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"A Beautiful Trip": An Interview With David Lynch
Frances Morgan , December 12th, 2011 07:56

David Lynch released his debut album, Crazy Clown Time this year. Frances Morgan speaks to the legendary film director about the album, and how it's connected to his films' careful and powerful use of sound

Few film directors' names double up as a musical descriptive, but 'Lynchian' passed into the music writer's lexicon some time ago and lingers there, instantly resonant with anyone who's a fan of David Lynch's cinema.

What Lynchian music actually is, of course, is as ambiguous and amorphous as the films (and iconic TV series) it relates to. Are we talking about the staticky, Industrial-influencing sound design of Eraserhead, or the warm, weird vistas of Angelo Badalamenti's themes for Twin Peaks and Mullholland Dr.? The ghostly, sultry swing of Blue Velvet? Chris Isaak in Wild At Heart or the Penderecki bits in Inland Empire? I'd guess you'd get two or three different answers when asking, say, Leyland Kirby or Bohren und der Club of Gore, or asking fans of younger bands who, mining '90s Americana, are seeing and hearing Twin Peaks for the first time. That's before you get to my own personal thing about Lost Highway, a fondness that includes not only the exceptional drone stuff in the film but also the noxious punch of Rammstein, Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails on the OST. And, of course, to Lynch's own music, which has peppered his soundtracks, featured in various collaborations, and this year took form in an album of songs called Crazy Clown Time.

What can certainly be said is that music fans and musicians love Lynch, and he returns the compliment. Aside from their soundtracks, his films are musical, intuitively rhythmic and sonically aware in a way that musicians just get, whether they're cineastes or not. Lynch's films are notable for a kind of shadow sound-world that lurks behind the more obvious stuff, the slow, 6/8-swinging, hi-hat-hissing jazz rhythms, the lip-synced torch-songs, twanging guitars, bruised doo-wop and so on. It is an atmosphere that's felt as well as heard – it can be like thunder in the air, murder in a room, deception on a breath; like a wave of grief or a surge of love or a wordless dread. A spooked echo of nostalgia; a tingle of unease combined with a throat-swell of tears. These are qualities you hear and strive for in music, too: potent ingredients in pop as well as film.

Writing a piece about Lynch's sound for an anthology of film writing last year (see bottom of piece for details), I noticed the ways in which my musical life and Lynch fandom interconnected and dovetailed and sparked off one another. This will happen when you look closely at any two things in your life, within reason. But 2011 turned out to be a year of reappraisal for the idea of Lynchian music from many quarters, with features about the director's influence on pop running alongside those about his own album. It was clear that, for many writers and musicians, the connection was not only strong, but proliferating, morphing, making sense for a new generation of artists and fans.

Throwing Lynch's own music into the mix completes the loop: Crazy Clown Time works both as a nod to the modern artists whom he namechecks and that namecheck him (Karen O guests on one track; on another, the single 'Good Day', you hear the wistful electro-pop that seems to be charming the director at the moment), and as a digitally-enhanced wade through the space-filled, bluesy murkiness and twang he's always loved. Like Laurie Anderson, of whom Lynch's album is often reminiscent, no amount of distortion, autotune and Fairlight-ish processing of the vocals can quite disguise those wry, distinctive tones, reeling off stream-of-consciousness revenge scenarios, suburban surrealism and glimmers of positive-thinking California vibes; and perhaps it's this potent mixture of mystery – imagination, transformation, alteration – and a directness that's almost naïve, close to absurd, that is the most Lynchian thing of all.

Also rather Lynchian is the preamble to our interview. "We're running 12 minutes late!" announces a stressed LA-based PR. Twelve minutes pass.

The PR calls back, then cuts me off before the man he refers to, somewhat frighteningly, as "Mr. Lynch" gets on the line.

He calls back again. He asks if I'm ready.

"Sure," I say, but something is wrong with the connection. There are long pauses, dial tones, a crackle. The PR cuts me off and calls back again. This happens once more.

Another pause, and I hear the PR quietly swearing.

"Is he freaking out?" I hear him whisper. There is another pause. I'm starting to worry a little.

Then, rather too loud and clear, "Hello? Hello? It's David!"

I've been enjoying your new album. Obviously you wrote, played and sang – were you also involved with the mixing and production side of things?

David Lynch: Yes. I'm not the engineer – I work with Dean Hurley, he was the engineer, but we were working together throughout the entire process.

Did that have certain similarities to when you're working with the sound mix of a film?

DL: Exactly! It's the same thing. I guess you could say when you make some kind of thing like a cake, the way the ingredients are mixed together is kinda critical to the taste.

Do you get excited about new technology when it comes to sound?

DL: Almost uncontainably! [laughs] It's so beautiful, the world these days, you know, the amount of technical advancement and the things that a person can do with sound and music. It's really, really beautiful.

A lot of younger musicians want to go back to using older processes and analogue technology…

DL: I think I understand that thing – there's kind of a purity. I know that Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, they only record on vintage '50s or '60s equipment, zero computers, and they get a great sound. I love the blues, I love the sophisticated simplicity of it; but with modern technology I really feel that we can get a thing that lives in the past and zooms in the future at the same time. And to me it would be absurd not to take advantage of what's there now.

Your vocals on the record are very different from track to track – you manipulate and process them to create what feels like a cast of characters.

DL: I like to have a bunch of stuff on the voice - you know, they say everyone doesn't like the sound of their own voice when they hear it, but it's really true for me. And so the more stuff Dean puts on it, it helps me to be somebody else and to get through singing. And sometimes he puts stuff on the voice and a new character can be born, and the character will just naturally sing a certain way. So it's very important and can bring a lot of surprises.

You do hear all these different characters emerging – I guess inevitably, people are going to search for a narrative to the record. Is there one, or is it lots of different stories?

DL: It's lots of different stories, and the thing about lots of different stories is that it's conceivable that a big story could contain all those. But for me, at least right now, it's a series of stories – I like the idea that there's a story in my mind for each one, and a character for each one.

Going back to voices for a minute, I wonder if you've always had a fascination with the voice. In many of your films the voices are very important, ranging from actors you work with who have interesting voices, to scenes like the bit in Mulholland Dr. where Rebekah Del Rio is singing, but then you see she's miming. There's this idea that the voice is a unreliable, mysterious entity.

DL: In a way. I think, like you said, the voice is critical. And I think a voice, a certain voice, will have to say a certain thing in a certain way and at a certain pace – so there's many, many things that have to be because of a certain voice. Or you can have a certain voice, and find many, many things come out of hearing that voice come out of you. So it's really magical, the quality of a voice.

I was just listening to the soundtrack album for Inland Empire, which you wrote a lot of the music for, like the track 'Ghost of Love'. I wondered if that prefigured any of the musical ideas on Crazy Clown Time, and also if working on that soundtrack helped increase your musical confidence?

DL: Yeah, for sure. 'Ghost of Love' was a real important thing for me, where I felt relatively comfortable for the first time on that. Then another thing that gave me more confidence was Dangermouse and Sparklehorse's album Dark Night of the Soul, where I got to sing two songs. It gave me more confidence when they liked what I did with that, so those things are real important.

How come you were so involved in the Inland Empire soundtrack?

DL: Well, I have my own studio, and Big Dean Hurley's the engineer. I always wanted a studio so I could experiment with sound and music, so we're always working, we're always experimenting, and sometimes you get some experiment and you're in the middle of working on Inland Empire and you say, 'This thing is just perfect for this!' So I would say it's like getting a lot of firewood together, so that when a project comes maybe some of it will work.

It's such a sonically amazing film – I think the music and sound design are incredible

DL: Thanks, Frances!

That's alright! I particularly like the ominous, low-end sound that comes in and out throughout it. I love that idea of a heavy atmosphere that can be realised in sound.

DL: Yeah – and you know if it just went willy-nilly throughout it would be one thing, but each scene requires a certain kind of mood, and a certain element, so the whole thing is to try and get every element to marry to that idea, and to make it feel correct, make it feel correct. So anything you put in there has to marry to what's already there, otherwise it breaks.

I was expecting your album to be slow, downbeat, bluesy music. There is some of that, but there are also a couple of uptempo tracks – 'Stone's Gone Up' and 'Good Day'. Could you tell me about those?

DL: Well, one of my favourite tracks is 'Stone's Gone Up', and there again, I don't know exactly how it happened but Dean and I, on pretty much all the songs, started with a jam. So it's picking a beat and a sound on the guitar and experimenting until something arrives that gets us going. I think to change up the tempo is really good, just to see what grows out of that.

Did it feel like you were going out of your comfort zone?

DL: No, no, no! Not really at all!


DL: There isn't any – the comfort zone, I think for everybody, is pretty wide.

Are there any current artists or records recently that you've really liked?

DL: Yeah. I like Lissie. I love Au Revoir Simone. I love Gary Clarke Jr. I like, uh, let's see… I like Lykke Li. I like Dirty Beaches. I like Kitty, Daisy and Lewis. I like The Kills. I like James Blake… There's so many bands and artists that I love, I just…

What is it about a new band that you like?

DL: Well, each one of those ones I mentioned, they're each very different – it's real simple, you just hear something that moves you. With Gary Clarke Jr, it's not a modern sound – he's like the old blues guys – but it's so good, like he's been reincarnated from the blues times, and it just moves me like crazy. A lot of these other ones I mentioned are more modern and have their own sound, but it doesn't matter how modern or what the sound is, it just hits me and I love it.

Are there certain sonic qualities that just grab you, too? Like I associate you with certain sounds, like delay, reverb…

DL: I like those things you mentioned. I like '50s tape-loop slap and I love reverb. I like basically the sound of an electric guitar. That is one of the most thrilling things ever invented.

It must be great to play guitar, then.

DL: Yeah, it's great to light it up and hit it and it's just – it doesn't get much better than that!

What guitarists did you like when you were growing up?

DL: Well, I grew up in the 50s and that's the birth of rock and roll, so all the rock and roll riffs were completely thrilling to me. Jimi Hendrix jumped that, it was like he lit the after-burners on the same essence that was born out of rock and roll, the combo of rockabilly and rhythm and blues and blues…and then Jimi Hendrix came along and took it to another level.

Out of all the film directors of our time, I think you're one of the ones who integrates sound and vision very particularly, and that's still quite unusual, to have those things so closely intertwined. So why is sound so important to you?

DL: I always say that cinema is sound and picture moving together through time. It is so critical. And it can give so much. It's an abstract language, you could say, but it speaks so importantly. But it's a tricky thing. There's the sound and the picture moving together in time, and it's gotta be the right sound with the picture, and that's where experimenting and an intuitive kind of thing comes in there. It's a tricky business!

It must become a lifetime's work, to get that right.

DL: But it's so thrilling! It's the greatest thing, to get in that world and find things that work for you. It's such a thrill when you find it. It's a beautiful trip.

Crazy Clown Time is released as a 'Super Deluxe Edition' on 23rd January, limited to 1000 copies. It's housed in a red leatherette book with silver spine, and includes CD and vinyl LPs, plus an art/lyrics book.

Frances Morgan's essay about Lynch's use of sound is included in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology, a book of film writing and original illustration and comic art about underground and cult cinema, including essays on subjects ranging from Spanish zombies and apocalyptic evangelists to Bergman, Clouzot and Bill Morrison. Download contents and an extract here.

Header photo by Mark Berry