“I don’t really do photo shoots. I let Jón Gnarr do them all,” jokes Einar Örn Benediktsson, Icelandic music legend, councilman and one half of mentalist electronic duo Ghostigital, as the photographer takes a few test shots. We’re at a downtown coffee house to discuss all things Ghostigital. The band has just released their third studio album, ‘Division Of Culture And Tourism,’ which features a slew of high-profile collaborators and is already receiving rave reviews.
Ghostigital’s other half, Curver Thoroddsen, arrives several minutes later and together they both start laughing and joking like a pair of excitable schoolboys as the photographer continues clicking away. Once the shoot is done, we sit down to talk business…
THE MEAT GRINDER PROCESS
It’s been a while since your last LP, and some songs off the new one have been around for a while. Can you tell me how and when the idea for ‘Division…’ began to take shape?
Curver: This is indeed our third studio album but in the meantime we released other music. There was ‘Aero’ with Finnbogi Pétursson and Skúli Sverrisson. We also released four hours of music with Erró, and then there was ‘Sirkús Requiem,’ again with Finnbogi. And there was a 48 channel sound sculpture for an art piece called ‘The Morning Line’ by Matthew Ritchie.
Einar: That was called ‘Cannibals In Tuxedos.’
C: So in the meantime, we’ve been nibbling at the album while doing these more arty pieces. The studio albums tend to take longer, because there are more nuances.
Describe your creative process…
C: The basic patterns actually come from Einar.
E: What happens is that I sit down in front of a computer and I create a beat pattern, which is sometimes four to eight beats long. I send it to Curver and he starts chopping it up and twisting it. We then throw this idea between us, we do vocals on it, and that determines what kind of shape the story will take.
C: I have a little bit of trouble starting a new idea; I find it easier to manipulate an idea that comes from someone else. So this works perfectly for us. Einar sends an idea, I chop it up, we bounce it back and forth, and then we go into the studio. It all goes though a meat grinder.
THE WORLD IS OUR OYSTER
One of the things that sets Ghostigital apart from other bands is the way you work with collaborators. How important is the element of collaboration to the band, and what do your collaborators bring to the table?
E: They’re important in the sense that we’re not in an isolated environment. When we send stuff between the two of us, we’re in a bit of isolation. But then again the world is our oyster and so it’s just important to expand on that. If people think we’re dissonant, the fact that we can actually ask other people to comment on our music with their input is confirmation of the opposite.
C: We don’t sit down and go: “do something,” and then you play. For example, Nick Zinner saw Einar perform in Ethiopia and said, “Wow I want to do something with you!” so we sent him a track and two days later he sent us some guitar parts.
David Byrne sings on the track “Dreamland,” and his contribution is different in that instead of laying down an individual component or track, he drives the song’s narrative from the start. How did you guys start working together?
C: We actually asked him if he wanted to do something with us. There was no track at the time, but he said all right…
E: We went back and found a track we liked and said: “here you go.” We didn’t define for him what he could do; we simply said: “you can take it from here.” And that is what he did.
The title of your new album is ‘Division Of Culture & Tourism,’ which seems rather pertinent considering the current debate about how tourism and culture in Iceland are affecting one another. Did you have this in mind when coming up with the title?
E: We’ve been discussing with you the idea of collaborations between us here in Iceland and with people abroad, and we are a division, like you’d describe a league or group. And in one way our songs aren’t about love or other things like that. The songs are, in most cases, about travelling or moving somewhere. For example, walking into a room where everything is shut off, such as with “Dark In Here.” So it entails a story of travelling and we call it tourism. Tourism should be about exploring, and in a way we’re also exploring cultures.
You’ve been busy with performing in different forms, for example playing a John Cage piece at the Tectonics festival.
C: The piece itself, which consists of two people in different locations not hearing what the other person is doing, is really interesting…
E: The main idea behind it is that Cage is reading a story and his friend was in another room and he could not hear what he was doing. So there is supposed to be no interactivity between us. Siggi Baldursson was behind a door and I tried wearing headphones while Curver was in the kitchen in New York doing things. But the mistake I did was not to have an engineer on Curver’s end of the web cam, because it crashed during the performance.
That wasn’t planned at all?
C: No. It was kind of perfect timing though!
E: I think that it was definitely in the spirit of John Cage.
So what else is planned for Ghostigital in 2012? Will there be any promotion of the album?
E: No, we’re just pretty happy go lucky with what we’re doing. What we have been doing instead is working on collaboration tracks. We worked on a track with Sóley for the TV programme ‘Hljómskálinn,’ and we did one track for NPR radio in New York.
C: With that one, they were getting a lot of bands to do covers of songs with a colour in the title. So of course we did “Green Eggs And Ham.”
E: But with next year, I think that we should take whatever ideas or frames we have and try to work with them quicker.
C: We always end up doing these kinds of things. Like we ended up doing a track with the musician Bob Log III with lyrics by Dieter Roth, as well as some remixes. We’re constantly trying out ideas, such as on the “Green Eggs And Ham” track. We’re trying out beats that were similar to juke music.
E: We might be doing some more festivals next year, such as Primavera, but that’s about it.
Anarchist Bus Chairman Extraordinaire
While Curver was in New York, you helped to set up the Best Party and campaigned in the Reykjavik city elections. How and why did you get involved with it?
I got involved with the Best Party because no one else was going to do it. If I didn’t go along, then nobody was going to. There’s a famous quote accredited to me from the film ‘Rokk í Reykjavik’: “Málið er ekki hvað þú getur, heldur hvað þú gerir.” It means: “the question isn’t what you are able to do, but what you actually do.”
After the election, you became a city councillor and are on the chair of Strætó, the company that runs the city’s buses. How much of an upheaval has this been for you?
It has been a total upheaval for everybody involved: How do you deal with going from being a shit stirrer to becoming a problem solver.
Even though you were running on an anti-politics platform, people still have expectations and there are competitive pressures involved. What has been the toughest aspect of it all?
Everything is tough about it. You mentioned situationism just then. I think a lot of Ghostigital concerts are a situation, or when we work with Finnbogi we’re creating a situation. And when you have a situation, you don’t try to control it as such, but work with it. And that is about co-operation, about helping out. Because remember, we’re coming out of a VERY serious situation, which I feel we won’t see the end of for a least another four, five years.
A Man And His Pizza
Curver, you moved to New York in 2009 to pursue an MFA degree. Why did you decide to go back to school?
I’ve always studied art. I finished my BA degree in Iceland in 2000. After that I wanted to work a bit in the field of music production. Yet I always wanted to go and do my Master’s degree, and I wanted to go and live in New York. So in 2007, I went out to do a two-year course, while my girlfriend was studying out there as well. And then I had a baby boy in New York.
Some of the art you’ve produced is rather interesting, from shaving your beard, to going on a diet, to selling puffin pizza in the Westfjords. Especially the last one. What was the concept behind that?
It was in a way going back to the tourism and about the rise of fast food in Iceland. When I finished my Master’s, I was asked to produce a piece on the westernmost point in Iceland, and in Europe. It takes seven or eight hours to drive there and the road never seems to end, but at the end of it, you have this beautiful lighthouse. And I thought, “Wow, it’d be amazing to go and open a pizza place there!”
How did the clientele feel about eating pizza that had puffin meat on it?
I was actually surprised that most of the tourists, who were going there to see the birds, were also interested in finding out how they tasted. It’s like the whales, you go and see the whales, and then you go and taste them afterwards.