Check out the Maelstrom record by Stian Westerhus & Pale Horses and you will hear echoes of Scott Walker, Radiohead, and Tim Buckley. Don’t worry, the latest offering by experimental guitar god Westerhus features plenty of the exotic guitar tones we have come to expect from the now former Nils Petter Molvær sideman’s, while adding vocal driven tunes sung in English. Who would have imagined Westerhus would have a singing voice as compelling as his instrumental one? Here, the Norwegian axe-mangler shares the lowdown on his new band with cohorts Erland Dahlen on drums, and Øystein Moen on keys, as well as his need for pedals that “klonk.”
What led to the departure from Nils Petter Molvær?
When I started in his band, I tried to lead the music into a more live played, trio format, away from the heavy prerecorded electronic soundscapes from his computer. After doing tons of gigs with this band, playing more and more freely, I produced the album Baboon Moon. In the studio I composed new material and processed it almost entirely in the analog domain—just like I do with the guitar, but with a huge Neve V-series mixer, huge plate reverbs, tape machines doing pitch shifting, etc. Then Nils Petter would play over it and, after a while, these songs would come out of my Pro Tools rig. It was a heavily processed album that sounded like the trio at the time, without letting go of Nils Petter’s electronic soundscapes, with gorgeous percussion from Erland Dahlen, and with some of the best trumpet playing Nils Petter ever did, in my opinion. But, I realized I had put so much into it that, if I was to continue, I would have a heavy influence on his direction, and that wouldn’t be fair to Nils Petter. After all, it is his band and we have very different ways of thinking about and making music.
What prompted the shift to vocals and songs with Pale Horses?
It was just something that I’d been longing to do again. When you’re young, you play in bands where everybody sings (more or less) and then—when you grow up—you’re supposed to be all educated, and correct, and what not. I needed a new angle on playing music and this came up. I didn’t force it, and I don’t know if it’s something that I’ll keep on doing. I just need to keep on experimenting.
Are the songs group compositions?
I wrote the tunes, but these guys make the tunes into music—nobody else can play these tunes like this.
Did you record all together or add parts as overdubs?
We recorded the whole album in three days basically, and I did some vocals afterwards. All the tunes are played live in the studio and then we recorded some overdubbed percussion and some synths. It was the most intense three days I’ve ever had in a studio. We would get in at nine in the morning, and then just play all day long until quite late in the evening. We’d go for a Thai salad in the afternoon, but apart from that we were hands on, experimenting with the tunes, working as a band, with everybody playing the whole time, and me singing while playing the guitar parts. That’s why the album ended up sounding like it does. I originally meant to produce the album quite heavily; to make a sort of stripped down smartly orchestrated album, but it forced its way through as a live in the studio album. You’ve just gotta respect the music, I suppose.
Are you interested in cultivating some of the more adventurous pop audience (ala Bjork and Radiohead)?
Ha! Who wouldn’t be!? But, if that were the original idea I would have made a hipper, catchier album!
When Pale Horses plays live these days, is it all songs or are there some instrumental tunes?
It depends. I’ve played over a hundred gigs with each of these guys in different settings, where the music has been mostly freely improvised, so anything can happen. We play all the tunes we have, some of them might sound completely different, and there will be some new instrumental stuff every time. I love playing with Pale Horses. It’s incredibly demanding: you have to be on all the time. Nothing sounds like the Pale Horses live.
How close are the arrangements to the record?
Sometimes they’ll be pretty close, and sometimes something will be completely altered, maybe just a verse, or some tune will come back in the middle of another tune. It seems like all the tunes are respected in a way, but yeah, they live their own life.
What did you use for the solo sound on “Chasing Hills?”
All the stuff I play goes through my pedal setup, but on this particular part I think it was just the Fulltone OD that was on, and I had actually borrowed a Burny SG Custom copy that was in the studio. I remember it because it was an absolute killer guitar in front of my mega loud Hiwatt Custom100 that was in the same small room as me. That guitar was like a whip!
Are you using any different gear for this situation?
Nah, I always use my standard setup.
Tell me about the Flying V.
It’s a classic! The Flying V was designed in the 50’s and I think it’s a super beautiful guitar. Some people might wear it as an ironic statement of sorts, but I just thought you don’t see many of these babies on stages anymore unless you hang around metal bands. I thought: if I saw myself play a howling solo with Pale Horses on a flying V I would enjoy that—so I went out and got one.
What do you control with the Keith McMillen Softstep?
Absolutely nothing I’m afraid. Both the Softstep and the 12 Step are out of my setup. I stomped those thingies to death after a short while, and it would drive me insane that you can’t feel where you’re putting your foot down. When I step on pedals I need to know that my foot is doing what I want it to. They are both genius contraptions, but I need something made out of metal and that always goes “klonk” in the same way when I jump on it for the 189th time that night. I use an old Roland FC-200. It goes klonk in a very pleasing way.
How do you use Ableton Live on the laptop? It sounds, in the live concert video featuring Susanna Wallumrød, as if you are playing some prerecorded loops, looping live, and processing your voice through it.
I use it as a looper and for reverb and some pitch shifting. I went through so many looper pedals that broke and sounded bad. After I did my last solo album (The Matriarch And The Wrong Kind Of Flowers) I needed a big reverb in my rig so, all in all, Ableton was an easy way out. It also enabled me to do some nice routing that would be cumbersome with pedals. The pitch shifter was a substitute for the Eventide Pitch Factor—I broke two of those pedals in one year. Those things are badly built—but they sound great. At the concert you mention I had written a long acapella piece that had a vocal sample. I think it’s the only time I’ve used a pre-recorded loop. There is also some cut up delay on there I seem to recall. Ableton is fantastic—if only they would open up their routing possibilities a bit with their own plug-ins and send structures.
Which plug-ins do you use, where do you route them, and how do you control them?
Just Ableton’s own and Altiverb. Altiverb has an emulation of the mausoleum I recorded The Matriarch And The Wrong Kind Of Flowers in. I’m also currently experimenting with a more elaborate setup in addition to this and my pedals, but that’s work in progress.
What is that program on the iPad?
Touch OSC. It’s a simple “program it yourself” app. I just have what I need on there—nothing more. It’s so simple that I don’t even need labels on the buttons or faders.
How are you routing your guitar signal?
It’s pretty old school. I treat my laptop as a guitar pedal and put it somewhere in the chain, but mostly in parallel. The laptop is just a substitute for a number of pedals really. There is really very little fancy stuff happening in the electronics department.
How do you balance your time between Pale Horses, Sidsel, and the Jan Bang collaborations?
Well, there will always be calendar crashes, and in the last two years I’ve been writing more music; not just for Pale Horses, but experimenting with crossing over to the orchestral realm—something that takes a lot of time. Last December I collaborated with Britten Sinfonia; I wrote an hour worth of music that was played in Oslo and London, and in November I’ll be playing a commissioned piece I’m writing for the Zuidnederlandse Philarmonie in the Netherlands. This is orchestral stuff with me in there as well—again the music takes it’s own ways.