This piece was originally published by The Lifted Brow.
There were strange things happening, and without any decent coherency events could have taken place in any order. I was feeling nauseated and unsettled and couldn’t sleep without waking five or six times a night; a homeless man came running after me, waving his dick and trying to spurt his urine on my shoes; I later saw the same man sitting on curb-side furniture, shaking violently, crying profusely; after waking up at 3am I heard beautiful and rhythmic opera-like music with a strong female tenor, which I still can’t confirm I actually heard, and as the music played I began imagining figures opening my door and shooting my boyfriend and I in our sleep; two days later a woman came to my counter at work and drew a child-like picture of a gun to my head and while I looked at the picture, she mimed shooting up the hotel lobby; I began listening to Tony Conrad and was reworking lyrics for a song that sampled Conrad’s ‘Four Violins’, lyrics that enacted the final point of individual fracture amid an environment of oppression, when I heard the announcement of Conrad’s death; I started reading Persuasion to do a ‘body count’ on the novel’s numerous deaths and even though I knew a quick Google would provide my answers, I felt morally indebted to take on this task myself; I gave up this ambition to number death and re-opened W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn to another Conrad, Joseph Conrad, whose life story prompts a meditation on the violence and oppression of colonisation, particularly of the barbarities in the Belgian Congo, a horror that time has eventually obscured; I watched as Sebald peeled away our geographical, historical and psychological landscapes, with each layer revealing what, for Sebald, sits at the bottom of everything: a little more horror, a little more death.
I was starting to feel estranged, sensitive and moody, so I knew I had to keep my wits about me, lest I end up bed-ridden and incapacitated like Sebald’s poor narrator who endures certain—but unidentifiable—“ailments of the spirit and of the body”. The stranger these episodes became the more concrete they felt, while the normal things, like shopping and driving, seemed like odd quotidian fixtures. It was life by the rules of mystery, and yet it wasn’t a typical thriller, with hatted investigators and magnifying glasses, promising resolution. It was a strangeness that had become a silent fixture in my day-to-day.
This uncertainty and unsettledness, often as a willful refutation of thesis or concept, is the key mood of the David Lynch oeuvre. The television show Twin Peaks (much like Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive), starts with a seemingly straight-forward detective mystery (who killed Laura Palmer?) and proceeds to lift the lids of less typical mysteries. In this case: uncontrollable crying, the spirit of evil, identity, incest, abuse, adultery, death, demonic possession, prophetic spirits, extra-dimensional rooms, and a woman who cradles a clairvoyant log and will only interpret, but never speak, her log’s knowledge of “many things I, I musn’t say.”
The cruxes of Twin Peaks—evil, melancholia, pain—are always figured intuitively. Lynch’s prime goal is “head-entry”, which David Foster Wallace, in his brilliant essay ‘David Lynch Keeps His Head’, puts down to a kind of feeling. Ultimately what Lynch is dealing with is the problem of representation itself – how do you represent unsettling, death, the mind and evil which are physical absences and absences of knowledge? But we shouldn’t confuse this with a desire for causality. Lynch was never too concerned over who killed Laura Palmer, and the second season of Twin Peaks is the image of an artist desperately trying to avoid resolution of his own narrative. The finale of Twin Peaks left us with a classic Lynchian non-resolution with our hero Agent Cooper possessed by Killer Bob, the demonic force that inhabited both Laura and Leland Palmer, and next year (assumedly), after twenty-five years of speculation and gossip, Lynch will finally revisit this still-present mystery.
A few days before the release of Xiu Xiu’s Plays The Music of Twin Peaks, I heard the news of Bek Moore’s passing and it was in that spirit of quiet grief, along with the unsettledness of those weeks, that I would eventually listen to the album. Bek Moore, conventionally known as the singer of Scrabbled and Clag, and better known as Brisbane’s fiercest punk, was a startlingly particular person. While I had many meaningful encounters with Bek—her on the stage, and me in the audience—we had only one truly personal encounter when I interviewed her for a radio documentary.
Bek lived in a Queenslander—one of those wooden houses on stilts found in Brisbane and upwards—in the historically-downtrodden-cum-affluent suburb of Red Hill. Even now I can see her standing, one hand opening the front door for me, the other holding a cigarette, hair ramshackled, t-shirt too big – the epitomic image of the final resistor of the suburb. She apologised for her messy house, which was haphazard in exactly the way you’d expect: posters everywhere, floor space kept to a minimum, the scent of cigarettes on every fabric. I remember saying the mess was nice and homely, and her saying I was bullshitting, but that was okay. My pre-planned half-hour interview morphed into a four-hour conversation on feminism and music in Australia. I was chasing a history of women in rock and punk in Brisbane throughout the 1990s and 2000s and Bek was the living manifestation of this history and its ideologies.
When my boyfriend woke me in the middle of the night with the news of Bek’s passing, all I could hear was the chorus to Scrabbled’s ‘Dead Noise’. The song, starting with a cute-dark vocal melody in the verse, later turns into a protest chant in the chorus:
UP THE HALL
ON THE KITCHEN FLOOR
FUCKING JUST FUCK OFF
PISS PISS PISS
It’s so blatant that I can’t help but laugh, and yet its angry directness has always felt deceiving. I listened to the song again and again, obsessed with the word “STOMPING”, experiencing a tremor like the rubbing of fault lines, but it wasn’t until I moved to Melbourne that I realised why. One can’t stomp through a Brunswick terrace house. They’re brick and they’re built up from the ground. The stomp can’t reverberate. The Queenslander, typical in Brisbane, has not only the virtues of supplying breeze and avoiding low floods, but acts as an amplifier, carrying the sound of the stomp throughout the house. My grandfather spent over forty years in a Brisbane Queenslander and in walking the hallways the effort was in not stomping – and if ever you were angry, desolate, destructive or melancholy, that walk down the hall could be your power.
I imagine my mum and uncles stomping down the hallway as angry adolescents thirty years ago. I imagine the feelings of dread and confrontation they would have felt when their parents, my grandparents, stomped down the hall. I imagine myself stomping down the same hallway, the same reverberation at a different time. It’s remarkable to me even now that the sound of one stomp should contain so many things: that it should dance around anger, melancholy, and an incipient rottenness and yet hit none of these things precisely.
Strangely it was in Brisbane that Californian ‘art rock’ ‘noise pop’ band Xiu Xiu would first realise Plays The Music of Twin Peaks as a performance during Lynch’s exhibition Between Two Worlds at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). In my mind it made complete sense that Lynch would be swayed by Brisbane over any other Australian city. With its reclusiveness from the other East coast capitals and its big-country-town oddity, it’s easy to see Brisbane as a larger sister to Twin Peaks. The story goes that Brisbane sound artist (and friend of Xiu Xiu) Lawrence English hustled José Da Silva, senior curator and head of Australian Cinémathèque at GOMA, into action and José, clearly being receptive, saw Xiu Xiu’s quiet ideas realised. After Xiu Xiu’s performance at GOMA that saw the band fiercely cover the songs of Twin Peaks, the group soon received a grant from GOMA to reinterpret Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack on their own terms.
In an essay for Crack entitled ‘The Staggering Beauty Within The Music of Twin Peaks’, Xiu Xiu’s founder Jamie Stewart writes of Badalamenti’s compositions for Twin Peaks: “We had no idea how simple they were. It stupefied us that the songs were generally just two or three repeating chords with very basic inversions.” And yet the songs “wrapped so much longing, so much 1950s post-war trauma, so much romance, so much fear and so much mystery into such a simple refrain …”
In a wonderful moment from the Twin Peaks documentary, Secrets From Another Place: Creating Twin Peaks, Badalamenti describes Lynch’s sonic vision as Lynch guided him towards certain sounds:
‘Okay, Angelo, we’re in a dark woods now, and there’s a soft wind blowing through some sycamore trees and there’s a moon out and there’s some animal sounds … Okay, Angelo, now we gotta make a change. Because from behind the tree in the back of the woods, there’s this very lonely girl, her name is Laura Palmer, and it’s very sad, but get something that matches her.’ And I just segued into this, and he said, ‘Oh that’s it! It’s very beautiful. I can see her and she’s walking toward the camera and she’s coming closer, just keeping building it! Just keeping building it! And she’s getting close! Now reach some kind of climax … Oh that’s it! Oh that’s so beautiful! Angelo! Oh that’s tearing my heart out! I love that! Just keep that going, she’s starting to leave, so fall down, keep falling, keep falling …’
In creating ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’ Badalamenti had to interpret Lynch’s instructions to create a precise feeling of mystery. Considering that Laura exists as the pivotal but absent centre of Twin Peaks, it was through sound that Badalamenti had to voice her completely; it’s the immortality of a well-known song versus the mortality of an unknown life.
As intuitive as musical interpretation can be, it’s also a concrete practice—you play the songs—and in discovering how the music of Twin Peaks ‘works’, Xiu Xiu were at risk of giving us the bones, not the flesh, of Badalamenti’s songs and brutalising some of the most iconic sounds of the 1990s. It’s easy enough for me to tell you that Xiu Xiu’s reinterpretation of Twin Peaks’ soundtrack adds guitars, overdrive, some extra percussion and a stark vibraphone, which coalesce into what Stewart described in a post-album interview as a sound that’s “darker, more intense, more distorted, and louder.” But this doesn’t even nearly describe the overwhelming, almost reverential spirit of the album.
What we’re dealing with, however, isn’t simply one musician playing the songs of another, but how artists exercise their personality. Generally, when one strong personality (Xiu Xiu) reinterprets another (David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti) we’re left with similar works that have entirely different spirits. This is what happened when Pussy Galore brilliantly re-worked The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St or the less amazing, almost tragic, Dirty Projectors cover of Black Flag’s Damaged. The astonishing thing for Xiu Xiu is that they’ve managed to infiltrate their personality into every sonic crevice and yet never lost the spirit of Twin Peaks. The melancholia and anxiety, the show’s two central experiences, are intensified and altered but are never reduced.
Like in Lynch, Sebald and Bek Moore, suffering in Xiu Xiu’s work is never directly invoked. It’s a pain that ails, that’s strange and is only represented by its inability to be directly represented: the moment suffering is spotlighted is the moment it becomes lost to us. The work of these artists is consistently refracted through a violent lens, of anger, death, anxiety, perversion and transgression that washes everything they portray. Yet their continual experimentation is not aimed at deconstructing or unveiling widely held truths, but instead places faith in the revelation of the various truths within their creations.
In peeling away the layers that make Badalamenti’s compositions work, just as Sebald scrapes away at the layers of a historical event, or as Bek Moore peels away life in Brisbane, Xiu Xiu are not aiming to reveal or deconstruct Badalamenti’s songs, but instead are trying to honour their sense of mystery, as well as engage with Lynch’s obsessions, which are now our own contemporary obsessions. In this way Plays The Music of Twin Peaks is a frozen metamorphosis: the songs are both new and exactly the same and to listen to Xiu Xiu’s interpretation is to witness the very process of aesthetic change. It is the interplay of these two worlds and two sounds, both fueled by the same disturbing emotions and a passion of extremes, that throws Xiu Xiu’s reinterpretation into a dialogue with its original, to the extent that the original itself can be looked at anew.