IN THEIR respective fields of filmmaking and lute playing, Jim Jarmusch and Jozef van Wissem have become known for joining ancient sensibilities with the avantgarde. For over 30 years, Jarmusch has created some of independent film’s masterpieces, including Dead Man and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, in which oldworld philosophy (mysticism, the 17th century teachings of warrior Yamamoto Tsunetomo) inhabits classic cinematic genres (the western, the gangster film). During that time, van Wissem has dedicated himself to what he calls the “liberation of the lute,” approaching a forgotten instrument with the minimalist composition techniques of new classical music. Both played in post-punk bands in the early ’80s (Jarmusch in New York, van Wissem in the Netherlands) and, after knowing each other since 2006, they have recently begun performing as a duo.
Their collaborative sound is an eerie environment of Jarmusch’s thick guitar feedback and van Wissem’s precise, diaphanous lute playing, the styles simultaneously fighting and embracing. The sonic effect is trance-like and carries the metaphysical weight of church music. (Songs have titles like, “He Is Hanging From His Shiny Arms, His Heart An Open Wound With Love.”) Some of the duo’s music will appear in Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive (which stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve), and some has been released on two albums, Concerning The Entrance Into Eternity and, more recently, The Mystery of Heaven. I spoke to Jarmusch and van Wissem in the Soho neighborhood of New York. Jarmusch wore sunglasses and gazed out the window when he spoke. They both wore all black.
I. SHRED TO HELL AND BACK
BULLETT: Do you visualize the music you make?
JIM JARMUSCH: I think of music very much like landscapes—sort of visual, but obviously audio landscapes. The structure is less important than the atmosphere. It’s like a moving landscape from a window of a car or train or boat. I have to listen and adapt as it goes.
Is the music at all improvisational?
JOZEF VAN WISSEM: The pieces are mostly composed but some are improvised as well. I like pieces that are not too dense—open space and not too many chords. It’s more difficult to compose a good simple melody than to come up with a really elaborate improvisation. But what’s interesting when we play is that the sound becomes about the room, so it changes. The music has an architectural element.
JJ: I can’t always play the same thing every time. That’s the beauty of feedback: it’s wild.
The music is heavily repetitive. Would you say you’re trying to induce a trancelike state?
JJ: Repetition is the basis of trance music and hallucinatory stoner music, all the sounds we’re attracted to.
What are some examples of that?
JJ: Earth [the band], Morton Feldman, Sleep, and Joujouka music from Morocco. It all has the property of changing your mental state into a kind of openness—just kind of accepting things. Therefore a lot of trance music is spiritual, mystical.
There are some references on your first album, Concerning The Entrance Into Eternity, to the Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
JVW: Those quotes are about the afterlife. He was a very lucid writer and quite an interesting character, and I think his ideas about what comes after death go well with our trance pieces.
JJ: Swedenborg was a big inspiration to [painter and poet] William Blake. Their lives overlap. Swedenborg wrote “Heaven and Hell,” a very famous essay, and Life on Other Planets. And Blake wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a reference to Swedenborg. The first music we made together on Jozef ’s record, The Joy That Never Ends, was called “Concerning The Beautiful Human Form After Death,” which is also from Swedenborg. And what a beautiful title, but it’s also a mystical concept regarding the beauty of a dead human form. Not in a creepy way, but kind of elegantly separating ourselves from it.
JJ: But we don’t go into a trance when we play because we are listening and are aware. I think with rock and roll, when you’re playing
it, it’s best not to be thinking too much. If you think too much, you fuck it up.
JVW: There’s this line: The best blues musicians are the ones who had the least education. That’s particularly true about country blues.
JJ: I remember reading an interview 15 years ago with Neil Young and he said that if you want to play rock-and-roll guitar, don’t take lessons. Just pick up the thing and start beating on it. But, of course, it depends on what music you want to make. If you want to be Steve Vai, you’re gonna have to go to school. I have a personal reaction against virtuosity, not that I don’t respect it. Jozef has all kinds of technique, but that’s not the thing he’s trying to express. You can go online and find thousands of teenage kids in their rooms who can shred to hell and back. I’d rather plug my guitar and start beating on it with a mallet. Nothing against Steve Vai, man. I heard he’s a beekeeper.
II. YOU SHOULD BE SLAPPED
Jozef, how do you write music?
JVW: I don’t sit down to write something. It’s more like I hear something—I pick up something—and then that’s the composition. It’s like a channeling. I don’t have to elaborate on it or change it or vary it or work too hard on it. That ruins it.
Jim, do you make much music on your own outside of this?
JJ: For the last five years, I’ve been making music with a band called Sqürl [with Carter Logan and Shane Stoneback]. It’s very slow,kind of molten stoner-y stuff. We’ve been making a lot of stuff for this new film that I’m working on.
JJ: It’s called Only Lovers Left Alive, with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, and Jeffrey Wright. It’s kind of a crypto-vampire movie. It’s a love story between two people who have been together for centuries and who happen to be vampires. It takes place in Detroit and Tangier, Morocco. It’s pretty strange. The characters have been alive for so long—she’s like 2,000 years old and he’s maybe 500 years old, and he’s actually a musician, the character. This mixing of lute music—this older, beautiful renaissance style—with electric feedback and the heavy rock trance drone stuff works beautifully in this film.
Do you ever consider making videos for your music?
JJ: I’d rather let other people make them. In a lot of my endeavors I’m a control freak, but with Jozef, he’ll title things, he’ll throw pieces to me, he’ll have ideas for sequencing things and for mixing them. He’ll say, “Why don’t you play that here?” He guides me, which
is a relief because I’m usually the one organizing all the details.
You’ve used the phrase “the agnostic concept of the godhead” a few times when discussing your song “Etimasia.” What does it mean?
JVW: It comes from this idea of Hetoimasia, which means “empty throne.” A lot of people don’t know if there’s a god or if there’s heaven. What is heaven? What is this concept of afterlife? And we just like to leave it open, to leave it at that.
JJ: I’m not monotheistic. I’m not into this one god thing. I’m interested in Buddhism and indigenous cultures but I’m not a practitioner. I learned some years ago that in Lakota Sioux, “god” is translated to “the great mystery” so there’s no definition of what it is. It’s just something that’s strong and mysterious but there’s nothing saying, “He will judge you.” It’s just the mystery of nature, of everything, the universe. So that makes a lot of sense to me. I think being agnostic means that you’reopen but you don’t have an opinion. I’m vegetarian but I don’t go around telling people why meat is murder. I think a sin in any religion should be telling anyone else what they should believe. That should be a crime. You should be slapped. You should be allowed to believe whatever you want. You want to stand on your head and worship Donald Duck? Man, that’s your choice.
Is there a musicality to filmmaking?
JJ: They’re inherently related: a film passes before you on its own timeframe like a piece of music. It’s not like reading a book or looking at a painting—it has its own time signature. You take the ride, and you don’t control the speed or direction. You just get on the boat.
You have to just go with it, or—
JJ: Jump off.
Photography by Bjarne Jonasson