Stephane Wrembel: A Conversation With The Master

Fontainebleau, France is a city known for inspiring great artists, and Stephane Wrembel is no exception. Wrembel grew up in this city that inspired so many of the French impressionists, and like those who walked the city’s streets before him, he creates work that inspires. The life long musician began studying classical piano at the age of four, but did not discover his true passion until he was sixteen. It was then that he began learning guitar from the Gypsies who would set up camp in the countryside near his home. His sound is heavily influenced by these early days of Gypsy swing, but as an artist he is constantly taking in new influences. He began releasing albums in 2006 under his own name and as The Stephane Wrembel Trio. After his song Big Brother was included in Woody Allen’s film Vicky Christina Barcelona, he was again recruited by the director in 2011 to compose the main theme for Midnight In Paris. His most recent album, is his seventh to date and it seems as if no one knows what will come next, not even Wrembel. We sat down with Stephane after his most recent show in Cambridge to talk about his music, inspiration, and what it really means to make art.

So Dreamer of Dreams, your new album, it departs a little from your older stuff. What kind of signaled that in your head, that I kind of want to change it up for this new album?

It doesn’t really depart, it is a continuation. It really is a continuation of Origins. Origins is really the album where I kind of found the sound that I was looking for, and Dreamers of Dreams is now a confirmation of that sound, and furthering that direction.

How did you know that was the sound that you wanted? What signaled that?

I was not so sure, you know. If you look for something, then all that you can find is what you know. The thing is to search, but without a goal. I was just learning things, having images, composing songs, and I let it grow by itself. And then by playing live, there is an interaction, and we learn to interact together, and we learned to interact together a lot during the tour for Origins, and we nailed the language that we have in common and Dreamers of Dreams is a continuation of that.

When you were playing tonight between each song you talked about the inspiration for each of them. One was the universe, how do you find these inspirations?

This is why we live. What is bigger in life than life itself?

You spoke a little bit about Stravinsky, and The Right of Spring, and then on the opposite side a little more Pink Floyd. How do you draw upon these completely  different sources of music into forming your own sound?

Its the same thing. If you listen to The Wall it is as unnerving as The Right of Spring. It is also about sacrifice. In one it is a young lady in the other it is an artist, but it is the same principle. There is the tension in it, and I just love Pink Floyd. Music to me is a soundtrack, so whatever happens, whatever situation: a place or a moment, needs a certain music. You know you wake up in the morning. The fall the birds and stuff, I’m not going to play Metallica then. There is a moment for every music.

You’ve moved around a little bit. You studied music in Boston, and then you moved to New York. Does that change the kind of music that you write, where you live? 

First it is a step of learning. I was trying to accumulate as much knowledge as possible. But then I moved to New York and it was time to apply. It was a different strategic move. This is like stage 2 and now I learn a bit. I still learn a little from an old master. I’m learning counterpoint and composition one on one, but schooldays are the past. It’s like learning a language. You can be more and more complicated and stuff like that, but in the end what you say is really what matters.

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I’ve got to ask. What was it like working with Woody Allen?

It was very quick, because when Woody Allen asked for a song that is when you have 30 years, 35 years of practice to like, block everything and focus on just doing that. It has to happen with immediate materialization, manifestation of what he wants. When he wants something I cut everything and I work for him, and I put everything that I know into it at once.

When you wrote for him, did you write the song and he took it? Or was there more back and forth?

I write a song and then he does the editing with the pieces, whatever he wants.

How do you think that composition side fits into your role as an artist as well? As opposed to the performer side, how do those two things come together?

They are complementary. One day you compose something, one day you perform, and one day you teach. Whatever happens happens.

So is there one you prefer? Composing or performing?

Teaching. Teaching is my favorite thing. I have a deep love of teaching because, it’s like the Buddha said, it is a great miracle to teach, because you transform people. I love that, to see a student, he comes he can’t play, and after a while you see the finger folding, he starts to understand [and] you see the magic. I love performing too, live. I love to practice. At home, in silence, I practice. I love it. Composing is the hardest. Composing is really like giving birth. To me it is not the most enjoyable thing to do when I do it. But it is the result of it that is really enjoyable.

How long do you spend writing a song before it is finished?

To me a song is never finished. It’s because I make a music based on improvisation. Improvisation is based on rhythm, it is based on the transcendental mind. The purpose is to go into a trance. You can never, when you improvise, reach the level of composition. Composition is also called classical. You are in classical in the middle ages, with the counterpoint, the Renaissance, the Baroque. This is when you sit down, as Stravinsky said, it can take me a whole day to write one bar. And then to decide this voice is going to be played by the clarinet, and this voice by the cello. How do you decide these things? But once they are decided they are crafted and this how you play them. The songs that I compose they are meant to trigger a situation, an image, so there’s an impressionist mind behind. You go into a trance and then it comes back. You go in that zone, it is very hard to explain. But they are meant for that. They are not meant to be played the same. It’s a completely different thing. When I compose there is that element of freedom, so it is recomposed every time, and it is a way to follow the idea of impermanence. The universe is impermanent, and things never happen twice. We play the songs a lot, and we find new things in the song, and they become the next thing we do at the next show, and the next show, and suddenly we are playing the same thing again. So it is being composed in improvisation. This is a new landmark, and after a while we don’t play it again, and there is a new landmark that comes, so it renews itself. It’s forever changing, it’s moving.

You do the art for your album covers yourself, do you find inspiration in art when you’re composing?

Yeah, in everything. You know my real inspirations are not musicians. My two main inspirations are Alexander Jodorowsky and John Moebius. John Moebius was an artist and Jodorowsky makes movies, and writes theater.

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Do you think art is too commercialized?

No, part of it is a business. Whenever the businessmen put their fangs in art they try and suck it to make money. The example of modern art. When something is worth $20 million it is the signature that is worth $20 million it is not the art itself. It can be a beautiful Picasso or it can be a red dot, but there is a signature. It is just worth millions because of the signature. Art is separate from business. Art is work of love. That is the reason why my inspiration is Alexander Jodorowsky.

As an artist do you ever have to resist the urges to cater to the business types?

You know, to grow in terms of business you need the businessmen in, and I had the experience. People who are in the music business, they have no creativity. They might be nice, it is not that they are un-nice, but they have no creativity. They fall into models and they try to make money and I found it very unpleasent. In a way it is pleasant, because they take care of all the business parts and let you focus on the art, but in the same time it doesn’t run with the right spirit. So I terminated my relations with any business people, and I took it back myself, because I am happy. I am content with where I am.

When did you decide you were happy with the position that you were in?

I was very happy for years, but I decided to take my future in my own hands about a month ago. I tried it for two years, I had a business team. Very nice people, I love them. Very nice human beings, but I am not into that. I don’t make music to make money. I have never had a job. I don’t understand that. I almost have a feeling that if I was too much into that it would jinx my momentum. I’m doing that thing where I don’t know where it goes. I don’t know whats going on, and I kind of like that. Its very artistic, you know? Maybe for forty years it is going to continue, who knows? Things just come to me and they happen, so I’d rather let the thing happen by themselves. I have enough money to live. I eat, I have clothes, I’m fine. I’m not running after paying my rent and stuff. I’m not broke. I don’t need more. I don’t need extra, what would I do with it? I’m happy. I’m content with what I have.

How did you decide that you were content? 

I have tons of time. I wake up whenever I want to wake up. I practice whatever I want to practice. I’m surrounded by great people that I see daily. I love my guys. We are together a lot, and they are great players and they are great people. I just love them, we love each other. We ride in the car together, we tell stories, we laugh a lot. It’s fun. What more do you need? I don’t need to feed the big ego, be a superstar. I’ve hung out with these people, very famous people, the biggest. I know it is not the life I want for myself. It’s way too much money, which creates way too much attitude, and ego, and problems, and when you have too much money you have to start hanging out with people who are way too into money. It’s very dark. I don’t like that

Whats one piece of advice you would give to young musicians at Tufts?

Do you know Miyamoto Musashi? He was a samurai. He wrote a book “The Treaty of the Five Ways”. The five ways are the five elements: earth, fire, air water, emptiness. That treaty is how to connect yourself as a samurai. He is probably the greatest samurai to ever live, he is a legend. He said a quote that is very interesting. He says forge yourself for a thousand days, polish yourself for 10,000 days. In the beginning you learn things, but then you need to read a lot and put in the time, because the more time you play something that you thought you knew the more it starts to sink in with you, and the more it sinks within you the more it will become a part of yourself. Think about the piece, you need to polish what you have. It’s not only quantity that music should be regarded, it is also quality. Another thing, always listen to the greats. Read the greats. Read Plato. Read all these great writers. Watch Jodorowsky movies. Watch the movies of the greats like Jacque Tati, Jodorowsky. Like Wes Anderson, he does great movies. Read the great books, and read the great poets. When you read Plato, when you listen to Mozart, when you idolize Mozart, these guys are the giants. The giants are here first for you to go on their shoulders and see further. They are here to help, but also to measure yourself against. I know way too many artists, especially young people, who think that they are so cool because they put stupid things together. Especially in art, like visual art. You put a bit of green a bit of red, and oh a great artist. No, you don’t know anything. Go look at Raphael, go look at Michelangelo. These are the giants. You want to do art, copy the giants first. Then when you draw a circle it is going to be a perfect circle. But before that you are not a great artist. It is a very bad idea to think in terms of ego. So the giants are for that.

Interview by Ian James and Alex Jaramillo

Photos by Josie Watson

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