Published February 10, 2006
The last 18 months have been productive for singer and songwriter Þórir Georg Jónsson (also known by his interesting stage name My Summer as a Salvation Soldier). In 2004, Þórir was selected as the most promising new talent at the Icelandic Music Awards for his debut album, I Believe In This. Following the release of his second album, Anarchists Are Hopeless Romantics (2005), he is fast shedding the up-and-comer status and is becoming the everyman’s favourite. His lo-fi and melancholic songs delivered in a somewhat atypical fashion have garnered rave reviews from both the domestic and foreign music press, propelling him into the limelight beyond the shores of Iceland. Now, he is standing at the doorstep of fame at the very tender age of 21. What most people do not realise, however, is that before Þórir duly impressed with his solo efforts, he had already built quite a reputation within the world of hardcore punk, playing in at least five different bands that all heed the hardcore ethos. And despite his more recent success as a solo artist, he is still a punk at heart.
Þórir is a mild-mannered young man. He even comes off as a little shy when we sit down inside an organic café. He orders nothing, sits down, almost apologetically, but, once he settles in his routine, he speaks freely about whichever subject I broach him with. Þórir grew up in the small village of Húsavík (pop: 2500) in the northern part of Iceland. It is an archetypical Icelandic small town that offers all the painstaking excitement of watching grass grow. Unless you want to see whales. They have lots of whales, but not much of anything else. How did a young man from this remote outpost of western civilisation become interested in hardcore punk?
“I started listening to punk music when I was about 10. But that was more pop-punk, like Bad Religion, Offspring and NOFX. When you are a nerd, you start from that premise. You look up the record labels to see what else they have published, you look up bands that other bands refer to, and that is how you work yourself backwards in time and to the sides. Then I started to get to know other people who were listening to the same sort of music through the Internet and we started exchanging music. That is the best way to learn about new music. Find other nerds.”
The inevitable outcome would be that Þórir moved from Húsavík to Reykjavík in order to follow a path that music had chosen for him. “I moved to Reykjavík in 2002. At that time I had been here more or less for two years, playing in bands, travelling back and forth for rehearsals and gigs, staying with friends or on someone’s sofa.”
Þórir had soon carved his niche among the hardcore faithfuls, playing with a number of different bands, representing various stages of punk extremity. Currently he is a member of four bands: The Deathmetal Supersquad, Fighting Shit, Gavin Portland and Hryðjuverk. Add a burgeoning solo career to the mix and you begin to wonder whether there is no limit to the number of projects this juggler can keep in the air.
“Now I am starting to feel like I need to limit myself a little, mostly because most of these bands are reaching that level where they are starting to record and release and go on tours. Then it starts to become a little difficult, mostly because it leaves little time for rehearsals. You can play and play, but you are always playing the same songs because you don’t have the time to come up with new material.
“Right now, my solo project has become a little more serious, so it has to take a certain priority. It is a little easier to move other things around. Now I have a label that is investing money in me, and they receive many offers for things that are a little less casual than other things I am doing, so I need to take that a little more seriously. In a way maybe, that needs to take priority.” Still, in the same breath, he points out that his passions shape his songwriting more than his contracts: “But it comes in waves. Right now, I am most into writing songs for Gavin Portland, but then I might fall into writing songs for Hryðjuverk. Sometimes all the bands are playing a lot, and then it is hard to give one band preference. Tonight, for instance, four bands I play with have been asked to play a gig. I think I’ll only do two though.” [To the best of my knowledge, Þórir played one solo show and performed with two of his bands on the night of the interview.]
This is a peculiar juxtaposition. Þórir’s artistic vision might have been inspired by Gotham’s second famous citizen, Harvey Dent, as the lo-fi and subdued sound of his solo project stands as a polar opposite to the full-frontal assault of hardcore punk. Does Þórir himself consider one personality more dominant than the other?
“I try to define myself as little as possible. I am a solo artist as well as everything else. I could never stop doing what I am doing as a solo artist, as that is just what I do, but I could never stop playing in bands with my friends, as that is almost the only other thing I do. That is how my relationship with my friends works. We play in bands, do gigs, do something that relates to hardcore punk. This is almost exclusively what I do.”
Historically, hardcore punk is strongly related to a certain lifestyle. There is an ideological creed involved, with its own set of ethics and values promoting health and responsibility. It’s not so much a musical genre as it is a philosophy of self-reliance. One element of the punk code is the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) method, shunning corporate sponsorship. Instead of waiting for someone to organise a show, the DIY approach suggests you throw your own show, instead of waiting for someone to publish your record, publish your own record. Those are the ethics of hardcore. “I take that very seriously. Or maybe it is not me taking it seriously, it is more that it’s very much me, how I am. It fits with how I want to do things, and therefore I usually do things this way. That is one of the main reasons why I got into hardcore to begin with. In hardcore punk, I found a certain correlation with my own way of thinking, my opinions on how to run a band or make music and how to do a show, more so than the other way around. I’d been playing in bands and putting on shows in Húsavík before I started doing hardcore here in Reykjavík, and that was all done in the same way really.”
Hardcore punk is also strongly associated with the so-called straight-edge lifestyle. Being a straight edge involves making a commitment to the abstinence from tobacco, alcohol and drugs. Originally, the straight-edge lifestyle evolved from the practise of marking under-aged kids at punk shows with an X on their hand to let bartenders know that they should not be served alcohol. The X quickly became a symbol of an ideological stand against drugs and alcohol.
“I’ve always been a straight edge. I guess that comes from living in a small town, where all kids do is get drunk and get into fights. If that’s not something you are into, you soon realise that maybe drinking is not for you. I was 12 years old when I decided never to drink or smoke. I’ve stood by that promise so far. Later, I got to know the straight-edge philosophy through hardcore punk. Then I realised that this was more than just me being bitter towards the world.” A splinter of the straight-edge lifestyle has also diverged to include abstinence from meat. “I am a vegetarian as well. I think I can state that I was the only vegetarian in Húsavík. People talked about me like I had committed a terrible crime. People thought I was going to die right away. Someone told me when I was 15 and had recently turned to vegetarianism that I would be dead within three years. I am not dead yet, but he is probably anxiously waiting.”
As for the other political aspects of this certain genre, Þórir says: “I think I can safely say that I relate to most of it. There are certain basics that you find throughout hardcore punk, this sort of humanistic approach. You know, don’t be idiotic, don’t be judgmental of people for something that is nobody else’s business and makes no difference anyway. Don’t judge people for how they are, but for what they do. Or better yet, don’t judge people at all.”
Next year promises to be just as eventful as last year for Þórir. He has big plans to tour and promote his latest album next year. He has already been lined up to play the distinguished South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, March 10-19 (www.sxsw.com). There are also plans for a tour with Fighting Shit through Germany and the Netherlands, and discussion is underway for a second tour as well. Besides planning tours, Þórir has also begun to work on his next album. “I am about halfway done writing it. The question is whether it will be released in October like my last two albums. Or maybe I’ll just wait, give myself some time. I intended to give myself more time with the last album, but then it was just ready much earlier than I had expected, so I just released it.” Despite short-changing himself for the time allocated for his own project, he remains happy with the results. “I think I put out a very good record, that is all that matters to me.”
In light of his satisfaction with his latest release, does he feel the pressure of releasing a follow-up? “No. This may sound arrogant, but I just feel like the music I make is so pleasing that I believe I’ll just make a better album next time.”