Photo courtesy of Showtime.

This Is Why the New 'Twin Peaks' Sounds Weird as Shit

Sound supervisor Dean Hurley explains how David Lynch's unsettling world gets populated with crackling music and other audio horrors.

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Aug 18 2017, 5:30pm

Photo courtesy of Showtime.

There has been an unsettling hum woven into the fibers of Twin Peaks since its very beginnings. In a 2007 documentary about the creation of David Lynch and Mark Frost's idiosyncratic mystery, the composer Angelo Badalamenti recounted the story of the creation of "Laura Palmer's Theme," the droning instrumental that'd be a centerpiece of the show's early 90s run. Sitting next to him at an electric piano, Lynch would offer abstract prompts of the feeling the music would convey.

"David would say: 'OK Angelo, we're in a dark woods now," Badalamenti recalled. "And there's a soft wind blowing through some sycamore trees, and there's a moon out, and there's some animal sounds in the background, and you can hear the hoot of an owl."

Badalamenti improvised the piece in less than 20 minutes. "David got up, he gave me a big hug, he said, 'Angelo: that's Twin Peaks,'" he said in the documentary. True to his promise, in decades after the show went off the air in 1992, Badalamenti's score became one of the main ways it was absorbed into the collective unconscious. It was borrowed in songs by Moby and Mount Eerie, covered by morose singer-songwriters and used as aesthetic inspiration for the careers of many more.

After 25 years, the show has returned with Badalamenti's involvement, but it's also shifted the balance of the show's sound away from him, enlisting new musical offerings from the sound supervisor Dean Hurley, Johnny Jewel, and Lynch himself, among others. It's clear that when Lynch proclaimed that the music was the sound of Twin Peaks, that he was talking as much about the imagery that inspired it as the music itself. Each episode of Twin Peaks: The Return begins with Badalamenti's soaring theme, but its sound worlds are decidedly stranger, darker, and more restrained. There's ghoulish drones, wheezing synthesizers, electronics that sound like malfunctioning transformers, and washes of white noise that sound, as Lynch intended, like wind through the tops of trees. Many scenes are kept nearly silent, or soundtracked only by a distant tension-raising hum—a striking direction for a show that has such instantly recognizable music in its past.

Hurley credits Lynch for these decisions on a recent phone call. As the sound designer of the show, Lynch "controls every single sonic element of the show and determines and crafts how the entire soundtrack sounds," Hurley explains. But because he's been the guy tasked with running Lynch's studio for the last 12 years, Hurley was on-hand and responsible for making some of the show's more eerie sound work. Two weeks ago, some of that material was collected on a record on Sacred Bones called Anthology Resource Vol. 1: △△. Even for those unfamiliar with the show itself, it's an unsettling listen. Over 40 minutes, Hurley conjures a grayscale and violent world punctuated by electrical crackles and whispering ambience—the sort of record that'll make you cast a wary eye at your speaker system, suspicious that at any moment it might combust.

Taking a break from reconfiguring Lynch's studio, Hurley hopped on the phone to talk about that record, the collaborative process that birthed the weird sounds of Twin Peaks, and what a job interview with Lynch is like.

Noisey: Most interviews with you start at the point that you started working for David, but let's go back further. How did you first get into recording music?
Dean Hurley: I grew up in Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley in a town called Waynesboro. In high school I wasn't really in a band, but I was really interested in recording anyone I could. I had a shitty studio in my parents basement. I got better at doing everything fast and doing everything live, it's only now that I'm realizing that's aided me in working for David. It's all about being super fast and super adaptable—getting things right and not laboring over them.

How did you end up on a path toward film music?
I went to undergraduate school in Maryland for film production. In undergraduate studies, there were a lot of kids who wanted to be directors, but what fascinated were the Stan Brakhages of the world who were making kind of handmade films. By doing that path in that way, I found out that I was really making these films so that I could put sound to them.

Had you done any formal film work by the time you started working with David?
I interned with this guy Mark Stoeckinger who worked for this company Soundelux. He's a sound supervisor, he's what I'm doing today on David's film projects. I was interning with him and my first role as an intern was pulling, like, fart sounds for the film Friday After Next. That is pretty unglamorous. I had a start-to-finish role on The Last Samurai. I was still there in an apprentice capacity, but I sat on the dub stage for the entire mix of the film. I started working for David shortly after.

So how did that happen? What is a job interview with David Lynch like?
It wasn't an open call in the classifieds or anything. I got to know a guy named Ron Eng, who's worked with David for a long time. David had freshly built his own studio and has since wanted to do everything audio-related there. When David let go of a guy he'd hired to run the studio and was looking for a new person, he reached out to Ron, who recommended some people, and I was one of them.

My first impulse [when I heard the job was running a studio] was like, "Oh that's beyond me." I was way more interested in film sound, but hearing David's name, I was super intrigued and thought it'd be cool to meet him. I'm not really a good con man, so I felt very uncomfortable, but when I came up here [the way] he talked about everything so nonchalantly dispelled my intimidation. He was like, "I like to experiment with sound, here's the space I do it in. There's going to be a lot of things that go on up here."

When he asked where I was from, he mentioned that he'd spent some time in Charlottesville, [Virginia] and had a son that lives there. I grew up 20 minutes from there. I found out that he lived there in his high school formative years. He hated it. There was something to talk about. But I do have to say, he never asked me what my credentials were. He never asked to see a resumé. He was feeling me out, "Is this a person I want to be in a room with alone for nine hours a day?" He said we'd do a month trial and I've been working here ever since.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Let's talk about this record and this show. What was your role exactly?
To be a sound designer, which [David] is not only credited on for Twin Peaks and has been for a vast majority of his work, has taken on a lot of different meanings over the year. But for him, and for me by default, that means the person who is the executor and controls every single sonic element of the show. One of the gifts and benefits of working on this show is that I can make things in his world and craft things for service of his vision and his show. In some respects it's not even fair for the record to only have my name on it.

In that case, what conversations were these pieces borne from?
There's a lot of different scenarios. Sometimes he'll be working on a picture edit in his office and he'll intercom to me.

Like an actual intercom, a button on a desk or something?
Yeah, he's in an office downstairs when he's cutting things and I'm upstairs at the dub stage, so there's a lot of intercomming that goes back and forth. It feels like a vintage office at some points. He'll say "Do we have any scary choir cluster music?" And I'll be like "Let me take a look"—knowing that we don't have anything, but trying to manufacture something quickly. I think one of the things that he likes about me is the speed element.

What are some of the specific prompts he gave you for Twin Peaks ?
Early on [there was] the electricity sound. It has become a defining signature of the show, but it's written into the script. When you read something like that, it's like, well shit, we're going to need something like that. When you go through a sound effects library you [hear] things you've heard before. Or things that aren't as illustrious or characteristic as you'd want. I get motivated on a desire for something better or different. I made an electricity library, and he folded it in and worked it into the show.

When you make those things are you thinking representationally? When you see "electricity sounds" in a script that could mean a lot of different things.
David's taught me not to think about things representationally. I've seen far too many experiments that we've done together where you seeing how [something is] created [makes] it lose the magic.

You can get to different sounds through ways that you wouldn't normally associate with good results. You can react to a sound purely sonically, without reacting to how it was made or what was used to capture it. Maybe a dinosaur growl is just a small dog slowed down. [Knowing] all those things can putrefy your pure experience. Every viewer experiencing Twin Peaks right now is on the other side of that fence—not being privy to know how things were done. It's a little bit how a magician never reveals its secrets—knowing something can deflate its magical qualities. That's something he taught me about.

Photo by Kyle Hurley/Courtesy of the artist.

The sound of Twin Peaks at least as it's depicted on this record is a lot darker and less tonal. Is that something you talked about with David?
We definitely didn't speak about it very much. I've tried to honor that through my working relationship with him—trying to dial intuitively, to sense what he's thinking. When you read the script, it doesn't sound the same [as the first two seasons of Twin Peaks]. The material was written in a way that didn't sound like the things that had come before it.

Early on, the missteps that I had, was when I'd see a quintessentially Twin Peaks scene. The impulse that I had to eradicate—because it wasn't asked for and wasn't desired by David—was like "Oh man, you could totally put Grady Tate and his brushed drums over this scene and it'd feel like the original."

How did he make it clear that wasn't wanted?.
I suggested that on a couple of occasions. David's pretty open to trying things, so I'd put it in and then he'd just be like "No, it's better without it." That came from an evolution of his own taste over the years. Music is such a dangerous thing. It's like sugar. You get used to it and then you want it everywhere, then the you realize the whole thing is sweet.

You talked earlier about the symbiosis of sound and image, what does releasing a record like this mean, when you divorce it from the visuals?
That was something I was concerned with. It's been framed as an album but honestly the impulse with this was similar to Johnny Jewel releasing his Windswept compilation that features a lot of cues that have been used in the show. I didn't really intend for it to be considered an album. The entire sonic experience of the show, I'm only a fraction of that. There's an intention to do [a collection] with the whole show because there's a lot of stuff that David did himself and there's stuff that David and Angelo did that describes the show. On its own, as my artistic statement, I'm a little sheepish about [this release] because it's not necessarily an album as much as it is a collection of some of the things I had hands in.

To speak about it from another angle, I have always liked things like this. I have always liked peeling back apart the sound from the image because now you have all of this mind's eye material based on the tone of a motion picture or a television show and the listener can then orchestrate their own mind's eye silver screen as they listen to stuff like that. That's always been a relationship I've been really into. This is apples and oranges completely, but I'm a giant fan of the RZA's score to [ Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai]. You can feel the hand-crafting and rough edges that he's famous for. That listen is very disjointed, but it allows you to further exist in that world that was created by the film. It puts a lot of power in the listeners court to do as they would with that.