There's lots of excitement here at the Wex over a return visit from Jim Jarmusch. The subject of a 2001 retrospective here is coming back to the Wex with a key collaborator, producer and multi-instrumentalist Carter Logan, and the work of another great filmmaker, the surrealist artist Man Ray. This Friday, Jarmusch and Logan, who've been making music together since 2009 and perform under the name SQÜRL, will take the stage of the Film/Video Theater to live-accompany a selection of Man Ray's short films as part of a short tour of the Midwest. Before heading our way, Jim and Carter answered a few questions by phone about their process, why Jim returned to music after years of concentrating his creative energies on film, and how they ended up becoming "Man Ray's backup band."
Jim, would you talk about the differences in process between filmmaking and music making?
Jim Jarmusch: Oh, wow. It’s very different in one way in when we make a film it starts with something that I write, since I always write my own scripts. I start with a story, and then I am finding collaborators to realize that into something, eventually a film. So that’s quite different. With music, if we’re scoring something, we starting with something that exists and we’re adding something to it. We’re weaving something in with it, but we’re responding to something already. And when we make music that’s not a score, it depends how it begins. Carter and I have been working together for a long time, so we are bouncing ideas off each other. I might have a structure for a song, or Carter might have a structure for a piece of music, or Carter might just have a drum pattern he likes, or I might just have a chord progression, and then we just kind of build things together. When we work with Shane Stoneback, he will help us shape our ideas, so it’s quite a different things for me. At the same time, it’s all the same thing because it’s human expression taking a certain form, you know, but music is a very immediate thing and filmmaking is not immediate at all. For me it takes one to two years to make a film. It’s a process, and music is much different.
Have you been making music throughout your career?
JJ: I didn’t make music for like 20 years or so. I just started again, I don’t know, just for personal purposes because I needed an outlet and I love music. I did a remix of a Jack White song quite a few years ago that he asked me to do, and then he asked Michel Gondry, a director who I love, to also do a remix of the same song. Both Michel and I had started out in bands like 20 years before, so that kinda got me back into wanting to make music again, and then Carter and I and Shane, we created some music for The Limits of Control, and then we scored with Jozef van Wissem Only Lovers Left Alive, and now Carter and I have scored Paterson, so we’ve just been continuing on, and then our band, SQÜRL, does other things. We’ve played live a lot with Jozef as part of SQÜRL. He’s a remarkable lutenist who plays kind of ecstatic lute music but in our band, he played electric 12-string guitar. I got to play live with a band that I love, Moon Duo, and Carter plays in several bands. So he’s got a lot going on. He’s in a band now, Space Merchants. So anyway, music’s very important to us. We’re going to score a film about a great cinematographer I worked with, Robby Müller, next year. We’ve had other little bits of our music in other films here and there.
How did the two of you move from producing films together to making music together?
Carter Logan: Jim kinda touched on it on the making of The Limits of Control, which I was one of the producers on by that point. He’d be in the editing room and working with an editor on that, Jay Rabinowitz, who’s also a fantastic music editor, and he and Jim had a great collaboration on placing music in that film. That film didn’t have a composer when we started making it, or at that point, and they had just been using various existing music from artists like Sun, Boris, and Earth. Others, too, like The Black Angels...
JJ: Sweet and The Black Angels.
CL: But there were some moments in the film where they just couldn’t find the right thing tonally and texture-wise to fit in the scene, and not lead it too much or take it in the wrong direction, and Jim had had the experience of working with Shane Stoneback on the remix he had mentioned. And there were guitars in the editing studio—Jay plays guitar and Jim had been playing more guitar recently. I think Jay turned around and said, "Carter plays bass and drums and other stuff. Why don’t you guys just go in and see if you can make something with Shane?" And we did. It was kind of a lark. We hadn’t played music together before at all, and we went in there and just experimented for a while and came out with a set of songs that we released under the name Bad Rabbit. We changed our name to SQÜRL not too long after, but we continued making music from then on with Shane in kind of fits and starts, over the course of a few years. That’s what yielded the three EPs we released on ATP Recordings—all that material and more—and created that aspect to our collaboration.
(Image from Man Ray's L'Etoile de Mer)
What brought about the jump to scoring the work of other filmmakers, and in particular Man Ray?
JJ: We had this idea some years ago. A lot of musicians I like, like Tom Verlaine had scored some things…
CL: ...Marc Ribot.
JJ: Yeah, so we were interested and we thought, oh man, we should score something. And at first I thought of this silent film by Jean Renoir called La Fille de l’Eau, and then I wasn’t quite satisfied. I don’t think it’s a great film in the end. And then a French friend who has helped us a lot, has helped finance partially a lot of my films for years, I was talking to his daughter, who was maybe in her late teens at the time and a cinephile, and she said, "No, no, no, La Fille de l’Eau is not a good film, but you must score Man Ray’s films!" And I was like, wow, that’s right! Man Ray’s films. And I think I’d only seen L’Etoile de Mer at that time but I loved it. So then we got our hands on Man Ray’s films and we were like, oh man, eureka! This is our dream. And Man Ray is so inventive and playful with the camera, and there were no rules whatsoever to his approach to whatever cinema is, so it’s photographic, it’s semi-narrative, it’s dreamlike, he’s a surrealist, it’s very inventive technically. He invented what they call Rayograms, or photograms. He would hang a camera out of a moving car in 1924 like it was a toy, whirl it around over his head or throw it in the ocean! (Laughs) He was amazing and he made these beautiful, beautiful, strange, wonderful films, so we were off and running. We were like, oh man, let’s do this.
We started some years ago. There was a pause with making two films last year: Paterson and Gimme Danger. And so we had done a few performances in New York, two performances with a thousand people each night for John Schaefer from WNYC. He hosts a lot of new music. Then we did this at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville. We did it in Iowa City…
CL: At the Mission Creek Festival
JJ: So we did it a few times since and now we’re doing a little tour of the Midwest. And early next year we’ll do a little tour of the Northeast, and then maybe we’ll do the West Coast, and then we hope to do something in Europe, but between our other projects. But it’s OK – it doesn’t go away, and it’s different each time. They’re partially improvised, although we have a map and a plan, but we also change each time we play the scores, which is fun.
Is that improvisational element what made you decide to tour instead of committing a recorded soundtrack to the films?
JJ: All of our music with SQÜRL is never the same each time. We don’t approach music as a set classical thing. Even if we play songs with a set structure, we diverge from them each time, maybe by accident, maybe on purpose, you know. It’s just the kind of musicians we are. I’m not a trained professional musician so I’m very intuitive. Carter has studied music more than me, but he’s very open and adapts. So our music would never be a set thing. We could never play math rock. It’s not our thing. It’s not our strength.
CL: I think the other thing is that the looseness in music and the space and the openness to, "OK, this is going to be the variation of this we do tonight," is inherent in the ethos of what we do. Partially it’s deliberately not over-rehearsed or written out or planned, although it is planned to some degree. Just leaving that opportunity for change and variation is really something that’s important to us.
JJ: Yeah, variation is a good word, because we do rehearse; we’re not winging it. But we are open to it shifting, depending on how we’re feeling or also the instruments we use. We use some synthesizers that some people might call toys even, and so sometimes you’re not exactly sure how to get a certain sound and so what comes out might vary each time, just because of the nature of the tools we’re using.
CL: We like to think about the space we’re in as well, consider the sound and how it reacts to the space. It’s important for us to get in there and hear what it’s like and tailor what’s going on to that. But really, Jim said it’s best – we’re Man Ray’s backup band. He’s the frontman. There are three band members. And working with these films and scoring them really is like playing along with something or someone else. It’s not just the two of us. There is the nature of the film in front of you and it unfolds differently in front of you each time. I’m still seeing different things and feeling different things or understanding them in different ways, and so I think we bring along with that that recontexualization. The openness of not having a written score we’re performing with some level of precision every night really feeds into that and lends itself toward what is ultimately for us a more interesting experience, and we hope for others.
JJ: Yeah, not musically so much, but we’re like The Stooges, and Man Ray is Iggy Pop. You can’t get a better frontman than that, so we’re just kind of in awe of Man Ray every time we watch these films, even when we’ve been rehearsing lately. Man, I’m never tired of them. They’re just so inspiring and amazing and playful and strange, and they work on you in different ways like dreams do. He’s very remarkable, Man Ray.
The kind of dream logic of surrealism and not rational things, but juxtaposition of things, really is something we find inspiring in many forms, not just films. We’re very interested in what we call ecstatic music. We’re very interested in psychedelia or expanded consciousness, which is a direct link to surrealism. So we like drone music, we like the Master Musicians of Jajouka, we like Morton Feldman, we like Indian classical music and we love the Velvet Underground. There are things that connect these things for us that are somehow important to us. We appreciate them all so they kind of come through us and we try to channel that in some way.
Image: Photo by Ryan Muir