The Veils' Finn Andrews talks about working with David Lynch on Twin Peaks
It is a mystery on a par with that chopped off ear-lobe in the field in Blue Velvet. It is a secret as inscrutable as the roots of the Log Lady's affection for firewood.
What does Finn Andrews do, exactly, under those bright lights, when David Lynch yells "Action!"?
On the phone from LA, Andrews is cagey as a captured monkey when I ask him about it, but what I can tell you is this.
In the downtime between recording songs for his fifth Veils album, Total Depravity, released this week, the former Devonport schoolboy has been working with gloriously eccentric American filmmaker David Lynch.
Andrews is listed as a "cast member" on Lynch's upcoming continuation of the pioneering Twin Peaks TV series, due for release early next year, 26 years after the supernatural melodrama went off air in 1991. But he has signed an iron-clad non-disclosure agreement.
"Yes, David released something with our names on it, but I can't give any details," says Andrews, his voice calm and breathy and slightly posh. "Beyond the fact that Finn Andrews is in Twin Peaks, I can't say a word."
But how about the very teensiest of hints? Is he delivering lines as an actor? Or are The Veils there as a band, on stage in some corner of a wood-panelled bar full of FBI agents and pervy lumberjacks, playing a song?
"I can't even tell you that. All I can say is that it's all been shot and they're editing it now, so it's a mystery to us as well what will end up in there. But I was very excited to do it. There's only a a few people I've been in awe of my whole adult life; Tom Waits is one, and David Lynch is another. I've loved everything David has made, so it was amazing being close to him while he worked.
"You perhaps expect a person who's work is so odd might be mad or an a...hole, but he was very cool and and welcoming to everyone. We had a great weekend, hanging out with all those guys from the original series, and the whole thing was very surreal to be a part of."
This is one of those very rare times where someone has used the word "surreal" accurately. Lynch is, after all, a consciously surreal filmmaker, employing his own unique sort of dream logic in his frequently bewildering narratives.
"That's true. One of the first things I remember doing with (Veils bassist) Sofia Burn when we were at high school, aged 13 or 14, was driving over to Videon and getting out all of the early episodes of Twin Peaks on VHS. So yes, it really is surreal to be involved in the sequel, as if all these years later I've walked in through my TV screen in Devonport and into that very peculiar world."
The first single from the new Veils album is called Axolotyl, and the video is a bad trip worthy of David Lynch himself. The camera follows a terrified old man as he sprints across the desert sand (actually, Auckland's Bethells Beach), looking suspiciously like Charles Darwin, on the run, perhaps, from irate creationists.
Before you know it, people are running around screaming and leaking black blood. The murderous creature at the centre of things seems to be wearing Finn's trademark large-brimmed hat. What the hell is going on?
"That really is me inside that weird cloak thing, actually. And yes, both the images and sound are pretty intense. That's the first song on Total Depravity, and we really wanted to kick open the gates. It's unpredictable, and that's what this record is about, rather than just the same idea delivered 12 different ways."
Veils fans who melted when they heard the lovely clear tone of Andrews' voice on earlier ballads, such as Out From The Valley, will surely choke on their muesli when they hear Axolotyl.
It was recorded in a flurry of high excitement after a chance meeting with Brooklyn rapper/ producer El-P (Jaime Meline) outside an LA bar, an underground hip-hop legend who Finn was amazed to discover was a "sing all the words, know all the songs" level Veils fan.
The sound has El-P's trademark grimy ghetto churn. The bass prowls and jerks like a rottweiler on a chain, while Andrews' vocals were snarled into a laptop's crappy little built-in mic so that they emerged battle-scarred with static.
It's was an act of deliberate sonic sabotage, says Andrew, to take this gorgeous voice of his, "the only instrument I really know how to use", and "mess it up, so it becomes more of a texture, like a distorted guitar line, and lay it over these mutilated drum loops."
And as befits a song named after a toothless walking fish, the lyrics ponder weird glitches in the evolutionary process, with an undercurrent of religious imagery for contrast. Certainly, the axolotyl's very existence might suggest that a playful god had gotten a bit knackered during the process of creation, drunk too much and just started doodling at his drawing board.
"Actually, axolotyls are my favourite creatures on the planet. I love these animals that feel unfinished, like mistakes of God. The platypus is another one. You can imagine if we found these sort of creatures on another planet, everyone would lose their minds over them, but they're right here, all around us, all the time. Such strange delights…"
That feeling of existing in some weird in-between space, an unlikely mutant that somehow manages to survive against the odds, informs some of Total Depravity's best songs.
We already know that Andrews can deliver a broken-hearted ballad, or work up a fierce, evangelical indie-punk racket like a younger, prettier Nick Cave.
We know from four previous albums and an EP that he is a Serious Young Man, concerned with The Big Stuff: life, death, guilt, love, God and the Devil and the deep blue sea.
But we haven't heard him like this before, doing battle with sampled beats and bolshy bass inside a hailstorm of distortion.
"A lot of the new songs are more sonically extreme than in the past, and I look forward to punishing audiences with them when we play live. Really, I wanted to hand over control in the studio and take a few new risks. What's fascinating with Jaime's production is what he does with the low end, and that makes a different kind of sense when you pair it with my waily voice."
There's also production from Nick Launay and Adam Greenspan, best known for their work with The Bad Seeds and Arcade Fire, and on The Veils' 2006 breakthrough album, Nux Vomica.
On songs such as Low Lays the Devil, Launay and Greenspan push the band in a more traditional direction, with Andrews channelling Nick Cave over a mutant blues grind built from thumping drums, electric piano and electric guitars slicked wet with feedback.
"What can I say? Growing up in New Zealand, Nick Cave saved me, in a way. There weren't many songwriters I related to in high school, other than him. It felt like a pretty bleak time musically, so he was a big inspiration, alongside Johnny Cash, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. They all wrote story songs with great conflicts and strong characters in them, which is what I try to do."
Andrews was born in London, the son of musician Barry Andrews, who co-founded XTC and Shreikback and collaborated with Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, among others.
But Finn didn't start writing songs of his own until he moved to Auckland's North Shore at age 12 to live with his mother, an English and Sociology professor. Once he started, there was no stopping him: he wrote most of the songs on The Veils' 2004 debut album, The Runaway Found, when he was just 14.
"I used to go to this folk club on the North Shore when I was 12 or 13, and I there was something about the way these very personal narratives were laid bare over an acoustic guitar that really got to me. It was like a new door opening, I guess."
Andrews returned to London when he was 16 after his early demos created a stir among British record companies, but New Zealand remains his second home.
"I spent half of my young life there, and after that I was always going back and forth between London and Auckland. My mother and brother still live there, so I go back every year around Christmas time. I still very much have a New Zealand life, and half of all The Veils' songs were probably written there. It's always a place I like to go after touring, to get clear-minded again so I can write"
At its best, Andrews' songwriting is something special. As with his heroes Cave, Cohen and Waits, his lyrics regularly co-opt religious imagery for its symbolic power.
New song Here Come the Dead contains this mighty couplet: "A ceaseless fire and an endless rain / Are gonna flush us apes back down the drain".
How cunning, to put apocalyptic biblical imagery of hellfire and flood in such close proximity with evolutionary images of us hapless naked apes.
"Well, thank you. I'm glad someone's listening so closely. But to be honest, songs are mysterious things, and I don't always know what they mean when I first write them. They're a jumble of conscious and unconscious stuff that billows out, like this sort of dust-cloud that arises from wrestling with myself. It's always a few years after the fact that I can make sense of things, once that cloud has settled.
"It's a bizarre process that only becomes more maddening and enrapturing the longer you do it. With your first record, you're just trying to learn to play and sing, and you string any kind of nonsense together that might describe what's going on inside your head. And then it doesn't really change much beyond that.
"You might fool yourself that you've learnt something significant, but really, you're in a constant process of discovery, and it's a battle every time. You've always trying to dig deep and find things within yourself that are truly worth something."
The Veils' Total Depravity is released on August 26.