David Lynch: Big Fish, Little Fish
Cult film director turned music maker David Lynch made a star performance at IMS, as Ibiza inspires the next chapter of his illustrious and creative career.
“BOOM!” David Lynch is animated when talking about transcendental meditation. “Big, big thick happiness within every human being! This technique gets you there to that deepest level and, boom! Life starts getting better and better.”
The enigmatic filmmaker with the Rockabilly quiff and several strings to his creative bow has a sparkle, an infectious vivacity fuelled by daily doses of meditation and David Lynch Signature Cup Coffee. But recently Lynch has discovered another high: electronic music.
“It does a thing that is supposed to be so infectious, it’s supposed to enter the body and the mind at a deep, deep, deep level and make you crazy. It can keep you awake for days and make you so happy. It’s incredible, powerful stuff.”
The world was caught off guard when earlier this year the maverick filmmaker released his electro-pop single, Good Day Today. He is the ultimate artist: writer, photographer, painter and beguiling auteur whose revered career has defied convention for more than 30 years. And now truly accepted as a recording artist.
His famously ambiguous, off-the-wall films tear up the cinematic rulebook with their menacing dreamworlds and twisted complexities: Mulholland Drive, Dune, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, The Elephant Man, Wild at Heart. And he was also the prime mover behind unhinged ‘90s cult TV classic Twin Peaks. Is there anything David Lynch can’t do?
He credits American composer Angelo Badalamenti for “bringing me into the world of music”. Together they collaborated on high-profile scores for Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, and through their meticulous musical efforts Lynch’s understanding of music’s “magical” forms undoubtedly evolved. “It’s a critical, critical element in cinema, and I think one of the most powerful art forms going.”
Lynch is saying all this as he addresses the International Music Summit in Ibiza; virtually speaking, at least. From his LA recording studio some 6,000 miles away, he is projected on to a screen via Skype to 200 leading lights in the music industry at the Ibiza Gran Hotel, revealing how his foray into the music world began.
Occasionally the transmission distorts; the iconic face, those slanted eyebrows and that distinctive nasal tone become weirdly warped so that it almost seems like we’re watching a David Lynch film; one that also stars his sidekick engineer “Big” Dean Hurley, sat to his right, and a naked Barbie doll, who plays cameo, to his left.
The trio are in Lynch’s recording studio, just off Mulholland Drive, where the magic of his new singer/songwriter career is being forged. “I always wanted a studio from the very beginning because I was so loving sound and I needed a place to experiment, so this room is like a dream come true. I was experimenting with sounds for film but little things started changing and sound would get closer to the music and then it kinda led to this.”
His earlier musical collaborations with Badalamenti undoubtedly played a part in whetting Lynch’s musical appetite. So much so that he’s now completed his debut artist album. He describes his sound as “’50s bad car engine Chicago electric blues, very, very bad quality, smoke, rough running”. But when it comes to talking about the album, he and Hurley are cunningly evasive. “We have a title… but we haven’t told anybody the title.”
This year’s IMS is quite momentous for Lynch and for all of those involved in the extraordinary story of his new musical career. For it was here, exactly one year ago, that KCRW DJ Jason Bentley “sheepishly” presented Lynch’s track, Good Day Today, to IMS partner Ben Turner because “it kinda sounds like Underworld”. To which Turner immediately responded “I love it, it’s a genuine classic”.
With BBC Radio 1 DJ Rob Da Bank they ended up signing Lynch to their independent British label Sunday Best Recordings. The track “went like wildfire around the internet” says Turner. And with striking artwork by design talent Vaughan Oliver – who produced seminal sleeves for the likes of Pixies – the David Lynch electro-pop package was complete.
“It is an incredible story,” Bentley adds. “And here we are a year later at the IMS.” Equally incredible is the fact that Bentley initially hadn’t realised the track was Lynch. “I mistakenly played what was David Lynch’s track on KCRW and credited it on air as a new Underworld composition. Shortly thereafter the blogs are ablaze and I get contacted by Underworld’s camp saying, ‘this isn’t us, this isn’t us’. You know, I felt terrible. I went back, looked closer at the MP3s and turns out it was a new David Lynch track.” One hiccup led to a silver-lining scenario, and Lynch’s optimistic, synthy soundscapes have been met with wide acclaim.
“You guys got mixed up though, but the mixed-up thing really worked in my favour,” Lynch laughs.
Taking a turn into the electronic music world might have, at first, seemed pretty far fetched for Lynch fans; the least likely form of artistic expression many would have expected from the 65-year-old filmmaker. But in the highly influential hands of Turner, Da Bank and their leftfield record label, Lynch is not as random a recruit as would first appear. Sunday Best is synonymous with pioneering eclectic new talent, and the experimental, offbeat qualities of Good Day Today and second single I Know make Lynch the perfect candidate.
“Yeah, you know there are ten trillion people in the music business,” Lynch says. “And, you know, you meet Rob and Ben and you meet two very great human beings right away. I felt real good about them as people, and they’d said right away ‘let us prove to you guys what we can do’, and they got those two songs out in a huge way around the world. I’ve had so much good feedback thanks to them so it’s real, real, real important for us to do the album with Sunday Best Recordings.”
Da Bank and Turner’s relationship with Lynch began in a cafe in Paris (at Lynch’s favourite haunt, Cafe de Flore) and more recently continued in LA, where they “got plastered with ten or 11 amazing tracks that prove that the album’s very much not an Underworld project and that it’s a real across-the-board, big musical journey,” according to Da Bank.
Lynch has never been to Ibiza, but he seems to have an implicit understanding of its electronic music culture. “I have a big appreciation for it, now more than ever.” But despite his professed love for making music, you’re not likely to catch him performing on stage. “Never say never, but unfortunately I am not a real musician. I can play things once… but to play it again and to learn it and to perform it and to make it right, that is another whole art form and I’ve got nothing but respect for all the great musicians that can tour and sell this thing night after night. It’s so beautiful, and it would be a thrill – but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
He seems more content in his studio, experimenting with the sounds that Hurley, his engineer and “extra pair of hands”, helps him produce. “I’m not convinced it is music yet,” Hurley says. “It’s still left to be said. But you know it’s confounded me too ‘cos we’d already talked about this concept of modern blues and, you know, started grouping those like-sounding songs together. In their creation you just set a bunch of variables in motion and see what happens and you can’t necessarily define the result of what it is.”
The idiosyncratic artist, pop star and purveyor of coffee also dabbles in woodwork and lamp sculpture, but meditation is one of his long-standing passions. He established the David Lynch Foundation in July 2005 with the aim to spread the teaching of transcendental meditation – something he has sworn by since the ‘70s. The foundation was set up “for consciousness-based education and world peace” with the intention to raise money to provide transcendental meditation to any student in the world who wants it. “All these homeless people are learning to meditate. They just get this experience of transcending. The American Indians suffering from all kinds of stress and diabetes, they’re doing big research on how transcendental meditation is helping them. Children of the night, young girls and prostitutes – teenagers from like 12 to 17 – they’ve got post-traumatic stress disorder like crazy. You give them this technique and boom! Happiness comes.”
Lynch’s enthusiasm is warming and contagious. He is not the doolally director you would expect, but a cool, coffee-swigging character with a wicked, boyish sense of humour. And despite his new musical endeavours, he hasn’t turned his back on film. “I’m trying to fish for ideas for my next film. We try to catch big ideas, we swim in ideas. The little fish swim near the surface, and the bigger fish swim much deeper. Once in a while you catch a big idea, and it can lead to music, film, painting – all kinds of things. But like fishing, you need patience. You can’t guarantee that in the next five minutes you’re going to catch anything.”
And there’s the album to look forward to. “It reminds me of some folk music, soundtracks, indie and electronica,” Da Bank says. “There are so many different genres in there but it’s just totally different from anything and that’s the most exciting thing for me about releasing this record – it is completely fresh. It doesn’t necessarily sound like a David Lynch record, it just sounds like a really fresh take on something.”
Da Bank turns to Lynch. “Some of the songs sound quite dark and evil and you’ve got some fairly crazy sort of vocal interpretations on your voice, which can be really high pitched and sort of spooky. When you listen back to them, how does it make you feel?” To which he responds, completely deadpan in typical Lynchian fashion: “Real, real, real happy.”
First published in Pacha Magazine, Ibiza, July 2011.
© Abbey Stirling