Stu Brooks Makes a Big Mess With Danny Elfman

The bass and production extraordinaire discusses his work on Danny Elfman’s triumphant new album and remix companion, Big Mess

Stu Brooks Makes a Big Mess With Danny Elfman

The bass and production extraordinaire discusses his work on Danny Elfman’s triumphant new album and remix companion, Big Mess

Brooks in Elfman’s studio (photo by Melisa McGregor)

It wasn’t long after moving to Los Angeles in 2019 that Stu Brooks got the call that legendary film composer and ex-Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman wanted him to perform a career-spanning set at the 2020 Coachella Music Festival. The New York transplant had no shortage of work when he arrived on the west coast, but he was especially thrilled at the prospect of performing with the iconic figure who had singlehandedly created the soundscapes behind his favorite movies and shows that influenced him as a budding musician growing up in Canada. The epic Coachella performance also enlisted Brooks’ good friend, drummer Josh Freese [Sting, A Perfect Circle, Devo], Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck, guitarist Nili Brosh, a full orchestra, a 20-person choir, and a light and video show that would no doubt steal the spotlight of the entire festival weekend. With pre-production and early rehearsals going even better than expected, the whole camp was thrilled leading up to the big performance. That is, until Brooks and company got the call that the festival had been cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Photo by Alexander Bremis

Crushed and convinced that the opportunity had passed him by, Brooks did what everyone else did at the time and retreated to his home to wait out the pandemic. Luckily, it wasn’t long before Brooks got another call from Elfman. Instead of taking the let down as a loss, the 68-year-old composer found wild inspiration in it, along with the angst and uncertainty that the current climate was projecting on everyone. Elfman had already written a batch of new songs and wanted Brooks to safely (with COVID precautions) come over to his studio to begin tracking bass for a new album—his first non-scoring record since Oingo Boingo’s 1984 final release, So-Lo. Before long the two bonded and their musical connection resulted in the triumphant form of Big Mess. An emotional ride from start to finish, the 18-song effort switches from chaotic and frantic to rhapsodic and calming in extraordinary bipolar fashion. As Elfman elaborates, “I knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t be easy to label this album or put it in one category. It was meant to be a cacophony, because deep down it is what I am too. The big mess is me.”  

From the record’s opening riff of “Sorry” to the last notes on the closing “Insects,” Brooks’ bass plays a commanding role on Mess. The Dub Trio anchor matches every shade of Elfman’s oscillating emotions with brooding tones, intricate lines, and fast fingerwork when it’s called for. Using an array of basses and enough pedals to overflow multiple boards, Brooks exhibits his studio prowess and ability to conjure all the right sounds for even the grittiest moments. Once mastering was done, Stu and Danny headed back into the studio to hash out a remix version that found Brooks at the helm as both a producer and executive producer. Given the flexibility to rework the tracks with collaborators, he called upon Trent Reznor, Squarepusher, Zach Hill, Machine Girl, and others to help create two records of remixes that would be featured in a deluxe boxed set.

Coachell 2022 performance (photo by Petros Papahadjopoulos)

To bring things full circle, Brooks, Elfman, and company finally got their chance to perform at Coachella, albeit two years later than anticipated. Their two sets on Saturday, April 16th and 23rd drew the most the attention amid the star-studded lineup, and videos went viral of the band, orchestra, and choir performing songs from the album, classic Elfman tunes, and even themes from shows like The Simpsons. Ready to do it all again this weekend, Brooks took some time to reflect with us on the journey of this album and what it was like taking on Elfman’s Big Mess.

Photo by Alexander Bremis

How did you first link up with Danny?

The initial meeting came from a nice recommendation from my good friend, drummer Josh Freese, who was also joining the band. My bass pal Chris Chaney also recommended me for it. They had both done some film sessions with Danny in the past. That led to me getting the call.

Were you a fan of Oingo Boingo and Danny’s scoring work prior to meeting him?

Absolutely! I grew up watching films he scored, and as a child of the ’80s I loved Oingo Boingo. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was my first exposure to his work. I think I was about eight when that came out and I rewatched over and over. I loved Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and The Simpsons. When I saw Batman in the theater in 1989 I knew Danny Elfman as my favorite film composer; I was maybe 12 years old at the time.

You guys had some epic shows lined up including Coachella right as Covid hit, which were subsequently cancelled. How did that act as a catalyst for the album?

Yes, that’s true. The band was formed around the intended Coachella performances and was meant to be Danny’s return to the stage after a couple decades of dedicating his career to scoring. The Coachella 2020 show was billed as “From Boingo, Batman and Beyond…” and he had put together a band including Josh Freese [Sting, NIN], Robin Finck [NIN], Nili Brosh, and myself as the core rhythm section. There was a full orchestra, a 20-person choir, and some added percussionists. The set was going to include some of his film and TV score compositions, some Oingo Boingo hits, and two new songs, “Happy” and “Sorry,” which he had started writing specifically for the show. The instrumentation inspired the concept he dubbed “Chamber Punk.” We had started pre-production rehearsals and just as the band started to gel and sound really good, then the world came to a screeching stop.

When Coachella was cancelled, we were all heartbroken. Danny called to break the news that there were no known plans for the project. But as it turned out, he went “all in” and started writing and more and more songs. They came pouring out. He had discovered that the perfect storm of the country’s political division, creeping fascism, and the apocalyptic devastation and loss caused by the pandemic caused a lot of venom to come out. He told me that once he had 18 songs, he realized he needed to book time and get them recorded or else he would never stop writing!

Brooks tracking on Big Mess (photo by Melisa McGregor)

How did the recording sessions work during lockdown in Los Angeles?

It was definitely a very interesting way to make a record and was made even more unique because of the covid circumstances. For the basic tracking, we played along to Danny’s demos, including the midi strings and electronic drums. We had to stagger and rotate who played and who was quarantined. Josh started and tracked about half the songs over a weekend. Then I went in and tracked half the bass, while Josh quarantined for the week. Then he came back in and finished the other half while I quarantined. Robin started his quarantine while I finished up my songs and so on. Then Nili and Warren Fitzgerald [the Vandals] laid down their guitar parts. This took several weeks but it was the best way to do it safely.

Nili, Stu, Josh, and Warren (photo by Melisa McGregor)

Big Mess changes its mood and overall aesthetic halfway through the album. Did you find yourself approaching the songs differently for each of the two sections?

There’s a theme of duality throughout the record. Danny wrote a lot of the songs in contrasting pairs. I don’t think I approached anything differently by section. It felt pretty cohesive while recording it. In fact, I wasn’t fully conscious of the mood shift until later when Danny was working on the album’s sequence and the contrast was laid out in front of us. Sarah Sitkin, who did the album artwork, encapsulated Danny’s internal wrestling and his inner voices via imagery using 3D printed Elfman body parts, prosthetics, and masks.

How would you describe the role of your bass on the album?

Since Danny had written almost all the bass lines using MIDI and I wanted to stay true to the compositions, my role was to bring them to life. I had fun dialing in specific tones for each song using pedals and preamp combinations.

Tell us about your remix of the wild Oingo Boingo track “Insects” on Big Mess.

“Insects” is a tune Oingo Boingo originally released in 1982, on the album Nothing to Fear. Danny reworked it and we recorded it for Big Mess. I eagerly dug into those stems and quickly went into a direction inspired by the era from which the original came from. I re-recorded a lot of the instruments. I started with a Lynn drum and a Juno 1 and went from there. At the time, I was deeply digging into Einsturzende Neubauten’s and Ministry’s catalog, and I went into a more industrial, synth-driven territory. My friend Jason Lindner laid down some synth parts masterfully. Jason is a maniac. He hipped me to so much music over the years and has always been an inspiration to me—from his big band days to Now vs. Now as well as the stuff we did on Mark Guiliana’s album. You’ve got to check him out. He has a new project with Tim LeFebvre called Sedato, which is rad.

Brooks performing with Elfman (photo by David Zayas Jr.) 

The excitement from the record sparked a remix album, and your role in the project grew over the course of it. What was that process like?

The deluxe record that just came out is a four vinyl LP boxed set. Two vinyls of the original Big Mess album and two vinyls of alternate versions and remixes that I executive produced and produced. During the making of the record, I started to share music that inspires me with Danny, as well as stuff I’ve done in the past, especially music from Dub Trio. At some point I shared a playlist that I made with the boys from DT on Spotify called the “Fuck It List.” I think it’s public (LISTEN HERE). It’s about 140 songs that have inspired the band during the 20 years since the band’s inception in 2001. 

Big Mess boxed set

I think a lot of my musical taste resonated with Danny. Once the Big Mess record was mixed he asked me if I could reach out to some remixers I liked and see if there was interest. I started with Zach Hill [Death Grips], Squarepusher, and Machine Girl. They all responded enthusiastically, and I think everyone in Danny’s camp felt I nailed the creative direction. At that point they just said keep going and don’t stop! Danny then introduced me to his art and creative director, Berit Gilma. We worked well together and curated the two LPs. Andy Kaulkin from ANTI suggested that what I was doing was executive producing similarly to how the late, great Hal Wilner would. He had many projects where he curated artists like this, but a good example was his Night Music TV show back in the ’80s. He was known for his eclectic range of genres and unlikely collaborations, and I was flattered and inspired, being a huge fan of his. It gave me a nice vote of confidence to move forward. My wife Janice [Brooks] worked closely with Hal on Saturday Night Live in the mid-2010s so I was able to talk with him a few times before he passed. His loss was devastating for the show and the music community. I was very touched by Andy’s comment.

Photo by David Zayas Jr.

You were personally able to land Trent Reznor for two remix songs. What was it like working with him?

The rhythm section for Big Mess had a couple of NIN alumni, so it seemed like a natural fit. I conceptualized a couple of creative ideas and pitched them to Trent. To my delight, he responded requesting Pro Tools sessions for all of them. I guess I had written him at just the right time because he ended up returning vocals for two songs: “True” and “Native Intelligence.” I was floored. The effort he put into it was generous and a testament to his respect for Danny.

He did it all remotely and gave me a folder of different takes, which I then comped together. I also asked if he would contribute on the instrumental side. He sent an ARP 2600 improvised pass on “True” and about eight tracks of industrial drums that he created. He told me, “I went back to how I programmed beats for The Downward Spiral.” It was a four-bar loop, so I arranged the new drums, ARP, and vocals and brought it to Danny. At that point I joined Danny as producer and worked together with him to complete the two songs. I actually re-recorded bass for this version of “True.” We had so much fun producing these together. I recruited my wife, Janice Cruz Brooks, who is an accomplished vocal producer, to work on the vocals with me. Danny then re-recorded his vocals for these songs to compliment Trent’s vocals and to create more of a duet vibe, which felt very natural despite being remote. Janice helped out with production on all the vocal features and alternate versions for the box set.

Who else is featured on the boxed set?

We got remixes from Squarepusher, Zach Hill, Machine Girl, Xiu Xiu, Boris, 33EMYBW, Kid606, HEALTH, Rafiq Batia, Clipping., and more, including vocal versions from Trent Reznor, Blixa Bargeld [Einsturzende Neubauten], Fever 333, and Rebeka Del Rio.

What was it like producing those tracks?

It was all remote except the work that Danny and I did together and some vocal sessions on the alternate versions with vocal features. The remixers were spread across the world, so I would send them mixed stems to do what they wanted with. When it came to vocal features, some of them were in person and some not. We did some vocals at my studio (Jason Butler from Fever 333) and some at Danny’s. Overall, it was a great experience. It was amazing to reach out to so many different artists from around the world, with a very wide range of backgrounds, age groups, genres, and nationalities and find that they all have one thing in common: They all love Danny Elfman! I guess the only thing I could compare this experience to is when I was the musical director/curator for the 2019 Bonarroo Superjam. I ended up coordinating with 20-plus artists, and dealing with 20 different managers, agents, or publicists and then creatively collaborating with the artist. It was fascinating and super fun to receive the remixes as they came in. You truly have no idea what to expect when you have an artist interpret something that is so personal, especially for Danny.

Brooks and Elfman with Stu’s studio basses (photo by Melisa McGregor)

What is it like working with Danny in a creative sense?

Danny is a fascinating guy. He has built up a world of creativity and imagination that is so massive in its scope and breadth; it was a little intimidating at first. He is a musical force, but he’s also very humble and gracious, which immediately made me feel comfortable. He never takes anything too seriously and brings a spirit of fun and mischief to his work. I think it had been years since he had collaborated with a band, so you could sense his excitement and openness for input.

Did Danny have a lot of direction for you on the bass front, or did he leave it up to you for the most part?

He gave me the freedom to do what I do. I did my best to come in with some ideas to help bring Danny’s intention for the bass to fruition. That mostly had to do with instrument choice and sonic approach. Some of the songs were aggressive, distorted, and punk rock-sounding and others were a little more tubby, with aggressive low end. Some tracks had synth-inspired bass tones. Dealing with all these differing approaches is what I enjoy doing the most, so it came sort of naturally. It was a delight. I feel like we have common ground in our angst and aggression because the more aggressively I dug in, the more he seemed to light up.

Given his iconic work as a film scorer, did you find that he writes more cinematically than most?

Well, yes absolutely. A lot of the record incorporates orchestra or orchestral elements. I think melding that, industrial percussion, electronics, and punk-metal instrumentation with Danny’s compositions makes something totally unique and truly his sound, which is inherently cinematic anyway. He coined it “Chamber Punk.” 

Photo by Melisa McGregor

What are some things that you learned musically and on the production front from working closely with him?

One of the biggest things I’ve learned from watching him work is his incredible attention to detail and the patience it requires to get it just right. In my productions, so often I let things live as though it was just a snapshot in time and I’d say the imperfections were part of the character. He goes deeper to refine and go up and back, over and over again. He wants it exactly the way he envisions it, whether it be during tracking or mixing or even mastering. It’s evident to me that in order to go as far as Danny has, you need to push and push until it’s just right. Also, I admire his ability to communicate and convey ideas with respect and diplomacy, which allows his collaborators to shine in the way they do best and in ways they never thought they could.

Whats coming up next for you?

I’m currently working with Perry Farrell [Jane’s Addiction], as his bassist, and as a writing and production partner. I joined his band Perry Farrell and the Kind Heaven Orchestra, which is fronted by Perry and his wife, Etty Lau Farrell. We’ve done a few shows so far and recently my wife, Janice Cruz Brooks, joined the band. As Etty puts it, “It’s like a double date on stage.” Perry and Etty are amazing. They have the kindest hearts. He recently announced a new nightlife concert series, Heaven After Dark, which will be a monthly concert series of one-offs around the world. It focuses on iconic and emerging musicians, performance artists, and varietal acts to showcase alternative music and underground culture—all in one event. The first one was in February 2022 at The Belasco Theater in Los Angeles. It was a magical night!

Lately, I’ve been collaborating with Robert Fripp for a very special project TBA soon. And last but not least, I have my own album project in the works and I’ll be making announcements about that soon! I’ve just signed with Dine Alone Records out of Canada, who released the last Dub Trio album. I have quite a few songs done with features from some of my friends and artists I’ve always admired. Stay tuned for that. –BM 

 (photo by Petros Papahadjopoulos)

An Inside Look: “Love In the Time of Covid”

On Big Mess, Stu Brooks issues penetrating parts, drenched in an array of tones, and delivered with swagger. Given his transformative performances, we were curious as to how the original notation looked. Stu and Danny Elfman were happy to share Elfman’s Sibelius bass chart for “Love In the Time of Covid.” Offers Stu, “I played my Atelier Z 4-string with LaBella flatwounds, which produces a huge, tubby, synth-like tone. I also incorporated a little inspiration from my pal Tim Lefebvre, using his signature Octabvre, by 3LeafAudio. From there, I read Danny’s part, improvising a few subtle embellishments.”

Hear Him On: Danny Elfman, Big Mess [2021, Epitaph]

Big Mess Studio Gear:

Basses Olinto Signature P-Bass (‘60s inspired), AtelierZ 4-string, Alleva-Coppolo Signature 5-string, Alleva-Coppollo 4-string, 1978 Fender Precision with additional Jazz pickup

Rig Aguilar AG700, Universal Audio LA-610

Effects Darkglass Microtubes B7K Ultra V2, Darkglass Duality Fuzz, Recovery Effects Pearl Fuzz, DOD Meatbox Reissue, 3Leaf Audio Octabvre, Vulcan XL by 3LeafAudio, Moogerfooger MF-101 Low Pass Filter, Forbidden Zone (a modified OP amp Big Muff clone and the distortion circuit of an Expandora, with the “forbidden” setting in the middle which combines the two)

Strings La Bella RX-S4D Rx Stainless Roundwound Bass Guitar Strings .045-.105, La Bella 0760M Original 1954 Flat Wound Stainless Steel .052-.110

Follow Stu Brooks: Here

Jon D'Auria   By: Jon D'Auria

If you're enjoying this story, please support Bass Magazine by making a donation!
You won't find this content anywhere else, and we have so much more coming soon.
A donation will help us continue to bring the future of bass to you, our beloved readers. Thank you!