Jim Jarmusch and the music of The Limits of Control

Scott Macaulay talks to Jim Jarmusch about the hypnotic musical elements in his new film, The Limits of Control.

As the Lone Man makes his trek through Spain in Jim Jarmusch’s new film, The Limits of Control, his journey is underscored by sonically rich, pulsing electric guitar music, an ambient haze evocative of explorations in both inner and outer spaces. This music comes from not a traditional soundtrack composer but from an assortment of artists whose similarities and differences are plot points all their own. There are cuts from several difficult-to-describe experimental guitar bands, there’s classical music, traditional flamenco as well as an aching, gorgeous song that belongs to the musical tradition of peteneras, a hit from LCD Soundsystem and finally, cuts from Jarmusch’s own band, Bad Rabbit. Below Jarmusch discusses how he discovered all this music and wove it into his film.

How do you describe the music of some of these bands like Boris, Sunn O))) and Earth that you’ve featured in The Limits of Control?

I don’t know what genre it is. They call it all kinds of things — space metal, doom, neo-psychedelic stoner sludge — but whatever category it is, that musical landscape is amazing.

Your use of music here reminded me a little bit of the way you used Neil Young’s score in Dead Man. Electric guitar dominates, and it’s not so much guitar as a melodic element than as a textural one.

Well, to me, electric guitars are one of the great inventions of the 20th century, along with quantum physics, the human genome and the bikini, I guess. I’ve been a Boris fan for probably ten years ever since someone gave me a cassette of Amplifier Worship. I’ve been exploring all this stuff for a while, from Earth and Sleep and Om and High on Fire and certainly Sunn O))). I was listening to a lot of this stuff [while writing], and I thought, I don’t want to have someone make a score, I wanted to do what I did on Broken Flowers with the Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke. I wanted to create a score out of existing music and edit it [together]. I started collecting stuff, and by the time I cut the film I had a whole file of music to work with in the editing room.

Did the process of listening to this music and choosing some of it while writing and shooting push the narrative in any particular direction?

That’s very hard to answer because those things overlap and are intertwined in so many ways. Certainly some of the music inspired some of the editing of the film, and it inspired atmospheric things that are kind of intangible and only in my imagination. I don’t like film music that feels slapped on the surface of the images. I like it to be woven into the mood of the film. The music was inspiring on a lot of levels — I wasn’t listening to it on the set or anything, but certain qualities were pushing me forward in an abstract way.

How much does the imagery and theatrical presentation of Sunn O))) and some of these other bands affect your listening of them? Do you connect to the so-called black metal content?

Jarmusch: Not really. I got to see Sunn O))) play maybe four months ago at the Knitting Factory. They play once every five years, so it’s hard to see them. I certainly knew their music, but it was the first time I saw them live. There are visual references to metal — they wear long hooded cloaks, they have smoke machines, and when they play kids make this claw shape with their hand and drag it down in slow motion through the air. [When I saw them] they just played one piece of music that was an hour-and-a-half long, just the two of them playing guitars, feedback, distortion, chords they would let ring for 30 seconds before they’d go to another chord, and while I was listening to this beautiful musical landscape going by, which was extremely loud, I was thinking man, if I were blindfolded and hearing this music for the first time, these visual references would be completely unimportant. In other words, I might think this was avant-garde electronically generated so-called classical music. Or, you could play it alongside Morton Feldman or Glenn Branca. I’ve seen Boris play a lot and it’s amazing to watch how carefully they are listening to what they are doing and constructing it as they are going along. They are much more like jazz musicians — I don’t mean musically, but in the way they construct something by listening so intently. Visually, what does that link to black metal mean? I’m not sure.

It’s always struck me as interesting because, like you, I’m reminded of composers like Iannis Xennakis or Glenn Branca when I listen to some of these bands, but to a younger audience these bands are a descendent of metal.

Maybe it’s kind of an unconscious trick to draw people into their music by having some reference point. But the music stands on its own so beautifully. I’m really attracted to how slow it is. Sunn O))) is probably the slowest rock group on the planet, and Earth has aspirations to be one of the slowest bands in the world.

What is some of the other music heard in the movie?

There’s the Schubert, an adagio from his string quartet. Over the last years I find myself making mix tapes of classical music using only the slow movements, or adagios, from quartets and string orchestras. It has again to do with that slowness, which connects to Earth and Boris. And we haven’t mentioned the Black Angels, a band from Austin I really love. We took a piece of one of their songs, “You on the Run,” and slowed it down and maintained the pitch. It’s an instrumental part, and they were cool with that. We also have a track from LCD Soundsystem [“Daft Punk is Playing at my House”] that everyone is familiar with. And then my band Bad Rabbit made some recordings for the museum sequences in the film. In the existing file I just didn’t find things that were exactly right for that, so we decided to record some of our own.

Tell me about Bad Rabbit. Is it an ongoing project?

Well we have two tracks on the soundtrack record that are in the film, and then we have an EP with those two plus two more that are going to come out with the film, and we are in the process of recording an album-length record. It’s very slow, very psychedelic, and a little thick, sort of in the vein of this [doom] music, this category we are trying to categorize. Carter Logan plays drums, I play guitars, and on the album there are some vocals that I do, and then there is Shane Stoneback, who is our kind of wizard. We record in his studio, he is our engineer and produces the stuff with us, and he lays on other instruments.

How about the flamenco music? How did you find that beautiful song that is played during the flamenco sequence?

When I was preparing the film in Spain, I was doing a lot of research into flamenco music. A friend turned me on to a certain form of flamenco called peteneras. It’s a slow form of flamenco that goes back to the 14th century, and it’s oddly enough a taboo form among most flamenco people because it has a long history of bad things happening. It’s kind of shunned. It doesn’t involve a lot of foot stamping, more hand gestures, so, as a dance, that linked it to our tai chi stuff in the film. I was interested in it being almost the blues version of the flamenco. It’s often about tragic subjects — death, lost love — and I discovered this one particular song that has an incredible existing version by Carmen Linares, one of the most amazing flamenco singers. I asked the dancer La Truco, [the singer] Talegón de Córdoba and the guitarist Jorge Rodriguez Padilla, the people who were preparing flamenco for our film, if they’d be willing to create something based on this traditional song. At first, they were like, “It’s a peteneras, it’s taboo, it’s got all this bad luck associated with it.” And then they came back and said, “We love this form and we don’t think it should be shunned.” So the song is in the film both a version by Carmen Linares and a version by Talegón De Córdoba with the guitarist [Padilla] and the dancer La Truco. I ended weaving its lyrics throughout the entire film. “He who thinks he is bigger than the rest must go to the cemetery, there he will see what life really is. It is a handful of dirt, a handful of dust…” — that comes from that song.

What about the other flamenco song in the movie?

There is an amazing record store in Madrid that only [sells] flamenco stuff, and there is an old guy there who is an expert in the history of flamenco. I asked him, “What are the oldest recordings you have, the earliest ones?” He went upstairs and brought me back this two CD set of flamenco recordings made in the 1920s on wax cylinders. So [one of those], a little piece performed by Manuel El Sevillano, found its way in the film. I even wrote in the dialogue that the guitar in the film is supposed to be the same guitar used by Manuel El Sevillano on the recording. All these things just keep getting woven into the film somehow.

The soundtrack to The Limits of Control is currently available from Lakeshore Records.