David Lynch: The Big Dreamer

Music Features David Lynch
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The first sound that deeply moved David Lynch was the eerie, discordant harmony of “giant black bombers” flying over his childhood home. Ever since, that sound has haunted Lynch’s work—from the industrial inner-city drones of his claustrophobic 1977 debut film Eraserhead to the lumbering blues textures of his sophomore solo album The Big Dream.

“There must have been an Air Force base somewhere,” Lynch says, chirping out the words in his nasal, Northwestern monotone. “It was in Spokane, Washington—that’s where I grew up from about age two to six or seven. There were giant propeller planes that would come over the blue sky. Today, we don’t have that experience. But if there was a squadron of giant black bombers going slowly, high above you, you’d hear this drone—and each plane is making the drone, but the sounds are slightly different. So it’s kind of a most beautiful chord.

“And it’s so beautiful,” he says, then pauses. “Just thinking about it thrills me.”

Lynch has a unique gift for sussing out beauty from ugliness, or vice-versa. As a filmmaker, a musician, a sound designer, a visual artist—he juxtaposes the wildly disturbing with the witty, the surreal with the deeply human. The seeds of that odd aesthetic were sewn at a young age: Lynch, by his own account, was a perfectly adjusted child—an outgoing, Presbyterian Eagle Scout who moved from city to city (Missoula, Mont.; Spokane; Durham, N.C.; Boise, Idaho; Alexandria, Va.) with mother, an English tutor, and his father, a research scientist for the USDA. His idyllic upbringing—the green grass, the brilliant blue skies, the white picket fences—plays out like a scene ripped from a Leave it to Beaver storyboard. But beneath the sunny surface, darkness was brewing. Backyard cherry trees oozed a gooey, black pitch, swarmed by armies of fire ants. Lynch was fascinated by those sharp color contrasts—within nature and human nature. Picket fences hide disheveled homes, just as a smile can obscure an inner turmoil.

These themes flow throughout Lynch’s body of work, most notably his acclaimed films—like the 1986 film-noir fever-dream Blue Velvet or 2001’s Mulholland Dr., a rabbit-hole psych-drama of amnesia, lust and shattered dreams. Probably the most substantive example is Twin Peaks, the unclassifiable cult-classic ABC series he co-created with Mark Frost in 1990. Framed around the mysterious murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer, the series probed the seedy, hallucinatory fringes of small-town USA. The setting was a bizarre, nonlinear alternate-reality, somewhere between a ’50s B-level biker movie and an absurd ’90s soap opera; the tone, meanwhile, was violently unpredictable—part psychological horror, part dead-pan comedy, part detective serial, part teen-romance. (The show was a surprise rating gold mine in its first season—but following Lynch’s frustrated departure early in Season Two, it spiraled out of focus before a controversial cliffhanger finale.) There was a demon-spirit named BOB, a “log lady,” plenty of infidelity and murder, and surprising amounts of creamed corn. All of Lynch’s work demonstrates the singular vision of an auteur—but Twin Peaks is definitively Lynch-ian, a tapestry weaved from his frantic id.

And for a show with so many dazzling, pop-culture time-capsule images (the dancing little man in the Red Room, Laura Palmer’s dead body wrapped in plastic), Twin Peaks never would have struck such a chord without its meticulous sounds—the howling owls, the reversed speech, the mechanical buzzing of sawed logs. To David Lynch, sound and image are inseparably linked.

“I was always interested in sound,” he says. “And I guess I didn’t know anything about film when I started making films, so it seemed to me that sound was just as important as the picture. You always try to get the sounds that marry to the picture.”

Lynch is a master at marrying the two mediums. His first iconic music moment was “In Heaven,” a woozy swan-song co-written with Peter Ivers for Eraserhead (and sung by the incredibly creepy Lady in the Radiator). But a more substantive partnership began in 1986 with composer Angelo Badalamenti; the duo’s first collaboration was “Mysteries of Love,” a spacey, synth-swirled ballad co-written by the pair and sung by Isabella Rossellini as a wounded siren. Together, Lynch and Badalamenti carved out their own sonic universe: walking-bass, coffee-house jazz; LSD, tremolo-bar blues; foggy, New-Romantic synth balladry.

“There’s things that I just love,” Lynch says. “Because Angelo can play pretty much anything and take off in any direction and flow, when I work with him, I try to get him to play stuff that I like and that will marry to a picture that I’ve got in my mind.”

Their writing process itself is as iconic as the music. A bonus feature from the Twin Peaks box set features Badalamenti at his Fender Rhodes piano, demonstrating how the show’s main theme was written. He describes—quite passionately, almost orgasmically—how Lynch directed him through his chord changes with verbal imagery.

“In David’s mind, you could see he was visualizing the description that he envisioned,” Badalamenti says. “He would say, ‘Okay, Angelo, now we have to change. From behind the tree in the back of the woods, there’s this very lonely girl, and her name is Laura Palmer…Oh, that’s it. That’s very beautiful! I can see her! She’s walking towards the camera, and she’s coming closer. Just keep building it! Just keep building it! And she’s getting close! And we need some kind of climax! Angelo, that’s tearing my heart out! Keep that going! Now she’s starting to leave, so fall down—keep falling, keep falling, keep falling!”

“That’s how we work,” Lynch reflects. “I can’t play the keys, so I’ve got to talk and just keep talking. But Angelo…his fingers can move anywhere, so the words that I say make his fingers go here and there, different places. And it always has happened that somehow Angelo catches something and then there it is. It’s both of us going together, but because there’s an infinite number of choices, I sort of help get Angelo down a certain road.”

The partnership has proved fruitful: The duo worked in tandem on all of the Lynch’s subsequent films—the only exception being his most recent feature, 2006’s mind-numbing Inland Empire. Lynch hasn’t made a narrative feature in seven years, but he isn’t bothered by this. He’s a longtime advocator of Transcendental Meditation, and he approaches his art in the same fashion—like a fisherman, waiting to catch an idea. When one happens to bite, he reels it in; otherwise, he doesn’t bother.

And in recent years, Lynch has been focusing his talents in the music world: Inland Empire featured two of his original songs, “Ghost of Love” and “Walkin’ on the Sky;” in 2010, he was featured on Dark Night of the Soul, a collaborative album written by producer Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous; he even managed to produce This Train, the sensual debut album from his protege, singer Chrysta Bell (who sounds like she’s gunning from an in-residency stint at the Twin Peaks roadhouse).

But in 2011, he made a bolder move, stunning the entire entertainment industry with a debut solo album, the fittingly titled Crazy Clown Time. Like Lynch’s films, the album was incredibly, thought-provokingly bizarre; working with engineer/producer/guitarist “Big” Dean Hurley, Lynch built on the sonic framework he established with Badalamenti: lots of tremolo-blues guitar, lots of lumbering drums. But it also revealed some unexpected new wrinkles, particularly Lynch’s high, blaring vocals and, with the breezy “Good Day Today,” a finesse with electronics.

How on Earth do you review an album that probably wasn’t even made on Earth? Critics were puzzled by the album’s droning ambience and especially Lynch’s comical voice—and it seems Lynch wasn’t particularly comfortable with it, either. Only Hurley, his right-hand man, was allowed to witness his vocal takes, and the results were often bathed in grotesque effects. It was a messy, polarizing album—its most experimental moments (like “Strange and Unproductive Thinking,” a seven-minute rumination on tooth decay and meditation, fleshed out with copious vocal flange) seemed specifically designed to alienate and provoke. But there were flashes of brilliance—the visceral car-wreck rocker “Pinky’s Dream” (featuring a stellar vocal from Karen O), the simmering blues crawl of “So Glad.”

Lynch’s most brilliant quality is his singularity: Even his least satisfying films (his 1984 take on the sci-fi epic Dune, the grating 1990 bomb Wild at Heart) are vibrantly original; and at its most ridiculous, Crazy Clown Time couldn’t have been made by anyone else on the planet. When the songs themselves faltered, the music itself still conjured images—drunken bar fights, disorienting love triangles, midnight car drives through the desert. Lynch can’t help but be transportive, even if it’s a seasick brand of transportation.

“Sometimes in making music, you can’t help but have images come,” he says. “But it’s more away from the head and more close to the heart, so the images seem to be more abstract. It’s way more of a feel than a picture.”

Like Crazy Clown Time, The Big Dream was created almost entirely by Lynch and Hurley, who spent several months jamming and refining these 12 tracks at Lynch’s own Asymmetrical Studios. But The Big Dream is a much more cohesive and immersive from a musical standpoint. These songs have their abstract charms, but they also work melodically and rhythmically in a way the first album didn’t. Like Badalamenti, Hurley is a perfect musical foil for Lynch: With his Bonham-esque drum crunch and dreamy guitar textures, he adds a sophistication that balances out Lynch’s more experimental, imagistic approach to song-craft. Together, they’re mining all of Lynch’s favorite influences: classic blues, avant-garde ambient, even a bit of trip-hop.

“Dean and I both loved Portishead,” Lynch says. “But I don’t know how these things really emerge. They all start, like I told you, with a jam. And then something happens so there’s kind of an indication of something, and then that’s elaborated on. It’s a closed system in a way.”

“Like I always say,” Lynch continues, “I’m not really even a musician in the true sense. And I’m not a singer. And I only sing in front of Dean, and Dean doesn’t look at me when I sing. I think everybody has certain things they love, and it comes out of them. I always say that I wouldn’t do this music on my own, and Dean wouldn’t do this music on his own, but the combo of us conjures this. And then there it is.”

As he always has, Lynch plays guitar in an unconventional style: up-side down, on his lap, sort of a bastardized version of a lap-steel.

“Once in a while, I turn it around in the right way just to experiment,” he says. “But the way I play came out of making sound effects. So I just started playing that way, and I guess you’d say my way—I’m a rhythm guitarist. I don’t know how to play lead guitar. I know how to do a lead guitar, but it’s not a normal thing.”

One track, the trippy blues assault of “Sun Can’t Be Seen No More,” features an explosive guitar solo from Lynch’s son Riley: “He started playing the guitar when he was eight—and he just kinda had a natural ability and became a killer guitar player. And, you know, he was always reluctant to play in front of me, but Dean and I corralled him on that one, so he played the lead guitar on that. He did a great job—it was minimal, but great.”

Just like Mulholland Dr. or Wild at Heart or Eraserhead, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what The Big Dream is “about.” For Lynch, “about” is an awfully strange concept: His art—while certainly intellectual—is, first and foremost, experiential. Lynch creates his music in more or less the same way he creates his films: by fishing his subconscious. Often taking cues from Hurley’s droning guitar riffs, Lynch throws on his headphones and waits until a fascinating character bubbles to the surface.

“[It’s about] the mood of the track and the character of the voice,” Lynch says. “The feel of the track can conjure lyrics, so the lyrics just kind of come out of the music. And then those lyrics can be sung—anybody could sing ’em, but if you catch a character, then that character will sing a certain way. And the characteristic of the voice, it should be like an instrument that goes into the music and marries with the music. It should sit with the feel of the tracks, so it’s always kind of an experiment. But once you catch a character, that character will sing a certain way.”

Most of these characters sing in a nasally, dead-eyed style—similar to Lynch’s speaking voice, except often up an octave or so. Lynch isn’t singing from his own perspective: On “Sun Can’t Be Seen No More,” he plays a Southern, beer-swilling session vocalist (With his slurred affectations, it sounds like Lynch is gargling a handful of marbles); on the creepy “Say It,” he channels an aggressive meathead bullying his girlfriend in front of her friends.

One of the album’s most arresting moments is “Last Call,” in which Lynch plays a slightly schizophrenic barfly. “I catch a Bob kitchen; I fly a Dan garage,” Lynch whines over snaking electronics and psychedelic washes of tremolo. “I swim a George asylum; now Pete’s in charge / Gotta bulb with a ladder; Hang a Pete balloon / I miss you so much, baby; Hope you come back real soon.” It’s easy to imagine this character barking nonsense at the Twin Peaks roadhouse or dribbling in the audience at Mulholland Dr.’s Club Silencio.

“Images come,” Lynch says, “but not so specific. Music conjures images for people, and it’s beautiful that these sounds flowing conjure these pictures and emotions. And it’s what music’s all about. It’s so fantastic. I guess some of the songs could be in the Roadhouse and some could be in Silencio. Like ‘Cold Wind Blowin’’ is more like a roadhouse song. You should get “Cold Wind Blowin’“ playing in bars there down South. It’s got a bar-room feel, and it would make people feel like getting’ another beer.

“The [‘Last Call’] lyrics that you’re describing—the abstract ones—they kind of existed, and I don’t know when the idea for ‘Last Call / time, gentlemen, please’ came in for the chorus, but it popped in there somewhere. The guy, people would picture him at the bar with those lines, and in trouble with his girlfriend, and things aren’t going real well.”

Another highlight is “Star Dream Girl,” which sounds like Roy Orbison playing a lounge somewhere in hell, propelled by guitars that crash like lightning bolts.

“‘Star Dream Girl’ is all Dean,” Lynch says. “I don’t even think I played a guitar on that track. And that track came about because Dean got on a roll one night—we were working on trying to catch a sound for a different project, and basically what Dean did fueled ‘Star Dream Girl.’”

As a filmmaker, Lynch has the comfort of hiding behind the lens. But singing is different—it’s more vulnerable. Lynch has always been mesmerized by his gorgeous, old-Hollywood throwback female stars (Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee, Blue Velvet’s Isabella Rossellini, Mulholland Dr.’s Naomi Watts and Laura Harring). But with his music, Lynch himself is front-and-center—and with The Big Dream, he sounds much more comfortable with his own voice, singing in a more melodic style, often harmonizing with himself.

“I’ve gotten a little bit more comfortable,” Lynch says. “And these effects—they help me. I hear them in my [head]phones, and they help me catch a character. When it comes, even if it’s a regular character—but not me—that really helps me sing. I really love the album, and when I listen to it, it’s like it’s already become a separate thing. I know I sang it, but it’s not really me anymore. It’s something else. So I can kind of enjoy it. It’s a strange phenomenon.”

To many of his diehard fans, Lynch will always be a filmmaker first—not a musician, not a photographer, not a creator of bizarre TV commercials. But he hasn’t made a feature film in seven years, and perhaps that’s because he hasn’t needed to.

“In a strange way, yeah,” he says. “But I love so many different mediums. I’m painting, and I’m working on music with Dean. I’m doing a series of photographs, and whenever I go to Paris, I work on lithography over there. I love all these different mediums. If ideas came, and there was an opportunity—sure, I would make another feature film. But like I’ve said recently, the world of cinema has changed so much.”

For Lynch, it seems irrelevant whether he’s creating a film or an album or a photograph. All the cherry trees and fire ants, all the black bombers and tremolo bars, all the beautiful women and nightmarish monsters—they’re are all connected in one strangely beautiful web of ideas.

“They say we live in a dream world anyway,” he notes, before adding a big Northwestern belly laugh. “Dreams and—as I always say, ‘dream logic’—are things human beings are familiar with. They catch a feeling and ideas that are abstract. Yet if you were having a dream, you would understand them intuitively. This idea of a dreamworld is a big driving force for me.”

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