Danny Elfman Details ‘Intense and Insane’ Coachella Performance and Shirtless Jam Session

The Oscar-nominated composer played "The Simpsons" title song, the "Batman" theme, and more — all while braving a sandstorm.
Musician Danny Elfman poses in his studio on May 26, 2021, in Los Angeles to promote his 18-track double album "Big Mess." (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman might be known for composing catchy film and TV scores, but the musician is a rocker at heart. Case in point: His 2022 Coachella set featured a 50-piece string section and a shirtless jam sesh.

“I wasn’t expecting to get such a reaction, and some of the crazy headlines — like, Yahoo said, ’68-year-old Elfman and 20-year-old Eilish make festival history,'” Elfman told Variety, reflecting on his festival performance. “And I just thought that was hilarious, Billie and I being the wunderkind and the elder statesman of Coachella. Stuff like that was priceless in its weird way.”

The Oscar-nominated composer scored hit films like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Men in Black,” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The longtime Tim Burton collaborator is also currently working on Netflix’s “Wednesday” series.

“You know, after all this, I’m not sorry at all about the crazy idea that I called Paul Tollette [president/CEO of Goldenvoice] with in 2019. I’m not sorry,” Elfman continued. “At that point it was just a nutty idea, and Saturday night it was a reality — and I’m glad that we did it, that I stuck with it. It was intense and very interesting and cool. And it was a strange kind of a lifetime of experience all in one hour.”

Elfman, who performed “The Simpsons” title theme song and the “Batman” theme as well as “This Is Halloween” from “Nightmare Before Christmas,” joked that he was “just relieved to have made it through in one piece.”

“I was joking to a friend before the show, ‘Look, we have 30 minutes to set up a show that’s never been performed before with 50 musicians on stage. What can possibly go wrong?'” Elfman said. “And then I’m sitting there before we went on, thinking, ‘Fuck, man. That was a joke, but it’s no joke.’ There were a hundred things to go wrong. But in the end, the one thing that I really wasn’t planning on was a dust storm, an actual sandstorm, in my face. Everything else came together really well.”

Elfman gushed that Coachella was an “amazing and intense and insane feeling” on stage.

“Going into it, I knew it was going to be a really risky endeavor,” the “Milk” composer continued. “I don’t think anybody’s tried that before, mixing up these kinds of elements in this kind of insane musical mashup. When you’re trying a conceptual idea, you don’t know what’s going to happen. But in the end, not having a safety net is also extremely exhilarating.”

Prior to his set, Elfman admitted that he had a “lot of mental hesitation and anxiety” over the performance.

“It was more like: ‘Can they hang me for this?'” Elfman quipped. ” ‘Is it a felony, or is it just a musical misdemeanor, if it fails?'”

But Elfman changed his mindset to a true “fuck it” mentality: “I just wanted to come out exactly like if you saw me 30 or 40 years ago, and here I am now, and to not be embarrassed or ashamed by that,” Elfman added. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m an old man. Fuck it — here I am.'”

And that spontaneity led to a viral moment of Elfman taking his shirt off mid-set. “The sixth or seventh song, I just remember going, ‘The hell with it. I’m just going to take it right back to, if there’s somebody who saw me in 1990, this is what they would have seen,’ and just go for it,” he said. “It was just part of putting myself out there. That was the last layer, I guess, of protection, of armor, and I decided to give that up too. That was kind of a surrender of the last tiny bit of protection I had between me now and my past and what I am and what I was. And it was just not something I thought out in advance.”

Elfman’s setlist included original compositions and covers from his New Wave band, Oingo Boingo. And it’s safe to say Elfman was feeling the music fully while out in the Coachella Valley.

“I think really at the moment I threw my shirt off, that was the point where I just said, ‘Fuck it, I’m just having fun tonight. I don’t care, and I’m just going to enjoy this,'” Elfman added. “And so that was kind of a turning point in the performance for me. It was actually more than just a gesture. It was also tossing in the towel and going, ‘OK, here it is. I don’t care. I’m going to enjoy this crowd. I’m going to enjoy the music. I’m going to enjoy the band. Technical difficulties be damned.'”

See Elfman’s full tracklist below:

Sorry (from “Big Mess”)
Insects (Oingo Boingo song)
“Spider-Man” Main Title
Nothing to Fear (But Fear Itself) (Oingo Boingo)
Just Another Day (Oingo Boingo)
Jack’s Lament/This Is Halloween/What’s This? medley (from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”)
Breakfast Machine (from “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”)
Kick Me (“Big Mess”)
Insanity (Oingo Boingo)
The “Batman” Theme
True (“Big Mess”)
“The Simpsons” Main Title Theme
Only a Lad (Oingo Boingo)
Love in the Time of COVID (“Big Mess”)
Ice Dance / The Grand Finale (from “Edward Scissorhands”)
Dead Man’s Party (Oingo Boingo)
Alice’s Theme (from “Alice in Wonderland”)
Happy (“Big Mess”)
Who Do You Want to Be (Oingo Boingo)

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