[Danny Elfman interview]

PBS: Travis Smiley website, Archive page
Source: http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200507/20050714_transcript.html
Tavis: Danny Elfman is an extremely talented musician and composer whose movie resume reads like a rundown of some of the biggest films of our time. He's been nominated for an Oscar 3 times and won a Grammy for his work on Batman. He began his career, though as the lead singer of the popular band—-I always loved this name—-Oingo Boingo. I just love sayin' it. Oingo Boingo. His latest project, though, is the score for the film "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He also lends his voice to the film, starring of course, Johnny Depp. Danny Elfman, nice to meet you. Glad to have you here.
Danny Elfman: Thank you.
Tavis: Let me start with my fascination, at least, since I get a chance to ask these questions. Oingo Boingo, all these years, I have no idea where that came from.
Elfman: Neither do I. I haven't a clue. I could make up one of my many elaborate stories, but they're all lies.
Tavis: But you were the lead singer! You're the lead singer. If you don't know...you have to know this!
Elfman: I don't. It's a true story. I was 18, returned from a year in West Africa where I was travelling, and had played with a theatrical musical troupe called Le Gran Magic Circus in Paris. When I was fresh out of high school with my brother, Rick Elfman, and he came back to L.A. and started a street theatre troupe called Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. And I actually got a letter at a post restant picked up in I think Doumay or Upper Volta that he'd sent about 2 months earlier saying, "Got a troupe, really want you to come back and be musical director." And I wrote him a letter back saying, "Well, when I'm done with this trip in about a year, I'd be happy to join you." Cutting to the end of that, about 6 months later, I did make my way back to Los Angeles and expected like this big troupe all worked out. Instead it was a little street theater thing with a fire-breather and drums and I said, all right, it's raw material, but this is where I'll start. So he made up the name. I have no idea where it came from. And then years later, when I started the band Oingo Boingo, we just stole the name from the theater group.
Tavis: I'll have to call Rick Elfman and find out how—-where that name Oingo Boingo comes from.
Elfman: If you wanna find the genesis of, like, where it originated from, look to early Zap comics, R. Crumb.
Tavis: OK. I will do just that. It's a long way from Oingo Boingo to the Oompa Loompa which I wanna get to in just a second here. But I'm fascinated since you went there, 18 years old, you're travelling by yourself throughout the continent of Africa. What's a white kid learning and doing travelling around the continent of Africa by himself?
Elfman: That there's a world out there that ain't home. I don't know. I actually was planning a trip around the world. And fate kept, uh, sending me in different directions. So I was gonna go through North Africa to India, Egypt, back to Los Angeles. Instead, I ended up in the Canary Islands and became fascinated with the country called Mali and people that I'd met there and found myself on a boat to Mauritania en route to Mali. And I lived in Bamako, Mali, for a while and it was everything and more than I ever could have imagined. But I think for me, it was really getting out of my suburban American life into some other existence. 'Cause I was at that age. I didn't know what I was. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I liked music, but I wasn't a musician.
I picked up a violin, and I used to like jam there in Mali with musicians, but I wasn't like a real musician. I'm just like picking up the instrument as I was travelling. And so I think it was just one of those, like, young self-discovery trips, and I was always fascinated by music from that part of the world. I love percussion. And so that would end up becoming a big part of my life for many years, percussion, percussion instruments, African percussion, Indian percussion. And it all started there.
Tavis: This is fascinating. I was fascinated to hear your answer because it seems that for persons who are so accomplished that exposure is so very important, and to have that exposure at such a young age seems to have benefited you greatly.
Elfman: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it was rough travelling.
Tavis: I'm sure. Yeah.
Elfman: It took a year to do what I thought on the map would take about 2 1/2 months.
Tavis: Right. A little bit longer than planned.
Elfman: A little bit longer than planned, but it was incredible. I don't know what it formed in me in what way, but it was really a major part of my...you know, instead of college, that's what I consider my going to college.
Tavis: A learning experience to be sure.
Elfman: Yeah, I'm sure.
Tavis: Speaking of incredible, how incredible must it have been as a kid who grew up loving "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," how exciting it must've been to be a part of this, and I'm jealous. You did the voice of all the Oompa Loompas. Every one of them. How did you do this?
Elfman: Well, it's the way I work. You know, I talked to Tim about the songs that we want.
Tavis: Tim Burton.
Elfman: Tim Burton. And we wanted to kind of model loosely the inspiration was a Bombay—-a Bollywood musical. Meaning the kind of movies they do in India. Well, like these big production numbers and, uh, he loves the Bombay musicals and I actually—he got me into them. And I became such a fan I went over to Bombay. Start like listening in, sitting in on sessions, and collecting instruments, so...the idea of like kind of doing something crazy like that was immediately appealing to me. So I started out with the song "Augustus Gloop." And that was a little bit modeled after something like a Bollywood musical production number. And the way I work is with guitar and drums and samples and laid down tracks and then start laying down vocals. I just started laying down vocals, experimenting with it. Before I knew it, I had a song with, you know, 60 or 70 vocals on it. And I just did it all at home. I sent it to Tim. And it was like, yeah, OK, it's good. Where do we go from here? So each song, we decided like, OK, we'll move in this direction or that direction. And just got more and more fun as it went, and so, I just was making demos from my perspective and recording lots of vocals because that's how I work out parts. I don't think about it. I basically improvised each tune, laying down parts as I thought of them. And so I just did it all at home.
Tavis: I mentioned earlier that, you know, were we to run down your discography—you know, the stuff that you have written and composed for all sorts of Hollywood movies, it really is a soundtrack in many ways of certainly my life. But I read somewhere that the price for—the price that you pay for that is having to lock yourself away sometimes for weeks, months at a time.
Elfman: Oh, months. Yeah.
Tavis: To take months at a time to concentrate and focus on what you do, that must be a real problem for Bridget Fonda.
Elfman: She still—
Tavis: Does she come looking—this is his wife, by the way—Bridget Fonda—does she come looking for you sometimes?
Elfman: She comes looking for me.
Tavis: Yeah?
Elfman: Definitely. And especially when I was doing these songs because my studio—luckily, she doesn't have to go far. I'm in the basement. You know, my life has always been a series of basements, and it hasn't really changed. It's just a bigger basement now than the first basement.
Tavis: I'm sure it's a much nicer basement.
Elfman: It's a nicer basement, but it's still a basement.
Tavis: Right.
Elfman: But you can kind of hear the sound come up through the floor of the living room. There's like a vent there. And so, she'd be hearing me like doing all this...crazy stuff. Um, you know, over and over and over again, like... [imitates strange instruments] and stuff like that, and I think she was starting to wonder, you know, "What's going on down there?"
Tavis: Danny lost it.
Elfman: Usually she hears strings and brass and woodwinds and stuff coming up. Suddenly, there's all this like chanting and hollering and she'd come down and check on me: "Are you OK? Everything all right?" "Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm just doing like the part number 37 here on these backgrounds on "Augustus Gloop." And sometimes having so much fun that, I mean, I would just start laughing. I'd play her bits of stuff and I almost couldn't finish parts. It was just—I would be busting up—it was—
Tavis: Tell me how this stuff—and I don't know if you can even explain this, but how does this stuff come to you? And I ask because you've worked on such a variety of projects. It's not like you do just one thing. I mean, again, these movies that you've worked on—as a matter of fact, let me just do this right quick—um, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, which I loved, Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands—" easy for me to say—you've worked on so many varying projects, like, how does this stuff—like, where does it come from? Where do you get this stuff?
Elfman: I never know. And I never know if anything's going to come, either. Believe me, if I knew—if I knew where that place was, I'd be happy. You know, each time—
Tavis: You took on projects sometimes not knowing whether or not you have something that is going to come?
Elfman: No, I never know. Each time it's like a panic of dipping down—it really is like dipping down into a really deep well, and hoping you're gonna hear the bucket hit some water, and you just don't know. Sometimes you're like lowering it and lowering it and lowering it and you—I don't have any more rope. I don't hear anything. And then there'll be a few trickles. You know, "Wait a minute. Maybe I found something." Pull it back up and then start going from there, but you never know. I mean, I never know.
Tavis: That must be the fun, though—the rush of it, the challenge of it.
Elfman: Yeah, I wouldn't call that the fun of it. I consider—
Tavis: Point well taken.
Elfman: That's the hell of it.
Tavis: Point well taken. Speaking of fun, though, OK, was it fun or was it hell, this piece you did, your first big piece at Carnegie Hall. Was that earlier in February of this year?
Elfman: Oh, my God, that was really intimidating. Yeah, that was in February. And, uh, that was in between finishing the songs for Charlie And Tim Burton is also doing an animated film called The Corpse Bride. So I wrote all the songs for Charlie and The Corpse Bride last year, and finally got those finished 'cause they had to be done before they could shoot.
Tavis: Right.
Elfman: And then, OK, I have a little time off before I start scoring Charlie, and I had 3 months and I had this commission for Carnegie. And it sounded like it was gonna be really fun, but I went to Carnegie and I'm looking around. I looked at the stage and I see the original manuscripts on the wall. Shostakovich and Stravinsky and—
Tavis: No pressure.
Elfman: It completely ruined me. I went home and I said, "This is the playground of the big boys. You know, I'm a phony composer. I'm a Hollywood composer." It's like, "What am I doing here?" I mean, in my view, you know, Hollywood composers, film composers, aren't like the real composers. Those are the real composers.
Tavis: But it worked out.
Elfman: It worked out. I finally got going and got up on some stuff, and I ended up, in fact, having a ton of fun 'cause I was able to write stuff without picture, and do stuff that I never have done before.
Tavis: The new movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, music by Danny Elfman. You know that already. Go check it out. Thanks for watching. Keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today's show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.ORG.
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