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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

"When we started out, the intention was just to have fun and rankle people, throw some little jabs and barbs out at things that annoy me. It's kind of become more a therapy for me over the years. A lot of the stuff is just letting off steam about something, and keeps me from becoming a serial killer."

During the 1992 political campaigns, Elfman felt sufficiently disgusted by what struck him as hypocrisy in the "family values" rhetoric of Dan Quayle and the religious right to pen a diatribe in reaction.

This new song, "Insanity," represented as interesting a stylistic break from Boingo's standard M.O. as "Dead Man's Party" had earlier, and he took it to longtime lead guitarist Steve Bartek for a reaction.

Bartek encouraged Elfman to write more along those lines, and soon he'd come up with more tunes that, like "Insanity," went on for six or seven minutes or more, eschewing the standard pop song limitations.

In the studio, things got even more expansive, as Elfman threw out most of what he'd come in with and started working on songs with the reconstituted band for the first time--instead of directing the players to replicate his demos.

The lyrics range from Elfman's most overtly political statement, "War Again," an angry response to Gulf War patriotism, to his most unusually personal song ever, the affecting "Can't See (Useless)."

"Half the songs on the album were improvised in the studio, which is a completely new thing for me and really fun," Elfman says. "I started to feel really excited for the first time since '80, when we first started out, and '85 or '86, when we did 'Dead Man's Party.'

"This album caught us in transition. It's almost like catching something at the point where you're shedding out of one skin and you don't know what the new skin looks like yet.

"So now it's like I've swung back to the other side, at least for this moment, in my enthusiasm. I'd rather be back in the studio--doing the next Boingo album--than on another big film score."

Boingo fans without a taste for orchestral music might feel jealous of the time Elfman devotes to the movies. But Bartek, who is also Elfman's orchestrator on the movie work, doubts the band would have lasted nearly as long as it has if the two of them hadn't ventured beyond pop into film music.

"Had Danny and I not been doing projects in between, I think the whole process would've been sped up a bit," says Bartek, surmising they would have burned out on Boingo without other outlets to retreat to. "The time in between has helped keep it going, actually, so each time we got together, it seems fresh. There's always been enthusiasm when we reconnoiter."

Time and maturity have pared Boingo down in several ways. Though the new album is the band's first to use strings, the old trademark horns make only a token appearance, and the coming tour will be Boingo's first without a brass section.

The name has been streamlined too: The group that started out as the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo is, with this album, just Boingo (though Elfman says it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to go by the band's de facto moniker, and anyone's welcome to continue using the discarded Oingo ).

"There was originally a desire to continually have the name shrink, so that by now it should be Ngo --or just O , O being the smallest molecular matter that cannot be halved."

Rock's critical community was never too kind to Boingo. But fan or not, you do have to credit Elfman with what would pass, by most criteria, for a certain level of inherent musical genius, especially considering that he never had an overwhelming interest in music or even played an instrument until he was out of high school. In 1972, he picked up the violin on a whim while traveling in Africa, and three months later was playing with an avant-garde musical theater troupe throughout France and Belgium.

Back in L.A., his theatrically inclined brother appointed him musical director of an absurdist American troupe, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. There, Elfman began to learn a host of other instruments, as well as how to render notations of, for example, Duke Ellington and Stephane Grappelli solos (a skill he had to relearn in a big way once he took on orchestral scoring).

Out of this finally Oingo Boingo emerged, an oversized, smart-alecky, insanely quick-tempoed group of guys who looked like nerds, Elfman says, to distance themselves as much as possible from the concurrent punk movement.

"I've never really identified with any segment of youth culture, particularly--not even when I was a kid," says Elfman, at 42 a grudging member of the Woodstock Generation. "I never felt any alliance toward anybody, unless my generation consisted of maybe four people."

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