Grísalappalísa on the new record, performing live and shouting at the sea
I finally caught indie supergroup Grísalappalísa live a few weeks ago and it’s safe to say I was enthralled. The post-punk grooves are tight like a rope and the commanding stage presence of frontman duo Gunnar Ragnarsson and Baldur Baldursson is unparalleled on the current Reykjavík scene. Gunnar’s stage persona is equal parts glam-era Bowie and Mark E. Smith while Baldur evokes Sjón circa The Sugarcubes’ classic B-Side ‘Lúftgítar’ (“Air Guitar”).
I met the two of them in the latter’s smoke-filled basement apartment on Nýlendugata, stacked full to the ceiling with books and obscure DVDs. We sipped beers, listened to cult icon Warren Zevon (whose name Baldur has tattooed on his arm) and talked about productivity, desperation and love letters among other things.
How did you guys come together?
Gunnar: We had often made plans when we were drunk to form a rock band with very particular lyrics. Finally we decided on a time and a place for the first rehearsal. At that point Baldur was only meant to write the words, and the idea was that I would perform them.
Baldur: I’d never considered being on stage in front of a room full of people and… just never—it was unimaginable.
Gunnar: We showed up with fifteen pages of lyrics and didn’t really know what to do. It was sort of awkward, actually. Then Sigurður, our drummer, said he’d been listening to a lot of krautrock [a sub-genre of rock associated with the German experimental scene of the early seventies, characterised by an insistent, propulsive groove, the use of synthesizers, and minimal or no chord changes] so the guys started ‘krauting out.’ There were two microphones in the room and I stepped up to one of them. But nothing happened. It was like I had developed sudden stage fright. Everything sounded so different from the pop I was used to play with my former band, Jakobínarína. But before I knew it Baldur had seized the other mic and was performing slam poetry to the groove.
What are the lyrics all about?
Gunnar: In part we’re mythologizing our own lives. The lyrics are very personal. There is a level of sincerity to creating rock’n’roll images out of the everyday world. But you try to deal with something larger like society or a certain sense of romance.
Baldur: For example, “Sambýlis-mannablús” [Roommate Blues] is a song to my roommate Ívar, the guy who lives in the dirtier room. And there is another song on the new record simply about walking towards Grótta. I’ve always thought about thinking for thought’s sake. Like a philosopher with way too many questions and way too many answers. We’re not answering any questions, we just mix it all up in this sort of cocktail. I don’t care what it means or what it’s for. I’m just a selfish artist. I just take a walk because I’m feeling romantic. I’m only looking for inspiration.
Do you write poetry too?
Baldur: No. I won’t publish a book or anything. All of this just started when I was working at this pizza place and listening to a bunch of blues. So I started writing some of my own blues lyrics. I didn’t really listen to music until I was like twenty years old. And I didn’t really even listen to the music but only what the singers were saying and if they’d sing it in an interesting or odd manner. So the melody was always overshadowed by the lyrics. We’re talking Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon…
Gunnar: I’d say Bob Dylan formed the connection between the two of us. And Megas of course [Icelandic rock and folk singer, often called “the Icelandic Bob Dylan”].
Baldur: Megas is the king. The blues, the rock’n’roll. When I started listening to Megas I thought it would be great to write cool lyrics in Icelandic. I didn’t feel like there was anything like that going on. But I didn’t really know either way and wasn’t paying any attention to Icelandic music at the time.
It seems like there is quite a lot of stuff coming out these days with ambitious Icelandic lyrics. Ojba Rasta and Samaris spring to mind. What do you guys look for in good lyrics?
Baldur: It’s always nice to have a little rhyming scheme. Or not. Oh, you mean content? Despair. Emotion. It’s good to be assured that whatever I write, Gunnar will perform it with gusto.
Gunnar: We like to cover serious topics but still have a punchline. I was mopping the floors at the hotel where I work while listening to a late Leonard Cohen album and I just love these funny and weird bad-ass lines that crop up every now and again. They ease your hangover and I love it.
Baldur: Those hangover lines. Straight out of ‘Running on Empty’ by Jackson Browne. That’s my favourite record. Could you please include that in the interview? It’s the best album of all time.
Compared to your previous record, there doesn’t seem to be as much of an overarching narrative or concept on the new album.
Gunnar: The recurrence of ‘Lísa’ on the first record started out as a joke. We thought it was pretty funny so we added her here and there and then sold the record as a concept piece. But there is definitely a loose narrative to it. The lyrics on this record are basically leftovers from the last one that we didn’t manage to write songs to.
Baldur: That’s what the album title refers to: Rökrétt framhald [Logical progression]. The next step. See, we’ve run out of ideas. It was funny, on the last day of recording we had recorded eight songs but had some leftover lyrics so we wrote three more songs on that day and totally dried ourselves out. That was a nice feeling. Now we just have to keep writing songs and see what happens. I fucking love it. It’s so much fun and seems to happen quite naturally.
So the title is not a reference to the critics’ cliché of a sophomore album being a ‘logical progression’ from the debut?
Gunnar: We’re quoting Megas. I don’t know, maybe he was making fun of the critics. He described ‘Millilending’ [his second record] as a logical progression from his self-titled album, which is hilarious, because I’d imagine it definitely didn’t sound like that to most listeners.
Over the last twelve months it seems like you guys have really prioritised the performative aspect of the group. Your live shows have become very energetic and quite theatrical.
Baldur: During our first shows we didn’t even know the songs. Now we know them inside out and can just keep adding to the performance. Maybe a synchronised dance or something. Work harder to keep us on our toes.
Gunnar: We’re all artists so it’s nice to pay attention to all of the different facets of what a rock group is. Like, I really dig Tom Waits—I think a concert should be an immersive experience. And Michael Jackson, I love that sort of spectacle. And I think as we’ve grown we’ve become more confident and conscious of that aspect. We want to keep developing this, build a catalogue and introduce cover songs that we relate to.
Baldur: The other guys—the band—are so tight. They’re great musicians so we can just rock out and interact with the crowd. Let loose. Have fun. If we’re having fun, things are going well. We have the lyrics, our songs, our videos: we’re trying to create a certain universe. And it’s nice to involve your friends. We’re lucky to have very talented and creative friends and band members. That way it’s more about cultivating a particular vibe. We’re not only a band.
Gunnar: We’re a gang. But it’s not a closed society. Everyone’s invited to join us.
I heard you played some killer shows in Denmark. Are you planning world domination?
Gunnar: Grísalappalísa is only planning to make music. To be a disciplined band: productive and awesome. It’s dumb to approach international success as a goal. You just have to make good music and then maybe something will happen. Working hard is what matters the most. I don’t appreciate this culture of releasing an album every five years. Our strategy is to keep ‘em coming and press ourselves hard to produce something.
Baldur: When you have a seven-piece band singing in Icelandic you just know you won’t get paid every month. Making money was never the idea.
Finally, are there any rock’n’roll moments you’d like to share with the Grapevine?
Baldur: Should we tell him the main story?
Gunnar: Sure. During Aldrei fór ég suður [annual music festival held during Easter in Ísafjörður in the West Fjords] we were rocking out pretty hard. Baldur was having a rough time in his relationship and got very drunk on the Saturday night. He was trash talking everyone, showing off, insulting Högni [from GusGus and Hjaltalín] and [legendary rock singer] Helgi Björns. Then he just rushes off and we don’t see him till later that night when he barges into the dorm and crashes on the couch. When we try to move him he wakes up and realises he’s lost his glasses. So on Sunday night, during the main party, he was practically blind.
Baldur: I can’t really see anything without my glasses.
Gunnar: And he had blacked out, he had no idea where his glasses were. Maybe he had thrown them into the ocean in his desperate, drunk and love-sick mood.
Baldur: I had been shouting at the sea.
Gunnar: So, on Monday morning I’m up before everyone else, walking around the dorm when I see two police officers come up the stairs. They’re looking for someone and show me this photograph of Baldur. They tell me that on Saturday evening he had broken into the post office and begun writing a love letter to his girlfriend that he meant to mail.
Baldur: I’d been writing love letters over the last few days but I hadn’t posted them and that night I decided to finish them and send them all off.
Gunnar: They said that then he’d wandered into the house next door and fallen asleep on someone’s couch and forgotten his glasses. So I go and wake him up and say ‘Baldur, the police are here, you broke into the post office, here are your glasses.’
Baldur: The brought me in and gave me coffee and asked me what had happened. I couldn’t remember much but we wrote a testimony together. I was hungover and laughing my ass off. He showed me this video where I’m in the middle of the post office, writing the letter until the alarm goes off and I run away. They didn’t press charges but I’ll have to pay for the door that I kicked in.
Gunnar: But Baldur and his girlfriend are back together now so I guess it was worth it.
Baldur: Yeah. That was fucked.