For some of our international Airwaves guests, the name Jakob Frímann Magnússon might not ring a bell (don’t be afraid, we’re about to ring that bell for you, so long as you read on). However, every single Icelander knows the Jakob Frímann (JFM for short). Most of them even love him, in a way. His track record is as long as it is varied. He has lead Iceland’s most popular pop band ever, Stuðmenn (read more about them HERE, it’s fascinating), since sometime in the seventies. He had a music career in Los Angeles. He ran for office. He produced movies. And he is currently known as “the mayor of 101 Reykjavík.”
And he’s playing Airwaves this year, so we shot him a letter to introduce all of y’all to a proper “Icelandic music legend” that you might not have heard about. Read on for enlightenment on the subject of JFM!
Hi, Jakob Frímann! You are pretty much a legendary figure in Icelandic music. For the sake of our international readership, would you care to recount some of your accomplishments and claims to fame?
I do not make any claims to fame. At best I’m a living “leg-end”. No, well, my first introduction to international touring came as a teenager when I was asked to tour Europe and later America with British bluesman Long John Baldry. This led to a record deal with Warner Brothers in LA, where I spent several sunny winters in the eighties, making experimental urban electronically influenced albums. I then ventured into film music and films, producing films such as Brasilíufararnir (“Iceland To Brazil”), Hvítir mávar (“Cool Jazz & Coconuts”), not to mention Með allt á hreinu (“On Top”) starring my high school band Stuðmenn. This film became Iceland’s all time box office hit and has kept me busy with Stuðmenn ever since.
You really have been all over the place in terms of your music, and geographically speaking, too. One thing that’s interesting when taking your career into account is the pop/obscure dichotomy – you’ve worked even-handedly on some of the biggest hits produced in Iceland as well as jazz and experimental music that seems more tailored to the ‘advanced listener’. Are these different ambitions of yours coming to light, or just different aspects of your persona?
I was brought up listening to my parent’s jazz collection until The Beatles came along and changed the world. Their brilliant songwriting, harmonies and conceptual ideas changed my entire view. My focus was steered away from the complexities of high-level jazz theory and harmony towards the beautiful simplicity of Lennon and McCartney’s compositions, which, fused with George Martin’s brilliant production, became the 20th century’s answer to Mozart’s divine qualities. I’m first and foremost a lover of beautiful tunes and lyrics, but increasingly respectful of the lavish harmonies and arrangements of the jazz masters. Jazz is after all America’s biggest claim to a real and lasting form of high art.
Have you ever tried combining the two, like making an experimental jazz tune that could be a radio hit?
I have recorded several jazzy tunes, including “Jazzgeggjarar” and “Út í kvöld” that have become hits or semi-hits. I may well seek to write something really out-there, give it a punchy chorus and hand it to radio. Why not? Icelandic radio has proven to be quite liberal sometimes.
Icelanders are mostly familiar with your career as a ‘Stuðmaður’ [Stuðmenn is a revered Icelandic pop group, known for their off the cuff sense of humour and massive hits that seem ingrained in the national psyche], however that represents only a small contingent of your total musical output. Could you relay in a few words your story as a musician, the two different paths you have chosen for your creative processes and how they will intertwine at times?
Stuðmenn just played four sold-out shows at the Harpa auditorium after a considerable break form the live scene. Before that I appeared at the Reykjavik Jazz Festival in August with the Jack Magnet Quintet, playing mostly instrumental stuff and a couple of new tunes with a jazz choir. These two projects reflect pretty much what I’m about.
How do you explain Stuðmenn to a foreigner? Do you think the experience translates, or is it ‘specifically Icelandic’?
Stuðmenn are best described as a post-modern pop group. We’ve played in the US, Britain, China, Russia, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark to name a few territories. These nationals at least seemed to thoroughly enjoy what we had to offer; which is admittedly a rather unusual musical hybrid.
I hear your LA years were pretty wild… any anecdotes to share?
How long do we have? Let’s say that we fully enjoyed our times in the City of (fallen) Angels!
Now you’re taking the stage at Airwaves for the first time (if my memory serves me right). Any thoughts on the occasion?
This is actually the third time I play Airwaves. The first time was as a keyboardist with Thorunn Antonia, promoting her first album, which I did with her, the second time was on the back of my the newly released album ‘JFM-Made in Reykjavik’. This time I’m especially looking forward to though, because the musicians onboard are so awesome.
Oh. I wish I’d googled that before I wrote the question. Looks embarrassing for me not to remember that second time (the first time doesn’t really count). Sorry about that. ANYWAY. Will you be bringing out the big guns on your Wednesday show? I understand your crew is strictly crème de la crème…
Well, yeah, these are surely some seriously hot cats; saxophonist Jóel Pálsson, drummer Einar Scheving, guitarist Guðmundur Pétursson, bassist Róbert Þórhallsson, African percussionist Sheik and not least vocalist Dísa who’s flown in from Copenhagen to play with us. This is the first time she appears publicly on stage with me.
How should we prepare? Is there anything we should be listening to?
Prepare yourself for a combination of well-rehearsed and totally unprepared adventures. There’s lots of stuff on YouTube you could check out from earlier albums, though there still seems to be nothing from some albums, like ‘Made in Reykjavik’ or ‘Horft í roðann’. Spotting all of me on Google or YouTube can be tricky though because it is either Jakob Magnusson, JFM, Jack Magnet, Jobbi Maggadon, Frímann Stuðmann Flygenring or Jakob Frímann Magnússon frá Hvítárbakka í Andakílshreppi!
And you have an album coming? Tell us a bit about that.
I have been approached by a US label to do a new album next year. I should probably let that record come out before I start talking about it. But, yeah, life is exciting these days. I’m thrilled to be playing again. It is truly energizing.