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Stian Westerhus: Pitch Black & Star Spangled

April 16, 2012
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Stian Westerhus certainly resembles a rock star: tight pants, boots, vintage military coat, long spiky hair waving as he attacks his instrument with punk-like fervor. But unlike, say, Slash, he is often alone on stage, save for his guitar, pedals, and amplifiers. His improvised solo shows largely eschew chords and melodies, opting instead for cello-bowed atmospheres, jackhammer-style noise, and waves of distortion, before fading into glitchy loops. On his solo record, Pitch Black Star Spangled [Rune Grammofon], Westerhus combines these disparate tones into highly emotional compositions. His unique approach landed him a coveted gig with one of the fathers of nu-jazz, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær. Interviewed for GP, the affable Norwegian ranged from evocatively abstract when discussing his process to disarmingly blunt when talking about his processors.

Are you self-taught?

I got a bachelor’s degree in London, studying jazz, but I was never any good at it. I moved back to Norway and received a master’s degree at a school where you create your own program. Part of my program was to create my own solo project as a place to start working on my own way of playing.

Is that where you started experimenting with effects?

First I was checking out all the different ways to pick the strings. It is more about how you play the notes than what effect you use. I didn’t want to just play the effects or have the effects shape how I was playing.

Do you prepare your performances?

No. I once planned an hour of music for my master’s exam. It went well until the end, when I was transitioning from a wall of howling feedback into a bowed section. The guitar was full of sweat and out of tune. I started bowing and it just went screech. Even though it sounded bad, I tried to save the idea. If I had had my ears open I would have just utilized the sounds that were coming out of the guitar. That’s why I don’t plan anymore.

Are there themes or sounds that you fall back on?

Everybody has a bag of licks. There are things that might reappear in a gig three weeks later in a different context. I have been practicing trying to surprise myself so I don’t end up playing the same things over and over again.

Do you have any methods for surprising yourself?

The time from when musical ideas come into my head to when they come out of the instrument needs to be as short as possible, so that I don’t think about them. I try to change my setup and force myself into new territories. Also, I listen to a lot of different music, and, whether I like it or not, that music just sneaks in there.

How did you approach recording your solo record Pitch Black Star Spangled?

I improvised, recorded it, and listened back until I was so sick of myself I wanted to burn my guitar. I played the same stuff over and over again until something new appeared and surprised me. The moment when I find something truly new is a very recognizable feeling. Then it needed to stand the test of time.

Where did you record it?

I did it in my own studio in Oslo. I had a Mac, a Metric Halo 2882 sound card, and a bunch of microphones. Most of it was recorded with Shure SM57s into Apple Logic.

Were the tunes edited out of one long improvisation?

Each tune is its own improvisation, but they are edited from longer, or sometimes shorter, versions.

Were overdubs or postproduction sounds added?

There is heavy reverb done in the box while I was playing so I could create an atmosphere to play on. For example, on “Don’t Tell Me This Is Home,” the bowed guitar is run through six different reverbs put into a very compressed environment, which makes the sound shift from one side to the other. There is stuff done in the mix as well, but it is all part of one big process. It becomes part of the playing. I didn’t want a documentation of how I play live. Otherwise I would have recorded a gig and released that.

There are some distortion tones that sound bit-reduced. Is that a pedal or post processing?

I modified this crappy Onerr SDT-1 distortion pedal. I found this feedback loop inside and rewired it. I modified it so it became this square-wave fuzz, but when it doesn’t get enough input signal it breaks down into deep octaves.

Chopped and stutter sounds are a significant part of your sonic vocabulary. How do you create those?

That is a delay pedal I modified. If there are pedals I have no use for, I open them up and circuit bend them to try to make them do interesting stuff.

Did you study electrical engineering?

No. I just stick some wires in and see what happens [laughs].

At the beginning of “Sing With Me,” it sounds like you are hitting the strings with something and then bowing them.

That is hitting the string with my right finger on a fret and then vibrating the hell out of it. Some of the playing techniques I have discovered are practically inaudible at a normal volume and need electronic help. In the studio I heavily compress those sounds.

In a video of a solo gig in Budapest, you are manipulating a piece of gear while creating interesting loops. What is that effect?

It is the Eventide TimeFactor. They are really flexible and have a huge amount of headroom, and since Eventide updated the software they have become much more stable. You can program them in cool ways to make them do stuff they are not supposed to do.

Do you use the TimeFactor for looping?

Sometimes. If I loop stuff I like to control the volume with my feet, but the Eventide pots are too small and tight for that. I got a [Keith McMillen] SoftStep MIDI controller, which has a patch for the TimeFactor, and I am going to experiment with that. My main looping device is the DigiTech JamMan Delay. You can play softly through it and it will play back.

In addition to your Gibson ES-335, and Danelectro single-cutaway and longhorn baritone instruments, there are videos showing a Stratocaster-style guitar. What is that?

That is my newest acquisition. The Danelectros keep breaking, so for many years I searched for a Fender Custom Shop Sub- Sonic. It is a baritone guitar—a Strat with an extra-long neck.

When you play behind the bridge of the 335 are you going for specific notes, or is it just the sound?

It is definitely for specific notes. Depending on which pickup you use, which note you fret, and the settings on your electronics, you can make the overtones turn into different notes. Bending the strings will also produce different notes.

How do you decide which guitar to use on your solo gigs?

My main guitar is the 335. The wood was made in the late ’60s. It was hanging in the factory because of a bad paint job. In the ’70s, Gibson put some electronics into guitars like that one and stamped a “2” on the back of the neck. It is not collectible— otherwise I couldn’t have afforded it. After I had it for about four years, it started getting much louder acoustically. Guitars really need to be played.

When you want low notes and are playing the 335, what do you do?

I have a Boss OC-3 Super Octave and the Eventide PitchFactor. Or, if I feel like I should have some baritone notes, I will just tune the low-E string down to a low A during the performance. I just make it work. My music has dirt under the fingernails—it is not clean in any way.

How did the Nils Petter Molvær gig happen?

Eivind Aarset left the band to focus on his own thing. I think Nils wanted to find somebody who would approach the position in a different way.

How do you approach the Molvær tunes? Are there parts that need to be played?

The first half hour is completely freely improvised. When we go into the first tune it is basically in C and 4/4. Then in the next tune I have three chords, which last about eight seconds [laughs]. Now that we know the tunes, we can go anywhere at any time. It is all very free.

Do you feel like you have to modify your approach playing with Nils?

He is a melodic player, so I want to play stuff he can play beautiful lines over. I get to explore more of my harmonic side, but I don’t feel like I am compromising what I do. There are times we don’t agree, but that is a healthy thing. We try to kick each other’s asses as often as we can. I feel quite privileged to be able to do that.

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