Jane Kim

Moby, Jon Hopkins, Zola Jesus, and More On the Cultural Impact of David Lynch’s Music

From 'Twin Peaks' to 'Eraserhead,' five musicians tell us how the director's filmography influenced their careers.

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Sep 29 2016, 9:40pm

Jane Kim

On the 2007 DVD box set edition of Twin Peaks, there's a short featurette on the making of the music of David Lynch's beloved 90s cult series, featuring his frequent collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. Sitting at a Fender Rhodes piano, the composer details how he came up with the memorable, sweeping centrepiece, "Laura Palmer's Theme," and the director's excited reaction to hearing it for the first time.

This dialogue opens Chilean-American composer and musician's Nicolas Jaar's expansive, nearly two-hour 2012 Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1, but it's hardly the first time artists from all genres have drawn inspiration from Lynch and his contributors' work. From DJ Shadow sampling The Giant's ominous proclamation on his audacious 1996 debut Endtroducing... to Australian producer Ben Frost titling a 2009 song after one of the director's most infamous characters, these references range from the subtle to the completely obvious. It's no wonder the term "Lynchian," as NME pointed out in a 2014 article, has "become something of a code word for any band employing ethereal vocal treatments and textured foreboding synthesisers."

With neo-noir mystery Blue Velvet celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, and Twin Peaks returning in 2017 with artists including Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, Sky Ferreira, and Chromatics' Ruth Radelet participating in yet-to-be-disclosed capacities, there's no better time to take a look at the music of Lynch's TV shows and films. From techno veteran Moby to self-described "nerdy super fan" Jamie Stewart of American experimental stalwarts Xiu Xiu, we spoke to five artists to find out how their exposure to his work shaped their own careers as musicians.

Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu, HEXA)

"When I was very young, the show [Twin Peaks] was on television, and I remember not really understanding it and being a little freaked out. Later, I took my younger brother to see Fire Walk with Me when it came out at the theatre up the street from our house, and we didn't know what it was. I would have been like 14 and my brother would have been 8. I have no idea why they let two fairly small children into one of the most horrifying movies ever made, but we sat through it and got scared out of our fucking minds. When I got a bit older, someone showed me Wild at Heart and by that time, I was able to digest it in a constructive way.

If Xiu Xiu were going to list five main influences, one of them would be David Lynch slash Twin Peaks. We've only done covers of songs that have had a really profound effect on us as fans of music and musicians, none of us have said "Oh I can do a better job than Nina Simone" or David Lynch or Angelo Badalamenti. The challenges were many. First and foremost, these are some of the most beloved pieces of popular modern music, you can sing the first two notes of the opening theme and immediately people know what is. We wanted our covers to reflect the way the music had shaped us as players. I think it would have been the opposite of reverence to copy it, taking advantage of these beloved songs and not really giving back to them at all.

It's sort of like asking why do people like Hendrix or why do people like the Rolling Stones or why do people like Joy Division? Fundamentally, it's super thoughtful and unbelievably well done. I think the thing for me about the music from the series and movies that resonates so much is that it's a seamless combination of being very, very frightening at times, very, very funny at times, incredibly simple, incredibly romantic, but also unpretentious. I can't think of any other music that is all of those things at the same time so successfully."

Jon Hopkins

"On my second album [2004's] Contact Note—which I was writing in 2002 and 2003—if you listen to the last three tracks, there's a very Lynchian section in some of those and very dark, which I think was me channeling the inspiration I got from him. The end of the track "Nightjar," I don't know if anyone's noticed, but there's a dreamy quality to it, that to me felt like direct homage. There's always been a cinematic element to my music, and David Lynch is my favourite director, so there's always going to elements that come through. He's known for working quite closely with Badalamenti, and I love the idea of a director having a lifelong relationship with one composer, back in those days that's what I was hoping to find myself."

Lawrence English (Room40, HEXA)

"Jamie [Stewart] and I met in the late Noughties and have working on a HEXA collaboration very slowly, but then the opportunity with the Lynch exhibition [the two were commissioned to soundtrack a retrospective featuring the director's Factory Photographs series at Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art earlier this year] came up, and it basically gave us a really good focus. I really enjoy projects when there is a very strong frame or boundary that you have to work within. We basically wrote a bunch of material and were essentially file-sharing, Dropbox, everybody's best friend, and then Jamie arrived quite early so we had a number of days to practice and develop the piece. I think during the performance a lot of new ideas came out of it, because it's improvisational, and I imagine the pieces that we present next year will probably have another dimension to them.

When I was 15, I got really into cinema, but particular kinds like blaxploitation, no wave, Cinema of Transgression stuff, and obviously Lynch was a very big part of it and particularly Eraserhead. Watching it was the first time I ever realized in some respects, what role sound plays in a film. Watching the video of Angelo talking about the structure of Twin Peaks, the change in that song is so unexpected and profound, and I think that's what a lot of artists aspire to in terms of technical craft. Those moments where it's like 'Wow how did I get here from that thing,' it's like you've gone through a portal or black hole, and you've come out the other side, somehow bringing together these things that would probably seem disparate in any other circumstances.

In Lynch's films, and I think there's other filmmakers that do this too, there's this multi-tiered approach to sound and music where the boundaries between those things are not clear and delineated. You're not really sure where the sound design stops and the music starts sometimes. The music moves along the narrative in a certain way and the pieces have become almost like actors' voices in the films. It's very much about this acoustic kind of language that he's developed that's unlike any other filmmaker's—he's not interested in sound effect, I'd say he's interested in sound affect."

Moby

"I guess it was 1990 and I had written this very obscure minimal techno track called "Go." There was a British record label that wanted to release it, and they needed a remix, so I added a bunch of drums but it still felt too sparse. I was obsessed with Twin Peaks and was working on the remix, and I took a break to watch an episode, and I heard "Laura Palmer's Theme." I turned off the VCR, walked over to my studio setup and played, because the strings are very, very simple. So I played them on an old Yamaha synthesizer and it was the glue that held the remix together. It was my second release and "Go" ended up being a top ten record throughout Europe. I had no idea anyone apart from any of my friends was going to hear it.

I see David Lynch as a very utilitarian filmmaker, and what I mean by that is any element that he can utilize to affect his audience, he will utilize. I don't think he's an academic filmmaker, I don't think he's an esoteric filmmaker per se, I think he's really trying to create something that has a lot of impact for him and the people who are paying attention to what he does. Clearly marrying music to film is a way of achieving that, creating more of an emotional impact, whether it's Inland Empire or Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks.

People turn to art for many reasons, but at the end of the day more often than not, the way in which people respond to art is emotionally. Ultimately that's what David Lynch has done, he's arrested these very personal, very subjective moments and put them out into the world, and they've affected people emotionally. If you're making art and it's not reaching people emotionally, it simply won't be around for long."

Zola Jesus

"I was 13 and I got my hands on a Korean bootleg of Eraserhead. It was the first time I had seen anything by Lynch. The first time I watched it I didn't know what to think, it felt so far removed from anything I was familiar with, it kind of terrified me. But eventually that intrigue and curiosity in his world built up inside me and I couldn't stop watching it, I wanted more.

I think his musical choices are so specific and evoke such a strong association that it's easy to fall into his spell. His music, just like his work as a whole, is a bent version of reality based on a very personal sense of memory and nostalgia. It feels vaguely familiar and innocent, but then there is always something very insidious about it. At the same time, it's wide-eyed and obliquely sinister.

The music of his work is just as important as the image. It works in tandem with the visual to create a very unique atmosphere that is really singular. That deeply evocative world-building was magnetic, and in my own music I have tried to create a similar sense of suspended reality."

All interviews were edited and condensed for clarity.

David Lynch's Festival of Disruption takes place Oct. 8-9 at the Ace Theatre Hotel and Theatre in Los Angeles, get more info here.

Max Mertens is on Twitter.