Like most people, I discovered Norman Westberg through his role as guitarist in Swans. In the context of the band, Westberg’s input seems less concerned with establishing melody and more with furnishing the Swans landscape with objects and acts of nature: spurts of overdrive foam, wood-carved slopes of dissonance. His solo work is just as intricately crafted, although it tends towards the shapeless instead of the shapely – guitars are fed through prisms of delay and echo until they splay across the frame, creating tapestries of sound that glisten, bulge and pale over time.
I spoke to Norman at the beginning of April 2016, just before he departed New York for a handful dates in Australia. The tour was organised by Lawrence English, whose Room40 label have been re-releasing material that was originally only available in a series of limited-run, lovingly made CD-rs. Below, Norman and I discuss the chaos of serenity, the effect of altering one’s listening environment and the prospect of playing solo outside of the US for the first time.
I guess you must be getting packed for Australia at the moment?
Tomorrow is my packing day. Saturday morning I’ll leave.
Are you looking forward to that?
I am, I’m excited.
And you’ve never played solo in Australia before?
Oh no, never. I did a short US tour with a band called Marching Church, which is the spin-off band of the singer of Ice Age – the young Danish kids. I say “kids” – they’re in their 20s. I opened for them on the East Coast, and that was my first solo venture outside of New York City.
How was it?
It was a lot of fun. It wasn’t very well attended, but it was fun to just be in the vehicle by myself and drive around…yeah, it was very interesting.
Does it bother you if the shows aren’t well attended?
It would have been nice for Marching Church to have a bigger audience. I know it’s tough. Of course, I like playing in front of more people, but then you can play in front of a big crowd and they could care less, which is kind of rough too. Here, I just played for not many people who could care less [laughs]. I guess a couple of people enjoyed it – I had some Swans fans in North Carolina who bought some of my merch. I was also usually the oldest guy in the room. That’s going to be pretty common.
Is your live material entirely improvised, or is there a basis in your recorded material?
It’s pretty much all improv. Nothing’s really set in stone, so I never know how things are going to react. I work up things I do and one thing leads to another, so it’s kind of on the border between flat-out improv and having an idea of what I’m trying to do.
Do you get a sense of whether the kind of space in which you’re playing has an impact on the kind of sounds you’re producing?
Sometimes. If I’m getting a particularly “live” stage, the guitar will do something else, so it might take me into a different spot. A particularly enrapt crowd might inspire me to enjoy myself more – that kind of thing.
I’ve been listening to your two most recent reissues on Room40 – MRI and 13 – on various different listening devices. I’ve been particularly struck by how much the experience contrasts depending on the mode of playback; certain details protrude more through speakers than through headphones for instance, and vice versa. Are you conscious of this characteristic of your music?
Yes. I listen to it on a lot of different systems too, and in different situations. My wife does jewellery, and she loves to listen to the music while she’s working. It doesn’t interfere – in fact, it seems to focus her while she’s working. I like to lay on the couch and listen to it on what I call the “big stereo”. We have a couple of different stereos and I hear different things every time. Even a matter of just changing the EQ might bring something else out. I don’t know if it’s absolutely intentional. I do what I do. I mean, they’re not really “songs” so it’s not something you’ll be singing along with necessarily, so yeah – I think it’s music that can just be “on”. If you choose to get involved in it you can, but if you’re just doing something else then it helps clear your head too. You can focus or not focus.
Does the music have a particular effect on your when you perform?
You mean in a live situation? Or when I’m doing the actual recording?
Both. How do you feel when you come out the other side of it?
I kind of know when it’s working. When it’s not working I work towards making it work, and try to figure out what’s wrong. Is it me? How do I make this work? It’s the same with playing in a band. If I’m having an “off” night, why? I question as I’m playing. What can I do to make it an “on” night, at least for the rest of the set, or for just a moment? Sometimes a minute of good in half an hour is fine. At least it’s something – that one minute could be really fantastic.
Obviously it’s been a few years since you recorded some of the pieces on MRI and 13. You mentioned that different details present themselves to you depending on the playback system; has the distance of time affected the way you perceive these pieces now, and what you hear within them?
It’s interesting to listen to where I was then. I think I’m playing different guitars on the tracks “MRI” and “410Stairs”. They were the first two that I released on Etsy as limited editions, so what I was doing was pretty new to me at the time. I’d been playing around but hadn’t been doing anything with the idea of offering it to other people. I don’t really know where I was when I was doing those pieces, but I enjoy listening to them; I recognise it as me. The third track on MRI, “Lost Mine” was one I only did recently. I listened to “MRI” and “410Stairs”, and tried to get back into that feel. I hope I came close to it.
The first time I listened to MRI, I didn’t know anything about when the individual pieces were recorded and it certainly felt coherent to me.
They were recorded the same way, too. It wasn’t like I suddenly had a fancy studio to record in. I basically used the same method. There’s no editing really; it’s a take. I would play, and then I would think about it and say, “well – that didn’t feel good”, and just keep playing it until it feels good, with a performance idea in mind.
I understand the title of the album is derived from your own experiences with an MRI machine a few years back. What was it about that experience that instigated the creation of a record?
Well I had already done the thing. I always have a couple of amps set up, and I would play while my wife would be working. One day I played and I recorded it, and I went “oh yeah – this could be a cool thing”. And then my wife said, “just put it on Etsy”. I thought that it had to be something special, and I had just had the MRI done and had all the images. We have a printer that prints CDs and I’d never done anything with it, so I said, “well why don’t I try this and see what it looks like?” It looked so great. She helped me a lot with making the images work on the printing of the CD and also the sleeve. So that’s how it started: her pushing me into it and helping me focus on it. I took off from there.
It’s interesting that you use Etsy, as I predominantly associate that with crafts rather than record releases. Then again, your own self-released CDs are gorgeously crafted…
And they’re all limited and each CD is individual. I made each one by hand, including the latest one – Not October – which is a block cut that I printed. All of them are very unique.
What it is that you enjoy about doing these very limited editions?
I like the fact that it’s there and then it’s over. There are a small number of people that get it. I’ll release the music on Bandcamp at some point – I’m starting to do that. I’m certainly thankful that Lawrence [English, Room40] has picked up the ball and remastered the early stuff so now it’s available to everybody. It looks great and it sounds great. I don’t really have a problem with this stuff coming out again; to someone who bought the original MRI it’ll sound different. They may have a preference, and they might even like the original one better. I’m not sure.
Do you have a preference?
I don’t. I like the way that Lawrence has added more depth to it, especially on headphones. I honestly don’t do a lot to it except panning left and right but it seems to work. I tend to like the more lo-fi sound in general anyway. A lot of the time I prefer bands’ demos to their actual produced records.
Is there something in particular you’re drawn to there? Often I feel like you can hear a lot more of the “feral” and uncurbed energy of the band coming through.
Yeah, I think so. And mistakes tend to be there, which is not a bad thing. Even with my stuff, it’s all one big mistake in some respects.
[laughs] What do you by that?
Well it’s improv, so who’s to say what’s right and wrong? I mean, I do things where I’m like “ugh”, but I don’t want to go through the whole 15 minutes again just to fix that. And I’m certainly not going to edit it or punch in. I’m going to live with it, and then sometimes that becomes my favourite part of the whole thing.
In the liner notes of the CD-r releases, you often list the amplifiers and microphones that you used to record. Do you perceive the choice of equipment to be a means of sculpting the sound, or is it just a matter of what you have available to you at that time?
I know some people are interested in that, but part of it was just coming up with tags for Etsy. I’m not that much of a gear / tech guy. Do you remember that band Landscape?
It certainly rings a bell…
They were from the 80s, and that was the first band I ever saw that listed every single box that they used on their liner notes. I was kind of impressed by that; partially just so I could say, “oh yeah – I know that box!” It was a thrill to say “these professionals that put a record out…they use the equipment I own or that I’m aware of.” But it was mainly just to get tags on Etsy, because I didn’t intentionally buy this equipment to make that particular sound – it was just stuff I had here. Initially I plugged in everything I had, and then I whittled it down to a manageable amount of equipment. With every piece I know what each box does now.
Do you find that your improvisations are affected by your increased acquaintance with your equipment over time?
Sometimes I try adding a box but often I reject it. It’s pointless. It doesn’t really help. I had a friend who used to call me the “mad scientist” because of how I had everything set up. This is before I had the Etsy. He’s a guitar player. I said “here – try it out”. He played it for a second and then said, “could you just make it sound like a guitar?” He just couldn’t deal with the fact that you’d hit a note and then a couple of seconds later all of this sound comes out that has little to do with what you’re actually doing. I’m trying to do both: I want people to be able to watch and kind of make sense of I’m doing.
That’s always been interesting to me. For example, when I watch people perform with modular synthesisers, I struggle to generate a sense of the connection between the performer’s actions and the sound coming out. It’s fascinating to watch, but I think there’s something inherent within me that feels frustrating with not knowing which gesture corresponds to which sound.
One night, the singer in Marching Church said, “I love watching you play, because I see you do something and then I wait to hear what it sounds like”, because everything happens so much after the fact.
I suppose you must be waiting as well, given that you can’t be certain how the sound is going to bounce back at you.
A lot of times I’m hoping that it’s going to do what I want to do. The sound is not necessarily a mystery – it’s just a matter of whether it’s going to fit the way I want it to fit.
It’s interesting to know that this is how it works for you. Often within this kind of music, there’s a sense of serenity to the whole process – the artist appears to be in complete control over the sound. I like the idea that there’s a small risk of the whole thing unravelling into chaos.
Oh, there’s a huge chance of that. But that’s part of serenity right? It’s being able to accept what happens. You can’t really change it: you just have to accept it and go with the flow. It’s very non-aggressive. If I hear something that makes me tense, I tend to try and get away from it. Maybe there’s a time and a place for that, but I try to be a little bit more relaxed with my music right now.
I was listening to a live set on your Bandcamp…in Philadelphia, I think it was?
Yes – that was the first show with Marching Church.
The sound you start with on that live set…it’s a rather angular and dissonant sound, and it’s amazing how that sound is peeled apart from there.
I opened a couple of shows with that idea. On one of the recordings – maybe Not October – I was visiting that idea as an opening. I’ll still do it if I decide that it’s something I want to visit. But yeah, I was opening the set with that very stark “ah-ah-ah” kind of thing.
It’s almost like a very tiny emblem of your work in Swans.
Yeah. I did that for a couple of shows. Then one day I woke up and just said, “I’m going to do something that’s more like what I used to do,” which was more of the low-end rumbling stuff to start the set. The guys in Marching Church seemed to like that better; they like the more ominous kind of “bleeeeuurgh” thing. So I might stick with that and then throw in the other thing later. Generally I just do one long piece. Something Lawrence and I have been talking about is breaking up the pieces and making shorter pieces that I can play much like songs.
How do you feel about that?
I don’t know – I’ll have to try it out. I don’t think it’s a bad idea. I was starting to think that way anyway. I’ve been collecting things I do and often I think, “oh yeah – this little thing here could be its own song”. So I’m working on that, and I think Lawrence will help me focus on that a little more.
What’s it been like working with Lawrence?
Well I’ll really see when I’m there. I’ll be in the studio with him working on original material for an original Room40 release, which I’m very excited about. That’ll come out during the Swans tour I guess.
How did you come to work with Lawrence on re-releasing your material in the first place?
Do you know Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu?
He did a couple of tours with Swans. I was talking to him and I gave him my CDs. I believe that he’s the one responsible for telling Lawrence about me and turning him on to my music. Then Lawrence contacted me and outlined this idea he had; he was like, “you have this material you’ve already done that is mostly unavailable on a big scale; let’s do this.” He mastered them because I’ve never mastered anything. I think it’s great. I love his label – everything looks so fantastic, and I feel right at home with my music on the label.
I’m really excited to hear what you come up with together.
I think it’ll be great. Also, we’ll be working in an actual studio, so I’ll be turning up a little bit. There will at least be some moments in the recording where it’ll be…turned up [laughs]. With a lot of sustain. I took all my stuff to a rehearsal room one day and tried to do that, but I was having some electrical issues and I didn’t really get anything that good. But it was something I was looking into doing: getting out of the house. I do everything in my apartment so the levels are not that loud.
Do you have any apprehensions about taking your creative process out of your home?
Not really. I think it’ll be a nice alternative. When doing the live sets I’ve been lucky enough to have Algys Kizys recording a lot of it, and he’s very good at catching what I do live. It’s basically what I do at home; it’s a little more nervous as I’m in front of people performing, so that makes me perform differently. Maybe a bit more aggressively than I do when I’m just at home.
I have another release on a Swiss label called Hallow Ground. They released my record Jasper Sits Out on vinyl a year ago. I had promised him some original material, and then I met Lawrence…but I still felt I wanted to do something with Hallow Ground. That will be coming out June 1st I believe. Vinyl and CD.
Is that recorded already?
Oh yeah – it’s on its way. There’s some original music I worked out for him. It’s cool – you’ll like it. Something to look forward to. You can probably hear my daughter singing Katy Perry in the background there.
She’s practising her pipes – I guess that’s good. Now when she sings on our stuff, she can get a little more out there.
Do you two have more material coming up?
My wife just posted our song “Too Cool For School”. It’s an acoustic guitar with her singing, but I have to do a better recording. We’ll get that up on the Bandcamp. Our band is called Magic Crystal Dirt.
Such a good band name.
She came up with it – she’s the artistic director. She’s already dumped a bunch of really cool songs. Dropped them completely. She was like “we’re not gonna do those.” I’ll get her more focused and do some more material soon, until we compile enough that we can make a CD out of it.
So she’s in the driving seat in terms of creative direction then?
She’s the boss. I’ll play, and if she likes it she’ll join in. That’s how I know if it’s something worthwhile. She’ll go, “oh! Dad – keep doing that.”
I really like the new track on the Bandcamp, “Moon Star”. I believe you refer to the project as “exploring crazy sounds”…
Oh yeah. There’s some crazy guitar stuff on there. I’m not a big “loop guy” – I have a hard time taking a segment of her thing and looping it and making it sound good. I love the way things change as opposed to having a loop that’s just stagnant, so I have to get her to do a full performance. The subtleties are what is interesting to me.
So you’re after a 10-minute epic vocal take?
[laughs] I don’t know. We might be going toward the three-minute format here…which seems like nothing to me.
Good practice for when you start segmenting your material for your music with Lawrence?
MRI on Room40 – emporium.room40.org/products/568228-norman-westberg-mri
Norman Westberg’s website – normanwestberg.com
Norman Westberg on Bandcamp – normanwestberg1.bandcamp.com