Guitarist Norman Westberg: From Avant-Rock with Swans to Ambient Mystery Solo

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By Bradley Bambarger <2019>

As the primary guitarist in heavy avant-rock band Swans, Norman Westberg has for years contributed to often overwhelming waves of volume with a mix of the rhythmically slashing and the harmonically sensual. Solo, he has developed a sound that’s oceanic but in a much different way. Westberg makes the six strings of his guitar vibrate through delay effects and loopers to create swells of mysterious, shape-shifting resonance — a brand of ambient music that’s as evocative of as many different things as there are listeners who hear it.

To Australian electronic musician and label proprietor Lawrence English, Westberg’s solo explorations have a “topographic” dimension, as they chart “the dark contours of places unseen but imagined.” For his part, the guitarist says: “Initially, because I was working in my Manhattan apartment, I was just trying to make a quieter, inward music. But I was also curious if I could create something with the meditative quality that we achieved at certain points with latter-day Swans, but with much lower volume. I’m basically having a conversation with myself.”

Westberg’s wife is a jeweler, selling her work online via Etsy. She inspired him to create handmade CD packages of his solo recordings to sell on Etsy and at shows. The personalized, do-it-yourself approach — plus Swans leader Michael Gira helping to promote the records via social media — paid off. A fan of Swans, English was entranced by Westberg’s solo music; sensing a kindred spirit, he was moved to remaster and reissue the albums 13, MRI and Jasper Sits Out through his Room40 label. That had a ripple effect. Other labels offered to put out the guitarist’s records, too, with such albums as The All Most Quiet and A Chance To deepening his discography. He says: “It helps to have an association with an infamous band, but it’s amazing to me that those homemade records led to labels reaching out from the UK, Switzerland, Australia.” Produced by English, Westberg’s latest release, After Vacation, sees him move beyond a one-take, “performative” process toward something more composed and crafted, with heightened melody amid the clouds of sound.

Born in 1958 and raised in Detroit, Westberg took up the guitar at age 10, with private lessons. “I learned that not only do you have to practice, practice, practice — you have to really look into yourself,” he says. “Early on, I realized that I wasn’t going to be a ‘shredder’ and that I had to make the most of what I can do. I didn’t even play other people’s music in cover bands. My aim has been to find my own voice on the guitar.”

Westberg recalls being a kid and loving his sister’s Beatles singles, with David Bowie and T-Rex to follow. Hanging out in a record store, Westberg heard Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” and that’s when it really hit him: “This is for me!” Iconic Detroit proto-punk band The Stooges and such post-punk groups as Public Image Ltd. and The Birthday Party became further influences. Later, when he was developing his solo atmospherics, it was the organic-minded ambient group Stars of the Lid that made him feel “not alone.”

The guitarist moved in 1980 to New York City, joining Swans three years later; he played with the volatile band through the mid-’90s and then with other downtown groups. Gira re-formed Swans in 2010 with Westberg a key link to the early days. This incarnation of Swans produced four epic albums and toured hard. Such roadwork can be exhausting; yet Westberg has always relished the camaraderie of a band: “That’s the reason you want to join a band when you’re a kid — to have a crew to belong to.”

As for advice to the young, Westberg says: “It’s not an easy path being a musician, especially nowadays. It should be something that you just have to do. I mean, would you make music even if it were illegal? That’s the amount of desire you should have. Because the love of it is everything.”

(Originally published in the February 2019 issue of In Tune magazine.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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