Norwegian Road Trip, Part 4: Oslo and an Interview with Jan Erik Kongshaug
Since returning to Norway in 2003, guitarist Stian Westerhus has intentionally placed himself in as many different musical contexts as possible, from the extreme freedom of Crimetime Orchestra to the more rigidly structured Jaga Jazzist. His own projects have been much more focused on free improvisation, albeit of a more high volume kind. His 2010 solo performance at NattJazz, his latest release with Puma (2010's Half Nelson Courtship) and tremendous solo guitar disc, Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010), all represent an artist whose time has come, as he dispenses with convention to reinvent the sonic potential of his instrument, much as fellow Norwegian, Eivind Aarset has, but with an entirely different sound and focus. He's also been working with trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's trio for over a year, which has put him on the roadand on the mapalmost continuously.
"Before I moved to England, when I was 18 or 19, I was just playing in bands, experimental rock stuff, and just trying to figure out what I wanted to do, like you do when you're a teenager," says Westerhus, sitting outside a coffee shop at Vigeland Sculpture Park. "I became interested in improvisation through prog rock, and I always felt I was really lucky with all the people I've known, right up until now, with everybody challenging each other, just really doing a lot of playing and searching, without boundaries. I thought jazz music was free improv, and that's why I wanted to go to a jazz school. Since I didn't get into the jazz academy at Trondheim when I was 18, I just thought 'fuck it, I'll stay in Norway, practice for a year and then go somewhere else.' "
Westerhus relocated to England and went through the jazz program at Middlesex. As is the case with so many of his peers, listening to Westerhus' music may not speak directly of experience or education in the jazz tradition, but it's there nevertheless; deeply imbued beneath an exterior that's equally informed by metal and prog. "I had a guitar teacher named Stuart Hall, he's an amazing guy who never plays live anymore," says Westerhus, "and I studied jazz harmony and theory for three years. It really opens your ears; I really got into [trumpeter] Kenny Wheeler; I think that was the only heavy harmonic jazz stuff that I felt at home with. I didn't grow up with bebop or swing; I grew up with rockall the '70s and '60s stuff; I was a huge Gong fan, I think I have like 20 records; and of course, King Crimson was huge for me, and the progressive jazz stuff like [guitarist] John McLaughlin. I used to sneak out my sister's tape recorder when I was sixI sort of remember it, but my mother tells meand I'd steal this one tape, this compilation for the car that had this Mike Oldfield song, and I'd sit and listen it over and over again."
"So the prog thing has been quite evident from the very beginning," Westerhus continues. "There's a real freedom to it, within the rock genre, that appeals to me. I picked up an old Gentle Giant album The Power and the Glory (Capital, 1975); amazing singers; I still love that stuff."
While in London, Westerhus "tried to be a jazz musician, which didn't really work because if you wanted to make money you had to play function gigs and play standards, which I really hated because it was so polite. So I thought, 'fuck that,' and became an ice climbing instructor; I did a lot of climbing, so I thought, 'I can do that.' I'd never ice-climbed before, but it was easy."
Easy for Westerhus, perhaps; but in some ways his ability to dive, head-first, into the relative unknown was reflective of his approach to music as well. "You really have to work hard in London, when you're young and nobody knows you," says Westerhus. "The reason why I didn't get a lot of gigs was because I did what I wanted to. I really felt like I was searching for something, and I was looking for people to play with, and the problem in London was that nobody had the time to be in a proper band; I wanted to rehearse every fucking day, and everybody's busy just trying to make a living. So I just kept practicing, and after two years I was feeling really sick of it. For a few months I was back in Norway; I was supposed to do a social service thing because I didn't want to go into the military [a mandatory one-year service in the Norwegian army existed until very recently]. I said I was a pacifist, and then it got postponed because of my education, and then they said 'Ok, you've got to come back and do this.' What happens is you get put in some institution, and they give you a small flat, which I thought would be a great way to move back to Norway."
Stian Westerhus at NattJazz 2010
"Then the minute I got back I got this letter that said 'we've reconsidered and we can't afford to have you over here,'" Westerhus continues. "By that time I'd already rented a flat, so I stayed here for a few months; this was in 2002, 2003. I met some musiciansI was back in Trondheimbut then I moved back to London because my girlfriend wanted to go back, and it was really tough times; we didn't have any money, and it's really tough living without any money. So I went back and continued whatever it was that I was doing, but while I was in Trondheim I'd heard of this Master's program, and I thought, 'Ok, if I get into that I'll move back to Norway,' because it was a good opportunity, you could get some funding going, meet a lot of the young musicians, get a practice room, get all these kinds of things going. And I thought, 'If I do that, I'm going to do that and only that,' really try to work on it."
"So I auditioned, and it took ages before I got an answer," Westerhus concludes. "I thought, 'Ok, if I don't get in I'll just quit playing; I'll just move to The Alps and do climbing or something.' It was really good for me; since I was on the verge of quitting anyway, I made a promise to myself that if I got in I'd do everything I could to play with absolutely everybody, and find out if this is something that I could actually do, and it's been absolutely crazy ever since."
In the booklet for NattJazz 2010, Westerhus was given the byline, "The hardest working guitarist in Norway." Whether or not it's empirically trueand the guitarist is both bemused and a little embarrassed by itit sure seems like it, with Westerhus popping up everywhere. At Molde, he'll be playing three timesonce with Puma, once in duet with singer Sidsel Endresen, and once with Molvær's trio. He's joked with Molvær, who is this year's Artist in Residence at Molde, that with three gigs to the trumpeter's five, he should be called "Junior Artist in Residence."
In most places, musicians collect into cliques; once you get into one, it's easy to play with a lot of the same people, but breaking in is very difficult. But the same drive that pushed Westerhus to become an ice climbing instructor has encouraged him to find ways to play with everyone he could meet. He may reject orthodoxy when it comes to music, but Westerhus is nothing if not methodical. "When I moved to Trondheim, I was in a really small house; the Jazz Academy is so small, there are only forty or fifty people there throughout the four years," Westerhus explains. "There are so many young players, and they're all keen to play and they're all searching for something. I just had this idea that if I booked one of the rooms for three hours every day, and just went up to someone every day, who I didn't know, and said, 'Hey, do you wanna play?' I'd at least find something."
"So that's what I didI played with everybody, and just kept playing and playing and playing," Westerhus continues. "I think I just realized that I didn't really know what I wanted to do, and I needed to find somewhere where I was comfortable, and I hadn't really been playing for a few years, so I really wanted to play. And I didn't really know anybody. But from then it's really been about focusing on having bands, working in bands and finding a sound; these things have been more important to me than chasing the fancy gigs."
Westerhus never does anything half-way, and his solo performance at NattJazz was remarkable for a number of things, including the sheer amount of equipment he usedfour amplifiers and enough effects pedals to open a small music shop, spread across a stage that could easily support (and, in fact, did, earlier in the festival) an eight-piece band. But this is no dalliance; Westerhus is intimately familiar with each and every pedal, both individually and how they work in concert with each other; and watching him perform, it's clear that they're an extension of his hands, his feet and his guitar. The same way he doesn't have to think about where his hands fall on the neck of his guitar, Westerhus' knowledge of his effects is equally thorough, comprehensive and instinctive. It brings a whole new meaning to the old saying "you spend a lot of time learning your instrument; then you just forget about it and play."
Westerhus' experience with groups ranges from the kind of freedom where, as was the case in Crimetime Orchestra, a few music sheets are tossed about, a few things figured out in sound check (there's never any formal rehearsal) and then the show starts and where it goes is anyone's guess. With Westerhus' interest in improvisation, it seemed to be a far better fit than his time spent with the more structured music of Jaga Jazzist, whose One-Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune, 2010) is high on the list, along with Westerhus' Pitch Black Star Spangled, as one of the year's best releases so far. "I had some structure with Jaga," says Westerhus, "but I kept tossing the sheets of music. It's so structured that I felt it needed some beef; I think that music needs a few wild cards and some interaction. I'm much better at doing that than at just playing sheets of music. It was great fun and they're really, really nice guys, but it was taking up a lot of time. When we released the album, it was like, 'Ok, when can we tour,' and everybody could do it, except for me."
Stian Westerhus at NattJazz 2010
"I had some gigs penciled in with Nils Petter, and my calendar was just packed with all these small, very different things," Westerhus explains, "but within them there was and is a linearity [laughs] with my solo project, and Puma and Monolithic, that needs to have a continuity to it. I just wasn't prepared to put any of that aside to do the Jaga stuff; that didn't make any sense to me. And so we figured that, perhaps, it was better just to leave it. Also, me and [Jaga's primary composer] Lars [Horntveth] had different views as to how the music should be played; not that we were fighting, but it was more like 'Hey, this was fun, this was great, but you should probably get another guitarist [laughs]. With Jaga I kind of felt like pushing an elephant through a keyhole; when you're there, you're the only one who is playing with any kind of freedom and you don't get a whole lot of interaction, so you really have to force your way through; which is also very interesting, but at the same time it's not what Jaga needs. So it was one of those things where it was agreed that there were no hard feelings, it just didn't work and the schedules didn't really talk together."
Westerhus and Jaga are, indeed, still on very good terms; the guitarist will, in fact, be guesting with the group when they go to Japan later this year. But as intriguing as it is to see these two very different musical forces come together, as they did in 2009 at Molde Jazz, it's clearly not a fit meant to last. Molvær, on the other hand, has turned into the almost perfect vehicle for Westerhus; all the more remarkable for Westerhus' replacing Eivind Aarseta guitarist who, for over a decade, helped shape the trumpeter's music and sound. But Westerhus' replacement was nothing about filling Aarset's shoes; in fact, the guitarist is not all that familiar with Molvær's past recordings featuring Aarset.
"I was depping for a guitarist in Hanne Hukkelberg's band," Westerhus explains. "We were somewhere in Italy, and it was like 30 degrees outside, really hot, I was just standing there being terribly hung over, and Nils Petter phones me and says, 'Hey, it's Nils Petter, how're you doing,' 'Ah, pretty hung over here,' 'Ok, do you want to be in my band,' 'Uh...yes...?' [laughs]. It was one of those weird ones, so we did a few random gigs, and they worked out really nicely, and he was very happy and I was also, so we just stuck with it, and we did a ton of gigs this past autumn. Now I'm doing some gigs every month. It's still changing, that band."
The whole idea was for Westerhus to bring his own approach to sound to the group. "I don't really know the band when Eivind was doing it, and I never saw them live," explains Westerhus, "so it was one of those weird things where I had no real frame of reference. I'd heard the records, of course, but I never saw it live, which is actually quite nice. I think it's a lot more open now, in terms of playing. Also, I don't think I do Nils Petter as many musical favors as Eivind did, because he was a master at creating all these carpets of sound that moved very slowly, and which were probably very comfortable to play on."
"I'm kicking Nils Petter's ass a lot harder," Westerhus continues, "and what he says is that, especially earlierwhen they had a lot of DJs and beats and grooves going onhe could play a bit and then sit back a bit. Now he can't sit back at allhe's just really forced into playing a lot more. And it's so free now; we play tunes but, at the same time, if you see it from the other side, I only have one groove, one key and three chords that I have to do, so I can force Nils Petter into any corner I want, and he can force me into any corner he wants, which is great. You really need to be razor sharp when you go onto the stage, which is fantastic, a really cool thing to do. Especially when you're doing, say, 30 gigs on a tour."
"It's amazing to be playing with him, he's such a good trumpeter," Westerhus enthuses. "I also think that it's become a lot clearer; the ideas have become a lot clearer and the whole band has become a lot clearer musically. There's some new stuff and some old stuff, but the old stuff doesn't sound anything like the old stuff. It's funny, because I don't really know which albums the tunes are from, so it's funny when you play a venue packed with old fans and Nils Petter starts playing a tune, and they go 'whaaaaaaaa!' and it's like, 'Ok, it's an old tune, and they didn't clap because I'd stopped playing [laughs].'"
The group is talking about recording, though certainly not before 2011, as the autumn is already packed. Westerhus will be doing a month-long tour with Monolithic, Westerhus' duo with Kenneth Kapstad, and perhaps his most extreme project. Puma, who will play at Molde as part of the Rune Grammofon Label in Residence, is a group that's evolved considerably since its inception, but in an almost reverse way to how most bands function. "We've never discussed anything before we've played; we only talk about the music after the show, which has been really nice." But if his groups don't come in with any preconceptions, how do they differentiate? "It's the players," Westerhus confirms, "but with Puma we've talked a lot about our music after we've played it; analyzing it, listening back to itwe've recorded endless gigsand being in the studio for a lot of time, especially me and [keyboardist] Øystein [Moen]we've done all the editing.
"It's a very strong concept and we have very strong views as to how the music should sound," Westerhus continues. "That's why it's so important to play a lot of gigs, and also to rehearse, if you can do that, though often it's better to just do gigs because it puts you on the spot. Actually, for the first time, we're going to try to play a few tunes from the album [Half Nelson Courtship], because the way the album was built up, it's more melodic than we've ever been. So we thought, 'Maybe we should try that,' and use that as a point of reference, and the reason why we were rehearsing the other night, because we never rehearse. We're playing four or five of the tracks [from the album], and it's working out really well; we were kind of anxious about how it would sound, but we listened back to it [the album] in the rehearsal, and tried to play it, and it sounded really similar, so we thought, "Ok, that's how we sound now.'"
Westerhus is also focusing on solo performance more than ever before; live, he simply empties his head and plays; all the more remarkable, then, that his shows bear an unmistakable arc, a flow that may not be considered in the least, but sounds like it could have been. "I tried walking into a performance once with kind of an idea for a composition in my mind before I walked onstage," Westerhus says, "and it was a disaster. I lost all the flow, my energy level just went down I couldn't listen to the music in the right way. I just decided never to do that again."