Dark Angels: Jim Jarmusch & Jozef Van Wissem Of SQÜRL Interviewed

Joshua Ford speaks to lauded director and musician Jarmusch, lute master Van Wissem and film producer Carter Logan about collaborative project SQÜRL. All photographs by the author

The universe sometimes allows things to happen as they should. A maelstrom of potential swirls, a confluence of disparate elements finds harmony and a new entity rises. After manifesting, it may seem that this thing always was; it is born natural, an absolute, like an element on the periodic table. Such it is with the band SQÜRL. Of course this band exists, and should exist, how could it not? Jim Jarmusch knows music. Not a finger on a pulse of music, more like an arm deep inside of it. From playing with the no wave band the Del-Byzanteens in the early 1980s, to a long string of interactions with some of the most highly regarded musicians from multiple generations including Tom Waits, Neil Young, John Lurie, Screaming’ Jay Hawkins, The Stooges, the White Stripes, RZA, Sunn O))), Sleep, Boris, and Earth, he’s curated an unrivaled pedigree in the world of cinematic-musical relationships. Scorsese may have the Rolling Stones, but Jarmusch has everyone else…

The intersection of cinematic history, a deep understanding and love of music, and the need for a specific feeling/sound, unable to be sourced elsewhere, gave birth to SQÜRL. Jarmusch and film producer Carter Logan, also a talented drummer, along with studio shaman Shane Stoneback, began their musical collaboration during the production of the film The Limits Of Control, six years ago. They have continued to explore, create and thrive both inside and outside of the world of film, now boasting multiple EPs and multiple film scores. After successful duo collaborations between Jarmusch and lute/guitar maestro Jozef van Wissem, he too has been wrapped into the fold, and works with SQÜRL regularly both on stage and in the studio. On this current foray across the eastern half of the US, they have two-night stands at both Big Ears and Mission Creek festivals: one night with Jarmusch and Logan playing a live score to a series of Man Ray’s films, and then a rock club gig as a three piece with van Wissem the following night.

Maybe the best first impression I’ve ever had when meeting someone comes as Logan introduces me to Jarmusch. “I hope you took some mushrooms” he says to me, with a smile. Jarmusch was referring to SQÜRL’s properly surreal live score to the Man Ray films, performed minutes earlier. Though tongue-in-cheek, his opening statement to me feels like a secret handshake and is immediately disarming, which is welcomed, as I’d be spending the next two nights with them at Mission Creek.

Were you on stage, or playing music at all, between The Del-Byzanteens and the beginning of your collaborations with Carter & Jozef?

Jim Jarmusch: No, there was a long gap. That was maybe early 80s, 82-83? I’m not sure. I have a sort of a foggy memory!

Were you anxious to get back on stage in the interim, or were you busy enough with film that it wasn’t a pressing thing for you?

JJ: I was consumed by my film work and I felt very honoured to know so many fucking amazing musicians to collaborate on the films with. You know, Tom Waits, Neil Young, The RZA – some incredible people. So yeah, I wasn’t really thinking much about it and then I made a video for Jack White and the Raconteurs, their first video. I was in Nashville for a week or so, preparing, and he was doing a lot of other things so he said, “If I’m not around just come to my house and hang out in the music room,” which I did everyday. Dean [Fertita] from QOTSA, Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler were often there. I’d be hanging out and every time Jack would come home he’d find me with this Gibson guitar from 1905, this old Robert Johnson style parlour guitar, and he’d say, “You always got that guitar in your hands, you like that?” I said, “Yeah well, you know, it’s amazing!” So then when we finished the shoot, on the last day, Jack said, “I want you to have this guitar.” I was like, “Come on, I’m not taking your guitar!” He said, “Listen man, I have two of them! If I only had one I’d never give it to you, but I got two. I don’t need two. You love it, I want you to take her home.” So that was sort of a start for me to go back plunking around, playing music again. It was a nice instigation from Mr. Jack White.

Which led to you doing music for The Limits Of Control?

JJ: No, the next step actually was Jack asking me to do a remix of ‘Blue Orchid’. He also asked the director Michel Gondry, who had also been in a band and started in music. I’d met Shane Stoneback, so we worked together doing that remix. When we were making The Limits Of Control and I was using Sunn O))) and Boris and all this really great stuff, there were some pieces in the film that I just couldn’t find music for. The editor Jay Rabinowitz said to me, Carter and Shane, “Why don’t you just make some music yourselves and see if it works?” So we did, and it did. Carter and I kept working on SQÜRL with Shane, and then we had the great chance to play with Jozef. Now we try to kidnap him, part of the time, and we’ve been successful at it. So that’s been a gift. It’s all been these gifts: Carter, Shane, Jozef… For me it’s just been amazing.

You and Carter had been working together on films prior to this musical relationship, correct?

JJ: Yeah since Broken Flowers. We met then, so we’ve been working together for quite a long time. And now we’re making a film about The Stooges. It’s almost done, well, its getting done: the picture is going to be locked in a few weeks then we do sound mixing and the rest of the post. Carter produced that. He is the sole producer. This film is a little more intimate, in our hands; there are not a lot of people involved.

And Carter, you’ve produced other things with Jim.

Carter Logan: Since 2004, Jim and I have worked together on all of the feature films he’s directed, I worked on the Raconteurs’ video, The Limits Of Control and Only Lovers Left Alive. We work together the rest of the time on developing new projects, on some things having to do with the back catalogue of Jim’s films as well, and now music.

And the first meeting with Jozef?

JJ: In 2006 on the street in New York, in the Bowery, this tall guy stops me (and the time he had a black suit and a narrow tie, it really wasn’t the hipster look then) and he said, “I don’t want to bother you, but I make music and I know you like music, can I just give you the cd?” So I took it and he was gone. I took that fucking thing home and it blew my mind; it was palindromic pieces for lute with some concrete sounds mixed occasionally. It was so beautiful and mesmerizing. I already had the idea for Only Lovers Left Alive for quite a long time, this is before we made The Limits Of Control, but I knew this guy’s music was going to be a part of it.

It seems like such a perfect fit.

JJ: It was. It was such a beautiful thing… And then we became friends; we had a running joke, we’d meet for green tea and alternate who was paying. “Oh it’s $3, it’s your turn!” So that’s the beginning of the Jozef connection, and then we made some records together too.

JvW: We did some duo shows, where Jim would do feedback, sort of visceral stuff, and move his guitar around. It would be a lot about the room, about architecture in a way.

You were experimenting with amp placement within the room?

JJ: No, relationship of volume of guitar to speaker to what strings you are engaging or manipulating. I practice feedback a lot. It’s not just throwing the guitar at it, to me. You can’t control it [completely] but you can control it to a large degree. So I practice that, and Jozef got me going on learning it.

CL: Jim is actually quite exquisite in his ability to coax feedback into being musical. I’ve never played with a guitarist who is able to do that kind of thing and also create a kind of counterpoint to the punctuations that Jozef is drawing out of the lute. From the time I would hear it and think that the music they made together was incredibly beautiful.

JJ: Here, on the road, I have a solid body guitar, but when I use a semi-hollowbody for the recording of feedback I can get sort of violin-like [tones] out of it. I don’t always know when it’s going to jump an octave or what it’s going to do, but I know how to react and shape it, you know?

JvW: It’s a nice drone in combination with arpeggiated lute pieces.

JJ: The lute is such a crystalline thing, and I can wash these things behind. It seems to fit well.

It’s interesting hearing that and thinking back to The Limits Of Control with Sunn O))), Boris, Earth, knowing that you have this penchant for feedback…

JJ: Once I saw Stephen O’Malley from Sunn O))) playing in this place with a very low ceiling that had a piece of acoustical panel hanging down, and he hooked his guitar from a tuning peg onto that in a place where it was feeding back, and just walked off for about ten minutes. It was going “RRRRAAAAOOOOOOWWWWOOOO” and Greg Anderson was still there [with his guitar going] “BBBBWWWWAAAAAA”. And the audience was doing this kind of slow-motion claw thing. It was fucking cool.

CL: That was one of the forms that our music for Only Lovers Left Alive took: this connection between ancient and modern. We were able to fuse that with what Jim and I had been working on with SQÜRL and Shane Stonebeck, to bring this heavy “rock” element as well. Jozef, before he played the lute, played in a lot of rock bands and comes from that background. He has this approach that, despite the fact he’s using an instrument that people associate with baroque music, he can rock and be contemporary and completely innovative.

JJ: And Shane Stonebeck, we love him. He’s a very important part of SQÜRL, but it’s not his thing to go out on the road. He’s in the studio endlessly helping other people make new stuff. He’s in SQÜRL whether he likes it or not. He even moved from New York to San Francisco and he’s still not going to get rid of us, we sent him stuff recently to master.

Has he ever performed live with you?

JJ: No, he’s always busy doing the new Sleigh Bells record or Cults or one of these interesting things he’s always doing. He’s a hardworking motherfucker! You know, sixteen hours a day, you can’t get him out of there. That’s his gift.

Jozef, there are at least three distinct modes of working you have with Jim: duo, score specific material and live with SQÜRL. Is it natural, does it flow between those three worlds?

JvW: I guess in the beginning it was more about experimenting, but all these things are merging together. When Jim asked me to join SQÜRL it was nice for me because I can be loud, not playing the lute and bringing out the 12-string guitar. Plus it’s really fun to play live with Carter and Jim, it’s more of a gang feeling that I have with them: we have fun doing this and travelling. It may be more social, which I really like. I’d missed that, I was doing it before but I gave that up for a while. I didn’t play guitar for 15 years, I guess I have to credit Jim with picking it back up again. But I think all these things are sort of naturally coming together and merging.

JJ: He has interesting projects too, that involve film, that aren’t with us.

JvW: It was just released on Sacred Bones, Partir To Live, which is a film by Domingo Garcia-Huidobro from Föllakzoid. It’s a psych film, there’s no dialogue, and so I had a lot of freedom. It’s electric work, a lot of tremolo, quite psychedelic really. Kind of a new thing for me.

CL: For me, I think SQÜRL gave me the opportunity to experiment with other instruments and do different things on the recordings and live and really expand what I do. I’m in another band called The Space Merchants where I only play drums. On this though, when we are in the studio, it’s more of a free forum to experiment with different sounds. It really got me into playing keyboards for example, and now when we are playing the Man Ray score I’m playing a Moog Minotaur synthesizer for most of it, some percussion as well, or bass or guitar. I don’t actually know how to play guitar very well, beyond a few chords, it’s about experimenting with sound textures and coaxing those things into music. I actually don’t want to get better at guitar.

So, style versus technique, with style winning…

CL: Yes, I’d much rather use the guitar like a tool that I can approach with a kind of primitivism (and I use in the most positive sense of the word) of someone who is just approaching an instrument and exploring the sounds rather than trying to play a song.

Do you feel like you could say the same things about the films you make together, as far as not hitting conventional filmmaking patterns?

CL: In the films we make, my job is very defined, most of the time. There’s a certain amount of it that involves being able to think on your toes and anticipate problems or come up with solutions very quickly, and in that way it’s similar. Being adaptable, doing something that is appropriate for the time and place. Music is the same, play to the song and don’t try to force the song to form around you.

JJ: I see them as very separate. When we make a film, its very collaborative but the gaffer doesn’t talk to the actor about their performance and the cameraman doesn’t talk about the writing of the dialogue. These are separate; they must remain separate. To me, everyone is equal, but I don’t like interfering in another person’s expertise because we don’t have a lot of time. We do our jobs. That’s what we do. It is not democratic in that way. But when we are in the studio, especially with Shane, it’s like, “OK Jim you’re going to play a bass drone on this old organ. Carter check out this electric carillon from France made in 1937.” And we’re like, “Oh, we’re gonna play these?” And we’re playing these [instruments] all of a sudden. Its very different to what you’re doing on a film set.

CL: Within the recording studio we’re all ready and willing to do the same job, whereas in a film you have to stay within what your thing is and you find your way of being both responsible and creative at what you do, and allow others to do what they do.

JJ: Carter is multifaceted in what he can do in a film, but he doesn’t mix them up when it’s not appropriate. He’s a producer that stops that from happening; he keeps people on their track.

Is it freeing then, transitioning from film to music, where to some degree it is more loose?

CL: It’s liberating to play music; it is completely of the moment.

JJ: For me it’s totally freeing, and it’s its’ own language too. You follow it, in a way.

Back to this tour and these festivals, can you shed some light on the genesis of the SQÜRL Man Ray score performances?

CL: To connect it a bit to what you were just talking about, the Man Ray thing is about Jim and I collaborating not with Man Ray, but with his films. They don’t change, but we do. We set out to find the right type of films to work with; it had been a project we’d wanted to do for a while, to score something that already existed from the silent era, to engage with.

JJ: It shifts each time. We have a map but it still changes. When we did it in New York recently for quite a large audience, a guy we know came up and said, “That is so cool that Man Ray was making videos for you guys 70 like years before you were born!” We hope Man Ray would like what we do. We love him, so…

CL: We arrived at Man Ray because we were looking for the right thing that would suit what we did. We had looked at some more narrative films, but we felt like we could do something engaging with Man Ray.

Can you give an example of some of the other films that were in consideration?

JJ: One was an early film from Renoir, from 1926, called La Fille De L’Eau, where he did a lot of in-camera effects that are very beautiful, but it didn’t hook in as much as these Man Ray films. We’d like to do some more, maybe we’ll do some with Jozef or maybe we’ll do a tour where he does one and we do one. I love silent films. The future is unwritten.

CL: Jozef has done this quite a number of times, before we did.

JvW: I did a live score to L’Age D’Or, by Luis Buñuel. I play a lot with Domingo’s film festivals in Europe already quite a bit, so I’m used to that reacting to film. I saw their Man Ray interpretation yesterday and thought it was really good; I liked Carter’s use of the Moog in it. It’s quite a dreamy score, which I really like…

Not to dwell on The Limits Of Control, but as that film is part of the beginning of the musical trajectory you are on, and as it has a dreamy/surrealistic quality, do you feel a connection to Man Ray with that film?

JJ: Well Limits is not surrealism, but it is an experiment in which expectations are deliberately removed: expectations for narrative form, for action in a film, for certain emotional content. We wanted to remove those things and see if we could still make a film that was a beautiful film experience, with deliberately removing things many people would expect. Many people don’t like that, [which is something] we fully expected. That’s the intent of that film, and it does do what we wanted it to do; but some people aren’t going to respond [well] to that… But people didn’t [always] like Man Ray’s films! My favorite film of his is Emak-Bakia. He filmed in Basque, and the title means in Basque slang something like “Get off my back”, because people were criticizing it as “nonsense”, as “garbage”, [saying] “This doesn’t mean anything, this is childish idiocy.” So he made maybe his masterwork, in a way, a film saying, you know, “Fuck Off!" That’s very inspiring!

CL: That kind of attitude was adopted by him, it was adopted in punk rock, it was adopted in rockabilly, it was adopted in outlaw country music, it was adopted in all kinds of music that permeates what our collective unconscious is about in this band.

Did you have a chance to check out some bands at Big Ears and Mission Creek?

CL: They’ve all been really fantastic. Last night after Jim and I did the score we had the great pleasure of catching both Jozef and Sir Richard Bishop, who both performed incredibly. Very different music, but it fitted within a certain context and they found a welcome and receptive audience for what they did. That’s phenomenal at a music festival where you also have things like Father John Misty playing, who could not be more different, in a lot of ways. At Big Ears we were able to catch more music, we saw things like Swans and Ty Braxton who performed his piece ‘HIVE’ which is an incredible thing. I think Jim called it “future music”.

JJ: It is mind-bendingly great.

JvW: He has these high-risers with light effects in which the musicians sit. It must be very difficult actually to sit there for an hour and do that. It’s an installation; they told me they needed a truck to bring their stuff. It was mind blowing, one of the best things I’ve seen in a while.

CL: Swans are a phenomenal group of musicians who are really at the top of their game, every single one of them. They have leading them a conductor, sent straight from hell, who is trying to elevate you through the levels up to something celestial. Michael Gira is also at the top of what he’s doing; putting this band together and coaxing them through these very different versions of their material, creating a live show that is without comparison.

JJ: I thought a lot about that, I have for a long time. Jozef references “ecstatic” music, meaning not necessarily religious music but a religious thing in music. Swans make “ecstatic” music, as does Jozef. We heard Terry Riley sing a cappella, at one point, a classical Indian raga (which was actually from Pakistan) describing the desert. Very precise, classical raga, with his voice, that was ecstatic music. It was incredible. We saw Swans and we saw Jozef and we saw Ty Braxton, we saw moments of ecstatic music. At the end of Steve Gunn’s set he and the other guitarists started playing circular African guitar patterns, and I saw ecstasy in that as well, it took me some other place. It was a moment in his set, but I will not forget it. So, we got some real ecstatic shit going on there, you know.

Beautiful. That’s what its all about right?

JJ: That’s when music is at its most powerful, when it transforms your consciousness in that way. It takes you somewhere. I used to have it as a kid because I was a big Television fan. Seeing them live when I was young was ecstatic music, I’d get lifted up into some other realm. It was like some sort of dark angels were taking your spirit away for a while. I’ve seen Merle Haggard play live, that was ecstatic for me as well. He was opening for Dylan, it made me realize that Dylan wishes he was Merle Haggard and Merle Haggard would never want to be Dylan. Just the life and the expectations of people, you know? I’m sure Bob would like to be Merle and go and do his thing and not have this pressure. There are many examples, but those are a few of ‘em.

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