Behind the Red Curtains of David Lynch’s Festival of Disruption

A special look at its origins, unique lineups, and possible future in other cities

    David Lynch is on top of the world right now.

    Thanks to Twin Peaks: The Return, Showtime’s critically-acclaimed revival of the cult classic television series, the legendary auteur has toppled over everything in entertainment. Simply put, there’s nothing more riveting right now than the genius slice of pie that’s being served every Sunday evening. It’s like this unexpected dessert that keeps on giving, nurturing our starved minds with its delectable subversions of terror, wonder, and mystery. We can’t get enough.

    Sadly, the series concludes on September 3rd, though that’s hardly the end of our Lynchian feast. From October 14th to 15th, Los Angeles’ Ace Hotel will host the second annual Festival of Disruption, featuring performances by Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten, The Kills, TV on the Radio, Laura Marling, Moby, Reggie Watts, and Shepard Fairey, in addition to a number of engaging screenings, talks, and activations from a who’s who of artists, stars, comedians, and producers.

    Considering how pleased we were with last year’s inaugural lineup, which offered rare performances by St. Vincent, Sky Ferreira, Rebekah Del Rio, and the great Angelo Badalamenti, Consequence of Sound reached out to the festival and connected with Executive Producer Jessica Harris and Chief Creative Officer Erik Martin. For years, the two have been spearheading charitable events for the David Lynch Foundation, working alongside everyone from Karen O to Ringo Starr to Lykke Li.


    It’s been a productive run, and it’s their efforts that largely impact the influence and reach of the Foundation, which actively teaches transcendental meditation to adults and countries all across the world. That’s an important distinction to note: Whereas most music festivals are built to simply entertain, the Festival of Disruption aims to entertain and enlighten. Because by working with more musicians and more talent, the Foundation is not only building a better festival, but a better world.

    And with Lynch at the helm, that’s a great place to be.

    How and when did the Festival of Disruption actually come to fruition?

    Jessica Harris: The way that Erik [Martin] and I have worked the last five years since being here at the Foundation is that Erik primarily serves as our Chief Creative Officer and myself as our Executive Producer. We often call ourselves “the two-headed monster” because the two of us are responsible for the music division here at the Foundation and also work alongside David [Lynch] to include a lot of his artists and people in his network who are meditators or fans of David’s that want to give back to the foundation by way of a live event.

    So, Erik and myself were thinking about how we could launch an annualized event here at the Foundation that can serve as a fundraising platform year after year and possibly even something that we could replicate in other cities. Simultaneously, David was in conversations with Showtime and concluded that he was going to be part of the next edition of Twin Peaks. That was about two years ago, and at that time, the light bulb sort of went off in Erik’s mind to say, “Hey, maybe we can ask David to curate a small festival that will launch sort of around the same time that Twin Peaks starts to take hold again.”


    Erik Martin: A lot of the fundraisers and concerts we had done before were with people who were meditators and who supported our work in lots of different genres. They were being very generous with their time, but there wasn’t one yet that had David’s artistic stamp on it — that he himself curated and was the artistic vision behind. It seemed that while he was in the sort of white-hot heat of Twin Peaks and that creative energy, he would have a lot to say to the world musically and with visual art, film, and meditation — all these elements. So we thought, “What do you think about that?”

    He is very, very astute and adept and learned in all these forms, from visual art to film and music like I said, so I think it was pretty easy for him to think of putting people together in an interesting setting. It was so robust and clear right from the get-go that this was going to be a multi-year, multi-city project because there are way more artists and way more things that David will want to say artistically to help the Foundation raise money and awareness to be contained to just one two day event. So, that’s how it was born. And it’s growing, as you see, from year two and hopefully what we’ll be putting out beyond that.

    So, you’re thinking of other cities now?

    Martin: Yeah. The long-term vision is to do that. David is very much a populist artist. He’s beloved in lots of cities by lots of different types of people, and since the festival is small, boutique, and intimate, it’s not akin to something where there’s 15,000 people outside of it. It’s much more curated, if you will. It makes it easy to replicate and easy to bring to lots of cities. There are lots of artists locally in those cities who would want to participate, so part of the design was to make it malleable enough to be able to go to all these places where David’s fans are.


    Would that be mostly tied to where the Foundation is located?

    Harris: I think that’s the natural progression, just because we have established programs in those cities. But, there are other cities like Nashville where the David Lynch Foundation doesn’t specifically have a brick and mortar presence but has a need for programs. Paris is another place that has a natural resonance with David and is a really natural next step for growth within Europe. But yeah, Chicago, New York, and Nashville are sort of our target US cities.

    What were some major obstacles going into last year’s inaugural event?

    Harris: For me, I can sort of speak to planning and undertaking such a large-scale event. We’ve been wearing these hats for quite some time, so we weren’t going into it completely blind. However, it was the first festival that both Erik and myself had been a part of since the very beginning. I think as the execution phase neared, we wanted to make sure not only that the fans and the artists had a good time, but that the event itself hummed.

    So, I would say not so much obstacles, but I think it was more on how to hold the attention and the vibe of a Foundation event, where it’s philanthropic in nature and you really feel that at the event, but also in a way that’s not overbearing and still allows the artists and the fans to have their own experience. I think that was something that we really went in with the intention of trying to achieve and are still massaging that so we can do it again.


    Any changes or tinkering to the format?

    Martin: That was one of the great successes of it. You, having been there, know that it didn’t feel like a first-year festival. It felt very mature, everything flowed, and the art was incredible. I think we just learned some logistical stuff about how and when to move people in and out and where to create separate areas for hangs versus art, versus virtual reality, versus music, and how to split up the experience so that it’s even better. I think the way David laid it out — in terms of films in the morning, talks in the afternoon, and activities and satellite venues culminating in big evening concerts and a DJ scene with the food and the drinks — really worked as a general plan. So, I think most of the stuff will be just refinements on boring stuff like logistics and flow as opposed to the nature of the art itself.

    Was the Ace Hotel always the place from the get-go? It’s very Lynchian.

    Martin: That was just one of the places where we walked in, and it was just like, “This is the place.” A year before that, we did a concert — which was sort of a tribute to the music from David’s films — and when we walked into that venue … it’s as if David Lynch created this theatre in his mind, almost. You wouldn’t be surprised if somebody told you he designed it. My immediate gut reaction was to go back to him and say, “David, we found this incredible theater in downtown LA. What do you think about doing it there?” And he agreed with it immediately knowing the feeling that it gave that place.

    What’s the process like working with David Lynch? Do you meet in person?  Do you talk over Skype like Sheriff Truman and Doctor Hayward?  How do the meetings go?


    Martin: They’re amazing. As a David Lynch fan myself, I have to pinch myself every time because he’s one of my favorite artists of all time, but also one of the most genuine souls. He’s doing all this for a charitable purpose, giving his time, giving his creative energy. It’s a pretty monumental thing he’s doing. The way we do it is that we meet in person four to five times a year, where we put in front of him all the various ideas that have come from artists, from his ideas, from our ideas, and we sit together with him with a giant spreadsheet and move the pieces around until he feels that they fit and then they get his sign-off. So, we don’t do anything or move forward unless he’s interested in it or gives it his approval.

    The original intent is that it has to be curated by David Lynch, not curated by the Foundation or by friends. You can tell how good he is at involving visuals and sound design and music in a theme by watching any one of his works, which makes perfect sense why he could do that in a live atmosphere, as well. In fact, he did create a piece for the [Brooklyn Academy of Music] many years ago called “Industrial Symphony No. 1”. He really understands the theatrical process.

    He’s always telling us that the audience has to have fun, don’t let anybody be bored, they have to take something away, they have to ask questions when they leave, and they have to feel meaning. So, you’ll see that there all these quotes that he wrote, like “the individual is cosmic” and “the world is as you are” and “life is a festival of disruption.” He had them displayed all over on the sidewalk and here and there on the billboards because he wanted to start a dialogue in your mind when you were there so that the creative experience worked in that way.


    Harris: One thing I think is different with the Foundation events, and specifically with this festival, is that because we’re not festival curators or producers by trade, we created something out of a really pure intention. That’s not meant to sound “woo woo” by any sense of the word, but it is making a point, which is that when you come at it from this intention of saying, “Okay, David is giving us his time, ideas, curatorial ability, and his passion … and we’re putting it all into this multi-day event. We’re attracting artists that David loves and who love David, and it’s all for this charitable purpose.” It’s something that felt like it really had roots, and I think that’s a really good example of what it’s like to work with David — he is very pure in his intentions.

    When Erik and I were sitting there, Erik pinching himself and me, just eagerly saying, “and we’ll do this, and we’ll do that,” he gets that and that resonates with him and he saw the pure intention of it. He said, “Yeah, let’s do this and let’s make an impact using this festival.” So, we looked back and said it was an amazing event that we all walked away from feeling pretty good about, but also it had that deeper purpose. We know that its ability and its lifeline is really endless because of its benefit at the heart of it.

    How are the relationships with the artists forged?

    Martin:  Some artists have collaborated with David and already meditate. Some haven’t collaborated but meditate. Some just want to work with him and learn meditation and give back to the cause. So, it’s all of the above. Generally, most of the artists performing are meditators — or have been — so, in addition to loving David and having their fan base and loving the audience, they also understand what this meditation is and what it can do to people who are suffering with post-traumatic stress, so that adds a whole other layer when the artist who is performing is a meditator and has met a veteran backstage who was on the verge of suicide, thanks them, and says, “Look, I literally was about to commit suicide and now I have this tool and it’s a part of my healing plan.” That is a seriously powerful thing for an artist to experience and then share with the audience onstage, so that’s how it happens. But, it runs both ways.


    When David brings artists to the table, are they usually past collaborators or artists he enjoys?

    Martin: Both. He listens to a lot of music and collaborates with Dean Hurley, his engineer and one of the sound designers, a lot. They talk and share music, and it can sometimes be that he might have heard a track, or he has a great friend at CAA — Brian Loucks — who shares music, and he’s just a really open, warm, guy. When something strikes him, that can lead to an idea. He talks about ideas all the time in his interviews, and he might hear something that strikes him, and then we’ll add that to the list of “How can we work with these guys in one of the festivals and down the road?” So, we have this beautiful, sprawling document of all his ideas percolating, and we try to put the puzzle pieces together year after year to make the best thing we can with all of the practical considerations of who is available, who’s not on tour, etc, etc.

    For the lineup this year, how did some of the artists come about? Bon Iver, for instance.

    Martin: Bon Iver’s a great example of the power of friendship making something happen. Our colleague Jonathan Cohen, who helps book the talent for the festival, is at every concert you can think of and every festival. He was speaking to Justin [Vernon], and Justin is a fan of David and his work, and it was just one of those things. I think they were backstage — I can’t remember where — but it was always something we had wanted to make happen. Because of that chance conversation of Jonathan speaking to Justin, it was like “Yeah, we gotta do this.” The next thing you know, we’re talking to Bon Iver’s management and everybody’s super supportive. All the dominoes fall in place, the date’s available, it can work, we can announce. That’s a really fun example of how being in the right place in the right time, which is a very David kind of thing, can make something like that happen.

    Last year, the lineup appeared to revolve around The Elephant Man, the 30th anniversary of Blue Velvet, and the mounting hype of Twin Peaks. This year, it seems like the 20th anniversary of Lost Highway takes center stage at the festival, what with the screening and the accompanying conversation with Bill Pullman. Was that intentional or just happenstance?


    Martin: It really is a little of both because there are so many connections to each thing. We always think about: What are the films we can show? How do they relate? What programming could you build around that film? So, it’s both the idea of what you’re trying to communicate artistically and then the practicality of what can work. We explore all the avenues, so you shouldn’t be surprised if forthcoming festivals are going to stay like that. It might just be Lost Highway this year because all the pieces fell into place, and next year it could be, you know, a different film with a different list of collaborators because that particular thing had the synergy to live in that moment.

    Did you try to scale back a little bit on Twin Peaks this year?

    Martin: Not exactly. I mean, the series is so beloved and is blowing everyone’s mind. We do have Sheryl Lee, Dean Hurley, Duwayne Dunham, and there’s this whole panel discussion about the making of it. With Showtime’s involvement, they were premiering cool merchandise last year, so there is definitely going to be plenty of fun surprises. But, there was no effort to be like, “We’re not going to do Twin Peaks.” It’s really more of a “What is the whole thing going to say and what pieces can we focus on and in what ways?” 

    Are there any overall themes that you’re trying to tackle with this one? 

    Martin: I think that is going to emerge when David selects … what knowledge he wants to share. That’ll emerge as he chooses which videos are being shown, which quotes are being shared, what things are being written in the program book. Last year, there was sort of an overarching mission of introducing the concept of what a festival of disruption is and the positive outcome of transcendental meditation. I think that part will be experienced in person onsite when you start seeing some of these installations — how he puts this art next to that art, what photography has to say about the American worldview which will lead its way into the Lynch landscape. That’s where you’re going to pick up on some of those things.


    Are there going to be any more additions to the lineup, or is this pretty much concrete?

    Martin: It is concrete and done as is, but if anything emerges as a fun surprise that David is into … we never say no, you know what I mean? We are very open to various synchronicities that could occur.

    Let’s talk about the Foundation for a little bit. What are some of the pressing initiatives going forward? Not too along ago, the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab awarded a $300,000 grant to the Foundation, and I wanted to know if there was anything else you were planning on doing here in the city. Or better yet, if there any other locations you’re expanding to?

    Harris: You know, I think it’s more of what you’re seeing. Our really well-established programs are serving veterans, children, and women suffering from domestic violence. We launched Chicago about three years ago now, and the Crime Lab has been a resounding success for us, and the schools that we’re involved with there are showing some really, really amazing results. So, I think the expansion is toward more cities that we have a presence in and going after those programs that we’ve had a track record with.


    I think the most recent one we can speak to is our DC initiative. We just did a launch event there in June at the Kennedy Center with the goal to teach 10,000 at-risk students. It’s really about finding the city that’s the natural next step for us and that has a presence to some of our donors and celebrity supporters where we can sort of set up shop and start really planting some seeds, which is basically what we did with Chicago and what we’ve been doing in LA for more than five years, and, of course, here in New York where we’re most established.

    It’s an exciting evolution, especially since mental health seems to never be a priority in this country. Of course, that raises the question: How does the Foundation navigate those waters and the government red tape? Has that gotten harder over the years, and is it something that’s consistently a problem? 

    Harris: We’re always going to be met with resistance, but we don’t let it stop us. Generally, one way that really helps us at least get our foot in the door is the research that we have backing some of the schools that we are a part of. In fact, the UST just highlighted one of our programs here in the Bronx where the principal said that their graduation rates just continued to go up, and their violence is going down.


    So, now that we’re finding ways to conduct research and measure some of these things from the children having quiet-time programs, we’re able to then take that and use it as leverage as we try to break into a new school. Charter schools are mostly the ones that we tend to have the least resistance with and allow us to sort of pilot our program to start to see some success, and then the veterans. We were at a congressional hearing in June and one of our vets spoke, and it is just … unbelievable in terms of his story, the feedback, and sort of the impression he left there in Washington.

    Once they hear it and they experience it themselves, it really is a door opener.

    Final question and it’s a two parter: What is your favorite David Lynch movie, and what are you most excited to see at this year’s Festival of Disruption?

    Martin: Gosh, it’s so hard to pick a favorite. I really, really love … I like all the sides of David. I like the simple beauty of The Straight Story, I like the mesmerizing, looping nature of Mulholland Drive, but it changes, you know, depending on what day and what mood. What I’m most excited for at the festival, strangely, is the William Eggleston exhibit. I love all these musicians and talks, but I see the line between William’s work and David’s work and that sort of view of Americana. So, I just love the idea of introducing him to fans of The Kills and TV on the Radio, who may or may not know his photography and what kind of story that tells about America. So, I think that’s, for me, the most interesting thing to experience that people might not otherwise. 


    Harris: I’d have to say The Straight Story is my favorite. It’s sweet and kind. Then, for the festival, I’d have to say the musicians. I can’t point out one particular act — I’d just have to say all of them — and the reason being is that it’s their first time playing one of our shows. What tends to happen organically is that, through rehearsals and sound checks, they get to know each other and then something random occurs. Either they’ll do a group thing at the end, or they’ll become friends afterward and do more shows for us in the future. I’m really looking forward to that organic, friendship-forming nature of the festival that will happen probably across all platforms, not just music.

    To become part of the Lynchian brand…

    Harris: Totally.

    Tickets for this year’s Festival of Disruption are currently on sale here.