“I Need To Take Risks”: An Interview With Jazz Guitarist Vitja Pauwels

Wolfgang Mowrey speaks to the versatile guitarist about exploring country sounds on his latest LP Early Life Forms, the creative process of improvisation with his band Bombataz and more.
By    March 20, 2024

Image via Ferre Magnus

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Listening to Lingua Ignota gives Wolfgang Mowrey keeps a CD copy of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah in his car and it always shines.

Vitja Pauwels excels at taking something familiar and dissembling it to a malleable core. The Brussels-born guitarist can mutate his instrument from jazz fusion into cosmic country. He’s a master of summoning small-scale grandeur, artfully manipulating and expanding his acoustic guitar with live loops and delays.

It started with classical guitar as a teenager. But soon after, Pauwels went electric after falling in love with post-grunge American rock and pop. After a brief stint studying architecture, he turned his focus to jazz, studying guitars and electronics for two years each in Antwerp, later moving to Trondheim in Norway to spend his final year of school studying under Stian Westerhus – whose twists of sound manipulation, prominent in his recordings with Jaga Jazzist as well as the metal group Ulver, have made him one of his country’s most prominent jazz guitarists. In Westerhus, Pauwels found more than a mentor, but a key to unlocking an entirely new dimension of his instrument.

In 2022, Pauwels released his debut studio album, Drift By / Sink In: a suite of hazy americana and jazz sketches that felt equally inspired by William Tyler and Bill Orcutt, crossing between dusty-eyed awe and blustering defiance. He leaned on the hum of a pedal steel guitar and modulated his guitar into a cubist weapon.

As the frontman of the band Bombataz, Pauwels has frequently returned to his early fascination with ’90s rock. On their 2023 album, Baby Dry My Tears, he warbled in front of chunky synths, aggressive riffs and breakbeats. It carries all the signifiers of the era without ever feeling like a period piece, and Pauwels conveys a sincere interest, carving out a timeline where the “rock” in “Jazz-Rock” refers to Deftones, not Cream. For the 2022 edition of the BRAND! Festival in Mechelen, Belgium, Pauwels assembled a line-up of musicians including his favorite guitarist Marc Ribot and, with no time for a proper rehearsal, sculpted musical ideas that could be quickly communicated and then expanded and improvised upon.

Listening to his latest, Early Life Forms, a live album documenting that show and released this past January on the W.E.R.F. label, any presumptive stage fright has been rendered silent. The album serves as a capstone for Pauwels’ career up to now, where he has been quietly positioning himself as one of the most exciting young guitar players in jazz.

Pauwel’s band includes himself on guitar alongside Ribot and Frederik Leroux, organist Laurens Dierickx, and Bombataz drummer Casper Van De Welde. They sound fully realized here, and Pauwels’ compositions shine through with clarity and confidence. The music excels because of its deceptive looseness. Over nearly an hour, the band wanders into a third space governed by like-minded collagists Bill Frisell and Ry Cooder.

On “My Little Renaissance,” a jilted carnival rhythm takes shape from Ribot’s Eddie Hazel-like guitar wails and Dierickx’s organ vamps – juxtaposed with Pauwels’ fingerpicked resonator guitar. Album highlight “Latin Dancer” supplies a passionate pastiche of Latin rock and Soul-Jazz, pulling in a dozen different directions. From the subdued opening of “Overland” to the exuberant “Groove Encore,” the band doesn’t so much straddle genre lines as it evaporates their supposed distance. The interplay between players and styles becomes immaterial, and what remains takes on a new shape, crawling out of the ooze and evolving into what Pauwels tells me is his best experience with music in his life, ever.

​​(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into playing guitar.

Vitja Pauwels: I’ve played since I was a little kid. My parents gave me a guitar at a very young age, when I was five years old, and I took lessons in a local music school. And after a few years, when I was around 13 or 14, I got really interested in 90s rock. At that point, I was studying classical guitar, and then I started to hear a lot of electric guitar on the radio, a lot of Nirvana. And then, I became more interested in pop music and the theory behind it. After high school, I went to a university and studied engineering architecture. I had bands at the same time, but I initially didn’t think it was a good idea to actually study music, because I thought it would maybe be too professional. But when I graduated, all I wanted to do was music. So then I studied jazz music in Antwerp, and five years later, I graduated in jazz. I spent my last year in Norway, through an exchange program and studied with this guitarist, Stian Westerhus. He’s someone that I admire lots, and he sort of coached me into doing a solo project.

In Norway, I was at a super progressive school in Trondheim, where you can just develop into who you are. You can just make the music that you want. From there, I began to develop my own sound. and that led into my first solo record which was the recording I made for my graduation program, “Day At Half Speed.” Then a few years later, I made my first studio album, called Drift By / Sink In. And in 2022, I did this live album, which just now came out. So that’s a bit of a lecture of what I’ve done so far.

I’m curious, did your time when you were younger studying architecture and engineering ever impact or influenced the way you think about music composition?

Vitja Pauwels: Yeah, there are definitely some aspects, like the minimal amount of elements In a piece. I also like thinking about proportions and textures.

So on this new recording, I found that there were a lot of influences that tied back to americana and country sounds. You play a pedal steel guitar, for example. What led you to experimenting with those sounds?

Vitja Pauwels: I was never really into country music, but there’s some artists that I really like. For instance, Daniel Lanois, he’s like a super big influence. There’s also Ry Cooder, who is responsible for drawing me to the pedal steel guitar, which became a huge influence on me.

The Blues and Country are both part of the American musical tradition. There’s European music that’s inspired by Americana, but it is in a European context. Here, It’s kind of reminiscent of Scandinavian musicians who picked up the pedal steel and slide guitar, but it’s in a new context and sounds a bit more modern and less traditional. And I think that’s really interesting, to put traditions in new fields.

When people ask you to describe the music you make, what’s your typical answer?

Vitja Pauwels: I guess maybe a combination of jazz, because there’s Influences from Latin and rock music. I think that I also have something sound-wise with 90s rock, and then there’s also a lot of influence from film soundtracks and cinema, as well as free improvisation.

Do you think that the audience was caught by surprise by some of your influences on this recording?

Vitja Pauwels: I think they didn’t expect anything. Some people may have known me already from my solo work, and there are some who follow what I do and are down for whatever I’m doing at any moment. So I feel blessed that they are going to judge. So that night was super exciting because on top of it being a live recording, it was the first time me and Marc were playing together, and I think the crowd felt my excitement.

What initially drew you to Marc Ribot, and what was the path like to getting him onto this recording?

Vitja Pauwels: It was not the easiest path. I got this opportunity from a festival, which was to form a dream band. They said to look international, but I didn’t have many ideas. So I just picked my favorite guitar player, and contacted his management. Then I got his email and he said, “well I see you can play, but first we have to discuss the financial side and the agenda with my manager.” Those two things were sorted out, but there was still the matter of commitment, because he didn’t say no, but he also didn’t really say yes, up until maybe four months before the show. I sort of pushed him a bit to make a decision, because I didn’t know what to do. I eventually made pretty crappy demos of ideas for songs that I recorded one night and then sent those to him and said, “do you want to do this or not? Otherwise, I need to find somebody else,” and then he answered really quickly, “okay, I guess I want to do this.”

But there was one condition, and that was that we couldn’t rehearse, because he had a tour scheduled, and he was playing solo, and there wasn’t any time to really sit together and rehearse. So we just had a sound check. I prepared very clear scores. I sort of wanted to make the music very essential on paper. I had some signs that I could get cue parts, from which I could just change the form in the moment. We had a sound check, and it sounded great, maybe a bit chaotic. But during the concert, I felt that he understood the music right away. He was super excited to play, and it was an amazing experience.

Now that it exists as a record, can that still be felt? Going back and listening to the record. Is there anything new that sticks out to you?

Vitja Pauwels: I never really thought about that, actually. I knew it was special, you know, but the best moments you can’t really remember much about. So, it went by super quickly, and I really had to listen afterwards to what it actually was, because the sound on stage is very different from what we heard as the rough mix, and then later the master. Every live performance is super different with this band, because we improvise a lot. It’s never the same, and is like an exercise in letting go for me, because when I play solo, I’m in control of everything. Here, I am trying to lose a bit of control in some parts, just trying to see where the structures take us, what the music gives us.

Did the music manifest itself in the way you had imagined it would?

Vitja Pauwels: Actually, it did, it was better than I imagined. It was really super alive. I was super focused and elated, thinking, “wow, like I wrote this music and now it’s out there,” and the audience loved it. It was maybe my best experience with music so far.

So what are you working on next?

Vitja Pauwels: Well, I’m going to play with this band, minus Marc Ribot. I’m really excited to play this music live again, and it’s gonna evolve more for sure. I also have new songs ready, and I’m also playing solo. I’m gonna be supporting Ceramic Dog, which is Marc’s band. It’s a nice period. People like the album, so I’m glad.

If you could get the opportunity to do another dream band project, who would you include?

Vitja Pauwels: That’s really difficult. I’m always drawn to guitarists, but I’m a guitarist myself. I have another guitar hero, Bill Frisell, and there’s also Arto Lindsay, but I don’t know if I could write for him!

When you’re improvising either on stage or in a studio, is there any one kind of truth that you adhere to? Any set of rules that you have for yourself when you’re improvising?

Vitja Pauwels: I need to find a connection with other musicians and with myself, and whatever that connection is, I need to take risks to develop that.

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