How did you get started on guitar?
The same way as every one else—my dad bought me a guitar when I was a kid and tried to get me to play. I didn’t find it that interesting. A few years later, I was ill on the couch with the TV on. When I woke up the Woodstock movie was on TV, with Hendrix playing the guitar. I thought, “That looks fucking great; I’ll do that” [laughs]. I started practicing. Most of my friends had started at the same time. So we had five or six young boys who would teach each other licks and tricks.
Are you completely self-taught or did you study at some point?
I got some tutoring when I was in my teens; then I got a Bachelors degree in the U.K. in London. I had at a teacher there who was very strict and he got me thinking a lot about what I was doing.
What was he teaching you?
It was jazz course. We had to go through jazz history, but he was very respectful and let me put my own thing into it. You would go in there and get all these ideas and maybe use a few of them.
Did he take you through be-bop, and modal jazz?
Yeah, we had to go through some of that. I was never any good at it [laughs]. What really inspired me and made me feel at home in the jazz guitar thing was Kenny Wheeler.
Was it his work with John Abercrombie or Bill Frisell?
Not so much the guitar thing but more the harmony thing. Suddenly all these lines and melodies I felt like playing would fit. His harmony applied to my own melodic language. That was quite liberating. The traditional language is not my cup of tea—I didn’t grow up with it.
What was the first music you played when you finished school?
We had a band in London called Fraud—a modern jazz sort of thing. With a really great saxophonist called Jim Allsopp who would write these Tim Berne-style tunes.
After I got out of school I found it increasingly hard to find anyone to play with. Living in London it is incredibly hard to make ends meet. Having a band, a rehearsal space, and spending a lot of time on a project is very hard. That’s partly why I moved back to Norway. I thought, “If I am going to stay in London for another ten years I need to get a proper job,” [laughs] because I don’t really play swing stuff—I’d rather not. I couldn’t make a living. I was living for free at one point and I still didn’t have any money. I moved to Norway and got into this master’s degree thing at the conservatoire in Trondheim. I just started playing with everybody up there.
What were you studying in your master’s program?
It was one of those master’s where you build your own program. I was looking at free improvisation in different contexts. Part of that course was to build my own solo project, a place to start working on my own world of playing, one I could take into different contexts that interested me. I have never been the kind of guy who said, “I just want to play Seventies free jazz.” I wanted to broaden the palette I could take into collaborations, instead of ending up as a product of all the bands I played in. I wanted to have something that was untouchable. It became a bit like dogma.
Is that how you started evolving from notes into more pure sound?
Yeah, I guess. I was experimenting a bit in London. In Norway it is very common that you get a student loan and just do your studies and nothing else. I was basically playing from 10 o’clock in the morning until 12 o’clock at night. It gives you a lot of time test out ideas and do all the wrong stuff. A lot of experimentation went on in Trondheim with all these brilliant young musicians who were hungry for new impressions. It was a really creative atmosphere that I tried to make the most of.
Is that where you started experimenting with effects?
On a bigger scale, yes, I didn’t have the time or the money to do it before. I got heavier into that. I was checking out alternative ways of playing a guitar through an amp to get it to sound the way I wanted. I realized that I needed to take this sound a step further or be able to do something in a different way, so effects became a natural progression.
Effects became necessary to realize the sounds in your head?
Yeah, and also some of the playing techniques needed a bit of help. Dynamically, some of them are inaudible at a normal volume. So the whole technical side of the guitar became more of a focus, and the fact that it was an electrical instrument. The sound doesn’t stop at the string and the pickup, there is something that happens when you play at a certain volume and know how to control your tone. All the electronics should be part of that. It can open up a whole new way of playing.
Could you speak specifically about some of the techniques that required effects to bring them out?
There is so much. I think I have tried almost every pedal in history. For me it is a changing thing. I try to change my setup a lot.
Did you need them to bring out things like playing behind the bridge and bowing the strings?
Yeah but also just all the different ways of picking the string: different angles and different ways of playing one note. Taking that one note and producing your own tone, then taking it ten steps further with some effect that you think will fit. It is more about how you play the notes than what effect you use. It was something I thought about early on and I am glad I did. Because I didn’t want to just play the effects. It is easy to just put everything on ten and just noodle away. I try to limit myself to the musical idea: “I want to play this note like this” —and then taking it from there and taking it further with the effects. I wanted to take control over my own musical creativity; I didn’t want the effects to shape how I was playing.
There is something very physical about your performances. Is that something you are aware of?
Once, in Trondheim, after I finished jamming, one of my friends said, “Hey, you were dancing.” I wasn’t aware of it. It just suddenly appeared. It is the connection with the music. The feeling of being in the music is so strong that just happens. When I perform I am not really thinking. I have thought about quieting it down a bit [laughs] because it probably hinders me on a technical side. It comes from a wish to bring the music from the body. In my world, you are the music or you are not. In my world, I want all the tones to be just the way I want them to be. If you see a conductor in front of an orchestra he delivers a tone—this is the way it is going to be. It is very direct it is very forceful. It is difficult to describe.
The conductor analogy is good. They can get very physical trying to draw the music out of the orchestra with their body movements.
There have been gigs where it feels more like performance art. It takes over your whole body and your whole you. I can hear the difference when I am in the studio and I am trying to be clever and experimenting. And then I listen to a similar idea performed at a gig and you go, “Holy shit!” It sounds like the world is falling apart around you—it is that desperation. All my music feels like it is being pushed against some sort of resistance and I want that resistance to be there. I need something to push against, be it technical stuff or just something in the expression of the music. It needs resistance for it to be interesting.
You have said that you don’t plan your performances at all. Do you prepare anything?
There is a reason for that. My master’s exam included a concert at the end. I though I would do a solo gig. Planned the whole hour of music: all these techniques, all the different landscapes I would go to, almost composed. It went really well until the last bit, where it went basically tits up [laughs]. I was coming from this huge wall of howling feedback into this prepared guitar bowed section, which would be a beautiful ending to it—almost like a song. Of course the guitar was full of sweat and out of tune, so when I started bowing it just went screech in front of 350 people. Even though it sounded like shit I was still trying to do the same idea, to save it. Of course that didn’t work and I thought afterwards, this is just stupid. If I am going to do this often, I should do it without planning, because then it takes away the chance for errors. I wanted to keep my ears open. If I had my ears open I would have just utilized the sounds that were coming out of the guitar. That’s why I don’t plan. I concentrate on focusing only on what matters. I go to my little space before I go on stage.
Are there themes or sounds that you fall back on?
Everybody has a bag of licks whether you play rock or free jazz or whatever. Especially with things like the bow, there are just certain ranges and overtones that sound best. There are many things that might reappear in a gig three weeks later in a different context. As I become more and more aware of this, I try to work out how they appear and why. The way I have been practicing it is that I have been trying to surprise myself so I don’t end up playing the same thing over and over again. That is an incredibly hard thing to do; it is not easy to surprise yourself [laughs].
Do you have any methods to help?
The main thing is to have the time, from when a musical idea comes into my head to when it comes out of the instrument, be as short as possible, so that I don’t think about them. When I practice I try to change my set up and force myself into new territories. I put up different frameworks to improvise within and see what comes out. I listen to a lot of different music, and try to draw inspiration from it. Whether or not I like it the music, what I listen to on a daily basis just sneaks in there. I am just trying to develop my language.
How did you approach recording your solo record Pitch Black Star Spangled [Rune Grammofon]?
My whole dogma of being alone on stage was drawn into the studio. I was the technician and the producer. I went into the studio, improvised, recorded it and listened back to it. I did that until I was so sick of myself I wanted to burn my guitar. I don’t understand how my girlfriend coped with me [laughs]. I played the same stuff over and over again until something new appeared and surprised me. Until there was a glimpse of something I never would have thought of, some new context of ideas, of sounds. This huge black space opens and you search for something you can’t put your finger on. Then I always find something along the way that fascinates me. It then needs to stand the test of time, during the months that I work on the album. It needs to inspire me. The moment I find something truly new is a very recognizable feeling—that’s like finding gold. That is a quest for development; it opens all these new ideas.
Where did you record?
In my own little crappy studio in Oslo. I had a Mac, a Metric Halo 2882 sound card, and a bunch of junk mics. Most of it is recorded with Shure SM57s. That record I used Logic, but I have started using Pro Tools, because I have started producing other people’s albums and Pro Tools is in every studio.
Do you have a room where you can record at stage volumes?
We have a small detached house in the middle of Oslo and really nice neighbors who don’t complain as long as we don’t work late at night. But it has hardly any insulation, so while I was mixing I was wearing a down jacket, boots, and three layers of clothes and I was still freezing. When I got the cover art I laughed, because though the artist didn’t know this, the cover was an ice brain [laughs].
Were the tunes edited out of one long improvisation?
Each tune is its own improvisation but they are edited from a longer, or sometimes shorter version. It is definitely a studio production. The whole album is quite heavily edited.
Were their overdubs or postproduction sounds added?
Both, there is heavy reverb done in the box, but It is done while I was playing so I could create an atmosphere to play on. On the opening track, [“Don’t Tell Me This Is Home”] the bowed guitar is run through six different reverbs put into a very compressed environment which makes the sound shift from one side to the other. There is stuff done in the mix as well but it is all part of one big process. It becomes part of the playing. I didn’t want an album that is a documentation of how I play live. Otherwise I would have recorded a gig and released that.
There are some distortion tones on “The Antagonist” and at the beginning of the title tune that sound bit-reduced. Is that a pedal or post processing?
I modified this really badly made pedal from this Brazilian company Onerr. But the distortion pedal is great because it has a three band EQ. I found this feedback loop inside and rewired it. I have no idea how it works and will take no responsibility for people destroying their pedals [laughs]. I modified it so it became this square wave fuzz, but when it doesn’t get enough signal it breaks down into deep octaves. That might be the sound.
At the beginning of “Sing With Me” it sounds like you are hitting the strings with something and then bowing them.
That is just hitting the string with my right finger on the fret and then vibrating the fuck out of it. That is a good example of how you need electronic help to make that sound because it is not a very loud one. In the studio I compress the fuck out of it.
How did the Nils Petter Molvær gig happen?
We played the same festival in Italy years ago. He listened to my gig and we hung out. We started talking about playing together someday—one of those things you say to people when you are drunk. But he kept coming to gigs. Then Eivind Aarset left the band to focus on his own thing. I was standing in the middle of a field in Italy when he phoned and said, “It’s Nils Petter Molvær.” I said, “Hi, how are you doing?” He said, “Do you want to be part of my band?” I said, “Yeah, okay” [laughs].
I think he wanted to find somebody who would approach taking over Eivind’s position in a different way. Eivind is so good at what he does no one could take over anyway. We started touring a lot and played the old tunes before going into this record.
How do you approach the old tunes and new tunes? Are their parts that need to be played?
This is a very free band. The first half hour is completely freely improvised. When we go into the first tune it basically is in C and is in 4/4, so you play C in 4/4. And then the next tune I have three chords, which last about eight seconds [laughs]. There is a lot of freedom. The biggest problem with playing the old stuff was the computerized grooves that Nils Petter used to do, which I didn’t feel at home in. I would just be coloring it. I didn’t like the feeling that you have no part in what is happening. You are just playing on top of a groove and the groove isn’t going to change no matter what you do. Well, what is the point then [laughs]?
When you started was Audun Kleive still playing drums?
He was. We did about 100 gigs together. It was great fun.
Was he triggering the grooves?
Audun didn’t trigger them; he would just play with them. He would know every little roll that was in them. He was great at it. I have never heard anyone play with electronics like that. He would make it sound like the electronics were there for him.
Was Nils triggering them?
Nils was controlling them. He had this Ableton Live setup, which he was controlling.
You don’t do that anymore?
There were only two tunes where we would do that. It became evident that the band didn’t sound good when we did that. On the new album there are no grooves coming from Live. It is all real drums. The whole record is heavily processed but it is played live and then processed into sounding like it is coming from Nils Petter Molvær world [laughs].
Do you feel like you have to modify your approach playing with Nils?
I definitely lean more toward being there for him. He is a melodic player; I need to, and want to, play stuff he can play beautiful lines over. I get to explore more of my harmonic side. But I don’t feel like I am compromising what I want to do. Of course there are times we don’t agree on what is going to happen, but that is a healthy thing. We try to kick each other’s asses as often as we can. I always try to push Nils Petter in my direction and he always tries to push me in his direction. I feel quite privileged to be able to do that. He could easily say I want it to be this way and not that way.
The strength of the band is that now that we know the tunes, we can go anywhere at anytime. As long as the band maintains that freedom it is going in the right direction.
Do you use the same gear for the Nils Petter Molvær gig as you would on a solo gig?
I always travel with the same setup for any gig. That is who I am; if you hire me to play guitar I will come with whatever I am playing at the moment. That is the whole idea behind the solo project. It is the mothership for me. It is where I develop my own stuff and that is who I am. I definitely don’t want to bring my “other session gear” to this gig. I just want to bring whatever is hip for me at the moment.
Do you play at the same volume as when you play solo?
Yeah. Four amplifiers—the whole rig. I use and endorse Hiwatt amps. It is getting increasingly loud on stage [laughs].
Speaking of loud, you also have a project called Monolithic that seems more metal oriented.
It is our little playground. I was hugely into metal when I was a kid. Monolithic came out of Trondheim. Kenneth [Knapstad] and I played in a free electric trio, a bit like electric Ornette Coleman. The bass player didn’t want to continue, but we continued playing together. Kenneth was really into this Swedish band Meshuggah, all these polyrhythmic melodies. We started using that in creating something to play over. Then we said fuck it let’s just make tunes. We just have a lot of fun. Right now I am mixing the next album with five or six tunes that were written on the road last year. We had just sketches and would improvise the tunes and say, “You have to come up with some lyrics—Now!” [Laughs]. We came home with a full set of music.
Do you do those “cookie monster” vocals?
Yeah. It is very funny. That sort of music has its own natural limitations. I try to use them as a resistance to push through.
How do you improvise that kind of music? It is normally so precise and regimented. How do you know when you start you are both going to be playing the same thing?
Basically you don’t [laughs]. We have a set of ideas that we would improvise from. I don’t know how many hours we spent in a crappy rehearsal space in Trondheim. We used to practice so much just a look from him and I know what he means.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Sidsel Endrisen duets are beautiful but very different. How did you come to play with her?
There was a night of two separate solo gigs—me and her—at the Oslo Jazz Festival a few years back. I have always loved Sidsel’s music ever since I was a kid. It turned out that she had listened to my stuff and thought it was cool that we were doing the same night. We did an encore together and it was a really intense five minutes. She was asked to the Molde Festival in Norway, and she said, “Okay, but I want to do a duo with Stian.” From then on we continued playing. We are releasing a live album on Rune Gammofon in April.
Does playing with her bring out a different, more melodic, vocabulary?
She can be an incredible singer unmelodically as well, if you know what I mean.
True, she does those vocal tricks that sound like electronic stutter effects.
That opens it up for me to push her melodic side as well. The voice is such a strong instrument. If I weren’t touching the melodic side I would be missing out. She is such an incredible performer in the way that she can move quite easily from doing expressionistic sounds into the most beautiful lullaby you will ever hear.
Are the gigs with Sidsel improvised as well?
We never plan anything. We always talk about stuff afterwards. That’s what we do with Puma as well. We anywise afterward to see what the other were hearing because you always hear stuff differently.
In a video in Budapest you are manipulating a piece of gear, creating interesting loops. What is that effect?
I don’t know if I should mention it because it is so poorly built, even though I spent so much money on it. It is the Eventide Time Factor. I have the Pitch Factor as well. I’m on my second, and that is falling apart as well. I am discussing an endorsement so they just send me new ones when they fall apart, because I love the sound of them. They are really flexible and have huge headroom. Since they updated the software they have become much more stable. You can program them in cool ways to make them do stuff they are not supposed to do.
Do you use it for looping?
Sometimes, but the controls are a bit fiddly. If I loop stuff I like to control volume with my feet, but the pots are too small and too tight to control with my feet.
Can’t you do that with an expression pedal?
Quite possibly, but I have too many pedals already. I got a patch for something called a [Keith McMillen] Softstep, which is amazing. They made a patch for the Time Factor. I am going to experiment with that to see if I can incorporate that.
I have another looper before the Time Factor, my main looping device—the Digitech JamMan Delay. It is the big one with the stereo delay. It is really great. It beats the shit out of the Boss RC-20s and RC-50s. You play softly through it and it will still play back; the Boss won’t record the quiet stuff. The Digitech sounds super clean.
Jackhammer-style choppy/stutter are a significant part of your sonic vocabulary. How do you create those?
That is a delay pedal I modified in my studio. If there are pedals I have no use for, I open them up and circuit bend them to try to make them do interesting stuff.
Did you study electrical engineering?
No. I just open them up, stick some wires in and see what happens [laughs].
In the Baboon Moon medley from the Nils Petter Molvær site you are controlling the speed of the tremolo sound. Which effect is that?
That is the Moog Ring Modulator.
You are often seen playing a Gibson 335 with a Bigsby and Danelectro single cutaway and longhorn baritone instruments. There are also videos with a Stratocaster style guitar what is that?
That is my newest acquisition. The Danelectros keep breaking so I have been searching for many years for a Custom Shop Fender Subsonic. They made Telecasters as well. It is a baritone guitar, a Strat with an extra-long neck that sounds amazing.
When you play behind the bridge of the 335 are going for specific notes or is it just the sound?
Definitely for specific notes. Depending which pickup, which note you fret, and the settings on your electronics, you can make the overtones turn into different notes. Also bending the strings will produce different notes.
Do you raise your action to facilitate bowing?
I don’t have a particularly high action. Certain ranges are hard to play single string melodies, like playing the G-string above the seventh fret without touching any of the other strings. I press the other strings out of the way. One tenth of a millimeter in the wrong direction and you are touching something else. The action is normal; it is just practice and the proper bow tension.
How do you decide which guitar to use on your solo gigs?
I used to travel with the baritone and the 335. I stopped because it made the luggage overweight for the airlines. My main guitar is the 335. The wood was made in the late ’60s and it was just hanging in the factory because of a bad paint job. In the ’70s Gibson put some ’70s electronics into them and stamped them with a “2” on the back of the neck. It is not collectible, thank God; otherwise I couldn’t have afforded it. It looked unused when this guy in Norway imported it. After I had it for about four years, it started getting much louder acoustically. Guitars really need to be played.
When you want low notes and are playing the 335, what do you do?
I have an octaver and the Eventide Pitch Factor. Also I just detune the bottom string. If I feel like I should have some baritone notes here, I will just tune down to a low A. Just make it work. It is music with some dirt under the nails; it is not clean in any way.
Some Other Stian Gear
Death By Audio Evil Filter and Silver Soundwave Breakdown