Norman Westberg (Swans) “I had no clear idea what I was doing. I’d just start doing something and then keep it going.”

Norman Westberg & Lawrence English

Lawrence English, artist and director of Room40, offers TMT an intimate conversation he had with Norman Westberg of Swans. It was held in April, following Room40’s reissue of Westberg’s solo album, MRI. Westberg’s newest is called The All Most Quiet, and it’s out now on Hallow Ground. Lawrence English has a new one too, titled Approaching Nothing, which can be purchased from Baskaru.

In early 2012, I was at the tail end of a period of serious questioning about what music meant to me. Not just as a composer, but more so as a performer. I jokingly refer to this time as my pre-mature midlife/existential crisis. I’d undertaken a few tours that had left me questioning what the relation shared between myself and an audience in performance was. I was also not completely satisfied with the bodily affect of where the music was at that point. I was partway through making my record Wilderness Of Mirrors and seeking something to challenge my expectations about sound in space.

Across about 11 days, thanks to an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Melbourne, I had the opportunity to witness three groups I’d wanted to experience for the better part of two decades — My Bloody Valentine, Einstürzende Neubaten, and, lastly, Swans. I have gone on record as saying this particular trilogy of performances was critical in waking up a dormant interest in the power for sound in a live context.

The concert Swans gave in Sydney, where I went to listen to them, was deeply affecting. It was a refined exploration into the visceral nature of sound and the power of repetition at volume. It was also a reminder of the exponential power of groups of people making music together and the dynamic tensions that emerge under those conditions. It left me greatly moved and pressed me to consider what it was I wanted to do with my own work. I couldn’t have asked for more than that.

It was on this evening that I first met Norman Westberg, whom I exchanged a brief conversation with backstage. Westberg is a towering figure on (and off) stage, an undeniable presence, and his guitar playing always had been one of those aspects of Swans I had been interested in. His ability to create a wall of sound that was both rhythmic and harmonic inspired me.

Earlier this year, following a series of reissues of his solo records I had the pleasure to be involved with via Room40, I had the opportunity to invite Norman south of Australia to perform his first solo concerts outside of North America. He visited me in Brisbane for a number of days, where he had a concert and also where I assisted in developing and recording some of his new solo works.

With The Glowing Man, the final statement in the present incarnation of Swans, having just arrived, I thought it might be an interesting moment to speak with Westberg about his impressions of the other end of the Swans legacy. As the only other member to have carried through from the group’s earliest incarnations, he holds a unique perspective about where the core thematics of the band were seeded and cultivated.

On a lengthy drive back from the Gold Coast, where we’d enjoyed an afternoon off from the studio, I asked him about that earliest time with the band, his experiences of New York in the early 80s, and his methodologies as a musician.

Why don’t we start talking about where music came into your life properly, how was it you came to be interested in music? What first grabbed you as a teenager?

As a child, I’d come to music through The Beatles and Roy Orbison and the first vinyl I’d ever bought was Three Dog Night Live at the Forum. I also remember listening to Band On The Run by Wings at my friend’s house every afternoon after school.

One day I was in the local record store and I heard Black Sabbath and that was the moment I knew I’d found what I was looking for.

What was it about Black Sabbath that caught you that moment?

It was just how heavy it was.

And Iommi’s playing no doubt played a part in that?

Yes of course. But it was the right sound. Then there were the lyrics. I loved the lyrics on Paranoid. They just got me. It was exactly the same as when I heard The Stooges Fun House, the minute it went on, I knew it fit. The first measure of Down On The Street, I knew it was the greatest thing ever. That record had such a great aggression and a very real Detroit sound about it.

So why did you head to New York then?

Actually the first time I went I was visiting my girlfriend.

I’m curious to know what it felt like to arrive in New York, those first days in 1980? What was the feeling in the city, especially for someone coming from a place like Detroit?

What I remember is just having no idea where anything was. Like we’d be out looking for St Mark’s Place and have no idea where it was. It was just a block away from where we were, but we didn’t realize the streets changed names part way along. We were young.

There were a lot of people on the street. That’s what I remember most, people were out. If you wanted beer or anything else, you’d get it and drink it on the street. All up and down the streets, we’d be hanging outside the bars, not necessarily in them. I also remember being struck by how large the city was. I mean, coming from Detroit and living in a residential area, not the suburbs but definitely residential, New York had a completely different feel. Detroit, the city was where people worked, but New York was completely different, people lived in the city. It was alive and not just a place people worked like Detroit’s Downtown.

So you visited first and then decided to move permanently?

I moved to New York in October 1980 and was living in Bensonhurst firstly and then about March of the following year moved to Manhattan. I broke up with my then-girlfriend, so it seemed to make sense to move to the city. That was just what you did back then, and I was working there too.

Also, I didn’t fit in when I was living in Bensonhurst. It was an old Italian neighbourhood and there I was with these tight black jeans, really skinny, a big coat, and this big haircut. You know that movie Saturday Night Fever, in 1980, that neighborhood was still basically like that. I didn’t fit in and people let me know that. I’d get yelled at during the day, and at night it wasn’t a place you’d want to be out in, but there was nothing to see anyway. The city had a lot of places that weren’t exactly welcoming either. Back then I hardly ever went below Avenue A. If you did, especially at night, you were asking for trouble. There was a lot of heroin down that way, so I guess if you wanted that then you went there, but not much else. There were some friends living there and there were some clubs too, but even those places, like Sin Club, would recommend you walk down the main street and come around the corner rather than going off the main street through the neighborhood.

What was the cost of living like in New York then?

At the stage, when I joined Swans, I had just moved out of the Lower East Side into Greenwich, Chelsea. I was paying $100 a month in rent. I was staying in a single room, bathrooms in the hall and this place was pretty rough. Sometime you’d have the bathrooms condemned, so you’d need to go use one on the other floors. That was a drag.

The room itself was like a tiny 6x10 room. It had a cot, but I had a loft bed, so I put that in there. You have to understand, I didn’t really own anything except for music equipment, records, and books. And the loft bed and some clothes that was it. The record player I had was my sister’s. It was a very basic way to live.

And you were working to make money?

I was working at the Shady Character, which was like a fashion accessory store. I was working there a long time because I could go away on tour and they didn’t mind. I’d come back a couple of months later and they’d be like, ‘OK, sure come back and work’. It went on like that for a very long time.

I never made money on tour, but the good thing was the store’s owner was a huge music fan, so he’d just buy NME and then collect all the records he read about in there and have them in the shop so I could listen to them. I heard so much music through that time thanks to the owner. When U2 came to New York, he bought us all tickets to see them, that was on the Sunday Bloody Sunday tour. I also saw them play the very first time at the Mudd Club and I think it was me and like two other people in the audience.

How were U2 that first time?

That show, you knew U2 were going to be huge. I kept looking around thinking, Where is everyone? I knew that song “I Will Follow” because it was being played in all the clubs. I discovered a lot of music through the clubs, like Killing Joke, I first heard them at Mudd Club as well.

Did you start playing music as soon as you moved to New York?

Pretty much as soon as I got to New York, I was involved in music. I had been playing and rehearsing in Detroit, but nothing serious. The Village Voice had classifieds and I immediately went through those and started calling people. I’d answer ads that wanted a PIL or Killing Joke guitarist, something like that.

So what was the first band you played in?

I auditioned a bunch. There was a band called Body who became Live Skull. From that audition I met up with some musicians that led to me starting my first band, Carnival Crash. One of the guys from Live Skull had a friend in Bay Ridge, a neighboring town, and we started the band. A single was released from that project too.

So how was it you can to be involved in Swans?

This band I was in played a basement party that was at the place of one of the Honeymoon Killers, Jerry Teel. I knew he was in the band at that time and thought it’d be a good chance for him to check us out, so we played and I got on with him really well. A while later, I went into a bar he was working in to see him and the bar was like, ‘Oh, he’s on tour,’ and I couldn’t believe that I knew someone in a touring band. I know that sounds strange to say it, but so few of the bands I knew toured. It was something.

So anyway, he knew Swans. When he showed up a few weeks later at this bar, he came over to me and said I should go audition for Swans, as he thought I’d be a good fit after seeing me play this basement show.

So in some ways the basement show paid off more than you expected?

Yeah. I went to the audition and I’m not sure if Sue (Hanel) had left already or if she was in the process of leaving, but I played through her amp at the audition and the next time I was there, the amp wasn’t there anymore.

Actually that was one of the things I loved about New York when I moved there, you didn’t need to carry gear around, you’d just go use something at a rehearsal space and you didn’t need a car, you’d just walk a few blocks to get everything you need. That said, I had an amp, which my friend in Detroit posted… to me. It was two cabinets and I still have them today. The head is long gone though. He sent one via UPS and the other on a Greyhound. Once I joined Swans I went and bought a new head. Actually my girlfriend at the time loaned me the money to buy it, such a cliché. Such a typical guitar player thing to do, getting his girlfriend to buy the equipment. I’ve thankfully moved forward since then.

Did you have much of an idea of what Swans was like as a unit? Had you seen them play before the audition?

When I went to the Swans audition I didn’t really know too much about them. I’d not seen them. I knew they were a touring band, so that impressed me and I had heard the EP at my friend Ivan’s house. I’d actually told him I was going to audition for them, so he played me the record. I’d also heard about their shows and another guy who ran a rehearsal space I’d used had played very briefly with them too. So that it wasn’t like I had no idea.

When I arrived, I realised that I’d seen Roli (Mosimann) before, playing in Radiant Boys. I was a huge fan of that band. So, I did the audition and the instruction was basically ‘play down here and then you play up there for the next part.’ I’d been doing a bunch of auditions and sometimes they’d have a chart or they’d have some chords or whatever. Doing it like that was sometimes fun and sometimes horrible, but Swans was not like that at all.

What was the atmosphere at the audition?

Well, everyone was drunk. I was drinking a lot then and not really eating. I was eating diet pills. I had one of those ideas, not a good one, where if I ate diet pills, I wouldn’t be hungry, so I wouldn’t need to spend money on food. Which was good, because I didn’t have much money. Also I figured I’d watch what I ate more, you know, have an apple instead of having some junk. That idea of eating well lasted about a day, I think it pretty much came to the point that I ate nothing and the money I saved I spent on drinking and more cigarettes. This was another time in my life, I’m not at all proud of that past. I’m glad I was able to find my way out of that time and end up where I am today.

Lawrence English & Norman Westberg (Photo: Trim Stevens)

Beyond everyone being drunk, what do you remember about that first meeting?

I loved the instruction. I loved what they were playing and I loved Roli as a musician. I’d seen him play and I knew what he was capable of. Jonathan (Kane) too was great. Michael (Gira) and Harry (Crosby) were playing bass, they sounded incredible, it was working with this different kind of energy that I hadn’t heard in the other auditions I’d done.

I think the other thing that got me was that they were serious. They had just come back from tour. Like I said that meant a great deal at the time. So many bands in New York just played there and that was the life and death of the band. Swans were clearly not content with that. The thing is, at that stage, I didn’t believe that I would be in a band that would be going on tour. It was a huge step in my mind and I wasn’t sure I’d be in a position to have it happen. I was 22 and everything was opening up.

Clearly the audition worked out well, what happened following that?

What you’d expect I suppose, we did a bunch of rehearsals and started playing shows. The main thing around then was starting to plot and plan the record that became Filth. We started borrowing money and trying to get together what we could to make it happen.

I imagine that was a serious undertaking to gather the money, did it take long?

It seemed to happen pretty quick really. I joined the band and it was pretty much a year before we had Filth recorded. I mean we went into the studio, Vanguard, and recorded a bunch. Some of the material from that session ended up forming part of Cop too, I recall.

At the same time we played a bunch of shows, nothing too far away from New York. That first show I played with The Birthday party was in Philadelphia, so we ventured out here and there.

So what was the situation like for the recording of Filth?

We recorded at Vanguard. It was a pretty good studio. It was a great big room with high ceilings. We set up the drums and percussion and isolated them and then we recorded elsewhere in the space. I recall doing a lot of the guitar parts after the fact. We did tracking with the drum and bass to get those parts down and then we re-recorded the guitars, it was a very common way to work.

I remember this one song ‘Thank You,’ we must have rehearsed it a bunch of times, but when it came time to record I was with Michael and had no idea what I was going to play, so I remember watching his hands and just trying to anticipate what he was going to play. I based it off that and in the end, it worked out to be a great song. I was really into it, but I just made a vaguely educated guess of what it could be. For the earlier records they were just live recordings with overdubs. There were a few effects, like I remember they brought in a Harmoniser when we were recording. They were still rather new and even the studio guys were excited to see it. They didn’t have that gear, it was hired in and that was a really big deal.

So what came after Filth was released?

Once Filth was done we went to Europe for our first tour there. That wasn’t long after Filth came out and we had at that stage the tapes for Cop with us too. We recorded the Raping A Slave EP in Switzerland on that tour. If you listen to Cop, you can hear the two sessions somewhat. The material that we recorded at Vanguard has a different quality to the other session.

We had to split the sessions up because we were leaving I believe. Cop was all the newer material, whereas with Filth, there were a couple of songs like ‘Stay Here,’ which were written before I joined. The songs like ‘Power For Power,’ I was involved in. The fact of the matter is I never listened to how anyone had played the songs anyway. The way it was described to me was, ‘Sue would play down here and then she’d do something like this,’ so I’d make up whatever I felt worked for the song. Like I said, for a lot of the recording for Filth, I had no clear idea what I was doing. I’d just start doing something and then keep it going.

Did Filth make a difference to what Swans was doing at that time? Was there a noticeable shift in how the band was recognized or understood?

There was some press for the record and it was released on a bunch of different labels in different countries, so it felt like something had happened. At the time I wasn’t so much thinking about that stuff.

That said the touring changed. Or at least it started to. We did have a big tour booked on the back on Filth, and the real money show was Detroit. So the day before we left for the tour, I’d just quit my job, went to rehearsal and everyone tells me the Detroit show was cancelled, but we were going out anyway to play in Pittsburgh. So we would do that show and go home. Not quite the tour I was expecting. Anyway, I walked into work a couple of days later and was like, ‘Can I work here still?’ and they were like ‘I guess so’ and that was the pattern. During that time tons of bands had longer tours that were cancelled, it was happening to everyone.

You toured in Europe though?

The first tour we did in Europe was me, Michael, Roli, and Harry. It was a weird one in that there wasn’t a percussionist onstage. Jarboe was hanging out then too, she showed up in Berlin towards the end. It was a pretty crazy tour, we were away for three months and I think we only did about 10 shows. It was really long, we[‘d] just hang out.

We lived in Berlin and Zurich for a few weeks at a time. It was so great in Berlin then. We became friends with the (Einstürzende) Neubaten guys. We played a few shows there and basically just sat around and drank. It was pretty great.

I imagine the early shows you all played were rather situation-specific in that you were still forging what the band was and what it could be?

They were mixed. Some were incredible and others were just a wreck. There was one show at Sin Club where everyone was on fire. All the stars were aligned. We played on the floor as there wasn’t any stage there. I just remember Harry had magic marked himself, it looked great and everything just had such energy. We played Pyramid a few times too and some of those were great too.

I’ve read a lot about Swans ability to clear rooms too.

Yeah, sometimes we’d clear the house. On the back cover of the Raping A Slave EP you can see a photo of us live and at the front is Jim Thirwell with the cowboy hat on. That was at Danceteria, and that was pretty well a room-clearing show. It varied though. We didn’t always clear rooms. Sometimes in a smaller club, just our people would show up and then they’d all stay. In another space maybe it was a mixed audience and some people just didn’t connect with it and left. Also sometimes honestly there were nights where we were really musical and other nights where we just weren’t. The music just happened that way.

One of the aspects of the live approach that has always struck me is the use of percussion and drums. I know as a guitarist your playing comes from an interest in rhythm, do you feel the additional percussive elements played a strong role in those early times?

Yeah, that was important to have a percussionist and later on a second drummer. It shaped the sound, I had to be aware of that when I was playing. I am a percussive guitar player. That’s what I feel I do best and to have that chance during those times to play with such great drummers, like now too, was just an honor. It meant I could really explore those ideas fully. It was exciting, it still is.

The percussionist took care of the tapes loops too I believe?

The percussionists were very important. During that first European tour we didn’t have a percussionist on stage, so during those shows Harry and I would play the tape loops. I forget the song, but in one of them I would go to Harry’s side of the stage while he was playing and start it going. We just had them running and we’d bring them in and out with a volume pedal.

How did that concrete element come to be part of the band’s live sound?

Michael would put the tapes together. It was his idea I believe. There was this one time in Berlin that one of the tapes got demolished, so we had to go and recreate the tape from a reel to reel and copy it again. Each cassette we had for the songs was different. So if one got lost or stepped on or eaten by the cassette player, it was a real problem on tour. There were amps for guitar, bass, and then for the cassette was through an amp. It was pretty loud on the stage.

This idea of loudness is something that’s stuck with the band.

Yeah, but it was different to what it’s like now. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. I mean back then it was about the amps being loud. They were pretty much at 10 all the time. I’d describe it as a more piercing sound. Now, live Swans is loud, but it’s more about a low end heaviness, whereas back them I think it was more about the mids. It really cut through.

Jackie our sound man, who also has credit on some of the early records, he could just make the sound enormous. I mean he blew up a few PAs, but he really got it to a point where he could get so much out of a system. It was really impressive. We were loud, we had big amps and we turned them up. Rock music was always loud, but I think we weren’t necessarily as easy to deal with sonically.

Part of that is also the nature of the songs though I’d argue? The fact that rather than a kind of tension and release, those early songs really maintained an uneasy tension all the way through. I always imagined that the only release was somehow a kind of bodily process through the sheer physicality of the sound in the air.

The songs were slow and they were uncomfortable. I think you’re right that there was this tension that builds in the songs and they don’t necessarily release in the way a lot of music does. It came out of the way Michael thought of the songs. Often he’d come in with an idea and say, ‘Ok, it’s in two parts.’ It’d be one part and then another. If you listen to a song like ‘Sex God Sex’ you had that one thumping section and then it switches to that melodic line and that’s it in a nutshell. But the way its laid out and played is what gives it that force and direction. The subtle variance really worked for it.

That sort of maximal minimalism was obvious something that was born out of the way you all played and the abilities and interests at the time? It was a kind of language you could say?

What made Swans interesting to me at that time was that there was a freedom in the way the music was put together. I don’t mean that the music was different from show to show. More the choices we made in creating the songs, in making the music, were not like the experiences I’d had up to that point.

There was a language we were trying to develop and I think that’s what you hear on those early Swans records. You hear us trying to find this thing. It was simplistic in a way, but in that way there’d be this heaviness that was a result of all the patterns locking into each other. Around Children Of God there was a significant shift away from that and that’s where it becomes more melodic I think. Everything came out of this idea of just playing to make things sound better.

When do you think that first phase of the band as such finished?

The first couple of records have a very particular feel that started to shift significantly in the later 80s. To me, it changed the most when Harry left. I think the shift was when we were recording the dollar sign records. We did all these practices with Harry and had a bunch of songs and then he was gone and Algis (Kyzis) joined and we didn’t play those other songs anymore. Harry wasn’t really a bass player, so when Al joined there was a shift in the sound and that created a different quality in the music. So those songs from before, they were just gone.

With Harry it was more about patterns, not so much keys or anything. With Algis, it became differently musical in some ways. Harry played in percussive stabs, that’s best way I can put it. Algis was a much more accomplished musician, and made me think more about what I was playing.

Roli had left before that and I got my friend Ivan (Nahem) from Ritual Tension to join. And then there was Ron Gonzalez, who was from Detroit, so we had the two drummers. Ron played on the dollar sign record, which is what we were working on at that time. Part way through there Ivan left and Ted (Parsons) joined, who was the other drummer for the Greed and Holy Money tours.

In your mind, how do those records compare to the ones before them?

I think of the dollar sign records as a period of work, which is different to the records before them. I mean they had a different approach in the studio, in some ways they were more studio albums. They had a lot of sampling, a lot of triggering, and different ways of approaching the sound in the songs.

Looking back, then, to Filth as a starting point for what became such a large part of your life as a musician, how do you feel about it all now?

I knew this was something I should put my energy into if that’s what you mean. There was something there, something we were all creating that had this force. Especially after the release of Filth we sensed there was something for us in the band. I mean we were touring and there’s that thing about clearing rooms and knowing you’re onto something. That’s part of our story. There was this growing notoriety about the shows being loud and I guess still today that’s part of what Swans is.

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