Overcoming Stage Fright, Danny Elfman Brings Nightmare to the Bowl

Danny ElfmanEXPAND
Danny Elfman
Photo by Jimmy Lenner Jr.

Twenty years after retiring from Oingo Boingo, and two years after finally returning to live performing, Danny Elfman is coming to the Hollywood Bowl stage, performing the role of Jack Skellington from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. The first show, appropriately held on Halloween night, sold out in hours. An additional show has been added for Nov. 1, for which tickets are still available.

Joining Elfman onstage will be a cast of singers and special guest artists, accompanied by conductor John Mauceri and a full orchestra and choir. Tim Burton’s film will play in the background. Elfman, a well-known film composer and longtime Burton collaborator, wrote the score for Nightmare and sang Jack’s lines in the film.

For fans of the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, which later became Oingo Boingo, it's been a long wait to see Elfman return to the stage — not least for Elfman himself, who, despite long battling stage fright, still missed the thrill of performing live.

“I loved the pure energy of it onstage,” Elfman recalls. “I’ll always miss the really early shows of Oingo Boingo, which were my favorites, at the Whisky A Go Go and the Roxy, because that was pure sweat. I loved that. That was the thing that hooked me, was these little clubs. And being drenched. I remember playing at the Whisky and I would make this gesture with my hand in the air and I could watch four streams of sweat fly off of my fingertips.”

Boingo finished its run with an infamous sold-out farewell show at the now-defunct Universal Amphitheatre in 1995. The Hollywood Bowl will be home to the largest welcoming committee yet to greet Elfman's return to the stage — a twisted mix of playful goths, old-school Boingo fans, Nightmare fanatics and film-score admirers.

Elfman sat down with L.A. Weekly to discuss the Nightmare shows and what led him back to performing live.

I don’t know if you remember, but I interviewed you in 2001. It was for Savage magazine and was on your tattoos, travels and toy collections.
Oh, wow! Cool! I do remember!

So this is a great reunion.
Reunion! Oh, don’t say that word! [Laughs]

You know we are going to get around to that!
Last year I panicked when I heard the tickets sold so fast. I didn’t want to go into the Bowl with this show. I thought [the venue] was way too big. So what happened was we did the [new] Nightmare show in August in Tokyo for the first time ever. So, having done it, I said, “You know, Halloween is coming up, find a place.” When they said the Bowl I said, no way, that will only sell a quarter of a house. So they finally talked me into it.

I think it sold out in a few hours, right?
I immediately thought it was a glitch with the computer system. Or I thought, well, people must think it’s a Boingo reunion or something. I didn’t believe it.

If your fans were to give you any gift from anywhere in the world to get you back onstage for an Oingo Boingo reunion night in L.A., would there be anything?
It would take more than a prayer. Ultimately, I wanted out of the band for about six years. Jack Skellington’s whole character and personality comes from that fact. I was writing his songs as Jack, as the King of Halloween Town wanting out at the very point I wanted out. But in the end, I sustained so much hearing damage for 18 years with Boingo that it made the decision for me. I virtually had no choice. I can’t even sit in a loud restaurant or bar anymore. The whole thing with the orchestra is it’s not loud. 

I was not designed for theater or a rock band. I think it’s just a wiring thing. The people who do it love it. They love being onstage and they love performing. I know this sounds weird, but I was always a hesitant performer. I was onstage with the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo. I was on stage for 23 years. And at no point in that time did I lose my stage anxiety or stage fright.

I can’t believe that you had stage fright!
I was never at ease at performing in front of people. So when people would ask me year after year for about 10 years if I missed it, I told them, “No, it feels great!” I loved not having to think about my voice, or having to get into training. All the anxiety I would feel working up to going out and doing shows. I don’t want to say that I didn’t have moments onstage that I really loved.

Just the feedback from the crowd…
Yes, that is wonderful.

So you must be looking forward to this upcoming show at the Hollywood Bowl?
Yes. The thing about this show is, it is not a reunion for me because I never sang Jack Skellington live. There never was a point that I did. All I’ve ever done was go into the studio and do a verse and a chorus, verse and a chorus. I didn’t even realize how hard they were to sing in their entirety until I started learning them for the Tim Burton show two years ago.

I was at the Nokia last year when you sang the Nightmare songs. Fans are definitely looking forward to this show!
I’m still enjoying it. The beauty is, I do a couple of shows, and then I am off for a couple months. So even though I’ve been doing the show for two years, I’ve only done 30 shows. If you are in a band, 30 shows are done in 35 nights. This is new and fun and I am enjoying it for the moment. I don’t know how much longer I will want to do it. But bringing Jack Skellington onto the stage and being in character when I am not being myself is really fun.

Will you be dressing up?
Well, I will definitely be wearing a nice suit. This is the only time you will ever see me in a tie.

How is it, performing after all these years?
When I first walked onto the stage for the show in London two years ago, oh my God, after an 18-year break. Already, that stage fright magnified 18 times.

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Before you went onstage, didn’t someone just say to you, “Fuck it”?
Helena Bonham Carter! Yeah. She told me that backstage before the show. I said, “Of course! The motto of my life.” Thumbs up with “fuck it.” What are they gonna do, kill me? Hate me? Most people hate me most of the time, so what! 

What is difficult about this show?
The thing that you don’t notice in an audience at a movie is that a big cue will play and then it will end. Generally there will be some dialogue. Then it will end. Now when you are doing it live, in sync to a movie, that doesn’t give you enough time to pull up the next cue of music and open a page. In Nightmare, almost every cue leads right into another. It’s something that the audience won’t notice, but for the conductor and the musicians, it is really difficult. There are only a couple breaks in the whole score.

If you had the power to create your perfect Halloween party that you could have anywhere in the world, and you could have anyone you want to play or perform at it, what would that party look like?
Let’s just say it is in Los Angeles. Wow. If I could have any music I wanted, I would find the Balkan gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks. They played at my 50th birthday party when they were on tour. Then I would bring out a bad-ass Bhangra Indian band. And then I would close the set as the evening got really late and mellowed out and everyone was danced and sweated out from the Bhangra, I would bring out Radiohead. I’d say, “OK guys, take it home.” And that would close out the evening. 

If you could go back in time and hang out with any musicians, who would they be?
I would kill to spend an hour with Duke Ellington. To have drinks with Cab Calloway. To sit down and have a drink of whatever he drinks with Igor Stravinsky. These are things I would definitely die for. I wish I could sit down still with Elliott Smith. I did have the luck [of] meeting him, but he has passed on. Hanging out with John Coltrane … you know, you get me going and this is going to be a long list!

What’s really sad is that another person I always wanted to meet was Mark Linkous. He was in a band called Sparklehorse that I really liked. He actually did a tribute song from the Nightmare Before Christmas movie on one of their albums. They brought another artist in. I was really trying to meet him. I was so flattered, but I never got to speak with him, and then he died. Oh man, missed opportunity. Yet to just be able to have dinner with Duke Ellington, that would be it for me.

I remember talking to you before about how you are self-taught. How did you teach yourself about music?
I taught myself to write music transcribing Duke Ellington. It’s the first time I tried to break down a bit of music and get it onto paper. And Ellington arranged it. So I owe so much to Ellington and Stravinsky. You know, for turning my head around completely.

How did you develop your singing voice?
Probably listening to Cab Calloway. I used to sing his songs, so it goes back to that. Those were the first songs I sang.

Who would you say were the major influences in the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, then Oingo Boingo? Any punk?
I didn’t listen to any punk in the '70s. I lived in 1938 in my mind. In the '70s I didn’t listen to any contemporary music. I mean, 1933 Harlem. That’s where my brain lived.

I turned on the radio one day and I heard The Specials.  I was like, “Wow! What is this?” Then I found Madness. And it brought me right back to these bands I used to listen to when I spent a year when I was 18 in West Africa. I heard a lot of music that they called highlife, which was similar in its configuration to ska bands and same as Oingo Boingo. Not a coincidence that my band was modeled right after that ensemble. There was also a band called The Selecter and perhaps the band XTC.

When I heard ska, it was like high-charged highlife. It immediately appealed to me. That same year I heard that music, I said, that’s it. I want to start a ska band. So the origins of Oingo Boingo were just that. It was just wanting to be in a ska band out of the blue.

Are you working on anything else now that will be released in the next year or so?
I have a really fun film that’s coming out called Goosebumps. Right now I am also involved in various degrees with the David O. Russell film called Joy. I am eyeballing a little film that I won’t mention because I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it. My next score, which I am about to start, is called Alice Through the Looking Glass, and that’s a big one. And then I have a huge challenge immediately following that of a violin concerto, which will premiere next summer in Prague. So, once again, there will be no going to concerts [laughs], or going out to the movies or anything else at night.

Is there anything left on your bucket list?
Yes, I have a huge bucket list! Creations that I need to create. I can’t possibly live long enough to get to half of it. But I still intend on leaving a little work behind me. And I need to get some of them done. Like this concerto coming up, and I have no fucking idea where to start. Whether I succeed or fail, whether I will create a total unplayable nightmare, I gotta keep doing this stuff. I have a great hunger for getting musical works out there, outside of film as well. So I am looking at other commissions right now and it is very exciting to me.

The Hollywood Bowl Nightmare Before Christmas show starts at 8 p.m. on Halloween night and at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 1. Tickets (for Nov. 1 only) and more info.


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