He told his mu­si­cians: ‘Imag­ine you’re a chicken on speed with your head cut off’

In the 1990s, the di­rec­tor formed Thought Gang, a group with a sound even wilder than his films. He re­veals all to Daniel Dy­lan Wray

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

‘ It was a grand ex­per­i­ment,” says David Lynch. “But I re­ally don’t know who will ap­pre­ci­ate it.” The di­rec­tor is talk­ing about Thought Gang, an es­o­teric jazz group he put to­gether in the early 1990s, with com­poser An­gelo Badala­menti. Their al­bum is only now be­ing re­leased. The pair first worked to­gether when Badala­menti scored 1986’s Blue Vel­vet, but by 1990 their re­la­tion­ship had fully crys­tallised – and the songs they wrote for Twin Peaks were as en­gulf­ing as the fog that swirled through the town in the cult TV show.

“But this was so dif­fer­ent to Twin Peaks,” says Lynch. In a stu­dio filled with jazz mu­si­cians, the di­rec­tor talked them through his vi­sion un­til they caught a groove. He then needed a singer – and Badala­menti stepped up. “I’d heard him sing be­fore and I thought, ‘This is gonna be em­bar­rass­ing for him.’ But I didn’t want to hurt his feel­ings, so I said OK.”

What Lynch heard – above the sparse drums, gam­bolling bassline, skewwhiff strings and screech­ing brass – was a vo­cal de­liv­ery that knocked him out: a half-sung croaky voice that was part Tom Waits, part comic-book vil­lain. “It thrilled me,” says Lynch. “I started laugh­ing so hard I felt a light­bulb ex­plode in my stom­ach. I gave my­self a her­nia. That mo­ment was pain and joy mixed to­gether, a per­fect bal­ance.”

Lynch re­alised they had some­thing and they con­tin­ued purely for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion’s sake. He says he en­vi­sioned it as a dis­tant cousin to Cap­tain Beef­heart’s Trout Mask Replica, the clas­sic 1969 al­bum he calls “the cut­ting edge of avant-garde, far-out beauty”.

As a self-de­scribed non-mu­si­cian who will never try to per­form live (“I’m ter­ri­fied”), Lynch took a di­rect­ing role in the stu­dio, de­pict­ing scenes for the band to cre­ate mu­si­cally. For the track Frank 2000, he told his play­ers: “OK, there’s a bar down­town, not a great bar, and it’s 2.30 or 3am, and there’s a lot of drunk and strung-out peo­ple com­ing out. There’s a shootout and there’s all this run­ning and fear and guns go­ing off. And pick-up trucks start show­ing up be­cause there’s a plan to take some of these peo­ple out to the desert.”

Bassist Reg­gie Hamil­ton re­calls an even wilder in­struc­tion Lynch gave to this room full of sea­soned jazz mu­si­cians: “Imag­ine you’re a chicken with your head cut off run­ning around with 1,000 ben­nies shoved down your throat.” Ben­nies means Ben­zedrine and what fol­lowed was bleed­ing noise that burned for three and a half min­utes un­til the reel-to-reel tape reached its end with a thwack. No more takes were done.

“It was like we were scor­ing mini-films that ex­isted only in his head,” says drum­mer Gerry Brown, who has played with Ste­vie Won­der and Diana Ross. “I was used to play­ing jazz, R&B, pop – things that were very struc­tured. David said: ‘Ev­ery­thing that you’ve stud­ied and that you’ve put all this work in for – for­get it.’ I was like a kid in a candy shop – like, ‘Wow, he said I could do that?’” Brown re­mem­bers be­ing given a bucket full of nails and bolts to rain down over the cym­bals. “It was com­pletely out there. To­tally lib­er­at­ing.”

While Lynch worked the room, Badala­menti would sit by his side at his pi­ano, soak­ing it all up. Brown re­calls: “David is like a smooth ex­tro­vert, while An­gelo just nods af­fir­ma­tively and noo­dles it out. He qui­etly finds his way through the mu­sic with David as the sto­ry­teller.”

To achieve this sense of aban­don­ment, Lynch ran a happy camp. “I like mu­sic stu­dios to run like my film sets,” he says. “It should be so en­joy­able. If there’s ten­sion, any kind of fear or putting some­body down – things you hear about in the mu­sic and film busi­ness – that is so coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, it’s al­most ab­surd. It’s about hav­ing fun and en­joy­ing the trip. Then when it all comes to­gether, it’s kind of cos­mic. I find it so beau­ti­ful, it makes me hope­ful for mankind.”

Over the years, some Thought Gang tracks – or just snip­pets – would crop up in ev­ery­thing from Fire Walk With Me to Twin Peaks: The Re­turn. Al­bum opener Stalin Re­vis­ited, mean­while, fea­tures on a 1993 Adi­das ad­vert Lynch di­rected.

He is thrilled the al­bum is fi­nally out. But to ap­pre­ci­ate Thought Gang in full, he has one sim­ple in­struc­tion: “Play this record loud on big speak­ers – and crank it so that you can feel it. You gotta feel that thump in your chest.”

‘Kind of cos­mic’ … David Lynch Thought Gang is out now on Sa­cred Bones.

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