Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with French-born, New York-based guitarist Stephane Wrembel about his love of Django Reinhardt's music, learning to play from gypsies and his work as a film composer.
CP: Did you always know music was what you wanted to do? At what point did you realize that was possible?
SW: OK, so, I wanted to be a painter, and around the age of 17 when I was in high school, I realized I wanted to become a musician, so I just practiced my guitar ... more. [Laughs.]
CP: What was behind that decision?
SW: I don't know why. I guess I had no choice. Ever since I was a kid, the only thing I wanted to do was play music or paint or another artistic activity. I never considered anything else other than being an artist. It's always been like that.
CP: You literally learned gypsy jazz from gypsy artists. You actually spent time with them, right?
SW: There is no such thing as gypsy jazz. It doesn't exist. I hate that word.
CP: So what should I call it?
SW: Django's music. People call it gypsy jazz, but it has nothing to do with the gypsies. It's a generic word that doesn't mean anything. Jazz is incorrect because Django's music is not jazz. Django's music and jazz are different. It's misleading for people because when people hear gypsy, they think of the gypsy kings, and when they hear jazz, they think Charlie Parker. It doesn't give a clue to people who don't know what it is.
It's better to leave it as Django's music, because that's what it is. When I arrived in New York, I told people I played gypsy jazz, and people were like, "I hate jazz." I was like, "I understand you don't like jazz, but this is different." Then, it's over, and no one came to the shows. I realized that was the wrong term for it.
I learned Django's music directly from gypsies in the traditional way. I also studied classical piano from age four to 16. I did rock guitar from 15 and never really stopped. My first five years of guitar were oriented toward rock.
I hung out in the camps and learned Django's music from gypsies from 19 until 26 when I left for Berklee [College of Music]. I also learned composition and arrangement from five years at the American School of Modern Music in Paris. I studied jazz, Greek music, Middle Eastern music, Indian music, Latin music and African music at Berklee for two years, specifically in the performance area. I'm also a composer. All these elements from all these genres of music since I moved to New York have fallen into place. I create my own style of compositions, and I compose for movies as well.
Knowing Django's music from the gypsies is something that no one has here in the U.S., but it's not all I do. It's one part of my playing. It's strongly engrained in my guitar playing because it's a very strong technique. I don't play covers; I just play my own compositions. My compositions are very diverse. It's a very broad universe.
CP: Gypsy jazz - Django's music - is not something that's terribly common in this area. Do you find that you attract crowds that are well versed in that music or are many of your audiences comprised of newcomers to the style?
SW: You know, it's funny because there's a crowd that's really into Django, and for this crowd, I play in festivals and stuff or they come to me in New York because I have a very strong fan base there.
But when I play outside New York and when it's not in that specific Django style, I believe that people know who Django Reinhardt is and are curious to see how someone can play that music live, because it's very rare in the U.S. I'm the only one who learned with the gypsies in the traditional way and stuff, so I have that unique life that was given to me. When you learn something from a person, you not only get the information that goes with the learning, but you also get the life that goes with the learning. It's extremely important. The most important part is the life that goes with the transmission in the teaching. It makes a difference.
CP: How did that experience of living among them affect your approach to the music?
SW: The very first thing is that it's an ancient tradition - an ancient civilization almost - because it's really a world within a world. The way things are done, they are pretty much oral, so there is nothing written. The way to learn the instrument is that they show you little shapes on the guitar, and these shapes have sounds. You repeat what you see, and then you hear things. From there, you start hearing things around there. It's very efficient, really fast.
Also, there's something in the attitude, the way you grab the guitar, the way you hit the strings. All that is something that's not talked about but is something that is shown by the playing. You have to grasp it by being soaked in the environment. It's a complicated approach to learning. It's really soaking in that life, that culture, that makes the difference. You cannot get that from listening to CDs and stuff; it's a very unique experience.
CP: Because you're the only one in the country who learned the music that way, does it sometimes feel like you're serving as a kind of ambassador?
SW: Yes, it has, of course. It's a beauty and a curse. When people need me for a composer or a recording of something that needs a Django style, I'm here. There's no problem with that; that's what I do. When I perform with my band and when I compose, it might be completely different. People sometimes expect me to play Django when I don't play that way always. It's not something I always express in my music or performance. It's going to be there somehow, but it doesn't have to be there purely as Django. It's definitely my strong area. Definitely, I'm the only one here who has that knowledge directly from the gypsies.
CP: How do you deal with situations where audiences expect to hear Django music when your compositions deviate from that style?
SW: [Laughs.] This is what has happened in the past. I've always said that Django's music is for everyone - young, old, American or non-American. Whatever your background or where you're from, this music is universal. It's for everyone. If you're like good music, you're going to like Django's music. From there, you're going to like people who play that music.
It's not jazz. It's hard to describe, you know, because it's its own thing. My music is doing the same thing. If you like Django, if you like rock, if you like any kind of world music, you're going to like my music, but you can't classify it as Django music. Everyone has a problem to classify what I do.
There is a lot of rock energy in it. It's very high energy. There is the Django guitar style mixed with rock guitar and Indian music and oud stuff. There are very hot moments and very meditative moments. It's a very full experience. It's very hard to describe what it is, but if you like Django, you're going to like it. It's going to be in there anyway, but you can't set it in there.
CP: It also seems like blues is in your music as well.
SW: Oh yeah, of course. The blues is everywhere. It's human. As long as you put soul in what you do, there is blues.
CP: You've said that Django Reinhardt is your primary influence but that there are a lot of flavors added to your approach from styles like Middle Eastern and Indian music. Is that something conscious on your part or something that has worked its way in via osmosis?
SW: It's an interesting question. It goes also with the practice and how things end up in concerts and in compositions.
I see music a little bit like martial arts, a little bit like kung fu. You learn one thing, but when you learn, you're training, and you build up your chi, your inner energy. When you're in a situation of a concert or a composition, you release that chi.
The chi is a very interesting subject, you know? When I practice - whatever it is - I try to practice in a different state of mind as I do in the performance. I practice thinking of putting my two hands well together and playing it perfectly clean and playing it with a clear mind and understanding the underlying harmony. I try to have as much peace of mind as possible when I do it, and I build up chi and energy.
When I perform, it's too late. You have to do with what you have. You aren't learning on stage, so then, it's more about how you release that chi. Everything you learn comes in and is released and you don't have time to think.
This is like a combat situation, a little bit like a samurai. A samurai would never take out his sword. He would take it out only when it was 100 percent sure he would accomplish the mission, which usually involves killing another human being. Not in my case, I won't kill anyone. [Laughs.]
The samurai takes the sword from its sheath, and then he has to finish his mission. There is no more thinking. He doesn't worry if he's going to win or lose. All those things are out of his mind. His mind is blank, he releases his chi, applies what he knows and completes the mission. This is what I do in life and what I also do in composing. I blank my mind and whatever goes goes.
Anything I'm going to learn and repeat that is in my fingers is going to end up in my composition and in my gigs, but I never know how. Nothing is calculated. When it is time to create, whether it's in a concert with a lot of improvisation and interaction with other musicians and the people or if it's behind a computer with a mike and composing and laying down ideas - no matter what I've learned, this part doesn't use thought. It uses only a meditative kind of mind. I just release my chi, and whatever happens happens. It's completely natural.
CP: You were raised south of Paris, but you were educated at Berklee and have been living in New York for almost a decade now. What prompted your move to the states?
SW: Well, the first thing is, I was always attracted to the states. Since I was a kid, I've always been fascinated by this country. I always dreamed of going to the desert, to New Orleans and New York and L.A. and Chicago. There is something fascinating to me about the United States. I had a gut reaction to it.
The second thing is, when I grew up and became a musician, it became even more obvious that the U.S. should be my destination. I love music so much, and there is so much good music here. There is such a love for music here. There is a love for music in itself. There is a big group of people in the jam band crowd who love music just for music, whatever style it is, as long as it's something that moves people.
People are way more reactive to music here than in a country like France. In France, it is in boxes. People go to hear classical music at shows and they clap, and then they go home and don't listen to music. Here, there is music in every aspect of life, and there is also more diversity. I went to Ireland, and there is music everywhere, but it is Irish music. You go to Cuba, there is music everywhere, but it is Cuban music. Here, you have music everywhere, but it's all the music in the entire world. It's fascinating, especially in a place like New York. It's a concentration of the best musicians in the world from every style. It's crazy. The interaction there is absolutely amazing.
This is what pushed me to make my move to the U.S., especially Berklee
CP: Has the city worked its way into your music? Do you notice yourself playing differently since you moved?
SW: Yeah because there is a certain attitude. In New York, there is the attitude of like, "Take it or leave it." I like that. It's like, "You don't like it? Screw you. No problem. I'll do what I want." There's an aggressive will to put it out in the world however you want. It's extremely aggressive.
But if you get in that state of mind, too, you think, "I don't care. This is the music I love. There is a freedom to express what you want, and not only a freedom to express what you want but a feeling that you have to. You can't not be 100 percent yourself. You have to aggressively show all your potential constantly.
Also, it's very demanding. Even if you play a $50 restaurant gig in New York, the money doesn't matter. You're not there for the money or the prestige of the venue; you're there to train. You have to play your best. First because if you don't play your best, they will replace you with a guy who will play better for less. You have to be aggressive, even for the smaller gigs.
Also, you never know who is in the room. All the gigs I have in New York came from the smaller places. When you're in New York, you have to be humble, play all the gigs and play your best. It's aggressive and competitive, but you have to know that, if you do it long enough, things are going to come to you. It puts you in a raw state.
CP: Is that something you immediately took to upon arriving in New York or was it something you had to learn?
SW: Nah, you have no time to learn. When I came to Berklee, I was a musician already. I was 26. When I arrived in New York at 28 or 29, I already knew what it is to be a musician. I always refused to have a job. I was like, "Music is my job, no matter what I have to do." I could not start making a living doing something else hoping one day to be a musician. It doesn't work like that. That's an easy way to destroy a career.
I started at the very bottom when I arrived in New York. I took my rhythm guitar player and called every single French restaurant in New York. I went and played a few songs with them. They said, "Can't you just give us a CD?" and I said, "I have no time to give you guys a CD. I'm going to play a few songs, and if you like it, hire me, and if you don't kick me out. I don't care." By the end of the first week, I had three regular gigs. I put messages everywhere on the Internet and got eight students right away.
At the end of the first week, I was already making enough to get by. For years, I used to play eight to ten gigs a week. I would play every night, Saturday brunch, Sunday brunch, afternoon gigs and private parties. I played a lot, and I had like 15 students. It was very dense, but it was very New York, you know what I mean? That's how I got really trained in playing gigs.
Now, I have maybe 4,000 gigs in my hand. This is how you get good. That forces you to be tight.
CP: Tell me about your work for the soundtrack of "Midnight in Paris." How did you become involved in that project?
SW: They had worked with me already on "Vickie Christina Barcelona." They liked one of my songs on there, which was cool. When they finished "Midnight in Paris," I got a call from the producer who said, "We need you to compose a theme that would capture the soul of Paris, the magic of Paris, something magical about it." So I composed that theme.
I understood what they wanted. When people say, "I want a Parisian song, maybe like the '30s or '50s." You know what they want, especially since this is where I grew up. I was able to deliver that really well. That became the theme of the movie.
I've also scored three independent features. Film scoring is something I believe you have in your blood. It's something that comes naturally. It's like being a water colorist. One day, I was watching an interview with a watercolorist, and they said, "You don't become a watercolorist. You're born a watercolorist. It's something you have a feel for it or you don't. You can be taught." I believe it's true - especially because I can't watercolor. [Laughs.] I believe there is a sixth sense for that.
CP: Does having set parameters to work within on a film score restrict your creativity or does it force you to be more creative?
SW: No, I love it. When I compose, the act of composing for me is to dress up a scene. When I compose, even for my albums, all the songs have a meaning behind. For example, I saw a picture of the tsunami devastating the coast of Japan, and I came up with a song about it. I also have songs based on pictures of the Arabian spring, the revolutions. Also, I was watching "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan, and a song came from that. Something is going to inspire a song. My compositions aren't based on notes. They are based on images.
CP: Does that mean you walk around with a notebook or a guitar waiting for inspiration to strike or do you sit down and methodically seek out things that are inspiration to you?
SW: No, I don't take the bus with a notebook. None of my compositions are on paper. For example, when Hans Zimmer called me to ask me to play at the Academy Awards, he said, "Stephane, I really want you to come and play your song because I chose it to represent 'Midnight in Paris.' I love it. love your guitar playing. You really have to come."
Then, we started working on my trip, and he said, "We need to record it for orchestra. Do you have lead sheets?" I said, "I never wrote it down. It's written down on the guitar neck and in my memory. It's absolutely clear what it is, but I never put it down on paper. I don't even know what it looks like." For the first time, I had to put down my composition on a piece of paper.
Usually, I use "Garage Band." I put "Garage Band" on, press record and play the melodies. It is what it is, you know?
CP: That makes sense, considering how attracted you were to the gypsy oral musical tradition.
SW: Yeah, you know, I studied a lot in school - classical and stuff. It has to do with my nature. Some people love to have the pencil and the paper and write down things. It happens that my energy is a bit different. I like things when they are in motion. That's why I don't like composing with papers. Of course, going to the gypsies, the reason it spoke to me so loud when I discovered it was because it is in my nature to learn this way.
CP: Are you working on any new projects, personal recordings or soundtracks?
SW: Yeah, the big thing is my new album, "Origins." It's going to be out May 15. It won't be out on this tour, but it will be out in a couple of months. It really reflects all my influences. It's a very good album; I'm very happy with it.
I also have to publish a new book. [Laughs.] It's ready. It's a whole system for improvisation. I have to get my things ready with the business side, which I'm not very good with. [Laughs.]
I'm working on getting more work in films now. I'm on the waiting list for a few projects in the West Coast. We'll see where that goes.
CP: If you began doing more film scoring work, would you consider relocating to the West Coast or are you pretty committed to New York?
SW: At this point, it's almost too late, you know? If there is a movie, I could probably do bi-coastal. A flight from New York to L.A. is five hours. That's nothing. That's my plan for the future; to become bi-coastal.