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David Lynch_By Dean Hurley_Press
David LynchPhoto by Dean Hurley

Why are musicians so obsessed with David Lynch?

We speak to the editors of a new book exploring the music of Lynch’s films about the auteur’s unconventional use of sound

Dean Stockwell singing Roy Orbison into a lamp in Blue Velvet; Rammstein blurting as the narrative turns inside out in Lost Highway; “Wicked Game” playing on the stereo as Sailor and Lulu’s love story enters a darker chapter in Wild At Heart; Audrey Horne dancing to cool-cat jazz in Twin Peaks’ Double R Diner. When you think of David Lynch’s cinema, some of its most iconic scenes have been defined by the music playing behind them as much as the image in front.

Though many things have been written about Lynch’s unique approach to sound, Beyond the Beyond: Music From the Films of David Lynch is one of the first major books to explore the subject at length. Edited by JC Gabel and Jessica Hundley, the book features essays about the scores, song selections and sound designs of the auteur’s filmography, interspersed with interviews with musicians like Sky Ferreira, Zola Jesus, and Karen O – artists who’ve managed to express the influence of David Lynch’s worlds within their music. Finally, the book explores Lynch’s own forays into music-making, and how that relates to his artistic output more generally.

With the book arriving at a renewed peak of Lynch-mania – the new series of Twin Peaks will feature 21 musicians among its cast list – we caught up with Gabel and Hundley to discuss what they learned about Lynch’s musical output while compiling the book.

When did you first become aware of Lynch’s unconventional use of sound?

JC Gabel: When I was a kid – Twin Peaks was my first foray into Lynchland. The music is what first drew me in. The show aired in 1990 when I was 14, and it was like a proto-version of the serial television we have today in that everyone at school was talking about this show, as if they were binge-watching it. There was universal love for Lynch and his netherworld. Soon after, I saw Wild At Heart in the theaters. It was one of those films we had to sneak into because we weren’t of age. Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ (which appears in the film) was all over the airwaves. I started reading Barry Gifford novels soon after, because he co-wrote the Wild At Heart screenplay with Lynch. From there, I went back to Blue Velvet, and in that film, in particular, I really became awestruck by Lynch’s use of music in telling a story.

Jessica Hundley: The first time was probably Blue Velvet – the image of Dean Stockwell singing ‘Candy Colored Clown’ into a work lamp/mic is etched into my teenage subconscious. Again and again in Lynch’s work, someone steps up to a microphone, all falls silent, and you as an audience enter this strange, eerie, magic and incredibly moving place. That moment is a cathartic element in so many of his projects, and just emotionally gutting every time.

How do you feel he uses music differently to other directors?

JC Gabel: Like Kubrick, Lynch’s films are so boldly constructed around the music that if you watched the films without dialogue and just music, you’d still be able to follow the story.

Jessica Hundley: Lynch is a filmmaker who truly understands how to express a narrative viscerally – through image, yes, but also through sound. He understands, on a very deep level, how music can manipulate us, how cathartic sound can be, in a very primal, instinctual way.

“Lynch is a filmmaker who... understands, on a very deep level, how music can manipulate us, how cathartic sound can be, in a very primal, instinctual way” – Jessica Hundley

Are there certain qualities or characteristics that you think define the music of Lynch’s films?

JC Gabel: His long-time collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti, who seems to be Lynch’s musical brother-from-another-mother, has dutifully informed his musical landscape. They have worked together since Blue Velvet, (nearly) 30 years ago, and all of Lynch’s films and TV show work is better for it.

Jessica Hundley: Lynch’s music is deeply nostalgic, off-putting, contrasting in such a unique way – the innocence of a 1950s ballad placed amid violence (and) sexuality. He’s continually playing with that contrast. And I agree with JC that Angelo is key collaborator, really one of the most influential and enduring creative partners for Lynch. Angelo’s own sound is integrated into everything they do together.

How do you feel his use of music relates to his art in other media?

JC Gabel: Having spent a fair amount of time over at his place of the last decade, I can tell that music seems to challenge him and spark creativity in other media. In fact, one could argue that he’s spent more time making music and painting in the last decade than he has making films. We’ll see what the Twin Peaks reboot (25 years later) will reveal.

Jessica Hundley: In Lynch’s world, everything relates to the other. Each medium fuels and inspires the next. He’s an artist using different media deftly – I think music particularly draws him because it is meditative, visceral, universal.  

You interviewed a lot of musicians for the book who’ve been influenced by Lynch’s work. Why do you think musicians keep going back to it?

JC Gabel: This is a great question. What’s amazing about someone like Lynch is that, despite the data-dump insanity of the internet, people from all generations (and musicians especially) seem to find their own entry point into his work without the Wikipedia autodidactic overload. Obviously, it is by generation: when we talked to The Flaming Lips, they had seen Eraserhead in the theatre, as a ‘midnight movie’ growing up in the last 1970s, whereas for Sky Ferreira, it was Mulholland Drive in 2001. But each musician seems to have had their ‘aha!’ moment with Lynch. As to musicians being influenced by Lynch, I think his world is visual, but with a musical undercurrent that envelopes and appeals to musicians in particular. Music, like filmmaking and fine art, seems to be in Lynch’s DNA. His films speak to them in ways that other directors don’t. And he personally seems as inspired by music as painting and filmmaking.

“Music, like filmmaking and fine art, seems to be in Lynch’s DNA. His films speak to (musicians) in ways that other directors don’t” – JC Gabel

Outside of the film’s original scores, Lynch licenses a lot of songs from other musicians for his films. When editing the book, did you notice any connecting threads with some of his musical choices?

JC Gabel: Yes, very much so. That’s why we had the interconnected essays that covered his entire oeuvre without everything having to be paint-by-numbers in sequential order, film-by-film. There is so much connective tissue – in fact, we felt we could have gone even farther, and will expand the book after this first first annual David Lynch Film Festival. As to his musical choices, I feel like Lynch is one of those guys who hears the soundtrack in his head while he’s writing or directing a scene, and then picks the right musical accompaniment based on instinct and mood afterwards.

Are there any unsung heroes of Lynch’s sound world?

JC Gabel: I don’t know if he’s an unsung hero or just not as well-known, but Dean Hurley, his musical director and studio guru, has been the driving force of David’s output the last decade or so. Dean is a genius in his own right, and between David, Angelo and him, it’s hard for them not to make something special happen with sound.

Jessica Hundley: Dean and Angelo for sure, as well as a variety of incredibly talented muses he’s had – Julee Cruise, Chrysta Bell, Karen O, Rebekah Del Rio. Female vocalists he’s worked with, I think, are really fuel for his work and inspire him creatively.

A lot of critics have dismissed Lynch’s solo albums as diversions away from his filmmaking. Having spent a lot of time with it when compiling the book, do you feel they’re missing anything?

JC Gabel: I think that David is always experimenting, especially with music, which I find refreshing. His solo albums are interesting in their own right. His art and design work is also worth checking out. Lynch seems to have really taken Ashcan School painter/teacher Robert Henri’s famous book The Art Spirit to heart in everything he does creatively. This text informs his creative choices and free-spirited experimental ways, using a tried-and-true pedagogy that is unstoppable in Lynch’s case.

Jessica Hundley: I don’t think he’d define himself as a musician, or that he’s trying to please critics with his musical output. I think he sees himself more as an explorer, an artist trying to find his way via different media. I think he discovers ideas and themes through music that later are manifested in his films, his paintings – it’s all connected for him, ultimately.  

“In Lynch’s world, everything relates to the other. Each medium fuels and inspires the next” – Jessica Hundley

Do you have a favourite soundtrack?

JC Gabel: I like the soundtrack to Blue Velvet the best. I’m not sure why: perhaps it’s Dean Stockwell’s performance in the film. Perhaps it’s that fact that Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ and Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ evoke a more lurid side of the much-hyped Eisenhower America that some in this country lament, even though it wasn’t as rosy as some remember it the first time around. Lynch is a product of that baby boomer generation and I think his vision of the ‘Be-True-To-Your-School’ America is more realistic than the one the Republican Party in his country tries to pine for every four years. A close second would be Lost Highway, a film that wouldn’t make much sense with its non-linear storytelling without the music.

Jessica Hundley: That’s a hard one. There is something poignant, musically, in everything he’s ever done. One of the things we tried to do with the book is to explore the ways he’s used sound – whether it’s a classical score like Dune or The Straight Story, subverting pop music in Wild at Heart or Blue Velvet, or just defining a new kind of thematic soundtrack with Twin Peaks – and how he’s broken new ground each time. That said, I can’t pinpoint one soundtrack. What he does with music and image, how he somehow gets inside us to the deepest part with his work, is all continually inspiring to me.