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Back to Boingo : Danny Elfman may have exhausted himself composing movie scores and TV themes, but he's getting renewed pleasure from the oddball rock band he founded and twice thought he'd retired

May 15, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN | Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Danny Elfman's longtime home in Topanga Canyon is a veritable museum of small sculptures and objects he's collected from all over the world, a good portion of them exotic skulls and skeletons and assorted Day of the Dead art pieces.

And he's not feeling so alive himself right now. Picking Elfman out from his crowded house of death figures is almost like a live-action game of Where's Waldo?

"I'm used to being intensely overworked," explains the always-pale singer and composer between sips of tea laced with the no-lactose milk his doctors have put him on.

"But I've never felt as tired physically as I have this last month. It's convenient in a way, because you don't have to answer many questions: People say, 'Man, how are you feeling?' And I say, 'How do I look?' And they go, ' Oh , OK.' I've got the coffin maker calling every now and then about measurements, wanting to give me a proper fit. . . ."

It's not that Elfman is unduly morbid--though the kid who grew up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland and "worshiping that magazine and everything that it represented" certainly has demonstrated a taste for the macabre.

It's sheer exhaustion, thanks to the fact that he's one of the rare people allowed by the fates to live two lifetimes in one, concurrently.

In one incarnation he's the founder, singer and songwriter of Boingo (formerly Oingo Boingo), the big-band new-wave combo that rose to L.A. cult stardom in the early '80s. Though Elfman all but broke up the band on a couple of occasions, he now professes to be as excited as ever about rock 'n' roll. The act's first album in four years and most eclectic offering ever, "Boingo" (see review, Page 62), arrives in stores Tuesday, to be followed by a tour in June.

In another incarnation, he's one of the most well-known and sought-after orchestral composers in the film industry, with both "Batman" movies, "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands," the "Nightmare Before Christmas" song score and the "Simpsons" theme among the dozens of credits he's accrued since making his scoring debut with "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" nine years ago. He's on the verge of leaving for England to score the summer theatrical release "Black Beauty" and, he sighs, "the very last energy in my life force is going into finishing this big, lush, romantic score."

Most musically inclined aspirants would kill to have either one of his careers. But some left-brainers don't know when to quit. If rehearsing a rock band and writing an orchestral score weren't hyperactive schism enough, Elfman has lately been busily rewriting several original scripts with a bloodshot eye toward embarking on what would amount to a third distinct career, as a screenwriter and, he hopes, director.

The divorced father of two teen-age daughters, Elfman and his girlfriend of several years, Caroline Thompson--the "Scissorhands" screenwriter who's making her directing debut with "Black Beauty"--hope to start a small, independent film company that might focus on classy Gothic or horror films. He's written two live-action musicals that are in development and has yet a third screenplay, an old-fashioned ghost story, that he hopes to be directing this time next year.

Meanwhile, "Boingo" is only his group's second studio album since their most popular effort, "Dead Man's Party," came out in 1986. With four years transpiring between new releases of late, the cynic might wonder whether Elfman really has much of a taste left for rock 'n' roll. He's been defensive when accused of leaving pop music behind before, but now admits he went through periods where the tedium of continuing Oingo Boingo got to him.

"I reached a point in the '80s and the beginning of the '90s where I started drifting," he allows. "And I probably was more into film scoring than the band at that point. I think I kept the band together more for the sake of the band than for myself. I get bored really easily, and I don't always find what it is it takes to get un-bored. . . . I really retired the band twice already."

Elfman had decided to "let it go" a full 10 years ago, but after writing the song "Dead Man's Party" he felt that he had hit upon a new style worth pursuing, a shift from the original "energy and fun and aggression" to something a tad more toned-down and complex. The resulting album alienated some fans but was the first gold one (sales of 500,000) for Oingo Boingo, which had long been legitimately huge in Southern California but only moderately popular elsewhere.

But he was bored again after the follow-up album "Dark at the End of the Tunnel" was released in 1990. Thence came the 20-odd film scores, the screenwriting efforts, the yet-to-be produced musicals, all of which provided more than enough outlet for his purely aesthetic drives.

Fortunately for Boingo fans, Elfman was and is a first-class, A-level crank. And there's still no medium quite so conducive to crankiness as rock 'n' roll.

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