Rick Kelly with Anne-Katrin Titze at Carmine Street Guitars on instigator Jim Jarmusch: "I really like The Limits of Control because there's some of my dialogue that's in that movie." Photo: Ed Bahlman
In Ron Mann's welcoming Carmine Street Guitars (a New York Film Festival highlight in Spotlight on Documentary), dedicated to Jonathan Demme, featuring the mastery of Rick Kelly and Cindy Hulej we go into the woods.
Jim Jarmusch, along with Eszter Balint, Patti Smith's Lenny Kaye, Bill Frisell, Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan, Jimmy in Richard Linklater's Boyhood), Marc Ribot (Alexandre Moors' The Yellow Birds), Eleanor Friedberger, Christine Bougie of the Bahamas, Wilko's Nels Cline, The Roots' Kirk Douglas, Jamie Hince of The Kills, Lou Reed's guitar tech Stewart Hurwood, Dallas Good and Travis Good of The Sadies, who also composed the music for the documentary, all appear in the shop and play guitar except one.
Rick Kelly: "I really appreciate that when I come in and there's nobody up and it's really quiet in the shop." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
On a cold rainy evening I went to meet Rick and Cindy for a conversation on Carmine Street Guitars with Ed Bahlman, whose 99 Records, a vital source of independent music, was located nearby on MacDougal Street.
Anne-Katrin Titze: First of all, I love the smell back here.
Rick Kelly: It's nice, right? The wood smell is awesome.
AKT: Yes, I love it. My grandfather was managing a lumber company, so this is the smell of my childhood, playing in the lumberyard.
RK: Me too, yeah.
AKT: What's your connection?
RK: My grandfather, same way. You know, go with him to the lumberyards when we were kids. Ever since then, I just had that feeling around wood. It's real nice.
AKT: So it was actually the wood that came before the guitars?
RK: No, I'd say even-steven.
AKT: Well, nobody will ever ask you to decide between them.
Carmine Street Guitars' Cindy Hulej talks music with Ed Bahlman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
RK: I like the trees and the story where the wood comes from as much as working with it.
AKT: It's probably my favorite moment in the film, when you say that you're giving wood a new life.
RK: Yeah, it's true. It becomes a musical instrument that'll way outlive us. And it'll hopefully carry on making music for generations to come.
AKT: It's a new language for it, in a way. Also you are using pieces of wood that were in old city buildings. So this is the third life.
RK: Yes, true. First it was a tree, then it was a building, now it's a guitar.
AKT: There are variations of an old folktale about secrets. A man finds out a secret about the ruler of the land and he is sworn to secrecy, that he will never tell this embarrassing secret or he will be beheaded. But he cannot keep the secret and he goes to a meadow and whispers the secret into a hole in the ground. And then a tree grows out of that hole.
And then the wood from the tree is turned into an instrument. And that instrument makes an unusual and unique sound - it keeps repeating the secret that was told in the beginning.
Rick Kelly: "I like the trees and the story where the wood comes from as much as working with it." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
RK: Wow, that's pretty cool. That's beautiful.
AKT: I thought about that tale when I saw the film. The wood you are using is telling the secrets of New York. Are there people who come in here that you are in awe with?
RK: Oh, everybody thinks I have the best job in the world, that's for sure.
AKT: Are there still people whom you are waiting for to get their guitar with you?
RK: I mean, I'm always getting new orders. There's always new people and you meet a lot of people.
AKT: Your mother [Dorothy Kelly] is listening to big band music in the film, while working. How is she?
RK: She's good. She just left a little while ago. We tried to get her to stay but she wanted to go home.
AKT: What is she listening to? I loved it.
RK: Ron added that in the film but it's just that 1940s music that her generation listened to.
Inside Carmine Street Guitars: "It becomes a musical instrument that'll way outlive us." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: Is that sometimes playing in here too?
RK: Sure, we have the jazz radio on all day every day.
AKT: You also work in silence?
RK: Yeah, I generally put it off for a while in the morning. Especially in the summer I have the windows open and the birds are all out here because these are all backyards and it's very quiet back here, you know. So I really appreciate that when I come in and there's nobody up and it's really quiet in the shop. It's nice, yeah.
AKT: Do you have a favourite Jim Jarmusch film?
RK: That's a hard one! There's so many I like. I really like The Limits Of Control because there's some of my dialogue that's in that movie. I was telling Jim about the molecules in the wood. He used that in the film. I like them all so much. Dead Man is probably one of my favourites because of the Indian connection. And the Pacific Northwest with the giant redwoods. I love that movie, that was great.
AKT: Another interesting point you make in the documentary is about certain types of wood that don't want to be together. They look good together but it doesn't work for an instrument.
RK: It can work. It depends. Most violins - when I was telling Cindy that story - violins are made of maple and they have a flame maple and they have an ebony against maple which is the part that doesn't usually work. It tends to want to shrink in way too different rates.
And eventually violin necks will tend to swoop up and they have to be resurfaced. That's very common on those instruments. For a guitar with that long neck, those two woods don't really adapt too well.
Carmine Street Guitars backyard window: "Especially in the summer I have the windows open and the birds are all out here ..." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: What is it with the skulls everywhere? There's a skull with a hat back there, and those two little ones up on the wall?
RK: The animal skulls I've had a few. That little one is probably the oldest one. I always collected them if I found them out in the field. I used to have a shop in the country down in Maryland and I'd go out and they'd be laying on the ground. Just bring 'em and hang 'em on the wall. Celebrate the life of the animal!
Coming up - Cindy Hulej on Carmine Street Guitars.
Carmine Street Guitars opens in the US at Film Forum on April 24 with Ron Mann, Rick Kelly and Cindy Hulej participating in a Q&A following the 7:45pm screening. Additional Q&As will take place after the 6:00pm screening on April 26 and the 4:10pm screening on April 27.
In tribute to Jonathan Demme, who was a supporter of Americans for Immigrant Justice, Carmine Street Guitars distributor Abramorama will auction off a Rick Kelly custom guitar (T-style, two-pickup made of white pine reclaimed from McGurk’s at 295 Bowery) to benefit the organisation.
Abramorama CEO Richard Abramowitz, “Jonathan was a committed humanitarian in addition to being a brilliant artist and, of course, a music lover so we felt that this manner of honuoring his more than two decades of work with AIJ would be a fitting tribute."