The cult auteur and master of the otherworld discusses creative freedom, musical inspiration and new album ‘The Big Dream’
“Encounters with those artists you truly admire are doomed to disappointment. After all, it’s all in the work – the worker himself is just an organic appendage” – Will Self on David Lynch.
Will Self’s quote loomed ominously over me as I prepared for this interview. What is there to extract from the mind of David Lynch that hasn’t already been refracted through the multiple prisms of his art? His reticence to discuss the meaning or fundamental essence to much of his work, combined with his astute creative intellectualism and consummate vision very much being on another planet to mine or anybody else’s, rendered a feeling of redundancy before I had even begun. But while Self proposed an inevitable, predestined failure, I soon came to realise that that failure can only really apply if one attempts to truly understand Lynch; to gain a sense of closure and finality by meeting the creator and placing your thoughts in his hands and asking him to fill in the gaps. Like so much of his work, the beauty of the interpretation is often in the ambiguity; the lucid, hypnagogic half-conscious dream in which reality, fantasy and nightmare are an indistinguishable mesh. Failure becomes less of an anxiety if it is approached with no expectations, which it soon transpired, somewhat ironically, is a fitting encapsulation for both Lynch’s work and for attempting to understand him.
When David Lynch announced his 2011 album, ‘Crazy Clown Time’, many treated it as a wild, off-road steer into another art form. A new, drastic, perhaps even detrimental move into the unknown, like the reversal of the preordained disaster route of pop star to actor. Music, however, has been as synonymous with David Lynch – both cinematically and singularly – as coffee, cigarettes, the colour red, transcendental meditation, cherry pie or Jack Nance. In fact, of all the evolutions and phantasmagorical shifts throughout Lynch’s cinematic career, his exploration in music has been one of the few consistencies in his artistic life; an anchored rock steadied under the thrashing sea that it his visionary transit.
Lynch’s ventures into sound and music are too great to count, but he has composed music for many of his own films and projects, has a longstanding musical partnership with Angelo Badalamenti, has written lyrics and produced albums for Julee Cruise and Chrysta Bell, been a member of rock band Bluebob, set up his own record label, featured on ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, the 2010 Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse album, created the exquisite and elegiac ‘Polish Night Music’ with Marek Zebrowski and he finally began singing in public via inclusions of some of his songs in 2006’s Inland Empire. A strain of surrealism still reins supreme and subversion characteristically takes place within these musical leanings. Lynch’s distorted, hidden vocals mirror the backward, mangled ones so prominent in his films and when taking on one of the most ubiquitous instruments in existence, he literally plays the guitar upside down and back-to-front. Lynch, in many senses, has a near forty-year career in music and sound experimentation behind him, but rarely is it ever fully explored or discussed.
‘The Big Dream’ is another collaboration with producer and arranger ‘Big’ Dean Hurley – an album less wild and fluctuating than its predecessor and more locked into a sonic coherence and tempo; one that on occasion (the stirring ‘Cold Wind Blowin’ and the Lykke Lee featuring ‘I’m Waiting Here’) drifts into moments of sublime beauty. The album, according to Lynch, is locked into the history and appeal of blues but with the self-coined tag ‘modern blues’. This is something Lynch has done throughout his cinematic career, making cultural reflections to historically ingrained foundations and then re-writing that history or cultural essence in hallucinatory often amorphous ways, creating a mutation that, while often unrecognisable in its finished Lynchian state, always has a shade of American history and culture permanently graded into it. In ‘The Big Dream’ Lynch has taken the primitive essence of one-instrument/one-voice music rooted in American socio-historic turmoil and allowed it to permeate in a new, askew lexicon.
As soon as David Lynch speaks his voice is instantly familiar. It coaxes in a strange but alluring tone, very precise and sharp, crisp and clean, like his tightly buttoned-up white shirt. He speaks fervently with vigour and warmth, a perhaps contrary image one might expect for someone pushing 70 years of age.
“It’s just interviews but every day is exciting,” he tells me when I enquire if he’s doing anything exciting today.
‘The Big Dream’ packs weight as a title, too. It’s singular but infinite in its possibilities, and it is of course suitably – even perfectly – Lynchian in its construct. “Night time dreams are not so important for feeling in my work,” he tells me, “but I love dream logic and dream logic is something that thrills me and I like to daydream. I like to just sit in a chair and daydream.” Lynch once elaborated: “The world is getting louder every year, but to sit and dream is a beautiful thing.”
‘The Big Dream’ charges simultaneously with momentum and stillness; a chugging, propulsive force accelerates the album but engulfing the drive is a nocturnal, quiet calm. Like hurtling down a road in the black of night, the speed and the silence blend into one. “I agree with you,” he says. “I think everybody loves moving forward and especially driving music. As soon as you can picture flying down a highway because of the music, it’s a very good feeling and that’s something that I really love. I love highways, I love driving and the freedom of the open road and moving from one place to another. I think it is a thrilling thing for human beings”. One only has to watch the opening and closing scenes of Lynch’s Lost Highway, or take a winding trip up to the eerie ambiance of Mulholland Drive (where we met and shot Lynch in his home for this feature) to get a semblance of such a vision.
Lynch has now been at the helm of the industry mechanics for film, TV, art and music, but finds no particular one more comfy or insidious. “They’re all super comfortable,” he’s says gently. “The people at Sunday Best [Lynch’s record label] are solid gold and I’m mainly working with the French in terms of cinema, and they believe in the auteur thing and freedom and support and enthusiasm, so I’ve been very very lucky. You know, the number one thing is the work. I always say you should enjoy the doing of a thing and so all the mediums are very, very beautiful to me and I love each one of them and I love working in it.”
Lynch offers some insights into the mentality of some predatory behaviour in the music industry, saying: “It seems to me that everybody that does something should have that freedom. Why would they do it if someone could take it away or change it?… It seems like if a record company is interested in a person it’s because they’ve heard them and they see promise for money and it seems to me to be common sense to let that person do what they do in freedom and not try to make it something that will just make money. It seems like it would kill the person. I think the rule should be: never turn down a good idea but never take a bad idea.” Lynch goes on to joke: “Now, your middle name is Dylan so you have to be in the music business! You’ve got your name Daniel and I was writing this down: Daniel Lanois, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles. A very musical name!”
“Or maybe Link Wray?” I retort.
“There you go, you’ve got it!”
Getting over the bemusement that David Lynch has been sat around his L.A home writing my name on bits of paper, we move onto the subject of one of those names: Bob Dylan, who Lynch has covered on his latest album.
“Big Dean Hurley drew me to that song and he said, ‘you should think about doing this’ and we did it.”
The song in question is the 1964 poverty and murder folksong ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’. “It was guided by a Nina Simone version,” Lynch informs me. “I really like the song, it’s a great story. A very sad, tragic story, but unfortunately it’s really relevant today.” Unable to take the agonising pain of watching his family starve in front of his eyes, the song’s protagonist spends “your last lone dollar on seven shotgun shells”, leading to the tragic outcome, “Seven shots ring out like the ocean’s pounding roar/There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm.”
In 2008 David Lynch said of the growing trend of watching visual media on iPods and iPhones: “Now if you’re playing a movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it but you’ll be cheated. It is such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.” It was a scornful yet sage point, but is he more flexible when it comes to music consumption?
“No,” he says, “I’m not really flexible but I’m also seeing the reality of things today. All the tracks have to be mixed and mastered in a way that they sound like at least something on a computer. So it’s a heartache and it would be beautiful if people saw cinema in a dark theatre on a giant screen with perfect sound, and it would be great if people heard the music on great big speakers and they could just go into it deeper, but it’s not really that kind of world right now.”
The foundations of Lynch’s artistic awakenings began to rear their head in Philadelphia. This is quite a well documented period, where Lynch has said: “I had my first thrilling thought in Philadelphia… Philadelphia, more than any filmmaker, influenced me. It’s the sickest, most corrupt, decaying, fear-ridden city imaginable. I was very poor and living in bad areas. I felt like I was constantly in danger. But it was so fantastic at the same time.”
I ask if the dread of the city assisted in building a musical impetus too?
“Oh definitely,” he fires. “Even though I wasn’t near industry, Philadelphia to me sparked a giant love of the smoke-stack industry and a dream of the smoke-stack industry, factory neighbourhoods, factories, steel, fire, smoke, the sounds of buildings and the life of a factory worker”.
A rather morbid fascination grew in this period, too. Lynch lived opposite a morgue and became riveted by the body bags. As he told Time magazine in 1990: “The bags had a big zipper, and they’d open the zipper and shoot water into the bags with big hoses. With the zipper open and the bags sagging on the pegs, it looked like these big smiles. I called them the smiling bags of death.”
This lugubrious image could easily be linked to that of the wrapped corpse of Twin Peaks victim Laura Palmer, perhaps manifesting itself in Lynch’s mind and allowed to percolate some two decades earlier. The streets of Philadelphia, however, had less of an impact on Lynch’s auditory senses, as he tells me: “Where I was it was busy in the daytime in one area. At night, because it was a factory area, there was nobody there, so it was all different kinds of moods and different phases and different fears in the air. It was a mixture of heaven and hell, Philadelphia.” This mixture came to fruition in Eraserhead, a film Lynch worked on from 1972 until its release in 1977. A visionary masterpiece, he and Alan Splet also spent a year creating the movie’s audio and in doing so set a precedent for sound design by creating metamorphosing dark ambience; all imbued with scratching, hissing, nightmarishly unnerving static. Together, they created a musical genre before they’d realised it. In Eraserhead Lynch reversed the accepted industry convention that music in film was somehow only an add-on, a means to enhance and illuminate the visuals, to carry narrative and stay firmly in place as a subservient in the artistic hierarchy of cinema. Instead, Lynch created a cinematic cosmos in which the music both lived in and broke free from the visual, existing in inseparable but fragmentary states, a roaming parallel universe.
On that film was also the stirring and irrefragably vital music of Fats Waller, and such is the grainy power of Eraserhead, I enquire if Lynch ever views music in terms of colour and black and white. He picks up and gives me a brief tunnel-drive flash into his imagination. “When you just say ‘Fats Waller, baptist church organ, 1936’ I see that absolutely in black and white, very grainy, the most beautiful, beautiful black and white, and I see Fats Waller playing this music in a 1930’s black and white world that is so far gone now and it’s really beautiful to think about it.”
Lynch stretches the word ‘beautiful’ (by far his favourite word during our conversation) like a prolonged note, almost as though he is savouring the moment and preserving the image. He appears temporarily lost in that dream space of his as he locks into this very specific vision he is creating. A wild gesticulator, Lynch’s right hand is twitching, with his fingers sprinkling and dancing in the air, as though he is plucking the strings of a suspended harp. Once upon a time a trail of cigarette smoke would have followed from between his two fingertips, but Lynch has currently quit.
This fear and terror he felt so submerged in in his formative years was clearly a lasting source of inspiration, but he is quick to point out it’s not something he misses. “No, no, no. You don’t miss fear. It’s like you miss jabbing your knee with an icepick!,” he says flatly, hammering home ‘icepick’ with a similar brusque, sharp force to the tool itself.
Environment has been key to the creation of Lynch’s work. He is frequently credited as painting scenes like no other, bringing to life views of the absurd, the horrifying and, one would think, the un-filmable milieu of his unconsciousness. Despite all the images that no doubt crawl and scurry through your mind like birthing spiders when thinking about the man himself, David Lynch is not a particularly weird person. He is not scary, nor odd, nor crazy. He thrives on normality just as gluttonously as he does the otherworldly. He is someone graced with the gift of transmuting the normal into something abnormal. By doing so, he has redefined the boundaries of what constitutes the abstract, the odd and the different by basing so much of it in the normal, the drab and the everyday fabric of American life that so many people walk past daily without noting. David Lynch is not from another planet, he just pays grave fucking attention to the one we live on. As his most go-to quote that hits home this point most robustly goes: “My childhood was picket fences, blue skies, red flowers, and cherry trees, but then I would see millions of little ants swarming on the cherry tree, which had pitch oozing out of it.”
Likewise, Lynch’s proclivity for routine, familiarity and ordinariness are his creative triggers for the opposite: the mind-meltingly surreal, the scattered, unfamiliar and the bizarre. “I like things to be orderly,” he once said. “For seven years [every single day] I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee with lots of sugar.” Lynch perhaps most perspicaciously captures this process. “I like the idea that everything has a surface which hides much more underneath. Someone can look very well and have a whole bunch of diseases cooking: there are all sorts of dark twisted things lurking down there. I go down in that darkness and see what’s there. Coffee shops are nice safe places to think. I like sitting in brightly lit places where I can drink coffee and have some sugar. Then, before I know it, I’m down under the surface gliding along; if it becomes too heavy, I can always pop back into the coffee shop.”
All Lynch needs is one singular moment, idea or even song in order to spark something gargantuan. For 1986’s Blue Velvet it was the Bobby Vinton version of the song ‘Blue Velvet’ itself, along with the image of an ear lying in the grass, that sparked the impetus for the whole film. “I mean, the film is called Blue Velvet,” he says, “but Bobby Vinton’s version, I didn’t even like it when I first heard it but then later I listened to it and out comes a lot of things. Music is magical and so important and ideas can come out of it.
“Oh man, there’s many many many things,” he says, continuing to list other music catalysts that have shaped his cinematic output. “Ramstein for Lost Highway, Dmitri Shostakovich in Blue Velvet, Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ for Wild at Heart. You know pretty much every film there is some kind of music that will marry to those ideas and you just have to try and find that. ‘In Dreams’, Roy Orbison, you know?”
Keen to capitalise on Lynch’s surge of intensity discussing his musical inspirations and creations, I bring up Angelo Badalamenti and a video in circulation in which Angelo recreates the moment – played on the exact same old Fender Rhodes keyboard – that he and David sat and created the music for Twin Peaks together. Badalamenti plays the part of both himself and Lynch, building the song from a murky shuffle – under Lynch’s instructions – slowing it down to a doom-filled crawl, as that unmistakable melody creeps forward like a killer through the woods. It builds and Badalamenti takes on the part of Lynch, building, rising, climaxing as it boils over and trickles into the main melody. It’s exquisitely beautiful to witness. “Angelo is a frustrated actor!” quips Lynch, who hasn’t seen the clip. “With Angelo it’s so fantastic, you know I always say the same thing, Angelo can play anything, Angelo is a great, great heart-felt composer and I like to sit near Angelo and I talk to him about mood and he plays my words.” Lynch starts to pick up pace and he’s in that distanced but focused dream place again. “And if I don’t like what comes out, I change the words and then a new thing comes out, and if that’s not quite right I change the words, change the words, change the words.” He starts to bubble over, spitting quickly and zealously. “And then suddenly something starts happening – ‘Angelo! Angelo! Angelo! Angelo! That’s it! That’s it!’. And Angelo catches it and he starts going and he starts going and he starts going and pretty soon out comes the most beautiful stuff.” Lynch explodes in a moment of apoplexy. Completely unbeknown to him he has almost precisely mirrored Angelo’s depiction of the collaboration. The escalating, almost orgasmic flurry of words and sounds match almost perfectly. As he hammers out the words ‘Angelo’, he does so in a way that is half cut out of a character possessed and uncontrollable and half someone caught in a flashback, screaming out and re-living that very moment.
There is a raw tension to Lynch’s insight – it feels voyeuristic for a second, like being transported to an incredibly intimate and foundation-shaking creative birth-point. “David got up and gave me a big hug and said Angelo…That’s Twin Peaks,” recalled Badalamenti. Listening to Lynch fire off like a rocket about this moment instills a pleasure far too great to measure or describe.
As we say goodbye, I catch a last minute question. Is Lynch still adamant that he will never play music live on a stage? “No I haven’t changed my mind,” he says.
What about behind a curtain, I know you like curtains David?
“That might be the only way it happens!”
Well, I’d pay to see that, I offer.
“Fantastic, Daniel!” And off he goes. Will Self was wrong.