No one wanted Danny Elfman to score their films. It may be common now for musicians to write the music for movies and TV, but in the Eighties, producers were sceptical about the lead singer of a popular new wave band coming anywhere near their work. It wasn’t until his friend, director Tim Burton, vouched for him to score Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) that the Oingo Boingo frontman broke into the scoring game.
Cut to 36 years later, and Elfman is one of the most prolific and revered composers around. He is responsible for the zany Simpsons theme, the innocently eerie Edward Scissorhands score, and the bombastic Batman score (which he wrote from an aeroplane bathroom). Though he has worked on everything from big-budget superhero movies (Sam Raimi’s Y2K-era Spider-Man trilogy) to Oscar-friendly dramas (1997’s Good Will Hunting), Elfman is probably best known for those Burton collaborations, imbuing all-ages gothic adventures like Beetlejuice (1988), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Alice in Wonderland (2010) with dark, whimsical and fantastical orchestrations.
Yet Elfman has spent his long career kicking down doors and fighting from being pigeonholed. Even after he’d scored Pee-Wee, producers only wanted him to work on “quirky comedies”. Once he’d got his music into practically every kind of film, he turned his attention to composing for orchestras in the mid-Noughties, and had to kick down some more doors. “The gatekeepers are sceptical and don’t want me there,” he says over a Zoom call. “Which makes me want to be there. ‘Cause I always want to be everywhere where I’m totally unwelcome.”
At the start of 2020, Elfman was readying a career-spanning Coachella performance titled “Danny Elfman: Past, Present and Future! From Boingo to Batman and Beyond!” But the California-based festival was cancelled due to Covid-19, and suddenly Elfman had some free time. So he recorded a solo album – his first in 37 years.
Lest you think that Big Mess (out on Friday) is a return to Oingo Boingo’s synth-based, Reagan-era aesthetic, the 68-year-old assures me that it is not. He calls it “chamber punk”.
“The foundation of what became Big Mess was this idea that it’s going to be guitar-based,” he explains. “I’m going to use the orchestra in a way that I’ve not really heard used much. It’s like an orchestra as a driving motor, as opposed to textural embellishment [in] pop music, [which is] normally how you would use it.”
It makes sense that nearly four decades after his previous solo work, Elfman would have a lot to say. “I opened this Pandora’s box, expecting to work on [Big Mess] for six weeks,” he says. “Once it opened, it was like, there was just no closing it.”
Big Mess, which also features Josh Freese on drums, Stu Brooks on bass and guitarists Robin Finck and Nili Brosh, is not exactly a passive listen. It kicks off with cutting, distorted guitar licks on “Sorry”, which evolve into a swell of urgent strings and thunderous percussion. Later, the excitable “Love in the Time of Covid” swoops in with a glam-rock edge, again mashing orchestral and pop-rock elements together with devil-may-care swagger.
If its composition sounds hard-hitting, Big Mess’s subject matter and themes will smack you across the face with even more oomph. The songs – the likes of “Choose Your Side”, “Serious Ground” and “Sorry” – seethe with anger around the last four years in Donald Trump’s America. Elsewhere, a reworked Oingo Boingo song, “Insects”, closes out Big Mess as a commentary on the greed of the American ruling class.
“I retooled ‘Insects’ for the challenge,” says Elfman, who has repeatedly claimed over the years that Oingo Boingo will never reunite (“I just have a thing about reunions and I can’t do it,” he said last year). “I was looking through all the Oingo Boingo stuff that felt either political or talked about some type of dystopian environment. And I felt that there was actually a lot that touched on those areas. And ‘Insects’, when I pulled it out, I was thinking, who are today’s insects? They’re right there, in Congress. Old white men. So it took on a new life. Originally, of course, I was going to have no older material, but that became the one exception.”
Likewise, the grimey “Choose Your Side” samples a Trump soundbite (“It’s a great day for our country,” the former president can be heard saying). A marching rhythm follows, seeming to mirror Trump’s oft-polarising speeches, which famously pushed an already divided US into an even more fissured state. “I was angry,” Elfman says of his mindset while writing “Choose Your Side”. “And I’m still angry.”
Indeed, Elfman hasn’t exhaled just because Trump is no longer in office. “I think that we got a four-year reprieve, but I [don’t] think anything’s changed,” he argues. “We’re still on the edge of a dystopian America that I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams. This is like an America that George Orwell would have written about.
“My anger, just to clarify, is not towards Donald Trump, because every culture has a crazy demagogue,” he adds. “They should be on the fringe(s) of society. It’s the enabling that the Republican party did to legitimise him. That’s what pisses me off… I think that’s why I just kept writing. It was very therapeutic. I was angry and I was depressed and this stuff was just coming out.”
That’s not to say, however, that Big Mess is without its optimistic moments. “Love in the Time of Covid” channels Elfman’s post-adolescent self into a story about a young man arranging video dates while cooped up in his home, mid-pandemic. “This is a horny 20-year-old guy living alone in a small apartment,” he laughs. “That part of me still is there and it’s a little lighter, I suppose.”
Elfman certainly isn’t alone in weaving the pandemic and US politics into his creative activities. In the past year, other legacy artists like Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr released new material with their varied takes on lockdown, conspiracy theories, being unable to tour and the role social media plays in polarised times.
Celebrities offering opinions on world events has always been a little controversial. Some want entertainers to use their platforms to further important causes. Others want them to stay in their lane. How does Elfman think an artist should best express political ideas? “They have to express it any way they can,” he says simply. In June, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer, Elfman wrote on social media of the “deep national problem” of racism in America.
“I tend to be very direct,” he adds. “Everybody’s going to be very different about how they’re expressing their outrage. The weird trend towards these vast conspiracies is the really scary, disturbing thing in our time. Where I’m living now, outside of LA, my neighbour won’t get vaccinated and he works for us. He’s our groundskeeper. Great guy, love him to death. But I can’t let him in the house without a mask. And, you know, he doesn’t really understand. He thinks we’re being crazy.”
Now that the world is opening up a little, people are getting vaccines, and musicians are plotting out tours again, Elfman is optimistic that he’ll get to perform Big Mess for live audiences. “We’re already looking at Coachella 2022,” he says.
And as for speaking out about politics? Elfman has no plans to stop with Big Mess. “I got warned when I started getting political last year, during the Black Lives Matter [protests] and that whole thing, you know, I’m going to lose fans. And everybody keeps saying entertainers and athletes should stay out of politics. [But] I think we’re at a point where you can’t.”
Big Mess is out on 11 June