Danny Elfman insists that “people only know him as the guy who wrote the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack” — or, at least that’s what he says during a recent video call with Consequence from London, where he’s about to watch the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain perform his concert piece Wunderkammer.
Never mind the fact that the program also includes pieces by George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel, squaring him up with some of the most prominent composers of the 20th century. Or the fact that he became a new wave figurehead in the ’80s with his band Oingo Boingo. Or the fact that he literally wrote The Simpsons theme song.
Elfman has spent over half his life now focusing on classical music, whether it be his orchestral works, his soundtracks to all your favorite Tim Burton films, or the score to this year’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It took a whole pandemic for Elfman to finally put together last year’s Big Mess, his first solo studio album in 37 years. “As soon as I opened that Pandora’s box, I couldn’t close it,” he says. “I had so much venom in me about life and culture in America in 2020, and my frustration with seeing it all turn into this dystopian nightmare, that I couldn’t stop writing.”
Fast-forward to 2022: Cue Bigger. Messier., a new album comprised of 23 remixes of Big Mess tracks by artists like Iggy Pop, Trent Reznor, and Death Grips drummer Zach Hill. It wasn’t Elfman’s idea — his only collaboration in the past 40-something years was “Face to Face” with Siouxsie and the Banshees for the soundtrack to 1992’s Batman Returns. “It’s not that I don’t want to collaborate,” he clarifies. “I’ve just always felt that I’m in my own bubble.”
Elfman’s bassist Stu Brooks and creative director Berit Gwendolyn Gilma brought up of doing a remix album, but the composer was skeptical. “My attitude with everything is: ‘Of course!'” he says. “I loved the idea of it, but I thought no one would want to work with me. No one knows who the fuck I am.” Brooks knew what we all know: You’d be a moron to pass up an opportunity to work with Danny Elfman. “The next thing I know, I’m on the phone with Squarepusher, and I’m on the phone with Zach Hill from Death Grips. And then, suddenly, it’s Trent Reznor and Iggy Pop! Like, what the fuck?”
Though much of Bigger. Messier., out Friday (August 12th), is shocking, Iggy Pop has one of the more surprising contributions, taking Elfman’s masochistic metal ripper “Kick Me” and turning it into an avant-garde rollercoaster complete with a horn section and Iggy’s gallant vocals. Hill also puts his own entirely different spin on the track, with the result sounding a bit like if you layered five different beats from The Money Store on top of each other. (On a similar note: Elfman says he often goes 10 years without ever listening to new music, and then he’ll binge a laundry list of recommendations in a short period of time. Death Grips are a recent favorite.)
Elfman was especially flattered to have snagged Reznor’s participation, which almost feels like predestination, as the Nine Inch Nails singer has similarly bridged the gap between recording popular music with a band and writing often drastically different film scores. Elfman gave the featured artists on Bigger. Messier. absolutely no input — an exercise in surrenderance for the self-described control freak — and Reznor exceeded all expectations.
Reznor appears not once, but thrice on Bigger. Messier. Arguably his most notable contribution is his reinvention of “True,” on which his vocals and amped-up instrumentation give the industrial tune a cinematic quality. “What an amazing, generous guy,” Elfman gushes. “It was so weird that I had just recorded ‘True’ months earlier. And then here I am, re-recording my voice around Trent’s so that it would work better with his approach. Now, I’m at the point where if I hear the song in my head — which I’d only just written the year before — I don’t hear my own voice singing it. I hear Trent’s. What a cool mindfuck.”
At the time of our conversation, we’re just shy of four months out from Elfman’s legendary Coachella performance, with a career-spanning setlist consisting of his best-known compositions, some Oingo Boingo hits, some Big Mess tracks, and more. It’s worth noting he also nabbed Billie Eilish to play Sally in a Nightmare Before Christmas performance last year; with all that considered, it’s especially strange to hear Elfman rib himself over the improbable circumstance that people don’t know who he is.
“I’m constantly surprised that anybody is ever into anything I do,” he says. “I just consider myself lucky, because I’m not happy doing one [type of music]. I constantly feel like I have to push myself out of my comfort zone, but I definitely had a big stretch of time where I was just a film composer. I was starting to get too comfortable. That’s when I started doing concert music, because it was scary as shit, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was trying to break into a field that didn’t want me. I’m always happiest trying to break into a party that I’m not invited to.”
Now that, in his own word’s, Elfman has opened the Pandora’s box, he’s already plotting what he’ll come up with next. “I’ve gotta deal with this all the time,” he says, motioning around his head. “But I already have one piece. It’s got really fucked up, weird guitars, and an orchestra. There’s no singing. But having said that I want to do some fucked up music, I’ll also do the opposite, which means I’ll also come up with the prettiest thing I’ve ever done. Whatever I do, I have to also do the opposite, because I’ve got this internal competition.” (Before you Google it: Yes, he’s a Gemini.)
But no matter which of his personalities prevails, it looks like a hypothetical Big Mess 2 could arrive sooner than we think. “I’m doing stuff that feels good getting out of my system,” he says. “I feel like I’m working in areas that weren’t in my comfort zone. That, to me, is the most satisfying part.”