Interview by Adam McKibbin
Filmmaker David Lynch is a renowned experimenter - not just in the medium of film, but also with paint, comics, furniture, and even coffee beans. Musically, he’s delved deep into meditative sounds and abstract sonic experimentation, leading to albums with Marek Zebrowski, Jocelyn Montgomery, and longtime collaborator Angelo Badalamenti.
But throughout the years, one experiment Lynch never tried was plunking down in front of the microphone himself. “I always was super embarrassed to sing,” he says. But that changed on “Ghost of Love,” a hauntingly poignant track that first appeared on the Inland Empire soundtrack and is now available as a single - and a precursor to a full blues-inspired album, with Lynch sitting in the troubadour seat the whole time.
The famed director and new singer sat down at his studio in the Hollywood Hills to discuss his upcoming album, his high school marching band, and the reasons why Radiohead may inadvertently increase homelessness in LA.
Was “Ghosts of Love” always connected somehow to Inland Empire?
No. It was the first song where I sang high - not high on drugs. [Laughs] With a high voice.
The cover for the single is pretty rock-and-roll - you’ve got the cigarette and the sunglasses. There’s a clip on YouTube of you singing with a big cowboy hat. I’m wondering whether there’s a persona at work.
There has to be a persona, otherwise I couldn’t do it. It seems like the cowboy hat and the sunglasses help a lot. It helps a lot.
You’ve talked in the past about how an audience’s experience of a film can be hurt by knowing too much personal stuff about the filmmakers. Do you feel the same holds true for music?
I think the whole thing is the purity of the experience. You don’t want to do anything to hurt people’s experience of going into another world. And so that should be protected.
What stage is the album in?
There are songs written. I’d say there are three songs ready to go, and about four or five in the works. We’re finding a groove, and it’s going along, yeah.
The expectation after an album release would be live shows.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve talked about that. I can play things once. The problem is playing them twice. [Laughs] We’d have to get a band together and work stuff out. It’s conceivable, but there’s a lot of work to be done before the road show.
Some songwriters say that songs can arrive at any time, and others will say that they really have to be in the right mindset to get a song. What’s the process like for you?
Well, how it’s working now is that there are chords that are picked. Dean will program these chords into my guitar, and then we get a drum beat going. The tempo and the type of the beat, the sound of the guitar, and those chord progressions - that conjures a mood and makes you play a certain way. Dean will put on a bass track and we’ll throw out stuff and rearrange some stuff. And then listening to it, lyrics will come.
And when you finish is there a “Boom! Voila!” moment?
Yeah, yeah, yeah - same with everything. Painting, films, music - there’s a moment when you say “It’s done, it feels right.” There are some times when you go and listen to something really objectively later and you say “Oh, you know, I could maybe tweak that a little bit.” But mostly it feels correct.
How far back can you trace the roots of your love for music? Was there a parental inspiration?
Well, it was a little bit [due to] my parents, who loved music. My dad played the violin, and he played the tuba and piano. He liked to sing. I played trumpet and I loved playing trumpet - until I went to high school, where they forced all the orchestra people to join the marching band, which is when I quit. There went the trumpet.
But I really think I have a love of sound, and experimenting with sound. It seems to go hand in hand with picture in the world of cinema. I was always interested in sound, but wasn’t really a musician at all. But sounds go towards music, and I loved that area, of dancing closer and closer to music with sound effects.
Then I met Angelo Badalementi, and I always say that Angelo brought me into the world of music. Angelo liked to get lyrics and then he would write a melody, but I found that it was much better if I sat with Angelo while he was finding the melody. So it’s Angelo’s melody, but I would veto many different things - and that was cool with Angelo. And when he found it, man, that guy is a melody maker, a beautiful musician. I love working with Angelo.
Then we started working with Julee Cruise and made an album, and we did music for Twin Peaks and stuff like that. But I never played. I was producing stuff with Angelo. I always wanted a studio, so this was built in ’97. This is a place to experiment. Now Big Dean Hurley is the engineer, and Dean is a great engineer and he’s also a musician. He loves all the different parts of music. I started experimenting with my own music and I started singing - which is really, really strange to me. I always was super embarrassed to sing. But now I like to sing sometimes. So I would like to do a blues album.
You say you were attracted to sound, but not necessarily music. Does that mean you weren’t or aren’t an album collector?
No. I never really collected albums. I mean, I have hundreds of albums in the archives. I get them, but I never had time to listen to them. I listen to them sometimes, but I wouldn’t go into a room and get lost for hours in listening.
Were you experimenting with found sound, then?
Yeah, recording sounds and fiddling with them, manipulating them. The idea was that you could be in this room, with only a recorder and some outboard equipment, and write a symphony. You could create a whole world with just the sounds you could make. And now it’s way, way easier. There are billions of tools for endless experimentation.
Let’s talk about Angelo for a minute or two.
Sure. Angelo sent me twenty-two dollars for my birthday. Brand new, crisp dollars. He’s never sent me that much. He always sends me money, but usually it’s two or three, sometimes four dollars. Always new bills. He’s so right - they’re among my favorite presents. That’s something that Angelo knows: it’s so great to receive money in the mail.
How were you two brought together? He was a vocal coach?
Yeah, that’s right. We were in Wilmington, North Carolina - “we” being the film crew for Blue Velvet. The producer was Fred Caruso. I was in a studio in Wilmington with a band, ready to go, and Isabella [Rossellini] was going to sing “Blue Velvet” with this band. It needed to be kind of a hotel band in a way - it wasn’t supposed to be high-end. I think these guys could have done it, but Isabella had learned the wrong version of “Blue Velvet.” She learned the 1952 version. Totally different. Same lyrics, but not the same feel. Bobby Vinton’s version is what I wanted. So it was a bust in the studio. Fred said, “Look, let me bring my friend Angelo up to work with Isabella, and very quickly he can get her to the right place.”
So Angelo Badalamenti came down, and I didn’t even see him. He went to Isabella’s hotel, which was this boarding house kind of place. In the lobby downstairs, they had a piano. So Angelo got everything worked out in one morning, recorded it on a little cassette, like the kind you used to carry around, and he brought it over to the Beaumont house where we were shooting in the backyard. I met him and he played it and I said, “Angelo, that’s so great - we could cut it into the film right now.” He was very happy, I was really happy, and that might have been the end of it right there. But he would take Isabella to New York later and get session players and work the whole thing out. I think I went up to that session on the second day or something like that, and I heard it and it was beautiful.
But in the meantime, I wanted “Song To The Siren” by This Mortal Coil. But they could not get it - and I was dying. So Fred Caruso again said, “David, you’re always writing these little fragments on paper and stuff like this” - and I’m smelling a rat. He said, “Why don’t you send those to Angelo and Angelo will write you a song to use instead of This Mortal Coil.” I said “Fred, there are 500 trillion songs - I want This Mortal Coil. I don’t want another song - I want this song.” Fred said, “David, you can’t have this song, so you have to get another song.”
So I sent some lyrics to Angelo as an experiment, but sort of depressed that it had come to this. But they’re so smart, these guys. Because I was invested in it - those were my lyrics - I had a predisposition to like what came. Like psychological warfare. As it turned out, Angelo wrote a very beautiful thing. He says he thought my lyrics really sucked. He didn’t know what to do with them. He also saw it sung by a completely different kind of singer than what I was thinking of - but that did to lead Julee Cruise, that led to the song “Mysteries of Love,” and that did go in the film. To me, it’s beautiful. And I got This Mortal Coil for Lost Highway, later in time.
The ongoing collaboration with Angelo, then, sounds pretty unique. It’s not a case where you have a meeting and go off and work independently.
No, it’s working together. Like I always say, the bottom line is that the music has to marry with the picture. That’s a tricky business. It’s lots and lots of working together, experimenting, talking, doing a bunch of stuff. But with Angelo, it’s just always so much fun. Really good things have come from this working relationship.
There’s a debate now - heightened by the Radiohead release last year - about whether people should become accustomed to getting their music or their art for free.
I just saw this thing in TV where in some country - I think it’s an African country - they have taken to this idea that CDs are advertisements for people to come to their shows. They have these big shows where bands play to huge crowds. The CD is just an advertisement - and that’s the way it’s going more and more here. They’re way ahead of us. They never shot film because they couldn’t afford film, so they’ve been into digital video forever, and they’re making hundreds of films. Just like now a theatrical release is sort of an advertisement for the DVD. It’s just going that way.
Pretty soon film will be hit with the same thing as music - people will be finding feature films like they find tunes. It will be a different world. The problem with piracy and getting stuff for free is that pretty soon you can’t afford to make anything or live anywhere. So there will just be that many more homeless people. Even in LA, it gets chilly or rainy, like it is today. So you imagine, you’re with your cardboard box in the rain and you’re hungry, and you’re just not going to be making those albums anymore, you know what I mean? You’re going to try to get your next meal. And your tastes will probably change. Cheap wine will start to be just as good. [Laughs] You’re just looking for some cheap wine and a sandwich.