"Get lost!" That's all Danny Elfman, Oingo Boingo's lead singer/songwriter, heard from major record labels in the early days. They didn't feel his group could really communicate to a teenage crowd. But the band hung in there--its MCA album Boi-ngo is a smash hit--doing it their way. "Teenagers discovered us and made us," says Elfman during a trip to New York to perform and talk about his band. Leaning back in an easy chair in a hotel room high above city traffic, with his pale-red hair and eyebrows to match, he seems an easygoing guy--but don't be deceived. In performance, Elfman's energy level is so high that he once dislocated his knee and had to push it back into its socket before he walked offstage!
"If you want to do something 'instant' in rock and roll, you have to present a very simple image," he says, "and we're not. We enjoy the fact that we're not doing traditional pop and rock. Our style combines very diverse influences--West African music, jazz, country." Elfman rarely listens to other groups. "I have a certain beat in my head all the time," he says. "When I listen to a rock song, it's like having two radio stations tuned in simultaneously!"
Oingo Boingo is based in Los Angeles, where Elfman grew up. By the time he reached sixteen in 1971, a senior at University high in West Los Angeles, Elfman was frustrated. He was turned off by what he perceived as the hypocracy and pretension of middle class kids. "We saw ourselves as radicals, but of course, our lifestyles did not reflect anything like it. I wanted to get as far away as I could." Finding himself with what he calls a "small fortune"--two thousand dollars (eight hundred from savings, the rest a settlement after a car accident) --he headed overseas.
After bumming around Europe with a friend, he looked up his older brother in France, who was playing the conga drum in an avant-garde theater group, the Grand Magic Circus. When its director heard self-taught Danny practicing his violin, he was hired on the spot. That was his first performing experience, working in what he describes as "a bizarre mishmash of theater, burlesque, music." After three months, he continued travelling solo until he got to Africa. "It was the opposite of everything I'd ever known," he says warmly, "and I loved it. I'd get around riding on the back of trucks--every big trip between towns had a little price, maybe the equivalent of a dollar twenty. To try to hitch a ride for free was thought of as very, very low." He turned up in such countries as Gnana, Nigeria, Senegal, Upper Volta, and Uganda. "I was in places where any reasonable person would have felt more fear than I felt," he says, "but people tended to be very honest. I feared more for my health. I didn't meet any travellers who'd been there more than six months and who didn't get malaria. Pills make it less severe, but it is AWFUL. You feel like you're going to die, but you don't."
Speaking English and pidgin French wherever he went, Elfman made contact with his violin. "Local people wouldn't have much to do with a traveller," he points out, "but by playing, I would find the musicians in each village or town, and they would play for me. We'd be fascinated by each other's instruments. I just soaked up as much as I could. At the time pop music in some of these countries was called High Life--a combination of reggae and salsa--played by a seven or eight- piece band and a horn section, very similar to what Oingo Boingo was to become."
Elfman's money lasted a year. "There's not much to spend it on," he says. A final bout of malaria and hepatitis sent him home to Los Angeles, where he was immediately drafted into a ragtag theater ensemble his brother had formed, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Elfman sang and played trombone, violin, and percussion. "There were twelve of us," he says. "Everybody did everything." The Mystic Knights evolved into a multimedia theatrical revue that featured lots of black humor. It lasted eight years, first playing the streets, then moving on to elaborate indoor performances. When the group played itself out, Elfman formed the band Oingo Boingo (the name, he says, means nothing) and his brother turned to independant moviemaking.
"Small clubs were in full bloom in Los Angeles in '79," Elfman recalls. "We were a pop band with a lot of punks in the audience because of the speed and energy of our music. Our songs were political and social, about avoiding being pushed into ways of thinking of organized groups."
From being a West Coast cult band, Oingo Boingo has gone national. In 1985 Elfman had his first Top 40 hit with the title song for the movie "Weird Science." After working on his brother's movie "Forbidden Zone," he was asked to write scores for "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," "Back to School," "Wisdom," and most recently "Summer School." "My goal with the band is to make you feel that you've taken a little musical journey--disturbing at some moments, hypnotizing at others--to stimulate mental or physical activity. All that matters to me is a commitment to my art--I love work--and balance--living without drugs or alcohol--with my family." (His wife is an ex-ballet dancer, and they have two little girls.)
"Just look out for Oingo Boingo this year," Elfman declares. "We're going to really break through some new barriers--although I'm not sure what they'll be!"