and Debussy and kinda grooving on their stuff lately, and I've really kinda thinking about.. how come I listen to pop music in general. Whereas.. Debussy wasn't pop music by any.. means, and I'd kindof like to equate that to the only composers around right now seem pretty much destined to be composing for film if they want to have an audience.
DE: Well it [started?] very weird that way. I myself fell out of contemporary composition done from the second half of the Twentieth Century for that very reason. To me the music from between the late 19th and early 20th Century was really popular - it was written for the masses - it was really entertaining to listen to. It was the beginning of cinematic music - it was very visual - I'd listened to those pieces.. the first time I'd heard Stravinsky I felt like I was hearing an incredible soundtrack. And then something happened, and it lost me, with the exception of a few: you know, Harry Partch, [Albert Aveline??], Philip Glass certainly was an anomaly that way; and I listened to Terry Riley and, you know, Lou Harrison.. not that many. And.. I always knew that if I was going to write a piece from scratch that it was going to be a throwback, that I was going to plunge deeply into early 20th century for my inspiration because for me that's where my inspiration came from. And I don't hear a lot of that except in film music, which is still inspired - orchestral film music, anyway - by those composers. And I wanted to do something that was not cinematic [but] that still took the inspiration from that period which mean't so much to me. So all my influences got mooshed together, from Duke Ellington to Prokofiev - Prokofiev is a really really big one for me.
MST: I've never listened to his stuff. [Philistine]
DE: Prokofiev?
MST: Mm-hm.
DE: Um, you know, he was the first one that.. Stravinsky was, like, the one that caught my attention, Prokofiev nailed me. And there's something about the Russian sensibility that taps right into me, because there's a sadness and a soulfulness, and at the same time there's always a sense of irony and playfulness there.
MST: Hm-hm. [Nodding off?]
DE: And, um, the two combine in a way that.. it just made sense and may be because of my own Russian background or something deep in the blood, I don't know, but definitely connected. You know, also I think I.. definitely had more of a connection with music that was rhythmically driven.
MST: Hm-hm. [Get this man a pillow.]
DE: I never really understood opera. I loved music that was designed, as it turned out, for ballet.
MST: Just the percussion of it.
DE: Well, just the rhythmicness of it, you know, like ballet music like Rite of Spring, Firebird Concerto [sic.], these Stravinsky ballets are so rhythmic and driving. And much of Prokofiev's music also very tender and sad and witty, but driving. And Shostakovish's music also can drive so hard and then suddenly turn so absolutely soulful, chilling. Having that rhythmic space, that drive to it - I think it's probably the same thing that got me into wanting to be in a rock band, you know, hearing _fast sca_ that made me want to be in a band, 'cause nothing was connecting me in that era [area?]. And suddenly it was, like, really fast, and it connected with my energy, and there's something about those composers that connect with my energy. I listened to Mozart and Beethoven but I didn't listen to them alot. I just knew it was really good music. But when I heard Prokofiev and Stravinsky and Shostakovich, there was an energy there that connected immediately.
MST: Hm-hm. [Nurse! He's flatlining! No, wait..]. Cool, maybe I should check out some of his stuff.
DE: And he actually [??] the dividing line because he did write some film scores - Prokofiev - too.
MST: Okay.
DE: In Russia, of course. Not films that any of us have ever seen. [Yup, he's worked out his audience.] You know there was the beginning of, like, a composer writing for film here.
[Soundclip from Serenada Schizophrana]
MST: I don't know.. what kind of idea you have about this cause you're saying how you feel into composing music for films, it was just coincidence..?
DE: Well.. look at it this way. I got the opportunity by coincidence but I'd been a film fan since I was 14.
MST: Hm-hm.
DE: I spent most of my nights if I wasn't working, as a teenager and in my early 20's, at repertory houses. So I always imagined myself in film and I loved film music from the age of probably 14 on. I was already a huge fan of Bernard Herrmann (whenever I saw his name I knew that the film was going to be special for me) but my case was the case of a fan of a sport being pulled into the sport.
MST: Hm-hm.
DE: It's really as if you were Jack Nicholson, always at the side of a Laker games there.. somebody.. [throws] him the ball - "get in here!". I don't doubt that Jack would do that, but point being is that I came in out of a bizarre opportunity out of the blue, but I came into something that I was already a big fan of. By the time I was in my early 20's I took pride at being able to hear a score and know that it was Max Steiner's as opposed to Korngold's, or Jerry Goldsmith as opposed to Elmer Bernstein, you know what I mean?
MST: Hm-hm.
DE: That I hear that as Alex North as opposed to Dmitri Tiomkin. So it wasn't like I was without roots in that form. It's just something I had never studied, I'd only appreciated. So I came in as a deep appreciater, suddenly getting a shot and figuring, 'What have I got to lose?'
MST: One question for you is, failing an opportunity from out of the blue, what kidn of advice would you have for a fledgeling composer who wants to get into scoring film and kindof make a career out of it.
DE: That's a real hard one - I've been asked that many times 'cause I've done symposiums - and it's kindof two-way answers which is what nobody wants to hear, which is: If you want to get successful at it, just learn to imitate those who are successful right now because that's what you're going to be asked to do. Constantly. But if you want to be good at it, you've got to find your own voice. That's a bitch, and that's going to make it harder to get your shot, so it's not, like, and answer that makes one go, 'Great!', but I believe that is the answer. You know, we're at a time in film scoring where people are just, more and mroe every year, being asked to imitate.. essentially duplicate a temp score that already exists in a movie.
MST: Is that because when directors set out a film in rough cut they [do?] it with temp music and they kindof have that already in mind?
DE: [They have to temp the movie?]. And very often by the time the score goes in, [the] director's been living with that temp for 6-8 months. They've been hearing it a lot..
MST: Hm-hm.
DE: And they get attached to it or people are afraid to change it. And it's really difficult. You know, I hear scores all the time, and I can, cue by cue, hear.. I can almost imagine how this movie was temped. This soudns like Goldsmith, and this was John Williams, and this sounds like Tommy Newman, and this is me!
MST: [chuckles]
DE: It's Edward Scissorhands. So.. and you can just picture, okay, well that was probably what the temp score was. But that's not how you become a good composer, unfortunately. But all the composers I just mentioned, we set out to do something our own way and got a lucky break, and no matter what, unfortunately, you do or don't do, there's going to be a lucky break. Everybody in their story has that lucky break, their chance to do a film, and that film happened to catch attention. And it was a lucky break for me that my first opportunity was Pee-Wee's big adventure, and I didn't expect anybody to see that film and it could have just died the next day and that would have been that. But for whatever reason a lot of people saw it, and people heard the score, and suddenly I'd an instantaneous surge of, like, every wacky comedy made in Hollywood being offered me. I mean, it was insane. I went from, like, zero to 90 miles an hour in nothing flat, and I wasn't intending that. I thought I was f***ing up their film. I really did. I thought the score I was doing.. I said I will do it but
you'll be sorry!
MST: Apparently you were wrong.
DE: Yes, and apparenty Tim was right about what he thought my abilities were.. more than.. I.. thought.
MST: Hm-hm. So it's a combination of having, you know, the knowledge, good luck, and someone to convince you to [??] from the right track.
DE: Well you have to get a lucky break. You have to get that break, and that, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, was my break. And then, after you get that break, then you have to show a tremendous amount of determination and try to turn that into something.
MST: Hm-hm.
DE: Because once I had that door open I was not going to let it go. Like, even thought I was writing, touring, recording, producing and performing with the band, I still managed to try to get at least one or two films in a year, as I was just hungry to get in, start work as much as I could 'cause I really really wanted to.. keep my fingers in it. I wanted to learn more. And every time I got to try something else. But it mean't I worked 24/7 for.. those 10 years. I didn't take any breaks (you know wwhat I mean?), and so.. You gotta depend on a lucky break, and then you gotta be able to be willing to make a lot of sacrifices - I believe.
MST: Hm-hm.
DE: And I think that part of it most young composers are certainly willing to do, you know, if they've got the stuff and they get the break. I just think that if you talk to any of us and got into our stories, somewhere in there there is a.. "Well I had this opportunity.." "this television show" or "this little film". You know, there's that.. _something_ that that's what caught their attention.
MST: Very cool. Danny, thank you so much for taking some time to speak with me. I really appreciate it.
DE: Oh, it's been my pleasure.
MST: Awesome, and, [again?] I've got a lot of respect for you
DE: Thank you very much, I really appreciate that.
MST: Cool, well good luck man,
DE: Take it easy. Bye-bye.
[Soundclip from Serenada Schizophrana]
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