Jim Jarmusch & Jozef van Wissem
How cinema's Mr Cool made an LP with a renegade lutenist
Jim Jarmusch could be the last artisan spirit in cinema. He owns the negatives of his films, sources the funding himself and retains full creative control. Since making his name with neo-beat-noir-comedies Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986), Jarmusch has proven that film can captivate even without plot tension, predictable structure or pacing, that audiences can be mesmerised by seemingly trivial, in-between moments other directors would leave out. But Jarmusch hates being pinned down by terms or wrestled into categories.
Speaking from his production office in lower Manhattan’s Bowery neighbourhood, he repeatedly describes himself as anti-analytical, claiming he prefers not to look back and that superstition keeps him from talking about the future. But music is different. With every film, he uses specific sounds to feed his imagination, conjuring a backdrop for the fictitious world he wants to capture. The aim, he says, is to recreate the kind of atmosphere “you can inhale just by listening to a three-and-a-half-minute song”.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Mystery Train, Night On Earth and Coffee And Cigarettes resemble albums: hypnotic strings of vignettes that follow a bebop rhythm. The casts are lined with musicians (Tom Waits, Joe Strummer, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Iggy Pop, John Lurie, Wu-Tang, The White Stripes), exuding self-conscious cool and trading in offhand, deadpan colour. There are original scores composed by icons (Neil Young, RZA, Tom Waits) and soundtracks carefully compiled as mixtapes.
Unsurprisingly, Jarmusch, 59, is also a musician. In the early eighties, before becoming a director, he was part of New York ‘No Wave’ band The Del-Byzanteens, and segments of 2009’s The Limits Of Control were scored by his “slo-motion psychedelic rock’n’roll” band, Bad Rabbit (now renamed Sqürl). Yet until now, he has never released an album.
Back in 2006, Jarmusch bumped into someone on the street who handed him a CD. It was Dutch minimalist composer Jozef van Wissem, a punk-like figure within the classical world who’s determined to liberate the lute from its stuffy image. Entranced by the beauty of van Wissem’s contemplative craft, Jarmusch asked him to score his next feature film (currently in pre-production), the “crypto-vampire love story” Only Lovers Left Alive. But when Jarmusch played guitar on a track for van Wissem’s acclaimed but overlooked The Joy That Never Ends last year, the collaboration blossomed into an album.
Limited to 500 copies on vinyl and 1,000 on CD (with no digital release), Concerning The Entrance Into Eternity sees the drone of Jarmusch’s electric guitar conversing with the sparse, palindromic melodies of van Wissem’s lute. It’s a meditative listen that sucks you into a flow where, as with everything in Jarmusch’s abstract world, the trip is more important than any intended destination.
Jim, you’re used to complete control over your projects, so how does this differ?
JJ: I’m more the navigator of the ship when I’m making a film. I write the script that emanates from ideas I have but as soon as we’re working, the films are collaborative at every point. So there are parts that are similar in that way because when you make a character with an actor, as a director you’re hoping it will be elevated above what either of you do would do alone.
Do the songs have meaning to you or are they more about moods and a state of mind?
JJ: Mmwahhhh. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘meaning’. What does music mean? I don’t know how to answer that. They certainly have a kind of emotional texture to me. They definitely have a feeling about them, so they suggest things but… I don’t know what they mean. I don’t know what films or other things I like mean. Often I’ve no idea.
Well, do they make you think of specific things or take you to a certain place?
JJ: Yeah. I forget which poet said it — maybe E.E. Cummings — but you can understand a poem without knowing what it means. I sort of feel that way about music in general, but especially about our music.
JVW: It can mean different things to different people. You don’t tell people what to think about your art; you want them to use their imagination. But I think it’s also a dialogue between history and modern day, with this old instrument — the lute — and the electric guitar.
JJ: Both Jozef and I like old things, whether it’s old texts like Blake and Swedenborg, or music by [Henry] Purcell, William Byrd or [John] Dowland. But then we like modern classical music and, of course, rock’n’roll, blues, so-called ‘shoegaze’ and ‘avant-rock’, as well as electronic music. It’s an obvious thing when you have this old instrument, with what the lute sounds like and evokes, and then an electric instrument from the 20th century that’s associated with totally different kinds of music. But they fit together really well because we’re not really hierarchical about that… our interests go in both directions at the same time.
Speaking of Swedenborg and Blake — Jozef, you’re a fan of the former and Jim, you’re more into the latter. Where’s the common ground in terms of your interest in the mystic?
JJ: Well, it’s funny — I don’t know. We don’t… Eeeaaaghhhhh… I don’t know how to answer that. It’s just very interesting perceptions and perspectives, those two examples, of things that are very mystical and, in the case of Swedenborg’s interests, Gnostic. But both of them were against any organised religion or didactically telling people what to believe. They were interested in the mysterious parts of things, including spirituality or whatever that is.
JVW: My personal thing with Swedenborg, being from Holland myself, is the fact he travelled to Amsterdam and had an apparition there after which he claimed to be able to talk to angels, spirits and ghosts. The lute trance ritual that gets conjured during concerts relates to that as well.
Also at some point I came across his sentence “concerning the entrance into eternity”. Looking for a title for the record, it sort of alluded to vampires, I felt — as vampires live forever — only to eerily find out that these were his last words on his deathbed. Swedenborg is still quite obscure, unlike Blake, who is in every bookstore, so there’s also that. I would like people to take note of him.
Would you say you have a musician’s approach to filmmaking?
JJ: I know that I love the connection: film is very related to music, for me. I try not to analyse what I do because it just confuses me, but I’m certainly appreciative of how music has its own rhythm, it passes before you, it has its own time signature, it lasts as long as it lasts, it carries you with it. It’s not like reading a book, it’s not like looking at a painting – neither is film. So they’re definitely very connected; they always have been for me.
But you know and work with a lot of musicians, so what do you think the nature of that affinity is?
JJ: I just think it’s the purest, most beautiful form of human expression. It’s immediate, intuitive, emotional. That’s very important to me. It’s kind of what keeps me going, keeps my spirit going. I mean I read books and watch a lot of movies, so I’m into a lot of forms but music is the most essential, somehow, to me. I don’t know why.
When you meet or befriend musicians that you admire, do you ever feel in awe or think, ‘this person’s on another level’?
JJ: Oh yeah, certainly. I have friends that are way on another level, like Iggy Pop, for example. That’s someone who is a master of their form! And a revolutionary of their form. I know the Wu-Tang Clan and Tom Waits and Neil Young and lots of incredibly amazing musicians, but I’m often in awe of filmmakers or writers or anyone whose work I love. I’m impressed by what they do and I can’t help but be moved to meet them sometimes.
Comparisons to the Dead Man soundtrack are popping up in reviews, which seems a bit lazy. The only parallel I can see is a sort of transcendental quality to the music. What do you think?
JJ: Well there’s that and there’s also that rawness or molten-ness to the guitar I like which certainly Neil [Young] uses sometimes. But there are a lot of guitarists I love that would maybe come into my mind before Neil: the slowness of… I don’t know.
Thurston Moore, maybe?
JJ: Yeah, Lee Ranaldo… but also Dylan Carlson from Earth or even Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson from Sunn O))), or Sleep’s earlier stuff with Matt Pike; the kind of hazy, experimental stuff I love by like Loren Connors, Kevin Shields or Dexter Romweber from Flat Duo Jets. Then I like the thickness of Jesus and Mary Chain or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the fuzzy tone of… I don’t know. There are so many sounds! But yeah, it seems a little easy just to say, [in silly voice] ‘Oh, Jarmusch — Dead Man. Uh, yeah! Thick, molten guitar? Must be like Neil Young then.’ So, yeah, it’s a connection but there are a lot more pertinent ones.
JMV: I think your guitar sounds more like new music.
JJ: Hmm. Well, the stuff when I’m with you, maybe. I’m in another band with Carter Logan and Shane Stoneback called Sqürl: S-Q-U-R-L. We have enough recorded for a few albums that are supposedly coming out somewhere soon but it’s not quite finalised. It’s a little more melodically structured, some of it has vocals; we even do slow covers of some old country songs that are kind of molten-ly psychedelic. It’s a bit different but there’s a similar sound in there: a slow, sludgy centre to it.
Jozef, you describe yourself as an outlaw figure and Jim, you’ve said you prefer to be on the margins and are wary of your work getting too good a response, so how do you feel about all the positive attention?
JJ: It’s not like we’re in the mainstream or anything so I think we’re still riding down low on the outlaw path through the forest. We’re not really on the main highway there. It’s nice that we get nice reviews, though.
JVW: By ‘outlaw’, what I meant is that the function of the musician, I feel, is to go against contemporary society and authority. Artists should go against everything that’s wrong with the world. In that sense, musicians and artists should have a political function. The lute as an instrument is also anti-contemporary society, it’s totally anti-computer age; it denounces all that stuff you don’t need by being so pure. I want to bring the instrument to a wider audience. I want to take it out of the museum and put the sex back into the lute…
In the golden age, lutenists would travel on horseback to foreign countries to play, so local styles were mixed. [It was] quite a tribal experience: omnipresent in bars, at court and in all layers of society. So why would it be for an elite now? It’s a perfect instrument, it deserves to be taken seriously. And that’s pissing off the purists.
JJ: Lute musicians were often like travelling blues musicians in the way we think of Robert Johnson: just moving around itinerantly and living a wild life, playing music to get food and a place to stay. That tradition is still in Jozef but he’s also a bit of an outlaw in using this ancient instrument to do something different to, say, Sting or somebody who plays the lute like, “isn’t it pretty that I can play these old tunes on it?”
A lot of lutenists only play an existing repertoire. It’s pretty rare for them to make their own new music. If they do, it’s often kind of cute and harkening back to some other form appreciated by that sort of old timey… That’s not what Jozef does. He knows the history of the instrument and loves it, but he’s taking it somewhere away from that conservative traditionalism.
So that’s sort of a rebel approach, as I see it. I’ve known Jozef for years and often he’s just travelling. It’s like, ‘Oh, there he goes — off by himself with his lute, hoping he’ll get a place to sleep and paid enough to eat’. [laughs] It’s not quite like that anymore.
JVW: I tried to recommend that lifestyle to Jim but he wasn’t going for it. [laughter]
Do you ever get the feeling that something you created has become bigger than you?
JVW: I think when you’re making music, whatever the source of it is, you’re channelling something, so it certainly feels bigger than you in that way. You’re opening yourself up to what’s around you. The most difficult thing in music is to write a melody, like a memorable melody that sticks in your head, yet that always comes immediately. And if you think too much about it, it’s already gone. I feel like that stuff comes from somewhere and you don’t always have control over it. In that way, it’s much bigger than you.
But when you put something out there, does it feel like it has a life of its own and it’s no longer this thing you made?
JJ: Oh yeah, I always feel that way. When it’s out there, it’s no longer really mine anymore and I don’t want to see it again. I did my best and if I analyse it again years later… well, I don’t want to do that because I can’t change it. If there are things I did which I don’t like, they’re very valuable because I learn from them. But I don’t want to whip myself by seeing them again and I also don’t want to sit around gloating over things that worked really well because often why they worked is mysterious also.
JVW: That might not help new work be better.
JJ: Yeah, I’m anti-analytical. [laughter]. I don’t want to analyse anything I do. It’s not my job. I don’t know what they mean! I don’t know where they come from. So the less I try to think about it, the more I’m sort of protecting the source of it — and I don’t even know what that is.
So when you’re improvising and everything is flowing perfectly, what do you think you’re tapping into? Is it channelling the subconscious or something else?
JJ: For me, I don’t know. I’m listening and reacting; it’s almost like we’re weaving something together… I’m trying to respond emotionally through the instrument somehow, with limited technique on my part. Jozef’s pieces are sometimes very minimal, but evocative — they feel like beautifully precise drawings or sketches to me. I just paint in the background: like the trees and the clouds.
Sometimes, at least people have said, it’s like the guitar is acting out — not in a negative way but in an unruly, wild way — and the lute is a wiser voice that’s talking to the more childlike voice. Bah! I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Other people have said that. [laughter] I read it a couple of times and kind of liked it but I’m not exactly sure.
Your career took shape in late-seventies New York, where expression was prioritised over virtuosity. Does that still apply to a project like this?
JJ: Well, it still applies to what I respond to in general, you know? I think technique is fantastic but technique doesn’t mean shit if you’re not expressing something with it. It’s just a delivery system. Some people have techniques that are completely unconventional, like the guitarist Loren Connors. You can watch him and not even know how the hell he’s doing it.
I appreciate different kinds of techniques, particularly oddball things — like when I read that Marc Ribot likes to throw uncooked rice on his pickups and strings [laughs]. I don’t think they’re going to teach you that at the Berkeley College of Music. Technique is variable but what’s important is what’s delivered and that’s true for me whether it’s a painting or a film or a piece of music.
JVW: My work is still idiomatic to baroque and renaissance lute technique — I studied lute in New York with Pat O’Brien. I make use of it but, again, it’s more difficult to come up with a great, simple melody than to play a lot of notes. So one has to study the technique and then throw it out. As a composer I believe it’s important to emulate one’s roots and not just to imitate foreign examples; only this way can you come [up] with something personal and original.
JJ: Man, you can go on YouTube and look up hundreds of kids that can shred their ass off! [laughter] Some of them can play like Steve Vai — they can really wail, but very rarely does it mean anything to me. Occasionally it does, but it’s very unusual because it’s just like, ‘hey, I can do this!’ Well, so what? I can lean my guitar against an amp and kick it and it’s going to go: MMWEEAAAANGGG. Maybe that’s more interesting to me, I don’t know.
Will Oldham argues that a film score inherently trumps using pre-released songs in movies, claiming the latter [in the case of Wes Anderson] is like hearing the director’s iPod on shuffle. What do you think of that argument?
JJ: It’s a very open-ended thing; I don’t think there’s one answer to that. Some people make beautiful scores out of existing music that echoes that period. For example, Goodfellas by Scorsese. When he kicks in with ‘Layla’ or some track that has an emotional resonance from its time, it’s adding a layer to the film, or if people in the film are listening to Booker T. and the MG’s, that can be very moving.
I scored most of Broken Flowers with music from Mulatu Astatke, the Ethio-jazz whatever-they-call-him genius. That was existing music recorded in the seventies; I didn’t go have him make me a score. On other films I’ve made I’ve had original scores from Tom Waits and Neil Young, so I think it depends on the film and how you’re using it. I don’t think you can make a definitive generalisation like that. It could work either way.
I could take existing music from the 12 or however many records Jozef has and make a beautiful score out of that with just a small part of it. I could take four or five pieces he’s already written for some other reason and I bet I could find the right place in the film and make them work beautifully. But I think it’d be more fun, since he’s already done them, to ask him to make some new ones. [laughs] But it can work the other way, I’m convinced of that.
It seems as though the only films with artistic merit these days are the ones that don’t have a lot of money behind them.
JJ: Well, man, it seems to be that way these days! [laughs] Shit, it’s really hard to get the money out there. I’ve been struggling for a few years to get this film made that I’m working toward now. It’s a drag… I don’t know what’s happening, frankly.
It’s a totally different thing to what it was three or five years ago. I worry less about people who want to make raw things on their own, but I worry about the Terry Gilliams of the world: people who need things at their disposal to realise their vision and, man, it’s bleak.
But mainstream culture has always been favoured. It’s always been given precedence throughout history. For me, the interesting shit has always been in the margins. So, you know, there’s nothing really new about it in the end. If you see the kind of rock’n’roll or hip-hop acts that are on late night TV shows… you know, they’re so mainstream.
I have a joke that I’m always saying: if they were any good they wouldn’t be on mainstream TV. So how good can they really be? I don’t know. But that’s a really stupid generalisation, too. Sometimes things get huge and they actually are amazing, like Nirvana or something. They actually deserve it, but it’s kinda rare.