Ever wonder which movies inspire your favorite bands or how filmmakers work with artists to compile your favorite soundtracks? Sound to Screen is a regular feature that explores where film and music intersect. With David Lynch’s Festival of Disruption descending on Los Angeles this weekend, we talked to St. Vincent, Blondie, and Rhye about the filmmaker’s transcendental effect on their art.
Watching a David Lynch film is like walking into somebody else’s dream. His best films have the capacity to change lives irrevocably, their shape-shifting narratives at turns effeminate, humorous, quirky, and pretty, albeit with a black undercurrent. Lynch presents complex collages of plot whipped into a frenzy, tapping into the almost transcendentally eerie calm that follows grief. His movies sit like fresh, scabbing wounds: gaping, bloodied, but unbowed.
Lynch’s art is frequently mischaracterized as the wound itself, but as the late David Foster Wallace once remarked, that analysis misses a key component of the filmmaker’s worldview: “The very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” Lynch communicates serious pain, amplifying it until it cannot be denied while also insisting upon the reality within which it lives. There’s a lot of surreal science fiction to Twin Peaks, but at its core is a tragic story of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Blue Velvet disturbs what looks to be an idyllic small town with shocking violence, revealing the rotten core at the center of even the most vanilla-seeming society. And, well, Eraserhead probably has something to do with the crushing pressure of the modern, industrial world. Probably.
Simply put, Lynch is a touchstone, an influence to the artist and a solace to the outsider. “Who else could have Mel Brooks, Robert Plant, and St. Vincent on the same bill and have it make any sense?” asks Erik Martin, Chief Creative Officer for the David Lynch Foundation, the nonprofit organization behind this coming weekend’s Lynch-curated Festival of Disruption at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. On a personal note, his films have had a major impact on me: Flashbacks of scenes have matched nights on the highway along the coast of South Africa or the trauma of horrible, hurtful relationships. It’s the type of art that gets sewn together with so many important memories that I sometimes feel it should come stamped with its own trigger warning. I’ve cried, unexpectedly. I’ve laughed, conveniently. It’s delicate material to be handled with caution. But when handled properly, its rewards are many.
Seeing as how Lynch is someone who completely understands the reality of darkness, it seems fitting that his Festival of Disruption recognizes the need to offer a salve and escape. In a time of police subjugation, racism, oppression, and mass violence, we need to disrupt the norm and shuffle solutions (or at least attempts at solutions) into our agenda, to find a better way of life by transcending the expected. “Meditation offers a tool for people to process their suffering, endure adversity, and yet not be taken down by it,” says Jessica W. Harris, Executive Producer for the DLF’s live events and music division, DLF Live. The Festival of Disruption aims to foster meditation through mind-altering art, with all proceeds helping to bring Lynch’s favorite transcendental meditation to those suffering from stress and trauma. “[Transcendental meditation] helped me through a very hard time, and it helps me every day,” Martin says. “I like to repeat and share what David says: ‘It works if you’re a human being.'”
To those uninitiated, transcendental meditation is a technique meant to allow practitioners to detach from anxiety and promote harmony and self-realization. It was initially promoted by an international organization founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys. But the David Lynch Foundation is now trying to bring that to the masses, introducing the healing benefits of meditation to “at-risk” populations like the homeless, military veterans, war refugees, and prison inmates. And the Foundation has its sights set on expanding from the occasional benefit concert to an annual festival. “The festival became a culmination of the Foundation’s work over the last 11 years,” Harris explains. “We saw an opportunity to create an event that can be hosted year after year and travel worldwide.” As Martin argues, both the festival and Lynch’s art aim to give audiences something to think about in the long term. “Life is in fact a festival of disruption,” he insists. “But how we live within that is the cosmic game.”
Photo by Dean Hurley
The philanthropic element certainly was a draw to the artists involved in the festival, allowing them the opportunity to give back in addition to performing for eager fans. But for some of the top artists on the bill, the ability to play a festival headed by David Lynch was a massive magnet on its own. That long, inspirational shadow seems to be the reason St. Vincent will be making a rare live appearance in 2016, why Rhye’s Mike Milosh excitedly discussed his favorite Lynch films and shared news of an upcoming record, and why Blondie were eager to talk about their upcoming, star-studded record and share an exclusive preview of guitarist Chris Stein’s photography, which will be on display at the festival.
Come to think of it, the two aren’t necessarily entirely divergent drives. Looking back at Lynch’s films, they often leave plenty of space for open-ended thought, little moments and feelings repeated like mantras, letting the brain explore and feel a sense of calm, peace, and beauty beyond even the deepest darkness.
Click ahead for interviews with St. Vincent, Blondie, and Rhye.
Photo by Renata Raksha
You’re currently taking a break from the press cycle and touring, but you’ve chosen to do this festival. What was the clincher, the hook that drew you in?
Two words: David Lynch.
Growing up, how formative was David for you?
I once had an iced tea at a diner in Midtown with a great violinist. He asked me if I had heard Franz Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and when I said, “No,” he exclaimed, “How much you have to look forward to!”
Who would play you in the film of your life?
In essence, David Lynch’s festival is inspired by the work and mind of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and bringing it into the sphere of art and entertainment. Life is a continuous whirlwind; we go through wobbles, intense highs, and work. It’s hard to get through it all. As an artist in the spotlight, if you are feeling a little disconnected, what do you do to click back and center yourself?
I am lucky to say that my process as an artist has been self-reinforcing and exponential. More experience! More ideas! More fun! More absurd! More serious! Let’s fucking do this! If I am bereft, it is because I am imbalanced in some form. Too much output and not enough input. Or too much input and not enough output. I am always looking for psychic and artistic homeostasis.
Then what keeps you awake at night?
Ideas. Sometimes creative endeavors that I am excited to work on. Sometimes compulsive thoughts that I’d rather not be having. Control, control, control.
The festival will be using its proceeds to bring transcendental meditation to those suffering from trauma and stress. Do you feel your music could be considered meditative? Do you find the creation process meditative?
For me, the creation process is increasingly more stream of consciousness, and in that way, more meditative. When I think of meditative music, I think of Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s The Pearl, or 1960s downtown minimalism. In that way, I don’t think of most of my own work as trance-like due to the (often) jarring-ness of the variation.
And Lynch’s work is frequently praised for blending the absolute mundanity and absurdity inherent in reality. Do you see life at those extremes?
I do! The other day I saw a man riding a bicycle on Santa Monica Boulevard with no helmet, just a yoga mat in his backpack. I thought, “Hmmm…”
Considering the muddiness of the world, what is the most encouraging sign for the future?
I have recently heard stories of North Koreans eating rats to survive. Finally finding freedom after starvation, rape, and torture. The human animal at its best is resilient, resourceful, and compassionate. I believe that transcendental meditation is a tool that gets the human animal closer to those streams.
Photo by Guy Furrow
You’ve chosen to do David Lynch’s Festival of Disruption having played just a few shows this year. What was the clincher, the hook that drew you in for both of you to provide a talk and for you, Chris, to exhibit your photographs?
Chris Stein: I was thinking about why I admire David, and it’s that he never really sold out. He’s always true to himself and his vision of weirdness. Sure, he did a couple of commercials in Japan, but he’s always been an outsider. We have tremendous admiration for David, and I just appreciate his aesthetic, which has to do with abstraction, which is different than what we’re used to in the world of commercial media and films. It’s inspirational, and I’m really looking forward to the TV show if he ever gets it off the ground.
Debbie Harry: He frees me up. He doesn’t keep everyone frozen in a predictable plot line. He gives a lot of opportunities for thought and lets your mind go off, and that’s sort of like a jazz experience where you get to ad lib a little bit. He leaves doors and windows open, and you can’t help but go and figure out what it could be and what the meaning is. He leaves things hanging, and he leaves questions behind, and it’s always very intriguing. It’s like the best kind of scenario. Our connection to David is part of our connected spirit, in a way. I guess we are all influenced by each other. I think we are all very fascinated from the very beginning with Lynch.
Stein: I was plugged into Eraserhead. He’s great. He’s really maintained himself.
Harry: How many times did we go to that midnight show of Eraserhead, Chris?
Stein: All the time. Every now and then I re-watch all his films.
And his work is so often praised for blending that absolute mundanity and absurdity inherent in reality. Do you see life at those extremes?
Harry: That’s totally accurate, and that’s really what life is like because you’re always taken by surprise.
Stein: I’ve been seeing people using the phrase “Zombie Urbanism.” It’s about how surprises are taken out of the big cities now. When things were more so-called “dangerous” here in New York, things would surprise you on the streets, but now everything has just become fucking Walt Disney. That’s now going away a little.
Harry: It’s gone away a lot.
Stein: Well, I’m just being generous.
I do feel that our insane devotion to connectivity is certainly something that can squash surprises. I’m unsure if people who are entering into the entertainment industry now are able to have any mystery anymore?
Harry: And it all just seems predetermined, anyway. We’ve gone from A to Z towards the end of the alphabet, as far as our appreciation of our lives entwined with technology goes. Instead, everyone should go back to A, and this is going to sound kind of hippie-ish, but everyone’s first thought when you wake up should be the Earth, because the Earth really needs our help. All of the special qualities that we have as beings come from our magnetic relationship to the Earth. Technology is a terrific part of that, but the primary thought should be with preservation of the place that has given us life.
Stein: I think that connectedness is replacing learning to a degree, and that’s kind of fucked. I can’t believe how stupid people are. Did you see Hillary Clinton on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis? It’s fucking great, but people think it’s a real thing, writing that she’s going to have him killed for being so rude! It’s crazy. I’d like to think that the IQ of the masses is greater than the individuals, but sometimes it’s questionable. I like the idea of the hive mind, and I think we’re getting there with technology, but it’s not really there yet.
Harry: But that’s what I’m talking about. They don’t have a focus; they don’t have a proper focus. It’s not technology. Focus is a basic human instinct for survival, and that’s being overlooked. People are so involved with the trivial and mechanical aspects of what this technology is that they are foregoing and forgetting about where it originates from. In order to go forward, you have to go backwards first.
And what we were saying earlier regarding the duality David likes to explore — your music sometimes sits at that intersection of disco and punk where you manage to balance that prettiness and darkness the same way David does. How do you find a way to make those two seemingly opposite things somehow exist together?
Stein: Every light is dark. That’s part of existence. People may deny it, but it’s always there.
Harry: Life is strictly horrible for most people. There’s so many horrible things that happen to us. The idea that we’re supposed to have a perfectly happy life is absurd beyond belief. We all know that, but everyday we’re bombarded.
Stein: I don’t know if you’ve seen Louis C.K.’s great riff about that. He embraces being miserable frequently. His sadness is something he thinks is a benefit. I don’t know if that’s just a line, but in theory it sounds good.
You both will be giving a talk at the festival that will relate to the concepts of “disruption” and “transcendence” in art and music, and also a discussion of the NYC scene and Chris’ photos of Blondie’s formative years. What do you mean by disruption in terms of art and music?
Stein: Well, David has a foundation in the surrealist and Dada movements, and those guys did their best to disrupt. The punk and hip-hop scenes were very disruptive to the status quo of the music business. There were a few people who embraced those movements, [but] it was still a big hurdle, the whole do-it-yourself thing. These elements were so anti what had been established and what all the hit records in the music business had been up to that point.
Harry: And how technology gives everyone the illusion that they’re actually communicating. It’s a false positive. We all have different kinds of courage, I think. Different talents and stamina to overcome stress, and a lot of that determines just how much punishment one can take! [Laughs.]
Punishment is the most perfect superlative. Chris, you use photography as a methodology to capture a moment, which is one way of disrupting time because time flows and photography captures a single part of it.
Stein: The time-travel element of photography is important to me. Of course, it’s harder now, but a lot of the street photography I did in the early ‘70s was because I was drawn to the decay and broken things in the city on a daily basis. I just wonder about time-travel elements in modern photography. With everybody recording everything constantly, will [it] have the same effect on people in another 20 to 30 years?
Harry: Well, it’s very funny because when we first started the technology for instant replay and recording wasn’t there, so I often felt in a performance, “Well, that’s a good thing, but it’s gone!” I once worked with a director, a funny, odd little theater person, and she refused to record any of her plays. That’s a very disruptive attitude about your work. It’s like Picasso drawing in the sand and then the waves coming in and washing away his work. This is something he actually did, so there is some kind of value to that, I think.
Exclusive Photo Provided by Chris Stein: “Novelty Shop Times Square 1973”
Do you find that art is a form of meditation for you?
Stein: To a certain extent. It’s also something that’s really natural to me. You know William Gibson? He describes this system when everyone has cameras implanted in their heads and photographing what they see. I would be all for it because I am always seeing images that I wish I would be able to capture.
Didn’t he mention how time moves in one direction and memories and our minds move in another?
Stein: Yeah, how we perceive time is certainly limited and probably doesn’t have anything to do with the actual movement of the universe. But this chat is so good because it gave us some direction for our talk, because I didn’t have an agenda for the festival yet!
Speaking of time, are you working on any new projects?
Stein: Oh, we have a new record coming out! Debbie, did you hear those mixes?
Harry: Yeah, I did!
Stein: We’ve written a lot of stuff for it and collected a lot of songs from other people, so we have a lot of material that’s been donated.
Have you recorded them already, or are you still in the process?
Stein: Oh, it’s pretty much all done at this point.
Do you have a release date yet?
Stein: Maybe end of the year, early next year.
Is there one throughline narrative to the album, or are there multiple themes that you’ve tackled over the years?
Harry: What happens for me and the songs is that the lyrics are always about relationships for the most part, and then there’s this musical aspect, the component of emotion that exists in the music exclusively without any lyrics. When those two things are combined, whatever happens to the listener is truly individual. That’s probably why everyone is so in tune with music. You can’t help it; it’s just something that you can’t help.
Do you feel like you pushed production in terms of using new technology?
Stein: The last two records before this were a little more electronic and computer-based, but this one is more organic and very much band-based, a little more old-school.
Tell me about the collaborators that you worked with?
Stein: As soon as we started asking around for songs, people started giving us stuff. We have a song by Johnny Marr, a song by Dev Hynes, a song by Sia and Nick [Valensi] from The Strokes. And also from … you know who The Gregory Brothers are? They’re YouTube stars, the guys that Auto-Tune the news and the “Double Rainbow” song. They’re great musicians.
And incredibly distinctive voices in there. Do they perform on the tracks?
Stein: We have The Gregory Brothers on a couple of tracks and Joan Jett on another track.
Wow! I’m so excited! I’m sorry, I’m gushing. Will you tour on the back of it?
One last question: I was wondering, considering the state of the world — it’s muddy, dark, and chaotic at most times — what do you feel is the most encouraging sign for the future?
Stein: I see substantial resistance to all the bad shit that’s going on, you know? I mean, I wish fucking Elizabeth Warren had run in some capacity, but I don’t know if she had enough behind her. People are standing up, you know? I certainly appreciate and identify with Black Lives Matter in spite of their detractors. I think there needs to be more resistance to the status quo.
Harry: I don’t know if there is an overall positive sign. I think everybody is sort of muddling through. I don’t really have a lot of first-hand connections with kids, but I think in their vocabulary, kids have a more automatic way of thinking about the environment, and I think that if we don’t have that, we don’t have anything. I can’t say it enough or often enough, really, that the first thought in anybody’s mind when they wake up in the morning should be, “OK, what am I going to do today to save the Earth?”
Tell me about the year you’ve had so far?
I’m kind of always touring. My philosophy behind touring has been to do smaller runs of shows but keep playing constantly. So, for the last three and a half years, I’ve played more than 300 shows. But it’s never like six months on the road constantly. It’s two weeks or four weeks. I think the longest I’ve done is six weeks, and then I’ll take four weeks off. I like doing special things like the David Lynch festival. I just don’t see the value in longer [tours] that exhaust you and tire you out, and I want to make sure every performance has something fresh about it. I’m also starting to show new songs as I’m getting closer to finishing my second record for Rhye.
Are you going to record with Robin [Hannibal] in Denmark, too?
He’s actually not involved anymore. He’s not been involved in Rhye for a long time! I just never did any press about it. He was involved only in the very first stages, but he can’t play any instruments onstage and is really his own kind of individual. I’ve been pretty obscure about a lot of stuff. I just don’t always feel like I need to tell every little thing about what’s going on. People keep thinking that he was the keyboardist on stage with me, but he’s not; it’s this guy named Ben Schwier who’s a brilliant piano player.
Well, I’m glad you’re opening up now, and while it isn’t necessarily something you’d want to divulge, it’s best to have the truth out there. Is the new record finished?
Well, it’s almost finished, and usually from the point where it gets finished to release takes about six months. So, it’ll be next year but done very soon.
Do you feel like you’re still maintaining the essence of Rhye and the sounds that you’ve been exploring for a few years?
I started doing songs a little more earthy in a lot of ways. Instead of a lot of the synth sounds, I started using a Hammond E-3 onstage, which is a 50-year-old organ. It just sounded so good live, so it informed a lot of the sound on the new record.
But I feel like that’s your way as an artist, to create space within your sounds. Were you inspired by certain things that set you off this year while you were writing it, or is this all material just milling in the back of your mind?
I write everything out of personal experience. I can’t really write fictionally or by design; I just write about things that are happening. I think the biggest thing is, one: I had a pretty heavy breakup, and that’s informed a lot of songs on the record. The other thing is I was in a weird legal and contractual issue that was preventing me from releasing a second Rhye record, so I had to buy out the label that was preventing that song from coming out.
You said a little while ago that there’s a lot of mystery around you, but then you lay everything out there in your music!
[Laughs.] Yeah. I think maybe that’s why I’m a little bit more closed off with my public persona. Maybe that’s why there’s not a lot of photos of me online, because I’m extremely honest in the music. Like, maybe I just feel like that’s enough. The only difficulty is that sometimes certain songs are hard to play live depending on things that are happening in my life.
How did you get involved with David Lynch’s festival?
He called my manager, and I was like, “OK, we have to do this!” I really like him. I don’t practice transcendental meditation, but I’ve always been interested and intrigued by it, so it just kind of felt like the right natural draw. Sometimes things like that happen in my life. If I’m interested in something, it somehow comes to me in a really intense way where I can’t ignore it. It’s really strange, because Mulholland Drive was a huge film for me. I live right by where they filmed a lot of it, so it’s always been in my head, and I watched it again right after I moved to L.A. There’s all this weird mystery that keeps happening to me in L.A., and I don’t know how they can all be so connected.
Really? Like what?
Here’s a really interesting one that I won’t go too deep into. I’m in Japan and I see this woman walking with a suitcase, and it’s just ridiculous, so I take note of it. She’s Asian, so I don’t know for sure she’s not Japanese or something. Then we play this concert, and afterwards I go for sushi, and I’m sitting at this weird, cool sushi place, and the same woman is sitting right behind me, so I feel compelled to say something about her luggage. I start talking to her, and she’s from L.A., and we just have this really nice conversation. That’s it. Just a couple of weeks ago, I start hanging out with this girl Genevieve for this dinner party. I go to her house, and then the woman who owns this house is not there. I meet her last night for the first time, and the woman who owns the house is the woman I’d met at the sushi place. Turns out she owns these motels around California.
That’s nuts! People enter your life for definitive reasons, so there has to be something you’re going to learn. But you mentioned transcendental meditation earlier. Do you think that your music could be considered meditative? Or do you find the creative process meditative?
I’ve often said that my personal approach to music is meditation for me. It roots me and keeps me sane because I’ve got this constant exploration into something other than myself. I think where it aligns very much with what David Lynch is trying to do with this festival is, I think that my whole goal with music is to be healing for an individual in an emotional way. I’ve had this amazing collection of letters from people about how music helped people get through tough times, from deaths in families, to breakups, to unions, to marriages, to having children. It’s very sweet and gives me this extra push.
That sort of meditation within your music helps people who are suffering because there’s a sense of escapism in your music. I hate that word because it always …
… has a negative connotation.
Yes, and this festival is inspired by the work and mind of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and with all the things that you’ve gone through that can really uproot a person. When you feel a bit disconnected from the world, is there a meditative process that you can do when you’re on the road or when you have a momentary panic?
It’s really strange because when I talk to people about the way they deal with stress, I might be a little bit weird because I just don’t really get that stressed out. A year ago I got hit in the head in this altercation, got nine staples in my head, and had to fly to Lithuania. I wound up wearing a bandanna the whole time because I had staples in my head. I felt weird having to wear a bandanna because it’s not my normal look [Laughs]. I just try to stay really present, and when something bad happens to me, I think: “There’s probably a reason for it in some weird way, and I just don’t understand it.”
You are an alien! I’m 98% emotion most of the time, so things don’t necessarily stress me out — they throw me off balance. That’s an amazing ability you have.
Here’s a synchronicity. You just called me an alien, right?
[Laughs.] Well, I call myself an alien all the time, so I thought it would be alright.
It happens to me all the time, too! I had this old couple yesterday, around 75 and 80, saw me park and struck up a conversation about buying a donut, and somehow the conversation came around to how I’m probably an alien. But it happens to me every day.
And David Lynch is known for blending absurdity with the absolute mundane aspect of life. Do you see life at those two extremes?
Well, when I was first writing “You Make Me Feel”, I was extremely interested in David Lynch’s films because I had this inkling that there was more to life than this mesh that we’re just thrown upon. That’s why synchronicity is so interesting to talk about. Haruki Murakami and Lynch occupy the same space for me. They support my feeling that there’s this weird other way of looking at the world, and both of them are interested in how other worlds can exist at the same time as your world. If you look at it, it runs through a lot of his films: Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway. There’s a line in “You Make Me Feel” on my first record that’s like, “We’re two cave creatures content in our own little world.” That we can punch these holes in time. I’m referencing ideas from both of them in that moment. If you open your eyes at the mundane, it’s not even mundane.
But that forms the whole conversation about stress and meditation, how it’s just a way of looking at things and seeing the bigger picture. You mention Murakami and I remember that quote from Kafka on the Shore where he says that silence is something that you can hear loudly.
There’s this Persian proverb that I will not quote verbatim, but it’s about a bug in the rug. It’s about a bug that’s caught in the yarn of the most beautiful rug that’s ever been woven in Iran, and the tragedy of it is that the bug doesn’t understand that it’s lost in all this beauty. It always rings out in my head whenever something feels stressful. Do you remember that scene in Lost Highway when the devil appears? You have to have courage in your own art to be like, “It’s OK to bring people to another world.” Why don’t we make every song a world that people can occupy for three to five minutes?
So, if this were an alternate world, who would play you in one of David Lynch’s films?
[Laughs.] I’ll answer it like this: I think it’d be unbelievable if Cillian Murphy played me in something that David Lynch directed. I’ve had kids come up to me after Batman came out and ask, “Did you play Scarecrow?”
I hope you said yes! You need to cash in on this. You’re too good of a person.
I didn’t lie. I was just like, “Aww, no.” I can’t lie to kids.
Do you feel like you need to learn more about meditation?
Oddly, I was before. That’s what was weird about it. That’s what I’m talking about when I say that sometimes when I’m interested in something, it comes to me. In a grand way. The only part I’m controlling is what I’m going to perform. Everything else that’s around the whole event, I’m leaving open to chance.
I do hope you talk to a lot of people about your approach to stress. I know my partner deals with stress in the most calm way. I don’t know how he does it. He just steps out of it, and I’m always amazed and in awe.
I talk to a lot of people about that, but I always talk to a lot of musicians about how to design touring to keep it not stressful. One of my theories is that you have to inject magical moments in touring so that everyone’s morale is high. You get to have replenishing moments with your energy. That’s how you get your stress down.
But there’s that whole “busy trap.” People are worried about what it will look like if they just stop for a moment.
Then don’t tell anyone. Never tell anyone! [Laughs.] I just book it in. What happens is maybe you make a little less money, but you have to have these magical, beautiful experiences in life.