It’s not often that a music journalist is picked up for a ride to an interview by the band’s mother. But the short story of Rythmatik is already one made up of firsts. Perhaps most significantly, they’re the first band from the Westfjords to win first place in Músiktilraunir, a long-running national battle of the bands contest. Now, this young and obscure local quartet from one of Iceland’s remotest regions is being played on national radio, awarded free studio time and offered a stream of high-profile gigs.
Músiktilraunir started way back in 1982, with previous winners including local heroes like Mínus, XXX Rottweiler, Botnleðja and Jakobínarína, and high-flying newbies such as Samaris and Vök and OMAM. The winners often develop into firm Icelandic favourites, so we made the trip through the five-kilometre Vestirfirðir tunnel to Rythmatik’s tiny hometown of Suðureyri, population 312. With second guitarist Eggert Nielsen tied up at an Easter family function, the fort was held by brothers Hrafnkell Hugi and Valgeir Skorri Vernharðsson (guitar/vocals and drums), and Pétur Óli Þorvaldsson (bass).
How has the week since Músiktilraunir been?
Hrafnkell: It’s been crazy! We’ve had no rest.
Pétur: This has been the first time people actually want us to play. Normally it’s just like, “Let’s let them play.” But now they’re calling us up, and we’re saying, “Yes” immediately… then realising we have a lot of gigs in a very short time. So we’ve been running around like crazy.
Valgeir: We played five gigs in three days, and have one more to do. But it’s also the logistics of moving all the stuff around. We have to take our backline with us every time.
P: We also got kicked out of our practice space right before we won. We got that call while we were in Reykjavík for the finals, saying, “You need to go, now!” So we won and then we drove home in horrible weather and started being evicted. We’ve had no rest!
H: It was bad luck! But me and Valgeir’s uncle has fixed us up with a new practice space. So shout-out to him.
I heard you’re the first Westfjords band to win Músiktilraunir?
H: We think so! You know, me and Valgeir’s dad was actually going to compete when he was 15, but his flight was cancelled because of bad weather, so he couldn’t go. He obviously would have won, because, you know, he’s the man! I was listening to a recording of that band, which I’d never heard until recently. My dad’s like a really tasteful guitarist, not doing loads of complex stuff, but just what the song needs. He hadn’t learned that quality yet when he was 15, and so he was just shredding all over the guitar. And I was like, “Is that you? It can’t be!”
V: He’s always giving us guidance about not showing off on your instrument. That’s something I have really picked up from him.
How long has the band been together?
V: Me and Hrafnkell started maybe in 2012. We played as an acoustic duo in the Suðureyri community hall. It was the festival for when the sun first shows its face in spring. We always wanted to do something more, but we had trouble filling in the rest of the band members. We didn’t want to be acoustic, we wanted to play rock ’n’ roll. We went through a few members who were kind of doing us a favour by joining in, but we were after people who were committed and really wanted to be in the band. We kind of dragged Pétur from under a rock! He had dropped out of school and was just playing video games and we said, “No! We need a bassist, you have to go back to school and be a functioning member of society, and play bass for us!”
P: Yes! So, I’m back, haha! Yeah. So they fired the other bassist. He’s a good friend of ours. I would say he’s a much better bassist than me, but he wanted to, you know, slap de bass. Which is maybe not what this kind of music needs.
V: Yeah, it’s not tasteful, you need some reserve on the bass in this kind of music. He didn’t have real passion for this band, I think.
Do you guys have a lot in common, in terms of your taste in music?
V: Not really! Pétur loves Iron Maiden.
P: I only listen to Iron Maiden once a week. So I don’t get bored of them and I can listen to them forever, haha. But these guys showed me Biffy Clyro and Arctic Monkeys, and we all like them. The biggest influence that people have pointed out to us is Big Country. But I’ve also noticed some Smiths-y playing.
H: Basically it’s everything from our dad’s record collection. [band laughs uproariously]
H: I also like Ride, and someone showed me Appleseed Cast recently, which was a bit more experimental. I am glad we don’t shy away from being pop, though. We like listening to pop.
P: When we’re making a song, we never aim to copy anyone—maybe one person has been listening to a certain band, but when we all join in on it, it gets warped into something else. So it’s never a direct copy.
V: Yeah, if people start copying other bands, there’s just no diversity. We’ve been talking about this in relation to the Icelandic scene. We love the Icelandic scene because money and success isn’t the motivation.
H: Yeah. People here are making music because they love it, rather than chasing any style or sound to try and get successful. So there’s this scene of people making music for the love of it.
Yeah, this has come up a lot recently in terms of what makes Icelandic music how it is, this idea that people are less career-focused and therefore more willing to play around and take risks…
V: Exactly. We are making what we like. We have pop songs, we have heavy songs, we have punk songs and, you know, it’s cool if people like it. This music makes us happy. We didn’t set up the band to try and win Músiktilraunir, we just thought it would be fun to compete, and maybe a good opportunity. If you set up to make one particular thing, it doesn’t always deliver a song from the heart, in my mind anyway.
H: Yeah, if you’re dead set on making a German death reggae song…
Wow, I think I’d really like to hear a German death reggae song.
P: Yeah, that sounds amazing!
H: Haha, yeah but then you’re confined to just that path. And if you were working on something and it wasn’t German death reggae enough, you’d have to discard it, and that’s horrible.
V: Yeah, I like diversity. Like in the semi finals, we had to play two songs. We picked this really low-key song, with smooth vocals, and then the second one, we played the heaviest song we’ve got, with the biggest balls. I think we got points for that, even if it sounded kind of muddy.
P: We played something more poppy on the final night, and I heard an interview with one of the judges who said he liked how much we’d improved in the final. So maybe playing that heavy song helped us in an unexpected way!
What did you think of the bands you were competing against?
V: There was a band in the semi-final that had this big dress-up show. Like everyone had their character and costumes and stuff. But maybe that’s not what they were looking for.
H: That’s a good question—how it’s judged. If it’s songwriting, performance, the whole show… we don’t really know.
V: Maybe it’s that they have to see potential in the band, that they can develop into something more.
H: Yeah, maybe that was the thing with the costumes. They would need like explosions to top it—they’re relying in showmanship.
P: When we advanced, I thought, there’s a chance we can win here, that we were in the competition. I always thought we were in with a chance.
V: Haha and this from Pétur, he’s the most humble guy in the world!
Did you know any of the other bands?
H: Yeah. We’re good friends with a band called Vára, who play post-rock. They’re cool but their music really needs space to breathe. It needs a big hall.
V: We played with them at a small bar, Dillon—and you just can’t bottle their sound. They need the ambient sound of a big space. In the right room they are really amazing.
P: There were two punk bands that were really fun to watch. One of them had an accordion, which was great to see in a punk song.
V: And one of them ate three bananas onstage. Because why not.
P: There was this electro thing with a really good singer. She was amazing.
V: She won the best singer. Of course.
H: Haha, these two would have been so fucked up if I had won best singer, they’re always complaining that I’m just yelling some nonsense…
V: He does! At the top of his lungs, everywhere.
P: When we’re driving in the car we’re stuck with him and he’s singing over the radio, sometimes not even the same song…
H: The worst thing that happened regarding this was when my singing tutor told me I could actually sing. I had been yelling for a year in band practices and had no confidence in my voice. My instructor told me that I’m a good singer and my confidence went through the roof. So I’m always trying to show everyone just how good a singer I am.
V: He’s always trying to get the high note in “Take On Me”.
Does he hit it?
V: But he has good pipes.
So what do you think will happen for Rythmatik next?
H: We want to record, and play a lot, to make the most of the opportunity.
P: We’re going to Reykjavík next weekend to have a lot of meetings and find out where we’re gonna go next. We don’t really know!
V: It’s our first ever business trip! I think it’s going to be great. I am in this band with my brother and two of my best friends, and I think that shines through. We’re not just musicians putting a band together, we’re just having fun, playing music, and trying to get the most out of it.