Stian Westerhus’ music-making motto is “by any means necessary.” Here, he screams into the pickups of his main guitar,
a 1970 Gibson ES-335. Photo by Ulf Cronenberg
If musicians can be likened to painters, Robben Ford, Wes Montgomery, and Joe Satriani would be considered classicists—their linear lines telling a story, à la Rembrandt or Rubens. Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Bill Frisell would be impressionists, with smeary solos that distort reality, like van Gogh or Cézanne. If we use the analogy to describe Stian Westerhus, the Norwegian guitarist would fall in the abstract expressionist camp, like a Jackson Pollack or Kandinsky. Westerhus largely eschews melodic lines in favor of splashed stabs of pure sonic color layered on a wash of bowed guitar, creating works as intangible as a Kandinsky and as deeply affecting.
Like those artists, Westerhus is thoroughly grounded in the tradition. He studied jazz while taking a bachelors degree in London, but found that “the traditional language is not my cup of tea … I didn’t grow up with it.” For his masters degree in Norway he was allowed to create his own program, where he worked 14 hours a day developing his unique style of playing.
Throughout his recordings for Norway’s Rune Grammofon label—whether solo albums like Pitch Black Star Spangled and The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers or duo outings with avant singer Sidsel Endresen—Westerhus has amassed a unique body of work that displays a virtuosic mastery of effects. Although his style is as much noise as notes, like the best abstract art it demonstrates a strong internal logic and its own brand of lyricism.
His latest solo excursion, Amputation, contains echoes of his previous recording, Maelstrom, a band project on which Westerhus added his own vocals to the collage of sound created via his Gibson ES-335, pedals, and computer processing. The guitarist’s haunting falsetto recalls the minimalist style of James Blake, as well as a certain classic-rock legend. “I listen to a lot of Neil Young,” Westerhus says. “He’s an inspiration—and the best guitar player there is.” Fans of Young’s noisier guitar excursions—especially Arc—will get the connection immediately.
For his first Premier Guitar interview, the guitarist discussed analog versus digital, working with an orchestra, and the relatively normal effects he uses to make his decidedly abnormal sounds.
You said you picked up guitar because of Jimi Hendrix. What was it about his playing or sound that inspired you?
My dad tried to teach me guitar when I was a kid and it didn’t work. Later, I was home ill when Hendrix came on TV playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. It was his energy and expressiveness that caught my attention. I picked up the guitar that minute. I was quite young, around 10.
What happened to your recent band project, Stian Westerhus & Pale Horses?
We were happy with the album and it got a lot of publicity in northern Europe. Our booking manager got really ill, so we hardly did any gigs, but the process with Pale Horses inspired me to go further with my solo work. There are things on my new album I never could have done if I hadn’t done Maelstrom. I figured out how to mix song-structured writing with my style of guitar playing so I can sing and play at the same time. It was challenging because, with Pale Horses, I initially got pushed into a rock trio corner, where I would sing and play like a normal guitar player. It didn’t feel as free as I wanted until toward the end. Eventually, the tunes could travel anywhere, because we all understood where they were going. The next step with Pale Horses is to keep that freedom.
How did Amputation evolve?
Some tunes, like the opening track, were originally written to play with the South Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, and some were written as new Pale Horses material. But I found it inspiring to do these tunes on my own.
The tracks on Amputation flow into each other very naturally. Was itconceived as a single composition?
No, it wasn’t, but when I started working in the studio, the tracks all blended into each other. I love the process of putting it all in context to see how the tracks work together. I had so much material it could have been three albums. I just started cutting and it was “kill your darlings” time. The last three tracks are an extreme stretch guitaristically. They are as dynamic and as hard-hitting as anything I’ve ever done in the studio, but I think they work with the rest of the album even though other parts are very soft.
Did you play and sing at the same time when you were recording?
Some of it is recorded pretty much live, some is overdubbed, and on some tracks the vocals were repaired. It was quite different from the Pale Horses album, which was recorded in three days. This was an ongoing process for about two months. I wanted to experiment and see what the studio would give me if I produced myself and went to extremes. I didn’t have any rules.
I think we can agree you don’t play a lot of chords and notes. Where do you get the pitch for singing?
[Laughs.] That’s a really good question. I don’t know if you have this phrase in English: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” If those vocal lines weren’t already there, I wouldn’t be playing what I am playing. I have the pitch in my head and don’t need to spell it out on the guitar, and I sing from there.
Onstage, Westerhus becomes the ghost in his music—the human pilot of a raft of gear that transforms his singular vision into unpredictable sound. Photo by Thor Egil Leirtrø
Would you say because you are not playing pitches it doesn’t have to correspond as directly as in typical pop music?
Right, and this was one of the things I was excited about. My guitar playing is this instant thing. I’ve done years and years of improvised music, and now I want to sing and try to link those things together. The main objective with this kind of project was to link singing to the same sort of immediate response as my guitar playing. When I play this material live it’s really free and stretched out, but, on a good day, it holds together.
Was the interaction between your guitar and voice inspired at all by the gigs with Sidsel Endresen?
Absolutely, and I have also played with other singers in Norway for the last 10 to 15 years. A lot of Norwegian singers have been doing avant-garde stuff with pop material. It’s part of the scene over here, so it didn’t feel that strange to do it with my own vocals.
Are all the instrumental sounds on Amputation created with guitar?
Yeah, except for the bass drum sound—which is a bass drum. I tried making the sound with guitar, but I had a bass drum sample I really liked, so I used that.
When you are bowing, do you find that the arch of your 335’s top helps keep the bow from hitting the body?
It can help. It is a properly set up 335, where the bridge is correctly arched, which is a big plus. Bowing guitar is actually pretty stupid. It is really hard and it doesn’t really sound that good. As you say, the body gets in the way, the strings get dead, and you get resin in the pickups. I never clean them.
How did you record the guitars?
I used mostly my two Hiwatt Custom 50 combos and recorded them with Audio-Technica AT4081 ribbon mics.
Do those mics handle the sound pressure levels you put out?
To a certain extent. I’ve had them repaired twice. I’m not sure if it was my fault or if it was just transportation damage. I have the guitar running through a stereo DI, because most of my sounds are stereo.
On your previous solo record, The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers, you used huge sounds recorded in a mausoleum with a natural 20-second reverb. On this record it seemed like a lot of the distorted sounds were a distortion pedal or a fuzz going direct into a board, rather than from an amp.
The bowed guitar was recorded in the same mausoleum. Apart from that, a lot of that distortion comes from pushing my studio mixers, because they compress when you start pushing the preamps. I have two mixers that I do tricks with, running them back and forth. Those distortion sounds are either transistors or tubes being pushed. I experiment a lot with that because it adds a different sort of compression. Tape compression can be too soft sometimes. It’s like putting too much butter on your toast—sometimes you want hardcore cheddar [laughs]. I had to mix the two instrumental tracks inside Pro Tools and do some of the work digitally, because the analog gear was just too slow for the transients, and it wasn’t as snappy as in the digital domain. I tried to blend those two worlds together and push the digital domain as much as the analog. It is much easier to make stuff “larger than life” with analog, but you lose the snappiness and low bass that you get with digital.It was interesting trying to merge that digital hardness into the analog domain and vice versa. I spend a lot of nights doing that.
Bowing, sampling, looping, tapping, and scraping at his 1970 ES-335’s strings are among the extended techniques Stian Westerhus employs during this January 2015 TEDx performance in Oslo, Norway. Thanks to his wide array of pedal and laptop effects, it’s impossible to guess what sound he’ll create next.