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Molten Meditations: Jim Jarmusch & SQÜRL Interviewed
Manish Agarwal , November 19th, 2013 06:57

With their second EP just released through ATP Recordings, Manish Agarwal sits down with SQÜRL - the trio of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Shane Stoneback and Carter Logan - to discuss their fuzzed-out rock explorations, covering Elvis and dreaming about 'Dead Naked Hippies'

Photo by Sara Driver

Let's start at the beginning...

Jim Jarmusch: The very beginning was some years ago, Jack White asked me to do a remix of 'Blue Orchid'. He also asked Michel Gondry. He wanted two filmmakers who had musical backgrounds to each do a remix. It was quite short notice so I needed somebody to help me, and that's when I first met Shane [Stoneback]. We worked together on this remix and then Jack White's label put it out on vinyl.

Shane Stoneback: Yeah, Jim and I first started working together on a White Stripes remix, which was where we developed our knack for creating order out of random bits. At the time we were syncing up various Native American pow wow bootlegs to the song 'Blue Orchid'. I think our MO developed from that first exercise.

JJ: Carter and I already knew each other, but we didn't play any music together until Bad Rabbit was formed to make some pieces for The Limits Of Control. And we kinda just kept going.

Carter Logan: We went into the studio to do these couple of pieces where Jim had been in the editing room and was not finding exactly what he wanted through existing music. We had no formal composer up until then on the film. We just said, 'Well, we think we could do something. Let's give it a shot'. We went in with Shane and came out with three or so pieces for the score. And then on a semi-regular basis we just kept recording, with no real idea at first what was going to happen with it. Every few months we'd go back when we had new stuff. That process started about three years ago. These tracks vary in when we started or finished them, but it all happened over that period of time.

JJ: We have a lot more recordings beside what's coming out now. But we want to make new ones, so we're just going to go forward.

'Pink Dust', taken from EP #1

Why change the band name from Bad Rabbit to SQÜRL?

JJ: I think there were a lot of Rabbit bands. There was a whole slew, all of a sudden.

CL: First it was the Black bands and all the Wolf bands, then it started to become Rabbit bands.

JJ: So we decided to go for the Squirrel bands. The umlaut is for American effect. At one point someone said to me: "Well, you're aware that Squirrel with an umlaut would be pronounced 'Squeerel'?" I told Carter and Shane that, and immediately they said something like: "Hey man, go tell your friend that they better start pronouncing it 'Meeterhead' and 'Blue Eeyster Cult' and 'Meetley Creew'. Tell them it's an American affectation and to fuck off!" So we kept the umlaut. It puts a little metal in there too. We love stoner and doom metal -- Sleep, Kyuss, etc..  

SS: I think we also wanted these recordings to have a separate identity from the score pieces we did as Bad Rabbit.

JJ: Yeah.  

The Limits Of Control soundtrack featured groups from the ambient side of metal.

JJ: We love Sunn O))). We love Boris. We love Earth. Those guys are all heroic to us.

CL: In a broad strokes view, where we come together is in slow, heavy music. Psychedelia. Some hint of pop elements, but in a broken, distorted, anglular kind of way. That's also a thread through a lot of the records that Shane works on as a producer-engineer. He's also worked on a lot of hip hop records over the years and we're into that too, but of the sort of slow, rough, or gangsta rap syle.

JJ: More underground or hardcore hip hop. More Capone-N-Noreaga than Jay-Z, more DJ Screw than Kanye.

Who does the looped voice on 'Pink Dust' belong to?

JJ: We can't disclose the origin of that. It will remain a secret.

CL: She's French, that's all we can say.

What's so special about Shane's studio?

CL: Aside from a couple of overdubs we recorded all of this at Treefort in Brooklyn, which is a pretty unique place. It's not a conventional, clean, polished type of recording studio, but it has more character than any of those kind of places.

JJ: I would say it has a particular anti-boutique atmosphere. It's in a building that mostly has storage units and some rehearsal spaces.

CL: Shane built it all by hand with the most beautiful salvaged wood and really incredible pieces of equipment which have become characteristic of the sound of the band over time.

JJ: I tease Shane that his entire studio is built around a single amp that he owns, which is a vintage Silvertone amp from 1959 or 60. It's a small, low watt amp, encased in a cardbord or fiberboard cabinet, the tubes are almost dead, but it sounds gigantic and is beautiful.

CL: That room imparts a really unique perspective on the drum sounds, too. It's a big open room with no isolated control room. It's a great place to work.

SS: Treefort was originally built for me to have some place to work on projects without dragging my mess into my place of work. Over time enough things were happening there that it became my place of work. I've put a lot of thought into the items that occupy the space to make sure they're all interesting and inspiring in some way. It seems to have worked, because I've had the pleasure of capturing some great music in that room.

How does a SQÜRL song come together?

CL: It's all over the place, in terms of the way that we structure and compose the songs. Sometimes Jim would bring in recordings of guitars on a four-track analogue cassette recorder and we'd build up whole songs around those.

SS: We often collect pieces recorded by Carter or Jim from their home recording, and I'll comb through them and collect our favorite bits, then I'll arrange those into some sort of song structure, and then we'll usually add several more layers. Each iteration exposes new little magic moments that become personality of that piece.

JJ: Sometimes they're built and some things, like 'Little Sister', are basically one take playing together. So it kinda changes.

Why cover the Elvis tune 'Little Sister'?

JJ: We like slowing down country or rockabilly stuff. One night Shane said: "I know who our fanbase is! People addicted to OxyContin." So then we started calling it Oxybilly. I would say 'Little Sister' is a prime example of Oxybilly, as is our version of 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry'. We've also done a rewrite of Buck Owens' 'Streets of Bakersfield' as 'Streets of Williamsburg'. It's kind of a diss of Williamsburg, but not... uh... wholeheartedly.

SS: I like the idea of Sabbath covering Elvis, then played back at half speed. There's a lot to explore there.

How much of an influence is that part of Brooklyn?

JJ: Everything's an influence by osmosis. As far as Williamsburg goes, let's just say that some really vibrating musical shit is still going on around there.  As far as being "too hip", somebody said to me recently: "Hey, you know the East Village is going to become the new Willliamsburg!"

Tell us about 'Dead Naked Hippies'.

JJ: It's from a dream I had. I wrote the lyrics down afterwards. In the dream I was somewhere in central or northern California, near the ocean, walking through these decimated agricultural fields that were punctuated with dead bodies. Hippies. And there were black helicopters circling overhead at one point. It was not a pleasant dream, and yet it was in full pleasant daylight and near the tranquil Pacific Ocean. So there was something beautiful about the atmosphere and then this horrendous, sinister aftermath of something. I don't know what. It was a dream - I don't try to analyse it. That was the visual landscape I woke up with.  I wrote down some things from that.

'Pink Dust' (Nick Zinner Remix)

Who does what in the group?

CL: It's a little nebulous, but mostly Jim plays guitars. I mostly play drums. Shane does a lot of the arrangement and works on isloating the sound and creaing different loops. Pulling together the fragments that might be otherwise cast aside in other people's recordings, and working them into ours. We all experiment with different keyboards. I play a little bit of bass. 'Pink Dust' started out with a loop that I brought in on guitar which we didn't end up keeping in the song. We'll bring something in and we'll build off of it, then maybe the original element isn't really necessary anymore.

SS: Most of the ensemble work is done by capturing Jim and Carter playing together. After I've had a chance to arrange things I'll often add some psychedelic elements and some background vocals. At that point, really, anything goes.

JJ: We have a little '80s Yamaha keyboard that has a sampler in it that's just a one-shot deal, you can't save the sample or anything. We'll usually sample a little piece of the guitar feeding back, or a note or drone. Then we have a keyboard made of the same genetic material as the guitar parts. And then any one of us might play something on that. Shane also plays percussion. He has a big organ we use for bass drones. He has a very beautiful instrument that is an electric carillon made in France in the 1940s or something. Bells they use in church that are played on a keyboard - in Bad Rabbit we used that a little bit, running it backwards. Shane has a lot of other weird stuff. And he's a great singer. He can sing like a girl! We haven't used his vocal skills enough yet.

Do you do karaoke?

All:  No.  

How's the SQÜRL live set-up coming along?

JJ: We're not trying to literally match our recordings. We're trying to do variations of them. The shows will never be exactly like the record, nor do we want them to be. And I can't remember a lot of the unconventional guitar parts. I'm trying to relearn them but some are like, "What was that?". But the sound and the feel, we're getting live. That skuzzy, skronky thing and some more psych/trancy stuff too.

What prompted you to record 'Some Feedback For Jozef Van Wissem'?

JJ: It was a thing I did for a piece with Jozef that I recorded to give to him. I think I recorded it to his lute part. Then when I played it for Shane and Carter, they thought it sounded pretty cool alone. So we decided to just keep that as a track. When I "practice" guitar, I often practice feedback techniques instead of anything conventional.

Why release three EPs instead of an album?

JJ: We like EPs because the length of a 33rpm 12" LP is an arbitrary thing that was developed by commerical concerns. How much can fit on that piece of vinyl. In a way, that's becoming as out of date as feature-length films, which were also arbitrarily designed for a certain number of screenings in a theater per day. So it was 90 minutes to 120 minutes, the average for a while. Those things are now gone in the digital age. They're passé. I don't think in the future people are going to care if a film is 10 minutes or four hours. It's going to be what is it that they're interested in. Feature-length films and LPs are still a nice form, but they were kind of arbitrary.

CL: People don't listen to entire "albums" much these days. I think the ideal length for a full length record is 30-40 minutes anyway. This is about half that. We prefer something that's a little digestible package that is representative of the band each time. Come through with some of the different types of tracks that we're doing and continue to put them out. Not have it be one album and then a year later another album and then another two years after that. It's not the way that we work. We work in smaller spurts spread throughout time, so why shouldn't we release like that?  

JJ: Also we all do other things. Shane is a full-time producer. Carter is a film producer, is in a couple other bands including The Space Merchants, and works full-time doing a lot of film stuff, as do I. So we can't just be SQÜRL. For me, SQÜRL is a precious little area. It makes me so happy to make music and to be with these guys. It's very uplifting and fun and fantastic. Ideally we could go in the studio every six weeks for just a few days and have a four-song EP. That's the time we get. Rather than, now we will work for one month and make an album. In the future the ideal thing would be, say, if every three months we could put out an EP and just keep going like that forever. We have no shortage of ideas or inspiration, even if we don't know what they are when we go into the studio each time. Something happens and we're like, 'Okay, we're free! Let's make something!' And then it comes out of us. This form fits our music and our time schedules.

SS: I personally have an attachment to things that come in collections. When I was a teenager I often ordered every single and overseas releases from all my favorite bands. I loved how the collection looked when I had them all together.

Tell us about the artwork.

JJ: We wanted something simple. We wanted a symbol. A logo. So I drew a little squirrel head with fangs. I did about eight of them and the first one seemed the best, so we kept it. We're going to put it on our private jet. Or maybe our van. Or maybe a skateboard!

Have you road tested this music?

CL: Definitely. I intentionally left a CD of it once in a rental car for the next person. I cued it up and everything, so that when they turned the radio on SQÜRL would play.

JJ: I gave a self-made CD to Thurston Moore. He road tested it and texted me from the car. He said: "This is cool. I'm digging your molten meditation-core."

SS: I often have the opportunity to play the songs for people in the studio (hostage) and have had some pretty amazing feedback from people whose opinion I hold in high regard.

In what other scenarios could you imagine listening to SQÜRL?

JJ: I'd like to hear it in 1966 while in bed with Ann-Margret.

CL: Drifting on a boat. A life-raft, not a yacht, though.  

JJ: A train would be nice. We got to hear a cool thing at the ATP in New Jersey a few years ago. Portishead was setting up their equipment and the ATP people blasted 'Pink Dust' through the system in this huge venue.

SS: I'd love to hear it coming from the earbuds of a 15 year old bad ass on the subway.

Is being original important to you? Or is that not feasible these days?

JJ: To me, everything is endless variations on other things. Like waves in the ocean. They continue to turn over on each other, and they're all slightly different. I don't know if originality is possible. Is it even necessary? Because everything is different than what came before, but it's all branches from the same tree. Originality is overrated, but what you do with things is always different. You take what moves you and it moves through you. It becomes part of you but when you regurgitate it, somehow it's in a different form. The form of vomit. Maybe that's not the best metaphor...

What have you been listening to recently?

JJ: I've been listening to Orlando de Lassus' Lamentations. They're from the 1500s. Also MBV, Neurosis, DJ Screw mixtapes, Chelesa Light Moving, and compilations of Cambodian rock & roll.

CL: Those are great. Some Nigerian stuff from the '60s, too. GOAT, who were on the ATP stage at Primavera with us, their record is really incredible. Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music has been on constant repeat.

JJ: Also Sarah Lipstate aka Noveller. Loren Mazzacane Connors. I love his stuff. Psychic Ills...

SS: I've been listening to Adriano Celentano. A friend turned me onto him. He's killing me right now.

Is it important to you that SQÜRL's music is released on vinyl?

CL: Definitely. I don't buy CDs anymore. I download music, just for the ease of it, or I buy vinyl. It was really important to us, working with ATP to come up with a nice package, limited edition, something really unique that you can just get that experience out of. It's something that's lost in the digital era and frankly disappointing on CD as well. To have that large artwork in your hand, to have something that seems a little bit more handmade, goes along with the vibe of the band.

JJ: I've got a lot of old vinyl. I guess some of my most prized ones would be 'Vincebus Eruptum' by Blue Cheer, 'Talk Talk' by The Music Machine, some records by John Cage and Toru Takemitsu, some great 45s from the late '70s like 'Little Johnny Jewel' by Television and 'Piss Factory' by Patti Smith. I got the Voidoids, Ramones. A lot of old soul and blues records. Irma Thomas, Otis Redding -- I think I have on vinyl everything Otis Redding recorded in his short life. Exquisite. I have some Rudy Ray Moore comedy vinyl that I think's probably very valuable. He was in the Dolemite films and he did these stand-up records too that are kind of rare.

Apart from Jozef van Wissem, is there anyone else you have in mind for future collaborations?

JJ: We want to drag a few people in to play with SQÜRL somehow. We'd love to do something with the Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan. She's amazing. We also want to do a cover version of the song 'Connection' by the Stones with Bradford Cox. We've talked to him about it. Alan Vega is one of our heroes. And I'd love to collaborate some day with one of my favourite guitarist of all time, Pat Place, who played in (and still plays in) the Contortions and the Bush Tetras.

CL: Killer Mike and El-P in any way possible. And I'd love to do something with Victoria Legrand from Beach House. We've worked with Madeline Follin from Cults on our cover of Wanda Jackson's 'Funnel of Love'.

JJ: That'll be coming out on our record of original music from the movie Only Lovers Left Alive. Zola Jesus will also appear on that record. She did something with Jozef van Wissem which is just vocal and lute. It's haunting and beautiful, called "In Templum Dei". The movie ends with it. And Yasmine Hamdan will be on that record too! Man, it sounds like a record I'd like to hear...

SQÜRL's EP #2 is out now via ATP Recordings.