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Danny Elfman: Making Music, Part 1—Creating a ‘Big Mess’

Part One of our five-part interview with film composer/recording artist Danny Elfman explores how 'Big Mess,' his first solo album in more than 35 years, came to be.

Danny Elfman, surrounded by tools of the trade in his personal studio. Photo: James Donnelly.
Danny Elfman, surrounded by tools of the trade in his personal studio. Photo: James Donnelly.

In early 2020, Danny Elfman was ready to place his film and TV scoring projects on the back burner to focus on a slate of specially themed concerts.

“It’s ironic and classic from me, and horribly tragic and funny, that 2020 is the first time in 35 years where I take no film work and decide that this would be the year to give myself over to concerts,” he says. “Then, of course, we had 100 percent cancellation of everything. I had concerts scheduled for Nightmare Before Christmas, I had a number of the “Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton” live orchestra shows that we were going to play all over. I had several world premieres with new commissions, and I had Coachella.”

The Coachella performance was to showcase new arrangements of songs spanning Elfman’s career, from his early days fronting Oingo Boingo to his brilliant, fantastical music for cult classics such as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice; the Grammy-winning theme for Batman; his unforgettable TV theme for The Simpsons; and others. Elfman had assembled a band of favorite musicians to bring four decades of music to a festival audience.

Danny Elfman's new solo album, 'Big Mess.'
Danny Elfman’s new solo album, ‘Big Mess.’

When the concert plans went south, the composer realized he had other stories to tell. He wrote a double-album’s worth of songs for Big Mess—his first solo album in more than 35 years—and recorded them with many of the musicians he’d lined up for Coachella: drummer Josh Freese, bass player Stu Brooks, guitarists Robin Finck and Nilli Brosh, and percussionists Sidney Hopson and Joe Martone. Recorded by engineer Noah Snyder, the album also features orchestrations by Elfman’s longtime collaborator (and former bandmate) Steve Bartek.

Classic Tracks: Oingo Boingo’s “Just Another Day”

Not long after Big Mess was released in June, Elfman told Mix about his experiences writing and tracking during pandemic times, and his approach to creating some of the his most memorable scores.

Danny Elfman's facility includes a sizable live room. Photo: James Donnelly.
Elfman’s facility includes a sizable live room. Photo: James Donnelly.

How did you begin working on Big Mess, in the midst of such an actual mess?

It was interesting, because I have a really nice studio in Los Angeles, with a great collection of microphones and guitars and other gear. But I was out of town, quarantining in our house north of L.A. with my wife and son. In this house, I don’t have a studio. I have a writing room. It’s just a modest little room where a famous German singer once taught opera when she fled Hitler in the ’40s.

In that room, I have my computer and one acoustic guitar and one electric, and one handheld microphone. That’s it. So, I just started writing and recording demos, and I realized that it wasn’t impeding me. I was making do with much less, and it was fine. But subject-wise, it was like opening Pandora’s box.

The previous four years had already been scary. I’m old enough to remember the huge split in the country during the Vietnam War, and the protests. I remember what it was like living in a country divided. I was conscious that what was going on in our country [in 2020] was way beyond that. This was something I’d never experienced in America, in my life. It wasn’t about a war; it wasn’t even about an ideology. It was insanity. Watching Americans become a mob with a sociopathic populist leader running the country. For the first time in my life, I found myself thinking, if this is America, where else can I live? That’s where Big Mess started.

There's always company at Elfman's studio, living above the rack gear credenza.
There’s always company at Elfman’s studio, living above the rack gear credenza. Photo: James Donnelly.

How did you flesh out ideas without your studio equipment? Were you working with virtual instruments to create orchestrations?

I always orchestrate everything. In the old days, I used to come up with a half-baked idea and bring it in to a band, but in the years since I’ve become a composer, I’ve gotten used to demoing everything myself. I did it all in Digital Performer. I have half a dozen drum libraries that I like and half a dozen bass libraries—everything but my voice and guitar. I just started building the songs from the ground up, and when I opened my mouth to sing, I surprised myself with how much venom I had in me. It was like, I’ve got to release this or it’s going to do me great harm.

Click for Part 2: Moving Into Film