Published June 8, 2010
“He is Árni Plúseinn and I am Árni Sveins. We made a film together.”
The former, Árni Rúnar Hlöðversson, is an electronics programmer who moonlights as a member of popular electronic musical outift FM Belfast. The latter, Árni Sveinsson, operates a guesthouse to pay for an apartment beyond his means, and is an active filmmaker.
Árni PlúsEinn was struck with the idea to make a live album in his backyard last June, while sharing a studio space with other bands. Not thinking too far beyond that point, he shared this idea with his friend Árni Sveins, who thought the backyard looked so nice they should get in some cameras to film the whole thing in a day.
One thing led to another, and suddenly they were organizing a six-camera crew, scoring permits from the city to throw a concert on Culture Night of last August.
The result is the movie Backyard, an hour long documentary that revolves around a on a tight-knit group of local musicians and the simplicity of throwing a really, really great party out of thin air.
The film has yet to premiere publically, but you should be anticipating it. A test-screening won it an award for ‘Best Movie’ at the Skjalborg Documentary Film Festival in Patreksfjörður last month, and sensing a lot of public interest the responsible parties (or Árnis, if you will) are planning to screen it – English subtitles and all – in a convenient location in 101 Reykjavík as of mid-July. All they really need is a suitable venue, which might prove complicated due to 101 Reykjavík’s imminent lack of an operating movie theatre. But we’ll hope for the best.
Grapevine has seen the flick, and can attest that it is indeed most-excellent – a much-needed document of a vibrant and joyful scene that has been adding to music loving Icelanders’ quality of life for the last decade or so. We wanted to celebrate it, and tell all y’all about it, so we called up the duo of Árnis and asked them to tell you readers out there about the film – how they made it, and why they made it. They were more than glad to indulge us with a short talk about it. Enjoy the one-liner quotes from the movie peppered throughout the interview!
“Árni had an idea… Árni who? Nobody knows.”
When did you first get the idea for this project?
Árni PlúsEinn: I first thought about it when we shared a rehearsal space with a few bands like Reykjavík!, Retro Stefson and Skakkamanage, and it felt like no one was recording their live shows. They all had albums out, but no one was documenting the live music which is far from the album versions, so that’s mainly what led to this. So when I suggested it to him [Árni Sveins], it was kind of perfect. Me and Gunni [Tynes, from múm] would do the sound and he would do the video or something. Also, half a year earlier, the national TV station stopped recording as many bands as before, so it was also very worrying that these bands would not get the studio time at RÚV.
Árni Sveinsson: Just because of setbacks and cutbacks.
ÁP: It doesn’t really have to be expensive to do accomplish.
ÁS: I just told you that it has to have really good sound. The picture quality is kind of secondary.
How did you decide what bands to pick for the show? Were they all your friends?
ÁS: We made a quick list.
ÁP: You had, like, a wish list.
ÁS: Yeah, but you were really set on what bands you wanted. I was like “what about this one!” and you were like “No, no! this won’t fit in! No, I don’t like him!” You had a very fixed idea of what would make sense. They are such different bands, but somehow they make sense.
ÁP: Most of them are friends, or they at least know each other, and they have the same ideas about how they make music or why they do it.
“I think that what characterises this scene is a common awareness of not taking ourselves too seriously, but rather having fun in creating something together.”
What are those ideas? What do you think unifies the musicians?
ÁP: First of all, I think these bands all got together to make music to entertain each other and to create something from nothing, without it having to cost millions and millions.
ÁS: I think they have a similar aesthetic and approach to making music, even though their music is very different. Also this spirit of not being afraid of being surrounded by different types of music, instead of something like the metal kids only hang with the metal kids and the rock guys and all that. That is not the mentality of this group, I think.
ÁP: This makes a scene of people that go to concerts that maybe have an open mind…
ÁS: Even though they play totally different music, that is the aesthetic we are talking about.
Was this an investigation into that scene, or an attempt to document it?
ÁP: Well, it’s just a document. We didn’t really have an idea of what the scene was, I just knew who they were and what they were about.
ÁS: It wasn’t really deliberate.
ÁP: No, it wasn’t conscious.
ÁS: But it made sense. We put together a list, and everybody except Björk was able to come. We asked her, seriously. We asked her because we had this idea that we were going to do this lo-fi production and blah blah blah. We saw her one night in Karamba and we thought, what the hell! We kind of know her. We asked her if she was interested. She wasn’t able to come, but she was very positive. But I think in hindsight…
ÁP: It’s a good thing. It wouldn’t have fit the idea.
ÁS: Now we know what it is, but at the time we didn’t really know. We didn’t even know if it would work! That is also a very important thing, that we were playing it so low-key to the people, because I think no one was expecting anything. So I think that keeps the human feeling. No one was gearing up to be in this film.
ÁP: I think it was also a good approach. It was not very deliberate, but it seems to have worked.
ÁP: Also the story of ‘The Making Of The Concert’ that’s in the film, he kind of fooled me into it. He just said “Oh, this will just be the extra material, it won’t be important,” and I was like OK! It will just be a concert movie! And then he edited the movie and I was all like, “Shit! Huh, uhm, what!?”
“I will just film you tidying the place.”
So that was just his sneaky manoeuvres? Because a good part of the film is about you organizing the concert and setting it up.
ÁP: I didn’t know!
ÁS: I had to downplay it! Otherwise you would have maybe been like, [makes fake smile and awkward pose], but if it was just me and you…
ÁP: I would have just been walking around in a suit! With a briefcase.
That is a nice thing about the movie is the casualness of it, especially when talking to people and the little interviews with the artists. They were so charming. How did you make that happen?
ÁS: I have a lot experience. I’ve done a lot of promos for bands. There’s always this approach in Iceland where you ask:“What’s your name, how long have you been playing, have you played abroad, and how’s that working out for you?” All of these bands have been playing abroad but that’s so beside the point. Here is a band, they probably have a good story about how they got started, so that was our main focus. I think we got that. Also just throwing stuff in of them talking amongst themselves.
ÁS: Everybody had a good story. The múm story is very nice.
ÁP: Was it “Trallalavoffvoff”? [Árni Sveins nods and they laugh.]
“Maybe one day I can form a band called Trallalavoffvoff.”
múm seems to be kind of a unifier with these bands. How do they bring all these groups together?
ÁS: They are the grandparents. They are the oldest band in the scene.
ÁP: They made music that all of these other bands were interested in, from the beginning, I think. They influenced them a lot.
ÁS: Not only the music, but also the aesthetic, the idea. They did it very much themselves. I think these younger bands, they look at múm and think, “Wow, how they did it, that’s how I want to do it.”
ÁP: I don’t want to raise my mark really, really high. I’d rather just be permanent, like they have been.
ÁS: Just do what you do, and continue doing it.
ÁP: Right. And maybe not go too far into the money side of music.
ÁS: A lot of these rock guys now, and through the years, have been set on making it outside of Iceland. They are always looking at record labels like some great saviour. They’re like, “Oh, all these labels are coming to our show blah blah blah,” and it’s like, yeah what? They’re gonna throw money at you? They’re gonna save you? They’re gonna take you from here and bring you somewhere else great? You don’t think you have to pay them back, you don’t think you have to work really hard? This attitude has been very apparent in the Icelandic music scene for the last decade.
ÁP: For us, múm have taught FM Belfast a lot on how to deal with the business side of things and what to avoid. This is a reason that a lot of the bands don’t have really bad contracts, because múm tried and failed or avoided something. We learn from each other also. They helped our band out a lot.
ÁS: This is very important.
ÁP: It’s very, very important, because if a band is signed somewhere and it’s horrible, they are more likely to quit and not be a band anymore because they’re not having fun. They might just go and work at something else that they don’t enjoy. If you’re doing music you should enjoy it, otherwise there are other jobs.
So is this do-it-yourself, helpful attitude a defining point of this community of musicians?
ÁP: Yeah. There is one guy in the film named Robbi. He’s in Borko, múm and Sin Fang Bous. He’s played with us as well.
ÁS: You don’t notice him unless you watch the movie maybe twice. People don’t notice because he’s a guitar player and he’s in the back. But this is just one scene in Iceland. This is a movie we did about this one scene.
ÁP: There are probably ten more scenes in Iceland.
ÁS: Yeah, and they do things similarly, or maybe more traditionally.
Was this kind of about sticking with your clique?
ÁP: Most of these people got to know each other through music, so they became friends because they were doing music or the same things.
ÁS: It’s a chain. These people know these people know these people. And there are possibly ten more bands that could be affiliated with us, or more. But this group just kind of made sense.
These bands have been around for a while. Do you think they will fade out and something new will take over soon, or is there lasting power?
ÁP: Some bands are going to fade out and some are going to continue, but there’s no way of knowing, because múm has been running for what, like…
ÁS: Ten years? It’s what they say in the film.
ÁP: And Retro Stefson is pretty young, they’ve just made one album. We’ve just made one album. Seabear is on their second album. They’re young in records, mostly. Maybe they’re on the way out for listeners, I don’t know.
ÁS: I think the majority of the people in this scene we have here will be around for a while. Maybe not the exact bands, but these members, these people will be around for the next twenty years making music. I think so.
ÁP: I think these people are just serious about their stuff and I think they will keep on doing it. They will probably make other bands, but this core of people could be around for a very long time.
ÁS: There have been many scenes like this. It was documented in Rokk Í Reykjavík, this film from the early ‘80s. That scene is not as defined. There are a lot of different kinds of music. Those bands weren’t interacting as much with each other. It was shot over a month or something all over Reykjavík. But the people that came forth from that were a lot of the people that made up the scene around the Sugarcubes.
ÁP: That group ended up being the ruler of the time.
ÁS: This do-it-yourself attitude has been around in various forms in different scenes in Iceland for a very long time, probably since the ‘60s.
“But this happens tomorrow.” “Yeah, we’ll manage somehow.”
As for the show itself, what was the process of setting it all up?
ÁP: No sleep, because I was so stressed about the whole thing. Even though I had contacted the city, the police, got everything necessary and then brought letters explaining what was going to all the houses in the neighbourhood, I was so worried that someone would show up and be like “Turn it off!” No one did.
ÁS: I remember I was getting really stressed because you were so laid back.
ÁP: No, that’s my front! Laid back front, but stressed inside.
And the neighbours never complained?
ÁP: No. I talked to one neighbour, and she was worried that it would be a bit too loud, so she made arrangements to just stay elsewhere during the day, which was really nice of her. The other neighbours just came to the show instead.
ÁS: Because it was Culture Night. So you can see in the film, there were parties next door.
So it ended up being a neighbourhood block party?
ÁP: Kind of.
ÁS: I mean, we didn’t advertise or anything.
ÁP: The only advertisement there was was the paper we passed out to the neighbours saying we were having a concert and sorry about the noise, but they were invited to the concert and it said the line-up.
ÁS: But the thing is, the people in the bands told people about it so it was kind of funny how it constantly grew.
“There are teenagers drinking in our backyard!”
ÁP: I was kind of worried right before we played because there were so many drunken teenagers in our backyard. I was worried that this would be a problem, and they kind of were! He was trying to film and they were pushing him.
ÁS: That was the hardest show to film, because they were basically just crowding the front of the stage.
ÁP: But I don’t really know who told them.
ÁS: It must be the bands that are this young, so it must be Retro Stefson [laughs, and Árni Plúseinn mutters denials]. No, I know who it is! It was these young kids who came specially to see múm. They were big múm fans, and they started to call their friends to tell them there was a party here. I know this because my little cousin was one of these kids.
ÁP: It just teaches us not to have a big party.
As for the filming, who all was involved?
ÁS: I just got these guys together, these people I know. Some were experienced, some were not that experienced. I kind of liked that though. We also didn’t want to have it really produced. I just needed a couple of cameras that I could trust, and of course my own. Two of them were shooting for the first time, but they are photographers, so I taught them the day before. I just gave them the cameras and gave them a crash course on how to work it. For most of them it worked. When we were editing it, we had so much material because some bands even played four songs, but I think of the whole live performances we have five or six shots, because we wanted to have the feeling of being really live.
ÁP: And it was just to save for when you had really nothing to work with.
ÁS: No, it was more because the shots were so nice, that I didn’t want to waste them!
Was there any plan before on how you were going to shoot this?
ÁS: We made a full plan beforehand. Some people shooting kind of misunderstood that floor plan, but they won’t be working with me again!
The filming style of the performances is also pretty interesting. Every performance felt like the shooting was tailored to fit the music. Was that a product of editing or the way it was intended to be shot?
ÁS: It was a little bit of editing but I think the feeling in shooting it was also very difficult, especially for all the cameras that I couldn’t really control. After the first song we talked together and realized we all had that feeling. It also goes with the type of music it was. There were two cameras in the front that were dominant and static, then the other ones were kind of random because they are not that used to it. Maybe in some places you use those cameras a little bit more, like for Reykjavík! for instance, because they’re that kind of a band. And then you have the much more subtle and easy stuff like múm.
“We wouldn’t need much overhead to make it work, and then this idea somehow grew.”
Have you done any other of these kind of impromptu, spur of the moment happenings?
ÁP: Yeah, you were actually there at the show at Karamba. It was I think twenty hours in advance, five bands, and a full house.
Did that show inspire this one?
ÁP: Kind of. It made the idea of doing it a little bit easier. If that show was possible in under twenty-four hours, then my side of it would be possible with two weeks preparation. I could manage it from my side.
I don’t like the idea that everything has to cost money. I don’t like the idea that something nice like this has to make money for someone.
ÁS: But we still need one and a half million to release it! [Both laugh.]
ÁP: That was not my idea!
ÁS: I’ll go to the bank tomorrow.
ÁP: But the idea of doing something like this doesn’t necessarily have to involve any money. Like the concert at Karamba… well, actually that wound up making Karamba some money.
ÁS: There’s always money involved.
ÁP: But the people did it because they knew it would be fun and people would come and listen to their music, and it would be a great party.
ÁS: He’s a hippie, and I’m a Satanist. So we weigh each other out like this. [Árni PlúsEinn nods in comical agreement.]
Do you think Iceland is just too small a place to have that kind of system of managers and booking agents and everything?
ÁP: It would be weird if I would meet someone here who wanted to book a concert in the next hour, and I can’t say anything because I have to contact someone who is two houses away. I could just say yes or no. It’s not that big of a production to do things here.
ÁS: Also in the film business. You can basically walk around in Reykjavík, filming everything without a permit. This would never fly in any other city. I know that. I was shooting for a German TV station the other day with some Germans and they thought this was amazing. This of course is amazing, and it can be really positive. But it also creates an environment with maybe a lack of professionalism in other senses. Like paying the bills, maybe? There are a lot of people here in Iceland that struggle with being sociopaths. It is kind of common here in Iceland where people go and do some stuff, and they have people working for them, and they don’t pay them. They don’t feel bad about it. They just keep on truckin’ and just jump to the next group and just stop talking to the people they don’t pay.
ÁP: And this might be a problem because there are no middlemen who are just there to collect the money, in any way necessary [jokes about thumb-breaking ensue].
ÁS: You would of course be on much stronger ground with a contract, because there would be something written maybe. This method of doing things involves a lot of trust.
ÁP: There’s no legal document about your job that you did for maybe two or three months. This is the problem with how it’s all loose. But I’d rather live with this than everything being stiff and it being almost impossible to have concerts.
“Are you done?”
If that were the case here, would your film have been a lot more difficult to produce?
ÁP: I don’t think we would have done it. I just think the idea would have been too difficult.
ÁS: Maybe it would have been a foreign idea to us to begin with if we were in that kind of environment. Maybe it would have never occurred to us.
So is the movie a product of the environment of the artistic community here?
ÁP: It’s the ideas of all these people that were involved in the movie. Haukur [Magnússon, of Reykjavík! and the Grapevine‘s editor] pointed it out in the movie, which was kind of cool.
ÁS: Everything we are talking about is in the movie. You’ll see. Stop reading now and go see the movie!
Björn Kristjánsson, the one-man brains and bones of Borkó, is an enigma who keeps his back-story under lock and key. He plays quirky little ditties with a variety of musicians helping him out live. He released his latest album, Celebrating Life, in March 2008.
Hjaltalín began gaining local attention in 2006, and their career was greatly boosted in 2008 as their reinterpretation of Páll Óskar’s ‘Þú komst við hjartað í mér’ became a huge hit. Their first full-length garnered international success, and they recently released their second album, Terminal, soon to be available throughout Europe.
Sin Fang Bous
The side project of Seabear frontman Sindri Már Sigfússon, Sin Fang Bous started in 2007 as something to fill the time during lonely, early morning studio sessions. Not straying too far from the music of his other band, SFB album Clangour was released in December 2008. We hear he’s recording a follow up as we speak.
Reykjavík was formed in the mid-noughties by a group of philosophy students, booksellers and longshoremen from Ísafjörður and their singer friend from Reyðarfjörður. The group has released two albums and is currently working on new material. Be on the lookout for cool Reykjavík! stuff in the not too distant future.
Since founding in 1998, múm have cemented their reputation as one of the island’s most influential Icelandic bands, both locally and abroad. They have recorded six full-length albums, their last one, Sing Along to Songs You Don’t Know, was released last summer. They tour constantly, and are consistently awesome.
This group of Reykjavík youngsters came together in 2006, when their frontman Unnsteinn Manúel was encouraged by Árni of FM Belfast and Bóas of Reykjavík! (who worked in the kids’ community centre) to publish song he wrote. Unnsteinn gathered his best friends together to perform the track, and the rest is history. Their debut album, Montaña, was released in 2008, and their frequent live shows usually turn into massive dance parties.
Started by a couple making an Xmas present song for their friends in 2005, FM Belfast slowly gained recognition as being one of the most notable electro-pop outfits in the 101 music scene. They released their first full-length album, How To Make Friends, in October of 2008, and are currently working on the follow up in-between treks of touring Europe.