You hear swirling industrial noises, distant, then suddenly up close, amid the maelstrom flashes of melodic structure emerge, like pillars dimly perceived in the mist. With an aching, often heavily treated baritone, Stian Westerhus makes a kind of unearthly folk music, producing campfire tunes one imagines being played in the shadow of great and hulking industrial buildings. These are compositions laden with slowly unfolding meanings, the experimental passingly tamed by more familiar structures. Staccato noise bursts and glitching guitars take independent form under that brooding voice, forming a richly detailed film set behind a mysterious lead actor.
After a career as a determined musical adventurer, with stints solo or with jazzers like Puma and Jaga Jazzist, Stian Westerhus has seemingly taken roost at the top of his own mountain.
Fellow British musician and author Alexander Mayor caught up with Stian to talk about musical evolutions, the right amount of disrespect for jazz and his Monheim Triennale appearances in June 2022.
Given the many things you do with the instrument, I assume the guitar was where your musical journey first began, right?
Yeah, I was a guitarist, I studied jazz music. I tried to be a jazz guitarist and actually studied in London from 1999 to 2002. and I stayed there for a couple of more years, just trying to make ends meet. Then I moved to Norway and just did shit loads of projects which was great because I mean, being a musician in London is such a hard job right? Ridiculously hard. Always felt I got home with less money than when I left the house!
I grew up in a really rural countryside in Norway, but you know, in the eighties and nineties there wasn't that much happening. But there were only one or two classic record stores, thousands of vinyl LPs, and luckily my older sister had some friends who were really into music and they copied tapes for me and stuff like that. So I grew up with a wide range of music. Everything from mainstream stuff to really heavy rock and metal, and prog, British psychedelia.
You must be a Hawkwind fan, right?
Ha! Well, I was heavily into Gong… And I still remember hearing King Crimson for the first time – my brain felt like it was about to explode. Then punk stuff, my first CD was „Combat Rock“ by the Clash. Political music has always been part of what I’m doing I think, the expressive element that comes from that. That’s why I liked heavy metal I think, the energy of it, it’s the same that you find in contemporary classical music. Which actually got me thrown out of the conservatoire in Paris, for saying that!
Amazing, they’re always so open-minded, right? You often hear that people who go through high end musical academia either embrace it fully, or leave determined to burn it to the ground…Was that your experience?
Yeah, certainly. I mean, I went into jazz education thinking that jazz was free improv. That's how little I knew about the world of jazz! I quickly realised that, oh shit, what the hell am I doing? But getting a jazz education is just like, a history, a toolbox, and for that, it’s great. It's great for your ears. But absolutely, there was a real turning point after I came back to Norway. I thought, okay, if I'm going to do this, I need to really, really dig into it. And so I worked day and night tried to play with everybody.
I was feeling really blocked by this formal jazz thing, and I remember asking myself, am I going to try to be this sort of underachieving jazz guitarist? Or I might just play, you know and have fun.
And I just remember going into my rehearsal space again, and playing really freely for about half an hour. And so that was the beginning of the solo project. That night it was like, okay, there's something here. It sounds like crap now, but this is it, like when you find the ignition. I had to get rid of the respect for jazz, basically.
Well, you've, you've probably missed out on a long and healthy career playing in Italian restaurants…
… and bad function gigs in North London!
So talk to me a bit about how your approach to music making took form.
A lot of the people I began to meet were really into the sort of sixties and seventies free jazz kind of thing. I discovered lots of Norwegian musicians doing just that sort of saying “Is it jazz? Is it not? I don't give a shit. This is what I'm going to do.” And, and so that felt really free. There was a sense of freedom there, and at the same time my solo project that came out of it, stands in the middle of punk – for me it’s almost anti-music, it’s anti-establishment in a way. It was my way of trying to get away from all those idiomatic structures, still using a guitar, but using it as a tool, then.
The electric guitar has, despite its long pop history, always sort of managed to be quite a playful instrument, one you can push in different directions, using technology…
Yeah. But it's also one of those things where it's a bit like playing synthesizer, right? Like, like when did you last hear a very personal expression come from a synthesizer? So I take your point. It's very, very easy to put some electronics on and then make it sound contemporary or hit or expressive or whatever. And yeah, that's at least one of the things I find really hard about the guitar is that it's so easy to add the electronics, and then you’re trapped by all these idiomatic structures which are part of the history of modern popular music. How do you manage to escape (assuming you have to)?
I wanted to ask you about your process. I was listening to your most recent LPs and they're beautiful in places, quite savage, dark, but I was also struck by their form – in places I couldn’t tell how this music came to be written or composed.
If you listen to those two solo albums [„Amputation“, „Redundance“] they're very much written in two stages – where one stage is almost like songwriting. You can hear those tunes, which are actually very, very simple structures. There's a simple melody and maybe a baseline, a few chords and then it goes into a refrain or whatever. Then there is the element of contextualising it through production and letting that production sort of bleed into the songwriting.
And so I work in my own studio, as I have for many years, just to be able to spend a lot of time on the sonic production, letting it become part of the composition, so to speak.
When you play the music, you have to make a choice either you have to try and make it sound like ‘the album’, which I've never done, or I just take those simple compositions and once again improvise like I’d done in the studio. You have to do it there and then. And for me, this is one of the processes which I hold very dear to my heart. Where you take music and internalise it to such a degree that every song has a central musical element that I could also play in an improvised setting. It means that when I do solo sets, I don't even write a set list. I simply go onstage… and I play. Oh, there’s a tune… but then it takes a completely different shape. And it's not a very conscious thing. I used to think improvisation was something that I had to do over a tune, or between the tunes, but now I see my role as more that I ‘manage’ the sort of musical entities I’ve produced.
Is this how you will play at Monheim?
Yes exactly. In fact, I’m bringing the trio, they are the only people I’ve managed to do this with. It’s just amazing. You can go on stage and even though we hadn’t played for a year and a half, and I was thinking – will they remember how this music works?
And yet there we were, on stage, still playing two hours later! Again, it’s not a conscious thing. It’s a way of approaching written music both with respect, but also a huge amount of healthy disrespect. If the band want to play a ballad, really fast and really loud, why not?
The way you use your voice is also really interesting. There’s some crooning in there, plus at other times, an almost otherworldly tone. How do you approach singing?
Yeah, it's the most interesting instrument, isn’t it? It's funny, I’ve played so many free and professional instrumental concerts, with collaborations and whatever. And the audience will be like, ‘Yeah, it's all right…’ And then the moment somebody on stage says something into a mic everyone is suddenly alert and ‘what’s happening!?’ Our voices just have that power.
For me, singing was really scary to begin with, because when I used to sing in bands as a teenager, it was just loads of fun. But then after you have too much musical education you start thinking there's a ‘right and wrong’. It was scary. It was hard. I had an idea of what I wanted to do but I think it took a few years to be honest, before I felt really comfortable with it.
I think that now, because I treat singing the same way as I do my guitar – it’s just as free. And so sometimes it can sound like crooning and then sometimes it can be very, expressive in other ways.
Given we’re surrounded by music 24-7, do you ever hear anything just ludicrously commercial and think ‘God, I wish I'd written that’?
Yeah! All the time. Sometimes when I hear pop music … my daughter told me about this Norwegian singer Sigrid… there’s one of those tracks, which is so catchy. I was ‘sure you got me’. I'll listen to it again and again with my daughter and think ‘this is great’. Then again, that sort of openness to catchy pop things, means they creep in, it means that they can become part of your vocabulary. Of course, highly re-contextualised with all the highly explosive rubbish in there, but there’s definitely space in my heart for many kinds of music.
You mentioned recently that you've got a new album completed and mastered – will that form the basis of your Monheim show?
The new album has become, I think, the last part of a trilogy of albums that began with „Amputation“ and then „Redundance“. This one was written in a similar way, it has a lot of the same thematics and personal lyrics. There’s a closing element to this one. What happens after this one, I really don’t know.