Music is never entirely incidental in a Jim Jarmusch movie. An avid listener who’s made documentaries about Neil Young and the Stooges, the director ties songs together with an unmatched patience and style. Soundtracks aren’t afterthoughts with Jarmusch movies, often they are part of the main attraction, as is the case with the music from 2014’s vampire yarn Only Lovers Left Alive—which was recently reissued by Sacred Bones. The collection features Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, frequent collaborator Jozef Van Wissem, and guest appearances by Madeline Follin of Cults, Zola Jesus, and Yasmine Hamdan. Jarmusch joined us from his place in upstate New York to discuss the soundtrack, the pastoralism that defines his creative practice these days, his early days, collaborators like John Lurie and Steve Buscemi, and of course music—Neil Young, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Wu-Tang Clan, and beyond.Transmissions :: Jim Jarmusch
Episode soundtrack: Wu-Tang Clan, “Infomercial #1 (Jim Jarmusch)” ++ SQÜRL, “Streets of Detroit” ++ Kurt Vile, “Losing Momentum” (For Jim Jarmusch) ++ White Hills w/Jim Jarmusch, “Illusion”
Thanks for listening. Transmissions is written, produced, and hosted by Jason Woodbury. Our audio is edited by Andrew Horton. Visual work by Sarah Goldstein and Jonathan Mark Walls. Our executive producer and top of the show announcer is Aquarium Drunkard founder Justin Gage. Tune into his weekly radio program, the long running, long celebrated Aquarium Drunkard Show, every Wednesday on Sirius XMU, channel 35, at 7 PM Pacific time. We hope you enjoy this one. If you enjoy Transmissions, please rate, review, subscribe, and spread the word.
Aquarium Drunkard: Jim, thanks so much for joining us on Transmissions. I’m thrilled to have you here.
Jim Jarmusch: Thanks Jason. Happy to be here.
AD: To start this episode off we heard a few selections from your discography—stuff that’s associated with you at least. We heard your Wu-Tang infomercial, from Wu-Tang Clan Meets The Indie Culture Volume One. Then we heard SQÜRL’s “Streets of Detroit,” then I played a tiny bit of Kurt Vile’s “Losing Momentum (For Jim Jarmusch),” which is his slowed down 33 rpm remix of a 45. You eventually heard that at some point and invited him to do All Tomorrow’s Parties?
Jim Jarmusch: Well actually I’d invited him before. Then I heard that and I felt kind of funny like, “Oh, are you just inviting him cause he did a [song for you]?” But I was just interested in his music. After already trying to figure out the roster for the ATP thing then, yeah, I found out about that beautiful piece of music he made. I was very honored.
AD: I like the original too, when it’s played at the right speed. But when you put it in that register, the 33 rpm register, it just sounds so ghostly and beautiful. It’s really an evocative thing.
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah, it really is. I love those minor changes to things. I have a great looping pedal—you can take it to half speed, which I’m playing with a lot—reversing tracks and slowing them down. But I have a kind of slow rhythm to the way I talk, to the music I make, to the films I make. And I think Kurt kind of honed in on that too in a way. Yeah, I was just honored. I thought it was a really cool piece of music. He’s just a remarkable musician.
AD: He sure is. Big fan of him here. When we spoke for Aquarium Drunkard a couple years ago, you mentioned that you’d assembled a studio in the Hudson Valley. Have you been able to safely access it in the past year, year and a half?
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah, I’m living there now. I’ve been mostly living up here. I’ve been up here working. My studio is…I’m still troubleshooting some annoying hums and buzzes and things, but with the kind of music I make, that’s not a catastrophe. I work in there almost every day, either with music or art or writing. It’s the size of one large garage bay. It actually was part of my garage so it really is a garage studio. But I’m in heaven. I just record onto—I go through Focusrite and Garageband, but I have a lot of pedals and effects and I’ve gathered some nice instruments. I’m kind of in heaven when I’m in my garage.
AD: That’s awesome. You’ve got all sorts of collaborators. Have you been able to have other people in there with you or has the last year and a half mostly been you working on your own?
Jim Jarmusch: It’s been me alone and then trading tracks. I’m way behind but I’m supposedly making a new record with Jozef van Wissem. We’ve made a few now but he’s still waiting for my tracks. I was delayed just by some things I was troubleshooting in my studio. Carter Logan and I are working on some stuff. I’ve been gathering a whole collection of solo almost all electric guitar pieces that would be a double record. I have enough stuff for that, so I’m collecting a lot of stuff. Working on a few other projects that I don’t know if I can mention yet because they’re not announced. One of them involves remixes. But a couple of cool things I’m working on musically right now.
AD: That sounds great. The recent stretch of time has been pretty brutal in so many ways, but as far as being able to hole up in the studio, there’s not much else to do, so I suppose it’s a good time for that.
Jim Jarmusch: Well it’s been brutal in a lot of ways and sad and strange. But for me it’s been…The really good thing is I have for years been trying to live most of my time up here in the Catskills and just part of my time in the city. I used to be up here maybe ¼ of the time, and now I’ve pretty much flipped that. I’m in the city maybe only a fourth or a sixth of the time lately and for me that’s a dream come true. I love New York City. I love traveling, I’ve spent my life traveling. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life living in New York, which I do deeply love, even though it’s changed in a lot of ways I don’t love. But up here I’m in the woods. I have a room where I can record music, I can work on art, I have a book of newsprint collages coming out soon in June on Anthology Books and a show coming up in September in James Fuentes Gallery in New York. I’m making more of those.
I have a little screening room in the other room where I can just—I have the Criterion Channel, which I call my drug dealer. I have incredible films. I try to watch at least one film every evening. I can make music, I can make art. I’m working on a book of poems. I have little scripts I’m not working on as much as I intended but it’s like a dream and it’s very, very quiet and secluded. There’s a lot of birds and animals. I’ve been getting up recently for this one project to record the dawn chorus of birds at like 5, between 5 and 6 AM. Because May’s the time when all the birds have returned. It’s insane. I mean it’s amazing. So I have recordings of those now. Some tracks that I might add to things with Carter.
It’s just nice to live in a place where there are bears walking around if you’re not careful. And coyotes. I saw a pair of beautiful owls right outside my house and they went from one tree to another tree. These were very large owls. Incredible. And you know when owls fly, they make no sound. That’s why they’re such scary predators if you’re their prey—because the front edge of their wings is serrated in a way so it’s silent. So these owls, they were large animals and they’d just sort of jump off the branch and catch themselves with their wings and cruise and I didn’t hear a thing, so that was kind of cool. I’m seeing all kinds of stuff. I’m hearing coyotes at night. I come out of my little studio at midnight, sometimes there’s a deer standing there. It’s just kind of great. I love that kind of stuff. So I’ve kind of been in heaven, part of this pandemic thing. Being up here and getting to work on my own stuff and create things. It’s been kind of great. At first it was cool cause I was like cool nobody can ask me “Oh can you come and do a Q&A at the Metrograph, a theater I really love. But now I’m like, “No, I’m upstate.” Now it’s like, “Can you do it through Zoom?” and I’m like dammit, this Zoom thing.
AD: They got you!
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah, but it’s good anyway. I’m really digging it up here. I really love it. And I can make music as loud as I want all night long. I don’t have neighbors close enough to hear it. What am I gonna bother the foxes outside?
AD: Your work is known for—you’ve already alluded to it—the patient pace at which things move. Whether it’s a comedy like The Dead Don’t Die, or something more atmospheric, like Paterson, which I guess is sort of a comedy in my mind, a very gentle comedy. Whatever you do, even something that’s a little more atmospheric or brooding like Limits of Control or Ghost Dog, that slow patient crawl is always present in your work, and your musical work as well. I think so many people’s perception, at least I certainly know my own perception of time, has changed so much through the pandemic. Natural pace has sort of, in a weird way, been disrupted. Did you find that your routines changed or your perception of the way you think of hours has changed at all over the past year?
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah for a lot of last year, honestly, I wouldn’t even know what day it was anymore. It would be like really? It’s Saturday? So yeah that changed a lot, but not in any way that was upsetting. It was sort of a nice way to just drift because then you’d call your friends and they’d say the same thing like, “Wait what day is it?” Everyone was sort of suspended. But as far as that personal rhythm thing of expression, I don’t analyze those, I don’t really know where that comes from. It’s kind of like if you were to ask Cy Twombly, “Why are your paintings so minimal?” Or if you ask certain musicians like Morton Feldman, “Why is everything so slow and spare?” Some people just have certain rhythms or expressions. I remember a few years ago I was talking to Josh Safdie, of the Safdie Brothers, whose films I like a lot. I was saying I love your films so much because they’re very, very different from the rhythm I would ever find. And he was laughing and saying, “Me and my brother were saying that recently about your films, like, we really dig his films because they’re nothing like the rhythm we would ever embark on.”
I don’t really know where that stuff comes from. I know that when I first started making films I was very much inspired by very pure classical approaches to telling a story with the camera. Like Robert Bresson or Mizoguchi and Ozu, the Japanese film directors. I really liked that purity and that kind of rhythm. Then also I started making films really at the time when MTV emerged making these essentially visual commercials for pop songs. Part of me reacted contrarily to that—cause I am a contrary [person] and I was like, “Man, I don’t want to make anything with that rhythm.” I mean even now. When you watch action films they have a thing where nothing’s on more than three seconds before an edit. Then occasionally a long shot will last five or six seconds. I have to say, after five minutes of that shit, I have a headache. I can’t deal with that three seconds and then a cut. It drives me nuts so it might just be part of my way of perceiving things.
AD: So much of Paterson, which is one of my favorites of yours, is centered on repeated rhythms and patterns. That feeling of day in and day out. That kind of went away for a lot of people during the pandemic but I wonder, do you find that you kind of keep to your own personal repeated rhythms that play throughout your days just in terms of your personal rituals and things like that?
Jim Jarmusch: I do a little bit. I do some physical things first. Lately I walk three miles a day and I often do some Tai Chi after, which I often do with some meditation. I like to do that as what I do everyday and the rest of the day varies depending on the obligations I have or what free time I get to escape into my studio. So those things vary but I do try to have a certain rhythm of first paying attention to myself as a machine, my physical being. That’s obviously connected to my chi. I try to pay attention to that. Then I proceed with the day, but not much more than that. But you mention repetition and variations in Paterson but I think you’ll find them in all my films and music too. There’s something very, these are kind of gold mines for me. I love variations. I love them from Bach to Warhol to whatever. The idea of things being varied. And that’s what nature is too, it shows you endless variations, and those things really inspire me. I’m an amateur mycologist and ornithologist. For years I tried mushroom identification and bird identification. But fungi, there are I don’t know, like 50,000 different species. There are four times more than plants. Just the idea of the variations, the minute differences in species and in nature is insane. I was watching this documentary about Oliver Sacks and part of his life he was obsessed with ferns because there are so many variants of just that one plant, which are very, very ancient. I was interested in his fascination with the varieties of them. And then repetition, that’s such a beautiful kind of form to use in so many ways in art and music and everything, architecture. Those things are innate for me. They’re kind of like guiding paths, repetition and variation.
AD: Talking about some of the endless variety of mushrooms or things like that. A while back we had on the podcast author Noah Lekas and Ethan Miller, from the group Comets on Fire and Howlin’ Rain and we were talking about being music listeners and I mentioned that I’ve talked with some friends who will tell me things like it bums them out that they will never be able to hear all of the things they should hear, because there is just so much out in the world. They’re never gonna hear all the records they should hear or see all the films they should see or read all the books they should read. I kind of feel more drawn to the opposite of that. That fills me with hope, knowing I’m gonna die with stuff left unheard or unseen. Because to me, the thing that I love in art and in music is that as long as there are people there are going to be variations and mutations and things are gonna develop in new fascinating ways and that fills me with a lot more hope than it bums me out. You know what I mean?
Jim Jarmusch: I do. I have both sides of it. I was thinking just the other day, I’m not so young anymore. I’ve spent a lot of my life collecting vinyl records and then unfortunately CDs and I still have cassettes and then I have DVDs and I was thinking—I was just looking at my vinyl collection and thinking—man, if i just start putting these on the turntable now, for the rest of my life I’ll never play them all again. And then there are all these new things I want to find out about which are overwhelming because you can’t keep track. Everything’s changing. If you just look at hip hop. A hip hop hit will only be a hit for a month at the most and then the next thing and the next thing. I can’t keep track. But I’m with you. What I love is to wake up each morning and think: god what great piece of music or film might I discover that I never even knew about. And so the endless possibilities just really inspire me. I was sort of criticized in some ways for this but the film Only Lovers Left Alive is sort of about that. And I guess critically, some people said I’m an elitist. Because those two characters Adam and Eve have lived for hundreds of years so their knowledge and appreciation of things is incredibly fast. And yet they’re still interested in learning new stuff. So I really feel like: what might I discover today that I never knew about?
AD: What are you like as a music listener? Do you tend to focus on a few albums for a sustained period of time? Or do you cycle through things pretty frequently?
Jim Jarmusch: I’m a fanatic so I’m very indulgent by, how can I say, just by how I feel. So I go through periods. Like last week I made a mixtape, on digital, of the music of John Cage and then I found certain pieces that were interpreted by different performers, certain piano pieces. So I put like five in a row and they’re just slightly different. So I had a big John Cage day but I might wake up and I gotta hear Miami by the Gun Club. Or I gotta go back, “Oh my god, it’s Ghostface Killah’s birthday, I gotta listen to some of his stuff.” So it really varies so much as to whether I’m gonna listen to maybe some obscure classical music or if I’m gonna listen to some metal stuff, stoner metal, Neurosis, Royal Trux, or I don’t know. I’m sort of a fanatic, so it’s really variable but I listen to music a lot. And music I think really is the most beautiful form of expression I gotta say. I love movies because they’re the closest to dreams in a way. You can tap into the sort of illogic or lack of logic of dreams. Movies can be very traditional in terms of narrative and telling stories, which is such a beautiful ancient form. But a film can be like a dream because it has imagery, it has its own rhythm, it has sounds. But music is so pure. I saw some footage on YouTube of I think it was Eric B and Rakim playing somewhere in central Europe, I don’t know where, I might be imagining this, but people are singing along and they don’t know what the lyrics are. They’re like mouthing along to Rakim, but the music was still so important, was hitting them. They were feeling it. Music is just remarkable to me. It’s so magical.
AD: Another thing you mentioned when we last spoke is at that point you were listening to the then current posthumous Alan Vega record, It. Have you been able to listen to his new album Mutator which is on the same label as you, Sacred Bones?
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah, definitely. I’ve been trying to think of something I could do because Liz, you know his wife, she’s really a remarkable person and they’re trying to get other artists who really love Alan Vega’s work to create little things around Mutator. And I wanted to write something or make some small film but I’ve been really sucked away in so many things. But yeah i’ve been blasting Mutator for a month or two now. Excellent.
AD: The notion that there’s more in the Vega vault is also something that makes me very happy and excited to know.
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah definitely. And hats off to Martin Rev too, I like his solo stuff as well.
AD: So much of it is fantastic. Those two, their esteem only grows.
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah, it’s really true.
AD: You’ve always worked with a lot of musicians in your films. But you started playing when you were in your early 20s, is that right? What drew you to playing?
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah, “playing.” What drew me was the wild enthusiasm in New York City and the East Village and Lower East Side and making our own music that could be amateurist. And that whole thing was just exhilarating. I’ve said this in other interviews but there was a time in the late ’70s when there were flyers posted everywhere in the East Village that said at one point “everyone here is in a band”. It was kind of true. But it was so exciting that, oh man this isn’t fueled by professionalism or I’m gonna get over. It was fueled by expression. I look at all forms of expression and schools of music as just waves in the ocean that break off one another. So what happened in the lower east side at that point around Max’s and of course CBGB’s, and after that other clubs. And the so called no wave period was amazing because there was also a renunciation of just playing blues based rock and roll. It was like, OK let’s see what else can happen here. And that was very important to me.
As much as I have huge idols in guitar music of Link Wray and Ron Asheton. I gotta say, I am just not any more interested in blues-based rock and roll. I heard a quote recently from Julian Casablancas saying that he was just bored with that. But I realized a few months ago that I have a weird aversion to hearing guitar breaks in songs. I just don’t want to hear that shit anymore. I’ve heard that a million fucking times. I don’t want to hear these repetitive…I just can’t do it, I have to turn it off. I gotta hear something else now. And I love electric guitar. But I’m just getting so bored with that repeated riffing of stuff. It just doesn’t do anything for me. It’s to a point where it’s not just that I ignore it, I avoid it. But I go through phases so I don’t know what I’m saying.
AD: So when you started, you played keyboards in the the Del-Byzanteens.
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah, I played keyboards and did joint vocals at times.
AD: Do you remember your first guitar? What was your first electric or acoustic guitar?
Jim Jarmusch: My first electric was a Hagstrom, a red sort of strat copy that I got at a pawn shop on 9th avenue in New York. It was cheaper than any sort of actual Fender guitar at the time. And I had no money. So that was my first electric that I had back then.
AD: Did the freedom of the no wave thing—in which people were able to be very abstract with what they were doing, deconstructive with what they were doing—do you think in part that appealed to you because the qualifications for being in a band had basically vanished at that point? Do you think that that was part of what you were excited about at that point? That it was uncharted waters?
Jim Jarmusch: Well it was two things. A little bit before that kind of stuff, I gotta say Patti Smith and Television too were incredibly inspiring because they were saying, “Hey we’re rock and roll musicians because we fucking say we are, and here’s what we’re gonna express,” and I found that really, still moving. And there were so many bands like that, the Ramones, obviously and their formula which I still love and I still think—Joey Ramone was in love with Ronnie Spector and that kind of girl group stuff and how that got translated into the Ramones is such a beautiful thing to me. So that stuff meant a lot to me. But I was also interested in all kinds of music, including avant garde so-called classical music and certainly outside jazz. I loved Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler and those kinds of things. When that so-called rock musicians or that little scene expanded into not blues based rock and roll, like DNA particularly, I just really loved that—it just opened my mind. That even this form doesn’t have to be based on any kind of cliche or expectation.
Then there was Glenn Branca and people using those kinds of instrumentation. And I saw, I remember seeing Glenn Branca’s band Theoretical Girls, for example, and stuff like that and I was just like, “Wow, OK, we can really go anywhere we want with this stuff, this is really exciting.” I had a funny experience. I may have once talked about this before but I was friends with Tim Wright who was in DNA and Pere Ubu at some point. We’re both from Ohio. But this was in New York, and Tim said he would give me a few guitar lessons. I was in his apartment and I couldn’t play guitar for shit, and he showed me these chords that were very unusual and very difficult to play and he said, “OK just practice going between these two chords over and over and then next week come back,” and I said, “OK, cool.” So I practiced these very weird sounding chords. I don’t even know what they were and then I went back and Tim said, “Can you play those over and over?” and I said “Well, kinda” and I played them and he turned on a recorder and was working out a piece of music of his own. I caught onto this and I said, “Tim, hey you’re just using me for that?” and he said “Well yeah, I didn’t know what I was doing, I’m no guitar teacher.”
AD: That’s amazing. So you’re a recording artist before you’re even really sure that was happening.
Jim Jarmusch: Well no, this was on cassette, on this tape. He was working on a piece of his with two guitar parts and very odd, Tim Wright type guitar parts. What a great musician and person he was too.
AD: So like I mentioned people like Tom Waits, and Iggy, and the Wu-Tang Clan guys, these people have all factored into your films. But you’ve also made pieces specifically about music. The Stooges documentary. And Neil Young, Year of the Horse. How does doing something like that affect your relationship with the subjects that you’re covering in those films, with their work?
Jim Jarmusch: Wait say that again—sorry I was drifting away because I was thinking about John Lurie, because I was thinking about the beautiful things he did in our first film, Stranger Than Paradise, where he had a string quartet and I met all of these incredible musicians at that time because he brought in Mark Ribot and all these people that are since friends for many years. There’s something about John’s openness to music and acting and doing various things as an artist that was very inspiring for me too, working with him. I’m just going back. I don’t know and I remember in those early days in the late ’70s, Jean Michel Basquiat was a friend of ours, but he really followed John around because he encouraged him to play the clarinet and Jean was into that and Jean was really young and John was kind of inspiring, used to call him Willie Mays, I remember. John was very important that way musically too. And then next I got to work with Tom Waits and then after that of course with Neil and RZA—all these amazing people were real gifts. But sorry, I drifted back to John for a second.
AD: No, that’s great. I’m a real fan of his, for sure. I really enjoy his painting show.
Jim Jarmusch: I love his paintings. I didn’t see all the shows. But anyway, all of those people, [were] so important to me. And then getting to work with a lot of musicians, starting with John and Richard Edson and even Ezster Balint in Stranger Than Paradise. She’s still a great musician—she’s a wonderful musician. And even Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Joe Strummer and Iggy, and all these incredible people I got to work with as actors. But then getting back to your question, about Neil and Iggy and all those films.
AD: Making something like that, because making a film is very involved, and very intensive at times. I wonder if it changes the way you hear or perceive their music when you work with somebody that closely.
Jim Jarmusch: No, because that was like lifeblood already. I was just thrilled to, first of all, work with those guys, and then to make a film about their music. I was already—I mean, come on, the Stooges, that was like my blood. The Stooges, MC5, and then a lot of black music at the time, what was called R&B back then and soul music, that was my blood. So those guys are heroic to me. And Crazy Horse? I mean I love all of Neil’s music but Crazy Horse just speaks so deeply to me. The wildness of it.
AD: Well the wildness of it and the meditative [quality]. Obviously you’ve explored a lot of drone in your own work, films and music.
Jim Jarmusch: Yes, for sure.
AD: To get ready for this I went back and listened to a bunch of stuff, but I listened to the Year of the Horse soundtrack and I love that it opens with, “It’s all one song.” Neil says that at the beginning. The film, your film about them kind of captures that quality in a positive way. Because it feels immersive. You slip into the Crazy Horse slip stream and then you’re sort of just in it. And Neil’s stuff is all over the map all sorts of times, but when he’s with Crazy Horse something very elemental happens that I just love.
Jim Jarmusch: Also Neil is very intuitive. I am also. And I learned a lot from being with Neil. And I’ve learned it from other people. The great DP, the director of photography Robby Müller, certainly taught me instincts on how to analyze shit. Like make sure you’re feeling it and trust your feelings. I remember Neil saying to me once during the Year of the Horse filmings, he said to me, “You know we never, ever think about what we’re doing. That would just ruin it man.” Because it’s not about that, it’s feeling it. And the beauty of Crazy Horse too is that somehow in the imperfection of the rhythm section. Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot are not metronomic musicians. There’s an elastic thing that moves around because it’s not perfect. And that is what makes them so great too, and Neil knows that he loves that.
AD: it’s that human quality, the perfectly imperfect thing that happens. It sounds natural. It doesn’t just sound natural, it sounds extra natural, or something, I don’t know how to put it.
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah if you ever mentioned a click track, probably Poncho would have pulled a gun on you.
AD: Of course, of course. What kind of conversations did you have with Neil over Dead Man before you recorded the soundtrack? Did you have any thoughts? Or did you just go into it—blind is probably the wrong word, but a little bit less formed?
Jim Jarmusch: Well we had an interesting thing. I had met him while we were shooting. We had a day off in Arizona at one point and Crazy Horse was playing and I was able to get a whole bunch of tickets for the crew and everybody wanted to go. So we saw them, a beautiful show. And then it was around the period of Sleeps with Angels. Afterwards I got to meet Neil through Elliot because I knew Frank, who worked with Elliot…Anyway, Elliot hooked me up so I could go talk to Neil after that show and I remembered introducing myself and saying, “Yeah we’re shooting this film and I just wanted to see if you might be interested in scoring it later” and he looked at me and said, “I don’t make plans.” He was about to get on his bus and then he turned back and said “I’ll tell you what, when you have a rough cut man send it to me and I promise you I will respond in a matter of days, I give you my word.” So when I had a rough cut months later and I got it to Neil and two days later he calls me saying, “Hey, I wanna do this, I love this film, I wanna do the score, can you fly out here and hang out in my ranch for a few days and we can talk?”
So I got to fly to California. I got picked up, I got taken to Neil’s incredible Broken Arrow ranch, I got to stay over night for two nights and just talk. So first Neil said he had the interest in getting Dave Grohl and Krist Novaselic from Nirvana and Kurt was gone, so maybe we could get those two guys and it would be the three of us. And I said “That’s pretty interesting, I don’t know.” So we talked and hung out for two full days and then I said, “I’m not a big Eric Clapton fan I must admit, but he did a beautiful solo electric guitar thing for this film, Stephen Frears’ film, The Hit, which is a film I really love.” Neil said “Ah I don’t know, man” but then the next day he said, “I was thinking about what you said. What do you think if I just did it alone, as just a solo mostly electric guitar thing?” And he played me a few things, some ideas he had, little chord progressions. And I said, “I kind of think that may be the best approach, but it’s really what you feel.” And he’s like “That’s it! I’m gonna do that, OK.” So I went back to New York and he’d send me little bits just here and there and it was all so beautiful. And then we just recorded it live to the film later in San Francisco in a big warehouse. I think Neil borrowed the Rolling Stones’ mobile sound truck or something. That was really cool. He just played over the film over a two-day period, maybe three times.
AD: Yeah I think, correct me if i’m wrong, but the Criterion version has some of that I think?
Jim Jarmusch: Yes I made a little video of it while he was recording.
AD: I wonder what the Neil plus the Nirvana rhythm section would have resulted in. But the Dead Man score is such an evocative piece and one of my favorite Neil Young things. For a long time it was hard to find it at all. I have a CD copy that I got at some point. But I think a couple years ago the Neil Young archive put it out on vinyl and I upgraded.
Jim Jarmusch: I think they’re gonna put it back out but maybe they did, I don’t know. Neil always has so many things. And of course we lost Elliot Roberts, who was irreplaceable to say the least. What a human being. That guy was incredible.
AD: You’re right though there’s so much Neil, and that’s why i’m so thankful for the archives. There’s not a lot of artists who are doing it like that, with that level of care. And that level of attention to keeping this stuff.
Jim Jarmusch: Oh man, I look up all the archive stuff almost every morning. I just check in. And then those little porch and fireside films that Daryl Hannah filmed of Neil. The little series. Those are just beautiful little jewels I think. Neil will play to some chickens or he’ll be out on the porch or by the fire. Those are just lovely films, I love those.
AD: Well I talked a little bit about how Paterson was sort of centered on routines and the rhythm of daily life. But sometimes your films are about the opposite of that: being a stranger in a strange land. Like Mystery Train, or The Dead Don’t Die, which is about the end of the world, more or less.
Jim Jarmusch: Yes, it is pretty much. I have to say it gets pretty dark, intentionally.
AD: I walked out of the theater with that one and I was so surprised by it because I guess I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but it wasn’t whatever I must have been expecting cause there’s this—it’s got this sort of B movie horror genre thing happening but then there’s like this Looney Toons charm that’s in the mix. With all of that though, I get the sense that the dread that sort of pulses through the movies is very real and very serious as well. The sense that things are going very sideways in our world. And clearly we saw that with the pandemic. But you could see it before the pandemic too, the apocalypse.
Jim Jarmusch: Well we could see it with the climate crisis very clearly in 1970s. So come on, for 50 years at least, we’ve been denying it forever. I don’t know what happened. That film, The Dead Don’t Die, I’m proud of the film because it has a very weird balance. I think it’s funny and it wasn’t intended to be, a lot of horror people don’t like it and I understand because the last thing I wanted to do was make a horror film where tension builds tension builds tension builds…and here comes the monster! That’s not what we were trying to do at all. We were trying to make a kind of silly strange comedy that ends in a kind of dread and darkness. I don’t want to analyze it, I don’t know what to say about it really. It was very very hard to make. That film was traumatic just physically to pull off. I always move on. I don’t watch the films once I’m done with them. I haven’t seen Only Lovers since 2013 and I haven’t seen The Dead Don’t Die for several years and nor will I ever see them again.
AD: What do you think motivates that letting go?
Jim Jarmusch: Well you just gotta move forward. I don’t like looking back, I don’t like analyzing it, I don’t wanna see the mistakes I made, I don’t wanna see how I would do it different now. We did it. Making films is very difficult. Its people who don’t make films, have no idea how hard it is. It will kick your ass. I remember Werner Herzog once telling me, “We must be like athletes because to make a film is insane and we’re out of our minds to attempt such a thing.” It’s so hard. And once you’ve done it and you’ve given it your all, I gotta walk away. They’re like my children now. They go out in the world and I can’t take care of them now. I gave you everything I had and good luck to you.
AD: I don’t want to dwell necessarily on The Dead Don’t Die but I do want to note that I’m a huge fan of Steve Buscemi and he is so funny in that movie and so deranged. He’s almost doing something that he might do in some of those Adam Sandler movies or something. Just wacky—I mean that as a compliment for sure, I’m a huge fan of his. You guys go way back right?
Jim Jarmusch: Oh yeah we go way back to the late ’70s, we’ve been friends. He lives near me some of the time in the Catskills way up here so I get to see him. I just love Steve always, I’ve always been in love with Steve, he’s just the best. And he’s such a great actor. But we had a funny thing while we were shooting The Dead Don’t Die. Somebody said to him, because he’s wearing that pseudo MAGA hat and somebody said, “Steve what if people come up to you in a restaurant or something and give you shit about that hat?” and he said, “No I’m worried they’re gonna come up to me and say ‘we’re having a meeting. Wanna join?’” Steve was saying: I’m more worried about that!
AD: So you guys were sort of in the same no wave thing?
Jim Jarmusch: Oh, yeah yeah. I used to see Steve perform with Mark Boone Junior in these clubs in the Lower East Side. Before Steve had even been in a film, they did this kind of weird comedy duo skit stuff that was very dark and strange and hilarious. And yeah we had John Lurie and Rockets Redglare. And then Steve was a bartender…where we used to hang out. I think both Mark Boone and Steve were bartenders there. We go way back, Steve. And then Jo Andres, his wife unfortunately we lost, was an incredible artist and choreographer and filmmaker. So the two of them were always fascinating people.
AD: You’ve always been very open about drawings inspiration from wherever it may present itself. Was that an ethos that you can tie back to those early days. Was that something you feel you might have picked up on from the spirit of the time and carried that forward.
Jim Jarmusch: Sorry, what?
AD: The sort of early days of no wave
Jim Jarmusch: No—carried what through? Sorry, that was such a stoner response.
AD: It’s probably a response to some stoner question, too. What I was sort of asking was…
Jim Jarmusch: Oh, the openness of things?
AD: Just sort of being inspired.
Jim Jarmusch: I think honestly it comes from my mom and her mom, my grandmother. My mom was a writer and a film reviewer, before she got married, for the Akron Beacon Journal. But my mom and my grandmother were always very open to all forms of expression. My grandmother was a schoolteacher with no money, but she used to refinish furniture in her basement and trade it to gypsies and these Persian drug dealers who would come in a van, smoking these black cigars. And she was very open to lots of strange appreciations of things. My grandmother used to cut images out of magazines of famous paintings and then used to frame them up. So she had little Rembrandts that she put in a nice frame she got in a garage sale or whatever. But very highly aesthetic. And they were always very open to different forms. My mom told me she got to see Artie Shaw play once, she got to meet Roy Rogers. She covered the wedding of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, because they got married in Ohio. She got to cover it. She got to take a train to New York to talk about Marlin Brando on Broadway, before he even made movies. And she came back and wrote a review of him as having animal magnetism or something like that. And my mom loved Robert Mitchem and James Thurber. She loved renaissance painting. My grandmother, she listened to Charley Pride records in her basement while refinishing furniture. And then going upstairs and reading Proust, in a very modest time. She had no money or anything. So I think they really opened my brain when I was little. And I think my grandmother also instilled an interest in indigenous and Native American culture for me. We took a trip to Southern Ohio to see the Indian Mounds. She used to give me arrowheads for my birthday. And she got me really interested in that which is still a huge part of my soul, my interest and appreciation for Native culture in America. And all over the planet, indigenous cultures. So I think it came from them really.
AD: You mentioned making a book of collages, which I didn’t realize was the case but I’m really excited to see that eventually.
Jim Jarmusch: Oh thanks yeah. They’re very minimal. I love news prints so they’re only made of newsprints. And all I do is often replace heads or move things. But yes I love making these little collages. I try not to think when I do them, I listen to music, I always try to do them in my peaceful little studio. And I have hundreds of them. I’m a big fan of collage art, or the whole form of collage. Also how it spills into music and other forms for sure. I was thinking the other day. My collages, and my poems, and my music. They all follow a kind of similar procedure of putting things together that might not immediately seem like they go together. Like when I make music I’m gathering tracks. I’m not trying to make a structure of—except occasionally I do write songs that have a chorus, a verse, and a breakdown. But mostly I’m more avoiding that and it is related to collage. Certainly in the way that John Cage and Brian Eno and all of dub music and all of hip hop take disparate things and make something new out of them. I’m excited about my book of collages and my show coming up in the fall.
AD: That’s great and I can’t wait to check it out. Jim I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to talk with me about all this stuff. I feel like I could just keep going and going and going.
Jim Jarmusch: Well I did want to talk a little bit about the Only Lovers soundtrack.
AD: Let’s do it yeah! I love that soundtrack.
Jim Jarmusch: Because that’s coming out, it’s being re-released on friends, Sacred Bones, Caleb Braaten. Who has so many artists on their label that we love. It was originally on All Tomorrow’s Parties, ATP records. Barry and Deborah, we worked with them a lot. They put out our first Squrl EPs. They also did these really beautiful things. This is Barry Hogan and Deborah Higgins from All Tomorrow’s Parties. When Only Lovers came out they put together these events which were concerts that had White Hills. Jozef Van Wissem played solo. Zola Jesus played. Yasmine Hamdan played. And SQÜRL played, we played live shows. But they also had these rooms they recreated from the film. They’d have vampire nurses giving people little shot glasses of “blood” when you entered. They did these beautiful things and they put them on in Berlin, Cologne, London, Paris and New York. And this was ATP. And I also did a live curated All Tomorrow’s Parties. And they used to do those incredible festivals. They did it with no corporate funding. And eventually they had financial problems and our record was out of print so we took it back from them. They agreed we should take it back. But the things they did for the film. And just their imaginations, they did some incredibly beautiful things for us. So initially we were on ATP, but now we are putting it back out on Sacred Bones. And Sacred Bones put out SQÜRL’s song, we did a record, some music for Robby Müller fairly recently. They put out a kind of almost stoner metal EP that SQÜRL did called EP260. They put out a record with me and Jozef, at least one of them. We love them. They’re a fantastic label. And we’re excited we’re gonna do more things with them in the future. But I do have to mention ATP because they’ve had some trouble just financially. How could you not in this world, if you first started out avoiding corporate financing. So I don’t know what problems they had exactly but I gotta take my hats off for them for what they did for Only Lovers Left Alive. It was beautiful.
AD: It’s such an evocative soundtrack. Of all of your films, it’s almost impossible to separate the music from the films. But with Only Lovers Left Alive it’s especially difficult to do so. Because it’s all sort of this connected thing. And the variety of tones. From sort of these very spooky things to these ecstatic and beautiful things. It’s just a great thing. And of course you have that incredible version of “Funnel of Love.”
Jim Jarmusch: Well I’m a huge Wanda Jackson fan and I’ve always loved that song so much. I got to see Wanda Jackson once at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas, years ago. Where Elvis used to play. A really cool little club. But it was really funny because that’s Madeline Follin from Cults and Shane Stoneback, he brought her in and made her stay in the studio like one whole night long. Making her drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes—her voice got kind of damaged. But she is such a sweetheart to do that for us. And what a beautiful version. And Shane put that version together and got Madeline in there. Jozef got Zola Jesus to do something on that one track. And of course we have Yasmine Hamdan, incredible Yasmine Hamdan, doing a track. So we liked the idea because the movie takes place in Detroit and Tangier and it’s about the past history of human expression. It’s kind of weighing old things and new things. And so having Jozef’s lute with our molten guitar approach and drums, it was really a pleasure to see how these things intersected intuitively together. Carter Logan, Jozef, and Shane and I were really the elements of SQÜRL at that time and Carter and I continue.
AD: Well it sounds like there’s plenty of interesting stuff forthcoming [from] you, moving ahead. I appreciate it. Before we go though I do want to ask one last question. In Down by Law, Tom Waits—Lee Baby Sims, that’s his DJ persona. Now…I decided that I don’t want to ask you this because it might be ruining something fun. I was going to ask: in Night on Earth, we hear Tom Waits on the radio and I’ve always just assumed it’s the same DJ but I might have to cut this out of the podcast, because why ruin the mystery. I don’t know.
Jim Jarmusch: Well it’s intended to be. That you would at least make the connection to wonder. So I guess the intention was to provoke you to ask the question without really answering it.
AD: That’s perfect, that’s exactly right.
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah Tom, cause Tom had some of the stuff he had—I don’t know he knows all about patterns and stuff like that. “The records go round and round and the sound,” all that stuff.
AD: Yeah, he’s got such a great DJ voice in Down by Law. I love when he does his little demonstration.
Jim Jarmusch: Did you ever listen to the radio shows that Bob Dylan hosted. He had his own radio show, what was it called?
AD: Theme Time Radio Hour.
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah, yeah, and one time he introduced a record by saying “Some say that this singer’s voice sounds like a bowl full of rusted nails. But I say it sounds beautiful. Here he is, Tom Waits.” Then he played a Tom track. It was so good.
AD: That sounds about right. Jim, thank you so much for talking. I mean it. It’s a huge honor. It’s really great to have you on the show.
Jim Jarmusch: Jason, it’s been really fun. We talked a lot, I don’t know what we talked about but…
AD: It was all good.
Jim Jarmusch: Oh, White Hills. Did I mention they were part of our tour too, you know that we did in supporting the film? They appear in Only Lovers Left Alive.
AD: How about we play a little of one of their songs on the way out?
Jim Jarmusch: Excellent. I love them. Thank you so much. Good luck with all you do, it’s greatly appreciated.
AD: Thank you so much Jim. I appreciate it and I appreciate you taking the time. Hopefully we’ll speak again at some point.
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