Having acted for luminaries such as David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers, Texas-born issue 28 cover star Caleb Landry Jones embodies an archetypal otherness, made all the more so through his avant-garde music. Sonic outlaws, authentic art statements and the darker angels of our nature: Welcome to his world
“You greasers have a different set of values. You’re more emotional. We’re sophisticated – cool to the point of not feeling anything.
Nothing is real with us.”
― SE Hinton, The Outsiders
Civilisation has always had a fascination with its outsiders, and perhaps more expressly, its rebels – those societal outlanders whose very existence seems antithetical to the maintenance of a consensual white-picket-fence status quo, or quote-unquote reality. This enchantment exists across most artistic mediums in the pantheon of Western culture, but it has some particularly frazzled outer edges in the acid-soaked sonic universe of ’60s psyche – perhaps best personified by the troubled likes of Kim Fowley, Roky Erickson and Joe Meek. While these iconic counter-culture figures belong firmly to the lysergic mythology of another era, it could be argued that they have something of a contemporary avatar in the form of our cover star Caleb Landry Jones – a 31-year-old ball of frenetic energy from Texas best known for his cameos of drugged-up, twitchy, switchblade-happy types in work by some of the most iconic auteurs of our era (David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers… the list goes on).
When he’s not busy ranting about suicide for David Lynch, or being unceremoniously thrown out of windows by the likes of Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), the charismatic actor embodies a somewhat archetypal otherness in real-life – not only in his often unkempt personal style and openness about the regular ingestion of what seems to be a fairly profound weight of marijuana, but also in his (lesser-known) avant-garde musical output. This sonic aspect of his creative verve first reached an audience in 2020 with the release of his debut album The Mother Stone, on Sacred Bones Records – a deeply anti-commercial experience in which a Beefheart-esque sensibility (circa Trout Mask Replica) is married with the tongue-in-cheek fuck-everything vibe of early-’90s intellectual super freaks, such as Ween and Butthole Surfers. Suffice to say, it’s a record that effortlessly pinballs around an otherworldly psychedelic universe, and is one that is increasingly name-checked in muso circles as the epitome of retro-fetishist cool – being favourably compared by some to the likes of the legendary White Album by The Beatles.
It’s the psyche-troubadour Caleb Landry Jones, rather than the actor, that I have in mind to interview when I hit him up on a Zoom call from London in order to discuss the upcoming chapter in his musical odyssey, which has been heralded by the release of the single ‘I’m on Top of the World’ – a track that I suggest to him wouldn’t sound out of place on an early offering by The Kinks (…had north London’s finest whimsical dandies been mainlining DMT). “The Kinks! It’s always The Kinks,” enthuses Landry Jones while steadying his blacked-out smartphone to reveal a pair of feral blue eyes and a rat’s nest of long, tousled hair. I’m immediately struck that he resembles one of the hippies living on Spahn Movie Ranch in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and, as it turns out, he’s actually hiding out from the global pandemic in a barn on his parents’ farm in Texas. It seems apparent that like so many American outsiders, his roots lie firmly in her vast open spaces. “Man, I was obsessed with The Kinks when I was about 20 years old and I bought The Village Green Preservation Society. I was living in New Orleans and listening to that album all the time. I just couldn’t get enough of that record, even if a lot of its riffs are stolen from Howlin’ Wolf.” He half-laughs half-coughs as he mentions the blues legend, breaking out a lupine grin that feels as though it might crack the screen that divides us – it’s emblematic of an enthusiastic zeal that proves infectious.
“When you’re in certain pockets of making music, or certain aspects of making, just like with filmmaking, there’s certain moments where you’re allowed this kind of freedom, you know?” offers the multi-instrumentalist at an all-tabs-open pace when I kick off by asking what he finds creatively fulfilling about the process of music-making, as opposed to that of taking on a role. “The music is on my own dime, and it’s all about what can happen in the process. I don’t have any conception of what I’m doing sometimes when I sit down at the piano, except maybe a feeling?” he continues, displaying a tendency to almost ask himself questions as he rockets along a meandering but enlightening internal freeway of thought. “I just try to see how close I can get to what’s in my head, and how exact I can get it, and then to see whether or not it will become something completely different. I might not feel sad, but sadness comes out; I might feel angry, but somehow the sounds come out kind of jolly. There’s no control, but maybe just a possibility of something extraordinary happening, from kind of just letting whatever happens, happen.”
And what happens is a rare kind of weird that is all at once an ironic vaudevillian psyche-rock circus and a deeply heartfelt outpouring of emotion – crash landing somewhere in the surreal yet emotive landscape of near-mythic artists such as Vivian Stanshall and Daniel Johnston. “Sometimes you can hear things in music and see things in art, and it’s kind of naked – you can see struggle there, or something, and I love that,” he says, when I ask if the latter lo-fi legend is an influence. “I was actually watching footage of Daniel Johnston playing in a record store somewhere in Austin just the other day, and, you know, he begins crying while he’s talking about the Judgement. He’s going through something right there! He’s letting it all hang out. It just gives me so much peace and joy to see people do that,” he continues apace. “I guess I’m very drawn to artists that do their own thing; I really identify with that, and I think it’s up to artists and folks to keep pushing for that space. I’m so sick of all the talk about a little materialistic world, and the aspects of life that, you know, the magazines show you…” he laughs, a little conspiratorially, as if checking his manners.
This seeming commitment to a kind of authentic honesty or emotion in art begs the question as to whether there’s a self-healing aspect to the reason he himself makes music? “Oh yeah. A hundred per cent, man. It sounds stupid, but when music doesn’t do it, those are the scary, scary times. When you sit down at the piano because you’re about to do something really stupid, you are giving yourself the shot to let this be the stupid thing that you do, and that it can maybe turn into something. When that doesn’t work, I don’t know what to do, you know? And sometimes that doesn’t work, and that’s really tough.”
Given some of the visceral places he has been to as an actor, not least the suicidal abusive junkie boyfriend of Amanda Seyfried’s wide-eyed high-school beauty in David Lynch’s opus Twin Peaks: The Return, I wonder if music is a way for him to battle certain real-life demons. “I definitely got some kind of sick disease in my head at 18, or something like that, and it was the sense that this ride wasn’t going to last too long,” he explains. “I was on a very self-destructive path in a lot of ways, and that feeling was just in my head all the time. It felt kind of like the Cheshire Cat sitting up there in the tree – just always there. I hated it, and I didn’t know what to do about it, but every time I made music it felt like I was making sense of something; even if I listened back and it was complete nonsense, it felt like there was something there.”
I can’t help but think it’s significant that Landry Jones seeks some kind of salvation in music because his childhood entrée into a musical universe first came in the environs of the church, playing with his friend in a worship group: “Church was the first kind of space I could make music, but me and my buddy couldn’t make the noises we wanted to make, because as kids we were already way into stuff that was never going to be in the Sunday worship.” But it isn’t only music that has arguably saved him from the darker angels of his nature; acting also proved cathartic in allowing him to actually play them out. “I didn’t scream very much as a teenager… I didn’t yell, I didn’t get angry. There was this aggression in certain aspects of me that was really kind of dormant,” he remembers. “I didn’t know how to allow myself to have these feelings, but some of these characters that I’ve gotten to play have allowed me to kind of push myself in ways that I’ve always been afraid to. It has definitely forced me to look at myself in a lot of different ways and kind of stretch a lot of the things that I was too afraid to look at, or didn’t know how to talk about. I mean, I have been so lucky with the directors I’ve worked with – people I really think of as artists. When I was a kid, to think I would even work with one of those directors, man…”
At this point in our conversation, his face suddenly lights up, and he smiles as his girlfriend arrives with a ready-made joint for him, which he begins to smoke with an almost tangible sense of relief. It makes me think of a quote from Cronenberg’s celluloid vision of Naked Lunch, stolen by Bomb The Bass to introduce their 1995 album Clear: “I think it’s time we discussed your, ah, philosophy of drug use as it relates to artistic endeavour.” So I ask him why he smokes pot, and what happens if he doesn’t. “I don’t like finding out, because the time before that it was, yeah… so messy,” he says, taking a long drag. “Since I was 20, I haven’t really wanted to find out too much what life will be like otherwise, because it’s become such a way of…” He breaks off, thoughtfully, then leans into the screen and animatedly asks me if I’ve seen Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Thankfully, I have, and it helps me make some sense of his next metaphorical leap (spoiler alert: at the end of the 1972 sci-fi classic, we leave its astronaut protagonist wandering inside a facsimile of his childhood home on Earth drawn from his own memory, safely floating somewhere in outer space, surrounded by the gentle rain of a sentient ocean). “I guess I like to think of this cloud being around my head, just like this kind of rain around the house in Solaris, and that kind of keeps everything in; otherwise, I can feel like things are happening too fast, or emotions or thoughts are maybe going too fast… I don’t know,” he says, breaking off to further ponder the creative value of the psychoactive herb. “I’ll smoke to write a song, and then, when I start recording, I won’t smoke anymore. By the time I’m done recording, I won’t be high. I edit sober and then I get high again, so then I have to re-edit again. I feel like all those things need to happen, so that other things can happen – there’s no time that goes to waste, as long as you’re, you know, doing it.”
There being no time to waste seems to be absolutely key to Landry Jones’s creative drive, and it’s clear he is for a no-holds-barred approach to creating, rather than one defined by preachy pseudo-moral parameters. “I think it’s becoming more and more important for people to get out there and make stuff and not give two fucks,” he says. “I think it’s vital. I was kind of ranting a bit about this to my girlfriend last night, but I do think there is this responsibility that we have to keep pushing ourselves to keep doing whatever we think is right for ourselves; I mean… what’s beautiful?” There is another pause as this sudden questioning self-reflection ricochets across his skull. “Some people, like my brother, believe there is beauty, and then there’s ugly, and that is definitive, you know? Just like there’s good and evil. But I don’t believe that. I know that sometimes I look at things and I go – that’s beautiful, but it’s also disgusting. I tend to then think back to the Greeks, and how you were not allowed to play this note or play that note because it would rub someone the wrong way. How far does that go?”
It’s a salient and refreshing point of view in an era seemingly defined by wannabe celebrity and fear of social-media censure. In fact, it seems for Landry Jones there should be almost no constriction to the limits of self-actualisation, which might go some way to explain why he is drawn to playing anti-heroes on-screen, and making music that is genuinely impossible to pigeonhole. “You know, I’d like to think that everything happens for a reason,” he says, when I ask him if he is fatalistic, or believes in a random sequential order of things, as we draw to the close of what has been nothing less than an exhilarating rollercoaster of a conversation. “But then some things happen and you go, Okay… if that happened for a reason, then what the hell am I supposed to get from it? There is probably always something that I’m supposed to learn, though, from everything.” These final thoughts, before we amiably wave goodbye across the digital stratosphere, call to mind the sentiment of another outsider with a penchant for exploring the vast inner landscapes of the human soul – that one need only to buy the ticket, and take the ride.
This story is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here
Jones wears Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello SSS21 throughout
Photography Rahim Fortune
Styling Jai Midgette
Grooming Heather Fitzgerald