“It’s a strange combination of both people and music, you know?”
Quarashi is an Icelandic rap group founded in the mid-90s by Sölvi Blöndal, Steinar “Steini” Fjeldsted and Höskuldur “Hössi” Ólafsson (Hössi left the group in early 2003, and was succeeded by Egill “Tiny” Thorarensen). The band recently resurfaced with “Rock On,” their first single after a nine-year hiatus. We spoke with founding members Sölvi and Steini about their history as a band and what thoughts went into making their latest music video.
“Switchstance,” 1997 Director: Arnar Jónasson (director of the documentary ‘Rafmögnuð Reykjavík’ (‘Electronica Reykjavík’)
Steini: That was the first thing we did, in the way of a song and video. We were just running around.
Sölvi: It’s fun, you get to see Reykjavík. The way it was in ‘96. It’s incredible, how much it’s changed.
Steini: We were on the back of some pickup truck [standing on the back of a truck as it drives around Reykjavík, giving the illusion that they are, in fact, floating].
Sölvi: Yeah, you can see Hverfisgata and stuff.
Steini: Funny story, we were inside a car park on Vesturgata [Vesturgata 7, 101 Reykjavík] in that video. It was the Mecca of skating in Iceland back in the 1990s.
Sölvi: Did we do that? Did we go in there?
Steini: Yeah. I remember Hössi slamming his head into a concrete pillar. PAAH-CH! Remember? [They both laugh]
Steini: Hössi stood up as he rode the truck and MC’d, and then KLUNK! [Sölvi laughs]. I think there’s a piece of that in the video. A major hassle.
Sölvi: Heavy funny.
“Catch 22” – Popp í Reykjavík (documentary), 1998
Director: Ágúst Jakobsson
Does it bother you at all that in ‘Popp í Reykjavík’ you are caught on film in a, how should I put this…
Steini: …strange condition? No skin off my back.
Sölvi: Wearing these idiotic KR [a Reykjavík football club] uniforms.
Steini: I couldn’t care less. We were “in the groove,” and maybe we…
Sölvi: I bailed you out of prison that morning.
Steini: He did. The interview was filmed during the day. That morning, he’s on Hverfisgata, bailing me out.
What’s the story behind that?
Steini: [laughs] I don’t remember. Wasn’t it drunk and disorderly conduct?
Sölvi: You were driving drunk.
Steini: Driving drunk and acting inappropriately in public.
Steini: I remember when you picked me up—we were on our way to shoot the soccer video… Sölvi had to lend me shoes; I was only wearing one shoe. I have no idea what happened to the other one.
And you decided to keep the party going? Because in the film you’re all a bit…
Sölvi: A bit fucked? It was all a bit…
Steini: We just had a beer and did an interview…
Sölvi: It was all a bit absurd, you know…
Steini: We had some beer and played some footie. Then, we played a gig later in the evening.
Sölvi: That was a legendary gig.
Steini: A fucked up gig.
Sölvi: There were fifteen people filming us performing “Catch 22.” In the middle of the song, I was so out of my head that I poured beer over a DAT-machine [Digital Audio Tape]. The song shut off, midway through. All the cameras kept going; they were shooting on film… It all ended up in the film like that.
“Surreal Rhyme,” 1999
Director: Gaukur Úlfarsson (director of ‘Gnarr!’, former Quarashi bassist)
Steini: Filmed in the shed. Our shed.
Sölvi: It’s all in one take. That video captured Quarashi incredibly well, believe it or not. Gaukur came in and captured our energy. It’s very sincere.
Do you remember how many takes you did?
Steini: Yeah, we did about…
Sölvi: Five, ten takes. Something like that?
Sölvi: We recorded our first album in that rehearsal space. It’s very closely connected to Quarashi.
Steini: We hung out there more times than we ever did at our own homes.
Sölvi: In ‘99 we did “Surreal Rhyme.” What happens then is that PoppTíví comes in and we experience this shift—from us spending maybe a few hundred thousand krónur on a video that’s never shown more than maybe once at a friend’s house—to making a video that gets played over and over [PoppTíví is a television station modelled after MTV and VH1. It launched in the fall of 1999, and ran music videos and programming 24/7]. That changed the equation. Sound and image were becoming very integral to one another.
“Malone Lives,” 2002
Director: Gaukur Úlfarsson
Director of Photography: Bergsteinn “Besti” Björgúlfsson (Besti has shot films like ‘The Deep’ and ‘Of Horses and Men’)
Sölvi: Our first real video that I was really happy with was “Malone Lives.” Us playing soccer, running from Árbær all the way downtown to 101. That was incredibly fun. We had this idea of doing a Steadicam-thing [a camera stabilizer mount for motion picture cameras, allowing for a smooth shots, even when the camera operator is moving quickly over an uneven surface]. Everything was so smooth. We could bounce the camera around, run, jump. That was the concept behind the video. Gaukur directed it. Besti shot it. Using the only Steadicam rig in the country,
Steini: We’ve always been a visual band. We enjoy making videos. We’ve put a lot of ambition into making them.
Sölvi: Often there’s more work behind making the videos than the songs.
Were you prepared for the physical endurance required to pull off the shoot?
Did you think about it at all beforehand?
Sölvi: No. It wasn’t until we were just—
Steini: I think everyone got sick afterwards.
Sölvi: After four or five hours of shooting, I was like “Oh my God. I’m going to die doing this.”
Steini: I think we were all colossally tired the next day.
Sölvi: I was actually in pretty good shape, but it was still very tough. We ran—
Steini: From Árbær and downtown [the distance from the soccer pitch to Tjörnin is circa nine kilometres].
Sölvi: Filming the scenes over and over. It was an entire day of running.
Steini: Twelve hours of running.
“Malone Lives” was also your first video with rapper Ómar Örn Hauksson?
Sölvi: Yes. Ómar is by far the most skilled actor out of all of us.
Director: Gaukur Úlfarsson
Director of Photography: Gaukur Úlfarsson, Steinar “Steini” Fjeldsted, various band members
Sölvi: Gaukur was sort of a key figure in all our video stuff. And Steini always had a camera once DV cams hit the market.
Steini: I was always filming. A ton of my footage is in the “Weirdo” video.
Sölvi: That video captures incredible moments. Blackout-crazy-fucking-binges, with guys fighting…
Steini: I filmed that, you know, when Hössi throws a beer bottle at me.
Sölvi: Gaukur edited it. He’s a musician and has a good eye for editing. If you compare a band to a marriage, then this is the happy period. Before we got divorced. Great times.
Steini: Captures us in New York and Los Angeles.
Sölvi: Trying to get a deal. We were realising that there was territory beyond Iceland that we could exist in.
Steini: That was something we had NEVER considered, or dreamt about.
You didn’t freak out?
Sölvi: No. You know… We were groovin’ in New York, recording an album. We landed a publishing deal. The video covers that a lot. The drinking. The fights. We’ve rarely been as much of a band as we were then. Going through all that together.
And this is all happening at a time when downloads hadn’t demolished the music industry. So there was still money available to bet on a band from Iceland that no one had heard about.
Sölvi: Unheard of today. We sold half a million records. At that time. And Columbia Records dropped us.
Steini: Half a million [records sold] ain’t bad. But they were probably looking at it like: “They only sold a third of what Madonna sold.”
Sölvi: Yes. And its like this music from some faraway universe, you know?
“Stick ‘Em Up,” 2002
Director: Len Weisman (director of ‘Live free or Die Hard,’ ‘Total Recall’)
Sölvi: I’ve fared much better in the music video stuff, rather than looking at a director’s showreel, just talking to them. Nowadays I just act off of people. Like: “What kind of dude are you? Am I digging you?” If that’s the case, I can pretty much just push the showreel off to the side.
Is that something that comes with age?
Sölvi: Yes, I mean we’ve seen insane showreels, and the dude makes a “so-so” video. Len Wiseman… his showreel wasn’t that special. But I remember that I could sense talking to him, that he was gonna make a “killer” video.
Steini: We were very happy with that one.
Sölvi: It was nominated for an MTV award, for Best Art Direction.
Len Weisman came from a background of working as a property assistant [a person who works in the production department, acquiring and making props] on films like ‘Independence Day’ and then he transitioned into directing [his directorial debut was the 2003 vampires vs. werewolves flick ‘Underworld’]. When you worked together, was he just raring to go?
Sölvi: RARING to go. Eyfi [director Eilífur Örn Þrastarson] reminds me of Len a lot.
Steini: Yes. Eyfi… He’s tremendously bright.
Sölvi: He’s “cinematic.” People always say music videos are like commercials. I beg to differ, a little bit, you know. Yes they’re short and all that. But there has to be some sort of cinematic input in them.
Steini: It’s tough to pull off a music video.
Sölvi: You’ve got three and a half or four minutes—
Steini: And you have to get a lot across in a short period.
Sölvi: Look, Len didn’t make a DIME on “Stick ‘Em Up.” He spent the whole budget—AND his pay check—making the video. He put it all on the line. Then you might have a director who’s well established and just doing it for the pay check.
Steini: Turning in “semi” work.
Sölvi: Len was “going places.” He was just on this track of becoming a movie director.
Steini: I mean he’s made a bunch of films by now…
Sölvi: ‘Die Hard 4,’ insane movies. These gigantic-fucking-movies.
What was it like for you guys, leaving Iceland where you pretty much had free reign to do what you wanted—and then going off to make $100,000 music videos in Hollywood?
Steini: Moving on from being your own master and signing onto a contract and making big videos… It wasn’t that big a leap for us, because we weren’t really thinking about it all that much. No joke. Of course it’s a change. When we were in this bubble, you were just kind of “there” and maybe you didn’t appreciate what was happening at the time. That said, it was a lot of fun. And way different, being on set where everything is handled for you and there’s catering, and like, make-up ladies, a wardrobe department. Something like a hundred and fifty extras, stunt actors, all that shit. It’s just a tad bit different from freezing your ass off in Iceland in some shed doing ten takes and then “WRAP!” Of course it’s different. But it’s fun to do both.
Sölvi: You know, you just get this treatment, a script or an outline, and you don’t really know anything… You’re there on location and then it’s just… there’s nothing left for us to do except just do what we’re told. A hundred and fifty people on set, you’re in Hollywood, what do you do? You just sit there and wait for someone to call for you. It’s so big; you’re just one cog in a wheel.
Steini: We’re just the band.
Steini: But there was good food on set. ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was filmed on that same set a little earlier.
“Race City,” 2003
Director: Börkur Sigþórsson (director of short films “Support” and “Come To Harm”)
Sölvi: If you look at Massive Attack’s videos, they’re kind of scary. We’ve had more like, bits of “happiness” but also kind of “in-your-face.” Often it’s a bit brutal—mostly in “Race City” though. And it was banned. Not shown anywhere. That was just money out the window.
Steini: RÚV [Ríkisútvarpið: The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service] banned it, because there was too much blood.
Sölvi: PoppTíví, too. It was never shown there.
Steini: Just “too much blood.” And there wasn’t really that much of it.
Where did that decision come from?
Sölvi: I don’t know. Just, I got information from PoppTíví and 365 [media corporation] that, “This video, we simply can’t show it.”
Steini: Just, fighting and blood and…
Sölvi: -There are punches and people getting headbutted…
Steini: It’s always like this—
Sölvi: “My daughter started crying when she watched it,” it was something…
Steini: Something like that. Don’t let her watch it, then.
Was there a conscious decision to move away from the humour of the earlier videos?
Sölvi: It’s because of Tiny, a little bit.
Steini: I don’t think it’s a conscious decision.
Sölvi: Tiny’s lyrics are more vicious. More aggressive. More like: “I’m gonna kill you, you goddamn fucking idiot.” Hössi’s lyrics are more like pop-rock. Some kind of “what does this mean?” thing. While Tiny’s lyrics, they’re just are what they are.
Directors: Sammi and Gunni
Director of Photography: Óttar Guðnason (‘A Little Trip To Heaven,’ ‘Inhale’)
When you make the video to “Payback”, you weren’t with Columbia anymore. And yet it’s very ambitious, shot on film, and it looks great. Who paid for that?
Sölvi: We had a deal in Japan at the time, for our album ‘Guerilla Disco.’
Steini: With Sony in Japan.
Sölvi: We lost our deal with Sony in the US. ‘Guerilla Disco’ came out in Japan and sold something like 50,000 copies.
Steini: Sony in Japan paid for it [the music video].
Sölvi: But like always when you make a video in Iceland, the DP [director of photography] is being paid like 10% of what he usually makes. This is how it is. Budgets for music videos are so small. Even less today. Nothing.
One of my favourite moments in all these videos is in “Payback,” when you kick the drums and slide backwards…
Sölvi: …and slip.
…in the water.
And you throw your sticks at the camera.
Sölvi: Yeah, that was really [both laugh].
Steini: Damn good.
Sölvi: It was almost cool, if I hadn’t fallen. Everything was covered in water. Slippery as a motherfucker. It’s a really cool shot. Sammi and Gunni are the fucking coolest.
Steini: Really cool.
Sölvi: And Óttar who shot the video, he’s done a lot of big movies.
Did they have everything under control?
Sölvi: Yeah. We just showed up on set. And they told us what to do.
Steini: They had found the locations and thought of everything.
Sölvi: That was very much their video. Their baby. They just went all in and made an insane video. “Payback” was really like the last video we did, before we did this latest one the other day.
Steini: I mean we haven’t made a video in ten years.
Sölvi: We haven’t. It hasn’t changed that much.
Steini: The mood is still the same.
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