Interview: Stephane Wrembel
Nestled in the South Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn is Barbés, a quaint performance space that brings a little bit of Paris into the concrete jungle. Owned by two French musicians, Barbés is part listening room, part art film mecca, and the general community center for the area’s artists and musicians. On most Sundays, if you wander into the back room, you can find one of the city’s best-kept musical secrets. Guitarist Stephane Wrembel holds court during this weekly gig and not only pushes the boundaries of what is considered Gypsy jazz, but gathers influences ranging from Greek and North African music to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd into an entrancing, yet accessible style.
After graduating from Berklee, Wrembel planted himself in Brooklyn among a healthy community of musicians, artists, and other creative types that bolstered and inspired his muse. Unlike many of his derivative contemporaries, Wrembel pushed the ghost of Django Reinhardt aside when making his latest album, Origins—a collection of fresh and sometimes cinematic acoustic tunes full of precise picking and hummable melodies.
Wrembel’s music caught the ear of Woody Allen (who happens to have a deep love for all things Gypsy jazz), which led to Wrembel’s composition, “Big Brother,” being chosen for the soundtrack to Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. That partnership continued, and soon after, Allen asked Wrembel to write the theme for Midnight in Paris, which Wrembel performed at the 2012 Academy Awards. It was quite a break for the DIY musician, who reflects on his big year by sharing with us his affinity for stargazing, his compositional style, and why he views the Django community as one big competition.
Tell me about your childhood
in France. When did you first
pick up the guitar?
First, I was playing the piano. I’m originally from Fontainebleau–which is the home of Impressionism. I studied piano at age 4 and was classically trained in the Impressionist style by an old piano teacher who knew Debussy, so I was trained in that old traditional school. I started playing guitar when I was 15 and I was playing more ’70s rock like Pink Floyd and Zeppelin. When I was about 19 or 20 I really wanted to expand my horizons so I practiced Django stuff, jazz, Indian music, African music, and stuff like that.
Did your parents push you
I have two sisters, and my mom really wanted us to play an instrument. We started with the piano because that is what she knew. She wanted us to continue with an instrument and when I was 15 I said, “I really wanted to play the guitar.” When I was a teenager I really loved David Gilmour—he is still my favorite—Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page. Loved Andy Summers, too.
So Django wasn’t one of your
primary influences when you
Django’s music has always been around, especially because I am from the area where he settled. For us, it was just traditional music, much like bluegrass is here. It’s always been there but I never really paid attention to it. It was only when I studied jazz and French traditional music that I really started to discover him.
Did you move to the States
specifically to study music?
I have been fascinated with the United States since I was a kid. I always wanted to move here. It was a childhood dream. Being a musician, going to Berklee was another dream from when I was a teenager. When I was 26 I got a scholarship and was able to go get my tutorings. I concentrated mostly on jazz and all kinds of world music. I studied Indian music there, Western African music, and Greek music a little bit.
What was it that most interested
you in those types of music?
To me, music is only one thing—it’s just music. Different countries approach the language from different directions, but they all melt together at the end. Indian music is very good for studying the architecture of rhythm; you understand rhythm way better with Indian music. And their ways of practicing are amazing. With African music, they have an amazing rhythm and the way they use certain colors of percussion, I can do on guitar. The jazz music is very important because it makes you a more confident improviser over complicated chord progressions.
When did you make a choice to
focus more on acoustic music?
I don’t really focus on acoustic music, it has just been added to my playing. It was only really when I discovered Django that I learned to play acoustic instruments. If you give me an electric guitar, I can play like a real electric guitar player, you know? It’s just been added to my arsenal of techniques. I find more power in the acoustic instrument than the electric instrument. It’s also because that is what’s happening [with me] now. I also use electric sometimes, although I haven’t recorded with it yet but I have projects for that.
Wrembel plays his Holo Nouveau at the intimate Empire Hotel Rooftop in NYC on June 18, 2012. Photo by Scott Bernstein
What type of projects?
You would be surprised. It’s really the same thing. That one style, whether I play electric or acoustic, it doesn’t really change much because I play the acoustic really like an electric player. But with the acoustic technique I give out as much power as, say, a Les Paul through an amp with distortion.
Do you feel that your technical
approach changes when moving
from acoustic to electric?
It doesn’t really change because once your technique gets better you have ways to make the guitar ring in a very different way. You can use the sympathetic ringing of the guitar, which is a type of control that’s a bit more advanced. That is something I couldn’t do before so even when I am playing a distorted guitar, I use the sympathetic vibration of the other strings and it makes the sound bigger.
Do you use a Django-style
It was completely inspired by Django and playing the oud.
Can you explain how that
It’s not only the right hand but also the left hand. The right hand doesn’t exist all by itself. You can’t really talk about one without the other. Basically, the thing is you have to press hard with the left hand on the strings—that’s very important. You have to make sure to put the two hands really together, which is surprising to say that but most people don’t. It’s very hard to have two hands play well together. There are all kinds of things. Like you don’t touch the strings because you want them to resonate in sympathy with the rest to create a natural reverb.
Do you follow a strict alternate
Usually when you change strings you use a downstroke as much as possible and you use more downstrokes than upstrokes. There’s no real rule. It’s not as precise as that. It’s like when you drive. When you learn to drive, you put your hands on the wheel and learn everything internally. After that you are able to drink a coffee and drive, so the rule becomes “drive.” It’s the same thing with the guitar.
For your latest album, did you
compose specifically for this
project or were these tunes
laying around for a while?
Almost all of the material was written for this album. “Bistro Fada” was the song I wrote for the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris. I remade a new version for this album, for sonic reasons and to match the color of this album. There is also “Water is Life,” which was written for my first album in 2005, but it was a classical guitar and bass version. We recorded it more like how we perform it live with the drums. Otherwise, everything else was written for this album.
Speaking of Woody Allen,
how did he approach you to
create the theme for Midnight
The first time he used one of my songs on his movie [Vicky Cristina Barcelona], and the second time his producer called me and asked if I could compose a theme for the movie that would represent the magic of Paris.
Woody tours with his own
band all over the world. Did
you ever get a chance to play
Nah, I’ve actually never met him. We talk through his producer. Once it’s time for pre-production he is already onto his next movie or some other thing. It’s not like we have time to hang out. Busy guy.
When you are presented with
a compositional “assignment,”
like writing a score, how do
you approach it? Is your process
Actually, I go blank and move into a trance state. It just happens. When it’s time to compose I get in that mood and it lasts for a few days and since I can’t score ideas in my head I throw the ideas into GarageBand. I then go back and refine them and it becomes more architectural work. For me, it’s very important to have a mood and a musical idea. That’s the first thing. After that, I rework it.
Do your ideas usually begin
with a melody or a chord
It’s all entangled. Once I have a rough idea I spend a few hours to really play around with it— change chords, move the bridge around—so many choices. I usually do that on the spot right after composing a song.
The track “Tsunami” really
shows the orchestrated, more
scenic influence of movie
scores. What composers do
you listen to for inspiration?
I listen to movie scores a lot. I listened to a few scores from Hans Zimmer and I have checked out the classic ones like Jaws [John Williams]. A score that I really love is the one from Pi [Clint Mansell], and I am also a big fan of Howard Shore [Lord of the Rings, Hugo].
This image shows a structural light test of a Bob Holo Hotclub model. Notice the smaller braces used to help support the bridge. Photo courtesy of Bob Holo
What is it about those scores
that draws you in?
I can’t tell you. I have no idea. There is just something about it. You know, there is just so much you can’t explain about music. I don’t go too far as to say I like a certain kind of harmony because it’s beyond that. When you listen to music, either something touches you or it doesn’t. It’s not because of the notes, the notes are the same. It’s just something else.
Do you have aspirations
to do more movie and
As of now, people know me and have asked me to score their film. I don’t really have much of a clue as to how it comes about. There are agents that do some of that stuff, but I don’t really have an agent right now. It’s a tough book to open. Usually, when [directors] have a movie, they want to work with someone they already know who will do a certain kind of score. They fall into this security. That’s the reason why the whole film scoring industry is held by like, I don’t know, 20 composers. There are not many composers who have access to bigger movies.
On “Voyager” you pay tribute
to what could be considered
an unlikely influence: astronomer
and author, Carl Sagan.
He translates to us the wonders of the universe. In his books and everything, I just think he has a way of saying things that are so brilliant at explaining how the universe works. Thinking about Voyager 1, that’s his mind. That thing is traveling through space right now. It’s like a mind warp. If it hadn’t been for him, we wouldn’t have pictures of Saturn and Uranus. We wouldn’t have pictures of any of the moons. Nowadays, humanity is more concerned about economies for themselves, like just making money and cheap labor instead of looking to the stars. It just makes me dream to think about the stars.
Was the album recorded live
in the studio?
We recorded live in the same room without headphones. Just live. Like really live.
How did you mic up the guitar?
I have no clue. That’s a question for my producer. I have a few things in my home studio, so I know how to record my guitar and stuff. I think he had two or three mics.
Tell me about the guitar you
used on this album.
I used a Bob Holo Nouveau model with a cedar top. [For more information on Wrembel’s guitar, read “Bob Holo on Stephane Wrembel’s Nouveau Guitar” on pg. 134]
What type of strings and picks
do you use?
I use D’Addario strings and a Wegen pick.
Do you use the really thick ones?
It’s a little bit thick but not like those huge things.
Like a 2 mm?
Yeah, I don’t even really know the size. I recognize them online, click on the photo, and then buy them.
Even though your music has
its roots in Django’s music,
you are pushing beyond playing
jazz standards. Do you
feel connected to Django’s
legacy or is he just one of
The Django community, whatever that is, is a big competition. It’s like, “Can I play the new lead faster than you?” I have no clue what is going on with all these guys—I just like to play my music and compose. You can hear the influence of Django and I love to play the acoustic guitar. I found a good sound with that by mixing it up with the drums, but I don’t try to play like Django. I am more influenced by Pink Floyd than anything else. My music doesn’t really belong to any genre.
You take a pretty DIY
approach to your career. What
do you have in mind for the
I am completely independent, I don’t have a label or anything, so I do everything myself. I put one foot in front of the other. Right now I am taking care of touring behind this album, so I would say for the rest of the year I will tour and then I will think about composing more. I have a few ideas right now that I am putting in the can, more movie-like stuff.
Will it be in the same vein
I don’t know. Right now, while I try to perform this album, I can’t think of the next one yet. I started to put bits of things together, but I don’t have a definite color yet.
I’ve seen it 12 times—eight in Europe and four in the States— and I have a cool photo of him and I because he came to see me play last year. After that we went out for dinner, it was really fun and such a great experience.
Armed with his cedar-topped Bob Holo Nouveau model, Wrembel leads a quintet through “Tsunami,” off his latest album. The band kicks in at 2:57 as Wrembel effortlessly unleashes some of his Djangoinspired lines.
This 15-minute performance from Wrembel’s weekly gig at Barbés starts with some exploratory drones but gives you an up close look at his right-hand technique.
Fronting a trio with rhythm guitarist Ryan Flaherty, Wrembel tackles two of Django’s most famous compositions, “Minor Blues” and “Swing 48.”