I recently had the chance to speak with John Neff. The first half of this interview gives you an in-depth look at John’s career in the music business and in the second half of this interview we discuss his work with David Lynch on both film and music projects. This interview is filled with all kinds of interesting stories from Lynch’s later film works (Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire especially) as well as stories from the music business that I hope you enjoy as well.
Early life: I got a guitar when I was 10 and that changed the focus of my whole life. I was going to be a doctor or a scientist. I had a chemical lab setup in my house and I was studying organic chemistry at 10. Then I got a guitar and got into a band of kids in the neighborhood. They were all a couple of years older than me. This was 1961. My voice hadn’t changed yet, and The Tokens came out with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and I had the voice to sing that. That was our novelty, this kid whose voice hadn’t changed yet who could sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” That just became the total focus of my life, and it’s never changed. Film and recording is a wonderful thing, but the guitar was the key to it all.
Making a career in music: In 1963, I had another band called The Ascots, and we started playing live for money when I was 12. When I realized I could get paid for this, it set off another light. So off we went. We went for four years and made a record in August of 1965 when I was 14, called “So Good.” It isn’t (laughs), but it was popular. It got picked up by Columbia and ended up on a tour opening for The Turtles when I was in 9th grade. The Beach Boys were an influence for us; we liked the harmonies and played a few of their songs. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and The Animals all hit the scene, and I gravitated towards the Stones and The Animals. I didn’t like The Beatles at first, although I did see them in 1964 and 1966 in Detroit. They weren’t as big of an influence on me in those days though. We also opened for The Who on the “Happy Jack” tour, on Keith Moon’s 21st birthday which was quite a memorable night.
Two brothers from my first band started a new band called The Tribe. I lost my bass player from The Ascots to them, and he was the co-writer of our songs. We broke up, and I went with The Tribe. We made a record called “Maple Street Park” that was not released but it did get us on television, my first TV appearance. The Robin Seymour Swinging Time show, in Windsor, Ontario in 1968. I only played with The Tribe in ’67 and ’68, and then I started a very experimental band called Toad and the Mushroom. We wrote a symphony for guitar and bass, and we wrote a rock opera and various other pieces based in classical music for bass and guitar. We played numerous shows around the Detroit area and had costumes, pyrotechnics, and all sorts of weirdness. Very early for that sort of thing. We made an album called “Obscenity in its Purest Form,” and that came out in 1969 and didn’t really go anywhere but it was a very fun time.
Studio education: Then I had a band called the Electric Blues Band in Detroit that recorded. I was hanging out with the MC5 at the time and became a White Panther, which was their political arm. The Mc5 used to have my band open for them all over town, which was quite a good thing. Once again that album didn’t do well, so we got dropped, but it was a valuable experience. Recording at 17, 18 years old in bigger studios, that’s where my studio roots came from. I was fascinated by the process. The engineers would explain everything really well to me, where the microphones would go and why, how to set it up on the board. That lit a fire in me. In 1971 I became the staff guitarist at United Sound Systems in Detroit, which was run by the producer Don Davis. Don had been the Motown producer for its golden days, from 1959 to 1965. He left when he realized he was never going to get producer royalties, just his salary. He made all these millions for Motown and got nothing extra out of the deal. So he went to Stax in Memphis and produced Sam and Dave, “Soul Man” and a lot of their classics. At both studios, Motown and Stax, he had a house band. The band played on everyone’s record. It was the Funk brothers in Detroit and the Stax band, which included Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield sometimes, in Memphis. In 1971 he bought a studio in Detroit and did the same thing. He hired a house band, a 6-piece band to be the core for all the records he produced. I was not in the original band but they were producing a white soul act that was sort of blues-infused, and I knew the drummer really well. He suggested me to come in and play on that session, that I could do a job different than their jazz-oriented guitarist on staff at the time could. So they brought me in to play on these demos, and they also had their house guitarist play an additional track on the demos. Don Davis selected my tracks to be on the record. He called me into the studio one day to meet him. He said he was going to use my tracks and asked me if I wanted to be the staff guitarist in the band. I took the job, and we made about 175 soul records over the next two and a half years. That was my real studio education.
From the road to Hawaii: I got an offer from Steppenwolf to play bass. I was on the road with them in part of ’77 and part of ’78. In ’78 and ’79, I did some session work in LA and was able to set my own microphones and advise the engineer on how I wanted things to work. The engineer said to me, “Since you’re telling me what to do, why don’t you do it?” So I did for the rest of the band. That was the first time I set up all of the parameters, microphones, amps, and all that business. That started my engineering career. I went back out on the road playing bass for Hoyt Axton, who notoriously played the father in Gremlins and his mother wrote Heartbreak Hotel for Elvis. Hoyt was an interesting character and a nice guy. I got involved with this lady, who did not like me being on the road. I asked her to marry me, and she told me no, not as long as I was touring. So I retired from the road in ’79, and we got married and moved to Maui, and I spent almost three years not in the music business, although I did have a radio show. As people learned of my background, I wound up producing a few Hawaiian records. There were a couple of studios there; one quite good that was very expensive and the other was quite marginal, but we could afford it. So we went there and started making records that I would then play on my radio show, which is probably illegal. I did it anyway [laughs]. The studio monitors weren’t very good, so I bought an $8,000 set of monitors. They didn’t have a digital reverb, so I bought one. Here I am, putting thousands of dollars into this studio to be able to work and I’m still paying them $85 an hour, I might as well just start my own studio, which was a crazy idea. I lived on a ranch at the time and ended up getting divorced. I was pretty much out of money, so I called up my mother. My father had died and left her a little bit of money, and I asked her if I could borrow a certain amount of money to buy a small console and 8 track recorder. She gave it to me and said it was my inheritance early. I started recording Hawaiian music in the cottage on my ranch. Funny enough, an advertising agency started hiring me to make their radio commercials once I went independent. I was making commercials during the day and recording at night and had a good little setup. That was my intro into the studio business. I stayed in Hawaii for 14 years, up until 1993. In the end there, I had a commercial quality studio there with Walter Becker from Steely Dan. We were on 7 and a half acres up on the mountainside. I did a Willie Nelson album there, Sinead O’Connor and others. I had also started a Hawaiian record label and had released 26 albums over the years, 25 of which did well. The other one, the artist, retired right after we released it and wouldn’t play shows to promote it, so the thing just died. In ’93, Walter bought me out, and I went back to Phoenix and started a studio there. We also had a video shooting stage, and I was hoping to do both movie scores and album projects. Anyone with that kind of money though would go to LA. I just did little local albums, and in a year that thing died.
Meeting David Lynch: The architect that had built my studio in Hawaii and that had built out the control room of my Phoenix studio said “Let’s start a new company to equip the studios we build so that we can be a turnkey studio operation. The client comes to us, and we can do everything.” So we start this new company, and the first client was in Bangkok, and then I did a film studio in Buenos Aires, as well as Florida, California, Salt Lake City – all over the map. One of my clients was this eccentric filmmaker named David Lynch. He was building a studio in what had been the Madison house from the film Lost Highway. About 75% of that house was demolished, and we blasted back into the hill to build the long length of the studio. He did not have an engineer, so he needed help designing the technical system. I had a meeting with him and Mary Sweeney, who was his editor and partner at the time and they hired me to design the technical package and provide the gear for the studio. This was my second film studio but the first that had 35 mm projectors and a 22-foot screen with the sound behind it. It was a major dubbing theater, but he also wanted to be able to record music there. We had to design a multipurpose room that was very nonstandard in its application. In 1997, right before Lost Highway was released David had done a Honda Passport commercial. People don’t realize that David makes 2 or 4 commercials a year, and that’s what floats his boat and allows him to do his art. He wanted to mix this commercial in his studio, and it really wasn’t capable of doing that mix. David said to me, “You’re an engineer, right? Well, you’re the only one who knows how this room is coming together, so I want you to mix this commercial”. I agreed, and we wound up running cables all over the studio. Angelo Badalamenti came into play synthesizer on this commercial, and we wound up mixing it on a Friday night. The next week he offered me the job of running the place. He said, “You’re the only one that knows how this place works. You’re going to have to run it”. I jokingly told him that I couldn’t afford the pay cut. He fired a figure at me, and it was about half of what I was currently earning. I told him I couldn’t do that. I fired a figure back, which was about 25% less than what I was now making, and he agreed to it. We built in a tier of different amounts. There was a specific salary for running the studio. When he had a commercial, it was a different amount; then it would be different for a feature film. If we created anything together, I would get royalties. It seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up, so I gambled and took it. We would work together for the next nine years, up until 2005.
Blue Bob and The Straight Story: The first project we did was an album for a singer named Jocelyn Montgomery called Lux Vivens, which is Latin for “living life.” It was the music of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century nun who was also a mystic. She also invented the way that modern music became notated and sung. We did this album together, and David played a dive bomb guitar on it just as a sound effect. It lit him up – he really enjoyed doing that. When we were finished with her album in early ’98, he said he wanted to keep experimenting. I had done keyboard sympathizer and string arrangements on Lux Vivens album—I think I have 22 credits on that record. We worked together really well musically, and I had a lot of sympathizers and stuff he didn’t have so I stocked the studio with a lot of my instruments. We started experimenting, and he brought in a friend of Jennifer’s (Lynch, David’s daughter) to sing a couple of songs. He would just hand him lyrics and say, “Ok, it’s time to sing.” The guy would have to improvise which was a trick he would later pull on me with Blue Bob. We made 3 or 4 pieces of music with this singer named Biff and Biff wasn’t working out. Dave still wanted to make music, but he had taken on the job of The Straight Story. We recorded a couple of pieces of music without words or a melody, just some rhythm tracks. We would make up a percussion track out of machine noises, and I would sync that up, and we would lay it down and play it with the big screen cinema sound and play live to that. We’d jam really, and then I’d cut it apart and make songs out of it. He went off to shoot The Straight Story in the fall of ’98, and I continued making some percussion tracks. He came back, and we scored The Straight Story in January of ’99 and started the mix February 1st of ’99. While we were mixing The Straight Story, he was shooting the pilot for Mulholland Drive. He was working about 18 hours a day then. He would sit with us in the studio from 9 am until he had to get picked up to go shoot Mulholland Drive at 4 in the afternoon. Our project got put on hold for a bit. After we mixed the pilot for Mulholland Drive, we went back into production on our record. Now we didn’t know it was a record at the time. David looked at me one day when we had four tracks complete with vocals and said, “You know, I think we’re making an album here.” I said really, and he said yeah, let’s keep going. I had made some actual drum tracks while he was gone that wasn’t machine percussion and he really liked the beats, so we made 3 or 4 more songs based on my drum patterns. Those became the basis for the Blue Bob record. One night we were having a wine and cheese party. We used to do that in the studio and show a film and have 13 or 14 people over. He was referring to our project by a number. He would call it 2960. I don’t know what that number meant, but that was the name of our project for the first year or so. Then he was fooling around one night and asked me to name off some names. I started riffing off of Pink Floyd and said, “Red Richard” and then I said, “Blue Bob.” He stopped me and said, “Whoa, wait. That’s it. Blue Bob”, so that became our album name. I never did figure out where 2960 came from. I’m sure it reduced to a 7 and meant something to him.
Mulholland Drive: When we started Mulholland Drive, ABC was owned by Capital Cities Broadcasting. They had their own executives, and some of the people had worked for ABC when Twin Peaks was in production. They liked what David did, and they green-lit the pilot. During shooting and post, ABC was sold to Disney. Eventually, everyone that we were in contact with was replaced by Disney people. The Disney people hated it. This was early ’99, and they had not yet picked up The Straight Story. We made the pilot, and I think it was 2 hours and 1 minute, just a hair over 2 hours. ABC came back and said it has to be 88 minutes so they could sell advertising. David had never considered the advertising time as part of the deal. He asked them to make the time slot two and a half hours, and they said no, you’re going to have to cut the pilot. He went and butchered it. He cut it all to hell to get it to 88 minutes, and he was through with them at that point. He didn’t want anything to do with them. Sure enough, they rejected it, after airing it for the affiliates. Some of the affiliates liked it, but most did not. So that was the end of Mulholland Drive, the TV show. That was the Spring of ’99. It just got shelved. Nothing happened with it. We went on and finished the Blue Bob album, we started DavidLynch.com, and he was writing series for the site, and we were producing that. It was fun. Fifteen months later, the French company who had financed The Straight Story, came back and asked him if he could make Mulholland Drive a complete picture. He told them no, it was dead, wasn’t able to be fixed and all the sets had gone back into production and he didn’t have an ending. One Friday night after he meditated he called me down to his office and said “Call Gay (David’s assistant at the time). She’s gotta work this weekend. I’ve got an idea”. So his assistant came in for two days. She typed as he dictated the script and wrote the rest of Mulholland Drive in those two days. Monday, he called the French company and said: “Ok, I have a picture for you.” They came back with an additional 7 million dollars to resurrect and finish the picture, and we went back into production. That was in September of 2000, and then in December of that year, Angelo, David and I went to Prague and recorded the score with a 90-piece orchestra. David and I had four pieces of music in the final film, a couple of them from Blue Bob and one called Pretty 50’s which was supposed to be a Blue Bob song but we wound up just using it for the film. The Jitterbug in the beginning, I have an arrangement credit on because David didn’t like the way it was recorded. We took it apart, and I re-wrote the horn parts and then reassembled the Jitterbug opening scene from elemental parts that were never played together.
Inland Empire: In July of 2003 David came to me and said we were going to do a new project called A Meeting Upstairs for the site. Laura Dern is going to play the prominent part, and they built a set next to his art studio, on top of the recording studio. One of the guys that worked in the office was going to play God. David wanted to shoot Laura coming up the stairs, this big, long set of cement stairs going up the studio. Then when she got up there, she was going to record this 18-page monologue that we would then cut up into 5-minute segments to put on the web. It was about her—she’s dead, but she doesn’t know it. She’s confessing her sins and trying to explain away all the bad things she did in her life. Eric, the office guy who played God was in this old factory office, and he was dressed in a trench coat and a fedora, and you only saw him from the back. I did sound for it, and we shot it and at the end of it – excuse my language, but at the end of it, David says, “Well, I’m fucked!” We were all moved to tears by her performance. It was so phenomenal. We said to Dave, “What are you talking about? This is tremendous; this will be great!” Then he goes, “I know, it’s too good for the web. Now I’ve gotta do something else with it”. He had another idea for a series called Axxon Inn that would have had SAG (Screen Actors Guild) actors. He tried to get a dispensation from the Director’s Guild of America, (which he was a member of) to shoot this series non-union since he was paying for it out of his pocket and it was just for the web. They wouldn’t grant him an exception, so he quit the Guild, and we scripted the thing but never shot it. It involved this woman who watched this industrial shop across the street. She was agoraphobic and wouldn’t go out of the building, which is another Lynch thread. She saw people walk into this building but never saw them come out. Her curiosity got the best of her so she went across the street finally and the door said “Axxon Inn” on it in handwritten letters. She walked inside, turned left, and she was a different person in a different life. The whole series was going to be this thing where this woman is constantly waking up in different lives but without an ending. A big mystery, which David loves. So he had A Meeting Upstairs and then he had Axxon Inn, which was also set to star Laura Dern and Justin Theroux. We just started shooting scene by scene, without an ending in sight. There was no script. He’d write a scene, we would shoot the scene, and then he’d work with it on the computer. He did most of the editing on Inland Empire himself. Weeks would go by without shooting anything new, and then he would say he had a scene and we were going to work the next night. He’d pay us some overtime, and we would shoot the thing. I did the location sound and wrote some of the music for it eventually, too. It was never an envisioned project, though. He called it Inland Empire after about a year and a half of production. I worked on it for about the first year and a half, and then I got a bee in my bonnet, and I left David to build my big studio. I never saw the end of Inland Empire until the film came out. Those two threads were where everything came from though. We shot it on Sony consumer cameras and lit with 40-watt light bulbs in aluminum clamps. It was an off the cuff project. He did get a little fancier towards the end like with the Hollywood Boulevard scene and all of that. He had a real crew for that. It was strictly an experiment for David until about late 2004 when he decided he was going to Poland and shoot more scenes there. That meant more money, and I don’t know when, but eventually, the same group that funded Mulholland Drive got involved, but I was gone by then.
Twin Peaks Season 3: I wrote the music, played the guitar and drums and mixed “No Stars” for Twin Peaks Season 3. David plays guitar, Rebekah wrote the Spanish lyrics and the melody. David wrote the English lyrics, and we recorded it in David’s studio.
DVD work: During my years with David, a few DVDs came out. The companies releasing his films wanted surround mixes because that was the big thing. Lost Highway was the only film he released at that point that had a 5.1 soundtrack. Elephant Man was the first one that I mixed, and I mixed it in surround. Then I mixed Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and I restored the soundtrack for Eraserhead for its DVD release but David decided to keep it in stereo and not put it surround.
Life today: I have a studio in Portland, Oregon. I’ve mixed 18 feature films here, and I also do music projects. In 2016 I did four feature films and 3 or 4 albums. That was my entire year. 2017 I worked on strictly music, producing music for people and now in 2018 I’ve got three films lined up. First one comes at the end of this month. That’ll take me through June working on those three films. I’m also in a band we’ve got three albums out, and it’s all good.
Final Thoughts: Keep on believing in Lynch. He will produce things until the day he dies. Whether we get more Twin Peaks or not is immaterial but he works seven days a week, and we’ll see more from him.