Jim Jarmusch is a singular force. A self-proclaimed dilettante, his passions are disparate and wide-ranging, but his love for and dedication to each of his creative endeavors runs deep. After high school, he enrolled at Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism but, legend has it, was asked to leave after he failed to enroll in any journalism classes, preferring art history and literature. From there, he took a slanting path through academia, studying poetry at Columbia, working for a Parisian art gallery, and eventually getting his Master’s in film from NYU. Averse to authority and plot, he found a home on the Lower East Side’s no wave scene, where musicians and filmmakers alike rejected the strictures of their respective art forms.
40 years later, Jarmusch’s movies — stubbornly peculiar stories like Down By Law, Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train, and Dead Man — are the stuff of cult legend. They seem to take pleasure in toppling cinema’s shibboleths. Though less widely known, Jarmusch’s musical life has flourished too, in the shadows of his film career. In 2009, with the drummer and movie producer Carter Logan, he formed SQÜRL, a drone-rock duo taking a similarly iconoclastic, if slightly subtler tack when surveying the institutions of heavy guitar music. Over the years, they’ve scored several of Jarmsuch’s films and released several EPs, but their newest endeavor is their first full-length, standalone document of original sound.
Silver Haze has a bit of everything: nature poetry readings, a prose vision of the apocalypse, a deceptively schmaltzy breakup track, and of course, churning drones that evoke the form’s masters. In advance of the record’s release, I spoke to Logan and Jarmusch about Logan’s reverence for Sunn O))) and Scott Walker, Jim’s admiration for John Ashberry and the New School poets, and SQÜRL’s ultimate goal of making unreservedly ecstatic music.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.
The FADER: You mention in your bio statement that you’re inspired by Sunn O))). Do either of you have a personal relationship with Stephen O’Malley or Greg Anderson?
Jim Jarmusch: We go way back with them. Stephen was gonna play on the record at some point. I’m not sure what happened. But we love him. I got to program Sunn with Boris playing together when I programmed an All Tomorrow’s Parties years ago, which was incredible.
Carter Logan: What he’s done with his record label and all of his various permutations and collaborations inside Sunn and out just been really phenomenal and inspiring to us too.
Are you big fans of Soused, and did either of you ever cross paths with Scott Walker while he was still alive?
JJ: I never did. I’ve kept track of his very particular music throughout my life. I believe he’s from Ohio originally, as am I, so there’s that connection. But I never saw him perform.
CL: I’ve never seen him or met him, but I love Soused. I was lucky enough to attend a listening party for it at a bar here in New York. One of the most fascinating things I learned about it was that Scott Walker asked Sunn to do it and not the other way around. It blew my mind that he was onto that kind of thing. And then seeing some of his studio strategies, it all sort of started to make sense. There’s some incredible videos of him from around that time working in the studio.
I think they said something to Scott, like, “When we come to the studio, we bring everything.” He was like, “What do you mean?” “Well, it’s a truck full of amps.” They don’t pair it down in the studio. The entire immersive sonic experience of Sunn is there as well. To have been a fly on the wall in those sessions would’ve been really something.
“I consider myself a kind of dilettante — not in a bad way, but there’s so many interesting things in life I follow, so I can’t possibly just devote myself to a small number of them.”
I probably overuse the word punishing, often to refer to things which I enjoy. But I think it’s fair to say that Sunn is a really punishing band. On Silver Haze, there are moments that are somewhat punishing, but they’re tempered by narrative structures and dialogue and poetry. I feel that way about some of your movies too, Jim, in relation to some of the bleaker art films out there. Do you think that tempering your more punishing instincts with more cinematic ones is something that comes from your work in film?
JJ: Honestly, I don’t think about it in that way. I’m not self-analytical, so I don’t really temper anything. I just react and follow my instincts. And my instincts are to be open to mixing things that inspire me, so my films can be funny and sad at the same time. I hope the music can be dark but also not take itself seriously at certain times. But I’m the worst person to ask where it comes from. I honestly really don’t think about it. I consider myself a kind of dilettante — not in a bad way, but there’s so many interesting things in life I follow, so I can’t possibly just devote myself to a small number of them. I think that comes out in the films and the music. Appreciation of just the variety of things in life and of details and just things that are interesting.
CL: Ultimately, what we hope to make is ecstatic music. Jim and I talk about this a lot. For music to be ecstatic, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in one genre. To us, Suicide is ecstatic music, as is Alice Coltrane.
JJ: Swans, Hildegard von Bingen.
CL: There are a lot of components to this that we’ve considered, but one of them that’s a through line involves some level of tension and release. Maybe what you sense in Silver Haze is that we’re not afraid to get into sonic spaces that might be briefly uncomfortable, because we’re gonna move through those and pass them.
I generally don’t know what the division of labor looked like on this album. I know that Carter, you played the drums, and Jim, you played a lot of guitar, but then you had Arjan Miranda and Brent Arnold as well. But who was in charge of what in the writing process?
JJ: Well, it depends what you mean by writing. A lot of times we start with initial tracks, many of which I record alone before any of this, gathering droning guitar tracks, some structured things, and then we’d shape them together. Carter will put drum tracks, Arjan, bass parts. Carter often adds very minimally beautiful electronics here and there, or I might add some very light electronics mixed back or shortwave radio static or something. The songs with lyrics are lyrics that I wrote, but we kind of create them together. I would call it more shaping than actually writing.
CL: Jim and I originated the ideas behind this, nurtured them along with a lot of collaborators and built them up in the way that the songs really wanted to be. We listened to the songs to hear what further layers they wanted. From my perspective, a lot of that was taking Jim’s initial electric guitar tracks and adding drums, Moog synthesizers, electric guitar at times — usually in an unconventional way, like a loop or with an electronic sustainer. We’re just looking to create space and textures that sound in the same sonic family. More than anything, we just start to hear it and feel it. We’ll be listening to playback in the studio and say, “I can hear bass on this,” or some kind of higher-frequency texture, or a counter melody.”
JJ: With “The End of the World,” we had this instrumental thing we were working on, and Carter and [producer] Randall [Dunn] were shaping it, and I was writing this text down because I was thinking about teenagers, who have always been my guide culturally. And I was thinking about the war in the Ukraine, which had just begun not too much earlier. I think they thought I was just on my phone or something. But then I told them, “I have this text. It’s inspired by the music. Here.” I read them some, and they said, “Get in the booth and record that.”
“Ultimately, what we hope to make is ecstatic music.”
Speaking of that text, what’s a crypto car?
JJ: I don’t know. My daughter’s a teenager. She had a boyfriend for a while, kind of crazy, who had somehow acquired these European muscle cars, drifting kind vehicles. And I think he maybe acquired them trading crypto when he was supposed to be doing his homework. I was just pulling things from the periphery of my consciousness and trying to describe a condition for this band of semi-feral teenagers I was imagining in a post-apocalyptic scenario.
The apocalyptic vision that song presents is very specific. Do you have any favorite apocalyptic visions in art?
JJ: J. G. Ballard is one of the most important for me, because I’ve read him all my life and I consider him a prophetic predictor of things in a very beautiful way. There’s a whole history of apocalyptic cinema for sure, and there are other prophetic writers like William Burrows, in a different way.
What about apocalyptic music?
CL: Bobby Krlik’s initial records as The Haxan Cloak are utterly haunting and lend themselves toward this feeling of isolation and doom. The thing is, though, I don’t think that that’s the music that I would ultimately want to listen to at the end of the world.
What I return to are great songs that have meant something in my life in different places, because music has an incredible capacity to conjure memories of time and place. So I think that in an apocalyptic state, I might choose to be a bit more like the teenagers in the song and celebrate what we have left.
Mark Ribot is such a versatile guitarist, and you’ve got him on two different tracks doing two very different things. How did that creative partnership in general in those two tracks in particular, come about?
JJ: I’ve known Mark since the early-to-mid ’80s. He played on the scores for Down by Law and Mystery Train. I consider Mark to be a gunfighter. You call him in to do a hit job, he can play. A couple months ago, I got to see Mark do a live score with an acoustic guitar only to Charlie Chaplin’s film The Kid. It was so nuanced and beautiful, I forgot it was even Mark playing a musical instrument. It was so moving.
So we asked if he would come in and play on one track, “Il Deserto Rosso.” We said, “Mark, do you wanna listen to this through?” And he said, “No, no, I don’t wanna hear it first. I know SQÜRL, I know what it’s like. Just roll it and I’ll play.” So he recorded, and the first take is what’s on the record. Then he did two more takes that were completely different — the last of which he was playing the guitar with his car keys — and we were blown away. Then he said, “Hey, you got anything else I might play on?,” so we queued up another track he’d never heard and there he goes. Man, he’s incredible. What kind of a musical genius? I don’t know!
Anika is also a special artist, and you have a great dialogue with her on “She Don’t Wanna Talk About It.” It’s cute, but it’s never cutesy, and I think that’s largely because nothing Anika does is ever not cool. It’s also pretty sad if you read it as a breakup song. Were the lyrics collaborative with Anika, or was it just you?
JJ: I gave her the lyrics and the song and it’s structure. It was a little odd for her because she has another way she prefers to collaborate, which we’d like to try with her in the future: give her some tracks and say, “Do you have any thoughts — vocal line, melody, lyrics?” But I gave her the song written, and then I thought, not exactly Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra, but in that tradition of two people, and the lyrics were already there.
Having said all that, I think my favorite collaboration on this album is with Charlotte Gainsbourg.
[Carter and I] created this instrumental track together, and I called it “John Ashbery Takes a Walk” because it was kind of meandering. It seemed like someone taking a walk to me, and I love John Ashbery. After we recorded it, I thought, “Wow, what if we got Charlotte to recite one or two of these very early poems from Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees?” These are two of my favorite poems ever of his, although I have many.
She’s incredible, that softness of her delivery. She’s a really great musician. She’s also an incredible actress because she’s totally natural, always. You never see her acting out something in the film she’s in. But as a musician, we were thrilled to have her voice there. We were just so happy when we got the recordings back. I couldn’t stop listening to them. It was a great pleasure to have Charlotte’s molecules in this record.