Interview with Danny Elfman

Click here to read the articleDanny Elfman has been referred to as “Hollywood’s hottest film composer.” Working primarily with director Tim Burton, Elfman has scored the soundtrack to Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride, among others. He is perhaps most well known for composing the theme to The Simpsons.

I interviewed Danny Elfman in 1990 for the Los Angeles Showcase Musepaper directly after he finished scoring Dick Tracy.

JB: What’s your musical background? I first saw you when you played at the (Los Angeles) Songwriters Showcase with The Mystic Nights of the Oingo Boingo, we were at the Improv then. What went on before that?
Well the Mystic Nights was seven, eight years of work, and writing lots of strange little pieces, nothing contemporary, very theatrical.

JB: I still have images in my mind of what you guys were doing then, the costumes, that whole thing was just great theater.
Well it was my first chance to write anything that was non rock ‘n’ roll. So, it was stuff that served me well later in film. I taught myself and whatever rudimentary notation that I possessed later, came from that period, which wasn’t much, but was something.

JB: What instruments were you playing?
In the Mystic Knights, I played trombone, violin, guitar, percussion, it was like a little bit of everything, and with Oingo Boingo it was just guitar and singing, and I really left behind all that I had done, because as a songwriter you don’t really write, you develop ideas. But, I didn’t write one more note on paper except an occasional horn line, or something like that, between 1978, when the Mystic Knights ended, and 1985, when I did Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

JB: Did you have any formal training?
No. Whatever I know or don’t know is all just self-taught.

JB: It’s great that you would teach yourself such different instruments.
Well, I’ve always been a mimicker. On the trombone I would mimic the style of the old Duke Ellington trombone players, on violin I would try to mimic Stephan Grapelli, on guitar originally I would try to mimic the rhythm playing of Django Rheinhardt, since obviously I couldn’t approach the lead playing, but that style of strumming and playing, and I always had a good ear.

Even now I often go back to stuff that I heard in movies when I was a kid, and I know when I’m doing bits of Bernard Herrmann and Nino Rota, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman or Erich Korngold. It’s all this vast repertoire to pull from.

JB: So, you’ve really studied it.
I listen. Yeah definitely, I listen a lot and, in listening, I learn.

JB: You were influenced by jazz then primarily?
Well, pre-1938 jazz. For a long time in Mystic Knights I wouldn’t listen to anything if it was written from 1940 on. Its almost like it didn’t exist. The orchestral music I listened to all came from turn of the century through the 30s. You know I loved Stravinsky, I loved Darius Milhaud, Prokofiev. Those were really my favorites.

JB: They were adventurous in their time.
Adventurous in melodic sense and rhythmic sense, and Harry Parch, although that didn’t go back that far. I think that related to the ethnic music that I loved. But then with jazz we’re talking Ellington, Cab Calloway, Django Rheinhardt. That was the stuff I loved the most, especially Duke Ellington.

JB: Do you have any one particular approach to songwriting?
No, I never really go in with any ideas whatsoever. I wish I had a technique for songwriting. I have technique for film composition, but no technique as a songwriter. Two opposite extremes for me. I have never in my life been able to sit down and say I’m going to write a song today and actually write a song. And, I’ve never been able to finish a song that didn’t want to finish itself. Some songs go down in nothing flat; some songs I’ll partially finish and then they’ll sit on the back burner for ages. Sometimes under the gun, when we’re about to go in the studio, I’ll find myself finishing up some of the tunes; but others will just fall by the wayside and never get finished.

It is mainly not knowing what the song is about and what the attitude is that will keep it from ever getting finished. That focus. There are some songs I know what they’re about, but it’s just a matter of getting one last verse or something like that, then I know it will finish itself. Others I am not even sure what they are about, and those are usually my favorite songs. I just have to let them finish themselves or not.

JB: What starts them? Where do you get ideas? Do you read a lot?
No, not really. I don’t know, it could be anything. Often its just whatever I’m thinking about at the time. I find that when I am writing songs, the best thing for me to do is I have to get in the opposite frame of mind than when I am scoring. When I’m scoring, I keep myself really wound up because it takes so much effort and discipline that if I’m relaxed at all, it’s like forget it, I’m just not going to meet my daily quota of bars written. In fact, if I’m really wound up, I’ll find myself writing less in terms of songs. I do most of my songwriting when I get in a very kind of spaced-out state-of-mind. I hate to say, but for a lack of a better word, I tend towards absentmindedness, and when I’m writing my most songs is when I tend to be most absentminded.

JB: What do you think are the relative freedoms and restrictions of writing songs and writing film scores?
Well there are all kinds of freedoms writing songs, they just have to essentially have some type of melody to follow and a beat to follow.

danny-elfman2.jpgJB: You’re really good at dynamics.
Some songs call for it, some songs don’t. Some songs for the new album are pretty much one-dynamic most of the way through, and some songs go through bigger dynamics. I think it all just depends on the song. I don’t really have any rule for that other than my own subjective thing when I’m writing. Obviously when I’m writing a score I must write so much per day, inspired or not, and I have to keep all these melodies and pieces of music always in my mind, because out of an enormous score all the pieces have to connect, so the entire score has to act as connecting tissue. On an album there’s nothing like that. Once a song is finished it could leave forever.

JB: So whatever continuity there is as an album is just really kind of based on where you were at during that writing period.
Yeah. I have a bunch of songs, we start playing them, and we find which songs seem to work well together, but there’s never any intention of making one song sound like another. In fact, it’s the opposite. If I’m working on two songs that are similar, I’ll already know that only one will survive and that maybe I’ll only finish one because there’s no chance that the two of them will end up getting completed and both on the album because they’re too similar. So, it’s almost the opposite, where the more diverse, the less continuity melodically and rhythmically, the better it is.

JB: Do you tend to write stream of consciousness lyrics or do you end up working over them, rewriting them?
Both. I spend a lot more time on the lyrics than the melody. If I was just writing melody and beats I’d probably be able to write a song every day. Lyrics are something I can fret over for a long time, especially when I get a framework that I like, but I don’t quite know what it’s leading to, and especially if I’m writing stream of consciousness, putting that together and making sense of it can take me a long time, whereas if I’m writing about a single subject matter it will happen a lot quicker.

JB: Do the lyrics usually come separately or do you usually put them together at the same time.
Usually when I write the first part of a song I have just a lyric line or two that gets stuck in my head, and then when I actually start to write the lyric sometimes I’ll reach an impasse where I like the way that line sounds in my head and it rolls off the tongue rhythmically in a way that fits the line but doesn’t doesn’t connect with anything. Then I have to force myself to connect a new lyric with that melody, which is real hard. Once I get attached to one line, I have a horrible time dislodging it from my association with the melody. But, occasionally, I just have to because it’s a dead end. I’ve started to develop ideas for the song, but it doesn’t connect with the original line…the original lyric that I had in my mind.

JB: What instrument do you write on?
Mostly piano, keyboards, sometimes on guitar.

JB: Do you use a drum machine when you write?
Oh yeah. I have a studio here and I use a Mac and Performer software, and I usually pretty much work up the drums, bass, keyboards, melody line, interlocking lines, and I’ll be singing along, and then when I get to a certain point I’ll actually lay it on tape, and then maybe lay down some simple guitar lines, then I’ll start experimenting with the vocal. So I usually like to lay it all down on multi-track before I submit it to the band.

JB: Then they add their own arrangements for it?
Yeah, sometimes they’ll go down almost identical to what I laid down on the demo and sometimes it will get torn apart and put back together. It’s more or less once a song comes in to rehearsal it’s open season. Anybody who wants to try any idea on the song says so and we’ll try it and it will either stick or not.

JB: Do you have last word on that or does everybody just know when it’s right?
I don’t have the last word, no.

JB: How does the production process work with John (Avila) and Steve (Bartek).
Well, it used to be just Steve and I, and then John more recently. We pretty much had our system down. When the rhythm tracks are being played, we’ll do guitar, bass, drums, keyboards usually live, and I’ll sing a work vocal, and I’ll usually just do the rhythm tracks until the rhythm players are happy; until John, Johnny (“Vatos” Hernandez), Carl (Graves) and Steve, feel that it has the right feel for them. They are the ones most attuned to the feel of the rhythm section. So I wait for them to go, “Yeah, this is the one, this is the one.” If I hear something that really bothers me, I’ll say so. But, more often than not, I like to step back at that point in the production process.

I brought the tune in, I’ve laid it out as carefully as I can, we’ve rehearsed it, now I just let them lock together. I’ll make comments to the bass player or the drummer about a certain section that I think is too busy, or a certain kind of drum fill with John. Usually, I try to get them to simplify it. Most of my input at that stage would be just saying, “play less, play less,” because John and John both have a tendency to overplay because they’re both great jammers. I think that’s so with most musicians who come from a background of jamming and who play jazz at any point in their career. And my input is always, “less, less, less, less, simplify your drum fill,” or sometimes I’ll say, “ok, now just for experiment John, all your drum fills, no toms, take your toms away, you’re going to play them all on your snare.” “Oh no, no I can’t do it.” “Yeah, yeah, just try it,” just to try and force him to really think simple on his fills and on the bass, occasionally, the same thing, just this section sounding to busy.

Very often I’ll say nothing. Then if I say anything, it’s usually something along those lines. Then once the rhythm track is completed, and with a scratch vocal, usually Steve will be next on the guitars. That’s where I’ll sit with him and I’ll listen and comment and then I’ll help choose sections pending his approval. Maybe he’ll lay down two solos and I’ll say, “I really like this section of this one and this section of this one,” or “Can you play it more this way, can you try this kind of line?” And that’s where I have my most involvement in the recording part of it. Then I’ll start singing and then John and Steve are totally in charge. They’re sitting there listening to the vocals and giving me input. I don’t even want to listen after I’m done singing. I don’t want to hear it and usually I try to limit myself to three passes at a vocal. The first one is just usually finding an attitude, warming up my voice. The second or third would be actually the stuff that we’d end up keeping. Then I’ll say, “Pick the stuff you like the best out of these two and make a single combined vocal and when you’re done let me listen. I don’t want to hear a note of it until then.”

Very often I can’t even hear objectively until the next day and then I’ll come in and listen and I’ll go, “I guess that’s ok, but you know I can’t live with this one line.” Then I’ll listen to the other tracks and see if there’s anything I like better, something that my voice is doing. And if there is, I’ll have them drop that in. Very often, depending on how it is, I’ll say, “Okay, now that you’ve got a combined vocal, I want to try one more pass and try to get the whole thing.” Sometimes I’ll beat the whole thing straight down because, now that I’ve established an attitude, I’ve got something that I feel I can try to top. I can hear what I liked or didn’t like about what I did. Sometimes not…sometimes the original stuff will have the best attitude no matter what I do after that.

The horns are usually the last thing put on. Although sometimes we’ll have them play along live while we’re doing other stuff with the rhythm track too.

JB: Do you write the horn lines or do they?
Well, Steve and I do it. I come up with certain lines early on, on the keyboards, like the melodies, the horn lines. Steve will do the actual horn arrangement. He is more or less in charge of the horns. He’ll conduct the entire horn section and I’ll just listen and make some comments. But when it comes to the horns, it’s them playing. Steve is basically in charge and I’ll just wander in and out, try to keep my ears fresh, then just make comments. “I don’t like the way this is sounding, this sounds too muddy,” or “the trumpet being up here is just jumping out too much.” And then we’ll try alternate lines. Or sometimes I’ll think of stuff as we’re recording, “Let’s try this little riff here.”

JB: Well, tell me about the films. When you’re seeing the film, what cues do you get from it about what kind of music it needs?
Well, the feel of the music for me comes from seeing the film. It’s all just an instinctive thing, and where it starts and stops is something that I talk over with the director as much as I can. I try to get as much non-musical, but visual and or emotional, input from the director as possible and find out what scenes he thinks need the most help. Because sometimes you’re just trying to find the right tone for the film and you want to get input from the director in terms of how the film…what these scenes, characters mean to him and then that will help translate into the musical feel, or it’s not feel actually, that’s rock and roll talk, rather a musical style and how intense we want to make it, how big we want the dynamics. These are things I’ll try to find out from the director. How far he wants to let me wander off my leash is what I determine very early on, whether I’ve got a lot of freedom and I can just wander like crazy, or whether he’s very concerned about how sometimes a part of the movie will play, and he’s got very definite ideas, he or she I should say, and whether I should be very attentive during this part of it, but maybe I can wander a little more in another part.

B: You’ve scored a variety of styles of film, so you’ve been able to explore a lot of different musical areas.
DE: Yeah, I’ve been pretty lucky in that sense, especially the last couple of years where I’ve worked more away from comedy and into fantasy, which is where I always wanted to be. I still like doing comedies, but fantasy and darker films lend themselves to more imaginative music than a straight-ahead comedy where you really just have to worry about staying out of the way. You just can’t get as imaginative and it can get you frustrated. So I’m lucky to be in a genre now where I can use my imagination.

JB: How was Dick Tracy for you?
I just finished it last night and it was really good, very difficult but very good. Warren Beatty is the kind of director who is very difficult to please, is very particular, has a very good ear, and there’s just no getting around it. You either hit it on the nail for him or you don’t, and I went through the whole process of starting out very enthusiastic, thinking I had it nailed, then reaching what seemed like horrible impasses and feeling like I couldn’t possibly find what I needed to give him what he wanted, and then finally coming around to it. It’s like the mystery solved. You find the clues and the clues lead to other clues. It’s like Sherlock Holmes, and all of a sudden I had it, I found it, and our last session last night worked just great because I knew I found what he was looking for, and his being very pleased makes me feel like I solved the mystery.

JB: You get the clues from feedback from him?
Yeah, I mean generally, most directors can usually tell you what they don’t like about something.

JB: Do they have the language to say why?
Nobody really has the language to tell you what they want. It’s all abstract, no matter how musically versed or unversed the director is, they still can’t. And, even if they start expressing themselves in detailed musical terminology, it still doesn’t mean anything, but still, it either is or it isn’t.

JB: So, the best shot they have is choosing you to do it because they have a feel for what you might come up with?
Right, exactly. And, sometimes in a difficult project like this, coming through the adversity of starting really high and encountering what seem to be impassable musical road blocks and then finally, in the 11th hour, breaking through them under pressure, could actually make it even a better experience than just easy sailing-type of projects. So now, in retrospect, I could say, “It was real tough, but very rewarding.”

JB: How do Steve and you work on the scores?
Well, he orchestrates. I write the stuff out as detailed as I can and depending on how detailed the piece is, depends on how detailed I’ll get. Then I’ll turn it over to him and he’ll orchestrate it and then it goes to the copyists. So it kind of becomes an assembly line.

JB: Do you conduct it?
No, I’ll never conduct. For two reasons: one is that I don’t think I would be a good conductor; and, the stuff I’m doing is difficult. And on these big difficult scores, I need a really, really good conductor. We need somebody there who can read every line of all the instruments simultaneously, instantly, which is a whole other skill, and to answer 120 questions which happen every time the orchestra stops, instantaneously, pass on information to them instantaneously, and who can go on and off clicks, and to the clock. Shirley Walker has been conducting for us and she’s just wonderful. I mean last night she had these really difficult pieces, which originally I started writing for a click and then I realized it was just not going to work. The piece had to breathe. We’re talking big, old-style romantic composition, but yet they had to be caught…all the moments right exactly at the certain points, and so it was really going back to Newman-style conducting on the clock with streamers. And she did just such an amazing, wonderful, skillful job with it. I never could have done it.

I also like watching the screen. I don’t want to watch the music. I’m not concerned with what’s on the music at that point. I’m more concerned with the screen and so my eyes have to be glued to the screen. And I want the director sitting right next to me and I want to be looking at his expression, so I don’t think I’ll ever be a conductor. I bet Steve will someday. He certainly has the talent for it. At the moment, our goal is to have a really versatile, really even-tempered and very experienced conductor.

JB: So you get together with her earlier and go over all this stuff?
She’ll look at all the charts before she gets there and usually at a certain point, if its a big score, she’ll start doing some of the orchestrations as well…because Steve starts getting swamped. It’s always the same thing, the first couple of weeks everything’s fine, everything’s fine. Then we get into the last two weeks of a score and I’m throwing stuff too fast and Steve starts getting frazzled and then he’ll start working without sleep and I’ll say, “Steve, you’ve got to give some of these pieces up….”

JB: Cause there’s a point of diminishing returns?
Exactly. So Shirley will end up, on all the scores we’ve done, doing anywhere between minimum five or ten percent and maybe up to 20-to-25 percent of the orchestrations.

JB: That sounds like a good team.
Yeah, we do work well. And, Bob Badami the music editor, Big Bad Bob, we really do function as a team. Bob, Steve and I have been together since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, so the three of us have been a team from way back, all the way back to the beginning. Shirley has been since Scrooged, with us for the last two years, but I would say at this point, she’s no less a part of our team because the conducting and then pressure valve for Steve…has become very invaluable for us.

JB: Do you ever get a little depressed after a project is over?
Well, I used to more, but now that I have no time between projects, I have no time to dwell on the post-project depression which, you know on especially big projects, can happen. That happened after Batman. I took a little time off, but I went into Nightbreed, then into Dick Tracy. Now, I’m on Darkman, which I do in and around touring, then on to Edward Scissors Hands, so I don’t have a lot of time to dwell on anything.

JB: So you don’t have the luxury of depression?
Yeah, precisely.

JB: How do you keep your energy level?
I don’t.

JB: Don’t you wear out?
Whatever, I don’t really think about it. I do what I have to do. In the middle of the tour I’ll be going, “Oh yeah, gee, I wish I would have exercised for the last six months, but I forgot. Whoooops! Next year.” And it’s just like that.

I’ll have to get in shape while I’m out on the road because I sure don’t get in shape doing film scores, hunched over a piano 12 hours a day.

JB: You seem like you’re going all the time. How do you relax, or do you?
No, not this year, maybe next year.

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