Around the end of Twin Peaks’ first run, filmmaker David Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti came up with an off-the-wall musical experiment. They rounded up a group of notable jazz musicians to play with Badalamenti, and Lynch gave them vivid, bizarre scenes and asked them to replicate them musically. The result was a project Lynch dubbed Thought Gang — a jumble of free jazz, experimental atmospherics and outlandish spoken word. Although a couple of the tracks appeared on the soundtrack to the 1992 Twin Peaks prequel, Fire Walk With Me, they shelved the project for decades.
Now, more than 25 years after they started work on Thought Gang, they’re finally releasing this material as a self-titled record, out Friday. “It was kind of a grand experiment,” the filmmaker says. It’s a sharp contrast to the cool, loungy jazz Badalamenti created for Twin Peaks, and the dream-pop collaborations they made with Julee Cruise around the same time. By Lynch’s estimation, the LP was 90 percent done in the early Nineties but he wanted to clean it up a little; he also added a little of his own bluesy, scratchy guitar playing to one of the tracks (“One Dog Bark”) and recorded new vocals for another (“Jack Paints It Red”). Now the record in its final form is an hour of skittish, anxious avant-garde convulsions (Lynch cites Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica as a benchmark) and gasping soundscapes. “I call it ‘modern music,’ but modern music could mean almost anything,” the director says. It’s a record that’s so far out even David Lynch thinks it’s a tough sell.
“I really do love it, but I know the reality is that it’s not exactly what people are going to flock to,” he says, speaking measuredly and earnestly. When I tell him I like it, he simply says, “Really?”
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“It was energetic, inspiring, creative, exciting and a heck of a lot of experimental fun,” Badalamenti says via e-mail. “Working and collaborating with David through all these years has been warm and tied together with true, brotherly love. Regarding our Thought Gang project, we had some of the best studio musicians who eagerly shared this unusual musical experience. There were no arrangements or preset orchestrations. We simply gave a tempo and an initial key to get started and asked them to play what they felt, rhythmically and harmonically.”
The experiment began in New York in 1991 when Lynch and Badalamenti got drummer Grady Tate (Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones) and Buster Williams (Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock), among others, to interpret Lynch’s scenes. At sessions in New York, they recorded the two Fire Walk With Me songs, “The Black Dog Runs at Night” and “A Real Indication.” The former is less than two minutes of bass improv with Badalamenti softly speaking the song title, while the latter is a spacious poem set to a wild, funky groove. Badalamenti sounds like a raving beatnik lunatic on “A Real Indication” as he recites a story about a guy with a broken heart losing his mind with a penchant for saying, “maaan.” “I’ve got a real indication of a laugh coming on, ha ha,” he snarls at its peak. It set the tone for what was to come on Thought Gang and, by proxy, it caused Lynch some personal pain.
“David said to Artie [Pohlemus, engineer], ‘I’ve got to get someone to sing these lyrics,’ and I immediately blurted out, ‘David, I’ll do it,'” recalls Badalamenti. “David then whispered to Artie, ‘It’s going to be embarrassing. Angelo is going to make a complete fool of himself.’ Reluctantly, David said, ‘OK, Angelo.’ So I went into the vocal booth with David’s lyric and said, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready.'”
“Since 1985, when I started working with Angelo on Blue Velvet, he’d play his Rhodes piano and he’d sometimes sing what would later be sung by someone else,” Lynch says. “In my opinion, even though Angelo was singing, it was not the quality that could go out into the world. But I just love Angelo. He’s fearless in his singing. With ‘A Real Indication,’ I thought it was going to be horrible. But Angelo insisted.”
The composer started ranting and Lynch couldn’t believe it — it was incredible. “He’s got the timing, he’s got the feel, he understands so much,” he says. “This was a perfect vehicle to let Angelo shine.” As the composer, who has a gruff voice and a New York accent, got more and more into it, Lynch started laughing harder and harder. “It’s not funny,” Badalamenti recalls today, “but I gave David a hernia.”
“I laughed so hard,” Lynch says. “It was like a light bulb burst in my stomach. I had to have an operation and go through all this stuff ’cause of Angelo.” Did he offer to pay the medical bills? “No, he didn’t. He never offered to pay for it. But the performance was phenomenal. I loved it so much. My respect for Angelo almost doubled.” (The pair later made a video for the tune on a shoestring budget; the director has since cleaned up the clip and made it black and white, and hopes to release it in the near future.)
After Lynch recovered — and directed Fire Walk With Me in the process — the pair regrouped in the spring of 1992 and worked on Thought Gang off and on through the next year. In between, Lynch worked on two TV series that didn’t get off the ground – On the Air and Hotel Room – and the duo moved the operation to Los Angeles with a new group of players. It was then that Lynch would start giving the musicians even more detailed scenarios to conjure musically.
One that he recalls went like this: “There’s a bar or club downtown at night. It’s very late, like two or three in the morning and people are coming out, and there’s a shootout. There’s guns going off and cars careening around and girls and guys piling in the backs of pickup trucks and heading out of L.A. into the desert.” He laughs as he recalls the brief. “And out in the desert there’s more stuff going on, there are space aliens.”
That prompt led the ensemble to the nearly 17-minute ambient work “Frank 2000,” some of which Lynch used in Twin Peaks: The Return. It’s full of sighing keyboards, rumbly acoustic bass and drums that seem to stab at you.
“That was all of then playing,” Lynch says. “Nothing was added in sound effects.”
He says he’s long been attracted to industrial sounds, like the ones in “Frank 2000,” because of his love of the “smokestack industry.” “I love factories,” he says. “I love the sound of them. I love the look of them. I love smoke and fire. I love metal. I love the whole factory worker life, even though I never experienced that really — except in my mind.” He pauses and refocuses. “I’d say Philadelphia is my biggest influence,” he says, naming the town where he studied painting in college. “There are all these sounds related to it — thundering machinery and great gas escapes and roaring fire and all these metallic sounds. It’s just phenomenal. It also found its way into my first feature, Eraserhead. There’s so much mood in the factory world.”
Another common Lynchian theme that pops up on Thought Gang is that of woodsmen — like the lumberjacks that were always on the periphery of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. They’re most noticeable on “Woodcutters From Fiery Ships,” a claustrophobic, four-and-a-half–minute nightmare with Badalamenti tell the story of a man named Pete who was abducted by otherworldly homicidal woodsmen.
“I grew up in the northwest,” Lynch says of his fascination with lumberjacks. “My dad was a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture; he was a woodsman. They wear certain clothes like wool pants, those black-and-red, checkered wool jackets, suspenders, sock hats, all kinds of great boots. My dad would rub this oil on his boots and put them in the oven, and that stuff would sink into the leather. That life, and the feel of the woods, is just incredible. … But these woodsmen are more like space aliens.” And he underscores the punch line at the end of the story: “You’ve got to be with them for a while to realize that they’re trying to be funny.”
“My five recorded vocals each took on their own individual character, all of which were inspired by David’s lyrics,” Badalamenti says. “Each lyric gave me a mental picture of what that character is, and what their various emotions are all about.”
The filmmaker says he can’t point to any particular inspirations for his lyrics on Thought Gang — he just puts pen to paper — and the music doesn’t really reflect what he listens to. His favorite jazz musician is Dave Brubeck, and lately he’s been obsessed with Junior Kimbrough (who recorded one particular version of “All Night Long” that Lynch loves) and a guitar player named Justin Johnson that Twin Peaks actor Michael Horse turned him onto. Thought Gang was more an adventure in curiosity. For “A Meaningless Conversation,” he asked the musicians to each pick a note and change it as they played a slow, pounding rhythm. “It’s strange,” he says, “and it’s not harmonious.” The Thought Gang moniker, he says, stemmed somewhat from Pieter Bruegel’s painting Two Chained Monkeys. “It’s these chained-up monkeys thinking,” Lynch says. “That’s me and Angelo.”
On some of the songs, the pair would experiment with what Lynch calls “firewood.” Beginning with Twin Peaks, Lynch would ask Badalamenti for drones, which he’d slow down to milk the sound out of them. Later, when the director was working on Wild at Heart, Chris Isaak gave him both regular and instrumental versions of “Wicked Game” and “Blue Spanish Sky” and said Lynch could use them however he wanted in the film. “I’d half-speed them, and it was this unreal, beautiful sound,” he says. “You can sometimes just find pure, magical stuff.” He applied some of those techniques to Thought Gang, slowing down the music. As he already knew, it works really well when applied to visuals. Lynch has used bits of Thought Gang recordings in Hotel Room, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.
When he began revisiting the music recently, he had the idea for another visual. In the late Eighties, he fashioned a small head out of chicken and cheese — the diameter was about the size of a quarter. He then wrapped it in morticians’ wax, stuck it on a wire and set it in his kitchen. “I had an ant problem, so I thought, ‘This will be a very good experiment,'” he recalls. “So I opened up the eyes a little bit and the mouth and the ants smelled the chicken and cheese and in four days they emptied the head out, working night and day. I photographed it and used it on the cover of one of Julee Cruise’s albums, The Voice of Love.”
He replicated the experiment for Thought Gang using chicken, jam, sugar and cheese. “These ants just go wild,” he says. “They went up the wire and cleaned this thing out again for four or five days. I made a film of it for Thought Gang and used about half of ‘Frank 2000’ and then it segues into ‘Woodcutters From Fiery Ships.'” He debuted the film at the recent Los Angeles edition of his Festival of Disruption and isn’t sure yet when or if he’ll be giving it a wide release. (“It’s fresh, good chicken, and it’s in ice” he says, explaining how he avoided salmonella both times. “You gotta wash up.”)
These days, Lynch isn’t working on anything musical; he’s painting. But he’s open to making music — he just doesn’t know if and when he will. “I’d love to work with Julee Cruise again,” he says. “Julee’s got the stuff, definitely.” He also would like to finish up a project he started with Toto’s David Paich, whom he met when the band did the soundtrack for Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. “It was done a long time ago, and I would really like to do more work with him,” he says. “The one thing we did I just really loved.” And of course, “I can’t say enough good things about Angelo Badalamenti,” he says.
For now, though, both Lynch and Badalamenti are excited to get Thought Gang out in the world once and for all. “It brings a smile to my face, and I get a real indication of laugh comin’ on,” Badalamenti says of the release, referencing one of the lines that herniated Lynch.
“It’s really experimental music,” Lynch reiterates, “But there’s just killer players working on it.”
“The sounds that came out of Thought Gang were a cacophony,” Badalamenti says. “It was an incredible, organized cacophony. The players all were one, feeding off each other.”