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Interview: Jozef van Wissem & Jim Jarmusch

Over the three-decade span of his film career, American auteur Jim Jarmusch has built up a pretty unbeatable record as a musical tastemaker. Stranger Than Paradise, his 1984 breakout, cast jazz musician John Lurie and former Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson in starring roles; Broken Flowers, with its haunting Mulatu Astatke refrain, helped fuel the Ethiopian jazz craze surrounding Buda Musique's Ethiopiques series, and reminded a younger generation of music lovers to revisit the molasses-slow, '90s stoner doom metal of Sleep. Recently, Jarmusch's own music has tended toward the latter aesthetic (see Bad Rabbit, a band he assembled primarily for the soundtrack of his last film The Limits of Control), but he's also been working pretty closely with Jozef van Wissem, a Dutch lute player and minimalist composer he met by chance a few years ago on the streets of New York. In addition to commissioning van Wissem for the soundtrack of his upcoming Vampire romance, Only Lovers Left Alive, he's gone ahead and started a band with him, amplifying van Wissem's eerie deconstructions of Renaissance music with washes of processed guitar. Following a late-night gig at Le Poisson Rouge last week, we sat down with the unlikely duo to talk about what brought them together in the first place, Jarmusch's new film and why playing the lute is kind of punk rock.

How much of your set is improvised? VAN WISSEM: Mine, not so much improvisation. JARMUSCH: Mine's mostly improvised. I don't know what I'm doing so it's different each time. I guess that's improvisation. VAN WISSEM: Well, your stuff is also about the room really. How it sounds in the room. JARMUSCH: Yeah and also, my stuff is really [about] listening and responding. ‘Cause the other day we played at PS1, and it was really frustrating, and I thought my whole sound, coming from me, really sucked. It was harsh. There was something wrong. And it was because I couldn't hear him. So my job is to listen to him, really. He's the center. He's the foreground and I paint in the background and I need to hear the foreground or I don't know what I'm doing.

What drew you to Jozef’s music originally? JARMUSCH: I'm very nonhierarchical. I love things from all periods. And I like minimalism, and I like avant-garde things, but I also like traditional things. Voila! Here's a guy that’s playing minimal avant-garde yet very traditionally rooted [music]. So it was like, Wow! I just responded immediately to that mixture of things. And then we became friends and I started asking Jozef about the history of the lute. Then I realized the depth of his appreciation and interest in the instrument and in the music. I knew some things. He knows everything.

Is it true that you guys met on the street? JARMUSCH: Yeah. He gave me a CD. I was sort of intrigued by him, but it was kind of brief, you know. And I thought, That was an interesting guy. He gave me this CD, and I went home later that night and I immediately listened to it and I was like, Wow this guy is really great. I was lucky.

Jozef—Can you tell me about your idea of the liberation of the lute? VAN WISSEM: You know. It has a Hollywood image. A Robin Hood image. He's standing under a balcony, and the lady throws a flower pot at [her serenader], and it’s kind of a derivative of that. I mean, there's a lot of instruments that have a cliché attached to them, like banjo or the pedal steel. So I kind of like it when people do something out of the ordinary with it, kind of liberate it. It's kind of difficult, because specialists want to keep it in a museum. They just tell you, You have to play this piece in this way, this is the right way to play this. And then they play it for a select group who already listen to it. So it keeps it in the museum, and it will never get out of there. I like to play it for kids who have never heard the instrument. It sounds really great. It's the perfect instrument. The thing with this duo, I don't really see it as a collaboration. I think it's really a band feeling, and I think it's more than the sum of its parts. That's what I really like about it. It's not just like I give him one piece, and then he gives me what he does to the piece, and I give it back to him. There's something else. It's kind of strange.

You guys put out two albums in this year alone, correct? Mystery of Heaven on Sacred Bones, and Concerning the Entrance Into Eternity, on Important. VAN WISSEM: There's another split actually that's out. That has one solo side of mine and one side with the duo, and it's more an experimental side of the duo, ‘cause Jim is using these animal sounds and loops, which are really nice. It's kind of an interesting record. It's called Apokatastasis. It's on my label, [Incunabulum Records]. This is the only record so far for Sacred Bones but, we're quite happy with Mystery of Heaven. JARMUSCH: We'll have another record for the soundtrack to my next film, which will be Jozef's stuff and then some of our stuff together. [And] my band, Squirrel. But also, I just wanted to interrupt, [while we’re talking] about the history of the lute and Jozef breaking these clichés. There's certain cliché things, I don't know if cliché is the right word, but there is a certain aspect of it that is very strong that he carries also, which is pre-guitars. The lute was a kind of rebel instrument because it was portable and therefore very romantic. ‘Cause you could take it on a horse. It's like a predecessor of blues musicians that traveled. So there's that thing that he's always embodied since I've met him. I've seen him play in a lot of places, from the back room of some record store to a cathedral. He goes where people might be interested. But there's this rebel thing that he also upholds that's a very strong thing to me about the lute and it's history. It’s not a conservative thing where, I don't know, the court musician plays for the rich guy. It's more like the guy on the horse that's going to try and play it for some beautiful girl. You know what I mean? That whole rebel thing—that it's outside the law. It's not obeying the authorities; it's the opposite—that he still, since I've met him, even in the music business, [has] upheld. ‘Cause he'll play wherever people invite him to play if he feels like it.

Why did Jozef’s music make sense for you upcoming movie? JARMUSCH: Because this is a film I've been trying to get made for six or seven years. It's a love story between two people who have been in love for hundreds of years—because they happen to be vampires. It's more of a love story than vampire story, but they are vampires. And one character, the male character, is a musician. So when I first met Jozef and heard his music, the idea of this kind of modern ancient mixture was completely in line with the idea of the film. These people are very sophisticated and they're kind of rock & roll hipsters in a way, but they are also very ancient and almost animal-like in a way too. So I don't know. This idea of the lute being transposed into something modern with the tradition intact was really appealing and in line with what I'm trying [to do]. I don't want to try to analyze my own film ‘cause I don't know what the hell it means, but it's in line with it somehow.

Jozef—I noticed that you started walking around the audience during the show. Was that planned? VAN WISSEM: Yeah, I do that more and more now. Also at solo shows. I kind of like more contact with the audience, and sometimes I play in small places with not too many people, and then you have a real intimate contact. Playing here, for a couple hundred people, it's kind of difficult to make connection. But I like to have almost a physical relationship with the audience. It's also really rock & roll in a way. I don't like the idea of the lute player. You know, playing beautiful music, sitting there in the classical pose—that just really bores me. That's why I like moving around and getting up and doing that stuff. I guess it's also a little bit of visual art. You can see the instrument really close when you're in the audience. People get their money’s worth.

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Interview: Jozef van Wissem & Jim Jarmusch