Lykke Li and Dean Hurley Explain What “Lynchian” Means

David Lynch's past collaborators pull aside the red velvet curtains

On Sunday, September 3rd, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s iconic series Twin Peaks comes to an end. In anticipation, Consequence of Sound will be reporting live from The Great Northern Hotel with some damn fine features all week. Today, we revisit Lior Phillips’ engaging conversation with Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li and music supervisor Dean Hurley about their experiences working with David Lynch and what the term “Lynchian” might mean for each respective party.

There aren’t many directors whose aesthetics have been so eagerly captured and locked into a single idea that they transform into eponymous adjectives. Among them are Hitchcockian, Kubrickian, and Spielbergian, but in recent years, none of these have been as influential a touchstone as Lynchian. Ironically, the reason that David Lynch’s name has so readily been used a signpost for any number of artists in any number of fields is also the very reason that none of them can accurately and fully capture it.

For some, the term Lynchian relates to the interrelation of the macabre and the mundane, the surreal underbelly of everyday life. For others, it merely has come to represent anything unusual. And, really, neither definition is exactly wrong. Lynch’s art is unusual, full of unexpected violence and disturbing surprises in the midst of suburban quotidian. But there’s so much more to Lynch than a severed ear on a freshly cut lawn, a woman wandering around a small town carrying a log like a baby, a jazz musician watching a videotape of himself sleeping. He’s more than the sum of these parts, even if said sum is quite complex.

“I think about the Lynchian sound and the Lynchian vibe. I quote it all the time,” says Lykke Li. “It’s a world and it’s a palette.” The Swedish singer-songwriter met Lynch years ago, and eventually collaborated with him on “I’m Waiting Here”, the lead single from Lynch’s 2013 sophomore album, The Big Dream. At this point, across 40 years of film, television, art, music, writing, coffee, and more, it’s admittedly not very difficult to recognize something from the mind of Lynch. After decades of developing that palette — not to mention, the rampant emulation and parodies — it’s only natural that there’s been an attempt to establish a shorthand term.

“I met him years and years ago. It was amazing because his studio is in the old Lost Highway house, so just walking up and ringing the doorbell was an experience,” Li recalls. “We had coffee and talked about everything. He slipped me a little note that he had written and it was something about me, something intuitive, it had a whole dialogue, and there were only two lines: ‘I’m waiting here, I’m waiting here.” Cryptic as that scenario may be, Li quickly details his sense of humor and cool ease. “… of course it had coffee stains still on it.” That dichotomy is the definition of Lynchian, but so is the fact that nothing can be so easily split down the middle.

Whereas Li openly uses the word to describe the man’s influence on her work, Dean Hurley seems skeptical of the concept of anything being “Lynchian.” The operator of Lynch’s Asymmetrical Studio (itself perfectly named considering that untidy split between sides), Hurley has worked closely with the man behind the adjective for 12 years.

“It’s not for me to care about, it’s a thing that exists,” Hurley says of the word. “When used correctly, it’s a very descriptive adjective that gets to a point in a succinct manner, but a lot of the times they’ll use it as a sloppy way to draw comparison to something when the comparison is really flimsy. Sometimes it’s literally people seeing something that’s strange and naming it that way.”

The problem is that the cult becomes one of Lynchian-ism rather than a cult of Lynch. The man behind the work disappears in a sense, replaced by a presupposed shadow identity — which of course comes with its own presuppositions of intent, theme, and meaning. With the return of Twin Peaks, those assumptions can mean we’d be overlooking the art entirely in favor of an adjective legacy. Making Lynch digestible in order to speak about him itself is at odds with the vast, explorative power of Lynch. The whole point is that he contains multitudes, juxtapositions, dichotomies, genres, meanings, depths, and can’t be flattened.

And though after watching Lost Highway or Inland Empire you might expect Lynch’s perspective to be one of bleak poetics and twisted mystery, both Li and Hurley detail interactions that find him plainspoken and avoiding the boxing-in of that sort of discussion. “Whenever somebody tries to ask him, “What do you think about this?,” he says, ‘You know my doctors have advised me not to think about such things,’” Hurley laughs. Similarly, Li sees Lynch’s complexity as key to understanding who he truly is. “He’s a master and a legend and he keeps on expanding and growing. That’s the type of person I want to be, too: a person with so many ideas.”

Photo by​ Heather Kaplan

Another key distinction between Lynch and Lynchian is found in Lynch’s process. Rather than focusing on the mysterious orbit surrounding Lynch, discussing who he is behind the red velvet curtain opens up a much more thrilling conversation. When Hurley was first hired to work for him, he wasn’t sure whether it would be a good fit because he hadn’t considered spending his life running a music studio. But he agreed to meet Lynch and tour the space, primarily because it’s impossible to say no to an opportunity like that. The turning point, however, came with a particularly straightforward and open choice of words.

“He showed me the room and then he said an important phrase: ‘Yeah, we work on all kinds of things up here,’” Hurley explains. That simple but essential twist — that focus on work and diversity — convinced Hurley to take the job and also further highlights the importance of feeling in the moment. “He’s the king of just doing work and then being delicate with it enough to be sensitive, and later letting it reveal what it is.”

Similarly, Li also focuses on Lynch’s immediate and sensitive perspective in the studio. “It was very based off of feeling and the subconscious intuitiveness of whatever is inside us,” she says. “When you work with producers there’s so many rules! It can get quite mathematic, and he was only working off what feels right.”

Hurley notes a sort of mantra that Lynch repeats at the start of new projects: “I want to try and experiment.” While the Lynchian term, meanwhile, relegates the entire production to the grand vision of a single artist, Hurley’s view of the process is one of intricate detail and collaboration, even though the legendary name comes with a lot more attention.

“We think of scoring in terms of the act of actually scoring a piece of metal with an awl,” he says. “It’s a pure marriage when some of the music is able to dictate its own rhythm and then inspire story points and character images out of the music. With pretty much anything David does, the stage is a little bigger. It’s rewarding but there’s a lot of pressure with it too.”

One of the chief collaborations throughout Lynch’s career, of course, has been Angelo Badalamenti. The remarkable composer was brought on as Isabela Rossellini’s vocal coach for Blue Velvet, and has since been involved in a majority of Lynch projects. Hurley’s revealing description of their process is one of fluidity, intimacy, and improvisation. “The grass is always greener for me,” Hurley laughs. “The thing that I don’t have that Angelo has is that he literally is a direct conduit.  David just feeds him words and he weaves it in real time. David will be talking to him while he is playing, and when he finishes playing, that’s the cue! That’s the music. I have seen it a bunch of times and it’s still just such an amazing partnership to watch,” Hurley says. “It’s like watching two brothers. The talent is just pouring out of him, and it’s an amazing thing to watch.”

Of course, one of his greatest dichotomies are his two vices; an obsession with donuts, pie, and coffee on one hand, and a vocal espousal of transcendental meditation on the other. For many fans, it’s easy to picture the man sitting cross-legged, taking bites of a jelly donut between iterations of his mantra.

Li describes a time in her life when she was suffering with jetlag, illness, and a worn out immune system, at which point Lynch recommended transcendental meditation. But beyond wellness, the technique seems to be a key to Lynch’s creativity, and has benefited Li to that same end.

“I had been searching my whole life for ways to get better,” Li explains. “I’ve always been an insomniac and super stressed out with a very buzzing mind. My body would just break down and I would do all different types of things, like healers, acupuncture, diets, yoga. Every time I went to yoga, I would just be angry!” She lets out a deep sigh. “I didn’t understand how to meditate, so to find a technique that works feels like a washing machine where you wash out all that stress, but also your deepest self emerges and I think that really helped me with my writing. He talks about it in his book, where if you want to catch big fish then you’ve gotta go deeper.”

The other side effect of meditation is often the understanding that a moment has to end, and that seems to pay off in Lynch’s workmanlike attitude to projects. Both Li and Hurley describe a shock at learning that the director will confidently say when something is finished, rather than feeling a need to fuss with it.

Li recalls working on a song, and suggesting the addition of a crash cymbal: “He’d be like, [puts on an ecstatic, nasal Lynch impression] ‘No! Lykke! No! Okay, only for you. I am going to let you have this crash.’ I am very opinionated in the mixing stages and all those things too, so it really was very respectful. And I just love the way he says my name. ‘No, Lykke Li! No, Lykke Li!’. And to be honest the way that I started with music is not that I had some god-given talent musically, but what my thing has always been is more that I have vision and I have ideas. I can really see what I wanted to do and I get inspired and I’m creative. Music has been one form that’s so rewarding because it is so emotional. I love taking pictures as well, and I even make all of my stage clothes, but actually I am really lazy otherwise,” she laughs.

Hurley, meanwhile, has embraced Lynch’s approach to finishing projects: “I’m starting to realize that the goal in staying sane in this world is trying to inject a little bit of walking away and not caring, knowing when to walk away from something,” he says. “This is something that I’ve been forced to learn from David. I think a lot of people would be surprised that he is the one saying ‘Okay stop working this is fine,’ and sometimes you’re just like, ‘What? Really?!’ On a more poetic side of things, the goal is not to eradicate mistakes, you have to have somebody with a tree topped view of things to say, ‘It’s done now!’ Otherwise you’re Howard Hughes with long fingernails peeing into glass jars and not going outside!”

Lynch has also offered Li personal life advice. “He’s always like, ‘Lykke! Don’t be so serious?’. I remember a time I was playing at his club [Club Silencio] in Paris, and [Lynch] was there, and I had just broken up with my boyfriend at the time,” she recalls. “I was heartbroken, the ‘Oh my god we broke up!’ cry and he’s like, ‘Lykke, there’s always another love.’ It’s a very simple and very profound thing that I try to take in consideration.”

But feeling the moment and letting things go doesn’t mean he’s taking it easy. “I love comfort zones, but I do not get a comfort zone working for David,” Hurley says with a laugh. For him there is always something new, “And it’s stretched me beyond my comfort zone, and even though I hate it, when I look back I’ve realised how productive it is. He’s just interested about the horizons more than continually tilling the same garden.”

Lynch’s work is consistently packed with ideas, genres, themes, meanings — and from speaking with his collaborators and friends, it would seem that comes in part from his ability to remain completely open, to feel and to let the moment happen. To call the work Lynchian would then seem misleading; he’s not necessarily loading these movies and albums with himself, and he’s not a walking menace of surreal darkness.

Photo by​ Heather Kaplan

Perhaps then we can call the process of creation Lynchian, but always remember even that use of the adjective is named for the man that brings all these pieces together using his singular unwavering vision. “With David you can so easily surrender to the moment and be in his hands, because he is a master,” says Li. He’s not a man from another place, but he has a magical ability to show us the world around us in a way that makes it seem like one.

“There’s a lot of magic in the world of music,” says Hurley. “The way you talk about things and when you find out about the original impetus, it should really only enhance the magic.”

Editor’s Note: Stay safe by picking up one of our custom face masks. A portion of the proceeds will benefit MusiCares’ COVID-19 Artist Relief fund supporting independent musicians.

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