Jim Jarmusch is best known as an American filmmaker, with titles such as the Caméra d’Or winner Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Broken Flowers, and Mystery Train establishing him as a cinematic force with a penchant for high drama and deadpan humor. Born in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, Jarmusch came to New York to study literature and film. While filmmaking is a passion, Jarmusch has a deep curiosity and a seemingly inexhaustible well of creativity that cannot be contained by one medium. He is also a screenwriter, a poet, a collage artist, and, as will become clear in our conversation, a voracious reader and beaver enthusiast. His musical endeavors with his band, SQÜRL, have been taking up much of his time lately.
Jarmusch and producer and musician Carter Logan formed SQÜRL in 2009 to score Jarmusch’s film The Limits of Control. They favor heavy percussion, analog synths, and distorted guitars layered into ambient textures, effecting a dreamy, hypnotic atmosphere that, aptly, feels cinematic. After creating music together for over a decade, including numerous EPs and film scores, SQÜRL has now released its first full-length record, Silver Haze. The album was produced by Randall Dunn, who has worked with heavy ambient and boundary-pushing acts including Sunn O))) and Zola Jesus. To add another layer to their wall of sound, the band brought in actor-singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, singer-poet Anika, and guitarist Marc Ribot as collaborators. The result is a mesmerizing album that is understated and moody, an immersive experience that feels like a trip into another world. It’s challenging and rewarding, an effect not dissimilar to that of watching one of Jarmusch’s movies.
I. Gym Socks and Weed
THE BELIEVER: When I interviewed you back in 2014 for The Guardian, you said you were going to put out an album “eventually.” So it’s now 2023. I guess “eventually” is nine years?
JIM JARMUSCH: [Laughing] Yeah, I guess so. People keep asking, “Why an album, now?” We don’t have an answer. We don’t have a master plan. And we do other things. We have other projects. Carter plays in another excellent band called Leathered. I do musical projects with other people. And, of course, we do film things. Also, I find it kind of funny—or interesting, maybe—how the format of these things is arbitrary. Well, not arbitrary. A feature film is ninety minutes to two and a half hours, because that’s the turnover in the theaters for making a profit, right? Why are albums a certain number of songs? That’s what would fit on a vinyl record. Why is the single a certain length? It’s for radio play. So all these things to me are kind of ridiculous, especially now, when you can release a film of any length, streaming-wise. Or you can release music of any length. Personally, I love an EP because I like the length of them and I like making them, too, because it’s a little more control. But anyway, we were ready to make an album. We had a lot of material, we had been talking with [producer] Randall Dunn, who we love and who’s worked with a lot of people we are inspired by, so it just sort of happened. So we did the album…
BLVR: When we spoke before, you said you love EPs, so I was a little surprised about a full-length.
JJ: Yeah, I was a little surprised too! But it was fun to do. We had enough stuff where we could have done a whole album of songs with vocals, or we could have done a whole album of instrumental things, or we could have done a whole album with guests reciting texts over musical landscapes that we’d created. We just worked with Randall and played him a lot of stuff we had, and he helped us navigate toward this thing called an album.
BLVR: Since you have so many songs, do you feel like you are going to do more albums?
JJ: I don’t know: maybe. But it may be, you know, fifteen years. [Laughs] There may be some EPs in between. I hope. I still love that format.
But, you know, we’re not twenty years old, and we’re not going to conquer the world with our rock-and-roll band. That’s just not the case. We are artists doing different things, and our music is important to us, and we spend a lot of time doing it. We’ve done scores for films. Carter and I just did a kind of exhausting tour of Europe where we played our live scores to the surrealist films of Man Ray from one hundred years ago. We’ve been involved in those films being restored, and they will hopefully be released with our score at some point. So we take the music seriously. We work at it, but we do other things too.
BLVR: Because you are both artists, and not totally beholden to the structures of a classic album, did you consider doing a double album or a massive box set or something?
JJ: We kind of deferred to Randall on that one. We sort of treated him like our navigator, because we really trust him, and he was kind of our guide in shaping these things. But we played him a lot of music, and then he helped us focus down to this silver haze.
BLVR: Randall Dunn worked with Sunn O))), who you referenced as an inspiration.
JJ: Yes, he did.
BLVR: I saw them at Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, and that is the loudest concert I have ever been to in my life.
JJ: I have special earplugs that reduce the decibels rather than dampening the music, which I acquired only after maybe the third time seeing them. Swans are pretty fucking loud too. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them live.
BLVR: I haven’t, but I have been in the front row of a Slayer concert, and I low-key thought I was gonna die.
JJ: I saw Slayer once at Irving Plaza [in New York City] many years ago, and the entire ground floor was the mosh pit. It was wild.
BLVR: Congratulations on surviving that!
JJ: It was crazy. I was with my girlfriend. And I took her there as a surprise without telling her what band we were going to see. And then she said, “Oh my god, we better go on the balcony. This is terrifying.” We went upstairs, and she was one of the very few females in the whole place too. It was kind of strange.
BLVR: I have been at shows like that at Irving Plaza.
JJ: The whole place smells like gym socks or something.
BLVR: I believe that’s gym socks and weed. I feel like this is sort of a loaded term, but is this a concept album?
JJ: Not to my knowledge. I’m not quite sure what the concept would be.
BLVR: I asked because the press materials for the album came with a very long list of things that you like and dislike, including things like insects and animals and oscillation.
JJ: Yeah, we just tried to put together a list of things rather than just do the traditional Jim and Carter met while creating music for a film, blah, blah, blah. Of course, in the end, I think they gave you something like that too. We just wanted something a little less formulaic for people to read. Some sort of random thoughts about our inspirations in general. We’re not really interested in explaining things. We don’t really analyze ourselves. I have that a lot with my films too. People ask me what things mean, and I have no idea! When you make a film, it’s like two years later that people are asking you about it, and you’re not even the same person. It’s sort of the same with a record. It’s hard for me, in particular, to talk about things I created, because I’m not analytical. I need to protect a kind of mystery for myself.
II. Plato’s Cave
BLVR: I read an interview where you said it was hard for you to appreciate your own films because of the process of creating them and the time lag before they’re released. Do you feel the same way about your music?
JJ: In a way, but a bit less for several reasons. One, I’m very involved in the music and in its creation, but I’m collaborating on a little more of a basic level with other people. In a film, I’m collaborating with a lot of people to realize it, but I’m sort of the captain of the ship, because I wrote it, I cast it, I will be in the editing room. But I can never see it again for the first time. That’s impossible because of how it’s created. The beauty of films is they are like a dream that you enter, and unless you’ve seen it before, you don’t know where it’s taking you. Music is similar, although music is less dependent on an image or a narrative, so it’s even more abstract and beautiful in a way. But it doesn’t take as long to create. That’s a difference. I’m sorry; I’m not being very articulate. There’s a difference and a similarity and I’m not making them very clear. They’re not very clear to me, I guess.
BLVR: I found the quote that I was referring to. You said, “The beauty of cinema is that you’re basically walking into Plato’s Cave.” I really have to applaud you on just casually dropping Plato’s Cave into the conversation.
JJ: [Laughs] Right. Plato’s Cave: they’re just projecting shadows on a wall. And really, if aliens came down from another world, they would think, Wow, you spend all this time with this equipment, these machines, to capture and imitate reality, and then you bring people into a dark cave and show them these images projected, which are sort of imitating what’s just outside the cave. [Cracking up] It’s a ridiculous thing, if you look at it from a kind of overview. But, I don’t know, I love making films and watching them, and I love making music.
BLVR: So if aliens came down to Earth—after they finished judging the existence of filmmaking—what kind of music would you want to play for them? Do you think SQÜRL or Sunn O))) would be a great option for them?
JJ: Oh gosh. Well, I’d certainly play Bach to them immediately, because the repetition and variation are such beautiful things. As for rock and roll, I don’t know. I’d probably play some blues: Robert Johnson or maybe Muddy Waters. I’d play them some sort of avant-garde or more experimental jazz, maybe Ornette Coleman. I’d want to play them something, you know, orchestral: maybe Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony or something like that. And then I would try to play them some country songs or pop songs. Maybe some African or Ethiopian music, and then a Merle Haggard song or something. I would want to show them how we have this diversity of music on the planet that is so beautiful—maybe some Indian classical music and sitar to see how they reacted to those vibrations, you know. That would be a fun project! Send them to my house if you encounter them.
BLVR: I would go full Eurovision, just as a great symbol of all people coming together.
JJ: Um, yeah. Send them to my house, although I remember William Burroughs saying something like [slips into William Burroughs’s voice] “We have no reason to believe these aliens would be benevolent in any way.” Who knows. I’d be wary.
BLVR: That was an excellent William Burroughs impression!
JJ: Thank you. I worked on a really good film, a documentary called Burroughs, made by Howard Brookner, and he and I were the two-man crew for quite a long time, just hanging out with Burroughs in the late ’70s. If you want to watch that film, it’s on Criterion.
BLVR: Do you ever find you’re on an airplane, thinking, You know, I haven’t caught up on all the Twilight films? Do you watch mass-market movies, or do you tend to only watch obscure Indian dramas?
JJ: No, I’m not hierarchical. I have my preferences, but because I really, deeply love the craft of filmmaking, I, of course, like masterful filmmakers’ work. But I watch all kinds of stuff. On a plane recently I watched Cruella. I love the Naked Gun movies because they’re so stupid. I’m sort of amazed by the John Wick movies, just by how many people he can kill. I haven’t seen the Twilight movies. And I have particular things I will never see. I will never see any Star Wars films, because I resent that I know so much about them and the characters. Why is all that in my head when I’ve never actually seen one, you know? Why do I know about R2-D2 and Darth Vader and all these things when I’ve never even seen any Star Wars film? I’ve never seen Gone with the Wind and I never will, just because I feel like it’s forced on me and it’s some kind of corny thing.
But these are very subjective, just kind of stubborn things on my part. I don’t like mass things being shoved on me, but I will go see them. Like The Terminator is a masterpiece of cinema. It’s a big action movie, essentially. So I don’t really differentiate. But I have to tell you one thing I hate—and you can just do a little test yourself: watch any recent action-oriented movie and look for any shot that’s more than three seconds long. I find that really insulting and shit filmmaking: like they have to keep it moving every three seconds. And that’s the longest they’ll leave a shot on! And then cut. One second, cut! Two seconds, cut! Three seconds, cut! Man, I get a headache. I just turn it off. I’m like, Come on, man, go to film school! Watch something! Go read a book! Look at a painting! Look at something. This is nonsense. I can’t stand that.
BLVR: Guess they should go watch Birdman to get inspired.
JJ: Yeah, or just watch something that’s not a formula like that.
BLVR: Well, the only thing you need to watch in the Twilight movies is the clip where the vampires are playing baseball. You can google it. Truly a masterpiece.
One of the things that popped out to me in your SQÜRL press materials was that you thought a lot of visual artists were musical, and musical artists were visual. And I wanted to sort of explore that with you, because you mentioned my great uncle Mark Rothko, who’s not known for his musical taste, so I was intrigued.
JJ: I believe in this kind of aesthetic synesthesia, where certain things suggest something else to your senses. Rothko’s a great example because his work is meditative. You can go into another place under the influence of a visual thing like that. And of course, there’s the beautiful piece of music “Rothko Chapel” that Morton Feldman created, inspired by the paintings or the feeling of them or that kind of meditative place you could go. So we put that in there because we love when certain things suggest another form like that. Or you smell something and you think of a color. It really speaks to me when the work of painters or musicians suggests another form. I don’t know how to explain it any more than the openness of that kind of synesthesia.
III. The Hospitality of Beavers
BLVR: In addition to filmmaking and music, you make collages. Are there more creative outlets that you have?
JJ: Yeah, I write poems. For a long time, I studied with Kenneth Koch. The New York School of Poets are kind of my godfathers throughout everything I make—movies as well. That’s why I’m so happy we have these John Ashbery poems on Silver Haze. I’m preparing a new series of collages. I have one book of collages that I put out and I’m working on a new little book. It’s not quite ready. I am going to have a show in Paris, and then I’m going to have a show of my collages next year in LA. They’re all very small and sort of unassuming and very minimal. So yeah: films, music, collages. I write poems; I write essays, sort of; and sort-of prose poems. I do a lot of writing as well. Not like elaborate fiction projects. I’m not writing a novel or anything like that. But I love poems, too, because like in music, the spaces in between sort of accumulate into the overall thing. And my collages are very minimal. And they’re about reappropriating images and reduction, and removing things and substituting things—very minor ways of altering your perception of the visual image. I like a lot of things. Not just art. I’m an amateur mycologist: I’ve been trying to learn mushroom identification for twenty years now. I observe birds and animals and try to learn about different types of moss, of which there are so many varieties. For a while I just was obsessed with the history of motorcycle design, especially European and Japanese. I get sucked into tangents because I’m really a kind of dilettante. I don’t consider that a negative thing. There’re so many things that are interesting to me that I can’t imagine not being kind of scatterbrained, in a way.
BLVR: Do you sleep?
JJ: I sleep! I sleep and then I wake up sort of vibrating. Like I’m reading this book called Beaverland, about the history of beavers in North America, their behavior—well, everything about them. It’s incredible!
BLVR: That sounds incredible, but maybe a bad thing to google?
JJ: [Laughs] Well, yeah. I hope this isn’t inappropriate, but beavers have two layers of fur. The outer layer is thick. The amount of hair on one square inch of a beaver is more than on a human head. So they have this layer of very thick fur that is waterproof and very warm. Underneath it they have an incredibly soft layer of fur, which is what people would use to make beaver hats. They used it for clothing and things. But it’s also where the slang word beaver for females comes from: because of this incredible softness of beavers.
BLVR: Well, I’m from the Beaver State, so all beaver facts are a go for me.
JJ: OK, good. I thought that was a beautiful fact, that that feminine softness of the inner fur suggested that slang.
BLVR: And have you gotten to the part about beaver butts and vanilla yet?
JJ: No, I’ve just started reading about their castor glands.
BLVR: Well, spoiler, but that’s where artificial vanilla scent can come from.
JJ: Yeah, I’m just starting that part. Man, that’s so bizarre. Another cool thing about beavers is that in the winter, sometimes other animals will come into the beavers’ dam, or home. And instead of the beavers considering them invaders, the beavers accept them as guests. When they go out to gather food for their beaver families, they even bring extra food to their guests. I mean, it’s just so cool! They are just so busy and then they are thinking, Well, I’m working anyway. I might as well bring some home for the guests too. They’re also very funny and they play games. I’m so fed up with human centrism, you know?
BLVR: I know! You mentioned that you are interested in mycology. Did you happen to watch The Last of Us?
JJ: The Last of Us? No.
BLVR: It’s an HBO series. And it’s not really a spoiler, because it’s in the first three seconds, but a mushroom—or fungus, rather—takes over. And while it’s not a particularly hopeful show, I was hopeful that it could get people out of themselves and start looking more closely at the natural world. Even if it’s just at the potential that mushrooms can take over and kill us all.
JJ: Yeah, I’m gonna check it out. Mushrooms are very strange, because they’re medicinal, and also they can be poisonous. They can be psychoactive or they can kill you or they can be delicious. They are very complicated.
IV. The Score Is Better Than the Film
BLVR: We got sidetracked, but you said you do sleep occasionally, but wake up vibrating. Is that because you’re so enthused? Do the beavers inspire you with their industriousness?
JJ: No, no, it was an example that I went to sleep and I was reading about beavers and then I woke up and was like, Oh my god, I gotta read some more about beavers right away! The book is fascinating to me. But I wake up usually thinking, Oh my god, there’s music and there’s books and there’s things in the world I don’t even know about yet. There’s so many things I could learn about the natural world. I get sort of excited to have a consciousness sometimes. But, you know, sometimes I’m just depressed because I have to do my laundry and stuff like everybody else.
BLVR: Laundry is depressing. When you are inspired to create and have so many creative outlets to choose from, how do you direct that energy?
JJ: I often have things I have to focus on because they involve other people, like if I am scheduled to work on a certain thing. My favorite thing of all is to wake up, especially where I am now, upstate, where I have my little recording studio, my art room, my place I create and write and whatever. My favorite thing is to wake up and have no plan. If I have no plan for the day, I’m in ecstasy and I become very productive just because I know there is nothing I have to do. Neil Young once said to me, “You know, the best plan is no plan.” I agree with that one.
BLVR: So was the pandemic lockdown a really inspiring time for you? Did it change your life much?
JJ: It was kind of great, because I made my book of collages. I laid down a lot of the tracks that became Silver Haze. I wrote two scripts, basically. I did a lot of work. I also watched about seven or eight films every week. I did a lot of things. I was kind of relieved to not have to do any social things. There was something really good about it in a way. But also, it was very moving. And all the social unrest and Black Lives Matter was very moving to me. I felt sort of hyperemotional during that period, because everything was so strange. The world kind of just stopped. I got a lot done because I didn’t have a plan. Yeah, it was pretty good.
BLVR: Wow, that’s great. Personally, I just rewatched all the Twilight movies and did a lot of emotional eating. Not to keep throwing your words back in your face, but your press materials said that SQÜRL sometimes likes “the score better than the film.” I was thinking of Judgment Night, but were you thinking of anything in particular?
JJ: No, not really. This is not really answering that. But I get very annoyed by how music and film seem to be all, I don’t know, cut from the same ream of cloth. The world has so much diversity of music, so why do these commercial films all sound the fucking same, you know? But that’s sort of the opposite of what you’re asking. I love the fact that some scores of recent films have come not from John Williams or other traditional Hollywood kinds of shit. People like Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have made some beautiful scores for films. Trent Reznor and Atticus what’s-his-name [Ross] made some beautiful scores. I’ve watched a few films only because Nick and Warren scored them. Otherwise, I might not even have been attracted to them. The scores are very important and also sometimes extremely annoying. I don’t like it when the score is designed to tell you how to feel about everything, which is often the case. I find it sort of condescending and insulting. As someone who loves how films are made, why does the music have to tell you how to feel? It seems kind of lame.
BLVR: How do you fight against that?
JJ: First of all, whoever’s making the music, whether it’s me or it’s the RZA or Tom Waits, I don’t give them specific places to score. I don’t say, Here are the cues, I want to score here, I want melancholy music here. I don’t do that. I talk about the atmosphere of the film and encourage them—or encourage myself, if I am doing it—to make music that is derived from the feeling of the film. Then we’ll take it and play with it in the editing room and see where the film likes it. That alleviates a lot of that idea of trying to tell the audience what’s going on or how they should feel. Instead, it’s adding another landscape like painting in the sky. That, to me, makes the most beautiful music because it becomes part of the fabric of the film.
BLVR: There’s this meme of sorts where people replace an iconic soundtrack or score with something totally different—like they take the end of Dirty Dancing and add the music from The Muppet Show and it just dramatically changes it.
JJ: Yeah, that stuff is really fun, because it shows you how a visual image will absorb the music or how your brain will connect them, even though they weren’t connected initially. I remember, when I first moved to New York, there was a period where I was really interested in early jazz from the ’20s and ’30s. I used to love playing those records while looking out the window and smoking weed and watching how the world would think to the music. It was so much fun. I know it’s a kind of stoner cliché, but it was really remarkable. And it’s the same thing: you throw music on a moving image in an editing room, such divergent types of music, and then see how the image absorbs it. It’s really amusing and fun, but kind of fascinating, too, because it involves your brain accepting something, or making it connect things that weren’t designed to connect somehow. I think it’s a really kind of interesting exercise.
V. A Theory of Human Expression
BLVR: When I interviewed you back in 2014, you refused to explain the origins of the name SQÜRL. Have you changed your stance on that?
JJ: No. Because it’s available to be deciphered very easily. So I’m not going to help people decipher.
BLVR: Ugh, fine, google.com it is.
JJ: Well, I don’t know about google. But it’s findable. It’s kind of obvious. Once you find it, you’ll think, Oh shit. You know, you’ll think, Oh man, that guy. What the hell, that’s too obvious.
BLVR: You once said, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration.” Hollywood really likes to reboot things. So if people started rebooting your movies, would you be OK with that?
JJ: What does that mean, “reboot”?
BLVR: Where they basically redo your entire film but update it with a new cast or some other twist. Like if they redid Stranger Than Paradise with the High School Musical cast.
JJ: Oh yeah, I think that’d be very amusing. I have to clarify what I mean by “stealing.” I don’t condone, like, if my neighbor wrote a script and I read it and then I took his script and made a film out of it before he could. However, in my case, that’s not really a problem. If someone stole my script, they wouldn’t make the same thing I would make, you know? At the same time, it’s not cool to take something someone hasn’t realized. But if anything in the world has been realized already, I don’t see why it can’t be sampled or imitated. I don’t understand why that should be prevented. If you steal a riff from somebody and then make that the opening of “Stairway to Heaven,” which Led Zeppelin did. Led Zeppelin is a great band, but they just blatantly stole blues songs and then said they wrote them. That’s just kind of bullshit. You should credit the things you steal from. You should rejoice in them! You should say, I was inspired by this. You shouldn’t say, No, that came from me. I did that all myself. Right? That’s kind of bullshit. But I think all human expression is like waves in the ocean. And if you sample something in a hip-hop song, you’re taking it somewhere else; you’re using it as an element in something you’re making now. Nothing’s really original. There are only a small number of stories you can tell. There’s just an infinite number of ways to tell that story. So it’s not cool to take something someone else did verbatim and say you did it. That’s just lame, but anything should be free to be inspiration.
BLVR: So no copyrighting a groove?
JJ: I don’t know about copyrighting; it’s all very complicated. I’m really interested in reappropriation, meaning you take something from somewhere else and make it something else. That’s the basis of all art. Bach taught us that by his Variations. He just started varying things. And then it’s like unfolding a beautiful Fibonacci code of everything. It’s something ingrained in expression. John Lennon said something really cool. I don’t have the exact quote. But he said something like: originality comes from not quite being able to imitate your greatest inspirations. I think that’s a beautiful way of saying what I was trying to say. Like when Quentin Tarantino made his first film, Reservoir Dogs, he lifted the plot from a Hong Kong movie by director Ringo Lam called City on Fire. So I saw the film back then and I was like, Wow, he lifted that whole cloth and made it his own. That’s really cool, but is he going to tell us that? And he did… eventually. And Quentin is all about inspiration from other places. So I’m all for that. Is that stealing? No: he reappropriated something and made it into something else by using very basic elements of somebody else’s idea. That’s the basis for all kinds of creation. How many paintings in the Renaissance are there of the Madonna and Child? Does that mean somebody stole the image? Also, for me, variation and repetition are really the most beautiful things in art history, and the creation of things. Look at Rothko’s paintings: they’re variations of themselves in a way. He is like Bach to me. He can continue making these variations, and each one resonates in its own way.
BLVR: Rothko’s favorite musician was Mozart, or at least that’s what he mostly listened to.
JJ: Really interesting. I’m more of a Bach guy. Mozart is not my guy, although I greatly appreciate him. Did we talk at all about teenagers? Because they are the origins of new things in music and style and clothes and culture.
BLVR: And language.
JJ: In language! I look to teenagers, whether it’s Rimbaud and Mary Shelley or Joan of Arc or Billie Eilish or whatever. The history of rock and roll comes out of teenagers, you know? So that’s so important to me, but why am I talking about teenagers?
BLVR: Because they are so delightful?
JJ: Oh, because of Mozart! Because Mozart made a lot of that music when he was a teenager! So important.
BLVR: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Sorry if I spoiled Beaverland.
JJ: I’m also reading a great book called Camera Man [: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century], a biography of Buster Keaton, one of my cinematic heroes. It’s about him, but it’s also about all the concurrent things happening through his life in the twentieth century. It’s a really great book. So I’m alternating between them.
BLVR: Well, I guess that’s where I’ll leave you—between Buster Keaton and Beaverland.
JJ: Well, cool. Thanks for your mind and your thoughts and your consciousness.