Star Scene: Danny Elfman on The Great Creators with Guy Raz

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On how he changed his interest from science to music & art.
“My parents moved, between middle school and high school. I went to a new neighborhood. I’m starting from scratch. New friends, new everything. I, you know, I had to go to a school…And the new friends that I made all happened to be artists and musicians. And it’s just a group I fell in with. And I really only am a musician now and got into music because of this group of friends.”

On teaching himself to read music
. “It’s just mathematics, you know, you learn to follow beats. And I learned that early on that I had a very good ear. I can hear a phrase of music and freeze it long enough to like, get all the parts down correctly, and then you’re breaking it into parts, whether it’s four beats, eighth notes, there’s eight, you know, there’s triplets, it’s just a bit of math and a very simple math at that. So, the harder part was learning to listen and learning to find the notes that I was searching for…just learning to listen, writing it down wasn’t hard. Listening was challenging.”

On never worrying about being judged. “I mean, that’s the only thing that stayed consistent throughout my entire life is not worrying about being judged because I’ve had four careers in my life…and the only thing consistent about all of them is that for the most part, I was panned upon the entrance of each field. And, I began to really embrace that and enjoy that…we would take our worst reviews and we would print them in our advertisements, our publicity…you know, you can’t pay for that kind of advertising.”

On the vibe for Oingo Boingo.
“It was just energy. It was just pure. The same thing that really motivates most bands to get together and play was just, you got a bunch of hyperactive, energetic people that just need to get together and play. You know, when I heard the ska music out of England, I was really inspired because it reminded me of the high life I used to hear in West Africa, but it had that additional hyperkinetic energy. That’s what appealed to me. I heard the madness and the specials and selector…and I was just like oh yeah, this is definitely what I want to do.”

On stage fright. “I always had stage fright. I never got over it…this is not about judgment at all. Stage fright is a mental condition. It’s like an uneasiness being in front of people. In other words, I never had like an easy relationship with getting on stage in front of an audience. It’s always been a difficult thing. Before every show part of me wanted to like bolt and run away and just leave the building and then I would do it. And then somewhere during the show, I would click in and then I’m here now. I’m in the moment…you wanna hide in a shadow. And, uh, that’s my natural inclination is like hide reclusive. And, when you’re wired that way, you have to force yourself through kind of a barrier to actually get out there and get off of so much adrenaline that you know, you’re not gonna have your head explode.”

On not wanting to ever be a rockstar. “No, I loved writing and I loved performing my music. And the thing is in the middle of the show, there’d be a point where I’d be covered with sweat and right up in their faces. And I loved these moments where I’d feel totally connected. You know, I’d jump out on the audience. I was like, my shirt would get ripped off.I’d have scratch marks on my back. You know, I love this contact, this interaction, but it still didn’t stop. The constant sense of, I have a hard time in front of people.”

On making his dad proud
. “I was really glad he lived long enough because you gotta realize two school teachers raising a street musician who’s passing the hat is not a happy situation. And, uh, the fact that I never went back to college, caused him a lot of anxiety. So to live long enough to see me headlining the universal amphitheater was a great moment for me. You gotta realize…I learned that [my dad] came to California to hit it in the music business as a trumpet player. And he wanted to be a songwriter too. And, he didn’t succeed and eventually, you know, came back from the war and said, oh, this is crazy. I’m gonna get my degree and get into teaching. And, he never looked back. He never mentioned it to us. He never talked about it. And I asked him, I said, dad, you were a big band trumpet player. He goes, oh, that was a long time ago. Uh, that doesn’t matter. That was a long time. He never spoke of it, but I guess. I fulfilled his dream years later. And I think that was a source of pleasure for him.”

On being detested by the industry. “I owe my film composing career to the fact that I was so detested when I started out, in the industry, uh, that really motivated me quite a bit. I mean, if they’d have loved me, I don’t think I would’ve gotten as good as I got or certainly have gone as far as I went, the fact that they hated me really fueled me…all of these movies was just another Fuck You, and check it out, you know?”

On his lucky break. “PeeWee’s big adventure, that bicycle race. I remember right then and there thinking, oh shit, this is cool…and it was pretty addictive. I always describe it, that was kinda like my first shot of heroin. You know, the one you get for free before you get hooked, and that was kind of PeeWee’s big adventure. So when I came out of Peewee and the score wasn’t thrown away, and then to my great astonishment, it actually opened up getting about a hundred offers immediately. It was like, in every successful composer’s story, there’s a lucky break. It’s persistence, you’ll always hear there’s persistence. And of course you have to have a certain amount of talent, but there’s also a lucky break. The lucky break for me was Peewee coming out just exactly when it did.”

On his approach to writing music
. “Well, I mean, my approach to this film scoring was just very much like it was towards Oingo Boingo as a band, it was just like, get in your face, you know? And don’t worry about what genre you’re fitting in. Just like everything was aggressive because I just had too much energy and, so I kind of applied that same energy to the film composing and, I just got aggressive. I didn’t give a shit what anybody thought except the director. And, you know, I said, if the audience likes this or hates it, whatever, as long as it doesn’t get thrown out, I’m good…I started reverse technique. When I see a film for the first time, I try to blank my mind out of any preconceived notion of what I think it might be musically…I don’t want any sense of it’s gonna be this or it’s gonna be this or I’m thinking like this type of thing. I, I want nothing. I want to see it and then see what I start to feel from it.”

On the tension on the
Batman set. It was just extremely challenging on every level. You know, the producer John Peters originally, as he told me, when we walked through the set of Gotham city, and with my music editor listening very carefully to our conversation and moving between us cuz he was afraid there was gonna be a fight, he’s saying so Danny, I think we get the best musical people involved that we possibly can. Michael Jackson will write the Batman theme. Prince will write the Joker’s theme and George Michaels will write the love theme for Vicki Vail. And I said, what will I do? And he goes, you can be the captain of the ship. And now I’m starting to get dark and go, I don’t like boats and Bob Badami, our music editor was moving between us and very consciously moving us apart because, you know, John Peters had a very volatile temper, but so did I…and I did kind of feel my blood coming up, like what the fuck? And it did get to the point where they wanted Prince to collaborate. And I refused and I had to leave the movie as much as I loved Prince. I didn’t wanna be his orchestrator, which is what I felt would’ve happened. And he went off and wrote a score and played it. And I got brought back on the picture. So it was brutally hard on me cuz I felt like I just left the biggest opportunity of my life. I’d walked away from it and ended my career. And I felt that for almost a month of like, I just killed myself. I just shot myself because of my own pigheadedness and inability to like be part of the club and, and then it worked out.”

On his warring interests
. “I was at war with myself. Part of me liked writing these up-tempo, fun dancing songs. And part of me really wanted to write more challenging stuff. But in a band you can’t keep switching it up. It’s almost like I wanted to be in a different band every two years. But, you know, you’re performing for an audience that just doesn’t work and it got frustrating more and more. And I found that as a film composer, exactly that conflict worked perfectly because in film, you can bounce from one extreme to the other that you can’t do when you’re in a band. You know, I could write something crazy, fast-driving, intense and I could write something more melodic and lush and harmonically challenging. And so they both got their turn.”

On creativity
. “I can only say with myself, it’s compulsive and constant and, you know, has distorted my whole sense of living and life and how I live and everything about it has revolved around that obsessive need to, you know, keep going and pushing myself like I do. But, where that falls in terms of any other human beings, I just…when I stop, I have no doubt I’ll die.”

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About Mary Boukouvalas 1612 Articles
Mary is a photographer and a writer, specialising in music. She runs where she endeavours to capture the passion of music in her photos whether it's live music photography, promotional band photos or portraits. She has photographed The Rolling Stones, KISS, Iggy Pop, AC/DC, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, PULP, The Cult, The Damned, The Cure, Ian Brown, Interpol, MUDHONEY, The MELVINS, The Living End, Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine, The Stone Roses –just to name a few - in Australia, USA, Europe and the Middle East. Her work has been published in Beat magazine, Rolling Stone magazine, Triple J magazine, The Age Newspaper, The Herald Sun, The Australian, Neos Kosmos,,,, She has a permanent photographic exhibition at The Corner Hotel in Richmond, Victoria Australia.