Rock Stories: “Wild at Heart” director David Lynch meets speed metal band Powermad

By and on May 22, 2017

We haven’t posted one of our Rock Stories in quite awhile, but considering we’re always up for a good story about David Lynch, one of Night Flight’s favorite directors — not to mention that we’re still excited that Twin Peaks: The Return” finally premiered this past weekend on the Showtime cable network — we asked our friend Kevin Laffey, a former Warner Bros. A&R man, to tell us the story about how one of his bands ended up in the David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

KEVINLAFFEY1

Kevin Laffey

Working in the Artists and Repertoire Department of a record company becomes a verb when you’re the one tasked with finding and developing recording artists. For over thirteen years, from 1983 through 1996, I was “doing A&R” for Warner Bros. and Reprise Records.

Back in the day, before GarageBand came pre-installed on MacBooks, we’d go out searching for real garage bands in clubs (and in more than a few garages), both in and out of town.

We’d buy indie and import singles, and wade through piles of tape submissions.

POWERMAD4

That’s how I discovered Powermad, not from monitoring the number of followers on BandCamp or their “likes” on YouTube, but in the old fashioned way — by listening.

Powermad are a speed metal band from Minneapolis (yes, they are still alive and double-kicking).

In 1987, I somehow received a cassette of their Boot Camp EP on Combat Records, a 1986 reissue of their self released indie vinyl EP.

I say somehow because that’s a long thirty years of joy, heartbreak and free lunches ago to remember exactly.

As they were unlike any other band on the associated labels, I signed them to Reprise Records, which Warner Bros. had just reactivated in the tradition of Jethro Tull, Neil Young and Captain Beefheart, the left-of-center artists that had helped define it.

We decided that keeping Powermad’s street cred among the metal community was important as selling out to a major label was still a thing to be reckoned with at the time.

To that end, we recorded a second, no frills EP, The Madness Begins, at Paisley Park in 1988, the year it opened as a public studio.

POWERMAD2

While singles and EPs were loss-leaders as sources of revenue, they were used primarily as marketing tools for helping to promote album sales (when albums really mattered).

For The Madness Begins, one print ad was taken out in metal magazines and fanzines that included a mail-in coupon that could be sent in for a free cassette of the EP.

Reprise expected to get around 4,000 requests and enough word-of-mouth to set up their tour and subsequent album. Instead, there were over 40,000 requests.

So, work on the album that became Absolute Power began post haste by the end of the year.

POWERMAD3

Not only were Powermad unique among the pantheon of Warner/Reprise artists, they were also unique to me.

I had been known for producing anthologies by T.Rex, the Ramones and Jimi Hendrix, for soundtrack albums, and 54·40, my first signing (who are still going strong!), but 1988 was a particularly seminal year.

Through Tommy Boy Records, I signed Information Society to an album deal which garnered four charting singles (two in the Top Ten) and a gold record.

POWERMAD9

My dream came true, though, when I signed my hero, Brian Eno, and together we developed Opal Records which debuted with recordings by Harold Budd, Hugo Largo, Daniel Lanois, John Paul Jones, Michael Brook and Roger Eno with Jon Hassell and John Cale to follow.

Then there was David Lynch.

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART16

In the fall of 1986, Blue Velvet was released.

Count me among his adoring fans, but also as the kind of film nerd that stays all the way through the closing credits. On the same weekend that I saw it, my fellow A&R rep in Warner Bros.’ New York office, Michael Hill, saw it, too.

We spoke regularly so the next time we did we both wondered out loud about who that girl Julee Cruise was that sang the song at the end, “Mysteries Of Love.”

I decided to find out.

JULEECRUISE2

Lynch was represented by CAA and I happened to have had lived next door to one of its agents, Brian Loucks.

The soundtrack to Eraserhead was released through I.R.S./A&M a few years before, so there remained a relationship between David and the label.

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART3

It turned out that he was already in talks with them to develop a new film project called Ronnie Rocket about a teenage dwarf who had suffered a mishap that gave him superpowers over electricity that he could use to either cause destruction or make music. He then becomes a rock star…but I digress.

Suffice to say, David was looking for ideas for the film’s music.

Loucks was aware that I had a diverse record collection in my little, one-room Silver Lake duplex.

The next thing I knew, Brian said he and David Lynch were coming over to my place to listen to music! Not only did they arrive, however, but in tow was the head of A&R and film music for A&M, David Anderle.

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART11

I was just a lowly A&R scout at that time for Warners.

Anderle, need anyone be reminded, had signed Frank Zappa to Verve, went to Elektra to work with Love and The Doors, had managed The Beach Boys, and had produced Delaney & Bonnie, Judy Collins and Kris Kristofferson, yet here he was drinking my cheap wine while I spun records.

What was wrong with that picture?

JULEECRUISE3

By the end of the evening I had found a way to slide in a question sideways to Lynch about that chanteuse Julee Cruise.

He nodded as if he’d been reminded of something and a ball had just dropped, but Anderle was keeping a close watch, so that was that.

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART5

Months later, once the Ronnie Rocket project fell through, Brian called me, but this time with David Lynch on a conference call.

He wanted to talk about Julee, about her as an artist, of the songs he and Angeleo Badalamenti had written for her and the album they wanted to produce.

That was the basis of the production deal with David and Angelo that begat two Julee Cruise albums, two soundtracks to “Twin Peaks,” a collaboration with Wim Wenders and “Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream Of The Brokenhearted.”

Once the contracts were signed, I found out that not only was Julee Cruise an actress with a degree in French horn who’d been working with Angelo in musical theatre (i.e., she wasn’t an indie rock singer), but that David and Angelo had yet to write the songs!

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART12

So, signing David, Angelo and Julee was the pop cherry (so to speak) of quite a fruitful year.

Work began on Julee’s Floating Into the Night in the Spring. It was originally slated for release in April of 1989, but delayed until September in anticipation of what had heretofore been just a glimmer in David’s eye, “Twin Peaks.”

What I didn’t know was that David had pitched “Twin Peaks” to ABC in August of 1988, but the screenplay for the pilot wasn’t finished until December. Angelo would do the score, Julee’s songs would be used and she would be cast as the singer in the roadhouse.

The pilot episode began shooting in March of 1989.

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART4

In the meantime, I was out looking for new artists and developing the ones I’d already signed. There wasn’t a band that didn’t want to be produced by either one of two artist/producers in my stable, Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois.

When it came to promotional videos, there wasn’t anyone that didn’t dream of having David Lynch direct their music video.

If only that demand translated to record sales for their own projects, but alas, I did have bragging rights and the t-shirts. (I take that back, Warner Bros. never made a t-shirt for any of them…harrumph!)

Powermad were no less fanatical Lynch fans than every other hipster on the East or Left Coasts who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to speed metal themselves, but somewhere between New York and L.A. tastes are less prone to political correctness.

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART6

In the Winter of 1989, every time I went to the studio during the recording of Absolute Power, Joel Dubay, Todd Haug and Jeff Litke (the core of the band) would corner me and ask, “So, is David Lynch going to direct our video?”

And for every time I had to say, “No!,” they would reward me for it – by taking their then vegetarian A&R man to the most expensive steakhouse in town or goad me ad infinitum for more details about the ancient practice of tantric sex and self-love I espoused (more on that another time, perhaps).

There was just no way that they were going to go to the head of the line of each MTV wannabe that wanted their video directed by David Lynch that decade whether I knew him or not!

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART9

What I didn’t tell them was that on the day we mastered Absolute Power that Spring, I had to drop by David’s Hollywood Hills home later that afternoon. Artwork and marketing plans for Julee had to be discussed and a possible soundtrack for “Twin Peaks” which had just begun filming.

I waited in his kitchen and, as a fan myself, I got a little curious. I looked around and opened a cabinet or two. On the counter was a mound of liver sculpted into a human head that had been left out for the army of ants that covered it (and I hate liver!).

When I opened the refrigerator door, there was its doppelgänger staring back at me if not for its eye sockets eaten away by their handiwork. With me in that altered state, David wandered in.

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART20

He ushered me onto the crushed red velvet (!) couch across the polished concrete floor beneath the vaulted ceiling of the otherwise empty living room in his Lloyd Wright designed “Beverly Johnson House” built in 1963.

We sat equidistant across from two, floor-standing speaker towers and a stereo which he controlled remotely.

When we finished our meeting, I asked David if he wouldn’t mind offering an opinion on another one of my recording projects.

I didn’t describe it to him, I didn’t want him to have any preconceptions, and he didn’t ask. He just took the test pressing from my hot little hands and placed it on his Bang and Olufsen straight-arm turntable, part of an audiophile’s wet dream of an entertainment system.

I had no ulterior motives other than to see how he’d react.

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART15

You know that old sawhorse about the stereotypical record company bozo playing the first few bars of a new artist’s demo tape; pausing it; going forward a few more seconds; pausing it again, then fast forwarding it to the next song without a word (but maybe a knowing laugh beneath his breath), and so on until the poor sucker is shrinking in beads of sweat and turning fifty shades of red?

Well, all you artists out there will be happy to know that the tables were turned that afternoon for this A&R man, literally, but instead of giving me the courtesy of skipping on to the next track, David got up from the couch, walked over to the stereo and lifted the tonearm off the record after only about fifteen seconds!

Neither of us said a word. He just stood there next to the turntable with a poker face. Then for some reason he dropped the needle back down and started side one, song one again. After another fifteen seconds, he raised the arm and stopped it playing once more.

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART21

Was something wrong with the stereo, I wondered? He lifted the needle, dropped it, then started the track again that way about six times listening only to the opening chords of “Slaughterhouse” over and over.

I was between mortified and finding the right words for my humble apology.

When he was mercifully finished, he only had a few choice words for me.

He said, “Kevin, I want Powermad to be in my next movie.” Boom!

POWERMAD8

By the time I flew back to Minneapolis to play the test pressing, I’d already had a field trip planned for Powermad. There was a local Warner Bros./WEA event for radio and retail on a paddle-wheeler steamboat.

The B-52s were in town and we all got on board. Kate Pierson was wearing a Flintstones one-piece Pebbles-print swimsuit. There was food, drink and laughter all around.

This time, however, I figured the band were going to hold me captive until I gave in to their demands or throw me overboard.

POWERMAD7a

Absolute Power was coming out in July.

While they weren’t exactly an MTV kind of band, they expected that not only would there be a single, but a promotional video as well, which was standard at the time. There were high-fives all around for the sound of the final master and my report of its reception by the Reprise staff.

Then came time for their inevitable question, “Is David Lynch going to direct our video?” I had to say, for the last time, “No, David is just not interested in directing anyone’s music video, I’m really sorry, I tried.”

There was no more teasing by the guys, just disappointment once their high hopes were scuttled once and for all. They had wanted that so badly and so did I, actually.

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART17

What I didn’t admit was that I’d lied, I never even asked David to direct their video. I just couldn’t find a comfortable way to pitch the idea save for that subtle approach in David’s living room.

While we were floating into the night on that paddle boat in Minnesota, I reached into my bag, grabbed a large manila envelope and handed it to Joel. He was, naturally, the most vocal of the bunch as lead singers usually are.

As he opened it, I reiterated, “No, Lynch won’t be directing your next video…”

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART7

Joel pulled out the hundred or so pages bound in a glossy red cover. He read the title of it, showed it around, and just looked at me as if to say, “So?”

It said Wild At Heart.

I carried on, “…but, I can tell you now that David heard the album, liked it and said to me…”

Then I paused before carefully repeating those choice words, “I want Powermad to be in my next movie.”

You couldn’t hear a pin drop, much less a needle drop. There was nothing but silence in the air until their collective, “What?!?”

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART18

They passed the screenplay around unable to get a handle on all it meant and I added, “After David heard ‘Slaughterhouse,’ not only does he want to use it as a recurring theme in soundtrack of his next film, he wants you, Powermad, to fly out to L.A. and act in the frickin’ movie!”

They flew out to L.A. that summer of 1989, rehearsed “Slaughterhouse” for their fifteen minutes of fame, then practiced miming Elvis Presley’s “Love Me” to perform on stage behind Nicolas Cage.

In their scene you can see Joel throw Cage the mic so that he, as Sailor, could serenade his girl Lula (played by Laura Dern).

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART14

The snakeskin jacket he’s wearing, by the way, was his idea and Lynch went with it. I’m not sure who’s idea the Elvis impersonation was.

And now you know the rest of the story of how Powermad got their David Lynch video!

DAVIDLYNCHCHICKEN

Postscript:

In the midst of all this activity, the Brooklyn Academy Of Music (BAM) came to me with an invitation for David to participate in their upcoming New Music America Festival. You’d have thought he had enough on his plate, but yet he agreed.

Accepting the invitation for him, I told them he would present his theatre piece entitled “Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream Of The Brokenhearted.” What they didn’t know is all he really had was the title at that point.

It’s interesting to note that during the filming of Wild At Heart, “Sailor and Lula” were filmed in character for what would become the opening of “Industrial Symphony” just weeks later.

Julee Cruise starred, Angelo wrote the music, and David did the sound design, production design, sculptures and stage direction.

I was there for what were two performances standing next to Isabella Rossellini, his girlfriend at the time. Pinch me.

KEVINLAFFEY3

Kevin Laffey and Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, in 1978

Absolute Power by Powermad was released in July of 1989.

Floating Into The Night by Julee Cruise was released in September of 1989.

“Industrial Symphony No. 1″ was performed on November 10, 1989 at BAM.

“Twin Peaks,” the series, debuted on ABC in April of 1990.

Wild At Heart, the film, was released in August of 1990.

~ Kevin Laffey, May 2017

KEVINLAFFEY2

Kevin Laffey in the Warner Bros. tape archives (photo by Mark Takeuchi)

Wild at Heart screens at the Cinefamily — located at the Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, 90036 — on June 3, 2017. Go here for more details.

We’re always looking for new Rock Stories to share, and have previously asked some of our friends out there to tell us some of their wild and crazy adventures in the music biz. If you’ve got a good Rock Story you’d like to share, get in touch with us here at Night Flight HQ.

DAVIDLYNCHWILDATHEART19

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.