Interview: SQÜRL

SQÜRL, the musical duo comprised of Jim Jarmusch and Carter Logan, make dense, atmospheric music. Though they’ve released a string of independent EPs, they’re perhaps best known for their work in the film score arena. Beginning with Jarmusch’s 2009 slow-burner assassin flick Limits of Control, the band (operating under the name Bad Rabbit at the time) has crafted the music for each of Jarmusch’s subsequent films. Their sound can be ominous and formidable, erratic and playful, but Jarmusch and Logan ultimately conjure an inimitable sound that both spans existing genres and seeks to create its own.

I spoke with the two musicians over the phone about their soundtrack (out now on Sacred Bones) for Jarmusch’s most recent outing, this summer’s apocalyptic zombie film The Dead Don’t Die.


Tell me about the writing and recording process for this score.

Carter: Every film dictates its own process for this kind of thing. This one was a film where we knew from the beginning that we’d intended to score it almost completely ourselves, with a giant asterisk next to that. The theme song for the film by Sturgill Simpson was part of the original script, but we knew from the beginning that the rest of the music in the film would just be score. So that was in our heads as we set out to make the film, but we didn’t start making music outright until after we’d wrapped production. We’re both very busy and wearing other hats during the production process, and then we can change them as we go.

Jim: Man, we barely had time to sleep for months on end [laughs].

C: This was a tough film to make, because we made it in a very quick amount of time by any standards. And a complicated one to do because of all of the elements that are in it… we were adding a lot of cast, a lot of extras, special effects, make up, stunts, and visual effects. But for music, really we just started roughly sketching, demoing things out from the very start. We didn’t use any temp music, which we’d done sometimes in the past as reference in the cutting room. More so, this started out with rough demos that were just sometimes a guitar or a just a synthesizer or a couple tracks that we were able to bring in and experiment with right from the start.

J: We scored our previous film Paterson, which was a much more kind of ambient thing and appropriate to the feeling of that film. And this one was a little more in our wheelhouse as SQÜRL, because we like darker stuff… how did Thurston Moore describe SQÜRL years ago? As “molten, meditation-core.” We talked a lot while preparing the film about inspirations of these types of films. We’re krautrock fans, we like John Carpenter’s scores and the early Morricone ones. We like the kind of European approaches to these scores like Tangerine Dream or Goblin or Popol Vuh, so we’re into the [Bernard] Herrmann score for Psycho or the [Krzysztof] Komeda score for Rosemary’s Baby. We’re quite aware of these things. We had ideas, we had parameters, and as soon as we were able to start recording, often Carter and I would record separately and pass tracks back and forth. Which we’ve done in the past and which is a lot of fun. So we physically did a lot of it that way.

C: We were building off of what each other had done. The film was informing [the score] as it grew into what you eventually saw in the cutting room. There was a bit of complex weaving that started from when we started cutting, and we were working on the last touches until the very end when we were in the final mix.

J: And generally for scores of all my films, I often don’t have people score to picture; sometimes they have, like Neil Young with Dead Man scored the complete film to picture. Tom Waits did some things on Night on Earth to picture. But generally, it’s more like talking through a mood and then working in the editing room to finesse how that music works with the picture. So they were more like general approaches toward themes, and we knew kind of where we wanted to use them, but it wasn’t precisely to picture. There are some, not exactly “stings” in the score — we were calling them “tags,” I don’t know what the real terminology is. There were little pieces that were done for specific moments. Those are short things of several seconds, usually. But the rest of it was more like thematic; “how does this feel?” We do a lot with editing after we’ve created the music to put it how we want it to fit the picture rather than composing it to the picture.

What does that editing process look like?

J: Well, we give all our tracks to the cutting room, which I’m in every day. Affonso Gonçalves, who cut this film (and Paterson and Only Lovers Left Alive, which we also scored), he and I talk about where we want it to go and then we listen through all the tracks of each piece and I point out the things that I’m most interested in and think are most effective. But then I step away and let him play with those notes and pull something together. So then he lays that in and then I work with him again with comments — maybe moving some tracks around, muting something here or there, making an edit in a single guitar track. So it’s a kind of an intuitive process, seeing how the picture wants to work with it.

C: And then what I would do is every couple weeks come in and have a spotting session with him where we would look through the various cues and talk about how they’re working based on what was preceding, whether we thought we needed to add something more, take something away, or listen to an additional layer that we’d added. It’s a bit of a process of addition and subtraction as much as it is alteration and length. What our real focus is about is textures and tones and to never have the music be too leading.

J: And Carter would basically feed him these tracks; he would give him notes in advance and of course we’d bring it back to Carter for his comments. So really, it was a three-way collaboration for the most part… we’re very appreciative of each other’s instincts; we find it that way rather than a dictated thing. Really, the film has to tell us what it wants and how it feels, other than just jamming [the score] on top of it, because that’s what we think is best. We’re not trying to tell the audience what to feel about things. I really dislike scores that do that in general. Music and film are so interrelated that the film has to tell you, in my opinion, what it wants to do. And a lot of people just lay score by the yard, and then they all the sound the same. But I’m talking about more commercial, more Hollywood stuff. I find that really annoying [laughs]. But I found something; it’s a quote that sounds a lot like something I’d say, but it’s actually Scorsese: “Music and cinema fit together naturally because there’s a kind of intrinsic musicality to the way moving images work when they’re put together. It’s been said that cinema and music are very close as forms, and I think that’s true.” But I’ve certainly said the same thing, less articulately, many times.

I was watching an interview with Jozef Van Wissem, who described you, Jim, as a musically-inclined director. Someone who makes films more as a musician than a filmmaker.

J: Just to elaborate on what Scorsese said, when you watch a film, the film unfolds on its time frame; it’s not up to you. It’s not like reading a book or looking at a painting, and also it’s a mechanically reproduced thing, a film; it’s not a theater play, so it’s very close to listening to a piece of music in that its time frame is its time frame. And that’s what works on you emotionally and rhythmically as a story, even if it’s a non-narrative experimental thing. So they [music and film] are so related.

C: Even in an experimental film or a piece of experimental or ambient music, it does tell a story just by nature of having a beginning, middle, and end. There are these narrative structures that I think naturally lend themselves to each other.

J: The two of us as SQÜRL, sometimes we have Jozef or other people like Shane Stoneback in the studio in the past, but we’ve been performing live scores to Man Ray’s surrealist films from the 20s. In fact, we’re performing this Saturday in the Basilica in Hudson, New York at a festival there. We have a map; it’s an hour-long show for four films, and it’s so much fun because we never play it exactly the same. We have our map, but we play off each other and off the films. Man Ray was so playful and incredible in the 20s. These are experimental films, essentially, so he was hanging the camera outside a moving car in 1926; he’s shooting things through aberrations of textured glass… or turning the camera upside down or having hazy images of one of his many beautiful girlfriends taking their clothes off [laughs]. Whatever he’s doing, it’s really joyful. So we’ve been doing that, making the music to the film as it unspools.

C: It’s a very different process.

J: But it’s related to that same idea that [films] unfold; they have their own rhythm, you can’t stop it and analyze any certain moment. It’s just a river flowing.

In the past, you’ve worked with Jozef as well as Shane Stoneback. What made you want to record this score just as a duo?

J: Partly because we use a lot of electronics lately for Man Ray, we did it for Paterson, which we scored on our own. And there’s electronics in The Dead Don’t Die, of course. Only Lovers Left Alive is thematically about very old things mixed with very modern things, so having someone play lute music with electric guitars that are messy and feeding back just seemed so perfect for it. Although, when we played live with Jozef, he played the electric 12-string guitar. But probably one of the real reasons is that Shane moved to San Francisco, so we’ve hardly ever seen him in the last few years. And Jozef’s Dutch, he went back to Europe and booked two years’ worth of solo shows and also lost his visa.

For the Man Ray films, Carter and I have been doing this for a number of years and we feel comfortable… our scores can get dense because we use loops within them, so we don’t really need another voice there. In fact, we’re often telling each other, “Yeah, your loops are a little dense there,” so it’s not really needed there. But we love working with those guys. So it was a combination of necessity and the real world.

C: In the mixing stage, there’s so much production work that we do together. This is really an interplay, and we consider them members of the group and the larger circle. An essential part of the process that often gets overlooked is the mastering phase. The score for a film that exists within the context of the film has to interplay with quite a lot of sound: dialogue, music, effects. On Dead Don’t Die in particular, those were really dense, and I think that was one of the particular challenges in the mixing stage of the film, this interplay between effects and dialogue and music. We find our way through all that, just as the characters are, in a certain way, navigating their own way. Sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s kind of scary and weird.

J: There are a lot of people we’d love to work with and have mentioned it, and in the future maybe we’ll do some recordings for guest collaborators. And not to mention names… but I’ll mention some names [laughs]. We love Stephen O’Malley, guitarist Pat Place from the Bush Tetras. We love Erik Sanko; he’s an amazing musician from Skeleton Key. Sarah Lipstate from Noveller. There are a lot of people we’d love to do something with. My friend Gibby Haynes from the Butthole Surfers, he’s been making a lot of analog synth stuff for the last few years and said, “Hey, man, we should get together and lay some tracks down!” We have a lot of people we feel kindred to, musically, that we would someday get to do something with. But for right now, it’s me and Carter going back on the road to do some more of our Man Ray stuff as a two-piece thing.


Are you exclusively touring for Man Ray, or are you also performing more conventional concerts?

J: We’re doing the Man Ray stuff for now, but what we’ve done at times in the past — and we’ll try to do this in the future — is we’ll do the Man Ray stuff where we can get booked in a nice theater and get paid well, and then in the same town, like when we were in Iowa City, we played in this punk club in the basement, The Yacht Club, where we played a totally different kind of set, nothing to do with the film. So we’ll try to keep doing that, but for this year and early next year, we’re just doing the Man Ray stuff. But then later next year, we want to do a tour and, maybe in each town, we can book a different venue for the different things.

Another guy we’d like to work with is a guy named John Petkovic, a friend of ours in Cleveland.

How does SQÜRL differ from [Carter’s former band] Space Merchants and [Jim’s old group] The Del Byzanteens?

C: The Space Merchants is a great band that I was really honored to be a part of for many years, but back then I just played drums. I take a seat behind the drum kit and just bang away. SQÜRL is a much more different and expansive project: the instrumentation is wide-open; I started out playing drums, but quickly moved on to playing bass and keys and even a little bit of guitar here and there. And it’s more of an open project in terms of writing and structure. The Space Merchants was more of a “go in and bang out these psych-rock songs” kind of situation. SQÜRL is something I’ve carried with me around in life, and it’s bit more of an open vessel.

J: It’s really fun when Carter throws a synth track or a keyboard bass line. We’d say, “Carter, we need a bass line, what do you think: keys or a bass guitar?” and then he lays something down. So it’s kind of adaptive and maybe less conventionally structured as to who plays what.

C: The Del Byzanteens, that was a group that evolved quite a bit over its short run.

J: Yeah, but that was similar; we had drums, bass, guitar, keys, and two vocalists, me and Phil Kline. Even though the songs weren’t very conventional, we had a conventional setup. I rarely played any guitar, if ever, although on one track I played the trombone. But that was a different thing and a long time ago. In that band, Phil Kline was the real musician of the band, so he organized us and the rest of us were sort of non-musicians, although we had James Nares, who’s been in The Contortions. We had a little bit more of a leader, whereas with SQÜRL, we’re not really based that way.

Listening to your earlier EPs, it seems like the band was interested in a noisier, lo-fi sound, whereas the last couple scores the band put out feel much more polished. What was the reason for this change in sound?

J: We try not to analyze it. As far as the guitar work on my part goes, I’m not a trained guitarist; I just taught myself whatever the hell I can do on the thing. I practice feedback and I practice getting drones that I like and how to control them to some degree. But I think in the past, because my guitar playing was even more rudimentary, I kept it very thick, in a way, to just have washes of sounds. And now I have smaller washes of sounds. I can play more delicately, so I like to mix those together. I still like the big, molten thing; that’s something I love electric guitars for. That might be part of [the change in sound], but we added more electronics as we’ve gone.

C: I think a part of it is that if you want to get bigger and deeper in terms of resonance, I mean both in the quality of the music but how it also resonates in people, then sometimes you need to have something that’s more clear in order to cut through and not have noise or fidelity be a distraction. I think there are elements of our music that are still very much lo-fi, our recording techniques certainly still are. If they don’t sound that way, it’s almost an accident [laughs].

J: When I give them to Jonathan Kreinik [our mixer], some of my tracks, I say, “good luck cleaning this shit up!” He’s like, “I’ll do my best, I’ll see what I can do.” But a little extra noise never killed anybody.

C: We embrace mistakes. We like broken things, and imperfection is really where the beauty lies in the world, so we’re not interested in making anything quite too polished. We could never be Hans Zimmer, so we won’t try.

J: That’s related to what I’ve learned making films. I don’t use storyboards or shot lists, generally. I had to with The Dead Don’t Die for effects reasons here and there, but mistakes are often the most valuable things for two reasons. Sometimes they work and you didn’t expect them to or they fail terribly and you learn from them. And while shooting a film, I consider us gathering the material from which we will make the film; we’re not plotting out the film exactly as it will be. So I’ve learned that mistakes, you can’t discount them, and with a film, you never know until you’re in the cutting room and you can see what the film wants, and sometimes it wants a thing you didn’t want it to have. I’ve listened back to tracks and I’ve thought, “Oh man, I’ve really fucked up this part.” And then when it’s placed with this other part that maybe Carter made, sometimes it’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s pretty cool! The tonality is off, but that makes it darker.” You just never quite know, so we try to be very open-minded.

I’ve always considered myself an amateur film director, because amateur means you love a form; it’s the Latin for loving something. And professional means you do it as a job for money — and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m much more in the amateur camp in both filmmaking and making music. It’s just my nature. I’m an amateur.

You’ve covered Hank Williams and Wanda Jackson in the past. Sturgill Simpson sings the theme song for The Dead Don’t Die. What draws you to country music as a band that has a more “molten” sound, as you describe it?

C: We think of ourselves as an American rock band in a lot of ways. And I think it’s impossible to ignore the history and influence of country music on rock & roll. A lot of people push it away and have put down country music over the years, and certainly the mainstream that’s coming out of Nashville is pretty bad, but there are so many undercurrent and countercultural moments throughout the history of all American music, and there have been several periods of that in country music. Going back to pre-rock & roll periods, the music of rebellion in the mountains and in the South all the way into California, you have so-called outlaw country music with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, etc. I think Sturgill is the current incarnation of that, and by that I don’t mean that he just sounds like Merle Haggard or acts like those guys, but he is a true rock & roller of the purest form. He won’t be told what to do, what to sound like, where to go, or how to say what he’s got to say.

J: And with Dead Don’t Die, I wrote that Sturgill was going to write the theme song before I even asked him, because I’m a Sturgill fan. Luckily, that worked out, and we talked a lot about the song being traditional, and we even went back and forth with Patsy Cline tracks about what rhythm we were thinking and all of that. But he’s a super musicologist of many things. He’s from Kentucky, kind of from the hills, and his bloodline is country music, though he’s very varied. His new record isn’t really country at all.

Carter and I love hip-hop music. We love blues, we love a lot of things. But when you listen to what the Carter family did in the 20s, everything comes from that, all country music and even rock & roll, to a large degree, and folk music. It’s such a beautiful, strange thing that those crazy teenage hillbillies didn’t even hear other music except for what they heard in their area, and then they laid this path for so many things.

We listen to Morton Feldman as well as Royal Trux and Boris and Sunn O))) and Swans. We’re open to a lot of things, and I’ve got to say there is some really good new country pop stuff like Kacey Musgraves. And Thomas Rhett, he writes incredibly good songs. So I try to keep my mind open and, how do I say this?… not become my dad. Billie Eilish is a genius, so you can’t close your mind off and say, “Yeah, I don’t like pop music,” because then you won’t get to hear “Bad Guy.” It’s like Nirvana — sometimes you can’t control how popular something deserves to be. It’s sometimes, painfully, to the detriment of the artist, but you can’t keep Billie Eilish down. It’s just too good, it doesn’t matter what form it is, you know?

I was watching your Board to Death episode — the YouTube series, not the HBO show you had a cameo in, Jim — and I got the impression that you’re very deliberate in choosing your guitars, pedals, synths, etc.

C: I approach it in two ways: one is [by saying] “these are tools that allow you to express something that’s in your head that you want [to use] to sculpt a sound.” And sometimes they’re a mystery box that you just flip on and are suddenly inspired to do something new. They work in both ways, but all the equipment, the synthesizers, guitars, pedals that we use are ultimately just colors. Some people work in oils and some people work in watercolors. We like to have a few different things on our palette to pull from. There are a few companies we’ve worked with that have really facilitated things. Earthquaker, who shot that video with us, opened up and said, “We think you might be interested in this,” [or], “What do you need from what we have to offer in order for you to do what you do?” So, we’ve had a nice exchange with them, similarly with Moog. The biggest one was with Rick Kelly and Carmine Street Guitars, who makes some of the most beautiful instruments that you can find.

J: And I’m drawn to Fender-style guitars. I like the single coils because I go through a lot of effects and I find Humbucker or Gibson-style guitars get very dark and kind of muddy too quickly for me, so I’m a fan of single-coils. I’m a kind of meat and potatoes guy, I love a nice telecaster; I like strats, and I don’t have any offsets, but I love those guitars. My keyboards, as Carter mentioned, we really like Moog and we’re appreciators of them. Also, we like Death by Audio pedals; although we don’t utilize a lot of them, we’re fans of them as well. But I like kind of cheap, electronic generators for me. We’re big fans of Critter and Guitari. By the time I put something like that through all my effects and I have 400 voices… I can give you a kind of underwater string orchestra. So I look at them as sort of generators. Moog very graciously gave us, for the Dead Don’t Die, a theremini, a little theremin half-toy.

I consider my guitars first as tone generators, or sound generators, and secondly as very beautiful and complex instruments that can be played to various degrees of expertise, mine being on the lower side of that scale. Ask any great guitarist; you’ll never fully figure out how to play the damn thing. They’re very mysterious, and I just love that. I love guitars. I think it’s one of the maybe four greatest inventions of the 20th century, an electrified guitar.

I had about 10 other questions prepared, and you guys answered pretty much all of them in your responses, so thank you for being so thorough. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

J: I’ll just say that when I first got an iPhone, one of the first apps I got on there was Tiny Mix Tapes. We do follow you guys, so we’re appreciative of you taking time to talk with us.