Árstíðir: Icelandic poetry in an abandoned power plant

Vocal-based acoustic band Árstíðir from Reykjavik was founded in 2008 by Daníel Auðunsson (guitar), Gunnar Már Jakobsson (guitar) and Ragnar Ólafsson (baritone guitar). Soon the band grew into a quintett with Hallgrímur Jónas Jensson on cello and Jón Elísson on piano. After releasing their debut album “Árstíðir” in 2009, violinist Karl James Pestka completed the band. Tours in Scandinavia, Finland and Russia followed, and after the second album “Svefns og vöku skil” they toured more countries. In 2012 they competed for the Eiserner Eversteiner, the only European Folk Award of Germany, at the 21st Folkherbst in Plauen, and won the jury award. When they returned to Plauen on January 26th for the award ceremony at the Malzhaus, I met the band and interviewed Hallgrímur and Jón. Both were in a great mood and ready to share many interesting stories, e.g. how their songs develop, the strict rules of Icelandic poetry and why it´s not a good idea to touch buttons in an abandoned power plant.

First of all congratulations on winning the Eiserner Eversteiner award. What were your initial reactions when you heard that you won?
Hallgrímur / Jón: Thank you
Hallgrímur: I remember all of us were really happy. We all got really jubilant congratulatory text messages from Mascha (Maria Chelnokova, their manager). So we were all just at home, got the text and we were like “wow, we won”. We started calling around. I think we went out in the evening, made a toast.
Jón: We didn´t think we would win, because we sing a lot in Icelandic, so we thought of that might be a barrier, but as it turns out the German people quite like the Icelandic language, it seems. So we were happy.

Árstíðir - Shades [Official Music Video]

You just said it that the German people apparently like the Icelandic songs. How is that in other countries? Do people everywhere like Icelandic songs better or does it differ?
Jón: I think it definitely differs, but maybe not so much between countries, just between people. Some people really like the sound of the Icelandic language and they feel that it has almost an archaic sound to it. But then a lot of people like the English songs better. After the first album I got the feeling that more people liked the English lyrics songs then, but now after the second album I sort of feel that more people like the Icelandic songs now.

How did it happen that the second album has so many more Icelandic songs than the first? Was that intentional or did you just happen to write more songs in Icelandic?
Hallgrímur: It´s probably a little bit of both. It´s usually that the guy who´s writing the song and the lyrics has some inspiration and he just writes it in Icelandic or English. We were wondering about making a decision to make the whole album in Icelandic, but in the end we had some nice songs with English lyrics, so we decided not to do that.
Jón: I really pushed for more Icelandic lyrics and I tried to have it only Icelandic Then it happened in the end that we had songs in English that weren´t really gonna work with Icelandic lyrics and they had nice English lyrics. I only write lyrics in Icelandic and I have four songs on the second album, but I didn´t write any songs for the first album. It´s my language. I feel that it´s easier for me to write in Icelandic, because I start feeling silly if I write something in English. It sort of feels weird.

I was going to ask if you write differently when you write in Icelandic or in English, if maybe the topics differ. Now you (Jón) say you only write in Icelandic. How about you (Hallgrímur)?
Hallgrímur: I haven´t really contributed any lyrics, Iíve done some editorial suggestions here and there. But I guess that it´s probably true that the lyrics will differ a bit from Icelandic to English, because I think when you write in Icelandic your inspiration is gonna be Icelandic poetry and the history of Icelandic poetry and lyric, but writing in English it´s more sort of global.
Jón: Icelandic poetry. What we learn at school is obviously mostly 19th century and early 20th century, you know, our romantic period so the poetry that we know tends to revolve around nature and using nature as a metaphor for our emotional life. And there´s also this sort of sadness, almost to the point of depression that comes in as well. For me, I´ve always liked the poets that can write depression the best. When I write in Icelandic, I try to write something that my grandparents would like, at least not hate. I try to sort of go in the same direction. Obviously it would be better to have the other guys answer about the English lyrics, but I get the feeling that the English lyrics are about other things, even if they are close to what the Icelandic lyrics are about, they have a different feel to them.
Hallgrímur: There are also some differences with form. I think most of the Icelandic lyrics have a much stricter form, there is more rhyming, there is alliteration and stuff like that, but the English lyrics are more free.
Jón: The Icelandic lyrics tend to give the song the structure, rather than the song giving the lyrics the structure, because we have very strict rules in Icelandic. We almost have to have alliteration and you always have to have rhyme, because it´s kind of frowned upon if you don´t do it. Then it´s considered almost drivel.

Let´s get back to last year´s tour, your first in Germany. How was the general reaction to that?
Hallgrímur: I think it was pretty good. The concerts were really well attended for the most part. We had good crowds. After a concert we usually go out to chat with the audience and if someone wants us to sign a CD we do that and generally the reception was really positive.
Jón: A lot of people obviously have been to Iceland and they want to tell us about their different trips to Iceland. Some people know more about Iceland than maybe we know. What I also liked is that the concerts seem to be attended by quite a wide age range.
Hallgrímur: Yeah, you´ve got people of all ages. People coming in with their kids, young people. And I remember one, it was our second to last concert of our German tour, we were playing in a church in Syke. We had like 300 people and there was this older woman who was sitting in the second row and we were starting to play one of the louder songs, I think “Shades” and I remember looking at her thinking “I don´t know if she´s gonna like this.” And she was moving with the music.
Jón: She was almost like headbanging. I thought she was around 70. She was very happy with that song. She was rocking out. Which is also very good for us to get feedback from the audience. We used to think about if we can do these type of songs in a church, if people will like it or not, but since that concert we always play it, even if we play in churches. It´s not that hardcore anyway, it´s just our loudest song.

Speaking of “Shades”, can you tell me a little bit about the video? I noticed that it´s very different from your other videos. How did that happen?
Hallgrímur: We´ve had the idea for a while to collaborate with Helgi (Johannsson) the director of this video. He has made some really interesting music videos, a cool video for Berndsen that got very popular and made them big in Iceland: Supertime. He had made videos for some other bands as well and all of them are really good. So we´ve been going back and forth with him, discussing this idea for a video for over a year and finally his and our schedules worked together.
Jón: He basically just had the idea of the video and we wanted to allow him the freedom, because he didn´t want to do just anything. He has an agenda with his own thing where he does this in one video and then he want to do something completely different every time. He likes to keep people on their toes. He doesn´t want to make nice videos. (laughs) Maybe that´s not the right word, but he likes to…
Hallgrímur: … catch people off guard, I guess. Which we like as well so it fits.
Jón: I think the video looks beautiful and I really like the actors, but it´s a video that basically can stand on its own. Also maybe “Shades” is a song that is quite different from most of the other songs. I think the video wouldn´t have worked with any other song.

How does “Shades” connect to “Tárin”? You always play the two songs together and they are together on the album. Musically it seems like a continuation, do the lyrics connect as well?
Jón: “Shades” and “Tárin” have different composers and different lyricists if you will, but we were a little bit skeptic about this direction and we wanted those two together, so Karl and Hallgrímur did the orchestration and we tried to connect them and we actually moved the key of “Shades” so it would fit better to have them in a row. I think the main reason that we play them back to back is that everybody feels that they work better together than they work each on its own. If “Tárin” stands by itself it´s so hugely different from the other songs, so it would be sort of weird to play “Ljód í Sand” and get the applause and then I start with just one note (on the piano). We have tried that and I really disliked it.
Hallgrímur: I think the idea is like that the climax of “Shades” ends really abruptly so it leaves you…
Jón: … in midair
Hallgrímur: Yes, just hanging there. There is an emptiness, which allows for the opening of “Tárin”. These two songs are probably the two that evolved the most over the writing period. We played both of them in concert almost a year or two before we recorded the album and then they were both radically different.
Jón: They still retain the same structure as they´ve always had. We didn´t change them that much with that in mind that we would be playing them back to back. It just fit really well. We put some effects on the back of “Shades” which goes into “Tárin” so it has this element that goes between them and sort of fits them together. Live we have some reverb and space echo and something that´s still going when I start. That´s also so people don´t start clapping. (laughs)

Can you tell me a little bit about your songwriting process?
Hallgrímur: It can be a bit different from song to song, but it´s usually that one person has a basic idea for a song. It can be as little as one melody line or one piece of lyrics. It can also be that one person has almost the whole song written out. Then they´ll usually present it to one or two of the others and work on it together for a bit. Then they bring it to the rest of the group and everybody chips in ideas for arrangements. For example “Nú gleymist Ég” from our new album started of as half an idea, half of the melody for the beginning at the end of the song and a group of chords. We were all working on it together at rehearsal. I think we finished the opening melody at the first rehearsal. It was Gunnar´s song, so he went home and started working on by himself, writing some lyrics for the verse and brought it back to rehearsal and we worked on it as a group again – sometimes it´s a gradual process like that.
Jón: Then I had an idea when I was in bed at 12 o´clock…I made some changes to the last verse and that was like a day before we went into the studio. In the studio we had a heated discussion about the outro part. There was quite a long outro and people were not really agreeing. It was not my finest hour, I got really mad, but we figured something out in the end. It´s almost always different between songs. “Tárin” was just one idea and I gave that to Hallgrímur, Karl and they made it into the epic stuff that it is.
Hallgrímur: It´s actually pretty funny, because that was one of the songs we just finished writing. We had the studio for five or six days to do a bulk of recording like all of the instruments and most of the vocals and I think we just finished that by day three. We made the final decision which songs we were going use for the album the weekend before we went into the studio. We played “Tárin” for our producer and it wasn´t finished, we just played it sort of into the instrumental middle part and said “then something´s gonna happen, we don´t really know, what do you think?”
Jón: We really wanted that song to be on the album. I really like the lyrics, because they are really personal to me and when we were playing that song for the first times, way before we recorded it, I found it very difficult to perform it on stage, but then I got the distance from it. Also what saved that song was that Óle (Ólafur Arnalds, the producer) really liked it. He felt it sounded like a song that was written by people who play string instruments. He really liked the feeling that it sounded natural for the string players. He is quite right. I love how that song turned out. That´s my favorite thing in the whole process that we actually got that together and it works and it´s on the album.

What are your plans for this year?
Hallgrímur: There´s a lot of stuff going on actually. We´re here obviously, accepting the award and playing a concert. That´s gonna be fun.The year will properly start in April when we go on tour supporting Pain of Salvation, a Swedish band. We tour with them for three weeks, pretty much all over Europe.
Jón: It´s 14 or 15 countries in 20 days or something like that.
Hallgrímur: So that´s gonna be very interesting. We get the chance to play for a new audience. In the summer we´ll go and play in Canada for the “North by North East” (NXNE) Festival and we will play the Rudolstadt festival (TFF Rudolstadt) in Germany which we are looking forward to, we hear it´s great.
Jón: Festivals are really nice to play. It´s always fun. You get to meet other bands and see other bands, because when you do your own tour you don´t really get to meet anyone else.
Hallgrímur: We´ll be touring a bit in the autumn as well. We´re planning a tour of Germany in September, but I don´t know if I can say anything about that yet. And I think we´ll be coming back to Europe for a short Benelux tour in November or something, but then I guess we also want to focus on songwriting. We´re trying to work on material for a new album, although I can´t say anything about that yet either. Hopefully that´ll be out some time next year.

I saw pictures of your new rehearsal space…
Hallgrímur: We went there for the first time just a week ago and were cleaning it. It´s really interesting. It´s in an abandoned small power plant. It used to be on the outskirts of Reykjavik 50 years ago, but Reykjavik has grown so it´s sort of in the middle of the city now.
Jón: It hasn´t been used since the 80es. It´s a very strange building. It´s very dangerous, so we´re only allowed to walk in a straight line to our rehearsal space because we have to go through the machinery and all of that stuff. You´re not allowed to touch anything, because everything is still connected.
Hallgrímur: It´s in one of the control rooms. There´s an engineer friend of ours who´s one of the administrators of the building who was telling us that he was giving a tour of the facilities to a group from CCP (a software company) and they were hitting switches and opened some sort of cooling mechanism that was still active and everything was flooded with water because there´s a river running right next to it.
Jón: They pushed something and heard this roaring noise, where like “WHAT?” looked down and the basement was flooding. Also a really good story, it happened some time in the last weeks I think, that somebody pushed something and the power went off the whole building. They got someone from the electrical company and realized there was no one working there who knew how to put the power back on, because the building is so old and the system has never been changed. They had to go to an old people´s home and pick up a guy who was like 80 who used to work there and drive him down to the power plant and he had to use some mechanism to turn it back on. (laughs) So we are not allowed to touch anything, but we have a whole wall with just different buttons and levers.

How did you even find that place?
Hallgrímur: Through Daniel´s friend, the engineer. He runs it. They have some offices there. The office space is rented out to artists and designers, for example the writer Andri Snær Magnason. Now they are opening the other side of the building for the first time, so we are the first ones allowed in there. If we behave ourselves for the next half year they´ll probably open up more offices there.

What do you do when you´re not making music?
Jón: We have school and work. Hallgrímur has both.
Hallgrímur: Over half of us are studying in different programmes and then we just work to feed ourselves.
Jón: We have to do that. Some of us work with music and others just have boring jobs.

So you can´t live of the music?
Jón: It´s not possible in Iceland. You know, we are so few. We also have a lot of musicians, a lot of good musicians, so it´s fairly difficult to sustain that. I guess you could do it, but then you would be living of pasta with butter. I tried that for a whole summer and I wouldn´t recommend it to anybody.

I understand that in Iceland you have your own record label and in Germany you have signed a contract with another label?
Jón: We have a distribution deal in Iceland, but we have our own record label of sorts. We release our own records in Iceland.
Hallgrímur: We have a record deal here in Germany, but we are still pretty much independent. We produce out albums ourselves, have total creative control.
Jón: We own all the rights, we pay for all the studio time.
Hallgrímur: We have a very good deal here in Germany with “Beste Unterhaltung” who release our records in Germany and also in Switzerland and Austria.

Is there any dream tour or dream concert that you can think of that you´d like to do?
Hallgrímur: We´re thinking of maybe doing a collaboration with a symphony orchestra. When we last toured in Russia, Karl and I were bouncing ideas back and forth about guys we would like to work with.
Jón: On the last Russian tour in St. Petersburg and Moscow we had 8 extra string players. We really liked that so we´d like to do more of that, and I know Karl and Hallgrímur are really excited about arranging with a symphony orchestra. We´d like to hear how that sounds.

Thank you for the interview
Hallgrímur / Jón: Thank you

Author: Stefanie Oepen

GastmitarbeiterInnen / guest contributions

Regular guest contributors e.g. Melanie Kircher, Tatjana Tattis Murschel, Grit Kabiersch, Marina Minkler, Jasmine Frey, Maria Levin, Elvira Visser, Nina Ratavaara, John Wisniewski