‘There is definitely an element of trying to control things that are not controllable‘ – Norwegian avant-jazz guitarist Stian Westerhus talks to Ian Maleney ahead of his date in Dublin this week.
Stian Westerhus is one of the central figures within the raging maelstrom that is the Scandanavian avant-jazz scene. Trondheim in Norway is the city he calls home, though he spent some five years in London getting a degree in music from Middlesex University, which explains the traces of a British accent when he speaks.
It was in pursuit of a Master’s that he returned north and he has since established himself as a key player in dozens of groups, as well as a powerful solo performer. In prominent groups like Jagga Jazzist and Puma, and alongside Nils Petter Molvaer in his ensembles, Westerhus’s talent for wringing new, unheard tones from his guitar was an important part of those bands’ respective sounds. On his solo records, that talent becomes the central focus, allowing the improvisatory, uncontrollable elements to wreak havoc before picking out the best parts in post-production. To date, the peak of this approach has been last year’s The Matriarch And The Wrong Kind Of Flowers, a dark and powerful record that was not unlike Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 – made with a similar process just across the Atlantic in Iceland.
When we speak, Westerhus is at the end of a long day in the studio, where he is working on new material for a new band with frequent collaborators Erland Dahlen (drums) and Øystein Moen (keys).
Why did you decide to start a new band? And why play with these particular musicians? I really wanted to have my own band where I was in charge and could spend all the ideas that I didn’t spend anywhere else. I tried going through, in my head, all the different, exciting possibilities of playing with new people and I realised that these are the two people I have enjoyed playing with most, whether together or separately. I guess I’ve done probably about 100 gigs with each of them in different groups so it’s been a really long-term relationship. All these tune ideas and compositions, they sort of fit with these guys. We had our first rehearsal and I thought, ‘Oh, there it is, there’s my favourite band’. It’s this really exciting thing of something that feels really familiar but at the same time, you feel like you’re developing further. Taking all that old material and all that experience of playing together and then just writing new stuff out of it. It’s very, very fun. Also it was just the right time, I think, now. I had left Nils Petter Molvær’s band and all these other things so I was feeling like I wanted to really focus more on my own stuff. I think I have the energy for it now.
Is the music you’re making with the new band quite different to what you’re doing before? No, I think it’s an addition to what I normally do but then I say that before about all my bands but nobody ever believes me! The approach is very much the same for me but I think it will sound a bit like everything else I’ve done! But I think the whole thing about writing more and writing specifically for these two people who I know really well, musically, it opens up a different way of writing I think. Also with the vocals. I think it’ll be more structured but also it will contain the freedom that all the other projects have had. I could quite happily go on stage with these two guys without rehearsing for five seconds and play in whichever venue, it doesn’t really matter, it always works. I’m just really excited to write new music for this project and see where that goes.
Was it difficult at all to write for a band, given that so much of what you do is improvised? Not really, because I keep writing stuff all the time and I’ve written commissioned work for stuff in Norway so there’s always been a stream of writing. At least in the last few years there’s been quitea few big projects. I guess the last big project was writing for my version of the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, which was 13 or my favourite musicians and that was a huge piece. I think it’s different writing for these guys as well because I know them so well, I’m trying to be cautious about not writing too much but writing just the write stuff so they can fit themselves around it. I don’t want to write music that anyone can play, I write for their approach to the music. Of course, it feels like a bit of blessing doing that because you can write melodies that you just know will sound write with these people and these groups. It’s a bit hard to explain! You can hear them play it in your head. It’s definitely a bit of a dream band for me, to put myself in that position of actually leading these guys. Because it’s my band, I’m allowed to say ‘No, I don’t want that’ or ‘Yes, I do want that’, which is terrifying but also fantastically fun.
How much control do you like to have? A lot of your live sets seem to challenge the idea of one person being control, but you are pretty meticulous in the studio. I always try to challenge my own control when I do my own stuff in the studio and on the stage as well, just to keep things a bit more realistic and fresh to be honest. Otherwise I get ridiculously bored, when everything is super controlled. At the same time, I am a control freak! I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes. Maybe I’m too much of one or the other. But when it comes to my solo stuff, I’ve always tried to take a lot of risks and challenge myself and not be controlled by all the decisions you can make before you start playing. That’s why I never plan anything before I go on stage. I don’t plan in the studio either but I produce myself to death afterward. I think the context of control and freedom is important to me in that way.
There’s a lot of risk involved in that approach. Well, it’s just like I don’t want to be limited by feeling like some certain technique feels unsafe or a compositional idea or where the music is going, if it feels unsafe. I really just try to do the stuff that I can feel, in the back of mind, this is pretty much going to be impossible. Then just go ahead and do it anyway and see how much of it you can control. I think with a band, my biggest challenge is to trust other people’s ideas because I’m very used to trusting my own ideas. There is definitely an element of trying to control things that are not controllable.
You recorded much of The Matriarch And The Wrong Kind Of Flowers in the Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum in Oslo, which seems a pretty amazing space to make sound in. How important was that place to the way the album turned out? Well it was the biggest importance. I only went up there to record ten minutes for the album, or I wanted to end up with ten minutes I could use for the album. I booked it for two days because I thought while I was there I might as well spend another day there. When I left after the first day I thought I had a lot of stuff and after the second day I was quite tired of being there because it’s quite an intense place. It was really, really cold when I was there, playing in five degrees Celsius and it was really dark. You can see anything in there and you spend a whole day in there, you get really tired. When I left I was just really sick of being there. When I got back to the studio and I started listening back to it, I realised, ‘Oh, this is the album!’. There was just so much material there. Just that sound of the guitar in there as well, without an amplifier and everything, it was a sound I had been searching for but never got through playing electrically. That album came together far too easily it felt, it just happened so quickly. It’s really an amazing place. The acoustics up there, if you breathe heavily you have to wait 20 seconds before you start playing, it’s that kind of acoustic. You walk across the floor and it sounds like the building is falling down, it’s really amazing.
Speaking more generally, how do you think your music is linked to Norway, if it is at all? Is the country important to you? I don’t really know. I think what really works over here is that the scene is so small and all the cities are really small so it becomes a quite closely knitted community. Like when I went back and I went to Trondheim and the city is only what, 130,000 people? So when you have maybe 50 of Norway’s young, really talented jazz musicians in one tiny place, it’s really inspiring. Either you get really tired of it, or you get really inspired. It’s just having all these people who a really into what they’re doing and you’re mixing with them all the time. All the musicians in Norway know each other, it’s a tiny place and I think that’s more important than anything. All the musicians go to each others’ gigs and I think that’s why you get a lot of the genre’s mixed up over here as well, because it just doesn’t matter any more. I have no idea if the climate or anything like that has done anything to me, I doubt it, but of course there is a thing about being Norwegian, it’s the same thing about being Irish or British, all the countries have a mentality of some sort! But I don’t know, I think the most important thing for me has been the fact that there is a lot of very keen people over here and you’re able to facilitate doing projects and just getting on with your own stuff, if you work really hard. I think the community vibe over here is really strong. It’s much easier to meet new, interesting musicians here than it was in London, say. Or I feel like that anyway.
Is it a case of there being certain core venues for musicians or…? There are some venues but it’s not so much a venue thing. You have to take into consideration that Oslo, the capital, is 500,000 people. It’s really, really tiny. It’s not even north London. Most musicians move to Oslo or they stay in Trondheim. There’s three or four big cities in Norway and they’re not that big. I mean, you spend a month in Oslo and you go to a lot of gigs, you’ll meet a lot of the Norwegian musicians in one month! It’s just so small, it’s like a village.
How do you think the relative isolation of Norway – from mainland Europe at least – affects the musicians there? Are they less aware of what is going on elsewhere, just concentrating on their own thing instead? No, I think musicians over here are almost more aware of what’s going on in Europe and the US than a lot of other places, because we’re so cut off from everywhere. But I think because there has been a long tradition in Norway of trying to find your own voice as an improvising musician instead of the strict American school of having to learn all your chops before you play anything yourself. There’s a long tradition of finding your own voice and that means also that festivals and venues and all these kinds of places that people play, they book a wide range of music. So in the same jazz club, you’ll find everything from almost metal stuff to trad stuff and everything in between. And the same thing with what you might think of as a more rock venue here in Oslo. Maybe they’ll have free improv in the early evening, then a rock gig and then a club in the night with some really hip DJs or whatever. So there’s just a great mix of stuff going on in the same places, and I think that’s really important.