Read Alan Licht's full transcript from his Invisible Jukebox test with Jim Jarmusch
Boris with Keiji Haino's Black "From The Distance, With Their Own Gentle Eyes Always Fixed On Us, They Are Affectionately Gazing At the Black" from Implication Flooding (Inoxia, 1998)
Jim Jarmusch: This must be Boris, but I can't identify what track it is.
Alan Licht: It's them with Keiji Haino.
JJ: Yeah... it's beautiful. Their collaborations are beautiful, I love when they play with Michio Kurihara, the guitarist, it's fantastic. And what's really remarkable, I've seen Boris live a number of times, in fact I'm going to see them this weekend at All Tomorrow's Parties in Monticello, and when they play live they're in the mode, in a way, of jazz musicians, not structurally or musically but the way they listen to what the others are doing and build on it. Each time they play something it's obviously different, every time. But I really love how focused they are on what's happening, the landscapes they're creating.
AL: I know that you've been listening to this sort of thing for the last ten years, and I've heard that Earth's album Hex Or Printing In The Infernal Method was partially inspired by Neil Young's music for Dead Man...
JJ: Oh really, I didn't know that.
AL: So it's almost a -
JJ: - circular.
AL: - appreciation. And you used Sleep in the soundtrack to Broken Flowers.
JJ: Yes, part of Dopesmoker, or Jerusalem. Yeah, I love those guys, and Om is pretty interesting too. I've never Earth live, I guess it's hard to see them, they don't tour much - it's hard to see Sunn O))), but I've been able to see them a few times - but I love these kind of visual landscapes they make, and they really inspired things for me for my film The Limits of Control, cause when I write I'm listening to things that inspire me in the direction of whatever world I'm imagining. Boris, and Sunn O))), and Earth were really instrumental in me just finding a place in my head... but I've done that before, I've done that with RZA's instrumental tracks, and Neil Young.
I have a great quote from Boris, I was talking with them, they were on tour in the States, and they told me - they speak very little English - "We go from Chicago to Seatlle." I said, "Really, did you fly?" And they said, "No, we go by van." I said "How was the trip?", and then they said, "Ok, trip was, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, ROCKY MOUNTAINS!" (laughs) That was the description of their voyage.
Gavin Bryars "Tramp and Tom Waits with Full Orchestra" from Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Point Music, 1993)
JJ: Ok, well, it's Jesus Blood?, is this the Gavin Bryars version of Jesus Blood? Now, does this have a lot of permutations in the use of Jesus Blood?, cause I know Tom Waits was...
AL: This is that version, maybe you can't quite hear him yet.
JJ: Yeah. Beautiful. [as Waits' voice comes up in the mix] Beautiful mixture of those two voices.
AL: I was wondering if you knew this piece, since in The Limits of Control there's a lot of use of variation and repetition.
JJ: Yeah, but I think there are other versions, there's one without Tom Waits...
AL: Yeah, the original version was on Obscure, Brian Eno's label. That was only twenty minutes. The actual loop comes from a documentary film. Bryars used an excerpt of the hobo singing this hymn, and looped it, and every time it goes around he adds a little bit more instrumentation. In this version, it's already been going about an hour by the time Tom comes in.
JJ: I love this other Gavin Bryars piece, The Sinking of the Titanic. Since you brought up Eno, one thing on my film [TLOC] that helped me at times was the Oblique Strategies, and actually now my friend Carter has it now on an iPhone (AL laughs). Here's a few I got when I was making the film, cause I wrote them down: "Are these sections considered transitions?" "Emphasize repetitions." "Look closely at the most interesting details and amplify them." (laughs) Which is exactly what we were doing, so it was like reassurance, in a way. Those were really helpful to me, and they still are.
AL: Eno did Discreet Music, which used a loop also - one that was actually played at half-speed, which I know you did with Javenese gamelan music in Permanent Vacation.
JJ: Yes. You're one of two people that know that (laughter). I
just read that those guys from Bang On A Can were doing live
versions, with instruments, of Music for Airports, or some
of those pieces that were purely tape generated. I heard it was
beautiful, I want to see it. And I just got the re-release of
Robert Fripp and Eno's No Pussyfooting, where they give
you an extra disc where they just had the two tracks in reverse.
AL: With Tom, had you seen him in other films before you started working with him?
JJ: I hadn't seen him in anything before I worked with him as an actor. I've seen him a lot since, he was in that film with Jack Nicholson that was in Buffalo [Ironweed, 1987], Robert Altman's Short Cuts, but those were all after Down By Law.
AL: You've used a lot of singers in your films, were you aware that he had done some acting?
JJ: Not really, I just asked if he was interested, and he said he had done a little, and he was interested, so then I started writing for him. I mean, I knew him fairly well at that point although we had only met six months before I started writing. I just had a good feeling that he'd be great to write for.
I think some musicians are natural actors because they are performing, and others are not, for whatever reason. And others vary by the director. I've seen Mick Jagger do some kind of not-so-interesting things, and yet I think his performance in the film Performance is fantastic, a great character they made, y'know? And I love watching that film, I've seen it ten times, and I'm always impressed. So I don't know what that equation is, for me it's always intuitive anyway. But [Joe] Strummer had the ability to be a really fine actor, I don't know if he got so much of a chance to work on it, and he was sort of easily discouraged, because he was sensitive to criticism in a way that he wasn't about, really, anything else. He told me once, "When I come on the set, it's like carrying a basket of eggs, that I just want to get there without breaking them." He was very careful about it. I kinda wished I had another shot at making something with him as an actor. But Waits is really something else. Iggy is a great actor. He just has to trust you. Cause I think Iggy, if you don't work with him, it's like with all actors, they have to trust you. He's, potentially, he's a great actor.
AL: Since you brought up Joe, I was always curious about the film Candy Mountain [1988, directed by Robert Frank, in which Strummer and Waits acted], which I guess you had a role in originally but never made the final cut.
JJ: Yeah, I don't know if I even was shot, I don't remember, I hate to say, so much was going on back then. I remember when they were filming, I was going to be in it, and then I wasn't going to be in it, and I don't remember if they ever filmed me.
AL: The casting almost seemed indebted to the films you had made before it, I was curious if that was something you think they were conscious of, or was it just coincidental?
JJ: I don't know, I know that Robert Frank talked to me at that time before filming about Joe, and Tom Waits, just like, what do you think, do you think I could work with them? He did ask me my opinion about working with a few different people. But I wasn't instrumental in... I mean, Robert Frank is, to me, the godfather of so many different things.
Mahmoud Ahmed "Ere Mela Mela" from Ethiopiques Volume 7 (Buda Musique 1975/1999)
JJ: It's Ethiopian. It's not Mulatu [Astatke]?
AL: No, although this does sound a lot like that one track [by him] in Broken Flowers.
JJ: (after the vocal comes in) Ah, ok. I can't remember who this is, but I know this track from the Ethiopiques collection...
AL: Yeah, this is from Volume 7, it's Mahmoud Ahmed. It didn't really occur to me until listening to this again before this interview, but there's this very unresolved quality to the music, harmonically. In western music it would end back up at the tonic note, and here it's always just a little bit off, by a half-step in either direction. There's always these notes that create a kind of tension with the one droning chord. And I thought that was interesting in the context of Broken Flowersbecause the whole movie is kind of unresolved, as far as who wrote the letter, whether the letter is real, is he really a father, even in the end.
JJ: Wow. Interesting. I never thought of it like that. But the music is so particular; what sources does it incorporate? Certainly it's got an African thing, a kind of Middle Eastern thing, somewhere in there as well, and then that funk kind of sound, and jazz, what a little garden of eruption of music there.
AL: Was this also something you were listening to when you were working on writing Broken Flowers?
JJ: Yeah, I was listening to a lot of this, I discovered Mulatu, particularly, and I was listening to other stuff from that little garden of music from Ethiopia. And it was kind of weird because I thinking, man, I really wanna use this music in the film but my film is about suburban America, "Generica" we were referring to it as. And I thought, that never really stopped you before, what difference does that make? And then it led me to, well, I'm going to make that other character, that Jeffrey Wright played, of Ethiopian origin, so at least there's some little connection in there. It's funny, the music led me to details of the script and characters.
AL: The music reinforces the melancholic quality that's in the film, but when you think about it, it's really social music, something that's really made to heard in a club, with people dancing.
JJ: Yeah. Well, there's a dark, melancholic tinge to the music, to that style. But, I guess that's also in blues, I've been in juke joints in the South with people dancing to stuff that, if you were listening to it alone, would seem more somber, somehow.
But yeah, it would be a cool thing if you had a time machine, just to go back there, in 1969, and go to a few clubs. I always used to say I'd go back to Paris in 1926, but now I was thinking, Hmm, I could be more particular, if you could just drop in for a couple of days, and go to Ethiopia, even if it was in your own lifetime, but to go to a club there could be cool.
The Stooges "Greedy Awful People" from The Weirdness (Virgin, 2007)
JJ: It's Iggy, but from when? It's post-Stooges Iggy, right?
AL: Well, it is and it isn't.
JJ: Is it the recent Stooges stuff? Off Skull Ring, or the last one?
AL: The Weirdness.
JJ: Ah, you know, I didn't quite devour that record very thoroughly.
AL: The latest twist of the story is that James Williamson is back in the band now.
JJ: I heard. I heard that was a possibility cause Iggy told me he was talking to him.
Oh, Ron Asheton... You're a guitarist, I read an obituary in Guitar Player magazine, and I mean, I was kind of surprised, but it's probably obvious, that they would say "Such a technically unproficient, amateur, primitive, but he did kick ass" (AL laughs) and to me, I mean my guitar greats are Link Wray, and Dave Davies, that very sort of rudimentary thing, so to me Ron Asheton was one of my favorites, you know? I'm an amateur, chord-chunking noise guy, but I like to read those interviews where they talk about "I keep my pick angled at 90 degrees from the ceiling", all these techniques, man, cause to me it's hilarious. And then when they gave him kind of a bad obituary...
AL: Well if you're Guitar Player magazine and you're comparing him to John McLaughlin or somebody like that, you could say he's primitive. But his sound, his tone on the first two Stooges albums... and I saw them live at Jones Beach when they first got back together -
JJ: - I did too, I was there.
AL: The way he sounded, against the open sky, was just breathtaking.
JJ: I know.
AL: Have you ever listened to that complete Funhouse sessions box?
JJ: Yeah, I have it.
AL: What's incredible about that, to me, is Funhouse always seemed like a live record where they're just ripping through everything, and once you hear that you realize they're doing 30 takes of some tracks.
JJ: I know. How did Scott Asheton keep going?
AL: (laughs) Well, it takes him a few takes just to get warmed up, and I thought that during the live show too, during the first couple of numbers it seemed like he was kind of working up to speed. But Ron, and Iggy, are just on fire on every single take.
JJ: I know, I don't know how Iggy kept singing throughout those takes.
AL: They do 30 takes of "Loose", and it still sounds on the record like it's fresh enough to be the first take. I was wondering what you thought about doing multiple takes of a song in the studio, as a player, and then doing multiple takes of a scene on a film set, if you've ever compared those two experiences?
JJ: Yeah, definitely, because to me filmmaking is like making a record, as opposed to the theatre, which is like playing live, probably, I'm not a theatre guy, but you only have that moment, you're following your timeline in real time. But the thing that's weird to me, now, making some more records, making this new [Bad Rabbit] record, is that we have three guys in our band, me, Carter, who's the drummer and plays, sometimes, bass, and then Shane, who plays everything else, whatever we want to add on, but he's our wizard. We're particular about the tone of our instruments, but he's the one that's like, "I'm gonna bounce this back, and print it on tape, I'm gonna this old-school reverb thing after"... so we kinda spew things out, and he's already putting them together while we're just vomiting them out. A lot of my guitar stuff that I've laid out as just the guide track, I've never gone back to them cause Shane's like, "No no no, that's good, that's good." And I'm like, "Yeah, but, that's terrible" [AL laughs], and he'll say "No, you've got two tracks, listen to them together, they sound great, you don't need to play it again."
So it's kind of shocking to me, and maybe it's true that often on a film the first take is the best, because they're not thinking about it as much. Different actors are different, but very often the first take is the most honest, in a way, and usually it's the one that's fucked up for technical reasons, cause it's the first take... but there's something honest about that, and I think that's true musically, and sometimes maybe it's good that Shane says look, don't over finesse it, you know, you're a crude guitarist, and it sounds good that way. You don't want to refine it, you know? They're definitely related; and the thing is, whatever you get, in the moment, is what you get, and when you do it again it's never the same. Or if it is, then you're imitating what you already did and then you've lost some instinctive thing.
I remember Neil Young was saying to me, when we were making that film about Crazy Horse, he kept saying, "We don't think about our music - never." And Crazy Horse are laughing, cause they're like, what's there to think about? He's saying, we just feel it, that's why we hope it's different every time we play "Powderfinger", we're finding it. If we have to think it, we're lost, we've ruined it. And it's something true for actors too. It's a very hard job being an actor, I'm very sympathetic to actors, because they're like children because they have to be a make-believe person on command. You have to protect a certain child-like part of them, that some people interpret as misbehaving, or non-professional... I don't know, I have a long leash for them, because to make them do that on command and pretend, that's really hard, to come off real.
It depends on the kind of music you play; some you obviously have to think about and work on, and think through - not the way I play (laughs).
AL: It also depends on how much time you have - I've heard of bands who spend six weeks just on vocals, doing every line over and over again. Where it has to be the absolutely perfect take.
JJ: Well, Shane won't let me do vocals in the studio, he says you're going home, on your 4-track cassette, I want that sound. So I do all the vocals at home on my bathroom, on the most primitve Tascam cassette four track. I have a good mic, that costs just as much as the machine (laughs).
"Main Theme" from Scott & Beth B's Vortex: Original Soundtrack (Neutral, 1982)
JJ: Oh, man - I'll say it's John Zorn, but I don't know, it's not Ornette...
AL: It's from Vortex, the Scott and Beth B movie.
JJ: Oh really? It's the Lounge Lizards?
AL: It's John Lurie and Richard Edson.
JJ: Oh, ok. I don't remember this particular track. Sounds familiar.
AL: You've talked a lot about how No Wave cinema was a real inspiration, and in the Del Byzanteens you weren't even the only filmmaker, cause James Nares was in it too.
JJ: That's right.
AL: There was a lot of back and forth [in the No Wave scene] between people playing in bands and either acting or directing.
JJ: Or painting. James Nares was a very good filmmaker, painter, visual artist, and Philipe van Hagen, our bass player, was definitely a visual artist, graphic designer, highly political. But everybody did something else. Phil Kline, our guitar player, was pretty much first and foremost a musician, and an amazing composer. There were a lot of things I loved about No Wave, I loved the idea of Arto [Lindsay] and Tim Wright and those guys of removing any references to blues based music, which was kind of shocking. That's not true of James Chance, of course, but it's true of those guys, which was really an interesting kind of oblique strategy - you know, "use these increments and make no reference to blues based music." But yeah, it was the whole idea of do-it-yourself then, it's for the expression and not to get over, was such a positive, formative thing for me.
AL: This track really has a film noir feeling to it.
JJ: Yeah, that's why I thought this was John Zorn, because I know he made that one record that was film noir scores, and I think John Lurie played on it too.
AL: Was that something you got a sense was of interest in that scene at the time?
JJ: Zorn, I know, was really into certain Japanese crime films, at the same time I was, but I didn't know he was. I thought I was the only Seijun Suzuki fan in New York back then, and then someone told me he was really into that too. But noir was earlier for me, because when I met one of my oldest friends, Luc Sante, the writer, we met at Columbia as students, and we were both devouring Richard Stark, devouring Charles Willeford, all this stuff, before other people were, David Goodis, all this stuff. But that was a little bit before that Downtown scene, or before our connection to it. That came out of a love of books, you read Hammett, and Chandler, and James M. Cain, and we were like, wow, this is incredible, the whole world of this kind of literature. I don't read it obsessively anymore, because I've read a lot of it, but I still love that form so much.
AL: Even in the original CBGB scene, both Patti Smith and Tom
Verlaine were really into Mickey Spillane. And one of my favorite
record reviews of all-time is Paul Nelson's review of the first
Ramones album, where he takes the entry on [director] Samuel Fuller
in [film critic] Andrew Sarris' book The American Cinema
and just puts in "the Ramones" everywhere it says "Sam Fuller."
JJ: Really? Wow, amazing. Mickey Spillane is underrated because the hardness of his style, is quite amazing. I mean, it's uneven; but there's one sentence that I'll always remember, til I die. I forget what book it is, I guess it's I, The Jury, but it's: "The head is only connected to the body by a very thin thread of a neck." And I was just like, Mickey Spillane, man, you know?
AL: And then Terry Ork being friends with Nicholas Ray, on an early Television flyer there's a quote from Nick Ray that says "These guys are tough as nails, they make me cry."
JJ: Yeah. I went to see Television at this club called Mother's, like a storefront that existed for one month or something, and handwritten outside it said "Appearing tonight: Television - ‘Four cats with a passion' - Nicholas Ray." And I was like, "what?" That was the first time I saw Television, actually. But it's funny, when I used to see Television, you couldn't understand any of the lyrics, and somebody told me later that until they recorded, he [Verlaine] was afraid that someone would steal them. I don't know if that's true or if he was on DMT or what it was (AL laughs). And we were really disappointed when Marquee Moon came out. Which of course is a masterpiece, but at the time was like, oh man, it's so clean, this isn't what they're like live, they take you up to the sky on wings, what is this? It's not blurred out, it's not drugged out... but it's such a great record (laughs).
Rammellzee "Jamin Zabar Jamin Zabar" from The Bi-Conicals of The Rammellzee (Gomma, 2004)
JJ: I don't know.
AL: Its Rammellzee.
JJ: It is?
AL: It's from a CD he did about five years ago.
JJ: Wow. I guess that's musical neo-Gothic panzerism. Or something (AL laughs). You know the early stuff he did with Jean-Michel Basquiat?
JJ: Well, that guy, talk about multi-faceted brains - Rammellzee is amazing. Use of language, music, imagined history... I don't know if you've seen these kind of warrior-robot-statues that look like a cross between really classical Japanese samurai armor and some kind of futuristic space stuff from somewhere in the recesses of his imagination.
AL: Yeah, I've seen a couple of those.
JJ: And all his theories of history and reinvented history. He builds puppets and things that fly... incredible. Someone told me, I don't know if it's true, that Rammellzee is the originator of the use of the word "word", in hip hop slang. That he started that way back, and would answer people by just saying "word." And that that spread from Rammellzee, I don't know if that's true or myth, but if you have to imagine an origin,because the idea of reducing everything to the word "word" is so Rammellzee-like.
AL: Was he someone you thought of when you were starting to formulate the samurai-like character of Ghost Dog?
JJ: Not really... he had a big impact on me, still, his imagination, so it's hard to say. It wasn't conscious, but that idea of warriors that are imaginary and have a code that doesn't relate to the real world anymore.
AL: I would think that graffiti artists back then would have operated in a similar fashion to a samurai or an assassin, even if they weren't as solitary.
JJ: They called it bombing, it's against the law, they had to sneak in, and they had to have a strategy to get out -
AL: Right, the idea of being invisible -
JJ: Yeah, carrying their tools, and having a limited time to hit the place, like a robbery, very careful planning, being very alert. You can't be totally stoned out there and not be aware of the authorities. So, yeah. I love about graffiti too, those early guys will say "I'm just trying to get my name up all around the city so I can meet some girls" (laughs) but it's such a strange microcosmic reduction of the idea of fame, it's like a 14th, 15th century idea of, like the more times they see my name, the more I'm known. And what's the best way? Put it on a moving thing that gonna go all over the city, and then girls are gonna see your name in all kinds of neighborhoods (laughs). Really brilliant. Some of my real heroes. Phase 2 is still one of my favorite artists of the later 20th century. What a sense of style.
AL: RZA, when he did the music for Ghost Dog, told you, just cut this up and use it wherever you want, which relates to William Burroughs, and the cut-up, but maybe also to some of Rammellzee's interest in taking language apart.
JJ: Yeah, for sure. Hip hop culture is founded on that. It's
related to those things, almost to the I-Ching, somehow. What can I
cut up, and mix together, scratch this, that - I guess because of
Kool Herc there's that kind of direct line of hip hop from Jamaican
sound systems, where you're toasting the DJ, and the early MCs were
only there to pump up the DJ. They weren't supposed to be the focus
- they're just the frontman, or the barker.
I don't know, I was thinking a lot lately about museums being temples of capitalism in a funny way, and that art used to be in a context, in a place, you know what I mean? Like those Greek statues that were painted were an exterior... they were there for you to see in the context of a place. And then, imperialism looted those things. The first really Western museums are born of imperialist culture, they started in France or something. But it's not that old, having museums where art is isolate, you know. It's funny how art often was spiritual, as well. So I was thinking, what's the context of museums? I guess it's the religion of the empires, it's capitalist temples of looted shit that we've isolated and made worth a lot of money by removing it from its context, somehow. And it's not necessarily negative, cause I love museums. I love taking things out of context and isolated.
AL: You've said that museums are like zoos.
JJ: Yeah, they're like captured creatures somehow.
AL: It's also true of music with the advent of recording. Music used to be very site specific, people would even compose for specific churches, and then after that you'd have to go to a concert hall. The only way to replicate it at home was to buy sheet music and play a transcription of it on the piano, and now its something that becomes divorced not only from the context but the visual of someone doing a performance, if you're listening to a record.
JJ: Yeah. Strange how it changes... Rammellzee. He's an amazing character. But it's cool that I heard that again, cause I think I had some more recent Rammellzee stuff that I hadn't digested or listened to, so I'm gonna go find it now.
AL: It's great what they're doing to his voice on this track, a really ferocious sounding...
JJ: Like a demon. Which brings me to - I just wanna rant for a second against the fucking vocoder! I don't know if I want to kill Kanye West or whoever started this vocoder thing again, I really wanna reach for my revolver... it's such a cheesy, easy way, gimmicky thing. I don't inherently dislike it; but it's current fashionable use in hip hop is driving me up the wall, I just can't stand it.
AL: Actually the next artist I'm going to play used a vocoder at one time.
JJ: Peter Frampton? (laughs)
Neil Young "Thrasher" from Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise) 1979
JJ: Bernard Shakey [Neil Young's filmmaking alias]
AL: (laughs) It's from a Bernard Shakey film [Rust Never Sleeps].
JJ: What would be more interesting is to make someone identify which of Neil's acoustic guitars this is (AL laughs). Cause I don't know if you saw him recently, where he did the acoustic set and then electric set; he had all his acoustic guitars set up, and he would walk around, and he'd touch one - cause they're all associated with different songs - he'd touch one and go like [makes face] no, and then go and find another one. I'm sure there are people who'd know which Martin he used on which. There are people that are fanatics about that.
AL: He's made several films, but obviously people don't think of him as being a filmmaker. I was wondering, when you were working with him, first on the soundtrack to Dead Man and then on Year of the Horse, if you had many conversations with him as filmmaker to filmmaker?
JJ: Oh yeah. We talked a lot about filmmaking because he liked that I knew his film work and would talk to him as a filmmaker. He was like, "hey, nobody talks to me like I'm a filmmaker." We were shooting a video for the song "Big Time" off of Broken Arrow, a Crazy Horse album, and I shot it in Super 8. This was before we made the film together; and Neil and I, we were sitting down on the beach near his house, and he was saying, yeah the Super 8 stuff looks so cool, why don't people make a feature film with Super 8? And I was saying because if you want direct sound you have such a limited time - two minutes on each load - so it's disruptive, soundwise. And he said, yeah, but it would look so cool. And then when we shot the film, we shot a lot of Super 8 but he was still thinking a lot about making a film in Super 8, which he did, Greendale. Which he shot himself, and I think is beautiful - I really like the film a lot. I saw the accompanying road show that went with it, which was okay, but I really like that film. I like how Neil did it himself, and some of the camera work is very... I don't know, sophisticated in a crude way. He really thinks about films. And the film that I lifted things from [in Year of the Horse], Muddy Track, it's pretty great. What's the one with Devo?
AL: Human Highway.
JJ: Yeah - that may be among one of the worst films I've seen, but I still loved it because of the oddness of it and what's in it - seeing Devo play in a playpen, or something, it's kinda cool.
AL: The final scene in Muddy Track, where Neil's in the car with Pegi and she's talking about them planning a vacation and he's kind of staring off - that really captures something about the experience of being a musician as a tour is ending and coming back to reality, but not being quite ready for it.
JJ: Yeah. I love Muddy Track. And I love Cocksucker Blues, the film Robert Frank made of the Stones - it kind of makes you feel like being a rock star in 1972 on the road is one of most boring and excruciating things you could do, you know? Certainly not celebrating it as a wild, decadent free-for-all of fun. It's a pretty dark film in a funny way.
It's funny because the loft I live in was [Cocksucker Blues assistant cameraman] Danny Seymour's loft.
AL: It is? Wow.
JJ: Yeah. But he disappeared at sea, somewhere. And all he had
in there was a bed and a pool table. It's weird. Archie Shepp lived
in that loft, and Yoko Ono's film Fly was shot in that loft. I
don't know why, but... cause Robert [Frank] lived in the same
building, that's actually how we got our loft, cause Robert said
there's an open loft in this building. Tom Waits was moving to New
York at the time, so Tom went to see the loft, and I got to go with
him. It had a skylight, I was like, wow. And Tom said, I can't live
here, cause it's a walk-up and we got the kids, it's not gonna work
out. So then we said to Robert that we're interested, and he said
great, here's the guy, talk to the guy, I'll call him for you.
We're lucky Tom didn't take it.
AL: This track was that it was used in Out of the Blue, the 1981 Dennis Hopper film, in the one scene where he's working at a garbage dump, operating a bulldozer.
JJ: Oh, it was? I didn't remember that. It's a pretty cool film. That reminds me of a funny story, I was on Bowery, I don't know, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, and there were two junkies - you know when junkies are nodding out and they're standing but they're half-standing? So there were two guys like that, and they're about to fall over, and as I passed them I was listening to what they said, and the guy was saying to the other guy, "No, man, I ain't talking about the films Dennis Hopper's in as an actor, I'm talking about the films he was the director of." And then he started listing Dennis Hopper's films!
AL: (laughs) [Hopper's] Easy Rider was the first narrative feature film that used songs on the soundtrack that were pre-existing songs, at the time people told Hopper that it was cool that he made a movie about his record collection, or something like that. You've done that a lot, and professed a disliking for standard film music.
JJ: Well, it's such a formula - I get so bored, it's like they have five scores, they may as well just pass them around and reuse them, I can't tell the difference, really, it's all the same. With the world of music so varied, it just is mind-boggling that they use the most formulaic thing.
The film I just made, The Limits of Control, is a film where we deliberately tried to take away things that would be expected from the film. Which is the absolute opposite of the American way of approaching... "okay, what demographic, what do they want, what do they expect, give it to them." It was like, let's see, can we make an action film with no action in it? Can we make a narrative where the plot is just like a series of repeated variations on something? Can we have a film with characters that have no background, no past, no present, no name, we don't know what they represent, they're metaphorical? These are all the things that people expect, so we were trying to remove the things that they would expect, with (chuckles) the predictable results, in the United States, of not a whole lot of people being interested in the film. That's okay, you know, we thought it was successful experiment on our part. But wait, why was I talking about removing things - oh yeah, film music. I guess they think that's what people expect, that's what people get, but...
There are people doing some interesting things, people trying out there. Like T-Bone Burnette, he tries to bring something in there. I'm glad his hand is in film scoring, somewhere, somehow, but... I don't know. I just love music so much it's dismaying to me to see it reduced to wallpaper.
Phil Kline "Dark Was The Night" from John The Revelator (Cantaloupe Music) 2009
JJ: I feel like I should know this piece.
AL: This is Phil Kline's version of "Dark was the Night".
JJ: I saw this twice, performed. What did he take from "Dark was the Night", the chord structure? Or just a general, vague inspiration?
AL: I think he's said it's kind of a fantasy on the melody.
JJ: Do you know a piece of his called "Ashtabula"? It's fantastic, really beautiful.
AL: Did you know Phil in Akron?
JJ: Yes, Phil is my oldest friend. When we were in 4th grade, he moved to my town, a neighboring town. He was brought in to our classroom, and the teacher said, "This is a new student, his name is Phil, he moved here from Stow, ok, he needs a buddy to show him the school, it's going to be you, Jim - you're going to be his buddy." And I was wearing a cub scout uniform, cause I was briefly in the cub scouts. He probably thought I was a real nerd, but he was the new kid, so he was out of place. So I was his buddy, to show him around. And we were friends ever since, we're still friends. We're hoping to prepare an opera together about Nicola Tesla. We've been making notes about it and talking but it would be two years from now. I would just have some input visually, structurally - all the music would be his. Although I'm gonna insist there be some electric guitars in it. But yeah, he's quite amazing. I hear things in it [this track] that I know inspire Phil, not just Blind Willie Johnson - like Henry Purcell. I love that there are no boundaries in terms of genres, really, for him, he just makes this type of music. He's interested in all forms. There's tape loop pieces, the Unsilent Night stuff... but then he writes string quartets as well.
AL: And he still does songs.
JJ: Yes, Zippo Songs, using the lyrics from Donald Rumsfeld, you know that speech, "There are things we know and things we don't know, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns, and there are known unknowns, and unknown knowns," you know, some nonsense Gertrude Stein kinda thing, he set that to a song. Then he took some beautiful early poems of David Shapiro, this New York School poet, who was our teacher, actually, me, Luc and Phil studied with Shapiro and Kenneth Koch, so there's a New York School thing, for us, that we're the children of, in a way. He took these poems from a book I think called A Man Holding An Acoustic Panel, an early book of David Shapiro's, and he set those to music for viols, and they were really beautiful too. He's interested in the plasticity of these genres, and stretching the borders.
AL: I saw an interview you did with the White Stripes where you told them that blues is the one kind of music that you always carry with you.
JJ: I don't remember telling them that, but it's definitely true, yeah. I have to have something with me, some blues, if I get freaked out or - I don't know, it's just reassuring to know I have it with me. Whether it's Mississisippi Fred McDowell or Charley Patton or whatever. I love Mississippi Fred's guitar playing, lately it's really been speaking to me.
AL: Actually, going back to the Stooges, I've always thought that they seemed really indebted to the country blues. Especially the way those songs are structured, the repetitiveness of it.
JJ: There's also something really indebted to rockabilly, with Iggy. That struck me like a lightning bolt a few years ago, and then I started thinking how many of his songs were really close to rockabilly, different tempos, different ways of doing it, but very close. But rockabilly's speeded up country blues, basically.
Sibylle Baier "Softly" from Colour Green (Orange Twin) 1970-1973/2006
JJ: It's not Holly Golightly...
AL: This one is pretty obscure.
JJ: Is it old?
AL: It is - but it was only released a couple of years ago. It's Sibylle Baier, who was in [Wim Wenders' 1974 film] Alice in the Cities - she's in it towards the end, and she's actually singing this song, a capella. She was friends with Wim. She recorded this version at home in the early 70s, but it was never released. Her son, I think, discovered the tapes she made and managed to get it released with help from J. Mascis.
JJ: Really? Wow. It's like echoing back in my brain, I guess just from seeing the film, but I couldn't pull it out. What else did he have in that film, did he have Canned Heat?
AL: Yeah, "On the Road Again."
JJ: Some Kinks, maybe?
AL: Probably (laughs). He had the Kinks in every movie.
JJ: I love that song in The American Friend, "There's Too Much On My Mind", beautiful.
AL: Or the opening of The Wrong Move, where Peter Vogler punches the window out while the Kinks record is playing on the stereo.
JJ: Sibylle Baier. Cool.
AL: You knew Wim way back at the beginning of your career - did you guys talk about music quite a bit? I know he was a real rock and roll fanatic.
JJ: Well, when I was Berlin and I would visit Wim, I would go straight to - "what new CDs have you got, Wim?" Because he was always investigating a lot of stuff. And there are places where our tastes very much overlap, and places where they diverge... yeah, we talked about music a lot but just like friends, like what are you listening to, what have you heard lately. He was always pretty up on everything. Although not on the whole stoner, shoegazer, whatever that is, that I love, it's not really Wim's thing. I don't know if he's a My Bloody Valentine fan - although, how could he not be? How could anyone not be? I'm sure he doesn't listen to Dopesmoker obsessively, cause he's probably more into Ry Cooder, or something.
AL: "Dark was the Night" was a big influence on the soundtrack to Paris Texas.
JJ: Yeah, and it's funny how it got real hip back then too, suddenly everybody was talking about it. But yeah, Wim, he's a total rock and roll soul, from the start. And our love for the Kinks will unite us forever.
AL: Wim was someone else using songs from his own collection on his soundtracks. Did that make an impression on you back then?
JJ: Probably yes, but by then, like you were saying, it was almost a tradition that was started by Easy Rider, or Mean Streets, all those films I'd already absorbed. But I loved Wim's choice of music in those early films - rock and roll - and how they gave... I don't know, it was like coloring in the sky, he did something that used them atmospherically. Scorsese uses them to drive something, or push it, in a masterful way. And Wim, it was a little ethereal, how your brain associates them with what's happening on the screen - there's something a bit different, with Wim. So yeah, I'm sure that made an impression, but it wasn't like oh wow, eureka.
I considered asking Boris to make me some new music for The Limits of Control, but then I thought, why do that if I can use stuff that already exists if they'll maybe let me edit a little. I asked them, and they were really cool with that, and they were also really busy, so they might not have been able to do it anyway. But I like using existing things in scoring.
AL: I tend to like that better also. One of the few times I've been a music supervisor on a film was for this documentary about 50s highway safety films called Hell's Highway. I took a Christian Marclay piece, and I put it to this one old highway safety film and it was absolutely uncanny how it worked with it, it was almost like it was composed shot for shot for it.
JJ: When I was 20 I used to spend a lot of time when I first was in New York smoking herb and then playing Fletcher Henderson and Sidney Bechet records, and then watching out the window how the world would synch to the music, in a hilariously perfect way. You know, it was just a stoner thing but it was endless amusement to see how a little accent on a high hat would be with some motion of somebody, every little thing synched to something, it was fantastic. It's very mysterious, and magical... but I love it when things synch up like that. Of course, I've never tried synching up Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz, or whatever that is (laughs). I say Metal Machine Music would synch better (laughs).