Jim Jarmusch’s soundtracks have always been an especially important element of his films. The music he selects can reveal as much about his characters as their dialogue. His soundtrack albums have also served as excellent mixtapes or entry points into the discographies of musicians such as Tom Waits and Neil Young. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Jarmusch was a regular at New York City’s legendary CBGB and the Mudd Club, soaking up the sounds of the seminal bands of New York punk. He even created some of those sounds in the no-wave band the Del-Byzanteens.
A few years ago, Jarmusch started playing music again, in the band SQÜRL and with lutist Jozef van Wissem. SQÜRL works in a sort of doomy, feedback-laden sludge mode not unlike Boris, Earth, or Sunn O))), bands whose music appears in Jarmusch’s film The Limits of Control.
“A while ago, Jack White asked me to remix the White Stripes’ ‘Blue Orchard’ for a split vinyl release with Michel Gondry, and then I made a video for the Raconteurs down in Tennessee,” Jarmusch says. “I’d go to Jack’s house at the end of the day and he encouraged me to go into his music room and play anything I want. He would find me playing this old Gibson from 1905, and at the end of the shoot he gave me the guitar. I never would have taken it, but he said he had two so it was okay. So I was plunking around on that, then got another electric guitar and a cheap keyboard and I started making music again.”
Recently, SQÜRL—Jarmusch, drummer Carter Logan, and engineer Shane Stoneback—has been providing live accompaniment for short films by Man Ray; the band will present this program at Big Ears. Though Ray’s films aren’t as well-known as his influential photographs, Jarmusch finds them no less intriguing.
“I’ve been a fan of Man Ray’s work for a long time, and I’ve been interested in Dadaists and surrealists since my teens,” Jarmusch says. “He has such beautiful nonlinear experiments in film, and as someone said recently, he treated the camera like it was a toy. In the 1920s, he was hanging the camera out of moving cars, shooting through textured glass, making photograms, there are literary references. I like his very free approach to cinema. He’s making stuff not based on logic or formal constraints, but based on the unconscious, dream logic, and juxtaposition.”
Jarmusch says he thinks SQÜRL’s approach is perfect for Ray’s films, since the band doesn’t have to consider a narrative approach.
“Musically, its great for us, because we are not math rockers,” Jarmusch says. “We like drone, we like atmospheric music, we like to expand, so finding things for Man Ray is a great joy because we’re not accentuating a narrative, we’re just adding another layer to the experience. We have a little map that we follow, formed while improvising along with the films and making notes about what we liked. But it’s a loose map, not in the form of a score or musical notation, just certain keys and textures and instruments that we equate with certain parts of the film. We do improvise, so every time we play is somewhat different.”
SQÜRL has recorded a series of EPs as a three-piece, but Jarmusch says Stoneback, busy with his work as a recording engineer, doesn’t often play live with the band. The duo of Jarmusch and Carter will soundtrack the films, while Jozef van Wissem will join them on 12-string electric guitar for their more straightforward set Friday evening.
Jarmusch has been invigorated by playing music again, as is evident in the number of recordings and live performances he’s undertaken in the last few years. The renewed interest has come as a welcome surprise to him.
“I don’t know, it seemed almost like a necessity that I hadn’t planned on,” Jarmusch says. “It’s very important to me to keep making music. It’s healthy for me. It’s something I get a lot of joy from, and I may keep playing it longer than I’m making films.”
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