Danny Elfman is rocking out again at 70 and the Oscar-nominated … – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Danny Elfman had at least two compelling reasons to return to the rock concert stage and to resume writing and recording rock songs after a three-decade hiatus. But neither had anything to do with his former band, Oingo Boingo, his Oscar-winning work as a film composer, or his burgeoning career writing classical music concertos and chamber works.

“It really took COVID and my hostility for Donald Trump to get me back into songwriting,” said Elfman, whose film scoring credits range from “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” to “Justice League” and last year’s “White Noise.” He is perhaps even better-known for writing the proudly retro theme music for “The Simpsons,” the longest-running scripted prime-time series in TV history.

A Los Angeles native, Elfman will perform Thursday at Chula Vista’s North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre and on Saturday at FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine, with a 50-piece ensemble that includes San Diego drum dynamo Ilan Rubin. The two concerts, which may serve as a prelude to a national tour, are billed as “Danny Elfman: From Boingo to Batman to Big Mess and Beyond.”

“I guess,” he mused, “I owe it to a semi-fascist authoritarian leader and a pandemic to have gotten me out of hibernation. They worked together as a one-two punch — and here I am!”

Elfman, who turned 70 on May 29, chuckled.

“It’s crazy now, being back into songwriting and doing this kind of performing again,” he said, speaking by phone from the Encino home he shares with his wife, actress Bridget Fonda.

“I never expected I’d be doing this again in my lifetime. It took the negative energy of 2016 into 2020 to get me back into songwriting. That period was so frustrating for me that it was like opening a Pandora’s box, which resulted in my (2021 industrial-rock-tinged double album) ‘Big Mess.’ Now, I’ve got four or five songs for my next album, and I’m like: ‘What am I doing?’

“Life is strange. If you would have asked me, at 30, what my life would be like at 69 or 70 — let alone told me that it would be the busiest year of my life — I would have said: ‘I’ll either be dead or retired.’

“The fact that I’m neither is astounding to me. So is the fact I’m going back out there (on stage) and enjoying it.”

(This interview was conducted a few days before it was disclosed Elfman has been sued for breach of contract by Nomi Abadi, 35, a Los Angeles musician. She filed the lawsuit alleging that Elfman has failed to pay her the final $85,000 in an $830,000 settlement, reached in 2018, that was reached after she accused him of several instances of sexual harassment. Elfman and his representatives have vigorously denied all of Abadi’s allegations.)

Danny Elfman will perform two San Diego concerts this week. He is shown here in his Los Angeles recording studio.


Self-taught composer

Elfman’s final performance with Oingo Boingo was in Los Angeles at the Universal Amphitheatre in 1995, after which he focused exclusively on writing film scores.

He has since earned four Oscar nominations — the first for “Good Will Hunting” in 1998 and the most recent for “Milk” in 2009. Never mind that Elfman, for at least the first two decades of his scoring career, was unable to read music.

Or, as he put it in a 1989 San Diego Union-Tribune interview: “The only possible advantage of not having any musical training is not having a lot of preconceptions about things. Otherwise, I can list a whole lot of disadvantages, because I do orchestral compositions and my writing is very slow. And when I say I’ve had no training, I mean no training.

“I write music, but I don’t read it. Since I can’t read my scores, my analogy for the way I write orchestrally is: Take an illiterate person who has stories in his mind, but — because he’s illiterate and because the stories are too long to remember — he teaches himself the alphabet, phonetically, and how to type with two fingers. But if you ask him to read it back, he’ll read it one letter at a time, because that’s the way he wrote it.”

Elfman laughed when asked how his knowledge of music and approach to composing have evolved since that 1989 interview.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “I worked really hard on my writing skills for 15 years after that and I can write much more dense and rhythmically complex things now than I could then.

“For the past eight years I’ve tried to write one classical piece a year, mostly concertos. I couldn’t have done that in the 1980s because I didn’t have the musical vocabulary then. But other than that, I’m the same weird musical freak. I’ve taught myself a lot of things, but I still have had no training.

“My writing is quicker than it would have been back then. My reading is probably the same as it was then. I can slowly read through the notes, but — like back then — one note at a time.”

Danny Elfman, Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on Saturday, April 23, 2022, in Indio

Danny Elfman is shown performing at the 2022 Coachella Music & Arts Festival in Indio. It was his first rock-oriented concert appearance since he left Oingo Boingo in 1995 to focus on film scoring.

(Amy Harris / Amy Harris/invision/ap)

Long performance hiatus

After leaving Oingo Boingo, Elfman did not return to the concert stage until 2015 at the Hollywood Bowl. He did so only to give voice to the decidedly un-rock songs Elfman wrote and recorded for longtime collaborator Tim Burton’s 1993 stop-motion animated feature film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The singer-turned-composer has since made several more annual appearances at the bowl to reprise his Jack Skellington character songs from “Nightmare” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

But a handful of once-a-year live film gigs with an orchestra is a world apart from Coachella, where Elfman — then 68 — was the oldest artist to appear last year.

His two performances at the festival were a big success. So big that Elfman agreed to do two expanded concerts with his 50-piece group at the Hollywood Bowl last October. Those in turn led to this week’s upcoming San Diego and Irvine concerts, which will feature large string and brass sections, a 12-piece choir, two percussionists and a core five-piece band.

“It will be the same number of musicians — 50,” he said. “At Coachella, we only had 30 minutes to set up the stage for a 50-piece group and there were (audio) problems as a result,” he said. “At the bowl, we had all day to set up”

In fact, had all gone according to plan, Elfman would have made his Coachella debut at the 2020 edition of the festival.

But that event was canceled because of the COVID-fueled shutdown of live events worldwide. So was the 2021 edition of Coachella. Elfman finally appeared last year on two consecutive Saturdays.

His back-to-back 2022 Coachella performances, which were also viewed by millions on the festival’s livestream, created major buzz. Moreover, Elfman’s impact came at an event headlined by the likes of Billie Eilish, Harry Styles and The Weeknd, all of whom are young enough to be his grandchildren.

Yahoo Entertainment’s headline read “Coachella 2022 Saturday: 68-year-old Elfman, 20-year-old Eilish make festival history.”

Gizmodo’s headline was no less laudatory, “Danny Elfman’s Coachella Set Was a Cinematic, Dazzlingly Bonkers Experience,” while the Riverside Press-Enterprise’s headline declared “Danny Elfman delivers wild, weird fun with a career-encapsulating set.”

“I don’t know if I can say this, but my intention going into Coachella was to create one big mind (expletive) for the audience,” Elfman said, cackling with glee at the memory.

“I wanted to take all of these incredibly contrasting elements and jam them together in a Mixmaster. I thought: ‘Let’s spill it out there and see what happens.’ I knew that nothing about it made much sense.

“I’ve had a very weird career. Most people know me as a film composer. Some know me for Oingo Boingo. And some for my newer works as a classical composer. Those are almost three different audiences! So, to meld my music altogether, I didn’t know that would happen. But there was no other way to present myself without all three facets of my music — and I wanted to include crazy visuals.”

Danny Elfman at Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 23, 2022

Danny Elfman earned rave reviews for his performance at the 2022 Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio.

(Amy Harris / Amy Harris/invision/ap)

Crazy and ambitious

Make that, crazy and unusually ambitious and intricate.

In the lead-up to his 2022 Coachella performances, Elfman worked closely with Selena Moshell of Black Ink Presents, a Hollywood creative design and production company. Together, they chose 15 young video artists whose work Elfman admired to independently come up with visuals for his 58-minute set at the festival in Indio, which typically draws 20 percent of its annual audience of 750,000 from San Diego County.

To heighten the element of surprise, Elfman made sure none of the 15 video artists saw what the others were working on. The results were predictably varied, if otherwise altogether unpredictable.

One of the more striking audiovisual moments during his Coachella performance was the simple yet elegant snow graphics that complemented Elfman’s music for “Ice Dance/Grand Finale” (from the 1990 Tim Burton film “Edward Scissorhands”).

Equally memorable, during an updated version of “Insects,” a 1982 Oingo Boingo song, a video collage was shown with images of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell being sucked into former President Donald Trump’s mouth.

“I was working with each of the video artists to create the material,” Elfman explained. “Then, Selena at Black Ink figured out how to synchronize everything, because the show is very choreographed with visual and audio cues.”

The band is anchored by San Diego drum ace Ilan Rubin. It is led by Oingo Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek, who has been the orchestrator for nearly all of Elfman’s film scores, and also features Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck.

“The orchestra musicians have to be sharp and quick,” Elfman noted. “Because this is a crazy show where you’re going ‘bang! bang!’ from one arrangement to another, but I’m used to doing that. The people I work with on film scores are the best of the best, so I’m working with some of those same people for these two August concerts.”

Drummer Josh Freese was on board when Elfman performed last year at Coachella and the Hollywood Bowl. His role is now being filled by Rubin, who was just 32 when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Nine Inch Nails. He is also a key member of Angels & Airwaves, the band co-led by blink-182’s Tom DeLonge.

“As you know, Josh Freese recently joined Foo Fighters,” Elfman said. “Ilan heard about the opening right away and told me he’d love to do it. I’d seen Ilan perform last year at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, with Nine Inch Nails, and knew he was a monster. So, lucky me!

“Ilan stepped right in and he’s been killing it. It worked out very well for me that Nine Inch Nails is not touring this year.”

Are Elfman’s two Southern California concerts this week one-offs? Or is he testing the waters for a national tour?

“Yeah, I’m testing the waters,” he replied. “This is an incredibly difficult show to put on the road, touring with 50 people on stage and a lot of technical requirements. It comes with almost impossible touring demands.

“Doing it with a five-piece band would have made sense. Fifty is another story, so we’re exploring what can we do. We can’t take an orchestra with us everywhere. But we can go to other cities and have (local) orchestras step in, although that can be tricky.”

Elfman cites Stravinsky and Shostakovich as two of his favorite composers, along with the early works of jazz giant Duke Ellington and an array of more recent jazz artists.

He is now at work composing his next classical music opus, which will feature two violinists and a singer. It’s a collaborative effort, which Elfman describes as “sort of semi-secret,” between him and two other composers.

“Had anyone told me back in the 1980s that I’d be doing this kind of classical music composing now, it would have seemed really daunting,” he said.

“This is so much harder than film-scoring. When you are writing a film score you are serving the needs of the film first, so you write more cinematically. You look at the film and you start hearing music in your head.

“Writing an orchestral piece is far more demanding. Because, nine times out of 10, a film director will say: ‘That’s crazy — what are you doing?” And I’ll say: ‘You’re right. Let me simplify it.’ I understand and listen to atonal music, but I love writing harmonically. It’s what my soul tells me to do.”

And how does Elfman rate himself as an orchestra conductor?

“Minus seven!” he said. “I do not conduct, and I never will. I have no desire to. If I conducted, it would be just for my own ego, waving my arms around. I’m a (crappy) conductor, and I know it.”

Danny Elfman: “From Boingo to Batman to Big Mess and Beyond,” with Boy Harsher

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre, 2050 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista

Tickets: $20-$99.50

Online: livenation.com


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