Music

Jim Jarmusch Talks Punk Rock, the Wu-Tang Clan, and the Music Behind His Movies

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During the halcyon days of downtown Manhattan, as Ed Koch became mayor and the Ramones and Richard Hell ran amok at CBGB, director Jim Jarmusch remembers thinking, “I can just walk into Andy Warhol’s Factory and suddenly become a superstar. Of the underground.” He laughs, but the Factory aside, that’s very much what the musician, aspiring poet, and rabid collector of knowledge did, with movies, on his own terms and in his own way.

The Ohio native moved to New York for college in the early Seventies; during that time, he played keyboards and sang in the no wave group Del-Byzanteens. But it was film — notably 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise — that launched his lauded, unique career that includes Dead Man, Broken Flowers, and, most recently, Only Lovers Left Alive, the Stooges “love letter” Gimme Danger, and Paterson. A wide-ranging love and knowledge of music is evident, however, in the musicians the director has used in his films, including RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Jack White, and Joe Strummer.

SQÜRL, Jarmusch’s self-described “enthusiastically marginal” band with drummer Carter Logan — who is also a producer on Jarmusch’s films — and engineer Shane Stoneback, coalesced to create music for Jarmusch’s 2009 film, The Limits of Control. The group’s new EP #260 (Sacred Bones Records) is its seventh release. In a nearly hour-long interview with the Village Voice, excerpted below, Jarmusch and Logan discussed everything from the new EP to Jarmusch’s films to SQÜRL’s increasingly intuitive raison d’être: “We’re trying not to think about the music too much.”

SQÜRL’s EP #260 is three instrumental songs plus two remixes, one by Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. What’s the optimal way to listen to the EP?

Jim Jarmusch: Maybe while doing something else?! [Laughs] It’s good drifting-away music, I hope.

Carter Logan: For a lot of our music, we like for it to not necessarily demand your full attention, but rather be a soundscape for whatever else is happening.

Jarmusch: It’s a bit dark in way, too, which we wanted it to be. We weren’t intending anything. We were just making music. Honestly, we could make EPs like this every week. Our problem is having enough time to do SQÜRL projects. For example, we have this other record coming out, this score for Paterson, that we did for Third Man Records. It was created mostly with synthesizers. We were kind of passing things back and forth, doing things on our own, and adding to them and discussing them — we’ll do music any which way, really.

Logan: This particular EP was born within a night or two in the studio together, Jim and I along with Shane, building these tracks out and experimenting and getting to this piece of music. I don’t think we originally knew if it was going to be one continuous flowing piece or not.

Jarmusch: It was one flow. We might have edited it a bit, I don’t even remember. It seemed to have sections inherent that came out, like [“Solstice,” “The Dark Rift,” and “Equinox.”] A few years ago, we played a few festivals, like Big Ears in Tennessee and one in Iowa, and we were kind of impressed by all the great music we heard. We were gravitating toward what we thought of, in a way, as ecstatic music, which included Swans and [minimalist composer] Terry Riley. We came back a little bit less interested in song structure. We still like [that kind of music], but we’re more interested in something toward that ecstatic music.

SQÜRL might be termed stoner or drone rock, or psychedelic. Jim, you like Sunn O))), Sleep, Boris…

Jarmusch: We like stoner music, we don’t necessarily…music is hallucinatory in a way. The Master Musicians of Jajouka, from Morocco, would be put into possible stoner category, or sometimes [Tuareg guitar band from Mali] Tinariwen. You could almost put [composer] Morton Feldman into this category of things that are sort of hallucinatory in that they are trance-like. Hildegard of Bingen is stoner music in a way. That’s from, what, the twelfth century or something?

Logan: Maybe more so than Hawkwind! Psychedelic music is having a moment again, and it’s been a label that’s been applied to a lot of disparate stuff. Half of it I don’t really find that psychedelic, because the music itself doesn’t have that uplifting, transcendental element. Sure, it’s got wah-wah pedals and a lot of reverb, but…

Jarmusch: You find so-called psychedelic elements in things like Sturgill Simpson or MF Doom. It’s more for me about music being consciousness-expanding by being formally inventive or not so rigorously tied to existing form. Junior Kimbrough or R.L. Burnside can play basically a one-chord blues song for thirty minutes and it’s ecstatic.

I read that during the making of Only Lovers Left Alive, you had music in your head. When making music, do you have visuals or films in your head?

Jarmusch: For me, it’s not particularly visual at the time, because it’s more energy passing through you that comes out through your amplifier or instrument. Although I’m really interested — and I know Carter is too, to some degree — in making visual audio films in the future. We’ve been doing these live scores to Man Ray’s films from the Twenties, which is really fun, but [the audience doesn’t] have to pay attention to us, particularly, even though we’re there. Even though when we play live as SQÜRL, we do our best to obscure ourselves, like with smoke machines, and we like to be lit only from behind — we don’t like to be spotlit like we’re performing for you. Making music as we go forward, it’s more not thinking about it too much, and that is a kind of ecstatic thing. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, like, “We are sacred when we play,” but it’s something just coming through you — if you analyze or think too much or even try to visualize it, I think you lose the strength of it.

Logan: It’s more about creating something different and special from night to night, and opening ourselves up to variation and change. And hope the audience is into the ride.

Jarmusch: Visually…I was friends with Joey Ramone, and years ago he was doing an interview, and I was hanging out with him, and the journalist said, “Hey, Joey, your biggest move onstage is putting your foot on the monitors and leaning in, is that all you do?” And Joey said, “Hey, man, after Iggy Pop, what do you expect anyone do to?” And it’s kind of true.

You were both immersed in the Iggy and the Stooges world for quite a few years while making Gimme Danger. Did that influence SQÜRL’s music?

Jarmusch: Probably not directly, and indirectly. For example, Ron Asheton — who I think was a fantastic, amazing, underrated, albeit primitive guitarist — as a guitarist, he just stood there. He had a frontman, of course…but musically, the Stooges are ecstatic music for sure.

Logan: Some of those [songs] are one riff over and over, and it just elevates the intensity. It’s in [Gimme Danger] — Iggy talks about using as few words as possible. It’s about the energy and what they poured into it, which is their whole hearts. It’s inspirational on that level. About not being held back by not being a virtuoso. It’s affected us in a deep way that’s unquantifiable.

SQÜRL are certainly a much slower band than the Stooges.

Jarmusch: Live, SQÜRL often play a kind of drudge-like version of [the Doc Pomus–Mort Shuman classic] “Little Sister” as “Oxybilly.” [Laughs] We do Hank Williams super-slow. We don’t use opioids, but we do refer to it that way among ourselves.

Jim, you love punk rock. How did you become enmeshed in New York’s no wave scene in your early twenties, a scene that was sort of a reaction to punk?

Jarmusch: All these forms are just waves in the same big ocean — some break off, [but] it’s all the same water. It’s a lot of things moving. I love the connections and extensions of things. I love the way blues leads to funk, which leads to hip-hop. I like the cross-referencing of things. There are no real musical genres that I’m not interested in, except I’m not a real big fan of Broadway musicals. I listen to sixteenth-century English classical music, so-called underground hip-hop, experimental electronic music. To whatever seems like it’s speaking to me. It was necessary for punk rock to strip away the stadium, dinosaur kind of rock, but that’s very healthy. When certain things are rejected, it’s like a cleaning out of forms. Not rejected, just taking a new branch off a tree.

In your film Coffee and Cigarettes, you directed several musicians.

Jarmusch: Well, there was a script. But Tom was in a bad mood because he had to go to L.A. the next day to be on the Arsenio Hall Show and perform. And Tom gets very uptight about those things. It’s not his thing. So when he came in that morning, I had given him the script the day before, and he tossed it on the table and said, “Well, Jim, you told me this was going to be funny, maybe you better just circle the jokes, because I’m not sure I see any.” Iggy said, “I think I’ll go outside…” I love Tom. I decided, OK, this could go either way. So, Tom’s surly and Iggy’s very open. It could have flipped.

As a filmmaker, you’re often very much in the spotlight. How important is it that SQÜRL receive attention and critical acclaim?  

Jarmusch: I learned a long time ago that reading reviews of your own work is like taking cheap drugs: You can go way up or way down, but it wears off and doesn’t really mean that much. I try not to pay too much attention. Our films are not avant-garde, experimental films, but they’re not really super-mainstream, at least not embraced by a mainstream culture completely. And our music is even less so. We’re not expecting a mainstream way of evaluating and comparing.

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