Bowing is an important part of Westerhus’ approach, often serving as bedrock under his forays into extended technique and raw noise-as-art explorations. Photo by Ulf Cronenberg

What guitars did you use on the record?
I used my Gibson 1970 ES-335, except for an Ibanez baritone on one track. I modified it with two mini humbuckers.

On “Kings Never Sleep,” one sound seems like changing the pitch of an analog or tape delay while the signal is going through it.
I really like throwing things in a loop, messing with them, recording them, chopping them up in Pro Tools, and sending them back to the loop. It might well be something like that.

At the beginning of “Sinking Ships,” the individual notes sound almost like a piano.
I think that’s the guitar into an old Eventide Harmonizer H3000.

Westerhus’ effects array includes a Moog MF-102 Ring Modulator, several overdrives, an octave pedal, delays, a harmonizer, a MIDI foot controller, a laptop running Ableton and Altiverb, and a Neve DI.

There is some bass that sounds like a Moog synth. Is it synth or processed guitar?
That’s all guitar. I compressed the shit out of the baritone, and then filtered it on the desk, just rolling things off. If it were a plug-in, it would have been the FabFilter Pro-Q1.

You mentioned playing live with an orchestra. How does that work?
All the parts for the classical musicians are composed. You have to write down everything because having a rehearsal with a 50-piece orchestra is so expensive. For my 30-minute piece, commissioned by a festival in the Netherlands, some of the guitar stuff was written out, but a lot of my parts were improvised. There is nobody responding, so the improvisation is limited because there’s nothing new happening with anyone else.

How would you notate the sounds you make so you can repeat them in a composition?
You just have to spell it out in the beginning—a sign for this and for that—and make the best of it. I worked with a fantastic conductor in the Netherlands, who lifted everything to the next level. He understood where I wanted to go and would tell me, “You can’t notate this like this; it will work much better like this.” And he was right.

Stian Westerhus’ Gear

1970 Gibson ES-335
Ibanez MMM1 Mike Mushok Signature Baritone

2 Hiwatt Custom 50 combos
2 Ampeg SVT bass amps with 4x10 cabinets

Boss tuner
Moog MF-102 Ring Modulator
Fulltone FullDrive 2
Fulltone OCD
Boss OC-3 Super Octave
Line 6 Echo Park delay
Eventide H9 Harmonizer
Eventide TimeFactor
Laptop with Ableton Live, Altiverb
MOTU audio interface
Rupert Neve DIs
Roland FC-200 MIDI foot controller
iPad running Lemur controller app

Strings and Picks
D’Addario EXL110 (.010–.046)
D’Addario EXL157 (.014–.068)
Dunlop Stubby 3 mm

Did you learn orchestration when doing your masters in Norway or before that?
If you can write and read music, you can write for an orchestra. You just write some stuff and let
them play it. They’re just a bunch of musicians, and they have to play whatever you write [laughs].

Don’t you at least have to learn the clefs and the ranges of the individual instruments?
That’s what Google is for [laughs].

Let’s get into your current live rig. You’ve made some changes in size and gear.
When I did a lot of flying with a huge pedalboard, the pedals kept breaking. I was using Boss RC-20 loopers when I first started building those big boards, but I didn’t like their headroom and preamps. The DigiTech looper sounded nice, but kept breaking. After The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers, I needed a big reverb sound. I
had the Audio Ease Altiverb convolution reverb plug-in in the studio and wanted to bring it onstage on the laptop, so I started to use the laptop for looping as well.

On the pedalboard, I now have a Boss tuner into a Fulltone FullDrive 2 that’s always on with a clean setting. That goes into a Fulltone OCD and then a Boss OC-3 octave pedal. From there it goes into the Line 6 Echo Park delay, the Moog Ring Modulator, and then into and Eventide H9. That goes into the laptop through a MOTU Ultralite audio interface.

Are you going through the computer before you hit the amps?
Yeah. I’m using the laptop like a bunch of pedals. All the effects in the laptop are run in parallel. That way if Ableton Live crashes I can still rock out, because the sound card will keep pushing my “clean signal” through. In Ableton, the effects sends are maxed out with different effects. I have three or four different settings in Altiverb with different impulse responses: everything from that mausoleum to some nice plates. I used to have an old crappy reverb pedal, which I loved for making explosive noises, so I put that into Altiverb as well. I am using the looper in Ableton, which is really good for what it is. I’ve also got some whacky chains of pitch things.

The MOTU interface goes into an Eventide TimeFactor. It has a setting that takes line level from the MOTU and sends it out as instrument level into a couple of DI boxes. I recently started using the Rupert Neve DIs and there’s an amazing difference. The signal goes from the DIs to the amps and the front of house.

My live amp rig—since I can’t get Hiwatts anywhere—is a pair of Fender Twin blackface ’65 reissues with Jensen speakers, linked up to two Ampeg SVT Classics with 4x10s.

Westerhus explains his versatile signal chain with this drawing. It contains an iPad and laptop, his pedalboard, a MIDI footswitcher, and four amplifiers.

How are you controlling the laptop?
I use the old Roland FC-200 MIDI foot controller just for simple CC [control change] messages to turn on and off the different effects chains. I can control the length and volume of some reverbs, and some pitch things. I also programmed a simple controller in a Lemur app on the iPad—some small buttons and faders that control different effects. It is a really cut-down rig, but it’s nice. I don’t need to look at the computer screen at all or do anything with the laptop. It is safely stored in its case onstage and I hardly ever touch it.

Do you carry a backup laptop?
No, but I have all my systems backed up to Dropbox and all the plug-ins are on iLok, so if everything fails and I need to borrow or buy a new computer, I can easily download my systems from Dropbox and I’m good to go.

Did you use that system in the studio for your improvisation?
I have my Hiwatt combos in the studio, but other than that it’s the same rig. Sometimes I use a bass amp, but in the studio it’s often overkill. You end up with more bass than you can handle.

What’s coming up for you?
I’m doing another piece for the Philharmonic orchestra in the Netherlands that’s also being played at a festival by an orchestra in Norway. I’m doing some gigs with Sidsel and, of course, I’m in the process of booking a bunch of solo gigs.