I’m well aware of the fact that in Iceland, famous people are not treated with the same degree of fawning and adulation that they might get in other countries. I’ve gotten used to seeing nationally and even internationally acclaimed Icelandic celebrities standing behind me in supermarket lines, counting their krónur and flipping through gossip magazines. But when you, an amateur musician, are told that in a couple of days you’re to record with a veteran musician of medium-level international fame, it puts pressure on you. Still, I kept in mind that we’re all professionals here and, acclaim or not, what counts is their ability; not their reputation.
It turned out that Sigtryggur was only able to record between ten and twelve in the morning. He had been given a copy of our demo, sans drums. I sat in the studio with our producer, a rehearsing bassist, and Valur – who has formed this group out of the ashes of his previous band, Ríkið – going over the songs. At precisely ten o’ clock, Sigtryggur showed up. He walked straight to the drum kit, made a few minor adjustments and asked what the first song was. So far, so good, I thought. This guy’s a professional. No chatter, no bullshit, just shut up and play.
But then I was told I was to give this guy directions – where the verses and choruses were, when the song was about to end and so forth. A little concerned, I began playing the first song anyway and Sigtryggur began to play along – at a markedly slower rhythm.
At precisely twelve o’ clock, Sigtryggur put down his sticks and said, “Time’s up.” He chatted briefly with us as he packed up, thanked us for the session and left, only to come back a few seconds later to borrow gas money.
Sigtryggur has paired up with Iceland’s only tabla player, Steingrimur Guðmundsson, to bring forth a music project never seen before.
Steintryggur, as the project is called, could be lumped into the “world music” category by the careless, although such a generalization wouldn’t do this project justice. True, it makes use of rhythms and voices from around the world, but it also includes “found material” – answering machine messages will sometimes act as vocals. The overall effect of listening to their CD, Dialog, is that one is hearing a collage.
I met up with the pair to talk about the origins of this project, and the process it entails.
How did the two of you get together?
“Steingrimur owned a drum shop that I used to visit back in 1989 and ‘90,” says Sigtryggur, “and we were, and still are, big fans of world music. Steingrímur had been studying the tabla for years at that point. When the Sugarcubes folded, we put together a band called the Millionaires (with Páll Óskar) and later on, we created a concept band which was a 14-piece orchestra where none of the musicians were playing the instrument they had been trained on. These things were fun, but the more we got to talking about music, the more we wanted to come up with something like what Steintryggur is now.
“In the spring of 2002 we started recording, here in Iceland. Then I moved to Holland and Steingrimur would fly out to record with me. There was a refugee camp near where I lived, and I would record singers there who were from Africa and the Middle East. It was actually a Dutch teacher who introduced me to the first singer we recorded at that camp, which was called Crailo. We dedicated a song to that camp.”
So what is Steintryggur?
“Every song begins with the groove – drums and percussion,” Steingrimur says, “I wanted to take Indian rhythms and morph them into something different, something different than the way tablas are normally played. There’s one song that actually started out as punk on tablas – “I Don’t Get It!”.”
“The vocals for that song are from a series of recordings of the comedian Jonathan Winters, who would leave bizarre messages on his manager’s answering machine,” adds Sigtryggur, “That’s how the process was: we’d find vocals which matched that groove.”
Finding things which match the groove covers a lot of ground, apparently. Included in the recordings are Inuit breath singing, Pygmy songs, oud and sithar playing, a Polish “rapper/singer” and old Icelandic “rímur”, as well as the singers recorded at the Crailo refugee camp. All this recorded material was made to fit the pre-recorded grooves and was, in Sigtryggurs words, “edited to hell and back. But still, there’s a red thread running through all of the songs, a common tone which unites them all.”
Would you consider this world music? Would it be of interest to non-drummers?
“Yes I do think this’ll be of interest to non-drummers,” says Sigtryggur, “The music is so varied and engaging. And I myself, even though I’m a drummer and I can appreciate listening to some good rhythms from time to time, I’m still sick of drum nerds, making drum circles on the beach. It drives me crazy.”
“What is world music?,” asks Steingrimur, “It’s just music. People get scared when they hear the term ‘world music’ – they think it’s not for them”
“I think world music is a record store phenomenon,” jokes Sigtryggur, “I mean, you need someplace to put all that music, and it all gets lumped together under one category.”
“American pop music comes from so-called world music,” adds Steingrimur, “from African rhythms and European folk songs.”
“You know, you’ll often see some guy onstage with his laptop, tweaking buttons,” says Sigtryggur. Maybe he has a guitar with him too. But I think this is the first time there’s ever been two drummers onstage with a mixer. It’d be great if we could have completely live shows, but the logisitics of getting all these different people from around the world – or from beyond the grave – to play onstage together makes it impossible. All the same, I don’t think anything like this has ever been done before.”
You can check out more about Steintryggur at