Fans of today’s best horror and sci-fi know the name Bear McCreary; the composer has built up an enviable resume working on popular shows like The Walking Dead and Battlestar Galactica and recent films like The Cloverfield Paradox and Happy Death Day.
Although he rarely gives interviews, we were able to snag Bear for a sit-down when he heard our main topic of conversation would be his idol, Danny Elfman (who turns 65 later this month). What transpired was more than can be absorbed in a single read, so we’ll be bringing you our conversation with Bear in 2 parts.
Read about Bear’s connections to the post-farewell reincarnation of Oingo Boingo and the roots of his appreciation for the music of Danny Elfman below. Come back next week to hear him weigh in on The Walking Dead’s dwindling viewership.
Dread Central: Let’s talk about our mutual love for Danny Elfman since his birthday is coming up on May 29th.
Bear McCreary: Where do you want to start?
DC: Are you an Oingo Boingo fan?
BM: [Long pause] Yes. That’s the short answer.
DC: I read your blog post where you said at age 10, you were watching a movie and as soon as you heard the score, you immediately knew it was done by Danny Elfman even before his name came up in the credits.
BM: That was the first time my mom looked at me and thought, “Who is this kid?”
DC: Did you already know Danny Elfman from Oingo Boingo or was your first introduction to him through movies?
BM: I found out about Danny through films; when I was a kid all I listened to were film scores. From age 5 until about age 15, I didn’t listen to pop music—at all. It was only when I found out that my favorite film composer had a rock band that I thought I would check them out. For a lot of people, Danny Elfman is their gateway from popular music to film music. For me it was the other way around: Through Danny Elfman’s film music, I found out about popular music. Once I got into Oingo Boingo, I started listening to Pink Floyd and Guns n Roses and Rage Against the Machine and Queen. I was like, “Oh wow! Popular music has a lot of great stuff!”. It all started with my discovery of Oingo Boingo (who I adore) which came from my appreciation of Danny’s film music.
DC: That’s exactly right. I’m from Southern California and Oingo Boingo were local legends in the 1980s, and it was my love of Oingo Boingo that led to my love of Danny Elfman’s film music. Danny Elfman has such a unique sound, it wasn’t long before I could instantly identify his film music too. What’s your favorite Oingo Boingo album?
BM: Man, Josh! That’s a tough one!
DC: I know!
BM: I don’t know that I can pick. Let me give you a few: What I always appreciate about Danny and Oingo Boingo is the way they explore new frontiers and new sounds. So there’s a number of gear-shifts in their output where we go from one gear to another, and those tend to be the records I really like. First of all, you have to start with Only a Lad which is where they’re transitioning from The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo and The Forbidden Zone, from being a weird performance art troupe in Venice Beach to being an actual rock band. There’s a lot in that record that’s pulled over from that more theatrical era but being shoved into this New Wave mentality.
I love Nothing to Fear, I love Good for Your Soul. Dead Man’s Party is another gear-shift for the band where they’re starting to explore some new sounds. For me, if I had to pick a favorite, I really might go with Dark at the End of the Tunnel or their final album, Boingo. This is probably because I got my first introduction to Danny Elfman through his film music, and those last two records, you could tell his film music was really influencing Oingo Boingo and not the other way around. I think there’s a maturity and sophistication and a narrative musicality in those two records that, for me, is super appealing.
It almost feels sacrilegious to say Dark at the End of the Tunnel is a better record than Good for Your Soul—I’m not saying that. I’m saying that for me personally, those last two Oingo Boingo records mean the most to me.
DC: I love your reverence for the band. I had no idea you were a true Oingo Boingo expert.
BM: Do you want me to blow your mind?
DC: Um—of course!
BM: Here’s something you don’t know about me: In 2005, Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez put the vast majority of Oingo Boingo together to do a concert. It was John Avila, Steve Bartek, Sluggo [Sam Phipps], Doug Lacy, and I was the MD; I did all the arrangements, I played keys. My brother [Brendan] sang lead vocals and so we reunited Oingo Boingo under the Johnny Vatos banner, and we did shows for 3 or 4 years in that configuration. We had strings and backing vocalists; my wife Raya [Yarbrough] was in there. And that ensemble is continuing today as The Johnny Vatos Oingo Boingo Dance Party. My brother is still the lead singer and they’re still playing a lot of my arrangements. And I worked with the Oingo Boingo guys when they played in Battlestar Galactica. They play on a lot of my film scores. Steve Bartek was a groomsman at my wedding. I’ve known these guys since I moved to LA; they’re my family.
DC: Mind. Fucking. Blown. I was excited to interview you from the get-go, but I had no idea I’d be talking to a bona fide member of Oingo Boingo! This stuff isn’t on your Wikipedia page, man!
BM: Not only were Oingo Boingo a huge part of my life growing up, they are my family. I don’t know Danny that well, but Steve and Johnny and John and Sam and Doug: These are some of the closest people in my life and I talk to them all the time.
BM: I’m a fan for sure, and all those guys influenced me immensely. In this post-1995 era, the band and associated musicians have all gone on to do their own things, but my brother and my wife and I have been able to be part of that post-farewell afterlife of Oingo Boingo. Steve Bartek told me that the first time he and Vatos and Avila played together since the last Oingo Boingo concert was when I reunited them to score a short film. I had met them all and was like, [nervous voice] “Will you play on my student film score?” They said “Sure” and from there, they did a few more scores on student films. So when Battlestar Galactica came up, it was my first job and I needed a guitar player. So I brought in Steve and brought in John and Johnny. And when I played the music of Battlestar Galactic in concert, Bartek, Vatos, and Avila all played on stage with me. So I’ve been on stage with these guys doing Oingo Boingo music and my own music.
DC: You said you were going to blow my mind and you did. Thank you!
BM: You’re welcome. That’s why when you asked, “Are you a fan of Oingo Boingo?” I had a feeling this would go well; I was like, “Where do I begin?”
DC: With Danny Elfman’s birthday coming up, I think this discussion about Oingo Boingo and the band’s legacy will be really interesting for our readers.
BM: It’s interesting though because, despite the fact that I know the rest of the band very well, I don’t know Danny that well. I’ve met him a couple of times and he’s a sweet guy. But to me, Danny Elfman is probably a lot like what he is to you. He’s this mythic figure; he is the person who created all this music that I adore. And, I think for the purpose of honoring him, as opposed to talking about all this shit I’ve done with his friends, it’s important to know that Danny inspires me. Even to this day, when I’m writing music and I’m thinking about the music I loved.
Like, when I was doing The Cloverfield Paradox, I thought, “What kind of music would I have wanted to hear at age 15? What would have made me go, ‘Oh my God, that was amazing!’” And that’s what I want to write. And I think about Danny at these time, what he meant to me and still means to me and his inventiveness. I don’t think it can be overstated what a profound creative impact he’s had on me. I’d like to think I’m taking that energy and paying it forward.
DC: Hopefully he’ll read this and appreciate your appreciation.
BM: That would be nice, but at the same time, he’s inspired millions of people. I don’t think there’s anything special about me in that regard. He’s created such an incredible body of work spanning all these genres; and it’s like you said, you always recognize his sound. To me, that’s the ultimate sign of musical genius. Maybe more than just genius; it really gets into craftsmanship. This is a guy who’s worked really hard. And that makes me admire him more. There are lots of people in life who are really talented and can get by on talent alone, but Danny Elfman is talented and he works his ass off. Every few years he’s reinventing himself and trying something new. He strikes me as the kind person who isn’t satisfied doing things he’s already wildly successful at because he wants to do something challenging, you know what I mean?
I admire that. In many ways, I’ve modeled my career in that way. When I really established myself in television, especially science fiction television, that became a world that was available to me. And I think, taking a cue from Danny Elfman, I thought, “Okay, what else is there for me out there?” Because I want to challenge myself. I want to do something I’m not known for; I want to do something that people don’t associate with my name. Like when Good Will Hunting came out, that came out of nowhere; and in hindsight, the same can be said about the first Mission Impossible movie. These were scores that you would not think, at that time, would be something Danny Elfman would be doing. And he did. He redefined himself. And that’s the artist I want to be. I’d also throw in Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein as examples of musicians who would constantly strive to do new things.
Check back next week for the conclusion of our interview with Bear McCreary.
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