Oingo Boingo's leader, Danny Elfman, began cataloguing the various ways in which he has approached his favorite songwriting theme: death.
"Living with, dancing with, running from, toying with, tricking, etc.," he said during a recent phone interview, ticking off all the subheadings under capital 'D' in the Oingo Boingo songbook.
Elfman's fascination with the macabre goes back to his childhood, when he papered the walls of his bedroom with ghastly pictures culled from his favorite magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland.
"Every inch of wall space of my room was covered," Elfman said. "It drove my mother crazy."
Elfman's ability to give a zesty, highly danceable, frequently lighthearted musical spin to dark or ironic material makes Oingo Boingo eminently qualified for its cultural role in Orange County: every year, the Los Angeles rock band comes to Irvine Meadows to host one of Southern California's biggest Halloween parties. The eight-man band's concerts Friday, Saturday and Sunday night mark the fifth straight year of mass Oinging and Boinging at Halloween time in Irvine.
Oingo Boingo's ability to dance with death in a lively way ensures the party's popularity. But on the band's most recent album, "Dark at the End of the Tunnel," Elfman makes it clear that death can be serious stuff.
About two years ago, when he was writing songs for the album, Elfman received some letters from Oingo Boingo fans who were contemplating suicide.
"They were turning to me for help," he said. Elfman said he wrote back with words of encouragement. Then he addressed the problem of suicide by writing "Out of Control," a gentle, caressing song that is a sort of rock 'n' roll help line. With lyrics that alternately plead, cajole and challenge, Elfman makes the case against self-destruction, without ever minimizing the pain and difficulty that living presents.
"I don't really want to get into that, other than what I'm addressing in the song," Elfman said when asked about his correspondence with the suicidal fans. "Many people don't realize when they're in the depths of despair that other people have felt the same things. They feel isolated and alone."
Reacting to individual fans' needs is something Elfman says he no longer can do.
"It's very taxing; I don't answer personal mail anymore," he said. "I can't run a full-time psychiatric service, and if I did that on a regular basis, I'd wind up in a massive lawsuit" seeking damages for faulty advice.
Without departing from Oingo Boingo's lively dance pulse, "Dark at the End of the Tunnel" pretty much lives up to its name. "Long Breakdown," a song with a sort of epic, Western-tinged "Ghost Riders in the Sky" feel to it, is "the most depressing song I've ever written. It's about a spiral down to the bottom," Elfman said. The song ends with a vision of finding peace and serenity in some mystical underwater setting, but Elfman said that wasn't meant as a hopeful concluding upbeat: "Underwater, for me, is always a metaphor for death."
Oingo Boingo didn't set out to make a downcast album, Elfman said. But as the songs came together, "I was going, 'Jeez, this is kind of a dark album.' " That's when the band decided to end the record with "Try to Believe," a hopeful, gospel-influenced theme that Elfman had used in his score for the film "Midnight Run."
The idea, Elfman said, was "to add a little counterbalance."
In his burgeoning film music career, Elfman has spent a good deal of time underscoring spooky on-screen doings. His scoring credits include the horror-comedy "Beetlejuice" and the unremittingly brooding "Batman" and "Darkman."
He said his work on "Dick Tracy" "was a departure for me: very romantic, working in a very classical, Gershwinesque, 1930s style." More in keeping with the upbeat Boingo style is the jaunty theme he composed for Fox TV's "The Simpsons."
Between recording and performing with Oingo Boingo and churning out a large body of film music, Elfman has been an exceptionally busy musician over the past two years. He was on the go again last week, overseeing the mixing and mastering of his latest score, for "Edward Scissorhands," and fitting in an interview by talking over his car phone while he commuted to a Hollywood studio from his home in the Santa Monica Mountains.
With his "Scissorhands" work almost done, Elfman was looking forward to a few months' break that may allow him to start writing a new batch of songs for Oingo Boingo.
"As of this week, I'm an unemployed film composer, and quite happily so."
Elfman's work as a mainstream film composer began almost by accident in 1984 when he was asked to score "Pee Wee's Big Adventure." After composing music for some of the biggest Hollywood movies of the past few years, he now views film work as much more than an unusual sideline to a rock 'n' roll career.
"Nobody looks at a rock band as a lifelong career, except the Rolling Stones, maybe," Elfman said. "You know it's going to end. It's like being a boxer or a ballet dancer. (Film music) is a lifelong career. I've taken to it in a major way, and I really love doing it. It's very weird. I never could have imagined being a film composer--and then being considered a mainstream film composer. I still consider myself an underdog, but I guess I'm not."
Oingo Boingo has been going for 11 years now. "We decided way back that we'd stay together just as long as we enjoyed it, and not a minute later," Elfman said. "It may be three months or three more years" before the band's time is up.
Then what will its Southern California fans do for Halloween?
Oingo Boingo plays Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. at Irvine Meadows, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Tickets: $20.50, $22, $23.50. Information: (714) 855-8096.