He used to play in some pretty rough rock bands. These days, Jóhann Jóhannsson doesn’t employ loud, distorted guitars to get his points across, yet reaches more ears than ever before. The following interview details the story of a certain transformation, one that’s more subtle than you might assume.
It would be fair to say that Jóhann Jóhannsson is catching many of us by surprise. Although he has been an active participant in the Icelandic music scene since the early 90s, when his shoegaze/drone band Daisy Hill Puppy Farm made a small dent in the wall of death-metal that then amounted to the Reykjavík underground, he has mostly worked behind the scenes or within the confines of bands until recently. A glance at his biography will reveal that he has been a driving force within progressive Icelandic music for the last decade; his co-founding of the Kitchen Motors collective/label and the Apparat Organ Quartet speaks volumes in and of itself, as anyone remotely familiar with modern Icelandic music can tell you. Nonetheless, the nature of his work has ensured that his name hasn’t exactly rolled off the tongues of the discriminating public.
This has been slowly changing since the 2002 release of his solo début, a score for Icelandic play Englabörn. The piece garnered international critical and public acclaim, which has increased at steady rate with each of his subsequent projects. Reviews of his latest release, the concept piece IBM 1401, a User’s Manual, are almost uniformly sprinkled with the types of positive superlatives and exclamation marks usually reserved for Iceland’s top cultural exports, Björk and Sigur Rós.
The Grapevine briefly convened with Jóhannsson over cups of coffee the day after the much-anticipated Sugarcubes reunion. His discussion of the Sugarcubes show and its opening acts (“múm were a lot of fun, many new things going on… I was expecting more new material from Rass, but they preferred to stick with the classics and did a good job of it”) betrays him as an obvious music enthusiast, one who still keeps the fan’s perspective on his own profession. Our conversation slowly turns to the classic topic of the motivation behind making music, and if and why people should prefer their musicians to be of an honest and sincere persuasion.
“The music I like certainly possesses more of those qualities. On the other hand selling records is no sin, and I think there are many artists that are actually brilliant in serving both masters, artistically unmatched however commercial they may be. I really respect those artists, people like Abba and The Pet Shop Boys. Those who pander to the market while maintaining their artistic integrity and avoiding lowest common denominators. Such peaks in the pop landscape are very rare however, and it’s hard to spot something of the sort today, although I admittedly don’t really follow that scene. The latest to surface might perhaps be someone like Michael Jackson or George Michael. Or maybe El Perro Del Mar”
Throughout our conversation, Jóhannsson comes off as a soft-spoken and thoughtful type, one who wishes to be taken seriously, but actually warrants the notion, unlike many of his peers. When asked if he enjoys hip-hop, he ponders the question for quite a while before answering that he mostly parted ways with the style in 1990, when he lost most of his interest in the genre: “The first batch of Public Enemy records seemed holy to me, their music managed to stretch into a wide array of style, electro, concrete music, punk, but I kind of stopped following it all after that. There have of course been certain artists within hip-hop that have moved me since, but I suppose most of it remains underground and I haven’t really had the time to properly acquaint myself with it.”
A Movement in the Air
Popular on-line music database allmusic.com listsJóhannsson in the Electronica category. It might befit him, as most of his work is done through a computer. However, although his music contains some elements of what Americans refer to as Electronica (and Icelanders refer to as “electronic music”), it is at times far removed from some of the canons of that style. Egged on by a reporter, he ponders what making electronic music entails.
“You might say that everyone is an electronic musician these days, even the little kid with an acoustic guitar who records all his strumming on a laptop. Everybody’s using the same instruments, except for maybe a few retroheads like Devendra Banhart, who’s an analogue freak that records everything on tape. I feel that the “electronic musician” tag really relates to anyone recording music today, and that the term itself is both outdated and degenerate. Not a definition at all, rather a superficial label. When you’re working on a computer, as most people do these days, then it all winds up in the same digital form and it’s only for academics to argue what the source of the sound was, if it found form as a movement in the air or as a movement in the oscillator of some synth.”
So you’re not an “analogue freak”, you don’t think it matters if music is recorded in analogue or digital form, something many of your colleagues feel strongly about?
“I don’t think it matters at all. For me, it’s the end result. I really use a lot of analogue instruments and all sorts of old relics, I get the sound I am looking for through those units but it’s not a religion. First and foremost, the tools are a means to a specific end, and I mainly use computers because… well, they’re here. Of course they give tremendous opportunities for manipulation. But in any case, I view them just the same as I view instruments, whether its an orchestra, an electric guitar or a Hammond organ. They’re all just colours in a palette, tools to build with.”
As well as building a successful solo career, Jóhannsson is also a constant collaborator to artists in other fields. As mentioned above, his solo début was in fact a score for the play Englabörn, although not his first; he has made various forays into writing music for the theatre and film since the mid-nineties. He has also lent his talent to other art forms, in fact the aforementioned IBM 1401 was originally written as an accompaniment to a dance piece by renowned choreographer Erna Ómarsdóttir, who cooperated with him on forming the conceptual basis behind the piece (for more info and behind the scenes, visit: www.ausersmanual.com).
According to Jóhannsson, a conceptual backbone of sorts is important to his works. It provides structure and an underlying idea that connects the dots and provides a wholeness. “I have problems sitting down and just creating an “absolute” or “pure” music, the kind that isn’t connected to anything but itself. That’s one of the things I find difficult, and that’s probably why I’ve been attracted to creating music for films and theatre. As soon as the music echoes to some ideological structure or thought pattern a certain context is created and things flow better, more smoothly. It happened with Virðulegu Forsetar, and also IBM.
The concept evolved along with the music, and time. It’s music I’ve been working on since 2001 and collaborating on with Erna.
In many ways I think I work more like a visual artist than a composer; I am not educated in the craft and I think that makes me approach things in a more abstract, ideological way than I perhaps I should. I think I work more from the standpoint of ideological connections and visual wholes than any musicological ideas or things generally attributed to composition. Writing the music isn’t an intellectual process for me, however, it’s instinctual and unconscious in ways, it happens on a lower plane of consciousness, so to speak.”
Was there a specific category of listener he had in mind while making IBM 1401?
“It is made purely for myself. I wrote it for myself and it’s just really… the kind of music I want to hear. Even though it’s a cliché to say that you have to be true to yourself, I think it rings true. That’s the standard I’ve always gone by, if I like something, if something touches me, then there’s a chance it might also touch someone else. That’s basically how I determine if something works: does it move me? Is this something I would like to hear, that I would play in my living room? It’s that simple. When I wanted to hear albums by an organ quartet, I called up three organ players and asked them to make music with me. It isn’t really complicated.”
Jóhannsson’s musical roots seem decidedly “rock”, serving as guitarist/organ player for local metal legends HAM following the demise of the aforementioned Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. We speak of his progression from a teenager in a rock band towards the man who’s Virðulegu Forsetar was described by Stylus Magazine as “an album that seemed to epitomise the uptick in interest that contemporary classical music was enjoying at the time.”
He tells me he took a long time discovering what he really wanted to create, that his solo albums are the most personal things he’s crafted since Daisy Hill, where he at 18 years old, wrote music for the three piece to play and record, resulting in a record he refers to with the word “juvenilia”. He says he has problems connecting with the works of his first musical outlet, before refraining as he remembers that band’s later output. “We actually recorded an entire album that was never released, very drone-y, heavy stuff. The music got simpler and simpler, in the end it was ultra basic and minimalistic, really not that far removed from some of the ideas of Virðulegu Forsetar and IBM. We took inspiration from bands such as Suicide, The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Stooges, as well as a bunch of electronic music and Philip Glass. Really, when I think about it I am really working with the same elements in a bigger context. There is more, of course, and most people who’d play the albums back to back would be hard pressed to find a connection, but for me it’s there.
I really think it took a long time for me to find a voice for myself; that probably didn’t happen until we founded Kitchen Motors. A lot of things start happening around that time, that’s when the organ quartet is formed and that’s when I started to focus on a lot of things that perhaps blossomed in a certain way with Englabörn, my first solo album.”
A lot of the early influences he mentions for Daisy Hill Puppy Farm emphasise textures and ambience over melodies, something he seem to stick to even today. Perhaps the connection isn’t far fetched.
“That was what we were trying, we weren’t particularly punk at all. I think of Daisy Hill more as a psychedelic band than a punk one, but of course there was that primal punk drive behind what we did. The Ramones were a huge influence as well.
If you delve into Virðulegu Forsetar, for instance, you’ll see that it’s a very simple piece at its core, none more complicated than a Daisy Hill song, or a Ramones one. It’s just stretched out and expanded, blown up to… gigantic proportions, and made to be more monumental. That specific piece is all about expanding on some very simple elements, its structure was written in about five minutes although I took a long time to expand and explore on the idea – where that little piece of fabric is viewed in every possible lights, through a number of media such as a brass band, two church organs, Matthías Hemstock drumming and Skúli Sverrisson on bass. They all enable me to examine all the different possibilities that lie within it.”
He claims it was written in five minutes, which might come as a surprise to any of the enthusiastic listeners that have embraced Virðulegu Forsetar since it’s initial release. He speaks more of the possible connections between his young, rockin’ self and the person he is today, the one who accompanied his latest release with a four page manifesto detailing the ideological structure and philosophical quest behind it.
“I think I’m always kind of aiming for the same objective, I’m really just trying to reach a direct connection with people’s emotions. I want to write music that touches people in a very direct way, and then simplify it down to a specific core. A pure essence.”