In a way, the story of dirge-rock group SQÜRL is a very modern one, owned by sworn songsmiths across the globe. It is the tale — albeit set in the shadowy extremes of the limelight — of ardent artists … who happen to have consuming full-time jobs.
SQÜRL is peopled by three such individuals: Jim Jarmusch, Carter Logan, and Shane Stoneback.
You likely know Jarmusch (pictured above at left) as a filmmaker: hallmark of American independent film since the 1980s and most recently renowned for the exquisite Only Lovers Left Alive, the most elegant entry into the largely camp canon of vampire movies since Tony Scott’s The Hunger. Logan (above, at right) is a film producer who has worked with Jarmusch on his movies for the past six years, and Stoneback is a go-to recording engineer and producer best known for his recent work with Vampire Weekend, Cults, and Sleigh Bells.
But in those precious gaps between commitments, these three come together to create their own slow, gritty, and rich brand of rock — usually played out via a shady haze of distorted, droning guitars and disaffected vocal melodies set to big yet somnambulant beats. The result is akin to a sonic blanket woven from the threads of Low, Dinosaur Jr., and My Bloody Valentine, with a healthy dash of Country & Western thrown in for good measure.
Given the limits on its members’ time over the last couple of years, SQÜRL has been surprisingly prolific: three EPs (their third, the boldly named EP #3, was released in November) and a full-blown soundtrack for Only Lovers Left Alive, on which they collaborated with Cults vocalist Madeline Follin and Dutch composer Jozef van Wissem, among others.
“We thought the ideal thing for our band was to make EPs, so that we could record things in sort of more frequent but shorter bursts, because we are all busy doing other things,” Jarmusch explains during my recent conversation with him and Logan for DINOSAUR. “So we thought, ‘Well, this way we could just keep doing this forever,’ and every three or four months go in for a few days and record enough for another EP without the kind of weight of the convention of an album-length release.”
But there’s more to it than that. “We love the length of EPs somehow,” he adds. “It’s enough to digest, and you don’t get sick of the same sound and, [laughing] … I don’t know; that’s probably not the best way to put it. It leaves you wanting more, we hope.”
SQÜRL itself was born of similar pragmatism. Soundtrack gaps revealed in the editing of Jarmusch’s 2009 film The Limits of Control sparked an impromptu collaboration with producer (and fellow musician) Logan and, ultimately, Stoneback.
“There was no composer on the film when we started, and we were using all source music — so all existing music by artists like Sunn O))) and Boris and Earth and the Black Angels,” explains Logan. “There were some sections of the film where we couldn’t find the right existing music, so Jim kind of turned to me one day and said, ‘You know, I play guitar and you play the drums, and between us we can play some other things, too. Why don’t we just go into the studio and see what we can do for this, for these couple scenes?’”
Enter Stoneback, whom Jarmusch had met and worked with some years earlier, when Jack White commissioned the filmmaker to do a remix of the White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid” (which was released as a double-A-sided 12-inch with another remix by Michel Gondry). “And so we knew who the third part of this collaboration needed to be,” Logan continues. “We called up Shane, and we went to his studio, Tree Fort in Brooklyn.” They were there for a few days and came back with some tracks. “Jim brought them into the editing room, and some of them worked.”
“Yeah, it just felt right,” Jarmusch adds. “We were like, ‘Oh, man, let’s keep doing this,” you know. We just started going in and recording whenever we could.”
But SQÜRL is not just confined to the vacuum of the recording studio. In fact, they’ll be unleashing their messy, slow-churning maelstrom upon the public this year in a series of performances centered around live-scoring a collection of short silent films made in the 1920s by American Dadaist and Surrealist Man Ray.
“We were talking about doing a score to a silent film and possibly releasing it on a DVD; that was like a year or so ago,” says Jarmusch. Then they homed in on the Man Ray films, and that caught the interest of John Schaefer from New York public radio station WNYC, host of long-running programs Soundcheck and New Sounds. “He does a series of films with mostly sort of rock/avant-rock people doing live scores,” explains Jarmusch. “[He] asked us if we would do it in his program, which is where we’re first doing it in February.”
The world premiere will be on February 17, to be exact, at New York’s Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, as part of this year’s New Sounds Live “Silent Films/Live Music” series. (Admission is free!) They’ll perform in the program again on February 19, with other appearances later in the year at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City.
Given their “marginal” approach to all things SQÜRL, a proper tour is surely not in the cards. But, selfishly, I have to ask.
“Well, we’re not opposed to doing that,” Jarmusch allows. “We would actually like to do that, but it’s awfully tricky with all of our other projects. We are in the middle of making this film about The Stooges, and Carter’s the producer.” They have a new feature project slated to be shot next fall, he adds, noting that Logan is also in another band, the Space Merchants. Not to mention “a few other projects” Jarmusch has in store, including “something I’m working on with Robert Wilson and Phil Kline for 2016 … a Wilson kind of theater-opera piece about Nikola Tesla. So we gotta a lot of stuff going on, y’know?”
Jarmusch confides that what he’d like to do is have a sort of “residence.” ““We’d love, maybe in the summer, to set up a month in New York where we play once a week somewhere and invite other bands for each show, but we haven’t quite gotten around to setting that up [laughs].”
As our conversation winds down, I can’t help asking about their band name. As a Blue Öyster Cult fan, I love a good unnecessary umlaut.
“Yeah, we’re fans of those, too,” Logan laughs.
“Yeah, it’s just for effect,” Jarmusch adds. “We had a funny thing happen — I think I said this, I don’t know, in another interview — but when we said, ‘Our band’s called SQÜRL, with an umlaut,’ this friend of mine who was born in Europe said, ‘Well, I guess you realize that in Europe that would then be pronounced skwee-rull.’” When Jarmusch told his bandmates, they replied, “‘Hey, man, it’s an umlaut — it’s an American affectation. Go tell your friend, does he pronounce it Meeterhead? Does he say Blue Eester Cult?’ So they had a whole list — ‘Is it Meetly Creeoo?’
“So I said, ‘OK, you’re right; it’s an American affectation — so fuck off!’ [laughs].”