This Saturday (April 16) at Coachella, Danny Elfman will deliver a live spectacle that he surmises will “either go down afterward as the worst idea I ever had, or it’ll be really fun.”
For a musician as seasoned and celebrated as Elfman, he’s not playing it safe at 68. Not only did the pandemic (and the sorry state of America) fuel 2021’s Big Mess, his first album in 37 years, but he’s currently in the midst of “certainly the busiest period of my adult life.” Within the last month, he’s seen two of his concertos make their world premieres, and immediately after his Coachella weekend 2 gig wraps, he’s hightailing it out of the desert to make the U.S. premiere of his Percussion Concerto the very next day. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” Elfman drolly offers. “But it’s that edge of disaster that I really love.”
While Hans Zimmer’s performance at Coachella 2017 provides some precedent, Elfman’s upcoming concert is another first for him and the festival. Divided into thirds, it will mix his beloved film scores (such as Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Spider-Man, to name a few) with wickedly funny material from his defunct band Oingo Boingo as well as new songs from Big Mess, an album he says showcases “the two sides of me that are always fighting for space.”
Taking a breather from Coachella preparations, Danny Elfman gamely answered 20 questions for Billboard about everything from his stage fright to our dystopian reality to whether he’d ever reprise the role of Satan if that long-rumored Forbidden Zone sequel ever sees the light of the Sixth Dimension.
1. You were originally slated to play Coachella in 2020, which was pushed to 2022 for obvious reasons. You’re not the typical Coachella performer – did you have any reservations about taking the gig?
Many. I didn’t want to do a reunion concert [of Oingo Boingo]. I got this thing about reunions. They asked me if I wanted to do a film concert like Hans Zimmer did and I went out there and looked at the stage and I said, “I don’t feel comfortable doing that because it just means a lot of accentuated tracks. But what if it was a mix, like a mashup, with a rock band?” That got me all excited and I said yeah. And since that time I’ve done an album, so it will be thirds: Revamped old music, new music and film music. It’s an even wackier show.
2. Before you even decided to do the Big Mess album, you started writing “Sorry” and “Happy” for Coachella. Why was it important for you to do new music?
For me, there’s nothing interesting about “here’s my past.” It’s fun to do orchestra concerts; For example, when I do the [Tim] Burton shows, the challenge of that is a hundred musicians are learning this thing from scratch, and it’s really a bitch to put that show together. The whole thing about performing is the thrill of it being on the edge of disaster. All good theater is. When I see theater, what makes it so exciting is that the propensity for failure is always there. With the Elfman/Burton shows, the propensity for disaster is always looming, because it’s all live.
With this, without doing something new, it just didn’t have the thrill for me. I have no idea how it will work. There’s no warm-up shows. It’ll either go down afterward as the worst idea I ever had or it’ll be really fun. It feels like being on a high wire and saying, “I’m going without the net today.”
3. So you wrote two new songs, but how quickly did it snowball into the two-part Big Mess album?
It took a while. “Sorry” I’d written the year before as a concept piece for a festival in Tasmania called Dark Mofo. It was an instrumental piece, I wasn’t singing on it, but it was for a rock band or punk band, a chamber orchestra and female singers; I picked the idea of chamber punk. When I started writing in 2020, I still had in my head and my fingers electric guitar and this concept of driving strings and a rock band. I went up north with my wife and son and dog and I started working on an orchestral symphonic commission, but I knew it was going to cancel. There was that point in April  where things hadn’t canceled but everybody knew everything was going to cancel. It took the wind out of my sails. I had so much frustration and when I started putting lyrics to “Sorry,” I realized I had so much venom in me, so I started writing. It was like Pandora’s box. Once I opened it, I couldn’t close it. The reason I stopped at 18 songs is because my manager Laura [Engel] and myself had to put an arbitrary deadline on it. In 37 years, I haven’t done anything without a deadline. I’d still be working on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure trying to get it right.
4. How did you divide it into two parts?
The weirdest part [of writing the album] was that it was almost equal, the two sides of me that are always fighting for space. In all these years of doing film, I could do a big, aggressive film, and a very small, intimate film. A very romantic film or a very crazy comedy. And they both get their turns. One side definitely likes to be happy, and the other side is definitely full of absurdity. And the songs were coming out in pairs. It was weird. When I had eight out of 18, I told Laura, “This is looking like two different albums. I have two groups of four songs that have nothing to do with each other.” In film composing, (those sides) settle down, but when I started writing songs, it was back to that old battle. Which was something I experienced back in the old days with Boingo, which was quite maddening actually.
5. When you said you had “venom” earlier, what was that toward? The world? Just everything going on?
It was definitely the world and specifically America. It really felt like George Orwell: The concept of two plus two equals five was a reality in America. I couldn’t believe it. You could make any reality you want just by saying it and people would believe it. It’s like, two plus two isn’t five, and then you get millions of people going, “No, it is. Big Brother says it is.” I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime. I’m a child of the ’60s so I was around for the protests of the Vietnam War. It was nothing like it is today with honestly feeling like fascism is very likely to get a foothold in America and watching what I felt was this sacred pact of democracy crumbling. And now Putin is letting loose on his own. To me, Trump and Putin are two sides of the same coin. They’re “we make our reality and we have a giant media organization behind us to amplify that reality. If there’s a narrative, just make an opposite narrative.” You go, “That can’t possibly work,” but it did. I was really frustrated. I was looking at the real possibility of taking my family and moving to another country for the first time in my life. I had never felt that before. I was (concerned) it would become a Putin-style democracy. Add to that a pandemic and quarantine.
6. Obviously you’ve remained prolific over the years, but why did you go so long without writing music that wasn’t commissioned? Was it just a lack of time?
I think it was also feeling the need to. I didn’t feel a compulsion or need to perform. I always had stage fright. As a performer, it was a love-hate relationship. I loved it when I was out there and it was working, but I had tremendous anxiety about it. Even in 25 years of performing I couldn’t work through it. So when I stopped performing in ’95, people would go, “It’s Halloween, don’t you miss performing?” I would go “no, it feels so good. I’m not anxiety-ridden and wound up.” I don’t have that thing that most lifelong performers have, that need to perform.
7. Do you have that anxiety for Coachella?
I’m excited. Of course I’m nervous. Even when I do Nightmare Before Christmas, and I’ve done it like 25 times, I’m really nervous before. But I’m excited about Coachella because I feel like anything could happen. The whole thing could blow up. It’s a moment that one way or another will be a defining moment for me.
8. Writing the Big Mess songs, did your process differ without plot or characters from a movie to guide you?
Totally. But that’s the same as when I’m doing symphonic commissions. Being without plot and picture at first was terrifying when I started doing orchestral [work]. But I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone. My first couple ones were terrifying. But when I was writing Big Mess it was different. I was really driven. Probably because of quarantine I was writing more first-person things I was feeling rather than third person, which is what I was used to in Oingo Boingo. Most songs I wrote [in Oingo Boingo] I was writing from a point of view of a character. Some characters were despicable, some were ridiculous. For the first time I found myself writing about death and religion. I was like, “What the f–k am I doing?” It was an unconscious flow. And there was always the backdoor of the songs I felt were too personal, I could just jettison them and still release an album. I had enough material. But in the end I decided I didn’t care. Just put ’em all out there.
9. Big Mess includes a new version of Oingo Boingo’s “Insects.” Why did you decide to revisit that particular track?
I was looking at what Oingo Boingo songs I might want to revamp for Coachella, and because of the situation, it became a political song. I was thinking, “What are today’s insects?” I think of Washington. Just look at the Congress. To me it’s a hive of bloodsucking insects.
10. You mentioned having a thing about reunions earlier. So you’re not game for a potential Oingo Boingo reunion?
Generally speaking, bands that die should stay dead. It’s like zombies: stay in the ground. Obviously there are gonna be reunions that have worked out fine, but usually I feel the reason a band is doing a reunion is purely financial. I couldn’t see myself doing a whole set of Oingo Boingo material. There’s half a dozen songs [I would do] but I can’t get up there and do a 20-minute set. I don’t even listen to my old stuff. Until I did this 25th anniversary box set with Tim Burton [Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box], I never listened to a single score I’ve written for him until I put that together. I do it, I record it and I move on. I don’t keep paraphernalia. I don’t have anything. I’m weird that way. But incorporating some of that into another show, that made sense. Then it’s a present, past, future retrospective of my life.
11. Have you been to Coachella before?
Yeah, that’s what got me excited. My manager Laura had been trying to get me there for years, and finally in 2019 she goes, “Paul [Tollett, Coachella co-founder] will fly us out there in a helicopter, just take a look and see what it’s like.” He’d been calling Laura about doing something for close to 15 years. It goes back. So I took a chopper out and I couldn’t believe the huge advance in visual technology since the last time I’d been to an outdoor festival. I expected the sound would be great, but the visual side was stunning. I watched the Janelle Monae show and was like, “wow, this is great.” Saw Childish Gambino and a couple other shows and it got me excited. So I came up with an idea, pitched it later that evening to Paul and he was like, “Yep, that’s it, let’s do it.”
12. The Big Mess vinyl includes some different versions of songs with collaborators not on the regular album, like Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten. Will we see any special guests during your set?
No. It’s a tight 60-minute set and the fact that we’re jamming all this film music into a rock n’ roll set already, it’s incredibly difficult. I’m not expecting Blixa to show up from Germany or Trent [Reznor] to suddenly fly in. It’s not gonna happen. I got my hands full.
13. A sequel to the 1980 cult classic Forbidden Zone has been talked about for years. Is there any movement there?
It’s totally not up to me, that’s my brother’s thing [Richard Elfman]. If he pulls it together and does it, yeah, of course I’ll help out. But Forbidden Zone is his baby.
14. Would you reprise the role of Satan?
Well, I don’t know. Who knows? [laughs] Maybe.
15. Is there a director you haven’t worked with who you’d like to?
Are you kidding? Yes, but I’m not gonna list them out of respect for the composers they work with. And I don’t want to show my seething jealousy any more than it already exists. There are directors I’d practically kill for. If a composer suddenly dies of a horrible accident, I don’t want people to think “Oh my God, Danny said he’d kill for that. We better look at where he was that night.” I’d almost kill for it — emphasize almost.
16. You’ve been Oscar nominated four times. Is that something you would care about winning finally?
I’m so uninvested in awards. I always have been. Years ago when I won a Grammy I didn’t even know I’d won it, somebody had to call me. It’s an honor to get nominated for something, I’m happy to get some recognition, but to say who won is an absurdity. It’s a contest between apples and oranges. To be nominated or noticed is a great moment. There are certain things I don’t need: In the same way I didn’t need to be on stage, I don’t need awards. I’ve never kept an award. My mother, who is gone now, every award I’d gotten in my life ended up at her place.
I have a theory. Once you start believing in that, it f–ks up your work. It’s great to get stuff, but you can’t believe in it. If you believe you deserve that, you want it and you’re trying to get it, it compromises what you do. You can’t believe in it. I see Academy Awards and Grammys as like a religion. I don’t practice that religion, but I don’t put it down. The Academy does great things for film and recognizes small films that would otherwise not have a chance.
17. While preparing for this and looking back on old film scores, is there anything where you thought, “I barely remember this”?
Everything. [laughs] I was playing these scores and going, “Oh my God, all I remember is the main title piece.” Every other cue was like, “Really? I did that?” It was strange. I was listening to Pee-Wee and Beetlejuice and going, “Those are so primitive compared to where I am now.” On the other hand, that’s not a bad thing. Maybe there’s a lesson there too. It was a curious thing. Listening to my old songs for Coachella, I hadn’t heard Oingo Boingo songs since ’95. I started going onto Spotify and listening to tracks. Honestly, I didn’t remember half of them. It was a very strange experience.
18. So you’re listening to your own band on Spotify. You don’t have records around the house?
No. I got nothing. I’m sure some psychiatrist would say I almost compulsively don’t keep things. Most people would think it’s kind of weird.
19. In terms of preparing for Coachella, was it a relief to have that extra time in lockdown?
I took up a lot of that time with Big Mess. I had to hustle and the fact that so many things ended up back-to-back is crazy synchronicity. I just returned from two world premiere concertos that were supposed to be a year apart and ended up a week apart; they got rescheduled because of COVID. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I don’t know how many people have the experience of two world premiere symphony concertos within 30 days of Coachella. And from my second [weekend] of Coachella, I leave directly to make dress rehearsal for the American premiere of my Percussion Concerto that plays the day after. It’s f–king crazy. That’s as much contrast as I can handle in my life — any more and my head will explode.
20. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It’s just so much, but it’s a very exciting time out of the blue. These are the years where I’m supposed to be taking it easy and resting on my laurels. I’m not supposed to be having the heaviest year of my life, but it is. But so much of it is so far outside of my comfort zone that it’s just where I want to be. Once you relax, that’s it, it’s f–king over. You keep earning a living getting hired for the same work, but it’s over.