Norman Westberg offers up slices
Norman Westberg is perhaps best known for his work with the seminal outfit Swans and has been woven deeply into the creative fabric of New York over the past three decades. Westberg’s output beyond Swans though, is also sprawling. He has just re-released new longplayer ’13’ after it was originally recorded in 2013 and released in an ultra-limited hand made edition of 75 copies. The reissue has been completely remastered and edited. We talk to Norman about it:
Hi Norman and thanks for taking the time out to speak with us at Something You Said. You are a tireless musician and have many side projects. Does playing and collaborating with other outfits help bring a renewed sense of vigour when returning to your next solo project?
Well the solo stuff is kind of new. I would say only four years ago, so I wasn’t really concentrating on it as much as just recently. I did some online distance guitar playing for somebody I know in Cleveland and that has been the only outside project I have really been doing aside from Swans in the last four years.
Was there a particular drive to branch out into the solo work?
I think it was. You ask me about playing with a lot of people… and playing in bands takes a lot of work. I have six-year-old now and I can’t just go and rehearse with a band four nights a week, so with the solo music I can be at home and I can work on it at my leisure. Whenever I get a chance I can just go and plug it in and get going on it, so it is more convenient for me. I really do love playing with other people but I can’t put as much work into that as I once did.
Does what happens outside of your musical life give you the drive to push your artistic boundaries?
Quite possibly, because it changes your state of mind really, and that is having children or being with the right person. It took years for me to stumble onto the right person and that changed my attitude. I don’t want to hang out with the gang or hang around a bar or hang out in a rehearsal room, but rather be with my person.
Have your motivations evolved over the years or is it still the same driving force that pushes you today as it did when your first start making music?
I guess it is probably the same. I want people to hear it. I want acceptance, which is why people play music. Maybe they feel strange so they want an outlet that makes them fit. I guess it is the same thing.
I noticed that you played a show with Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds in NY recently. You have played with Swans whilst Kid Congo has played with The Gun Club and The Bad Seeds. Do you feel that there is a natural progression for accomplished artists such as yourselves who have spent years playing in bands to seek out a solo career?
I know Kid always did that. Back in the 80’s he had a solo, and when I first meet him he was playing with Nick Cave and I had seen him in The Cramps, I saw him in Psychedelic Jungle. I don’t really want to be a focal point but I am kind of dragged into it with my solo thing and I am not sure I am confident with it, but I will work on it. I know it takes a lot of patience and I have to get out and play on my own. With the band I can pretty much disappear as a support player which is what I am used to doing and what I always liked. Now I am working as a solo artist. I don’t know how exciting my shows are, my music is a pretty relaxed thing. The show with Kid Congo was really fun. I don’t know if my music really fit with him and his audience. He is really garagey and I am not sure if his audience was suited to my music.
I remember speaking with Kid and him saying to me that what music gives him more than anything else is a sense of hope. What you mentioned before is that music gives you a sense of acceptance but do you feel that there hasn’t been that level of acceptance in the musical community despite your contribution?
Well, Swans has only really been accepted in the last five years in a way. We have been known as a loud, horrible band but I don’t think that is really acceptance. I guess I mean acceptance in a general term as a gang member within your group. Yes I was always accepted by other musicians within our genre.
I am always asked about the newer metal bands that are influenced by Swans and I know that if they had have come to a Swans show back then they may have been disappointed because it wasn’t about playing necessarily, it was about setting this mood. It took very little playing, it was physical but it wasn’t about playing riffs or music so it is curious to me.
Your new album 13 is a re-release. Was this due to its limited pressings or because some of the material got re worked?
I think Lawrence English (record label Room40) thought that would be a good way to introduce me to an audience because I was doing limited releases with one-of-a-kind CD’s. In 13’s case it was 75 pieces and each one was unique. I really care about the music and it was the best way I thought to release it. I did truncated versions of it on what I call ‘music only CDs’ that I would sell when I was on the Swans tours, so some people who came in the last year to see Swans very possibly picked up some tracks of the early 13. What Lawrence did was he mastered it. I never mastered it, I did it at home, I did the CDs, print the artwork and do it to a point that I thought it sounded good. Lawrence really opened it up so anybody who bought the original artwork / CDs, I am curious to how they feel compared to the mastered version.
How do you tie in the artwork to your CD’s, is it something that you have a clear vision for from the get go?
It is a pretty clear vision. On 13 it would have been my third limited edition. I was on a Swans tour and I got obsessed with taking photos of anything with 13 and it was before I thought about making a CD out of it and when I continued to do it I decided, that would be the next CD I did. It would be based on 13; I went around the world taking pictures of 13 whether it was a seat in a theatre, a number on a lighting rig or an address. Eventually I compiled enough and I knew exactly what I wanted the artwork to be.
The other two were M.R.I. which was when I got M.R.I. scans of me and 410 which was my address. My wife took stills of me walking up the stairs to my eyes and that was the second limited edition CD.
In your case it is more heavily weighted to the music side, but do you feel that the triangle between fashion, music and art is equilateral?
Yes, the art side is difficult for me. 13 just kind of happened. I am not really after art, I stumble upon it. I love taking pictures while I am on tour and the (room cover 40) is a picture I took in Texas and I loved that picture, I just thought it is a little lonely, a little calm. I don’t find it bleak or anything.
If something catches my eye I try and capture it on my I phone and that is another perk of being solo and working at home is that, if I come up with something, I can try and make it real. Fashion, I feel like I am out of the loop. I guess when I was younger I cared more, not so much anymore. Not weird or anything just comfortable.
What challenges did this album present?
There weren’t challenges; it was very fun to create three different tracks. My general solo shows I just play electric guitar. On 13, Frostbite Falls is bass so I try and use different instruments. On the limited editions I play the mini acoustic guitar on the third track and try to mix it up and get different inspiration on the instrument or a different approach. That is what I do live, try and use the same guitar but make it fresh for me. Especially doing several days in a row, I have to mix it up somehow otherwise I would get stagnant I think.
Doing 13 was a joy. Since I was doing it at home, I did it over and over until I got something I liked compared to the studio and the pressure of trying to push through. As it stands when recording at home, if it’s not happening, it’s just not happening. I put it down; I think about it, I try to do things that will open my mind up. On the first day I will approach the instrument, see what it does, the next day I might have something I like and enjoy listening to. I will then listen to it and think about it, fine-tune it and go for another take. Sometimes keeping the second take but learning from what I did before and improve it to my own mind to the point that I enjoy listening to it because it does play itself, I just kind of play off the things it sets up.
On a technical level, what is in the kit?
It’s delays, playing off delays. Stereo display to split the signal and then on each side I add more delays and long delays. It’s a lot to do with playing the right thing on the guitar and reacting to what the different delays do.
What does this album say about the stage of your life that you are at right now?
It would say that I am content enough to offer up slices of me. I am not hiding behind anybody, I am not trying to fit in. This is me and I am pleased enough to offer it and not feel embarrassed to have people spend their hard earned money buying it and listening to it. I am a relatively content musician but still striving to play better but at the same time happy for other people to hear it.
You are a lot more of a content musician at the moment but how would you describe your own personal and creative evolution over the past three decades?
I think it is that I am more confident in what I play and that is the main thing. The confidence to step up there alone. Not everyone understands what I am playing but I like it, which is the most important part. I entertain myself when I am doing it and I hope I can draw other people into it.
During your many years of touring and performing, you would have encountered some strange and impressive characters. Were any words of wisdom spoken to you that still resonate with you and have helped you throughout your career?
Um, well I do tend to listen to everybody and from Michael Gira the idea of slowing down makes a huge impression. Swans was always slowed down, let things develop as you don’t have to be in any hurry to change within a piece you are doing. Before I was in Swans, it was The Birthday Party, Killing Joke-kind of guitar playing that was my main focus and it was a bit more songy. I liked The Stooges kind of stuff and through Michael I leant that it wasn’t important to do versus/chorus/bridge so I really liked the freedom not to have to do that.
Can you describe the moment when inspiration strikes, is it a tunnel vision that you enter where the world goes quiet and the instantaneous sensation filters through the pen to paper or a piecemeal process of a bit here and a bit there?
I don’t think it always happens when you are in a group situation and you know you are completely locked in on that sled going down that hill. You can’t stop and there is nothing that can go wrong either, that happens occasionally and that tends to happen during rehearsal when no one else shares it with you, but it is a great feeling when you know it is absolutely right. It happens with the solo in the same amount. Occasionally things are surprising and I am almost an audience member fascinated with the sound that is happening and that feels very good. It is not really inspiration but the inspiration to pick up the instrument to begin with. It is a feeling of elation, not just in what you hear but the physical playing of it. It is fantastic as a player.
In such a long and varied career as your own, can you elaborate on what have been some of your most memorable experiences and why?
You mentioned audience, with my solo career I haven’t really connected with the audience much yet. Playing in bands, I know the audience are enraptured and I get the impression that they really appreciate what is happening. That feels great. With my solo work I haven’t got that yet and I don’t know what to do other than playing more and more shows. When I am on stage I need to move around and figure out what the audience is doing. My work is one long piece with little movement changes, it’s not like I do something and the audience applauds or I do something else and they walk away. So far everyone stays and I get so much satisfaction from that so I must be doing something that keeps them standing there.
You have just finished up on a short tour?
I did yes with Marching Church. It was a lot of fun and they were a very cool band. We did five dates, New York, Philadelphia, Virginia, North Carolina and Washington DC. They were my first dates outside of New York which was exciting. Just driving on my own, setting up and playing. Hanging out with them and listening to them was really nice. They were so entertaining. Great music and great guys. It was my initial solo venture, I have never done it before but I could really do more.
Can we expect to see you in Australia soon?
Oh I would hope so. There is talk of it and that would be before the Swans machine gears up for the next tour and sometime in the early Spring. We will be recording some new material in a studio in Australia.
Interview by Courtney Dabb. Photo courtesy of Arno Marzin.