Jim Jarmusch's Showtunes

On ATP 2010, musicians as actors, Tom Waits's threats, and what planet ODB was on

No director embodies the relationship between cinema and song like off-center hypnosis merchant Jim Jarmusch. For 30 years, his musical obsessions have inspired meditative, idiosyncratic, devoutly independent films—his recurring themes of displacement and unease likewise preoccupy the hip-hop, metal, indie rock, and downtown-jazz stars who dot his soundtracks. Jarmusch's films are often directly inspired by his mixtapes and fave raves—or, as he says, "It is leading me, and I'm following"—resulting in a mesmeric poetry where celluloid and music are inseparable from frame one, whether it be the languid cool of Tom Waits and John Lurie in Down by Law, the jagged desolation of Neil Young in Dead Man, the damaged noir of RZA in Ghost Dog, or the minor-key breeziness of Ethio-jazzer Mulatu Astatke in Broken Flowers.

Jarmusch's latest showcase for his eclectic taste and unique vision is the Sunday lineup for the 2010 edition of New York's All Tomorrow's Parties Festival, the reliably surreal weekend-long indie-rock pool party held in a Jewish resort in the Catskills. As curator, his choices include artists who've graced his films (Raekwon, GZA, the Greenhornes, the Black Angels), artists that inspired him as an '80s no-waver (hip-hop inventor DJ Kool Herc), and contemporary indie stars who capture the charming-weirdo anxiety of his protagonists (Girls, Kurt Vile, Fucked Up). The weekend concludes with a feedback blowout courtesy of Sunn O))) and Boris, who provided dissonance and beauty in his most recent film, 2009's The Limits of Control. In honor of the occasion, we pulled up a chair at a downtown restaurant to discuss exactly how he turns sound into vision.

When you were singing for the Del-Byzanteens in the '80s, were you comfortable as a performer? I didn't eat it up, but I liked it. We opened twice for Echo and the Bunnymen and once for New Order—a couple of times for the Psychedelic Furs. I don't know why these British bands were asking for us in that period there. . . . The most terrifying was opening for a reunion of the Four Tops where it was a bunch of frat boys, and not only did we get pelted with spit and beer cans, which was fine for the time, but then the toilets in the dressing rooms completely flooded, and all our equipment and stuff was floating away in sewage.

How does something that inspires you, like a Boris song, end up as part of a movie? I love that band. When I was writing Limits of Control, I made little mixtapes or CDs for myself for inspiration, and Boris and Sunn O))) were really helping to trigger my imagination. They would open up my mind to the kinds of things I was trying visualize in my head, guiding me toward the feeling of the score and the atmosphere of the film. So I just kept writing, using that stuff. I made mixtapes to give to the crew—not necessarily what will make it into the film, but things that are just inspiring. That stuff starts echoing around the set—it starts to just follow you around like a climate or a weather system. Music's a real guide. For me, it can help me get a sense for the speed the camera might move; music might help me find rhythmic things in the editing.

Have you gotten to hang out and talk to Boris at all? I have. Although only one of them, the drummer, Atsuo, speaks English. The coolest quote I got off them once: They told me that they had taken a van from Chicago to Seattle. I said, "Oh, wow, what was the trip like?" And the answer was: "OK, leave Chicago . . . look out window . . . nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, Rocky Mountain! Very exciting!"

How do you approach someone like RZA to do a movie score? I had to hunt RZA down. I wasn't getting anywhere through the management–normal things. I just started asking some friends, and within two days, I was sitting with RZA in a studio in Midtown at 3 a.m., meeting for the first time. We got along really well, and we just started talking about everything, and by the end of that night, he was like, "Yeah, yeah, I'm down. When should we start? What should I do?" Him and GZA are like encyclopedias of martial-arts film. They don't just know every director and actor; they know who choreographed the fight scenes, who did the design, who did this and that.

What kind of direction did you give him? I had collected all the Wu-Tang vinyl with the instrumental B-sides, so I could say, like, "I like this floating, damaged beat. I like this stutter, this trippy slow thing." We decided that we won't do cues to the film. You'll hand me off music, I'll put it in the film, but don't score to certain sections. . . . One of the coolest times: He came in with ODB, and we spent the whole day with ODB watching the placement of the music. That was amazing. I think they were on mushrooms or something, though—they were acting very peculiar. Every five minutes or so, ODB would jump up and go, "Yo, yo! Stop the machine! Earth, Mars, Venus: Pick one!" And RZA would go, "I got this. Earth." And he'd go, "OK, start it up again." He was amazing. I wanted to go in and film him—we were going to go in when he was locked down. Go put a camera on ODB and let him talk about any fucking thing he wants. We never got to do it. That's a big regret.

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