Dark Night of the Soul
David Lynch, Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse talk about twisted night visions
Ever since the 16th century, “the dark night of the soul” has come to symbolise the depths of man’s loneliness and desolation. It’s a state of mind you want to avoid — ask Mark Linkous. While touring with Radiohead back in 1996, the frontman of Sparklehorse ingested a near-lethal cocktail of hard drugs and booze before blacking out in his hotel room, alone, slumped on top of his own legs. When he was pulled up over 14 hours later, his heart briefl y stopped as a result of the built up potassium. He was lucky to ever walk again.
A decade and two acclaimed albums later, Linkous found himself in a musical rut, searching for inspiration. Oblivious to its content, he picked up The Grey Album by Danger Mouse, thinking it “was probably some band from North Carolina”. Hearing Jay-Z ripping up Beatles beats not only gave him a fresh perspective on music, but also led him to an unlikely collaborator — its creator, who had long been a fan of the Virginian songwriter’s surreal fables.
For the next three years, the pair would trade songs and instrumentals while Danger Mouse collected Grammys and number ones with Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz. The project slowly became a concept album, with the likes of Iggy Pop, Julian Casablancas, Gruff Rhys, Vic Chesnutt and Wayne Coyne writing lyrics about twisted dreams, revenge and war, with no prior knowledge of anyone else’s stories.
Unable to ignore the Lynchian themes that coursed through each set of lyrics, Danger Mouse wrote to the cult director to see if he’d like to make a video for the album. The Twin Peaks legend wrote back saying that he’d actually prefer to shoot a series of photographs to illustrate each song — and also sing on a few tracks.
This month, the world gets to witness the results, with a gallery show in Los Angeles and a limited-edition run of Lynch’s pictures. In the book will be a blank CD — due to a dispute with EMI, Danger Mouse can’t release the album for fear of being sued, so, like The Grey Album, fans will have to rely on word of mouth to hear it. With so much mystery surrounding the project, Dazed stepped into the shadows with its creators to fi nd out what inspired their cast of paranoid housewives, sinister schoolgirls, and hallucinating dinner party guests.
Some people think that you’re going to be rapping over Danger Mouse’s beats on this album.
David Lynch: (laughs) No, I’m not rapping!
Have you ever tried to rap?
I’ve never tried it. I’ve tried talking over music, but it’s not rap. I don’t know if I could rap! I love the concept though. It’s such an incredibly modern use of words and music.
You sing on two tracks on the album. Do you find singing more challenging than directing or taking photographs?
I actually never sang until recently. I was just totally embarrassed to sing.
I don’t know. I’m sure there are others like me. I started singing, and I don’t quite know how it happened, but Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse liked it, so I sang for them. The songs just came out of their music. They give a sense of freedom and that’s the part of the concept that I like. They do the music and then they see what happens when they give it to person A, B and C. They share their music. I like that a lot.
How important is music to your filmmaking process?
Every element of the cinema is important. I was always really interested in sound with pictures and, of course, music as well. So many times ideas come from music. It’s just a magical, deep world. My favourite form of music right now is blues-based music. I’m working on my own album inspired from blues. We’re talking Chicago electric blues. I appreciate Delta southern blues, but it doesn’t do it for me. When they went electric, like John Lee Hooker, I just thought, ‘Man, there’s some power in that music’. A lot of bluesmen were real outsiders.
Do you feel a kinship with those characters?
Yeah, I think so.
Did you start making films as a way of being accepted?
No, no, no, no. It wasn’t like that at all. I made films because I would get ideas and inspiration came with the ideas. I just translate ideas.
You travel the world talking about transcendental meditation but your work is often obsessed with darkness. Do you see your films and art as a form of therapy?
No. Artists traditionally think that anger, despair, depression and anxieties feed their work, and in a little way that’s true because they understand those things. But you can understand all those things and not have to suffer from them. That’s the key. You can get ideas that are dark, ideas that are light, ideas that hold both things, but the artist doesn’t have to suffer to show suffering. Transcendental meditation lets you dive into the big ocean of creativity, of infinite energy, of infinite happiness. You have to understand the world and the human condition to get deep into it, but you don’t have to suffer those things to show it, you see what I mean?
Okay, but your work has a real empathy with troubled characters…
I love troubled characters, I love the human condition, I love stories that reflect all those things, but I don’t set out to do those certain things. I suddenly get ideas and then I go, ‘Whoa, cinema can do a fantastic thing with that, or a song, or a painting,’ and then I go to work.
So the big preconception about David Lynch being only drawn towards dark thoughts is rubbish?
No, it’s not exactly. Every human being is different, so when I fall in love with certain things, other people fall in love with other things. I like stories that involve absurdity and trouble, and characters that are involved in different things like that, but I am so happy doing it. I am not suffering doing it.
That’s good to hear, I’m glad you’re not suffering! (laughs)
People generally say that I make dark films, but if you look at all of them, some of them are very light, it’s just a question of which ones you fall in love with, and how you want to translate that idea. I like stories that hold a concrete base along with abstractions, just like life. Music is one of the most abstract things, but cinema is a magical language. It holds music, but it can be as abstract as music.
You once said that “ideas are like fishing — you need to have patience, a good hook, and a bait, but if you want to catch a big fish you need to go deeper”. Do you think you’ve caught a big fish with this project?
These are good fish. How deep? Well, I got the great honour to work with Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse on two songs and to do the photographs, so it was a very pleasurable experience. I’m really glad I got the opportunity to do it.
The photos stick to your usual aesthetic, referencing the oddities of suburban life, what happens behind closed doors…
Uh huh, there’s some of that for sure, but again it came from the music. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse may say that it’s about anger and revenge, but their music just holds something. When other people hear it something comes to life in their brains. And then their lyrics come and a particular way to sing them, but it all starts with the music.
Why do you like to subvert classic American characters?
Oh no, I’m not trying to… what was the word you used? Subvert. Subvert. I’m not trying to subvert. A lot of people do that, and a lot of people see art as a political thing. These things are ideas that came from the music and I am not trying to do anything other than translate those ideas that came to me. There’s no other motive, this is what came out of the music.
Your work has been so widely referenced and plagiarised, have you ever felt that your worldview was in danger of becoming a cliché?
No. There are always new fresh ideas waiting. They do pass through the machine, and the machine is a certain way, but if ten directors made a film out of the same script there would be ten different films. We will never run out of ideas. I just don’t know what the next thing will be in terms of cinema, but right now I’m interested in painting and music.
Do you approach painting and photography in the same way as creating a scene for one of your films?
Yeah, exactly. If an idea comes for furniture, you will see a table in your brain. You will see what it’s made of and the shape of it, and if that idea is something you love, then you go into the wood shop and start making that table. If you get a really good idea for a painting and you’re all fired up about it, then you go right into the painting studio and start working on it. Making a film is just a longer process, but when you’re in love you don’t care how long it takes to make something.
Would you recommend that people listen to this album before going to sleep or will it give them nightmares?
I don’t think it will give them nightmares. I think they can listen to it pretty much at any time of day. Or night.
And when do you like to listen to it?
Well, I listen to it mostly in the day!
On the day of our interview Sparklehorse cancelled on me. Or rather overslept because it was his day off. When I did get him on the phone the following day I found a sweet, laid back, Southern gent on the other end of the line, who was quick to apologise for missing the first interview — not typical rock star behaviour. For an hour Mark talked about Dark Night of the Soul, how working with Danger Mouse had brought him out of a creative rut, his love of Twin Peaks and hip hop, and also what a pleasure it had been to record with heroes like Lynch and Iggy Pop. He called the sessions “a happy time” in his life, and appeared to have used the project’s dark subject matter as a cathartic counter balance for his own personal demons. He had a voice and easy manner I immediately warmed to, trusted and wanted to get to know better.
Sadly, that conversation was destined to be our first and last, as on Saturday March 6th 2010, Mark committed suicide, just days after Dark Night of the Soul was finally given the go ahead for a physical CD release. A few hours after hearing the news, I listened to our interview again and thought that it would be a fitting tribute to publish a longer edit than the version that made it into print. Here it is:
Tim Noakes: What drew you both to create this multi layered conceptual project?
Mark Linkous: Brian (Burton, Danger Mouse) and me knew that we had more in us that we wanted to do more work together. I like everything Brian does, but the first thing I heard was The Grey Album, and I was in a slump for long time, not being able to write much, which was why Dreams For Light Years took so long. I started listening to new CDs to inspire me. I saw the name Danger Mouse and liked the name and thought it was some band from North Carolina or something. So I finally played it without knowing what it was and was so excited about what I heard because I’m a huge Beatles fan and I love Jay Z as well. I love the music in hip-hop songs, it’s the most cutting edge, and cool sounds you’ll ever hear if you really break it down.
This project has surreal twists — did you want to continue to confound people’s expectations?
Mark Linkous: Lyrically? I guess I don’t really consider it as surreal. I just consider it all as imagery, whether it’s aurally or ocular, it’s all… what am I trying to say… it’s not meant to be surreal or confounding in any way, it’s just meant to be working on all these different levels, something that’s never been done before. One of the things I really wanted to do with Brian was meld… I’m sure he’s going to hate me talking about the Grey Album so much… but I really wanted to meld pop with hip-hop in some way.
What was it like working with someone like Iggy?
Mark Linkous: I couldn’t believe it when I heard his voice on the track. It’s still hard to believe some of this stuff actually happened. After having such a hard time for quite a while writing and doing music, it’s done a lot for me to work with Brian and friends. Working with David Lynch, another total hero of mine, I still can’t believe that actually happened.
What is it about Lynch that inspires you?
Mark Linkous: The stream of consciousness thing – how to perceive music in so many different ways. There’s this theory about music, that the quiet parts are just as important as the musical parts, I really applied that to my music and that came from the influence of David Lynch’s films — some of the quiet parts would be foreboding but in another context they could be beautiful. The music would compliment that dark part, you know?
Is Dark Night of the Soul all about a nightmare?
Mark Linkous: Personally it’s been a good dream, because working with your heroes makes you feel great. It’s no different really to what David does when he goes to different countries to teach transcendental meditation to kids in schools who can’t speak English in an attempt to reduce the crime rate. In his life, he’s not a guy who lives in a surreal world with flashing red lights, velvet curtains and midgets talking backwards, he seems like a pretty active guy who enjoys life. It was a good thing for all of us. I don’t know if we all look to the darkness to stop our heads from exploding or what…
You’ve obviously had some real dark moments in your life; did you see this as a way of addressing some things that had happened in your past?
Mark Linkous: Well I don’t think it’s going to change my life in a drastic way, I’m just glad I’ve been involved in this thing while I’m still here on earth.
Did it transform you as a musician?
Mark Linkous: Things that aren’t very interesting to read I assume, but I liked the way people would phrase a line or something, to see how far we could push the music to be interesting. I’ve been working alone for a long time. I’m my own engineer. It’s really hard to make records that really have elements that I want in them just because of the constraints I have. I don’t have any interns or engineers so if I wanted the glockenspiel to sound like there’s ants following it across the track panning then I’m the one who has to do that. It’s not that easy, and it doesn’t happen quickly as I use quite antiquated equipment. I learn something new all the time.
How did the lyrics come about — did you all trade bleak nightmares?
Mark Linkous: No one was given any direction whatsoever for the songs or the lyrical content. It was never discussed that it would be character or narrative driven, or that it would be about darkness and pain. That was never discussed or intended really. I don’t know why it came out like that (laughs).
Was this a cathartic way of clearing your ego?
Mark Linkous: I really enjoyed just playing guitar and writing songs, chord structures and stuff and not having to sing. I was so relieved when I told Brian I didn’t want to sing.
How did he take that news?
Mark Linkous: He was into it, he said he’d like me to sing one and I did, and that’s about it. I’ve forgotten what the question was…. it was just a relief not to be in the forefront trying to sing because I can’t really sing in the first place (laughs). It freaked me out at times. Doing a lot of it in California where Brian is lucky enough, well he’s earned it, to have engineers and people to help so it wasn’t just him and me in a room. Even the mixing process wasn’t so laborious because one of the fellows who engineered it knew the music so well would get it mixed up for us and we would just tweak it for a day. I usually spend four or five days mixing a song of mine.
How did working with other people in the studio affect you?
Mark Linkous: It was more spontaneous, he would put an organ part down and then if I had a guitar part in mind he would just say “Put it down” and it went on like that, it wasn’t any hassle. I didn’t have to drag the synth out of the corner and see if it still worked like I would if it was at my place. It was great to be relaxed about the whole thing, and not being under my console that was made in 1969 with red hot solder dripping on my face, I could just listen and play music and concentrate on nothing else. There was nothing to technically distract me at all.
If it was so easy and you were recording in sunny LA surely it should have been a fun record?
Mark Linkous: I didn’t know how that happened! I was enjoying myself, it was something that I wasn’t used, a different world. It was very pleasant. All I could think about was music. It just seemed like a happy time in my life. I didn’t get into my brain too much because I didn’t have time to like I usually do when I make music in solitary situations.
Is it important to get away from your own head to make music like this?
Mark Linkous: Yeah. If I had done it in my studio or even in the South it would have been a lot different. Not that I have a love affair with Los Angeles, I lived there for a couple of years but moved back to the South. I don’t know what else to say really.
In a traditional sense the Dark Night of the Soul is a metaphor for loneliness and desolation. How have you experienced that since becoming a performer?
Mark Linkous: I don’t produce much material because I do have problems with the darkness in my head that can debilitate me, that’s why I’m much more productive around other people I would say. Everybody has their little devils. Maybe we all felt it was a chance to bring out some of the darker aspects of our lives and express them.
Are you and David Lynch kindred spirits?
Mark Linkous: I don’t think I could be so pretentious to compare myself to him. I don’t understand every scene in his movies but I love everything he does, so I guess we’re kindred spirits in that way.
Will this album be a downer for anyone?
Mark Linkous: The mood changed throughout the songs. Some of it is very hopeful. A song like “Jaykub” is about the people who don’t get to stand on stage in front of 300 people or 10,000 people and they never will. They’ll be dishwashers, the guys who drive trucks back and forth. That song is a dichotomy. You recognise that those people are out there and you love em for it. You don’t love that they have to wash dishes for a living, you hope that things could be better for them, and maybe inside their heads they dream that they’re on a stage in front of many people.
Being one of those people that actually get to be on the stage, would you want to trade places with someone like Jaykub?
Mark Linkous: I don’t know. On my last album I was having such a hard time making it that a lot of the songs came out to be hopeful songs, like “Mountains”. My music isn’t all depressing, most of it is about hope. That’s what I wanted to do with my last record, I wanted to write hopeful songs because I didn’t know if I was going to make another record again, so I thought I’d at least try and cheer some people up.
So personally, do you see this as all therapeutic?
Mark Linkous: Oh yeah. It’s something that will be out there forever and no one can take it away. I’ve collaborated with two great people that I have such admiration for and am friends with, and I hope it will always be that way. It will always be a gift; the whole thing was a beautiful gift for me.
Some people think it’s going to be called either Sparklemouse of Dangerhorse. Obviously it’s not, but which do you prefer?
Mark Linkous: Dangerhorse. I hated Sparklemouse. Brian liked it but I didn’t. I think he was just trying me nice. It sounds like a brightly lit British children’s television show.
Why is he attracted to working with people who name themselves after animals?
Mark Linkous: I don’t know. Maybe it’s the same anonymity thing that I have. I got away with refusing to show my actual face in any of the ads for this, I just wore my horse head.
I’ve got one more question Mark. Would you advise people to listen to this album before they go to sleep or will it give them nightmares?
Mark Linkous: (laughs) Oh…. I think both really. I think some of em I really like to listen to in the daytime, but I guess on the whole it’s probably best absorbed late in the evening hours. Not that I wish to give people nightmares, but sometimes they can be good. Sometimes you wake up and you realise it was just a nightmare.
Were you ever worried that the weight of the guest list would overshadow the album’s concept?
Danger Mouse: No, I’ve never been worried about it. I just wanted the cast to get involved with what we were doing, particularly the music. It was never gonna be some big commercial record. Gnarls Barkley was your attempt at pop soul music, but this is soul of a different, darker kind. Let’s see how people digest it. I definitely haven’t tried to predict how people are going to think about it, so I’m curious in that respect. I’m excited about people looking at it in a different way.
Do you feel musically overwhelmed by darkness?
No, I guess I don’t look at the record as being bleak, but I can understand somebody else looking at it that way. It’s like a movie in some ways — there are parts that are dark, and there are parts that aren’t.
Is this your melancholic period?
I don’t know, I look back and I personally think that all the music I’ve done has been somewhat dark. Maybe not The Grey Album so much, but most of the other things. The records I work on with other people seem to have a dark feel to them. I just kinda get that way. I guess the last few years have put me in a more “lost” position, musically, because there’s the slight addition of a few more people watching what I’m doing.
Why did you ask David Lynch to collaborate?
Once I thought about him being involved visually I really couldn’t think of anybody else that it would work with. I felt like if it didn’t work with him, I wouldn’t try it with anybody else. But I figured that if he did it then it would work really well. What is it about his worldview that you vibe off? I love that his films let you imagine what everything means. There’s a lot of dreamlike aspects to what he’s doing, and some things don’t always have to make total sense, or not so obviously. But you know that as an artist there’s a reason to it all even if that’s just in his head. He brought that to this project.
Do all of the pictures work with specific songs as you work your way through the book and listen to the album?
I think they do, that’s the way it was presented, but I’ve never asked David. They could all be tied together in some other way as well. I like the idea that I don’t know. I’ve never asked him. They are all separated into groups of three to five pictures, depending on the song, but how they interact with each other I don’t know. David was the only collaborator who was able to hear the whole record, so he definitely had an outlook on the whole thing that the other people involved didn’t. I like to think that they are all connected, but I don’t really wanna know. It’s a lot more fun in my head to make up how they’re connected with each other.
Would you advise people to listen to this record before they go to sleep or will it scare them?
Scare them? I don’t think the record’s scary. There’s definitely changes of pace that might wake you up somewhere in the middle, but that would be the only thing I would say. I go to sleep with records on all the time, but I’ve never gone to sleep with this one, because it would probably wake me once it gets to the Iggy Pop song! Some people can sleep through anything. Maybe I’ll try it tonight and see what happens.
Published in the July 2009 issue of Dazed & Confused