Published November 9, 2017
Everyone knows Högni Egilsson. He’s a ubiquitous figure in Icelandic culture. Coming up with indie darlings Hjaltalín, he made himself known to both younger and older generations. Later, with electronic veterans GusGus, Högni endeared himself to the club crowd. As a solo performer and composer for theater, he’s graced TV screens and stages all over the country. He’s a larger-than-life figure in Icelandic society, a gravitational presence wherever he appears, always sporting fashionable clothes, a warm smile and his signature long blonde locks.
But for a while, it all went off the rails. His debut solo album ‘Two Trains’ is now out on the British label Erased Tapes. The effort was six years in the making, in large part due to commitment to other projects and Högni’s struggles with mental illness. Throughout the process, some bits of the music would appear in live performances, reminding us that the project was chugging along.
Högni and I talk via video chat, as he strolls through downtown Reykjavík on a clear and crisp day. We touch on technological echo chambers, the therapeutic effects of 3-pointers, and getting lost on Pleasure Island. With Högni, there’s no small talk—only big ideas.
A wider perspective
Thematically, the album is grounded in the story of the two trains, Minør and Pionér, that transported gravel and rocks during the early 20th century construction of the Reykjavík harbour. The album was originally conceived as a piece for the 2011 Reykjavík Arts Festival, and Högni and his collaborator, lyricist Atli Bollason, sought to symbolize a new era in Iceland, a renaissance, the ushering in of modernity. But the era of locomotives in Iceland ended after the harbour was completed and the two trains now serve as a reminder of grand intentions.
“It was a turbulent time in Europe and Iceland felt like a microcosm for these trends,” Högni says. “And the language of music was dissolving; all the rules and traditions changed. You can sense societal changes in art and culture. I didn’t want to make just a collection of music, but to tell a symbolic story.” The next step was to adapt the piece into his first solo album.
Life, however, had other plans. Högni joined GusGus and started touring extensively. Other projects got in the way for everyone involved. The main complication, however, was Högni’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder in 2012. A manic episode in the summer landed him in a psychiatric hospital and over the following years he had to come to terms with a new priority—staying healthy. The mania and depression became the two trains of thought that Högni would forever struggle to balance. This duality of character is reflected in the album’s cover art, created by longtime friend Sigurður Oddsson from a photograph by Anna Maggý.
When the album was finally completed, it had gone through major changes in terms of subject matter and even included a love song, ‘Moon Pitcher,’ written for Högni’s fiancée, actress Snæfríður Ingvarsdóttir. “When I described the album to the British label, 5 or 6 years later, I wasn’t sure that it was the same concept as we originally thought,” Högni says. “The lyrics had a wider perspective than that. But the two trains remain as a metaphor for change and metamorphosis.”
The album juxtaposes the historical background with modern electronic aesthetics. It features tracks performed entirely by the men’s choir Fóstbræður and others with club-adjacent beats by GusGus founder President Bongo. This mashing up of styles and influences somehow doesn’t feel as jarring as one might expect. “It’s celebrating a new era,” says Högni. “The album has a renaissance quality; it’s baroque and antique in many ways. Musically it harmonizes the past with the progressive, sound design driven, futuristic music of present day.”
The long gestation period brought new context to the themes that originally underpinned the album. Economic, political and technological upheaval in recent years has changed the way we function as a society. This time is reminiscent of other such periods in the past—eras of seismic transformation. “You can feel something big going on,” says Högni. “This technological revolution, turning into collective paranoia. The machines, the gadgets, the connectivity are becoming almost oppressive. We’re on the verge of artificial intelligence automating jobs and humans finding ways to stop the aging process. Creating godlike features, like eternal life. There will be an elite ruling class, living forever, while everyone else gets left behind. What are the symbols of change today? What are the trains?”
It’s an issue Högni is enthusiastic about, which ties into his political views. Being friends with other artists and Reykjavík’s downtown leftist intelligentsia, his social media recently seemed to indicate a big win for the centre-left in last month’s general elections. The result, however, turned out quite different. “Technology is creating echo chambers,” he says. “We’re living in a bubble where we see only people who agree with us, because we’re fed information that supports our worldview. But then reality is completely different.”
Högni had a musical upbringing and started playing the violin at five years old, while his older brother played the cello. His father played jazz piano, but his mother would listen to Bach on the stereo. “They later divorced and, who knows, maybe it was because they couldn’t reconcile jazz or classical,” he jokes. When he gave up the violin at age fifteen, he went into withdrawals from music, bought a guitar and started composing.
Nu-metal and hip hop were among his first influences, but after returning from living in Belgium for three years, Högni found inspiration from his future bandmates. “I’d just started school and really didn’t have any friends,” he says. “I joined the choir and got to know kids and formed bands. I befriended the Hjaltalín guys and we got really close. They were much better musicians than me—they could play anything. I could write songs and I worked on getting better on the piano and guitar, but I really admired their musicality.”
Becoming a professional musician wasn’t something teenaged Högni even considered. He was into visual arts and took some classes, while also being active in sports with his local club, Valur. In choir, he even got made fun of a little for his voice, his now-trademark falsetto. “My voice was never considered great, but at least it was clean,” he says with a smile.
The wild east
After the release of Hjaltalín’s second album, the Broadway-esque ‘Terminal,’ Högni started performing with GusGus, eventually becoming a full member. When asked about his time with them, he launches into a Pinocchio simile. This is vintage Högni. He segues into something seemingly unrelated, which only starts to make sense when you’ve followed his entire thought process, as he works it out. By the end, his point is more than insightful enough to warrant the trek.
“GusGus swallowed me whole,” he explains. “The lifestyle, the touring, the parties. It was like being on Pleasure Island. Pinocchio is a great story. He’s supposed to be a good boy and go to school. But then he gets lured into joining the circus. They tell him ‘you’re so great, you can dance, come join the party.’ It’s fun and games the whole time. He chases the temptations, despite the protests of his conscience, and joins the entertainment business. But he keeps being tempted again and goes to Pleasure Island where he’s turned into a donkey. He ends up as a real boy. I was in this world of luxury for a while. I may have turned into a donkey.”
Last year, he left the group. As a member, he’d achieved increasing recognition outside of Iceland, especially in Eastern Europe, touring countries such as Poland, Ukraine and Russia, where he was treated as royalty. He’s set to return to Poland in December, following up his new album with a few European dates. “It was wild, the Wild East,” he says, laughing. “Touring with GusGus took a lot of energy from my album and my life. It didn’t affect me well personally and health-wise.”
Fighting the ego
“I’m bipolar,” Högni says. “I got very sick and it has affected my life drastically. This album bears witness to it.” The disorder is characterized by periods of depression and periods of elevated mood, known as manic episodes. Högni has described these stretches of ecstasy and energy, which at times played out in public, followed by sadness and shame. “I was pretty bad this summer,” he says. “Flew a little too high in the spring. The last few years, the swings have decreased in size. When I was the most ill a few years ago, I felt terrible, even if you couldn’t see it. There was just so much going on, lots of fun, and even excitement about going to the psych ward for the first time. Like I was going down a new path for myself. But I haven’t seen it as exciting since then.”
Högni’s illness coincided with his rise to stardom in Icelandic music. He had collaborated with GusGus as a guest on their 2011 album ‘Arabian Horse’ before joining full time. Hjaltalín’s most critically acclaimed album, ‘Enter 4,’ was about to be released. He was becoming highly sought after for collaborations and public appearances. But at the same time, he had problems being around people and didn’t know how to behave in public.
“I felt anxious and I began to isolate myself, being eccentric and closing off from my people,” he says. “I’ve had to really make the effort to retain the connection to my family, friends and environment. Long-term, I’ve had to apply myself to being a good person. I’ve fought my ego in the past, tried to contain my pride. I think everyone has faced something like this, but being on stage all the time will exaggerate it. You can become guarded about what to do, how to be. As I grow older, I’m calmer about this and lean more towards nurturing my relationship with creativity.”
This internal pressure, which could be interpreted as the universal human feeling of anxiety, is exacerbated by Högni’s notoriety. “I know I sound like a teenager, but what do people think of me?” he wonders. “I may feel like I’m not doing anything new and everybody’s laughing at me. What if I’m not cool anymore? What does this certain group of people think of me? I do feel confident in being myself, being different and saying unusual things. I’ve been controversial and I’ve accepted being eccentric.”
He recalls how he went on a stream of consciousness “rant” onstage at the Icelandic Music Awards this past spring, at a time when his mood was elevated. The big stage heightens every vulnerable moment. “In Iceland, everybody has eyes on them,” he says. “But people are different and we should let some things slide. If we lived in a big city and some guy’s ranting, people would go ‘he’s a bit crazy, this guy. He must be having some good time or something,’ and move on. In Iceland, it gets blown up. We keep thinking, ‘did I do something wrong, did I look bad, am I comparing myself to someone from high school who is now doing something with their life?’ We shouldn’t fear all the eyes.”
While it may seem silly to talk about celebrity in a country of 330,000 people, there’s no denying Högni’s status. He doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, but fancies himself a living example of how fame and success don’t automatically deliver happiness. “It’s the biggest cliché and everybody kind of knows it,” he says. “I’m proud of the music I’ve created, but there’s no destination called success. I say goodbye to the album and I go on. If I don’t keep creating, I feel bad.”
A bit of anchoring
After the release of ‘Two Trains’ and subsequent touring, Högni is excited to compose a still-secret film score, and work to expand his range further from composition and arrangement into the production side. Additionally, he’s already looking forward to a new solo album in the near future—hopefully not another six years away.
His main focus, though, is taking better care of himself. To that end, he’s rekindled an old passion of his: basketball. He plays as a guard for Valur, his childhood club, which just started its season after being promoted to the premier division of Icelandic basketball. For Högni, this means going to practice every day and even putting in extra time in order to improve skills necessary for top-flight hoops, such as 3-point shooting and finishing around the basket.
“My life is untethered, in many ways,” Högni says. “I try to focus on making good music and seeking inspiration, chasing experiences, travelling and finding adventures. The routine that comes with being on a basketball team is very helpful. A bit of anchoring. Being a teammate, having this daily commitment, and playing defence even if I don’t feel like it. Basketball is the best psychiatric medication I’ve had, and I’ve tried a few.”
‘Two Trains’ is out now on Erased Tapes.