Big Mess: Danny Elfman talks breaking out of screen scoring/composition for new album

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Big Mess: Danny Elfman talks breaking out of screen scoring/composition for new album

(Image Credit: Jacob Boll)
Words by Benjamin Lamb

Talking creation and process for new record and canned Dark Mofo performance.

Summarising the almost half-a-century career of composer Danny Elfman in a few sentences is no easy feat. 

His countless scores for films like Spiderman, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands have helped to shape the sounds of cinema as we know it today, while his iconic intro theme tune to The Simpsons is without a doubt one of the most recognisable TV compositions of all time.

Penned and recorded during the year that was, Big Mess functioned as a creative outlet for Elfman when the worldwide lockdowns of 2020 saw the music industry grind to a halt.

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While the ensuing boredom, frustration and anger throughout quarantine saw many musicians struggle to find a direction, it sent the two-time Emmy winner’s solo career into hyperdrive, with the construction of his upcoming solo album.

“There was two separate things colliding in 2020,” Elfman says. “One is obviously the depression of being isolated, but the other side was the intensity of the American political landscape, which was brutally depressing in 2020. It’s changed in 2021, but hasn’t gone away.” 

Big Mess simply wouldn’t have come about in any other year: with jobs on the horizon pushed back or subsequently cancelled, Elfman had no choice but to work on music for himself.

“I never sat down and went ‘I’m gonna work on an album.’ I actually was working on a commission for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen, so I thought ‘you know what, I’ll do a couple of songs, just for myself’,” he says. 

“I was feeling so much repressed anger and frustration, and I think it was kind of a therapeutic thing. Like pick up the guitar, use your voice, and don’t worry about whether it ever comes out, or if it’s ever a record, who cares!”

This somewhat casual approach to production allowing Elfman to create music that was true to himself. In a career that’s seen him compromise his own creative vision to align his craft with a director’s own interpretation of a film, his musical direction has often fallen into the trap of putting others first.

“As a film composer, I realised that it worked to my advantage because I could go from big, aggressive action films to a little quirky comedy, or from a drama to something totally stupid,” Elfman says.

This experimental bug has always run deep within the legendary composer, but as you’d expect, Danny’s Oingo Boingo days didn’t allow him to flex this quirky writing muscle and veer outside the ordinary as he’s done on Big Mess.

“It was tough, because Oingo Boingo’s faster stuff found its audience receptive right away, but the stuff that I was trying to experiment with would generally get regarded as ‘Not what we’re expecting from your band’.

“Everything I wrote for the band was sarcastic, it was mostly driven by sarcasm, and the desire to irritate,” Danny laughs. 

“There is some sarcasm on this record, my single ‘Kick Me’ was as close to anything that’d tap into that old sarcastic side of me, which has never really gone away.” 

The early incarnations of tracks like ‘Kick Me’ came to life during some solo sessions at Danny’s studio, where, somewhat surprisingly, a sparse array of gear helped him create the monolith journey we experience on this upcoming solo release.

“I did all my initial demo recording not at my studio in Los Angeles, but at my second home north of L.A, where I have a little writing room,” says Elfman.

“I had one little beautiful handmade guitar, one Neumann handheld microphone, and didn’t even have a pair of headphones that worked. Then my own synthesisers were all plugin / digital, I didn’t use any analogues for that.”

One notable track written previously to these sessions was ‘Sorry,’ which Danny notes wouldn’t have come to life it wasn’t for one particular Australian music festival.

“I had only written the song ‘Sorry’, I wrote it to be a long, experimental instrumental piece for Dark Mofo in Tasmania.I had been wanting to do Dark Mofo for a long time, so I reached out to them, but I couldn’t end up doing it, because that meant also putting together a whole set. I couldn’t go out with one song,” he laughs.

The veteran composer did, however, have ‘Sorry’ in his back pocket a year later when preparing to play a show at one of the world’s biggest festivals: Coachella.

“I was really excited about opening the show with that, nobody is going to know what the fuck I’m doing, you can’t even tell if it’s a song or piece of orchestral music, I was really excited about people looking at me like; ‘What is this?’,” Danny laughs. 

Much alike the 18 tracks of Big Mess, the backing band Danny uses come from a variety of backgrounds and influences; Stu Brooks (Lady Gaga), Josh Freese (Devo), Robin Finck (Nine Inch Nails) and Nili Brosh (Paul Gilbert).

Danny notes to Mixdown that this backing band of marvellous musicians came together through these plans to play Coachella.

“Coachella (in 2020) was going to be the show that was half film music and half reinvented Oingo Boingo music, that is, have half live set, half film, and this was the band we put together for Coachella.” 

This supergroup of musicians coming together was a welcome addition to Elfman, after working with musicians from similar orchestral environments for so many years, working with these live musicians from different backgrounds helped reinvigorate the composer’s passion for the craft.

“I was so happy to have them all there with me. They all made me so happy to be playing music again,” he beams. 

Big Mess is out now via Epitaph Records.