David Lynch doesn't want you to call him a musician. He's a renowned filmmaker and self-taught improviser on electric guitar, a slasher and basher of strange riffs he can never quite repeat again. It's the sound at the core of his new album, The Big Dream, which is released on Tuesday. It pairs spooky noir tones and echoes of early rock & roll with songs of heartache and tense soundscapes.
"I love to think of the electric guitar like a 1950s chopped and lowered flat-black muscle car, super-fast with a low roar on the exhaust," Lynch tells Rolling Stone, wearing a black suit jacket and shirt, his hair freshly cut and piled high on top. "It's the sound of power. That's what I'm dreaming of. The electric guitar can be like an engine, but it can purr in a beautiful way."
Lynch is at home in the hills above Hollywood, sipping from a coffee mug in his large, fully equipped recording facility, called Asymmetrical Studio. The house was once used as a central location for his 1997 film Lost Highway, and he added the studio soon after, loading it with vintage and modern musical gear. Within reach is a pair of heavy metal guitars in glossy black, effects pedals scattered at Lynch's feet.
He picks up a guitar case and opens it to reveal an orange sunburst lap-slide inside. "This is the guitar that Ben Harper gave me," Lynch says with a smile. "That thing makes a hell of a sound."
That sound can be heard on The Big Dream track "I Want You," which boils with a low, bristling twang as Lynch sings a simple expression of lust in a distinctively nasal swoon: "I want you/ Make you mine/ Hold You tight/ I- I- I love you so."
At the soundboard is his main collaborator, Big Dean Hurley, who plays drums and guitar during jam sessions with Lynch as the director experiments with his many instruments. Stacked against a wall is a collection of keyboards, including an old Fender Rhodes, famous for its use in classic soul and rock, but is also the foundation of the emotional, off-center music of Lynch's Twin Peaks, as created by composer Angelo Badalamenti.
"Angelo brought me into the world of music," Lynch says of the creative partnership and close friendship that began with 1986's Blue Velvet. "Sometimes the feeling in a studio is so great. It's a happy, happy thing."
It was his obsession with sound that led to the construction of the studio, first for use in his films, then for pure experimentation as Lynch began making music of his own. "The way I started was to make sound effects on a guitar," he says. "Then I started fiddling with it. But the idea of making music was far away."
Lynch has experimented with sound in a variety of musical settings through the years, but The Big Dream is only his second true album as a recording artist, following Crazy Clown Time in 2011. The title song opens the album with a romantic sound smoky and haunted, as Lynch sings: "The time has come/ To say the words/ We want to hear." On "Last Call," his lonesome vocal is something like a weirder Neil Young set against a gently cascading guitar. "Sun Can't Be Seen No More" was the final song recorded, and includes Lynch's 21-year-old son Riley on guitar, adding to the track's rough swing. Lynch sings on all of it, though he is joined by the Swedish singer Lykke Li on the aching bonus track "I'm Waiting Here."
"It's kind of a dream," Lynch says of his recent work in music. "I always say I think musicians live a happy life – more the happiness of childhood in a musician's life. This thing of working in a band, when you're all cooking together, there's a euphoria that's hard to find in other worlds."
He recently created a music video for Nine Inch Nails' "Come Back Haunted" and appeared on-camera as a tough-talking entertainment coach to Louis C.K. on Louie, but he has no feature film set for the near future. As he awaits the next "big idea" for a film to emerge, Lynch spends his days on painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and music. He compares the process of music-making to mining in Idaho City, where he recalls its legend as the source of more gold than was found in all of Alaska. "You get all this earth and 99 percent of it is rocks, but then there's that one chunk of gold," says Lynch. "That's the way we start, trying to find the gold."
He performed music live just once, he says, in 2002 with his band Blue Bob (a collaboration with John Neff) at the Olympia in Paris, an experience Lynch described then as "a traumatic thrill." He will not tour now or ever. "I'd have to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. But there's some things that happen in a jam that maybe I shouldn't feel bad about not being able to do again," he explains. "It's something organic that just happened and it's not really playable again. It's a combination of what the guitar's doing that day, and the sound is coming out, and certain accidents that are like little blessings."
Days later, Lynch is on a small stage inside a Masonic Temple at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, introducing the singer Chrysta Bell, his current muse. Over the course of a decade, Lynch produced what finally became last year's solo debut by the singer, This Train. For a full house, Bell and her band play 14 songs that are smoky and tortured, including a brooding cover of "Be Bop a Lula."
After her hour-long set, the singer and Lynch climb the staircase to a tower decorated with tapestries and a Buddhist shrine. Bell and Lynch have begun recording again, completing two new songs at Asymmetrical Studio.
"There's a creative energy flowing there," Bell tells Rolling Stone of the studio. "Before I even open my mouth, there's a sense of peace and fulfillment for me. The most beautiful music I've ever been part of has been created in this very special space."
Lynch promises the new Chrysta Bell album will come quicker next time, as he devotes more time to making music in his private workshop in the hills.
"All ideas come from someplace – from the source, they say," Lynch says. "What separates people is their loves, because the ideas are out there, and you're attracted to those things you love. You catch those and you're thrilled."