“It’s all about the music”
Stian Westerhus in conversation with Fiona Talkington
“Dirty, physical music that never lets you forget that at the heart of it is a human being playing a slab of wood with some strings on it”. Stian’s 2010 solo CD on Rune Grammofon Pitch Black Star Spangled brought out some interesting phrases in reviews: critics wrote about “anguished howls”, “forlorn melodies”, the “hiss and crackle of amps and pick-ups” and a “darkly beautiful experience”.
On stage Stian comes across as a fiercely uncompromising musician, totally in control of his instrument and his musical vision, unafraid to challenge himself and his audience. Off stage a broad smile, an infectious laugh and a gentle voice are a reminder that his music comes from a deeply creative spirit who is truly passionate about his music. A warm and generous musician respected by those he works with.
He’s a guitarist, but that’s hardly an adequate description of what he’s already brought to the music world. Yes, he’s an inspiring and virtuosic performer but he’s not a showman, no matter how awesome his stage appearances might be. His guitars are simply the channel through which his music comes, his techniques and affinity with the instrument giving him a vast expressive language.
The remoteness, the sense of isolation, and the beauty so often present in his music was surely born a couple of hours north of Trondheim where Stian grew up near the small town of Steinkjer, on a farm in an area called Jådåren. A place so remote that even most Norwegians have never heard of it. You can go skiing right from the door, and go trout fishing in Lake Westerhus.
The Westerhus family enjoyed music: “more music than the average household” says Stian “my mum loves Elvis and singing along to the Beatles, and my dad has always been into music, and he got more and more into opera as I was growing up”. Stian’s grandfather tried to teach him the accordion and his father attempted to get him interested in the guitar, but the real attraction was his older sister’s cassette player which Stian used to steal just to listen to one tape over and over again, Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow. “I loved that tune, and I think that was my first real kick that I got out of music. I must have been just five or six”.
It was a few years later when Stian was off school sick one day that the guitar thunderbolt hit. “I woke up on the couch to the Woodstock film where Hendrix plays. It just went straight to my stomach and after the film finished I went over and picked up this little classical guitar my dad had bought for me years earlier. I think I was really lucky though because a couple of my best friends had also picked up an instrument in the last year and we started just teaching each other our discoveries”.
Stian’s music teacher at school also had a big part in developing his love of playing, entrusting him with keys to the school and the music room even over weekends. Every possible minute was spent there, with Stian and his friends playing for more than 20 hours a week, preferring music making to the sports field.
He was also discovering a wider range of alternative music from older friends, and he remembers clearly his first encounter with King Crimson: “It was on my Walkman in a Maths class when I was 14 or something. I thought I was going to explode. I really got into prog rock after that for many years, and I guess that’s how I got into jazz strangely enough”.
There was, for Stian, no other option but to continue his life with music. Everything revolved around playing. He applied to the Jazz Academy in Trondheim and when he didn’t get in he got a place on the Jazz Course at Middlesex University in London. A long way from the gentle shores of Lake Westerhus but it really worked for him. There were new people to play with, a regular guitar teacher, and a city full of music making and concerts, though he does admit to still spending most of his time in the music building practising and playing. “Musically I was getting more and more into free playing after working my way through the history of jazz styles at Uni. But I loved playing Kenny Wheeler tunes for a while. I loved the strong, vertical harmonic context with the strong melodic language I think that opened up my melodic structures in improvisation, and I felt it was directly linked to how I was hearing melodies while playing free”.
The streets of London weren’t paved with gold, however, and Stian realised that if he wanted to stay he’d have to find a better way of making money than badly paid gigs and working part time as an ice climbing instructor. He even considered quitting music altogether. “It was a rough time, and if you wanted to make money playing music you had to play ‘straightahead’ jazz and I would rather just do something else”. He applied to Trondheim again, this time to the new Masters degree, and he got in. “This was a real turning point. I just thought OK, I’ve spent five years complaining how hard it is in London so I better make the most of this”.
Determination and motivation, and the ability to recognise his own musical needs brought Stian through a sense of feeling musically lost to rediscovering the thrill of playing with new people. “It was like diving into unknown waters not knowing how deep you would have to go. I learnt so much in Trondheim and, ironically, I learnt the most from my mates, the people I played with, just like in school as a kid. We were a bunch of motivated young people who only focused on music. It was so motivational and so hard at the same time. So many talented people in a small space can be scary, but it taught me to trust myself and only do what I want to do. If it’s not 101% it’s never going to be good enough”.
Stian describes those two years in Trondheim as submerging himself into “the dark world of solo improvisations”, but then something started to happen and, as he says, the music started to feel more and more “physical”.
Stian sent his first album Galore to his favourite label, Rune Grammofon, and it ended up on their sub label TLRC, and then they wanted another album, which is how Pitch Black Star Spangled came about.
The last few years have seen Stian play just about every jazz festival in Norway as well as festivals throughout the world with Monolothic, PUMA, with the Nils Petter Molvaer Band, and increasingly with his own solo projects. Would he describe himself as a jazz musician? “Nope, just a musician. Rock people will tell me that what I’m going isn’t rock and jazz people say I don’t play jazz. But I don’t care. I’m very happy to have my own ideas of how I want things to sound, and that I feel free from feeling locked up inside some dogma of harmonic and structural rules. But I would never be without the jazz education I’ve had which has really opened my ears”.
The inspiration of other people is a key thread which runs through Stian’s musical life. “I’ve been lucky in the way I’ve had long term collaborations and have had the possibility to go in at the deep end and explore new territories”. Drummer Kenneth Kapstad for example was someone he’d played with before moving back to Norway. “Maybe without him I wouldn’t have moved back. He was really supportive and introduced me to the scene around the Conservatoire in Trondheim”. The most musically influential partnership though, he says, is PUMA, and particularly working in the studio with Øystein Moen. “We’ve played so much together that we’ve developed a very intuitive way of thinking through sound and melody, and in the studio we’ve tried to take what we do live a bit further in the production of the music. When we work together it’s like improvising, only in slow motion”.
“With all the people I play with we share a similar way of thinking, and an attitude towards the music. It’s totally beyond the boundaries of the instruments and the ego of being a good player. There’s an understanding and a focus on the music itself. It’s the same mindset whether I go on stage with Puma or with the singer Sidsel Endresen: blank out, listen, play. It’s an intimate, fragile situation which demands a lot of everybody on stage, and I think this focus has helped me a lot, particularly when I found myself working with Sidsel who I’ve listened to since I was a kid. Suddenly you’re there, on stage, bouncing off musical ideas with one of your favourite singers in the world, in front of an audience without having discussed anything beforehand. That’s when this attitude to music really matters, It’s not about who and where, but about what comes out there and then.”
“I can’t just be a guitarist” Stian told me “I want to be more musically involved than that”. He loves producing and is in more demand for his production skills than he physically has time for. “I love making interesting new musical worlds in a controlled environment, sort of recomposing, and extending the musical contexts. I don’t think there’s much difference to playing live, only it takes 1000% more time. I’ve been playing around with recording ever since I was a kid and getting my first 4 track cassette recorder”
In 2011 Stian directed the first performance of his commissioned composition for the Molde Jazz Festival. If anyone hadn’t realised it before this was a piece which certainly displayed a rock and jazz heritage, but there were elements such as his string and vocal writing which showed a growing affinity with the contemporary classical world: “exploring the territories that don’t necessarily come out in other contexts”. Something which is coming through more and more as he works on a new solo album. “It’s very clear to me that the last five years of listening to a lot of contemporary classical music has dug its way up through my system. It’s funny how the parameters of different music just fits in the big puzzle, and how you deal with those parameters is what makes the music yours I guess”.
“What I want to do is keep the journey going. I’m continuously surprised and excited about creating, and I just want to keep that going without any boundaries. In ten years time I have no idea where I’ll be, but if I enjoy the next nine years it’ll probably be where I want to be”.
Short bio summary by Fiona Talkington
The last few years have shown Stian Westerhus to be a guitarist with an enviable technique, a powerful stage presence and a vast creative imagination, and he is also emerging as one of the most important improvisers, composer and collaborators working today. In the last few years he has become known through his work with PUMA, Monolithic and the Nils Petter Molvaer band, as well, increasingly, as his own innovative solo projects. A performer whose musical landscapes inhabit the experimental and jazz worlds as comfortably as the contemporary classical scene, his performances have taken him around the world from concerts in Japan to sessions for the BBC in London.
Growing up in a remote part of Norway, north of Trondheim, Stian’s passion for music was nurtured by family and his music teacher at school where the impact of a favourite tape of Mike Oldfield, the sounds of King Crimson and Jimi Hendrix were defining moments in leading him towards his musical style and performance.
He studied first in London on the jazz course at Middlesex University, and then returned to Norway to study at the Jazz Academy in Trondheim. In 2009 his first album Galore was released by Rune Grammofon, followed a year later by his much acclaimed release Pitch Black Star Spangled. In 2010 he began a duo project with the singer Sidsel Endresen, their collaboration, Didymoi Dreams, released on Rune Grammofon in 2012. In 2011 Stian’s commission for the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra was performed at the Molde Jazz Festival. In the same year Stian was chosen to be part of the prestigious Norwegian Jazz Launch programme 2011/12. Autumn 2012 will see the release of his next solo CD.
“The sense of menace is generated with huge energy by the belligerently brilliant Norwegian guitarist Westerhus who coaxes a plethora of tortured sounds from his axe, bowed notes elongating into harmonic dismemberment of epic proportions. (…) This is heady, sometimes heavy, otherworldly stuff, fuelled by jazz but never hindered by it. Welcome to the new century of improvised music.”
– JazzWise Magazine, U.K.
Pitch Black Star Spangled press outtakes:
“There’s little in the canon of solo guitar—with the possible exception of Derek Bailey and Fred Frith—that can prepare or set precedence for Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus and Pitch Black Star Spangled, an album that utterly redefines the concept of solo recording.”
“Melody according to Westerhus, however, is unlike any melody you’re likely to hear elsewhere.” “…some of the most exciting new music on the instrument”
“Pitch Black Star Spangled is a masterpiece of solo guitar, positioning the boldly unrelenting Westerhus as an artist whose realized promise only suggests far more to come.”
“one of Norway’s most important new voices.”
-John Kelman, All About Jazz (US)
“In my ears Stian Westerhus’ music and playing doesn’t derive from any other guitarist or musician. Of course he has gathered inspiration from a row of sources, but more clearly than ever Stian Westerhus comes across as an incredibly exciting and original musician.”
– Tor Hammerø, side2 (N)
“Pulverizes every notion people may have about every kind of guitar hero. There are guitar sounds here you have never heard before.”
– Midjo, Trønder-Avisa (N)
“Ultimate proof why Stian Westerhus is one of our most uncomprimising and exciting musicians”
-Vegar Enlid, Adressa (N)
“..this is such unbelivably beautiful music, which despite it’s first apparent inaccessibility is incredibly easy to love, and hits me directly in some sort of absurd music-lover’s nerve center. Unconventional music in the highest degree, but at the same time so much more moving than the vast majority. (…) Look forward to the journey to another place!”
– KimVonKlev (N)