Published March 1, 2018
Flashing lights. The meditative rhythm of music blaring from stacks of speakers. A sea of people, entranced by the spectacle, swaying to the four by four beat. And up front, the DJ, Bjarki—although “DJ” is a misnomer in this case, as he only plays music that he produced himself. His face is obscured by a cap’s peak, but the concentration he applies to his work is palpable as he takes the audience on an immersive journey through an ever-evolving sea of electronic sound.
Away from the stage, Bjarki Rúnar Sigurðarson is an unassuming figure. We meet at a café in the central Mitte neighbourhood of Berlin. He passionately veers from topic to topic, cracking jokes and tossing out ideas. His personality fits his music—prolific and exploratory.
In 2015, Bjarki’s first single released under his own name became a crossover hit played by DJs in the world’s biggest clubs, launching him as the “next big thing” in international techno. But he refrained from joining the traditional club circuit, choosing instead to release 41 tracks spread over three albums in one year with cryptically titled names and starting his own Iceland-focused label. He’s set to return home to play Sónar Reykjavík later this month. We talked with him about the past, present and future sound of techno and the importance of community in dance music.
Pots and pans revolution
Bjarki’s own journey into music started in his early life. “Music was a place where nobody told me what to do. As a kid, it was more fun than doing my homework,” says Bjarki, whose musical output under the mononym Bjarki has thrust him to the forefront of the international techno scene. “I listen to tracks I made when I was really young, thinking “hang on a minute, this is actually good.” They don’t sound fully up to date, but there’s a lot of truth in them.”
As an eleven-year-old child, Bjarki banged on paint cans in the garage before getting an actual drum kit. After stealing a copy of The Prodigy’s ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ from his school buddy’s older brother, he started making music on his computer for the first time, fiddling with the programmes and taking pleasure in his output. He kept at it for years, slowly honing his craft. While living in Amsterdam from 2009, he completed a B.A. degree in sound engineering and started releasing under the moniker Kid Mistik.
“Selling records didn’t mean anything to me at the time,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any favourite labels which I wanted to reach out to. I just wanted to make music. Some of it was released with labels and people I never even met in real life. When the Soundcloud era started in 2007, I put tracks online almost every day and people would send me messages wanting to release them. Weirdly enough, some of my music was released without my permission. I found it funny for a while, but just the fact I didn’t know the people started to bother me. There was a point I didn’t see any reason to continue releasing. I still made CDs and cassettes for friends, and even started labels a few times, but they didn’t last for long.”
The stars align
Later on, after a move to Copenhagen, Bjarki’s big break presented itself. His friend Exos, the seminal Icelandic techno artist, was approached by Russian DJ Nina Kraviz, seeking music to be released on her new label, трип (“Trip”, in English). Nina—a former dentist—was already one of the most sought-after performers in dance music, playing to huge festival crowds and enjoying mainstream recognition.
Bjarki first met Nina when she was in Copenhagen, and it was there that she discovered his music and fell in love with his sound. “Nina had a clear vision of what she wanted to do with her label,” says Bjarki. “She was really enthusiastic and passionate, which really inspired me. I’ve known Exos since I was fifteen years old, and his knowledge of techno is Yoda with the force. All the people that you’re destined to be with in your life come together, and change your life forever. The stars align.”
Cucumbers on stage
Bjarki has released six records on трип, in addition to appearances on various compilations, becoming one of the techno scene’s hottest properties in the process. Three of those records were full-length albums—entitled ‘Б’, ‘Lefhanded Fuqs’ and ‘Æ’—with tracks handpicked by Kraviz from his extensive backlog of music. The label also features other Icelandic musicians, including Exos, Volruptus and the late Biogen. These releases resulted in a career that takes Bjarki all over the world, playing everywhere from gritty clubs to pop-oriented festivals like Roskilde and Pukkelpop.
The crowds and commotion can be a lot to deal with for a self-professed “very low profile, stay-at-home audiophile”. “To perform at small raves was my favourite thing ever, but nowadays I prefer playing a bit further away from the crowd,” he says. “I don’t want to put on a mask or anything, but it gets uncomfortable when people stare at you like they are watching rhinos mating at the zoo. Or you feel like you are playing for five people because they block everybody behind them.”
“One year ago I started taking my friend on tour,” he continues. “He’d never danced before in his life and had no interest in doing so, which is exactly why I wanted him as my dancer. His first gig with me was at a festival in front of 10,000 people. We put him in a morph suit, with “B” marked on his face. He’s 220 cm tall and walked around the stage giving people cucumbers while I was performing. It’s quite entertaining and takes the focus away from me for a while. He’s now called the ‘B man.’”
Kid in the corner
Bjarki is famous for his prolificacy. He composes hundreds of tracks each year, the vast majority of which will never be released. He likes to finish each piece quickly, to stave off boredom, and to move on quickly. “I don’t feel you always have to release everything you create,” he says. “I like keeping my music for myself before even thinking about a release. To me, it’s like a music life diary. People will forget what you created, but some will never forget how you made them feel. At the moment, I’m motivated by those who support me, and that’s really what’s driving me to release more music.”
His process, as he describes it, involves long periods of playing around in his Berlin studio, which often doesn’t result in anything. “I like to vacuum first and then start recording,” he says. “A lot of the time I’ll figure something out while vacuuming. It’s also good to just stare into the air. I once stared at a wall for six hours. When I was a kid, I’d be put in a time-out, sitting in the corner to stare at the wall and rethink if I misbehaved. Today it’s a part of my routine, I put myself in a time-out.”
The techno tree
So what happens to all this music piling up on his hard drives? “I’d like to bury the hard drives somewhere,” he says, seemingly joking at first. “I’m for real going to do that. I found a spot in Iceland where I’m gonna bury, like, 60 hard drives. I’ve lost so much music over the years, extra security is needed. Maybe in some years, a huge techno tree will grow there, and that will be the new thing.”
Bjarki is set for a rare collaborative session in March, having booked some studio time in Reykjavík. “I generally don’t like doing the same thing twice, but I’m gonna take tracks I’ve already written and redo all the sound design with musicians playing actual instruments,” he says. “It’s almost like proving to my mom and dad that I’m a real musician. What I do is still ‘computer music’ to a lot of people, like playing a video game. Mom is still asking what I wanna be when I grow up.”
In colloquial language, the word techno has been used to describe a wide range of musical styles, from European pop hits to repetitive phone ringtones. But the term relates to a certain style of electronic music originated in Detroit and expanded upon all over the world. What fits into the category is a matter of some debate.
“Juan Atkins used to say that techno was the sound of the future,” Bjarki says, paraphrasing the legendary Detroit techno originator. “It doesn’t always feel that way. It feels so rigid now that if you paint outside the lines, people think it’s not techno. It should be able to be so much more. I’ve been averse to calling myself a techno musician because I don’t like rules when it comes to music.”
When his first single ‘I Wanna Go Bang’ became a massive summer hit in 2015, due to its crossover appeal, catchy hook and rigid techno beat, Bjarki had the chance to follow it up with more of the same. Instead, he went in the opposite direction, churning out avant-garde breakbeat and jungle influenced tracks alongside emotional rave anthems. “I don’t regret it, even though a lot of people criticized me for it,” he says. “When it first came out it sounded fresh, but it wouldn’t be fresh anymore if I only released more of the same. Now I have fans that appreciate my weirder musical side and my techno.”
The track titles don’t make his music any more accessible, ranging from Icelandic phrases “Fimm Atta Atta Fimm Fimm Tveir Tveir” (“5885522”, in English) and “Galopinn Muninn” (“Wide Open Mouth” misspell, in English) to gibberish like “Cyxlobblobs5” and “Sdfghiu0yöt0r597dc.” “It’s techno, it shouldn’t have a name in my opinion,” he says. “You have a song with lyrics going “I love you” and it’s called something like “I Love You, Rosie.” I name after whatever it is I’m doing or thinking at the time.”
For Bjarki, music is now his career. But perhaps more importantly, it’s still a central component of his identity. “I sometimes get paranoid that one day I won’t be able to make music anymore,” he says. “So I want to make as much as possible while I can. I have a friend who’s been teaching music to a small group of people with disabilities. Those who were disabled from the neck down had to have something taped to their forehead so they can press the keys. It blew my mind. I’ve done quite a lot of research and tried some of the technology that’s out there—like using brainwaves or eye control—but all of it is still in prototype mode, and pretty unstable. It got me thinking; since music is so important to me, why shouldn’t it be accessible to everyone else who wants to express themselves with music? The technology and the hardware exist, but tools for people who cannot use their arms and fingers are missing.”
Trip to the moon
For three years running, Bjarki, Nina and their трип label-mates have hosted a full day summertime “Trip” party in Iceland. The location and line-up are never revealed beforehand, but the events, to date, have been held in remote caves and fields, and featured international DJs such as Blawan and K-Hand, mixed with local acts.
“I love bringing people together—even if I can be a bit anti-social myself,” says Bjarki. “When it’s about music, and I host the party, I want everybody to feel happy. I’m the type who walks around and asks everyone if they’re having fun. It’s like that with the трип parties—sometimes I’m just picking up the trash, making sure things run smoothly. We like to keep the ticket price to a minimum and preferably give away food—to do this for the people who support us. I’m a big believer in community, and you need to set an example.”
House with a cave
Bjarki will return to Iceland in March to play at Sónar Reykjavík in Harpa on the 17th of March, closing the Silfurberg stage after UK electronica pioneers Underworld. “Hellcat are now doing all the visuals for my show, and there will be something happening on the stage, I believe,” he says cryptically. “I’d like to show other sides of me musically, and I feel Sónar is the type of festival for that. But that could all change if Underworld ends their set with their famous ‘Born Slippy’ track, then I’ll have to pick it up from there.”
Among the other Icelandic acts taking the stage are a few who Bjarki has recruited to his own label, the weirdly named ‘bbbbbb’. “The idea was to start a label for Icelandic dance music, he says. “Music doesn’t work unless it’s listened to, and that’s why we need a community. I’d like to help take better care of the scene back home and give as much as I can to people who have good taste in music.”
Bjarki’s ties to his home country remain strong, in terms of both his friends and collaborators, and the land itself. “I have to be home,” he finishes. “I feel the most comfortable in the countryside. I’m looking for a house, preferably with a cave. Caves in Iceland are rare and different from other caves, they’re made from layers of ash called tuff. I think caves are pretty cool.” Despite his international success, for Bjarki, it’s still all about the Icelandic underground.
See Bjarki at Sónar Reykjavík.