David Lynch is one of the world’s greatest directors. He is also a painter, ad guru, cartoonist and musician. Eddy Lawrence looks inside the mind of a genius
If manners make the man, David Lynch is a cocktail. Specifically, a Manhattan – old-fashioned, dry but sweet and not as sophisticated as you might think.
To talk to, Lynch is affable, but never unaware that he’s David-effing-Lynch – four-time Oscar nominee, cult legend, crossover superstar and he doesn’t exactly need to shout about it. He’s the anti-Kanye. His conversation is a masterpiece of minimalism, with a broad streak of homespun wisdom that suggests – were a Lynch biopic ever made – he’d be played by Morgan Freeman. The 67-year-old has shot adverts for Gucci, worked with Michael Jackson, designed a Parisian nightclub and most recently appeared in Louis CK’s hardly-out-there sitcom Louie.
So it must be a little frustrating for him that just a single lineage of his output – the surrealist thread that ties Eraserhead, Twin Peaks and online swedemash Rabbits – has coined the nebulous, student-friendly adjective ‘Lynchian’.
Lynch chuckles. “My doctors have told me that I’m not allowed to think about those kind of things.”
In typically contrarian style, Lynch has put his celebrated filmmaking to one side to become the world’s oldest teenager, blasting out Elvis platters and extolling the virtues of rock’n’roll. He’s is about to release his second studio album The Big Dream – ‘modern blues’ recorded with his buddies, including producer Dean Hurley and Swedish indie singer Lykke Li. He views himself as a “non-musician musician”, and approaches his new gig unbound by convention.
“Well,” he laughs at the c-word, “I’m not so bound by convention. The story I love was when Elvis went into Sun Records with Scott Moore and Bill Black, and did That’s All Right, Mama. That song, with those guys and Elvis doing his thing, was when previous genres – such as rhythm and blues and rockabilly – all came together. That’s the kind of thing I like to think about.”
Most of Lynch’s works reference the Fifties in their styling, vocabulary or kitschy character names. His latest album is his most explicit love letter to the era yet, with multiple allusions to Memphis – crucible of both the rock and civil-rights revolutions.
“Yeah, the Fifties,” says Lynch, “that’s the thing that caught the whole world, and it’s just taken off from there. It was an energy and a feel, a tremendous power – this hard driving thing that thrilled the soul.”
Whatever it is – music, film, travel, breakfast – David Lynch is in it for the thrills. It’s a word he uses often and it’s always a compliment. When talking about musical influences, for example, Lynch comes across as adorably naive. He doesn’t get bogged down in metaphysical metaphor. He just says which songs have thrilled him and leaves it at that. Nor is he a nostalgia junkie, expressing excitement about the possibilities of the internet era.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he says. “People can find their own voice, their own look, their own way to go. It’s really beautiful. People are not put into boxes any more. People can do painting and they can do music and they can do cinema – they can do all kinds of stuff, depending on what’s thrilling them that day.”
But there’s one part of Lynch that will always remain defiantly Fifties. Given the many references to Jerry Lee Lewis on The Big Dream, we have to ask, is ‘The Killer’ the inspiration for one of his greatest artworks – that glorious quiff?
“Haha, no. I like Jerry Lee Lewis, but Elvis is the one that had it, more than anyone else.”
And how does Lynch maintain his impeccably sculpted hair-nami?
“Well…” he ponders for a second. “I get my hair cut.”
It’s easy to pseudo-psychoanalyse Lynch’s artistic restlessness, which is what makes it fun. He grew up in the less-glamorous, but more beautiful, parts of the US, following his father’s job with the US Department Of Agriculture, and his career has been similarly transient. An accidental polymath, Lynch has taken the most awkward route through the creative arts. He got into making music the same way he got into making films – because it would help him do something else. Lynch planned to be a painter, and only began making films as part of a college project.
Like the best travellers, Lynch has paid attention to his experiences, and makes hitting the road seem like the only exciting thing to do in life.
“What they say is that people don’t go outside and meet people in the same way they used to,” says Lynch. ”They meet them on the internet. And they stay inside, and it’s kind of a strange thing going on. But really, when people do get together with other people, they realise that people are OK, wherever they go.”
It’s easy to forget that Lynch was once an unhappy man. But over the years, he’s gone from a cartoonist who once vented his fury through bleakly amusing strip The Angriest Dog In The World to, as he says, “seeing friends everywhere instead of enemies”. Part of this has been down to Lynch’s discovery of transcendental meditation – a practice that has so inspired him, he set up a charitable foundation to promote its benefits.
“It’s an experience that’s missing for most people. Once you have that experience, you know it, and you just boogie. You don’t have to change your life, you just go about your business and watch things get better. In the beginning, yoga was seen as so strange. But now it’s considered exercise, it’s accepted. And now it’s meditation’s turn.”
It’s a testament to Lynch’s affinity for the uncanny that he makes this sound matter-of-fact. His gift isn’t that he makes the mundane seem surreal – it’s that he can make the surreal seem mundane. His taciturn manner is more in-keeping with his rural Montanan ways than the garrulous art world.
While there remains a temptation to imbue everything he says with layers of hidden meaning – this is David Lynch, after all – the man ShortList encounters seems more like the kind of man you’d want at your side if you’re stripping down a tractor engine than composing free verse. Does he find his collaborators are intimidated, expecting him to be a surrealist superhero?
“No. Not after a cup of coffee with me. The problem is the girls, they wanna go to bed right away.”
Single Are You Sure is out now, and The Big Dream is out on 15 July (Sunday Best)