David Lynch puts down his oversize mug of David Lynch Signature Cup Organic Coffee and folds his thick, veiny hands in his lap. Despite remaining highly caffeinated at all times—he drinks at least 10 mugs of coffee every day—he looks as if he has stayed up several nights in a row. His thoughtful blue eyes are sunken, and their lids appear heavy.
Lynch grabs an American Spirit cigarette and motions toward an accordion-like lamp he designed. “Let’s turn on the smoking lamp so we can begin smoking,” Lynch says, turning the knob to power a light hidden beneath a translucent red glass shade. Given how much Lynch smokes, pretty much any lamp in proximity could earn this designation. He sips his coffee as he pulls his chair out, careful not to spill on his khaki pants, faded black blazer or black button-down shirt; per usual, the shirt’s white buttons are fastened all the way to his throat.
For a man who has made bizarre, hallucinatory films such as Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, he doesn’t seem that strange. There is no self-reflexive lesbian sex occurring on the premises. There is no jazzman’s wife morphing into a pale old man who just might be Satan. There is not even an attorney stabbing his daughter to death because the demon inhabiting his body couldn’t possess her too. In person, Lynch actually comes across as avuncular and disarmingly normal. He has typical interests—coffee, nature, music (the reason I'm here, since he is just a few weeks away from releasing his second album on July 15)—and he genuinely cares about other people.
“Where are you from?” he asks warmly after flicking his cigarette into an ashtray.
With both his cigarette and current cup of coffee nearly finished, Lynch directs me into the kitchen. He places his mug on the stainless steel countertop and starts to grind espresso beans from his personal collection. There are a trio of Lynchian coffee blends—house, espresso roast and decaf. The latter he could do without: “I never drink the decaf, because I love caffeine.”
“One, two, three, four…,” Lynch counts aloud while holding down the grinder button. He stops at 12 and pulls another mug from one of the many red cabinets surrounding us. “See this cup here?” he asks me. “It’s clean, but it looks dirty.”
He laughs for a moment and then inspects the cup a second time. Spots abound and there appears to be dust trapped inside. But Lynch forges ahead, opening the fridge to reveal a supply of fat-free milk. He takes a half-gallon jug and pours a small amount into the allegedly clean mug. “Now, this is what separates the little girls from the big girls,” he instructs. “We’ll do it in steps.” He points to the espresso machine in front of him as the coffee is brewing. “Those black droplets look so beautiful.” He repeats himself to prevent anything from being lost in translation: “So beautiful.” It’s the third and fourth time (by my unofficial count) that he has used the word “beautiful” to describe the process of making coffee.
Next, Lynch shows me how to froth milk properly. As the milk heats, he stands over me, watching intently. When a sufficient amount of time has passed, he feels the side of the metal pitcher to make sure it’s warm enough. “Great job,” he announces once the milk is evenly steamed. His voice has a rough, raspy edge, but with a precise and controlled meter. It is somehow commanding and reassuring at the same time, an invaluable trait for a director. These days, however, he’s using it for something completely different than stage direction.
David Lynch sings.
In fact, he recently recorded his second solo album The Big Dream, distributed by Brooklyn-based Sacred Bones Records. He seems excited to share this aspect of his life with me. I follow him down a hallway into a long room set off from the kitchen. It’s his sound-isolated recording studio and screening room, which served as Fred and Renee Madison’s bedroom in Lost Highway. (Lynch composed original music for the score.)
Lynch created the space with the help of architect Peter Grueneisen in 1997. It took about a year to build; he later added the projection setup, which includes a JBL 3-Way Speaker System. The volume is almost oppressive, but the fidelity is extraordinarily high. Glistening guitars, keyboards, amplifiers and a large digital mixing board round out the gearhead’s wet dream.
“Big” Dean Hurley, Lynch’s writing and recording collaborator, mans the soundboard. The two met through a mutual friend and have worked together for nearly a decade. On The Big Dream, Lynch and Hurley create an organic tone with electronic elements, a stark contrast from their previous collaboration, 2011’s Crazy Clown Time, which is drenched in echo, reverb and vocoder.
Big, 33, is short, bespectacled and dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, looking as much like a carpenter as a music producer. By Hurley’s request, Lynch recorded Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” for The Big Dream, but his take is more influenced by Nina Simone’s 1965 cover version. The track is trip-hop-inflected and punctuated by Lynch’s keening, effects-coated voice. Other guests populating the album include Lykke Li on a bonus track entitled “I’m Waiting Here” and Lynch’s 21-year-old son, Riley, on “Sun Can’t Be Seen No More.”
Lynch’s favorite song on The Big Dream is “I Want You,” which Hurley cues up for us. “It’s about desire,” Lynch explains in the press material for the album. “It’s like riding a wave. It goes up and it goes down, but it’s always moving.” It’s a simple song, but it’s creepy and tense, with Lynch repeating lines including “I want you,” “Make you mine” and “Hold you tight” in a quiet, vaguely disturbing manner. The music itself sounds like Massive Attack covering Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You.” All in all, it’s a tad incongruous coming from a 67-year-old man.
Lynch has contributed to the scores of his films since he was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the 1960s. In the ensuing decades, he produced and wrote lyrics for Julee Cruise’s first two albums and partnered with composer Angelo Badalamenti, with whom he has a jazz side project called the Thought Gang—though they have never gotten around to finishing the album they started 20 years ago. Lynch refuses, however, to play live anything he’s written, due mostly to extreme stage fright. He also thinks his voice doesn’t always sound great. “Like everybody, you hear a dry voice, and it’s just that. Some singers you wouldn’t mind hearing dry,” he says. “But with me you would mind hearing it.”
I ask Lynch if he would ever create a movie based on a character from one of his songs. “With all these different tools, you can alter a voice with a certain beat and a certain sound of the guitar, and a character will start emerging,” he answers. “It doesn’t mean you will make a movie based on this character, but it could happen.”It won’t happen any time soon, though, as Lynch claims he’s not working on any films at the moment. And so, for now at least, his characters are best expressed via vocoder.
“I’d like to take another smoke break,” Lynch announces. We walk back to the Glass Room, where he pulls out another cigarette. “We don’t have the greatest day today,” he laments once he’s surveyed the dreary L.A. afternoon. I tell him that it reminds me of living in Philadelphia. He responds excitedly: “I lived on 21st and Cherry when I first went to school there.… Then I lived kitty corner to the morgue. After that, I lived on Poplar Street by Girard Avenue with [my first wife] Peggy and my daughter Jennifer. It was a three-story brick house with a full basement and a little backyard with a tree. It only cost $3,500, but it was broken into a couple of times, and our windows were shot out. A kid almost got killed right in front of our house. It was a great deal, but you paid for it in different ways.
“It took a year for the fear to leave me after coming to L.A.,” he continues. “Any other place I would have gone, it would have taken more time. But the light is so beautiful here; it just sucked the fear right out of me.”
Lynch has no fear of marriage, either; in fact, he loves marriage so much that he’s been married four times. His latest wife is actress Emily Stofle, who appeared in his 2006 film Inland Empire and with whom he had his fourth child, Lula, now 10 months old. “Before the baby pops out, you don’t know them. When they pop out, you see a little person start to emerge, and that’s what gets you. They are their own persons. She is the sweetest thing.”
I ask if he thought he would be raising a child at this point in his life. “No,” he admits. “I never wanted to have children. I just wanted to smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, paint and make films, but it didn’t happen that way.”
He gazes at my cappuccino and asks how it tastes. I tell him that it’s delicious. The room fills with shadows as it begins to get darker and cloudier outside. His mood seems to shift with the weather.“We are on the circle of birth and death. When you are born, you have to die one day. It’s a thing that hangs out there, and there is a certain amount of fear connected to it,” he surmises.
I hear loud chirping from outside and glance out the window at the birds responsible for the noise. Lynch tells me that different kinds of birds have different personalities. He is fascinated by the winged creatures and sometimes tweets about them. For instance: “I like to watch & count birds in the morning. I've made friends with a hummingbird.” And: “I made friends with another bird, which I don’t know the name of. But one who likes to hop & fly into the air and catch flying bugs.”
Recently, Lynch saw a red-tailed hawk sitting on a branch eating a rabbit. “He had this rabbit draped over a tree limb and he was picking the fur off so he could go in and get the goods,” he says. “All kinds of things go on. People hang from hooks.” Here, Lynch stops—as does the normalcy. After all, it couldn’t last forever.
Danielle Bacher is a columnist at Playboy and LA Weekly as well as a contributing writer for Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Interview Mag and LA Times. Follow her on Twitter @DBacherwrites
Photo by Dean Hurley