Although he may be young in years, 28-year-old Ólafur Arnalds is no stranger to the limelight. He first stepped onto the stage as a drummer for hardcore bands Celestine and Fighting Shit. He then forged a career for himself as a classical music composer, releasing three well-received albums. He followed that up by writing the score for British TV series ‘Broadchurch’, for which he was awarded a BAFTA in 2014. He’s also teamed up with Alice Sara Ott to make ‘The Chopin Project’, reimagining the historic composer’s works, and with Bloodgroup’s Janus Rasmussen to make Kiasmos, a dance project, which will be part of our upcoming Húrra Grapevine concert on May 15! With a few days to go until his gig, we caught up with Ólafur over the phone as he was in between studio sessions to talk about all of the above and more.
In your time as a musician, you’ve tackled a lot of different genres. Although you are best known for your classical piano music and soundtracks, when you were younger you were a drummer for Celestine and Fighting Shit. How much of your enthusiasm and inspiration do you still carry with you from those early years?
I feel like it’s all the same feelings for me. The emotions may be communicated differently through different forms of expression, but they all come from the same place—love and anger have the same origin, whether you’re 18 or 28.
And how much have those youth projects bled into the “respectable and grown-up Ólafur Arnalds” I’m currently speaking to?
Oh, they have a lot, because everything you’ve done is part of who you are today. You get a lot of experience playing music, touring, and being in the scene, and it influences what you create now. I’ve also felt that I’ve carried a lot of my punk style into what I do now, even if I’m operating in the classical music world, as it leaves me unafraid of breaking all the rules. Even my melodic elements and song structures are based on things that got stuck in my head from an early age.
I heard that one of your classical songs, “Poland,” was inspired by a particularly nasty hangover. Is that true?
Yeah (laughs), that’s very anecdotal, but it’s a true story, and I think it’s more common in the scene than you’d think. What I’m maybe doing is cutting through the precocity associated with composing this kind of music, the idea that everything needs to come from high-flying ideals. But really, it doesn’t matter what genre of music you’re creating, the ideas just spring from how you’re feeling when you’re feeling creative. It can be all sorts of influences, not just highbrow ones.
Do you feel like modern classical composers need to chill out a little bit to be current and appealing to people other than just the pale and stale middle class?
I don’t think that would be a bad idea to be honest (laughs), to just relax a little, because it doesn’t all have to be so highbrow. Of course, there are a lot of good things happening with classical music today, but sometimes it can pay off to be more relatable when making songs, because these are all feelings that people can understand.
Listening to “Sudden Throw” from ‘For Now I Am Winter’ and “Thrown” from ‘Kiasmos’, I could hear the same melody pop into both songs. Being involved in so many music projects, how often are you tempted to reuse good ideas?
Oh, I generally am. The story behind those two songs is that it started as a remix with ‘Kiasmos’ when we were looking for ideas. I was working on ‘For Now I Am Winter’ at the time and had decided to axe “Sudden Throw” from the album, so we salvaged the idea for ‘Kiasmos’. But then later I changed my mind so “Sudden Throw” made it onto the album, and I was stuck with the song being used with two different projects. But generally I keep my projects separate.
So you don’t normally think of repackage and reusing the same ideas?
Not really, no. I’m of the opinion that if you’re making a song and you feel like you could arrange it differently, that it’s not finished yet. Often the most difficult part of making is a song is deciding what version of it is the right one. So if a song has more than one version, then I don’t feel like I’m on the right path.
Are there any more Easter Eggs on your album for your fans?
I don’t think so. Or no, wait, yes, on my albums there is one other song that I’ve used twice, but I always strive to make it obvious that I’m reusing it on purpose, like with the titles “Thrown” and “Sudden Throw.” I don’t want people to think I’m plagiarising from myself unintentionally. But with soundtracks you’re always working with a similar theme.
I don’t know if this has been your experience, but I personally felt like Icelanders didn’t have a clue who you were up until you won your BAFTA last year, even though you’d been producing music and soundtracks for a good while before that. Is this something you noticed as well? And what do you think this says about Icelanders’ ability to see talent in their own midst?
Yes (laughs), this is something I’ve clearly noticed myself. And it’s not just true of the BAFTAs, but my whole career. No newspaper or Icelandic festival wanted to talk to me until I had made something internationally. It’s so strange, how a band can send out a press release that they nailed some gig in a London pub to a crowd of 50, and suddenly everyone hails them for “making it” in the outside world. It was more like that five or ten years ago, but I’d been doing my thing, making my music, and wasn’t invited to any festivals until I had toured extensively outside of Iceland. Then when The Guardian wrote about me, I suddenly got a call from Icelandic Music Export asking who I was and what I was doing (laughs). I needed a full page in The Guardian before Morgunblaðið ever tried calling me!
I think it’s really strange, how it’s like Icelanders don’t consider anything important until foreigners have given it recognition and approved it. This held especially true when I won the BAFTA and took the large step from occasionally being mentioned in Fréttablaðið to getting blasted in all the big media and becoming a famous household item. But I guess that’s what happens when you win a big award like that, you’re on the front page everywhere for a few weeks. But a few years ago, the Icelandic music scene wasn’t really giving credit to Icelanders where it was due.
What other effect did it have on you to win such a big award?
It had all kinds of effects, I guess, but you try not to let it go to your head and to just keep doing what you’re doing. You get a lot more attention, and have more doors in the music industry open to you than before.
And how did Janus and you decide to collaborate?
We had been friends since he moved to Iceland, about seven years ago, and started making music together back in 2009. We’d meet every other weekend, hang out, have a beer, and create some techno together. We released a few singles, and weren’t planning on doing anything more, but then a year later when we sent a demo to my label, they told me we had to make an album (laughs). They said we’d end up making it on our own anyway, but this way people would at least get to hear it.
Wasn’t it a difficult decision with your busy schedule to commit to another big project?
No, it wasn’t really ever supposed to be big. I was scheduled to write the score for a film last year, but it fell through so I was left with two months free, so we decided to come together and give Kiasmos the attention it deserved. We went to the studio and were there for six or seven weeks, but we didn’t plan on touring that much. Then, all of the sudden, it caught fire and now we’ve been touring non-stop.
What can people expect at your gig on May 15? Will there be audience participation like we’ve grown used to with your classical piano concerts?
No, I suspect people will just have to dance (laughs). Or wait, isn’t that audience participation?
I’d like to think so!
It’s going to be quite a rocked-out show. We’ve been practising and evolving our set, and it’ll be a dance-friendly affair that starts off slow before building up to become a massive party.
You can see Ólafur in the flesh this Friday at Húrra at the following event:
Húrra Grapevine! #4: Kiasmos / worriedaboutsatan / Hugar
For the fourth instalment of our Húrra Grapevine! concert series, one in which we attempt to show some love to all that wonderful local talent we keep writing about, we are bringing in three dance acts that you don’t want to miss.
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!