Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art
An Akron native, director Jim Jarmusch has helmed a handful of significant films over the course of a career that stretches back three decades. His filmmaking alone attests to his significant talent.
In 2009, Jarmusch, who plays electric guitar, added to his remarkable resume as he and drummer Carter Logan formed the experimental duo SQÜRL. They describe the group as an "enthusiastically marginal rock band from New York City."
You can hear SQÜRL's atmospheric music in two of Jarmusch's latest films, 2013's Only Lovers Left Alive
and 2016's Paterson
At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 1, the duo makes its Northeast Ohio debut at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The program features scores by Jarmusch and Logan for four silent films by dada and surrealist artist Man Ray. Relying heavily on loops, synthesizers, and effected guitars, the semi-improvised scores emphasize the band's more experimental, ambient, and drone-like tendencies.
Reto Thüring, curator of contemporary art, will host an onstage conversation with the duo after the performance. In a recent conference call, Jarmusch and Logan spoke about the band and the program they’ll present at the art museum.
Can you each begin by talking about what you’d consider to be your musical influences. What are the things you listened to while growing up that had a formative impact of some sort?
There’s so much. A through line for SQÜRL these days that applies to our process in scoring this Man Ray set of silent films but also our more recent releases whether they’re our new EP or the Paterson
score is that where we find a common ground and current interest is in what we would loosely call ecstatic music. Even that alone is pretty wide and open and broad and open to interpretation but for us that envelopes drone and trance and avant-garde and stoner metal and free jazz. It’s the more about the effect of the music on you in terms of elevating consciousness in some way. One of the places we performed this set of our score to Man Ray was at the Big Ears festival a couple of years ago where we saw Swans and Terry Riley and Omar Souleyman and all of those things just in one festival. Despite the fact that they might be considered to be in different genres by different standards, they resonate with us on a quasi-spiritual level.
We worked with Jozef Van Wissem who was part of SQÜRL and played live with us and did the score with only lovers. As a lutenist, he is ecstatic music. He’s sometimes minimal, but he’ll use odd forms. That ecstatic thing is a place where we’re at now. It’s widely interpreted. For me, I’m a bit older than Carter and when I was a young teenager, it was R&B stuff like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Motown and Memphis R&B. What really hit me was the MC5 and Stooges and Velvet Underground. Then we go to punk rock, and I’ve liked funk and certain forms of hip-hop and so-called avant-garde classical music and outside jazz as does Carter. It’s pretty wide. It’s a difficult question.
Jim got to experience first-hand the British Invasion and for me, it was alternative rock and grunge. That led me back through a number of channels to the influences along with East Coast and West Coast gangsta rap. That was what was happening when I was a teenager. Since then, my process of musical discovery involved jumping off and going through threads from there and tracing rock to rockabilly and jazz. The world of music is so expansive, especially now. Seemingly everything is at your fingertips even though that’s just a small percentage of what’s been recorded throughout history.
If I would look at the vinyl scattered around in front of my stereo, you’ll see everything from Kendrick Lamar to William Byrd to Sturgill Simpson to Black Mass.
How’d you wind up describing the band as “enthusiastically marginal in New York”?
marginal and enthusiastic. We’re not going for the big stadium shows or anything like that. We’re lucky if we get to play in some basement punk club.
It’s more that we don’t consider ourselves to be professional musicians.
We respect professional musicians but we find beauty in all kinds of approaches to music. I always consider myself not a professional filmmaker. The root of amateur in Latin means “the love of a form.” Professional means you’re doing it for money. I feel like an amateur filmmaker as well, not in a negative way. Except when it’s time to pay the bills. Then, it becomes a negative.
Talk about what it was like to work on the music for The Limits of Control.
When we went into to do that, we hadn’t played music in a room before. We had an exchange of ideas making films and had been both making music on our own and talking about that and listening to the things we had made. When we went in to do those pieces for Limits of Control
, it was the first time we sat in a room to do that. We had no idea what the result would be, but we were happy with it, and it worked well with the film. There’s a nice EP that has those tracks on it. That was just the jumping off point. From then on, we continued recording in that way over the course of the next few years, which yielded EPs #1, #2 and #3. It was great. It was the beginning of a collaboration that we’ve carried through.
Talk about the ways in which it sounds like you tried to broaden your musical horizons in the wake of that recording by going to “the back-alleys of American country, noise and psychedelia.”
We love all kinds of music but it sort of circles back to our idea of ecstatic. We like chopped and screwed hip-hop. We love DJ Screw and that kind of stuff. We love country music, especially sad country songs. When we perform live, we slow a few down and make them quite sludge-y. We play “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams and we play “Little Sister” in a rockabilly style. We’re attracted to those kinds of things. We like SQÜRL-izing things to our taste.
Those are part of the vernacular of American music. They’ve been done ad redone and reinterpreted by many artists. It’s us doing our own take on them. We thought we could do something new and different with it. In the case of Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love,” which we recorded for Only Lovers Left Alive
, what we ultimately did was slow it down and remix it and re-record it with Madeline Follin doing the vocals and it was giving the DJ Screw treatment to an old country rockabilly song.
How'd you decide to score the Man Ray films?
We wanted to do a live score of something. I was looking at silent films from the ’20s. At first, I was interested in a film by Renoir. The daughter of a friend of ours suggested Man Ray films. I only really knew the one film, L’Etoile de Mer
. I thought it was a fantastic film. We were watching his films and got very excited. He has no rules to filmmaking. He adheres to nothing. He is experimenting as a realist in the 1920s and he’s hanging the camera out of moving cars and treating it as a toy and getting his beautiful girlfriends to take their clothes off as he films through the distortion of broken glass. The results are fun and beautiful and strange and sometimes dark and unpredictable and, yes, experimental and innovative. We’re big Man Ray fans. We like to say we’re just the band and he’s the front man when we play to the films. It’s like we’re the Stooges and he’s Iggy Pop. He’s an amazing artist and filmmaker. They’re so much fun, and we don’t get tired of watching them at all.
What will the live show here in Cleveland be like?
We have new weapons in our arsenal. Carter plays drums and samples and loops and synths, and I play treated guitar and loops and synths, and we have toy synthesizers we love and new sounds, so we’re digging it ourselves. We’ll see if people walk out or not.
SQÜRL: Jim Jarmusch & Carter Logan, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 1, Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., 216-421-7350 Tickets: $22-$35, clevelandart.org.