Conducted around the 1994 Boingo album, the following is an interview with Danny Elfman that has never before been published in its entirety. Boingo was not just the title of the album; Oingo Boingo had actually shortened their name to that. Musically, it was somewhat of a departure for them. The songs were longer and more complex, and some tracks utilized orchestral instrumentation. It proved to be their last studio album, as the group announced in 1995 that they were disbanding and embarking on a “Farewell” tour. But Boingo has really stood the test of time and is worth checking out for Oingo Boingo fans who may have missed it, or fans of Elfman’s film work.
Some of the material initially created for the album was scrapped after you returned to it. What was the album originally shaping up to be like, and how did it end up being different?
Danny Elfman: God, I don’t know. I couldn’t describe that if I wanted to. It started with one batch of songs, and some of them stayed. I started five more songs in the studio, which would be “Mary,” “Can’t See, ” “Hey!” “Pedestrian Wolves,” and I’m sure there was one other, but I can’t remember. Well, 13 Minutes of “Change.” Thirteen out of 16 were added; that was actually the most fun I had on the album.
Do you tend to play out as you’re writing for an album, to test out the material live?
Danny Elfman: Yeah, except for the stuff that came together after we went in the studio and started recording. We didn’t try those songs on stage to work things out, though I always prefer to. But it just so happened on this one that we got recording and all of a sudden, I started coming up with all this new stuff. We cut a number of tracks as demos just to see if we liked them. Most of those demos ended up on the album.
“Change” is a really interesting song. It doesn’t seem like it should work as a 16-minute song, but it does. Can you talk more about that?
Danny Elfman: Originally, it was under four minutes. I had to go fuck it up. I decided to turn it into an experiment in elasticity and see how far I could take this baseline in the middle and stretch it, stretch it, stretch it, and let it do anything it wanted to do. It was just really experimenting and having fun, and it was the last thing we did, so we ran out of time and money or it would’ve been 30 minutes long for sure. It’s something I’d never done. I had never really gotten into studio composing or studio manipulation, so it was something I wanted to do.
What was the reason for changing labels with this album?
Danny Elfman: Changing labels is always good. We didn’t feel like we were going anywhere at MCA, and Irving Azoff had been the head of MCA when we first signed. and he moved over to Giant. So, they just asked if I could join them, and I did.
Has it made a difference for the band? For example, are they doing a better job with promotion?
Danny Elfman: I don’t know. To be honest with you, I don’t really pay that much attention. I write stuff, I go in the studio and do it and then I try to stay as far away as I possibly can from the numbers, the stats and charts and everything else. I don’t ask. I tell people that work for me. I say, “Whatever is happening, I don’t really care. I don’t want to know.” That’s my basic attitude when it comes to that. That part of this business has little to no interest for me.
When the band first started, did you have any idea it would last this long?
Danny Elfman: No, I never expected to keep the band together more than one year at a time. We never set long-range plans, and I was always amazed each year that we were still together.
Does shortening the band’s name represent anything?
Danny Elfman: No, I may put it back on the next one.
Danny Elfman: It didn’t mean anything. We’ve been calling ourselves Boingo for about 10 years, and it didn’t have anything more to do than that, and that’s kind of what people have been calling us and we’ve been calling ourselves either Boingo or the Boingos. So, it was an arbitrary last-second decision.
Have you found anybody getting confused?
Danny Elfman: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really care. Maybe it’s better if they do. Who knows, that could work positively or negatively.
You’ve hinted that the band name could get even shorter.
Danny Elfman: Well, when we first started out, we talked about shortening the name with every album, if we stayed together. But we obviously just couldn’t do that. We were going to work it down to just “Go,” but it never happened.
Has your soundtrack work impacted your approach to the band?
Danny Elfman: No. Well, it’s had a negative impact. It’s the part that has kept me from recording and writing more for the band. I suppose you could say that it just kind of kept me busy on and off. I wouldn’t enjoy life if I was just a film composer or just with a band.
How did you initially get into film music? Was it something you’d been wanting to do?
Danny Elfman: It just happened; it was a fluke. I’ve been a big fan of film music, but until I got hired to do Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, which was kind of a real, odd, lucky break, I never really thought seriously about applying myself to it.
Have you been getting a lot more offers?
Danny Elfman: Yeah. I only do two films a year, but I usually look for stuff that will really interest me or maybe a style of music that I haven’t written before. I try not to keep repeating myself, so obviously, you haven’t seen my name in any action movies for a while.
Do you have anything coming up in the near future with film work?
Danny Elfman: I did Black Beauty earlier in the year, which came and went, unfortunately. And I’ll be doing a movie for Gus van Sant as soon as I get back from the tour, tentatively titled To Die For. I’m a big Gus van Sant fan, so it should be interesting.
Getting back to Boingo, how do you intend to work together within the band?
Danny Elfman: Well, usually, I just write songs and bring them in, and we rehearse them. Occasionally, like with the song “Pedestrian Wolves,” something will start out from just a jam, and then I will take a tape home of the jam and write lyrics a couple of days later and start piecing it together.
I usually tend to over-write. Some songs won’t make it on an album because of the length of the songs. On this album, we ended with enough for two albums. We didn’t really realize it until we stopped and started listening.
Since you’ve been around so long, is it a problem deciding what old material to perform at concerts?
Danny Elfman: Yeah, that’s always tricky because we’re always trying to present at least part of the set with older material. I like the bulk of the set to be newer stuff. For part of it, we’ll go back; we’ve recorded almost a hundred songs, so if we maybe have eight slots, that gets pretty tricky.
Are you able to change the set from night to night, in terms of which older songs you’ll perform?
Danny Elfman: We tend to have a group of older songs to play any night. We don’t go through the entire repertoire, because there are a lot of songs that I never want to play again. Sometimes, that changes. I’m doing a song that was from 1980 now on this tour that I wouldn’t play for five years leading up to this tour.
Which song was that?
Danny Elfman: “Only a Lad.” We kind of dropped that in the repertory, and now I’m enjoying it again. Sometimes you just get sick of a song, and I don’t want to play it so it drops for a while, and I wait to see if it’ll find its way back in.
You know there are other songs at the moment that we’re not playing, that I know will make some people really pissed off. But the problem is, when you have a big repertory, it’s like no matter what you don’t play, you’re going to piss somebody off, so it’s best not to worry about it.
Have you ever been surprised by what songs audiences want to hear?
Danny Elfman: Oh yeah. We’ll see people holding up banners in the audience with the name of the song on it, and I’ll know damn well that I’m not going to play that song. So, it’s kind of like, hey, sorry, but thems the breaks.
Have you ever considered doing something that would maybe combine the type of music you’re doing with Boingo and the film work?
Danny Elfman: Not really. Film music is music. Obviously, on this album, I allowed myself to bring a little bit of orchestra into the songs, but I tried to do it in a real simple way. I tried not to be showing off the orchestra on this album at all. I wanted it all to be subservient to the guitars, bass, drums. If I’m going to show off, I’ll show off my orchestral chops on a score.
On the material on this album that you wrote in the studio, were you thinking about how it would come across live?
Danny Elfman: We try to keep it as simple as possible. There’s a couple of songs where we’ll use sequenced percussion patterns for the fact that we can’t bring an extra six players out on the road. Five years ago, this set would have been half-driven by sequencers at least, maybe more, probably two-thirds. And the fun thing about touring the last three years is we’ve been weaning ourselves of all that, which is really a big fucking pain in the ass and made me like touring even less because you never know what’s going to happen. I don’t like depending on computers and machines, which often don’t do what they’re supposed to, and now on stage, we’re only actually using that accompaniment on two songs. It’s moved way, way to the background.
So, you were going for a more direct approach, avoiding too much technology?
Danny Elfman: Yeah, I just wanted to get away. It’s what made me sick of the 80s and why we didn’t record for a while. I kind of backed off a little bit from the band and got more into films. Between 1985 and 90, I just got really bored. Nothing really out there was exciting me. It was fun just for a little while flirting with dance music and dance speeds, but I got really bored with it, and it wasn’t fun music to play live on stage. Obviously, there was a desire for getting back into doing stuff that might be more enjoyable on stage. In a way, we’re doing older repertory right now, we’re going back further and mixing up the new stuff and really old stuff and almost leaving out bigger chunks of the middle. The direction I’m going right now was probably closer to where we started in 1979, 1980.
Do you always keep Boingo and your film work separate, or do you find yourself having them both going on simultaneously?
Danny Elfman: I try to keep them separate, but I don’t always have the opportunity because occasionally, like when in the middle of a film score, I’ve got to do like a week of touring and whatnot. Actually, at this moment, I’m theoretically already working on Gus van Sant’s score. Obviously, I’m on tour so they do cross, but it’s easier letting Boingo and a film project cross than having multiple film projects crossing, which happens to many composers. The scores crossover, and I know I would hate to have them two different groups of thematic orchestral material in my head at the same time. It’s a lot easier because the Boingo stuff is obviously rhythmic based and film stuff is going to be melodic based, and they don’t really kill each other. I try to keep them apart when I can, but I can’t always.
Oingo Boingo’s music was prominently used in Weird Science and Back to School. Do you see something like that happening again?
Danny Elfman: Oh God, I hope not. I personally hate that stuff. I did that because I had to. If ever I see Back to School on television, I cringe a thousand times.
Really? Too often, a band appearing in a movie party scene is generic and boring, so I thought it was good to see Oingo Boingo there.
Danny Elfman: Seeing myself in the movie made me cringe, not even so much that the song was there. I’m sure we will have songs and movies as we go, but I don’t think there’d be anything specifically like Back to School or Weird Science.
In addition to composing for film, Danny Elfman currently performs with the Danny Elfman Piano Quartet and also participates in special live performances of his film music. For the latest info, visit dannyelfman.com.