The Cold Front: Kælan Mikla Have Grown Up And Blown Up - The Reykjavik Grapevine

The Cold Front: Kælan Mikla Have Grown Up And Blown Up

The Cold Front: Kælan Mikla Have Grown Up And Blown Up

RX Beckett
Photos by
Hörður Sveinsson

Five years ago, Kælan Mikla were playing twenty minute sets of furious poetry-punk in the attic at Dillon. Five months ago, they were jetting off to London to open for Placebo, at the request of iconic Cure frontman Robert Smith. In the years between, Laufey Soffía (vocals), Margrét Rósa Dóru-Harrýsdóttir (bass) and Sólveig Matthildur Kristjánsdóttir (synthesisers) have genuinely grown up in tandem with their band, evolving from angst-filled teenagers with a need to scream, to ambitious and hard-working musicians. In the last year, they have exploded into the worldwide coldwave and goth music scene, and their dark star is poised to keep burning.

Shaping poetics

Kælan Mikla began around six years ago, when the girls met in high school at Reykjavík’s Menntaskóli við Hamrahlíð college. Sólveig and Margrét had recently become friends, when saw a poster announcing a poetry competition. They decided to combine Sólveig’s poetic prowess with Margrét’s burgeoning bass playing abilities and asked Laufey to join them to enter the contest as a performance piece. “We went to my father’s practice studio and we were just hanging there the whole night trying out different instruments,” says Margrét. “Laufey started like scream-singing. She had never sung before. I had only played bass alone in my bedroom when I was totally emo. Sólveig was a classical flute player and she just started to play the drums. It was just all very random. It was just supposed to be for this one competition. But then we won the competition.”

“Then some other people were interested in hearing more,” Sólveig continues. “They were asking if we were a band, asking if we had more music. And we were like, ‘Sure, let’s just make some more music. Why not? It’s fun.’ So we did.”

The three quickly wrote a handful of songs that they performed at a performance art event called Vinnslan, where they decorated an entire basement with ocean junk they salvaged from the harbour, dressed as creepy mermaids, and sold a dead fish as merch for five hundred kronur. “Some old ladies came in when we were playing and they were like, ‘Ew, what is that? This stinks!’” Margrét says, as the band laughs. “It smelled disgusting.”

Mystical powers

By this point, they were already known as Kælan Mikla, the name they’d chosen to enter the poetry competition. “Sólveig and I were sitting at the bar and we were like, ‘It would be funny to name a band after a Moomin!’” says Laufey. They opted for Kælan Mikla—the Icelandic name for The Lady of the Cold—and it just stuck. “It was just a joke,” smiles Laufey. “Sometimes I look at our name on posters and I laugh.”

“The goth scene is pretty fun. You get to dress cool and stuff.”

The joke somehow took on its own life force, however, being both a source of inspiration and a harbinger of their future sound. “She’s so fierce and such a dreamy character, with the star shoes and the flying ice horse, and she’s still so evil,” says Margrét. “If you look into her eyes, you freeze. She is this super feminine cold, kind of evil, mystical power. We always say that when the three of us are together, we create Kælan Mikla as a character.” They channel this combined feeling of mystical ferocity into their performances—a feeling, they say, that they don’t get in day-to-day life.

Ritual spells

The three can only describe this conjoined character as some powerful force; a feeling, a connection, or a sense of telepathic interaction. “It’s kind of like having a conversation, or going through feelings that are only in your mind, and you don’t have to say anything,” says Margrét. “It’s like having a conversation with both Sólveig and Laufey for the hour we play our set. It sounds really lame, but it’s like our soul.”

“We didn’t know what we were doing at first, but we always know better and better how to make music.”

“Sometimes I don’t even remember playing a set because I’m so deep in Kælan Mikla,” says Laufey. “I think we sometimes fall out of reality completely. I just forget where I am, and I’m just putting spells on the audience.”

Their live performances feature ritualistic, slightly improvised intros and outros that incorporate droning bass, vocalized wails and screams, incense and glitter, and physical movement. The intros allow them to sink into character, setting the scene and welcoming the audience, while the outro (always playing the song “Glimmer og Aska,” or “Glitter and Ashes”) allows them to fully exorcise the feelings of the performance, thank the audience, and leave Kælan Mikla in the ether.

Going synthetic

“I think the name worked out really well, because now we’re suddenly in this coldwave genre,” says Sólveig, segueing towards the band’s shift from performance art poetry-punk to sleek synth-driven dark wave. “It’s accidental. It really started when my ex-boyfriend gave me a synthesiser, like a crappy synth that he wasn’t using. Then I got a drum machine and learned how to make just super basic beats. Later on, I started studying electronic music and started incorporating computer production.”

Like many of the original goth stars—like Siouxsie Sioux, Christian Death, and Joy Division—Kælan Mikla’s sound and style wasn’t a calculated choice, but rather the natural outcome of their genuine artistic labour. “The music we started making was never planned, it happened on its own,” says Margrét. “It’s just what happened when we suddenly got a synthesiser.”

This shift in sound was quickly noticed in the local music scene, pulling in larger crowds to their entrancing ritualistic performances. “I think we just got so good at playing,” says Laufey. “We didn’t know what we were doing at first, but we always know better and better how to make music.”

Ranking up

With the addition of synths to their roster, they wrote the songs “Kalt,” “Sýnir” and “Óráð,” the first of which they released a video for made by Berlin-based videographers Orange ‘Ear.

The video, released in 2015, opened a floodgate of good fortune. “Suddenly, Fabrika Records found the song and asked if they could have it on their vinyl compilation,” says Sólveig. “We had been listening to the bands on their label—Lebanon Hanover, She Past Away and Selofan—so we just freaked out. I was always playing them when I was working at Bravó. Then, a month later, we asked if they would be interested in releasing our album.”

The label liked the songs and immediately said yes. The band, however, delayed the recording process quite a bit. “We did it super Kælan Mikla-style and recorded everything in one month,” Sólveig laughs. “They were like, ‘We need the material’ and we were like, ‘Oh, fuck we need to record the songs!’” They recorded the self-titled debut album in the garage Sólveig was living in at the time, behind the shop Mótorsmiðjan. Finally complete, the album came out in 2016.

Voyage voyage

Around the same time that the band were contacted by Fabrika Records, Sólveig realised she had a knack for booking shows abroad, and the band started to tour. “We just rented cars from somewhere and got a friend to drive, and we did it super DIY,” says Sólveig. “I think we got a lot of attention by travelling, because it’s maybe not usual that small Icelandic bands go on tours. I think that really helped us.”

Over the course of two years, she organised three self-managed tours. They took a toll on the band, and taught them some valuable lessons, moving them ever closer to the ultimate goal of growing through performance. “Those first tours were so extremely hard,” says Margrét. “We just wanted to get it done. We just wanted to play.” Adds Laufey: “The first tour we travelled by train and on busses—even though it was only ten days or something, my body was ruined after it.”

“But you learn from your mistakes!” says Sólveig, optimistically. “The next two tours, our friends drove us, and we had off-days when we were just hanging in our Airbnb in the middle of nowhere in Slovakia. We went to waterparks and played about eight shows. We were always getting better and better at doing things ourselves. It’s also super nice that we booked our own tours abroad for three years. We got to know a lot of people—it’s a really good network. That’s how you survive as a musician. You have to know people.”

Induction

These musician survival instincts paid off in a big way in 2017, when Kælan Mikla were booked to open for coldwave/dream-pop darlings Drab Majesty in Porto. “It was a really good show, and we talked a lot with them and we instantly got along,” says Laufey. The Drab Majesty guys pitched Kælan Mikla to their bookers as a warm up act on a leg of their European tour in January 2018, which led to them being added to the Swamp Booking agency roster.

“It wasn’t like we tried to be DIY. It was just the only thing we had.”

“After six years of hard work, it was an extreme relief to have someone to deal with this for us,” says Margrét. Laufey adds: “It was just perfect timing for us to get to know this booking agency—because we couldn’t handle it anymore. It wasn’t like we tried to be DIY. It was just the only thing we had, and then we worked our way up from there. Now we’re getting more help, which is great.”

“We wanted to experience this,” Sólveig continues, about the value of those DIY touring years. “We never started out as a band that wanted to go to the top or something. Doing this on your own can be super difficult and super sucky sometimes but all the mistakes that we made are all worth it. I personally like them.”

Pure luxury

At the time of interview, the band describe themselves as being on a “week-long hibernation”, following a seventeen day tour opening for King Dude in Europe. “I’m not really tired after,” says Laufey. After the years of self-booked tours—schlepping around their instruments and getting lost on trains in Germany—spending two weeks with fourteen people on a bus was pure luxury to them.

“It was just so nice to get access to showers, sleep, and food,” says Margrét. “It’s stuff we were missing out on a lot on the DIY tours—normal basic human needs that were hard to fulfill.” Sólveig also emphasises the importance of self-care and relaxation. “Now we’re better at chilling,” she says. “Like waking up early and going to see the city we’re playing in, or really enjoying the day instead. It’s important to try to stay kind of healthy.”

The top

This year proved to be an extremely busy one for the trio. After getting their booking agents, Kælan Mikla were contacted by Canadian label Artoffact Records, who offered to release a formal vinyl release to their long-lost first album, ‘Mánadans,’ available previously only on cassette.

“I listened to Placebo so much as a teenager. Fourteen-year-old me would never believe that I would be chilling with them in a few years.”

“When we made it, we just didn’t get signed,” says Margrét. “We were so young and so poor, and we couldn’t afford to release it in any way.” Laufey grew so frustrated with the album being unreleased—their only recording made in a studio, engineered by Alison MacNeil—that she put up the money for them to self-release the 200 cassette copies. This cassette led to Artoffact picking them up.

The year took an extremely unexpected and exciting turn when Sólveig opened the band’s email one day to a personal invitation from The Cure frontman Robert Smith—written in all-caps—for Kælan Mikla to open for Placebo at the Meltdown Festival in London. “This was the highlight of the year for me,” says Laufey. “It was so great to play with Placebo, and the Southbank Centre is such a beautiful venue. It holds 2,500 people and it was sold out. I think that was the biggest show we’ve ever played.”

The band were able to bring some of their family members and partners along for this landmark gig, and while it elevated their exposure and fanbase, their biggest takeaway was seeing their teen angst dreams become reality. “I listened to Placebo so much as a teenager,” says Margrét. “Fourteen-year-old me would never believe that I would be chilling with them in a few years. If I went back and told teenage-me this, I’d be like, ‘Nah.’ Brian Molko wished us good luck and watched our show. They were extremely nice.”

The witches dance

The events of this incredible past year, and all the hard-working years that preceded it, have landed Kælan Mikla firmly in the international resurgence of the gothic/coldwave scene, alongside bands like Xeno & Oaklander, Cold Cave, Boy Harsher, and The Soft Moon. “We were never trying to be goth, or post-punk, or whatever,” says Margrét. “But still, I really enjoy this genre. Not that I want to label myself, but the goth scene is pretty fun.”

“You get to dress cool and stuff,” Laufey agrees. “But I don’t like when people take it seriously. We’ve been trying recently to make people see that we are not super-serious. Like with our new video for ‘Draumadís.’” The video, which had a premiere screening at Gamla Bío on October 20th, finds the three cast as space witches, zooming around a lava field in a diamond spaceship.

Night after night

Next up for Kælan Mikla is the release of their third full-length album, ‘Nótt eftir nótt,’ which largely revolves around the themes of homesickness, insomnia, fairytales, shadows, witches, and “the darkest hours of the night.”

“For me personally, I feel that the album is really about the things between being asleep and being awake,” says Sólveig. They released the first single “Nornalagið” (“Witchsong”) on October 16th, and the second single, “Næturblóm,” (“Nightflower”) was picked as a must-listen track by Revolver Mag and Louder Audio.

“People say, ‘Ah, you’re so lucky.’ And we’re like, ‘We really worked hard for this!’”

While they rarely have more than a few days off in a row anymore, there’s nothing any of them would rather be doing than to be Kælan Mikla. “We put this in the front of everything in our lives,” says Laufey. “It was Kælan Mikla ahead of everything for us. People say, ‘Ah, you’re so lucky.’ And we’re like, ‘We really worked hard for this!’”

“We worked really hard to get where we are,” Margrét continues. “I think it’s important to have done that work, because we can see it from a good perspective and you can really value what you have. I think as you grow up, you mature, and I feel like we’re deeper now. We’re not just angry teenagers going on stage screaming and banging stuff and fucking shit up.”

As tenacious, industrious and dedicated as they are, cynicism remains. “We’ve just accepted that life sucks and you have to deal with it,” Sólveig shrugs, revealing the darkness at their core that keeps them colder and colder, night after night.

Kælan Mikla’s third album ‘Nótt eftir nótt’ is out now on Artoffact Records.


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