Stian Westerhus: Daredevil Guitar
The Norwegian sonic wirewalker defies the conventions of tone, technique, and composition to create a unique aural universe.
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.
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.
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.