Norman Westberg has served as the guitarist of experimental rock outfit Swans for the better part of the band’s three-decade existence. His playing added a sense of frantic chaos to the thrashing aggression of the band’s 1983 debut album, Filth, and a brighter, folk-influenced sheen to later releases like 1991’s White Light from the Mouth of Infinity. Since Swans reformed as a six-piece in 2010 for an astounding late-career renaissance, Westberg’s guitar has contributed a sense of meditative thunder to the lush, elemental sprawl of the band’s sound.
Swans have released three albums since 2010, most recently 2014’s staggering To Be Kind. A follow-up, The Glowing Man, is slated for release in June. It will be the last release with Swans’ current lineup; after touring behind the record, the band will effectively break up (though frontman Michael Gira will continue releasing music under the Swans moniker).
Westberg is leading up to that final Swans tour, which begins in July, by laying the foundation for his own solo career. He’s already self-released several albums of his own material, but he’s still working on translating the music to a live setting.
“The more I do and the more experience I have playing live, the more I’ll understand my language and be able to fine-tune it,” Westberg says. “So when you come to see me live, you might actually recognize something from a recording.”
As it stands, Westberg’s musical language is very different from that of Swans. Where that band’s music always seems rooted in the mud of blues and punk, Westberg’s solo output is largely ethereal and shapeless — “like waves or gentle wind,” he says. It’s ambient music born from improvisation, reminiscent of the gentle drone of artists like Stars of the Lid, a Texas-based duo that Westberg cites as an influence (“They were kind of eye-opener for me,” he says. “I heard them and I felt like I wasn’t alone.’”). Westberg’s guitar, filtered through a variety of effects pedals, creates a colorful, atmospheric wash that’s never quite the same from performance to performance.
“To me it’s new every night,” Westberg says. “I have an idea of what I want to do, but that doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to be happening. I use a lot of delay, and it’s not always a perfect science. I’m not pushing a button to make it work. I have to input it live so it comes out different every night.”
It’s a very different experience from sharing the stage with five other performers. “I can’t hide,” Westberg says. “If something is going wrong, I have to really fix it immediately. Whereas in Swans, if I’m not having the best night, I can work at it a little slower.”
But performing onstage alone also has the benefit of added intimacy with the audience — and Westberg’s solo career has been built on that connection with his listeners. Albums like MRI and 13 were originally released through Etsy, a website that serves as a marketplace for handmade items. “I look at it as being kind of crafty,” Westberg says. “Those were limited editions, and they very much go through me. I’m so comfortable with Etsy. I can do the shipping right at home, so it’s all very easy for me.”
It might not have the grandiosity of Swans, but Westberg’s music does have much in common with the band’s, particularly in its focus on long-form compositions which heavily rely on repetition. “I like the idea of the hypnotic aspect of repetition,” he says. “To me, you don’t need a chord change to make a change. It can be a very subtle change.”
That subtlety, he says, is an integral part of composition, both for his solo music and for Swans. “You want to build, and if somebody’s really paying attention, you want them to be at the edge of their seat,” he says. “The trick is change it just at the right moment so that they get their release.”
The goal of his music, he says, is relaxation. He wants his music to be “immediately recognizable,” he says, “so that somebody can go, ‘Oh, I know this will be perfect for my laying on the couch tonight. This will be the perfect music for that.’”
The laid-back mood of his solo material might surprise many fans of Swans, he says. “I think some people might get confused with me because of the Swans link,” he says, “in that they figure Swans is this brutal, horrible, loud thing. [But] in reality I never looked at Swans [like that]. I always felt it was pretty relaxed in a way, almost lazy in some respects. At its best to me, it was not frantic.”
Now, with the likely end of his time with Swans on the horizon, Westberg is excited for the future. “Swans is really Michael’s project, so he’ll continue with it one way or another, I’m sure,” he says. “I’m setting the groundwork for my solo ventures. I’ll continue to keep on top of the solo stuff while there are breaks in the upcoming Swans tour. Hopefully I can keep it going. And when the tour is over, I’ll be able to really dedicate myself much more to it and try to get a burst right out of the gate, so to speak. Out of one race and into another.”
Norman Westberg performs at the Hoover Public Library on Friday, May 13. Iron Giant Percussion and the Davis-Hickox Duo will open. The 18-and-up show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12.50. For more information, visit hooverlibrary.org.