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Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonny Greenwood on ‘Junun’ and the Possibility of Making a Radiohead Documentary

Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonny Greenwood, and Shye Ben Tzur discuss the joy of "Junun," and the possibility of making more music together.

“Junun”

This music, and this movie, reliably make me happy at a time when happiness is increasingly precious, and I want to thank you all for that. To some extent, it feels as though happiness was this prime directive of this project — early in the film, someone holds a sign to the camera that says “Have a great time!,” and the rest of the film seems to confirm that you did. Was this experience rooted in joy in a way that your creative processes usually aren’t, or can’t afford to be?

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: That’s a really good question. …Jonny?

JONNY GREENWOOD: A lot of the music is very joyful, it’s devotional. It’s very uplifting, and the whole atmosphere of recording was like that.

NIGEL GODRICH: It’s not sort of what we usually do, is it? [laughs]

GREENWOOD: Not really!

GODRICH: The sign that says “Have a great time!” was put in the case by Radiohead’s big, big chief tech who helped us pack everything up before we left, and I think it sort of articulated very well the whole idea. We were all just going on this trip, and we didn’t really know what to expect from our point of view, and it was kind of like “Have a nice time on your holiday!” And I think we just ended up having a very nice time. Indeed, it was an amazing experience. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life, to go on that trip. It was really incredible. Shye was an amazing host. Paul is Paul, Jonny is Jonny… it was very good company. I’ll start to cry in a minute. [laughs]

How did this project come about, and — for Shye and Jonny — how was Paul brought in to your collaboration? Was the idea always to document the experience, or did Paul catch wind of it and ask to tag along?

ANDERSON: Working backwards… I obviously know Jonny, and Jonny said, “do you want to go to India?” And I said, “yes!” [laughs] And then I said, “great, what are we doing?” I was really backtracking to whatever idea he thought I’d be interested in doing, but then I got even more interested when he introduced me to Shye’s music, and then I got even more interested when Shye would send videos of the brass band rehearsing. And then everything just became like a travel brochure where you can’t even believe what’s coming to you. The question of how these two met I will leave to these two…

SHYE BEN TZUR: I was playing in Calcutta and I got a call from a friend who knows Jonny and he told me that Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead liked my music, and if I would like to meet him. And so I was very happy about that! [laughs]

ANDERSON: What happened in between?

GREENWOOD: It was actually that very embarrassing thing of me watching a band play and them not being very good, and they played one song that was great and… you know when you see something and you have to say one good thing? So you latch on to it… so I latched on to say, “that last song you played was amazing!” And they said, “yeah, we didn’t write that, it was composed by this guy called Shye Ben Tzur.” That was the first time I’d heard his name, and I just followed that through and actually met him.

It seems like all of the things that would have been massive annoyances on a film set, or in a recording studio, were embraced as blessings in this process. The power outages add great texture to the movie, the birds made it on to the “Junun” album, the camera is constantly finding focus and revealing the shadow of whomever is holding it, but those moments were kept in the final cut. It reminds me of what Jack Horner said in Boogie Nights: “There are shadows in life, baby!” Was it liberating for you all — artists known for certain perfectionist tendencies — to embrace an anything goes mentality?

TZUR: From a musical perspective, I’ve been working with Indian music for the last 20 years, and living in India for 15 years. When Jonny and I met to talk about music, we didn’t have an agenda to do anything, and it was a very fascinating meeting and we became friends, and somehow the project evolved in a natural way. And when Jonny came in also to produce the album, and he got Nigel also to come and do the whole studio, one of the things I remember was that we kind of drew lines — borders of what we shouldn’t do. Jonny insisted that we shouldn’t use any stringed instruments besides the ones native to the region. He should said we should narrow it down to the Indian musicians, and then narrow it down even more to Indian musicians from Rajasthan.

After that, Jonny was listening to the compositions, and he thought the compositions in and of themselves were in the realm of North Indian music, which means they use scales — which we calls ragas — and the aesthetics of North Indian music is based on these scales, whereas Western music is based on harmonies and chord progressions. So Jonny was insisting that we should not use Western harmonies, and to only use chords then in a very delicate manner. This discipline made everything fascinating. We had these limitations, and because of that we had a lot of freedom to explore within these limitations and then the rest was just the glorious feeling of playing music with Jonny.

GREENWOOD: In my head, I just thought this was like a James Brown tape in a way — ecstatic. There’s no major or minor in Indian music, which is very peculiar for someone who’s used to playing with Radiohead and coming up with chord sequences. You can’t rely on that. As soon as you start imposing chords on this kind of music, you pin it down and force melodies onto it to have some sort of harmonic language that they don’t really have, their music is more ambiguous than that.

Nigel, is there anything that Jonny can’t do?

NIGEL GODRICH: Lots, yeah. [big laughs]

This isn’t the first time that you and Jonny have recorded together in some unusual spaces. You recorded “A Moon Shaped Pool” in a refurbished 19th century French mill that makes art pigment, and “OK Computer” in Jane Seymour’s mansion… how does a recording space affect the music, and would you ever try locking Radiohead in a location like this for three weeks and forcing them to produce an album in that time?

GODRICH: The power cuts would drive Thom crazy. [laughs] When we started talking about doing it, and Shye was sending me all these videos and Jonny was explaining the idea of the project, we were discussing where and how to do it. The first thought was to do it “in the desert,” a generic idea of going into the middle of nowhere, and I thought that wasn’t really possible. So I asked what was available in terms of studios in India, but there wasn’t really anything applicable. There probably were studios, but they don’t really exist anymore. We’ve built studios in very weird locations in the past, but never abroad. We’ve done it in England and it’s always very fruitful — the reason to do that is to create an ambiance, and to create a place that’s never been used as a studio before you really create all sorts of things that can’t be explained, all sorts of nice surprises.

So the idea here was to say “fuck it,” and put it all in a box and ship it out there. We were fortunate the box showed up with everything in it, because Paul was waiting for some camera equipment that never came. It got to customs, got sent back to America… he ended up filming the whole thing on a very small camera. It looks amazing, but talk about limitations! For me, I was having a ball, I brought everything I wanted with me. I had a lot of fun. The pigeons were actually in a big space underneath our palace that was reverberant, and so all of the reverb and echo on the record was natural. It just happened to be full of pigeons as well. So you get a lot of that coming through the recording, but it all adds something to it.

So in short [laughs], this plan would have worked for anyone, in any situation. Would I love to do it with Radiohead? Yes I would dearly love to do that. Could you get them to go there? Probably not.

Just show the rest of the band the movie — it’s convincing.

GODRICH: I’ll do that.

Paul, so much of this movie feels spontaneous, and impossible to plan in advance. At the same time, your mind is such a steel trap of film references… were there any music documentaries that you were drawing from, consciously or not? 

ANDERSON: Well, Jonathan Demme was the best person to shoot anybody playing music, so I had anything Jonathan Demme in my head, whether it was “Stop Making Sense,” or even just the New Order “Perfect Kiss” video, which proves that if you just hold on someone playing music you’ll be alright — if they’re interesting. And Demme had said something like, “pure cinema is someone playing music,” and that rang around my head. And then funny enough I got back home and I got this box set sent to me with this concert film in it… “Tremors?” Not the one you’re thinking of.

Not the one with the giant worms?

ANDERSON: No, it’s a great film about this North African band, and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project refurbished it [the film is Ahmed El Maânouni’s “Trances,” about the Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane]. It’s a great film. I wish I had seen it in time! But I just tried to keep it simple. It was a limited thing… just one room to fill these guys, but they were so good that it was easy to find shots.

Shye, you had written the spine of these songs before the band arrived at the fort to record them. How much did the music change and evolve once everyone got together?

TZUR: The music itself comes from very specific Indian traditions. In the group itself, which we named The Rajasthan Express, there were three types of musical traditions. One of the elements was the Qawwali. They are Sufi musicians from Southeast Asia. Sufis are the mystics of Islam, and the biggest Sufi order is called Chishti, which is named after the Sufi saint who came from Iran in the 12th century. And he came by walking to India, and he brought the message of brotherhood. Around his grave there is a holy shrine where people basically practice their music, and that genre is Qawwadi. It’s very trance-oriented, the lyrics are all very passionate and they talk about the relation between the human and the divine. “Junun” itself is derived from the poetry of one of the Sufi saints, so there was this element of this ecstatic poetry of love, poetry to God. When you read the translation it’s almost a romantic poetry between a man and a woman, or between two humans.

So some of the melodies have been made in this atmosphere. One of the other traditions was that of Muslim gypsies who used to sing for the Hindu mahrajahs. If the Sufi musicians are devotional musicians, these musicians are masters of entertainment. They’ve been entertaining the maharajas for centuries. And this fort, the maharajah there is basically a patron of the their art. So this is another ingredient of The Rajasthan Express. The third ingredient is the brass. The brass tradition arrived in India with the British, and they’ve been basically playing in different parades. I’ve always seen these brass bands playing at weddings and funerals and ceremonies, and I was always fascinated by them. And I thought maybe one day… but they never played together with these other traditions. But I played them for Jonny and he said, “this should be the sound of the album.” So we brought the brass in. And then drums. We didn’t want to make a National Geographic album just to document the different kinds of music, that was not fascinating. But then Jonny said, “can’t we find other drums, that are like a drum set but not Western?” So then I spoke to my beautiful friend, Nathoo, and he can explain the tradition of his drums.

NATHULAL SOLANKI: Hi, everybody! Most welcome, thank you so much. When I didn’t know Jonny, I met first with Shye. I’ve known him for a long time. This is my dream… up to this film and this music, I’ve never played in my life for this many people. Like one million people. This is our dream. We are so proud that Shye chose us, both Muslims and Hindus together. I play the nagara, which is a little like kettledrums. It’s loud and mostly played in temples. And my brother was a very special master of this… and he died on the stage of New York’s Town Hall 20 years ago. It was the second time he played, and he died on the stage. So I’m so proud to be here, so proud to play with Shye, we are all one group together, Hindus and Muslims… we are so proud that people know our music. And we are so happy.

Audience Question: Jonny, what was different about your creative approach to this project, relative to your work with Radiohead or on movie scores? 

GREENWOOD: It was more about just trying to talk to Shye about an approach. It’s funny, when lots of Westerners go to India they make music with lots of respect, but sometimes it feels a bit like there’s too much respect. People can be too wary, too wary to make anything that captures the real roughness of some of this music, especially the way the brass bands play when they’re following processions and weddings down backstreets and the like. I think most people miss the point of Indian music when they don’t hear the tension or the excitement or the passion, and we were just responding to that. We did lots of the singing with the singers holding microphones… it was a little bit hip-hop, actually.

GODRICH: Those guys doing vocals was fascinating, because I didn’t know what they were saying, and some of the singers — the girls — were singing in languages that the other singers didn’t know. They were being taught phonetically.

GREENWOOD: There’s a hi-fi obsession to recording world music that we find a bit off-putting.

GODRICH: There’s no dirt.

Audience Question: Can we expect another Junun album?

GREENWOOD: So we were standing in the back for the first half of this film, getting very nostalgic and talking about how we may want to do it again… so we’re talking about it.

GODRICH: I can’t really communicate just how well this film communicates our experience, my experience, the whole kind of anarchy and craziness of this… all of the episodes that Paul has craftily, artistically put together in a way that plays like to me… it just made me really nostalgic, it made me miss it, it’s such an accurate representation. Watching it again, I was just remembering the magic of the whole thing, and it really was magic. Paul is quite good, it turns out. [laughs]

Audience Question: Jonny, do you remember what you were thinking when you wrote the music for “Paranoid Android?” 

GREENWOOD: My wife is pointing at her watch and yawning, I think. Not at you… but she’s like, “why aren’t you playing music, yet?” Honestly, I can’t remember. Genuinely, how I wrote it was not knowing what the notes are that high on the fret board and just choosing a pattern, so it was done quite freely and off the bat.

Jonny, Radiohead has been the subject of a documentary before: Grant Gee’s “Meeting People Is Easy.” But that film is decidedly less… joyful than “Junun.” Have you and Paul ever considered making a sequel of sorts, a tour or concert documentary from a different, more well-adjusted period in your life?

ANDERSON: With some laughs in it, you mean?

GREENWOOD: [long pause] I like an awkward silence. [laughs] I don’t know, yeah?

Audience Question: Shye, can you talk about the Hebrew element in your music?

TZUR: I grew up in Israel, and I’ve played music since I was a young boy. And when I heard Indian music I was just in high school and I was so taken with it that I decided I must go to India and see where it comes from. I didn’t know that I would end up spending over 15 years there. I studied Indian music in the traditional manner… it’s an oral tradition, it’s been taught, and I went to a master and I lived with him, and I was so moved. But it was a very hard period. I remember waking up at 4am and singing one note for two hours. It was very intense for me, and I was the only foreigner.

I would read poetry just to comfort my own loneliness, and I was reading a Sufi poet, and in the introduction of the book it said, “a man who does not speak in his language becomes dumb, even if he learns 100 songs.” As I read that, it felt so true. I was learning a musical language which has no borders to it, but I was learning to sing words that didn’t really mean so much to me at the time. So I just started to express my own feelings in a language from where I come from, which is Hebrew, and that’s how I started writing poetry in Hebrew and expressing my own personal dialogue of feeling in a North Indian tradition. And on the this album there’s a line where I sing, “to the Jews, I am a Jew. To the Muslims, I am a Muslim. In every dialect I speak, my language is one. Allah Elohim.” There is one language beyond language, and that’s what I feel and I feel very happy that I got to express that by the album and a film. For me as a viewer watching “Junun” I appreciate that there’s not really an identity to people as individuals, there’s just the oneness that happened in that room, which was music, and the feeling of unity.

“Junun” is available to rent or buy on MUBI and on iTunes. The album is widely available, and is streaming on Spotify. Radiohead is currently on tour — tickets are very, very sold out. 

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