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Escape Velocity

Found Under The Sky: Jozef Van Wissem Interviewed
Richard Foster , November 6th, 2014 13:43

With his new LP It Is Time For You To Return out next week, Richard Foster talks to the prolific lutist about the history of his instrument, his music's cinematic aspect and why he's left the Netherlands for New York

Jozef van Wissem is possibly the best known lute player in the Western world. An enigmatic and private man, Van Wissem is nonetheless passionate about the sonic potential of the twin-necked, 24-stringed lute, an instrument that he believes has been overlooked, and sometimes unfairly denigrated. And given his prolific, and in places, stunning back catalogue (including artistically successful and high profile collaborations with the likes of Jim Jarmusch and James Blackshaw) it would seem that he has a point.

Now resident in New York (by way of Maastricht and Groningen in the Netherlands), van Wissem is on the verge of a major European tour, and about to release a new album, It Is Time For You To Return, on Marc Hollander's legendary Crammed Discs label. With the memories of van Wissem's extraordinary show at Incubate still ringing in the cranial cavities of some at the Quietus, it was high time for a trade of e-mails.

You have a new record out in November, on Crammed Discs no less; a label that's always looked to put out music that crossed boundaries. From the snippets I've heard it sounds different to what I have heard of your work, such as Stations Of The Cross or Only Lovers Left Alive, or The Mystery Of Heaven. It feels, well, more electronic, accessible, up front; bold, even. Is that fair?

Jozef van Wissem: I am adding more electronics, certainly when you compare this one to my last few records, but I have made a few albums with electronics before. And people have been telling me I am more upfront lately in my music; especially in a live situation. I guess I want to be bold; there's an urge in me to be more critical about things. The lyrics on this record are sort of protest songs against contemporary society, against anything corporate and against all the shit you don't need; like talking to people through a screen instead of finding them under the sky.

You've always had a pop sensibility; which you can really pick up on in past work, such as It Is All That Is Made. But this sounds a very different LP again. Looser, dare I say it, a bit wild and carefree?

JvW: I am trying to be direct and raw because everything is so streamlined nowadays; everything looks and sounds the same, so at this point in time one needs to make raw art to be real. Corporate entities have infiltrated art too. Everybody takes the same pictures.

Yet more collaborations surface on this LP. Jim Jarmusch joins you again as does the brilliant Yasmine Hamdan. What was it that they brought to the new LP?

JvW: They are true friends and I have been making music with Jim for a while now; we did three albums together; (2012's Concerning The Entrance Into Eternity, The Mystery Of Heaven and Apokatastasis). The song I did with Yasmine and Jim ('Invocation Of The Spirit Spell') on this new record, well I am really proud of that! I'm also proud the LP/CD is on the 'Made To Measure' series on Crammed Discs, curated by Marc Hollander, who is a true hero and fellow time traveller.

Is lute playing such a solitary business that you feel the need to collaborate a lot?

JvW: Not really, as I meet a lot of people after the solo lute shows. Sometimes there's a line waiting for me to sign records or sometimes they want to hug. Some of them cry. Sometimes they want to take too many pictures of me with their friend, their boyfriend, their family. I am not always in the mood to smile but they all want records.

And vocals, M'neer van Wissem! Can I ask you what was the origin of this decision?

JvW: I am singing to bring wider recognition to the lute in the first place, and to try to get people to think about all what's wrong with this world and how to change it.

You're from the "deep south" in the Netherlands, Maastricht, which has a very different feel to the rest of the country. It's a palpably medieval city in places. And I'm aware many don't see Maastricht as Dutch at all. How did the city affect you in terms of your music?

JvW: Maastricht is medieval, yes, and different; for sure it's a much more cosmopolitan city. After all; people are speaking French five miles from Maastricht! In any case, I recently talked to my parents about the fact that there have been members of the family who were musicians; ones that also made a living from music, which was, and still is, an anomaly in the Netherlands.   

Are you drawing on a different, maybe more Burgundian, German or French traditions with your music?

JvW: I would say I am drawing on Western European traditions. In those times any regional musical confines were blurred and French, German, English and 'Lowland' styles mixed freely. The same lute pieces or songs would show up under a different name in other countries. The lute travelled well; it could be carried on horseback. It was the pop instrument of the day and omnipresent in all layers of society, in bars, in private houses and at court. I compose with the lute techniques of the Baroque era in mind; as I think it's important to emulate one's roots and not to imitate foreign examples. In order to come up with something new and original you need to juxtapose the old with the new. Also I devour books on Western spirituality, the subject matter of which often morphs into titles for my pieces.

What is it about living in America that makes you tick? Why did you go there in the first place?

JvW: I had to go to America to reinvent myself. And New York is the best place for that. I left Europe because I was sick of the rock & roll lifestyle I was living at the time and I had to break with my past. I owned a bar, a hangout for squatters and musicians in the early nineties named De Klok (The Clock) in the city of Groningen, and lived a wild sort of life. I got an invitation from a record label in Williamsburg so that's how I ended up in the States. And anyway the early music teachers in Europe were too boring for me. So I sold the bar and lived like a monk the first year in NYC. I rediscovered the lute there and started to study with Pat O'Brien, himself a former guitarist and a student of the Reverend Gary Davis. I was also introduced to the art world in New York. It was all very exciting then. It's a bit different now.

A lot of the old, artistic New York is gone, there are no freaks living there any more, it's more and more corporate and everything seems to vanish as soon as you get attached to it.

I read somewhere that you liked a lot of industrial music back in the day. What was it about industrial music that shook your tree?

JvW: I was into Coil and Throbbing Gristle a lot, but not so much now. I still love Nurse With Wound though, and early Cabaret Voltaire and also Wim Mertens or Arvo Pärt. I recently did a show in France using field recordings of airport announcements, which I did for Stations Of The Cross. Christopher Watson, a member of Cabaret Voltaire (and the king of field recordings) was in the audience and we chatted a bit. We agreed that the best part of CV was the fact they never reformed for the money. A while later they did though, well, half of them at any rate.

Your compositions also seem to adapt very easily to work in different formats - PC games, TV, film - and you are rightly celebrated for your film score work with Jim Jarmusch. Is this a case of you proving to the rest of us how versatile the lute is or is it something more? Maybe an instrument that has touched into a different zeitgeist?   JvW: I'd like to see the lute make a comeback in film as a serious contemporary instrument, and not as a Robin Hood Hollywood-style prop, but I use other instruments in these soundtracks. And in The Erotic Fire Of The Unattainable I also sing. I recently adapted a Mahler song, 'Song Of The Earth' in which he says, "The lute to play and the glasses to drain, this is the thing", but I sing it more like Nick Cave would sing it; not in an operatic style. I also use of lot of 12-string electric guitar drones with adapted tuning; and electronics, field recordings and beats too. So it's not just lute. In any case, composing for films and live concerts are two completely different things. Live shows to me are about sharing a trance, a series of one on one moments with the audience. They can be very intense, intimate and very much of the time in which they happen. The solo lute to me is the ultimate instrument for that. You can't hide.

And a new film in the offing. Maybe you can tell us about working on the soundtrack for The Erotic Fire Of The Unattainable? Given you display a dog collar and crucifix on the new LP's cover, and given the title of the film, is this some kind of Savonarola-esque morality film? We must be told.

JvW: The Erotic Fire Of The Unattainable by Emilia Ferreira is about the psychological, female perspective on relationships, but it's not a feminist film. It's somewhat trippy too, but most of all it's a sensitive film. Which made it appropriate for me to put a lot of lute in there. Each character gets its own lute theme so a parallel storyline is created. The film has Harry Hamlin from Mad Men and Irina Bjorklund, who's in The American by Anton Corbijn. I should add that I also acted in and did the soundtrack for Red Right Return, a new underground film by George Manatos, starring Leo Fitzpatrick.

As for the priest outfit on my record's cover, well, I bought it in Warsaw in a store with religious items. I had observed how nuns would wear these large crucifixes with a shoelace around their neck...

Is it fair to say that there are contradictory elements in your work? On one level you make music that feels like it's been down a deep well for hundreds of years (and been dragged back by virtue of some steely and patient rescue work) but music that also feels very ephemeral, gossamer, throwaway.

JvW: Well, for me, the work is about the listening experience and the listener's imagination. And about the repetition of only a few chords over an elongated period of time, and what that does to your perception. Like being in a white room, you lose sense of time.

And the religious element. It has regularly been a part of your work - to some degree. But it is very noticeable on the latest LP's cover. Why is this presented as such a bold, or open statement this time around?

JvW: The title It Is Time For You To Return can mean a lot of things, and that is up to the listener to decide. But I think it's time for God to return and for everyone to return to what really matters. Even if it means to die.

It Is Time For You To Return is out on November 10 via Crammed Discs. Van Wissem is about to embark on a tour that includes festivals such as Rewire in the Netherlands tomorrow and Festival Dela Bosque in Mexico City, as well as some special club shows at the Autumn Falls Festival, Handelsbeurs in Ghent and London's Cafe Oto. Full details can be found here