There is paradox within the music of Jozef van Wissem. He understands the power of fixating on small details for long periods of time. That’s why the lutist plays the same three-chord melody for 10 minutes straight; I’m guided towards a heightened state of listening, shedding my awareness of other stimuli like someone pulling the drapes on the world outside, intimately connected to the simple interplay of five or six notes. Yet within the stillness of intense listening, there is a restless wandering. Gradually, I realise that these so-called “simple” gestures are mere instigators for all kinds of wonderful microtonal resonances, illuminating both the body of Jozef’s instrument and electrifying the air on either side of me.
I had this phone conversation with Jozef the day before he left for Riga, where he played a show at Gertrudes Ielas Teatris. If you can, go see him play at one of his dates across Europe and the UK over the next few weeks. Below, we discuss the rebellion of trance states, the power of architecture and his incredible new album, “Nobody Living Can Ever Make Me Turn Back”.
How are you doing today? All okay?
I’m cool. I’ve got some more interviews, and I’m going to Riga in the morning. Always traveling, always playing.
Oh, so you’re not in Riga at the moment then?
I’m in Warsaw at the moment.
That’s not too far to travel tomorrow then. I was thinking that you were coming from New York, which would have been a lot of travel in one day…
Yeah. Well I go to Russia all the time now, so I decided to stay in Warsaw for a bit with my girlfriend. It’s a great vibe here. They’ve got a great music scene. Great audiences.
And have you played in Riga before too?
Yeah, I have.
How has that been previously?
Riga is weird, because they have the euro – you’re in between the East and the West. It’s really close to Russia and all these places, but it’s Western. It’s strange.
I have this thing in Russia that I was just asked to do, which is based on this painting by Caravaggio called “The Lute Player”. There’s going to be an event for that at the Hermitage, and I have to play the song that’s in that painting. I’m studying it and updating it. It’s symmetrical, four-part voice…I’m adapting it into my own work, and trying to play the classical bit of it, in a way. So that’s next.
But anyway – it’s great to be in Warsaw and to be close to the East, because I really like the East. I really like the audiences here. They’re not as jaded as most Western audiences are.
How so? Are they more attentive over there?
Yeah. Not every artist goes there, so to them it’s really special. There aren’t bands every night like there are in London. To them it’s so precious – it’s a real experience for them to go to a show, you know?
I was talking about this with some friends just the other day actually. There are some venues in London that seem to be primarily social space, and people meet at these places regardless of who might be performing that evening. That can be problematic if there’s also an artist there trying to do something very dedicated with sound.
Yeah. I like London, but I guess it’s more a social thing. The thing that I’ve found at some Western shows, where everyone’s filming and stuff…that doesn’t happen so much at shows in the East. They’re really there. They close their eyes. I usually play in churches there and it’s more of a trance thing. They come for the show, and they come to listen. They’re not there to film it. [laughs] Which I hate. It’s like, come on man! You paid for a ticket to come here, you travel all the way…
And it’s not like you can concentrate on filming the show at the time, then get into your trance state while you’re watching it back on your small screen later on.
No. It doesn’t work like that. And they know that! I hate that, man. I hate seeing people looking at their phones. You look at people while you play, and it can be a two-way thing. You try to transport them to a place. That’s why I like the Eastern audiences. To them, it’s still a special thing to be there and have that experience at that time.
I wanted to ask you about the “shared experience” aspect. It sounds like solitude is an important part of the process of creating your music. What’s it like when that experience becomes something you share with other people?
It’s great. It’s a really intense thing. I have to be in a certain state to enjoy it and to be good, so that the pieces are worth it. It depends on the audience of course. When they’re quiet, it can be really hypnotic.
It’s also about the instrument. It’s quiet – it’s not like a four-piece band, which I also really like by the way. But when I’m playing solo lute in concert, there are only two ways about it: you either stay because you are into it, or you leave. There are no grey areas. People tell me that it feels like I’m playing for them. And that’s great – that’s what I want.
I’m also very open. After the show I go up to people, and it’s not like I’m a solitary artist who writes these pieces and they’re always in a bad mood, you know? I write optimistic happy pieces sometimes. I like to talk to people after the show – as a social experience and also to learn from them.
Are you ever surprised by the way in which people are understanding your music, or the way in which their interpretation differs from the intention you imbue within this music?
I have no intention when I write it – I just write from what feels good. I also don’t know what any of it means. I don’t know what the titles mean when they fit together, and I don’t want to know either. I like it when people have their own idea about what it means. I think all art should be open in that way – it’s not like the artist tells you what to think, so you have a personal idea about something. You look at something, and it says something to you because at that point in your life you have something good or bad going on.
With the titles…it’s something that just sounds good to me, and fits together. There are meanings to it that are personal to me, but it doesn’t mean that I project them on the listener. It’s up to them to decide what they make of all these titles and all this music. But yes – I am surprised by what people think of me, and that’s fine. That’s cool.
One thing that surprised me was the vocal sample at the very end of the record. I had to double-check that the voice I was hearing was actually Theresa May talking about Brexit. As a British person, that sample triggers all sorts of thoughts that are very personal to me, but I’d love to hear a bit about what that sample means to you.
I was recording the last piece for the record, and when I sent it to the record company, they said that it was oversaturated and in the red. They had trouble mastering it. So I said, “okay – I get it. You’re right.” I listened to it a few times and then I dropped it, so I had to come up with a new piece. The sample of Theresa May was in that original last piece, so I took it from the piece that was going into the red. I decided to keep the sample and put it at the end of the record.
The album title also adds another layer to the sample. There will be no turning back from Brexit. I don’t really want to be too political, but I thought it would be a nice twist on the title of the record, which comes from the song “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. I thought it would give the record another layer for people to think about. I think the record is very critical of contemporary society, in a way. It’s quite clear with this sample.
It’s interesting to have that sample in isolation from the rest of the speech too. Obviously it’s connected to Brexit, but there’s no explicit mention of Brexit or the UK. You can imagine that someone could be listening to this album, 20 years down the line, and construct their own understanding of what that sample means.
The thing with this political stuff is that it’s so timely. When I found this speech, I was like, “this is great – this is exactly what I’m writing now.” But I don’t like it when you can tell that it’s too much of a certain time, you know? I try to be timeless. But yeah, this was a great joke [laughs]. I just had to put it in there.
I’ve seen you speak previously about the presence of politics within music, which I think is interesting to contemplate within the context of music like yours. As a listener, the trance-like experience is essentially a departure from worldly concern; in fact, the excessive application of political sentiment could potentially infiltrate and disrupt this trance state. I’d be intrigued to hear your thoughts on how political sentiment places itself within music like this.
The trance state, in and of itself, is anti-government, anti-rules…it’s opposed to anything that goes against freedom really, you know? It’s really simple. That’s why I always think that musicians and artists go against all of this stuff, and they have to be rebels. The state of mind is also a rebel state. It’s more like an attitude. That’s the way I see it. Trance is a part of that – getting out a particular headspace.
I guess there’s something quite disobedient about going into the red as well.
Yeah yeah. Okay, sure.
I didn’t mind it too much, but when I listened to it again, I just thought, “no, I can’t use it.” But it’s okay – it’s improvisation.
Speaking of which, there’s a percussive sound on “Virium Illarium” that sounds particularly explosive. It feels like it might be wrenching the microphone apart. What am I actually hearing there? It becomes difficult to decipher the origin of the sound once it reaches that sort of intensity…
That was the idea. I’m influenced a lot by that sort of music too, so I thought it was time to put it in there: this heavy, industrial stuff. To me, it’s not really that heavy. The record company told me that too, and they had to double-check that it was intentional [laughs]. But yeah, it was. Do you think it’s really bad?
No! I love it to bits. The first time I heard it, it really…
Woke you up?
Yeah. It really rattled me. It feels very deliberate. It’s one of those things that you question upon the first occurrence, and by the second time it happens, the sound feels in complete alignment with the track elsewhere.
Good to hear, man. Now I have to convince the record company. Just kidding. [laughs]
You also made a video for that song, which I really enjoyed. I know that you’re really into film, and it really felt as though the pacing of images was beautifully woven into the music. How did the concept come into fruition?
It came together with the director, Federico Pepe. I sent him the song, and he said, “my idea is to give a proper burial to animals.” I loved it immediately. The album cover is by this visual artist Cindy Wright, who does these vanitas paintings with a lot of dead animals: decaying, photorealistic drawings and paintings. So it made sense that Federico had this idea, and it all fit together so well. It was a really nice shoot, because we stayed for two days in the mountains in north Italy during the summer. There was a very communal thing that we had with the team, which I really liked.
My friend Jacopo Benassi was also there. He’s an actor and a good friend of Asia Argento. I’ve known this guy for a long time, and we have this humour together. I mean, we look pretty serious in the video but we always have a good time. But I thought the director really picked up on it. It was his idea to bury animals in these nice coffins. The title “Virium Illarium” means “These Forces”. In a way, I meant these forces of nature: it will take revenge, and animals will take over and will ultimately be our saviour.
And I see the record as more of a collaboration with Cindy, because some of the titles refers to this vanitas painting. There’s this parallel between updating renaissance painting and renaissance music, which is what she does – she updates these vanitas renaissance-style paintings. And I still see my music as updating baroque lute. I still play a lot of classical stuff at home. It’s my inspiration still, and because there’s so much classical material to play that’s obscure that I’m finding all the time, that still feeds me. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this anymore. Seriously, I’ve been doing this for a while. But now I use more electronics, although I hope it’s more subtle…it’s still growing and changing and evolving.
You mention that you’ve been doing this for a while. How was your relationship with the lute changed over the years?
The instruments get better. The builder gets better. Hopefully my writing gets better. I try to find great melody. In the beginning it was about playing a lot of notes. Now it’s about finding a few chords; finding the stuff that sticks with you. And I’ve been singing more, although I don’t call it singing. I don’t even like “good” singers – I like singers that sing out of tune. Like I’ve said before, the singing started in order to bring more attention to the lute. It keeps growing and it keeps changing.
How long have you had your current lute?
The most recent one was actually given to me by a French builder. It’s my second black lute. After he built it, I asked him how much I owe and he said, “your money’s no good. You’ve done so much for the lute.” So that was nice.
I have six lutes, and I always try to determine which one is my favourite but it changes all the time. It’s more about the live situation, the aeroplane…travelling with them is very difficult. Now I can afford an extra seat. When I was started, I was doing all of these shows that didn’t pay anything, and I had to check in the lute with the airline. It was always broken, and I was gluing the lute an hour before I was due to play…that kind of stuff. So now I can afford that extra seat for the instrument, which is sort of my measure of success. So that’s how my relationship with the instrument has changed. [laughs] It’s horrifying sometimes. When you check in luggage…the way they throw it around…
Yeah, it’s terrible.
And traveling can get really difficult now, with all of this terrorism stuff going on. Getting on the train is almost like getting on an airplane. If you go to Paris, you have to go through security and stuff now. Being a travelling musician is not as easy as it used to be.
You mentioned that you have six lutes. How do you decide which one to take with you?
It depends on how big the plane is. [laughs] I’m flying in a small plane to Riga, and they wouldn’t accept the big lute. So I’ll bring one that’s under a metre with the case. Usually I play my big black lute, which is probably my favourite – it has this bassy sound. It’s really deep; it has this presence that the small one doesn’t have. Yet the small one is more compact and is louder when you play it, which seems weird to say, but that’s the way it is.
Does the type of lute you’re using affect the type of material you write?
Yeah. When I’m composing I use the small one. It’s really easy to come up with a simple melody on the small one. On the big lutes, you tend to write slower, more heavy metal, more bassy pieces. And of course, the baroque and renaissance lutes are in different tunings. Baroque is in B minor, which is sort of a “sad” tuning, and renaissance is a dance instrument so it has a “happier” tuning. In the beginning I used to compose for renaissance lute, and then after six years, I started to write more for baroque, which I do now. It lends itself more to drones – it’s easier to put open bass notes under your chords and play it like a drone instrument. That’s more what I do live.
It also seems to have this really subtle microtonal quality to it. I’m always picking up on pitches within your music that fall just to the side of being “exact”, unless my ears are really crooked…
No, that’s the idea. If it’s slightly out of tune, you get this percussive thing going on. When I play live I play a lot of the same pieces every time, but the room is different every time. The sound is different. Sometimes there’s a vocal quality to these drones that lie on top. If it’s out of tune a little bit, then it starts to ring – it starts to produce this “vocal” quality, especially in churches or places with a lot of reverb. That’s why I really like to play different places – every night is different. For me it’s really more about architecture with these live shows.
Do you adapt your music to the space in any way?
It depends. Sometimes there are spaces with six or seven-second echo, which is a completely different experience to playing through a PA at a club, where you can be really be really loud and direct. This long echo transports the sound. Sometimes I play one piece for a very long time in that way, and this echo becomes something else. I put some spoken word by the architect Philip Johnson on my previous record, and that relates to the live experience for me: travelling, and going through these places where everything always sounds different. Nothing is ever the same.
It must be interesting for you, given that the recorded work has to be captured in this “fixed” acoustic space…
The live and recorded work are two completely different things. I released a live record, which is a good document of how it sounds live. Recorded albums are so layered usually, and I don’t really do that live. It’s a completely different approach.
I love the acoustics of the record. For me, it felt like it was captured in a lair…there’s a “moist stone” quality to the way the sound comes back to you.
Where did you record the album, and what considerations were there with regards to the acoustic “framing” of the material?
I record wherever I am. The last few years I’ve been in New York, Rotterdam, Warsaw…it’s just really easy to record through a stereo mic. Sometimes I record in spaces with an echo, but less and less. But it’s a very simple setup. I work with an engineer and we just record where we are, and it’s not about the room then – it’s layered, and I use electronics with it. It’s more a studio thing.
So you don’t have a fixed period of studio time? You just record when it feels right to solidify a piece as a recorded entity?
Right. To me, that’s really important. I have to be in a certain mode, and in a certain mood. The pieces I write for one record are usually one period of time. It’s not like I write one piece and then stop, and then pick it up again after a year. So it’s also a document of time and mood, and what I’m going through at the time. It wouldn’t work for me to say, “okay – I’m going into the studio next week at this time,” because I never know when I’m finished. It can be quick or it can be slow.
I love that you have these pieces that can be recorded anywhere. The location is unfixed, but the constant is the period of time in which they were recorded. There’s something poetic in there that I can’t articulate right now…something about the continuity of the self amidst the flux of life and passing through different places…
That’s it. That’s well put. I guess it’s a luxury to be able to record when and where you please. If you collaborate with people, obviously it’s different. The instrument lends itself to that too, although I use different instruments now – I also record electric guitar or drums, for example.
To me, it’s more about the atmosphere. And it’s also highly concentrated. I’m not listening to anything – I’m just delivered to this thing.
Are there ways in which you instigate this intimacy of connection and concentration prior to playing?
When I play live, I always request to be alone for one hour. It’s actually in my rider. I’m just sitting there in this strange room with a bottle of wine, and I drink two glasses. And that’s it. But there’s nothing else – nobody else is with me, and there’s no TV or computer screen or whatever. I don’t touch my phone. I just sit there spacing. There’s nothing to interrupt me.
It’s the same way when I record, although then I spend days like that. You just cut everything out.
What’s going through your mind during those times?
Different things. When I compose I don’t drink, but when I play I have a few drinks. I have some wine, and it just slows everything down and shuts everything out – it’s just me, the music and the audience.
I find the premise of drinking prior to a performance very interesting. It’s something I’d formerly outlawed for myself, although I’ve started to enjoy having one beer before I play. There’s a sweet spot in terms of the quantity of alcohol…
It’s different when you’re drinking alone. Drinking with people is a different thing. You’re by yourself, you have one hour until the show and you have two glasses of wine. It draws you in – it’s a great feeling.
It also relaxes my muscles. I do this so much; by now I’ve probably done 1,200 shows or something. If you do it every day and you sit down all the time…it’s bad for your muscles and for your hands. So the wine relaxes me too. If I don’t drink, the performance is more virtuoso maybe, but it breaks your hands. [laughs] Maybe it’s unhealthy to drink, I don’t know…
I think there’s definitely a health benefit to having those sorts of deep trance-like experiences on a regular basis, so perhaps that cancels it out?
I think so too. [laughs]
I’m intrigued by the idea of playing one solitary idea over and over again. What happens when you fixate upon a single melody for a long period of time?
You’re in this room. It’s all completely white. They put you in this room, and when you come out of it, you have no idea how long you’ve been in there. You don’t have any reference points. That’s sort of the feeling. When it goes right, it feels great. It’s a trance, you know?
What’s led to you seeking these trance experiences?
I don’t know. I have no idea. It just happens. You’re either into it or not. I mean, it’s easy to say that you could smoke weed and get there, but for me that doesn’t work anymore. It’s just really a highly pleasurable state.
I used to have a period where I was really into rock ’n’ roll and playing with bands, and enjoying that lifestyle. I had this really wild touring period, and then I got into playing solo. So I’ve seen the other side too. The opposite experience becomes interesting after a while. I can also see that it’s great to just hang out with four people and have this “gang” feeling going on, you know? But for now, I feel like I can do what I’m currently doing for a longer period of time, day in day out, if I want to.
With regards to playing solo versus playing in bands – you feel more aligned to one way of working over the other?
Doing things by myself is more my personality, but it’s also impractical to have a band now. You can’t afford it. Who can be on the road all the time with a band? It’s just impossible. Also there’s the social stuff, where the girlfriend of the bass player becomes the girlfriend of the guitar player…that kind of thing. It happens when you’re 18. After a while you can’t do that. But still – I had a good time being in bands, and sometimes it’s a cool experience. Just not for long periods. More as a holiday from being alone. [laughs]
Now I just like traveling by myself. It makes sense to me, to be like this. The travel becomes part of the experience and puts you in this state. The more difficult and stressful the travel gets, the better the show becomes.
Yeah. It gets more intense that way.
I would have thought that stressful travel experience would run against the attainment of trance states? Like, perhaps you’d have to have two hours alone, with a bigger bottle of wine…
[laughs] A bigger bottle is not good. There’s a certain level. Maybe one bottle of wine, but that’s where it stops.
Why do you think stressful travel experiences lead to better shows?
I don’t know. There must be some psychological reason. That’s the way it works for me – they’re always the best ones.
How are you feeling about this batch of shows you’ve got coming up?
I feel good. I’m looking forward to coming to London – it’s been a while. But yeah, I do this all the time, man. I just did seven dates in Ukraine, which was awesome. That was the first time I did an extensive tour there, as usually I just do two dates. It was really interesting.
I was also close to where all the trouble was. It’s really important to be there and play this music for those people. They’re really interested, and they need it too – people should go there and play for these people. It’s really special. The audiences are really something else. Someone of them faint; others want to have hugs after the show. To those people, it’s really important.
I enjoy hearing people talk about their music have this sort of utility. I saw Lawrence English play the other week, and he started his set by talking about the importance of shared experiences, and the validity of two people have entirely contrasting experiences within that shared context. Obviously that feels like a pertinent analogy to life elsewhere at the moment. Outside of live music, these communal experiences don’t necessarily occur organically in many other circumstances.
Yeah, that’s true. It also used to be like that, and it’s going back there. I think that live music in the future will be like it was in Medieval times. It’s becoming too complicated to put these shows on, as there are too many rules. It’ll be just house shows again. All symphony orchestras will disappear. It’ll just be a bunch of people drinking, a few people playing…that’s it.
Just the punks.
Just the punks! [laughs]