Interview: Jim Jarmusch

The director of cult movies like Ghost Dog and Broken Flowers talks about sound in film, and shares some tales of oddball creativity

Sara Driver

Jim Jarmusch has spent nearly 40 years making films that reflect on what it means to be an outsider in worlds that are at once chaotic and boring, blurring the lines between mainstream success and art-house originality. From his ’90s classics like Dead Man, Ghost Dog and Coffee and Cigarettes, to the luxurious oddness of Only Lovers Left Alive and the downbeat comedies Broken Flowers or Paterson, Jarmusch has become an auteur for American leftfield cinema.

He has also cultivated a persona known for an intense love of radical music, reflected in his subject choices, like his 2016 documentary about the life and music of Iggy Pop, Gimme Danger. Not only that, he’s been part of three bands – The Del-Byzanteens, an ’80s indie rock outfit, Bad Rabbit, born of a film soundtrack for The Limits of Control and SQÜRL, a development of Bad Rabbit, twisting psychedelic folk and American country with stoner rock elements. Jarmusch has also released three albums in collaboration with Dutch composer and lute player Jozef van Wissem for the goth-influenced label Sacred Bones. In an excerpt from his Fireside Chat on Red Bull Radio with Saxon Baird, Jarmusch recalls a long life of sound, both inside and outside of film.

Could you tell me a little bit about linking up with Sacred Bones?

I think the first record [I heard on Sacred Bones] was Psychic Ills, then I started checking out other people on that label, and then I met Caleb Braaten. I did a record called The Mystery of Heaven for Sacred Bones in 2012 with Jozef van Wissem, who’s an amazing lutanist [and] guitar player. We love Sacred Bones. Taylor Brode and Caleb are fantastic and I’m a big Psychic Ills fan. A lot of the [artists], Moon Duo, Zola Jesus and others on their label are fantastic.

OST - Only Lovers Left Alive

How did you meet Jozef van Wissem?

Jozef is an amazing character. I met him I don’t know how many years ago. I was walking on Prince Street in the Bowery, I think, and I turned the corner and this guy was walking in the other direction. A very tall guy with long hair and a black suit with a tie. He looked like he was out of Reservoir Dogs. He stopped me and said, “Hey. Hi. Sorry to bother you. You’re Jim, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “My name’s Jozef. I’m a musician. I play the lute and I’d love to give you my CD. If you feel like it, listen to it. I don’t know,” and he kind of disappeared. That record was Images In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear. I was intrigued, and the guy was cool and mysterious. So later that night I went home and listened to it and it was so beautiful. Very minimalist lute music.

A lot of his pieces are in the form of a palindrome, which is a structure that starts, when it hits its peak it then goes in reverse order of what came before. It’s sort of complicated, but also minimal. In a few of the tracks ambient recordings of the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam were mixed in. Just ambience. Sort of quiet, familiar things. It was just beautiful. So I kept in touch with him, and then we ended up playing together. He played a lot of live shows with my band, SQÜRL. We also collaborated on the soundtrack to the film Only Lovers Left Alive. [So] we made two records and part of a third record, but I got sidetracked making films the last few years and I didn’t finish my part. I think Jozef may be mad at me. I don’t know.

I really missed expressing myself through music because it’s so immediate and making a film takes so long.

The two records you put out with Jozef have some really heavy themes when it comes to the record and song titles.

The titles on the records with Jozef are all his titles. He likes mysticism, like [with] “Concerning the Entrance to Eternity.” I always said, “Yeah, man, whatever.” He plays the foreground of the painting. He makes the details. I put the clouds and the atmosphere behind it.

Let’s talk a little bit about your band SQÜRL. What role does creating music play in your life?

I didn’t make music for a long time. I was in band way back in the early ’80s, The Del-Byzanteens, with James Nares, who’s a filmmaker and painter. He was the drummer. Philippe Hagen was the bass player, Phil Kline played guitar, vocals. That was the initial group, but I stopped playing music when I started making films. I didn’t really make music for two decades, I don’t know why. I really missed expressing myself through music because it’s so immediate and making a film takes so long. It’s collaborative, which I love, but it takes a lot of people and a lot of time. You write the thing, and then you get all the people together, you get it financed, and then you shoot it, and then you’re editing, and then it comes out later and you do some promotion. You’re not even the same person you started with. People ask you, “What does it mean?” and you’re like, “Wow, man. I don’t even remember.”

SQÜRL - Pink Dust

With SQÜRL, which is mostly Carter Logan and myself, and Shane Stoneback and Jozef at times, I’m just one of the creators of the thing. So that’s different for me too. There’s something very freeing about it. Carter and I made an electronic score with synthesizers for the film Paterson, we have that coming out on Third Man Records, Jack White’s label. Then Carter and I will play live scores to the films of Man Ray, the surrealist filmmaker from the ’20s. We’re doing a little US tour of that.

Can you identify what playing music offers you personally that you don’t get from creating a film?

Music offers me something very different than filmmaking. Music is vibrating sound waves. It’s very mysterious and it’s very interactive [for] the people creating it, even if it’s one person. It’s that person reacting with the instrument or their voice. Also, I’m not a professional filmmaker. I often tell people I’m a self-proclaimed amateur. I don’t work in Hollywood. I don’t work in the studio system.

When it comes to music, I’m really an amateur. I’ve had maybe one or two guitar lessons in my life. The synthesizer I play has no sequencing in it and no memory, so every time I sit down at it, I don’t know what it’s going to do exactly. I love that. I love music being unpredictable and unexpected. I don’t really practice. I try to play every day, but just to make interesting things come out. I love electric guitar’s ability to make noise and feedback. I’ve gotten quite good at controlling it, or jumping octaves or knowing how the amp and instrument are going to react by the distance of the pickups to the speaker, or what pickup you have on the guitar, or how you’re holding it. I really do love playing feedback. I practice the technique of that.

As far as acting goes, some musicians are more theatrical than others.

It seems like there’s a certain level of acting that goes into being a music artist, so is there something about this that has motivated you to regularly include music artists in your films?

I think the reason I have a lot of musicians as actors in my films goes back to when I started making films in the early 1980s. Most of my friends were musicians, they weren’t film people. Although, back then everybody did numerous things. Like our band, The Del-Byzanteens. Everybody used more than one form of expression. Painting, making films, graphic design, all of that stuff.

When I made a film called Stranger Than Paradise, John Lurie who’s in the film was a friend [and] also a musician. Richard Edson was the first drummer in Sonic Youth. Eszter Balint was a musician as well as an actor, she still is. I kind of came of age at CBGB, so I hung out in a musical atmosphere, but I continued that by working with a lot of musicians in films. Tom Waits and Joe Strummer and of course Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and did some collaborations with the RZA and Neil Young. As far as acting goes, some musicians are more theatrical than others. Some are capable of being really interesting actors.

Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai - Original Soundtrack by The RZA

A lot of your early films tend to be quiet on the dialog, but during those quiet moments, you have a lot of subtle sound to fill those spaces.

I like that Miles Davis idea of sometimes it’s what you don’t play that resonates more. I’m super hyper-attentive to sound and I’ve been lucky to work with Bob Hein for a number of years, he’s an incredible sound designer. These guys are incredible. We will discuss the detail of everything in the sound, like even if it’s two people sitting in their living room. You hear a motorcycle go by in the distance outside. We discuss, “OK, where are we? Do we want that to be a Harley or do we want that to be a Suzuki 400? What kind of motor do you want it to be?” That all accumulates in your consciousness.

I drive them a little crazy with the bird [sounds]. I live partly up in the Catskills, so I’ve become an amateur bird watcher. I’m super attentive to, like, “OK, what time of year is it? What type of bird would be outside? How close is it to the house?” Once I had an argument with the sound designer of Ghost Dog, Chic Ciccolini. There was a pileated woodpecker visible in the film in a scene and he put in the call of a red-headed woodpecker. I was like, “Chic, that’s not the right woodpecker.” He’s like, “Who’s going to know?” I was like, “No. It’s got to be the pileated woodpecker.”

All those sounds contribute to [the overall effect], even if you’re not conscious of them. If you hear a distant train, you may not register it exactly, but it’ll affect the mood of the moment in the film. Sound is 50% of the film.

The period in the mid-to late ’70s in New York centered around CBGB and Max’s Kansas City was incredibly important to me. It’s still woven into my aesthetic DNA.

You mentioned being part of that scene in the ’70s centered around CBGB. How much of that experience in that crowd has influenced your approach to film?

The period in the mid-to late ’70s in New York centered around CBGB and Max’s Kansas City was incredibly important to me. It’s still woven into my aesthetic DNA. It’s very present in me because the idea was anyone could have a band. Anyone could express themselves. You don’t have to go to Juilliard. You don’t have to make music that’s going to be commercially viable on the radio.

Eventually some bands got signed and some got very big, but there wasn’t any pressure in any way. It was like, “Do something because you feel it, not because it’s your career path or because you may be an expert at it.” I was impressed by some filmmakers, Amos Poe particularly, he made The Foreigner and Unmade Beds. Eric Mitchell, who was an actor and filmmaker, and Charlie Ahearn. They were also part of the music scene. That scene expanded in the late ’70s/’80s to include hip-hop, so the beginnings of hip-hop culture and graffiti art is very deep in me.

That so-called punk rock-like aesthetic is still really important to me. I carry a lot of positive things from that period. Also there was this feeling of openness, of like, anyone can do it. I would sort of follow Amos Poe and Eric Mitchell around for like a year and they were always saying, “Jim, when are you going to make your movie? When are you going to make your first movie?” I was like, “Yeah, when am I? I could, you know.” They’re like, “Of course you can. We did. Take out a car loan. Make up something. Figure out how to get your hands on some cash. Start shooting.” That’s what I eventually did in my first film in 1979, Permanent Vacation. That feeling is still in me.

Neil Young - Dead Man Theme

Does that approach carry over to how you approach sourcing or commissioning music for your films?

Music is really important to me in [all] the films that I make. Films are related to music because of the way receive them. A film passes in front of you in its own time frame, like a piece of music. Using music in films is so frustrating in the majority of commercial films – sometimes it seems like they just use the same five scores over and over. I try to find things that will integrate into the film, but often not in a logical way. I made a film called Broken Flowers, [which] takes place in suburban America. I used a lot of Mulatu Astatke music. That wouldn’t seem to work, but somehow it does.

I was so lucky to have Neil Young create a score for our film Dead Man by himself. His score really did become like another character in the film. I’m a big Wu-Tang fan. I loved the RZA from the very beginning, I love his tracks, and beats, and how he’s very particular. I was very lucky to make a film with him scoring it.

Music I think is maybe the purest form of human expression. Maybe I could live if films had never existed, but I can’t imagine not having music. I love filmmaking because it has every other form in it, composition, and photography, and writing, and acting, and style, and form, and color. But music is maybe the deepest.

You’ve been a long-time resident of New York City so you’ve seen it transform a lot. There’s a sentiment that New York is losing its soul as it becomes more cleaned up. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, I’m not so young now. I feel like the city used to give me so much energy and over the last, I don’t know, eight or ten years, it’s almost like it’s cashing it in on me. It’s sucking my energy out. I still love things about New York and still there’s a lot of creative people and interesting things, but it doesn’t nurture me in the way it used to. So I’m kind of receding into the woods, literally and figuratively. I’m moving out of here, but I’m still staying close to New York.

Everything [is] like, “Who can you cheat out of what? Who can you trick and con out of their money?” New York is about constant change and it’s driven by venal, greedy people. I feel better outside of the city lately.

By Saxon Baird on June 29, 2017

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