The Foreigner’s Prerogative - The Reykjavik Grapevine

The Foreigner’s Prerogative

The Foreigner’s Prerogative

Published June 10, 2011

So who the frak is Jóhann Jóhannsson? He’s an accomplished Icelandic musician, a self-taught composer with seven solo albums and seven movie soundtracks under his belt, as well as having been a member of several successful Icelandic bands, including HAM, Lhooq, Unun, Evil Madness and Apparat Organ Quartet. He has most recently completed his eighth full-length solo album, the audio half of a collaborative work with acclaimed American indie filmmaker Bill Morrison. We spoke to him about the film and found him to be a calm, erudite and soft-spoken man in his early forties. Read on for speculations and comments on cathedrals, being foreign and Margaret Thatcher.

You don’t live in Iceland anymore, right?
That’s right. I live in Copenhagen.

For a while, I take it?
I’ve been there… five years now.

Working in music?
Yes, uh…

In what capacity?
I make my own solo albums, film and theatre soundtracks and all kinds of side projects. Bands, Apparat and others, but the focus has definitely been on my own solo stuff. A lot of my time has gone into movie soundtracks lately.

Anything you’re particularly proud of?
I’ve got ‘Miners’ Hymns’ coming out at the end of May. It’s an entirely musical film, that is to say there’s no dialogue, just music. The music was written before the film, and footage edited to be in time with the score. It was a far more collaborative effort than most film soundtracks, where the music is written afterwards to compliment the film. It’s great to be involved from the very beginning like that; it’s very rare for that to happen.

Yeah, I was going to ask you about that Bill Morrison project, how it started. So it started with your music?
We were asked to collaborate by Durham International Festival, the British Film Institute and (multi-format production agency) Forma. They called us and asked if we wanted to do something together, something concerned with archival footage from coal mines, and anything related with the Northern English coal industry and the culture surrounding it. I was most excited about getting involved with the brass. There’s a rich brass culture in the English industrial North; every town has its own brass band manned by local coal miners. It’s a tradition that dates back two-hundred-plus years. The mines were, of course, closed in the 1980s after the General Strikes; Thatcher closed them all…

…the whole ‘union-buster’ thing…
…right. This was very traumatising for the entire region, causing deep rifts in the society due to unemployment, but the brass bands are still there. The piece, ‘Miners’ Hymns’, is a sort of requiem for that entire culture. Well, of course, the people are still alive…

…it’s a requiem for a civilization.
Yes. It’s a requiem for an industry, for an entire way of life. It’s also an homage, a celebration.

There was never a question of utilising anything other than brass, then?
Yes… but the cathedral also has a huge organ that I was very excited to use, and I mixed it with a whole lot of electronics, synths and guitars and such. I loved the idea of filling this ancient gothic cathedral with massive guitars. I actually made use of some of the archival reels Bill [Morrison] used for the film, all those documentaries and newsreels he found in the British Film Institute and local archives. They’re mostly atmospheric sounds from the mines that I spliced into the electronic sounds.

How did the premiere go? What did the locals think?
There were two shows. The church was packed for both of them, largely with people who are deeply connected to the material.It was very… emotional. People liked it. There were a great many senior citizens there, people who would probably never go to a Jóhann Jóhannsson concert. It pleased me greatly to receive praise from these people. It was very moving, especially in light of the responsibility [Bill Morrison and I] were shouldering. We’re foreigners, both of us…

…yes, I was just going to ask you, because you’re Icelandic and he’s American…
…exactly. It was something we talked about a lot, coming from abroad to cover a very sensitive subject. The closing of the mines, and all that. Thatcher is, of course, much despised in the region, still…

…uh…
…heh. Right. As she is in other places… but it’s a very emotional, very sore subject there. In fact, any time you address a topic integral to a society not your own, something you’re not personally familiar, it is important to approach it with respect, modesty, a certain amount of humility. I was very conscious of that, but the logic behind [Forma & BFI’s] decision when they asked us to do this is perfectly sound: that any British artist would be too close to the issue to address with any modicum of detachment; he would too quickly become entrenched in his opinion. Maybe it’s something only a foreigner can address.


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