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David Lynch, (Non-)Musician: The L.A. Weekly Interview

"Happy accidents are real gifts and they can open the door to a future that didn't even exist."
PHOTO BY SEAN TEEGARDEN

[Music Ed.'s Note: On January 31st, David Lynch will release an expanded edition of his recent single "Good Day Today"/"I Know" on the Sunday Best label. The collection features remixes by several prominent electronic artists and special packaging by renowned UK designer Vaughan Oliver (of 4AD fame).

Check out also our selected David Lynch discography (including instructions for the perfectly Asymmetrical David Lynch mixtape) and our exclusive interview with Vaughan Oliver about the "Good Day Today"/"I Know" single.]

Here's David Lynch's recipe for success, taken from his inspiring little manual Catching the Big Fish: "Try to get a job that gives you some time; get your sleep and a little bit of food; and work as much as you can. There's so much enjoyment in doing what you love."

This philosophy, plus a healthy helping of Transcendental Meditation, of which he remains a vocal advocate, allowed Lynch to become an intriguing visual artist, with works in painting, collage, cartooning, photography and art-film. Later, this approach helped him make the mysterious jump into Hollywood filmmaking, where he remains one of the few working heirs to the great surrealist auteurs of cinema.

And it's a philosophy that Lynch is now applying with renewed focus to yet another art form: music. Anyone familiar with his film work has long figured out that Lynch is a genuine sound freak: Witness the uncanny industrial soundscapes of Eraserhead, the unforgettable aural stampede that elevates The Elephant Man, his 180-degree redefinition of Bobby Vinton and Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet, the groundbreaking romanticism of the Twin Peaks score, the jagged, deranged edges of Lost Highway and, especially, his covert beatnik musical Wild at Heart. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say he possesses the keenest ears among all major living Hollywood directors.

Lynch soon will be relaunching his website, davidlynch.com, as a way to broadcast the result of a series of musical collaborations (or "combos," as he likes to call them) with other artists, under the supervision of his personal engineer and main partner in sound, Dean Hurley, at the filmmaker's prolevel home studio, Asymmetrical Studio.

Hurley says the website "will feature unreleased singles, experiments and instrumentals created through the years," including the legendary Thought Gang project, a full album of noir avant-jazz recorded alongside the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me soundtrack by Lynch and longtime associate Angelo Badalamenti.

We met Lynch for a conversation about his music at his luminous homebase/art studio in the Hollywood Hills. (The italics below are an attempt to convey Lynch's distinctive manner of speaking, an infectious way to share his enthusiasm. In Lynch's world, some things are not just great, they're "really, really, really great.")

DAVID LYNCH: I'm not a musician, but I play music. So it's a strange thing.

I just saw this biography on the Bee Gees and it was so thrilling. The Bee Gees have this strange reputation of doing disco, but they are great musicians and writers. Unbelievable stuff and since they were little — music just solid in them. Just nonstop. I was so impressed. It was incredible.

And I saw some videos recently of Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. Unbel ... I didn't know what a guitar player this guy is, but killer. My son is a guitar player, really good. So we were watching [video footage of] "Comfortably Numb," Pink Floyd, and it was in some arena. They had a theatrical thing set up. It was unbelievably beautiful, so powerful.

L.A. WEEKLY: Have you ever seen them live?

No, I've never seen Pink Floyd live.

Do you ever go to big shows?

I went to see ZZ Top in an arena in L.A. somewhere. I love ZZ Top. I don't go to too many shows. I'm gonna go see Lissie [who performed Jan. 15 at Hollywood's Music Box at the Fonda]. I've been traveling with Donovan, so I've been to his shows. I went to see Ringo at the Hard Rock Café a couple of months ago.

How do you choose what you go see?

I don't like to leave the house too much. I mean, you can get lost, there's so much good stuff going on.

How does music reach you nowadays? Do you have friends who recommend it to you? Do musicians send it to you?

[Pulls out a bunch of CD-Rs from his jacket pocket.] Both. I don't know who these people are. [Displays a CD-R marked "Deerhunter"] Let's see. Do you know Deerhunter?

Yes.

Somebody sent me that. [Reads CD labels.] Casino vs. Japan, Night on Tape. And then I got Moby's new album.

Are you friends with him?

Yeah. Yeah. I'm friends with Moby.

Did you know his music before you became friends?

Yeah. Yeah. He sort of started out doing a remix of Twin Peaks [Moby's 1991 single "Go" samples "Laura Palmer's Theme"]. So I would hear about Moby, but I never met him. I thought he was British 'cause he was so big in England, I just assumed he was English, and then I met Moby a couple of years ago in London.

 

I thought Moby was solid electronics. But Moby is a killer guitar player, and his acoustic sets are really, really, really great. And he played with [his band] Little Death, [featuring singer] Laura Dawn, and her husband, I think, and the drummer is unbelievable, bass player is unbelievable. When they play live it's incredible, but when they record it, it's not the same power. Do you know that phenomenon? That's a real shame. It's like the difference between. ... Some live things, they cannot capture that, even to this day, on the digital thing or whatever.

In your musical and film experience, what was the closest you ever came to capturing the power of live music? You got some fantastic atmospherics in the album Lux Vivens, the Hildegard von Bingen medieval-chant project you produced for Jocelyn Montgomery in 1998.

That's Jocelyn West, [then she was] Jocelyn Montgomery, she married Monty Montgomery [celebrated Hollywood indie producer for Lynch and others and the mysterious Cowboy in Mulholland Drive], and then they got divorced. Jocelyn is an incredible singer. We're gonna have a song by Jocelyn on the new site.

Monty is a producer and he was one of the producers of Wild at Heart. They had a place called Propaganda Films here in L.A. I was in New York working with Angelo, and I don't remember what we were working on, but we were in Artie Polemis' studio in New York, tiny little studio on Eighth Avenue, but it was like going back in time, like going back in time to Eastern Europe. It was the weirdest little studio. But it was so beautiful in there, so great. It's gone now.

So Monty called and he said he wanted me to meet this girl Jocelyn, who was coming to New York on her way to L.A. Well, it just so happened we had this extra track we made, and we wrote this kind of melody. Me and Angelo. And Artie's wife, Estelle, in the '60s was a really great lyricist, and she was there that day sitting on the couch, and I would write a line, then give the paper over to Estelle, she would write the next line, hand it back to me, I would write the third line and like that; in about 15 minutes we wrote this song. It's called "And Still." It's never been out, but it's in a documentary my friend Toby made on the making of Lost Highway.

So Jocelyn shows up and she was supposed to say hello and then leave, but I said, "Jocelyn, we got this song. Would you stay here and sing it?" And she said yes. And she also brought her violin. So it's beautiful what she did. And she sang and played the fiddle in this and it's a haunting, beautiful song.

Then remembering all that, Jocelyn, while floating down the Rhine River, or the Blue Danube, or I don't know, something, with her friend Heidrun [Reshöft] — now Heidrun is another special person — they went down the river, visiting monasteries, thinking only of Hildegard. And people would let them stay in the monasteries and Jocelyn would sing for the nuns in the morning. So beautiful she sang that many of the nuns were weeping. Imagine!

So they got this deal to make an album of Hildegard music, and that's the first thing we made in the studio downstairs [at Asymmetrical]. The very first thing. And I got to produce it and that was really, really fun.

The chants have this eerie, hazy, quiet feel reminiscent of yours and Badalamenti's influential work on the Twin Peaks score and your productions for the work of Julee Cruise. But your Blue Bob album [a Lynch obscurity from 2001], the very recent single "I Know" and your contributions to the Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse collaboration Dark Night of the Soul seem to come straight out of "Up in Flames," the scorching track you produced for blues legend Koko Taylor for the Wild at Heart soundtrack. To me, that track marks a before-and-after in your sound.

[Smiles] Yes. Combos is a magic thing. Combos. You put person A with person B, they're separate, but when together, they would do a certain thing. And then you put person A with person C, and another thing emerges that couldn't emerge with A and B. There's a magic in combos, who you're working with, and a certain thing emerges. It feels really good.

You know, the blues [chuckles]. This is, to me, real, real, real beautiful. But ... and it has a form, and it's traditional, but I like the idea of some kind of "modern blues." Just kind of ... breaking that. I don't know if you can break it, really, but ... "modern blues"! I just like that idea.

 

And I like the feeling it makes, and it marries in my mind with the smokestack industry, and so I've always loved factories and fire and smoke and electricity, and I think some music goes with that so powerfully well, and I think its home is real close to the blues. But I don't know exactly.

Did you get a feeling "Up in Flames" was a turning point? Because the Twin Peaks score is kind of ethereal.

Yeah, angelic, yeah. Every song wants to be a certain way. With Koko Taylor, the players on that got so into it. Angelo and I wrote it, but then we recorded it here in L.A. I think it was right down on Sunset. And Nicolas Cage had been working with a guy ... I think it was not the original guitar player for Elvis but the later guitar player for Elvis. And there was a guy who was Elvis. I mean this guy was, I don't know if you'd say an Elvis impersonator, but this guy was working with Nic, but Nic just got it, man. Those Elvis songs on Wild at Heart were really great. Nic Cage: really great.

If you go to some karaoke places nowadays, people sing "Love Me" not like Elvis but like Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart.

Oh, yeah? [laughs] Wow, that's really good.

It's a strange tribute.

Strange trip, yeah.

So, we recorded "Up in Flames" in the same place, I think. And the players were so good. Especially the guitar player on "Up in Flames" was just dive-bombin', you know, dropping bombs, and it was really, really, really good. And Koko Taylor [makes a sublime face]. She was like a ... you know, she's the real thing.

Did you listen to a lot of blues music growing up?

No. I came later to it. I've loved music always and my music fire was lit by Elvis Presley, really, and all that was happening back then. And I always say the same thing: That music that was born out of a combo of many things was so special and then Elvis went into the Army, so what was started ... it's strange.

I think it was like this tremendous explosion, white-hot, it was so hot when it happened. Instead of just raging forward, it burned, but it kind of went down a little bit, and it kind of got lost in people being — I don't know, I'm just making things up — being quite not so sure, and other things kinda were still there and this kind of real, real rock & roll kinda got lost a little bit. The fire went down.

The power ... I think people have got it, for sure, but there was something happening there that was real, real, real special and hard to match.

Isn't that the same argument punk rock made when it appeared in the mid- to late '70s? "Rock got too proggy, theatrical, and we're gonna bring back the fire of '56." Do you remember that happening?

Yeah, yeah. But it wasn't ... it was loud and it's like a thing. It set a time. Punk set a time. And I know they were trying to get there and there was some great stuff done, but it wasn't ... rock & roll is like ... [long pause] It's not just loud, and it's not just a beat. There's something. And to find it you would look at Gene Vincent, and Elvis Presley, and those guys, and even Roy Orbison, Everly Brothers, ["Come Softly to Me" vocal group the] Fleetwoods. ... These people, it could make you cry, and it could make you, you know, wild at the same time. There's a mixture.

I don't know what it is, but it was there and it kind of dissipated a little bit, I think.

Brian Eno is also a huge fan of the sounds of his childhood, and he's mentioned the Fleetwoods as a reference for his music. [Side note: On the mixing desk of Lynch's Asymmetrical Studio, there's a box of Eno's "Oblique Strategies" cards.] Your music projects and Eno's both sound very distant from the Fleetwoods. Do you think you want to recapture that lost childhood sound?

It might not be possible. Because I think every time — some people would say, "You listen to '50s music, you can feel the time of the '50s, you listen to 1930s music, even if you didn't live in the '30s, you can feel the time, so you just listen to it and you're back in time, makes a picture come, from that time." But the time played a huge part in making that music, you know what I mean?

 

As the time changes, it would produce different music, so I don't know if you can ever go back, if you can ever make something from a different time and make it real.

You can get the aura, and the chords, and the phrasing, but the hardest thing to reproduce is pure sound.

That's a big, important thing. [Film is] "sound and picture flowing together, in time." Music deals with time and timing. It's so magical, but when you get into it, every little sound and every little space between the sounds, it's critical, so critical. And if it's not there, it not only feels wrong but it ruins things. So you work and work and work to get a thing to feel correct, in sound and how it goes and in picture. It doesn't mean you're gonna hit 100 percent, but you work so hard to get it to feel correct.

What's your earliest sound memory — not music, but the earliest sound you can remember?

[Long pause] Well ... in Spokane, Washington, and I never picture this in my mind. ... [pause] Well, I'll tell you what I picture: It's a summer day. The sky is, Spokane, Washington, is northwest. And Spokane, Washington, is eastern Washington, so it's not moist. ... It's the most refreshing summer day, clear as a bell, and refreshing feel, refreshing. Beautiful sunlight. Incredible. The smell of ponderosa pines in the air. The grass is green, the sky is blue, and in the sky were these big, really big bomber planes. And they were propeller planes, so they moved across the sky very slowly and they made a drone that was incredibly beautiful. It took a long time for them to go across, so always this drone is going.

That's a beautiful sound.

Have you ever tried to recapture it?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that drone is what I've been trying to get and it's probably appeared in different places. The first, kind of "whoa" thing in recording was in my second [short] film. Well, I had a siren going continuously, a loop, on my first film, so there was sound from the beginning, but the second film, The Alphabet, and I rented a recorder from this film lab in Philadelphia, and unbeknownst to me it was broken, but what a blessing that it was broken, because it was distorting everything I recorded. And that was the beginning of "the happy accident." Happy accidents are real gifts and they can open the door to a future that didn't even exist. It's kind of nice sometimes to set up something to encourage or allow happy accidents to happen.

A fairly recent happy accident is the series of projects with classically trained Polish musicians related to the Inland Empire soundtrack you composed.

With "Polish Poem" I worked with singer Chrysta Bell. Next year at some point we'll release her album, which I got to produce and write with her. She's really great.

Polish Night Music is me and Marek Zebrowski, who is a superaccomplished concert pianist and composer. Marek and I met in Poland through the Camerimage film festival. Those guys are a great, great, great gang, and they've become real good friends.

Marek and I started doing these experiments, where I would write a kind of a scene or a poem thing, and I would then show this thing to Marek, he would read it, and we'd both have keyboards, so we'd try to play the poem. I'd start doing something and Marek has perfect pitch, so whatever I'd play, it's as if it's written and he's just playing on top of it, perfectly. Because I can play pretty much everything, and he, you know, would pick up on it and elaborate it on top. So it's a great experiment for mood things.

That material is very different from the single with the songs "Good Day Today" and "I Know," and from the long-delayed Thought Gang project.

Yes — Dean and I did the single. One of them is dance, the other is more like a "modern blues" thing. What Dean and I mostly do is in the modern-blues thing.

The Thought Gang album will come out this year sometime. We started it in the early '90s and it just sat there for a long, long, long time and now it's kinda gonna get tweaked and finally put out. Thought Gang is ... now, you know Don Van Vliet just died. ...

Captain Beefheart?

Yes. Not that Thought Gang is "Don Van Vliet." He was beyond, beyond ... special [chuckles]. I bought Trout Mask Replica [when it came out] and then I was in a documentary on Don Van Vliet. These Germans came to me. ... I guess the Germans picked up on Don Van Vliet. This was in the late '80s or early '90s, and then I got the great opportunity to talk to him on the phone, several times, and he was so great to talk to.

 

He was really in his own world, but then when I was talking to him he was a painter, he'd stopped making music. And he's a great painter, great painter. So, Thought Gang, I'm saying, [laughs] would probably sell fewer albums than Don Van Vliet [laughs].

Don Van Vliet's collaborator Gary Lucas said one of the reasons Beefheart went into painting was because he was disappointed that more people didn't buy his music.

[Laughs] I think it's something to do with, ummm, the time and the place. ... I picture the desert playing a role, and that hot sun, and a certain thing creeps in. ... And it colors what comes out. So, I love the idea that Don Van Vliet thought that his music would be popular, but it's so his own thing, it's so far away from what people were buying.

And yet you yourself did manage to achieve all kinds of success with film and, to a certain extent, music. You've followed a similar uncompromising, strange path, and you are quite popular.

Yes, but I always say, you take George Lucas or Spielberg: They're doing, in my mind, what they truly love. But what they truly love, zillions of people love, so they're multimillionaires. I'm doing what I truly love, but the audience is way smaller. And Don Van Vliet was doing what he truly loved and the audience is hardly there at all.

But it's OK, because if you do anything that you don't love for money or fame, you die. You can't live doing that. It's hollow. It's a joke. So be thankful you're able to do what you love.

Don Van Vliet, when I talked to him, was a painter. And we would talk about painting. We would not talk about music at all.

Do you have any of his paintings?

No — I wish!

When the Inland Empire soundtrack came out, people were wondering why instead of Angelo Badalamenti doing it, it was credited just to you. Were you trying to be your own Badalamenti?

Angelo lives in New Jersey. And I always say, if Angelo lived next door to me, we'd be making a lot of music, but he lives in New Jersey and so in Inland Empire it just grew in a different way, so Angelo wasn't a part of it. But that's not to say the next one ... I'd probably work with Angelo.

When Badalamenti scores movies for other people, his soundtracks are so different from what he does when he works with you.

Because it's a combo. It's a combo. Angelo would bring some things out of me that would never be brought out, I'd bring some things out of Angelo that would never be brought out. And you feed off each other. And a thing gets born that is the particular result of those two or three or four. It's magic. There's so much magic in music. It's incredible. What gets born and how come it gets born. And so, so, so beautiful.

If I sit down with Angelo, it's always just ... a magical mystery tour. It can start anywhere. It's always the same: I'd start talking and Angelo plays what I talk and if I don't like it, if it's not really happening, I change the words and the music changes, and before you know it, something gets caught. It just happens.

You're describing studio performances. Have you done live performances?

No, no, no. I have one time, but it's a nightmare. I can play something one time, but since I'm not a musician, to play it a second time, that's the trick. That's why I love to jam. In jamming there's possibilities for discovery. It's done in freedom, there's nobody else around. It's me and Dean now, just jamming, and out of that comes, you know, what comes. And it may be 98 percent absolute garbage, but 2 percent is something that can be elaborated on. That 2 percent is worth days of jamming.

Do you collect music?

I do, but I'm not like "a collector." It just happens. These things I showed you [pulls the CD-Rs from his jacket], I'm gonna listen to these. But I don't have time to listen to a lot of ... I listen to KCRW. I listen to "Morning Becomes Eclectic," on weekends I listen to Anne Litt, and sometimes at night I listen, too.

 

Do you have your old records?

They're in storage next door, but I'm gonna get the turntable out, because Dean played me a 45 and it hit me like a truck. I don't know what the words are to say it, but it's smoother, it's friendlier, it's warmer. Do you listen to records every day?

Yes, absolutely.

Wow, fantastic. You know, my roommate at the Boston Museum School was Peter Wolf. I didn't know, and of course he didn't know, he was going to be in the J. Geils Band. He was supposed to be a painter, but he never painted! And it really pissed me off, so the first day he moved in, that night we went with a friend with his pickup truck and drove from Boston to New York, specifically to get his record collection, which he brought up. Filled the whole pickup.

And this guy would play me, like [in sped-up beatnik voice], "Oh, David, you gotta listen to this man, you gotta dig this," and he'd play 10 seconds of Thelonious Monk or 10 seconds of Miles Davis or whatever, like he was, he wasn't on speed, but it was like he was, so he was totally into it. Music was his thing. He knows music. He's another bluesman, I think. But he wasn't into blues back then, he was into jazz, modern jazz. But if you'd told me, "This guy is gonna go into music," I'd go, "Hello! Of course he is."

Does Los Angeles inspire your music in any way?

A place, definitely. Like painting. I would paint sometimes in Madison, Wis., my paintings were different. The place and the light: That's why I love L.A. The light in Los Angeles, even the winter light. People come here and can't believe it. That's what happened to me. I couldn't believe the light. It was so important. And it feeds into the music.

Do you drive?

I don't leave the house too much, but I do drive, and I have a Scion. It's like a box. I love this car.

What do you listen to while you drive?

I don't know how to run the thing. It used to be you turned a knob, and you got music. I don't know how to run it. After they added the GPS thing and the radio is part of that, I don't know how to run it. And since I don't go out that much, every time, I have to get someone to teach me. It's really horrible. I'd like to get rid of that thing, now that you're bringing it up!

So you drive quietly down Mulholland Drive?

I drive quietly. It's so important to have a good radio in the car, though. I'm gonna get rid of that thing and get one.

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