Name: Norman Westberg
Occupation: Guitarist / Sound Artist
Bands/Projects: Swans, The Body Lovers / The Body Haters
Labels: Alien Passengers, Hallow Ground, Room40
Current Releases: The All Most Quiet on Hallow Ground, MRI on Room40
Musical Recommendations: Michael Gira has been pushing the boundaries of what and how music is made, perceived and presented for years. He is definitely an artist that deserves attention. JG Thirlwell is another artist that never ceases to amaze me. Never mind that I have and do work for and with both of them.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started to become serious about my solo music in 2009. I was plugging in all of my accumulated effects boxes and amps to see if the guitar would play itself. Setting up a chain of amps and effects, I would strum a chord and walk away, sit on the couch and listen to where it would go. Kind of like watching different strings of blinking lights to wait for them to all light, or be off. Through these experiments, I whittled down the chain to a more manageable group. With that, it became easier to control what was coming out. A friend gave me some music by 'Stars of the Lid', I was not alone.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I am still working on my musical language as far as my solo guitar music is concerned. It is always a work in progress. I come up with new 'words' which later become 'phrases' that further become 'sentences'. I have never been very interested in working out what other people play, zero interest in being a bar-band guitarist. Early on, while playing along with records, (ok, I have worked on some cover songs) I made the leap to thinking about playing along with the song, rather than playing the song. My logic was that someone else already played a good version, what would I have to offer. Why not get technically proficient enough to go where the music leads me?
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The main issue was more along the lines of figuring out what pleased me about my solo music. I knew that I was not going for a volume thing, quiet with dynamics was always my main goal. I am still working on my patience. I am looking to emulate the ocean, or breeze, slowly shifting. Getting closer to it all of the time.
Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
Ha, my studio is any room available to set up in my NYC apartment. I record stereo to a two track tape recorder. Then, transfer it to the computer. I would like to have a space where I could set up a more extensive and permanent recording set up, some day.
What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using?
My instrument is the guitar. No matter what my solo music sounds like, it is still just a guy with a guitar. I will be working on bringing in some other sounds as my recording process evolves. The main effect is delay on top of delay. I have started to bring in loops, which are created at the moment, to thicken and confuse some sections of my performance.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
Right now, all of my compositions are based on improvisation. I play and play, then play some more. When I get to a point where I have a flow, the record button is pushed. There may be a new idea for an effect, different place in the chain, or setting, or introduction.
With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
I have always made it a point to not listen to music that may come too close to the music that I am involved with. More so with my solo work. There will always be similarities within any genre. Though, I do hear some nice atmospheric music coming out of the Room40 label.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I feel that composing is a direct result of improvisation. Play, play, play. I would often feel that if you remembered it the next day, it was worth remembering. I will make written notes of parts that feel good, and that may go along with other set segments. I suppose that you could consider my compositions of being in the moment.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
The space is the important thing. All sound inhabits space, even the no-sound. It is about the yearning for a release from the space. I try to work towards the sound of nothing from something.
What's your perspective on the relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, video art and cinema, for example – and for you and your work, how does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?
All of the arts mentioned as well as the crafty variety, i.e. woodwork, fabric, etc. are, for me, all of the same. There is a point of learning and of the stepping out and creating for yourself, not everyone has the desire to step out on their own. I have always thought of something that I would like, then went about creating, crafting it for myself. Suppose music is the same, I seek to entertain myself.
What's your view on the role and function of music as well as the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today - and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
Music can be a great forum for putting up personal views on politics and society in general. I feel that if these concerns work for an artist to work into their art, goodo. I do not have a real stand in my instrumental music for anything other than finding a personal flow. If other people get something from my music, again, good. I do not go into it with any message that I would like to share.
Listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
I like that my music is championed as a passive listening experience. I have received comments that my music is great for helping people focus on their art/craft. I am listening to my music as I write this now.
Reaching audiences usually involves reaching out to the press and possibly working with a PR company. What's your perspective on the promo system? In which way do music journalism and PR companies change the way music is perceived by the public?
I know that Room40's publicity people have gotten me several interviews, as well as making sure that my music reaches the reviewers for their consideration. If a blog or such reaches out to me, I check them out and try to get them with the label, or I can deal on my own. Very important part of 'this business of music' is the PR company. Being a part of Etsy and Facebook, they both recommend ways to boost views, usually involving money. I sometimes feel that money is what gets the most done, can get depressing at times.
Do you have a musical vision that you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons – or an idea of what music itself could be beyond its current form?
I am very happy with how my music is coming out right now, primitive home studio and all. One of my favorite parts about it is the newness, even with my repeated listening. Not sure how much 'better' equipment would influence my process. I can always check it out, then ditch it if it only annoys me.
If you enjoyed this interview with Norman Westberg, you can find more information about him on his website.