Stian Westerhus: The Existential Dimension of Music
Guitarist Stian Westerhus holds a singular position in the Nordic musical landscape. His involvement with bands like Puma and Monolithicas well as his projects together with trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and drummer Erlend Dahlen, and vocalist Sidsel Endresenare a prolongation of his solo performances, which impress through a tremendous output of musical energy. His guitar voice, of superb roughness and exquisite inner pacing, goes beyond genre boundaries to address the existential dimension of musical perception. The immediacy of the sound has the impact of a revelatory experience through which musician and audience alike engage in a complex journey in pursuit of inner harmonies. Presently Stian Westerhus is touring with the Nils Petter Molvaer Trio project, Baboon Moon (Sula, 2011). He has recently released his first album with Sidsel Endresen, Didymoi Dreams (Rune Grammofon, 2012).
All About Jazz: Do you remember when you first heard Jimi Hendrix?
Stian Westerhus: I remember it very well. I was ill at home lying on the couch drowsy with fever and the TV was on. They were showing a documentary about Woodstock. I woke up towards the end and heard Jimmy Hendrix playing "Star Spangled Banner." I was completely mesmerized. I remember getting up and turning up the TV. I had probably heard it before, but that's when it clicked in. I was 13, the age when you start absorbing music. My father had been trying to teach me guitar ever since I was six, without much success. After the film was over I picked it up and I thought, how do I do this? And I just practiced and practiced and practiced. From that moment on I was inseparable from my guitar.
AAJ: Do you come from a musical environment?
SW: Yes. My grandfather tried to teach me accordion. He was very good at playing traditional Norwegian tunes on it. My dad became an opera singer at the age of 48, and there was always music around the house. My mom was listening to Elvis; my dad was listening to opera, to classical music and jazz, and later I was listening myself to a lot of rock stuff.
AAJ: What circumstance or event do you consider to have been crucial for your development?
SW: There are many things that made an impact on me along the way. But definitely the earliest thing was before I started school. I was maybe six, and my sister, who was five years older, had one of those portable cassette players. I used to steal it from her room when she was not home, because I was obsessed with Mike Oldfield's tune "Moonlight Shadow." I used to play it again and again. I also remember the first time I had been given a tape with King Crimson; I was totally blown away by the improvised stuff. I think I have been very lucky, because everybody I have played with had an impact on me and showed me new music.
AAJ: Do you listen to music with a certain purpose in mind, like following a specific sound or manner of interpretation?
SW: Not at all. I just absorb what comes my way. Sometimes I don't even remember who is playing and I really don't care if something I hear is rock or jazz.
AAJ: What are you listening to these days?
SW: I'm not going to tell you that [laughs]. I am not giving away my playlist.
AAJ: Was there any time when you were listening to a lot of classic jazz?
SW: I tried to listen a lot to it when I was studying, and got into jazz history and theory. I really liked it but it doesn't transcend into my music that much. I mean, some of the Miles Davis electric stuff does. I also like that straight-ahead drive that swing has. Otherwise, I admire and respect it but it doesn't really move me.
AAJ: What is the main connection leading back to your sources of influence?
SW: I don't have heroes, you know, and I don't want to be stuck with the idea of belonging to a style or another. I am taking in so many influences that I sort of end up between all the chairs. To be honest, I think that that's how musicians develop their filters in order to sound like themselves. If you become a fan of Bill Frisell, you end up sounding like him. It is not about the people, it is about the music. I think, by the way, that Jimi Hendrix has done quite a bit of crap, too.
AAJ: Listening to your solo album, Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010), it raised the question: what does a recording session look like?
SW: The whole thing about my solo projects is that there is a dogma when it comes to the recording process. I do everything myself without technicians, and nobody gets to hear it before it is finished, not even the record company. When I record it I do a lot of improvised stuff, then I leave it for a while in order to get a different angle. And when I listen again, I want to throw most of it away and start recording again. So, you see, it is quite a process to leave out the stuff that comes easily and select the ideas that sort of pop up. At some point I became disgustingly tired of myself while I was recording Pitch Black Star Spangled, because it is very similar to recording what you are saying during the day for a whole month and then listening back to it, over and over again. As you can imagine, there is a lot of crap in there but in the end you suddenly realize that there is something else there, too. Nevertheless, you have no idea where you are going. That's the whole point, because if I knew what I was searching for, I would do it right away.