The decorated composer-singer-songwriter is as delightfully playful in conversation as his new album is dark and weird – but this is the wonderful dichotomy of Danny Elfman’s metaphysical, metaphorical world. He spoke to us about fresh solo record Big Mess.
How’s this for a daydream: You’re Valley-deep at Coachella, hipflask in your combat boot, feather boa flying. Last night you saw Charli XCX and Run The Jewels; tomorrow night is FKA Twigs and Frank Ocean. But tonight, ladies and gentlemen, the artist you’re looking forward to seeing is Danny Elfman, and he will present… well, you’re not actually sure. Will it be a melange of Jack Skellington, Edward Scissorhands, and Beetlejuice chorales, as patchworked as Sally’s own skin? Perhaps some Oingo Boingo faves, Weird Science and all, interspersed with symphonic interludes? Or, more likely, something way off the charts and impossible to predict?
“I’d put three months of energy into finally coming up with the live show,” Elfman says from his home in LA, over videocall. (Behind him are charcoal artworks and a row of tall glass bell-jars; inside each sits a babydoll head on a pike.) “It was going to be really wild; I had a whole year of shows ahead of me, two world premiere commissions, Elfman-Burton shows… and then everything was cancelled,” he says.
“It was a rough time on so many levels. Politically, America was becoming this opium palace that I didn’t recognise; I’ve lived here my entire life and it was becoming unrecognisable to me, I felt like I was in a George Orwell novel. Then it hit on all fronts. It was impossible on top of impossible, and I got really depressed.”
The musician went to his house outside of LA in the Californian countryside – the landscape of which he affectionately compares to rural Adelaide – and, to get out of his “funk”, started writing. “To my surprise, I picked up the guitar. I wasn’t even in my studio; I have a beautiful studio with a beautiful collection of guitars and microphones, and up there I have just a quaint little room with one guitar, one microphone. And I wrote the whole album there.”
Once he’d started, it was like opening a “Pandora’s Box”; Elfman attests he hadn’t realised the “rage” that was inside of him. Out poured Big Mess, this month’s absolutely astonishing record of the man’s first new solo material in 37 years. It’s a thrumming, vicious, sharp-as-a-witch’s-toenail affair of industrial prog, metal and electronica, but a defining thread is the chopped up, repeated snippets of lyrics which permeate his best lines (“The world’s an oyster on an appetizer plate,” from Happy; “Kick me, I’m a celebrity/ I’m a relatable guy/ Treat me like a scumbag/ Love me!”, from Kick Me, “Big Gravity is keeping me down,” from Dance With The Lemurs), delivered with his ominous-then-impish croon.
“I’ve always been into rhythmic chanting,” Elfman smiles. “The only actual music I’ve ever studied in my life was from Bali and Java. I went to CalArts as a ‘not’ student – you’ll never find me in the records there! – but nonetheless I showed up for three years and studied [Indonesian gong and tuned metallic percussion orchestra] Gamelan, and part of that was the Balinese chanting. I do love working with syllables and rhythm.” He was careful not to stray into any kind of hip hop feel, however, with the results being more akin to IDLES-esque spoken-word punk than any sort of rap.
In drummer Josh Freese, Elfman found the person he needed to elevate the compositions of Big Mess with a fanatical attention to accents. “He’s one of these really intense, obsessive drummers – his energy!” says Elfman. “He was the first person I chose to play with. I wanted every musician [on Big Mess] to have a solid background in complicated music, but also to have a punk background somewhere, to keep that energy in it. Josh definitely straddled both fences; there are few people who can say they’ve played with both Sting and Nine Inch Nails! He’s also played with Lady Gaga.”
Elfman’s art has always been tangled with visual elements, from the obvious filmic components of his collaborations with Tim Burton to the intense and wild clips for Oingo Boingo tracks, and Big Mess follows the trend. The clips created for Big Mess‘s singles are nutty in the extreme. Faces balloon and writhe in incredible simulations; bodies move in unsettling ways that thrust you deep into the Uncanny Valley, and prosthetics evoke both aching sympathy and the body-horror of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle films. To realise his visions, Elfman worked with film and visual artists Sarah Sitkin (responsible for the album artwork as well as the Happy clip’s 3D photography), Jesse Kanda (creator of the incredible animations in the Sorry clip), German filmmaker and photographer Sven Gutjahr (director of the Love In The Time Of Covid clip), transgender Scottish performer Shrek 666 (star of Love In The Time Of Covid), and director Petros Papahadjopoulos alongside animator Joe Pascale (who worked together on the vicious Kick Me clip).
Is the fact these kinds of images – centred around the body, and often in a monstrous way – resonated with him for this album something to do with the repressed rage? “I don’t know,” he ponders. “For that you would need Dr Freud to step in and spend some time with me! I am obsessed with body art, and the idea of using the body in a grotesque way. Using body imagery, using my own body – this is the part of the art, for me, that’s interesting beyond the music. I’m into tribal [bodyart], both decoration and mutilation, used aesthetically by humans – this, and anatomy, has fascinated me my whole life.”
For this human cornucopia of ideas, you can guess that the fascination is currently being realised into a pretty grand, and pretty personal, sort of artwork – and though it’s far off completion, it’ll definitely be ready for your viewing pleasure before Oingo Boingo ever reform. “I’m 27 years into a 40-year project called Forty Years Of Deconstruction – a pictorial project of my own body,” Elfman grins. “You’ll have to wait for 13 more years to see it.”
Big Mess by Danny Elfman is out June 11 via ANTI-/Epitaph.
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