HAM TONIGHT & FOREVER: Shedding Skin, Reaching New Heights - The Reykjavik Grapevine

HAM TONIGHT & FOREVER: Shedding Skin, Reaching New Heights

HAM TONIGHT & FOREVER: Shedding Skin, Reaching New Heights

Published October 2, 2015

Gabríel Benjamin
Photos by
Hörður Sveinsson

Infamous cult favourites-cum-everyman rockers HAM have been at it for almost three decades now, turning an entire generation of Icelanders on to their monstrous, leftfield take on “heavy music”. Returning to the fray by popular demand a few years ago, after a long hiatus, HAM rarely take the stage these days, and when they do, it means something.  Tonight at Gamla Bíó marks such an occasion, where they along with openers Lazyblood will obliterate the crowd, leaving but embers in their wake.

To celebrate the occasion, we met up with HAM singer Óttarr Proppé, who took time out of his busy schedule as MP and chair of the Bright Future party to discuss HAM’s past, present and future.

HAM has been playing since the late ’80s, releasing eight albums in the process. And you’re still rocking out. How do you believe the band has managed to stay relevant in Iceland’s dynamic music scene over such a long time?

I’m maybe not the best person to make that evaluation, but I can say we’ve found what makes us tick is the diverse group of people that comprise the band. When we started out in ’87, we had all been playing in different bands—we were all different, but managed to play to the same tune. We were very inspired by the sense of irony of the ’80s, the post-punk and no-wave scene that was sweeping through New York, as well as pure pop acts like ABBA, Nancy Sinatra, and so on. It was our collective interests and experiences that fused together to become HAM.

Having said that, we were highly critical of what we were making. That was probably our problem in the early days, how new songs had to go through so much scrutiny that we didn’t compose that many. We had aspirations of becoming professional musicians, and put a lot of time and resources into becoming big international hits. Then, when it became evident that this wasn’t happening, we started getting sick of each other. We formally disbanded 1994 and held one last concert, which we recorded and released as an album.

That it was the first time we actually got paid for a concert, which speaks volumes of what the music industry was like back then—if memory serves, I got 17,000 ISK [~40,000 ISK today] for that show. After we quit, the frustration subsided and we all became much better friends, playing in each other’s bands. Then we were sort of tricked into reuniting to support Rammstein’s two concerts in Iceland back in 2001.

We also started re-examining our older material and wondering where we had gone wrong. We found that we had diverged from the core concept somewhere between ’88 and ’94, playing songs much faster than we should have. So we rewinded the tape and put the emphasis back on playing slower and heavier music. Over the next seven years, we put on the occasional gig and played one or two new songs each time until we realised that we were de facto back together, so we collected those songs and released Svik, harmur og dauði [“Betrayal, Grief And Death”] in 2011.

HAM by Art Bicnick
Photo by Art Bicnick

That album is notably slower than your previous work, and has a lot of momentum to it…

We honestly look at it as the logical progression from our first album, ‘Hold’, that was heavily inspired by Swans and other no-wave bands like early Laibach, rather than what was happening at the time, which was more thrashy. We reconnected to this slow and dramatic music.

Then what happens when you release an album is you meet and rehearse more often, and new songs are born from that effort. That’ll be a large part of our programme tonight, songs that haven’t been released yet and will hopefully be on the upcoming album that we’re struggling to find time to record.

How similar is this new material to ‘Svik, harmur og dauði’?

I think it’s a logical progression from that album, but the emphasis has changed. We discovered that we had all individually started started listening to more new wave music and bands that we had stopped listening to in the ’80s, like Visage, Gary Numan, Joy Division and so on. We started toying around with those kinds of ideas and found that they were a good fit to our style.

CROWDSURFING THROUGH PARLIAMENT

For the past five years you and bassist Björn Blöndal have been active in city and national politics, first through the Best Party and now Bright Future. How much do you feel politics has influenced HAM, and how much of HAM do you personally take with you to Parliament?

That’s a good question… I think that the answer to the second part is that you bring a lot of your past experiences into whatever you’re doing. There are a lot of things I’ve learned from music that carry over to other things I do, although speaking at Parliament is considerably different from being on stage.

I imagine it’s a tougher crowd.

They don’t clap as much.

And stage dive far less often.

And when people don’t like what you’re doing in Parliament, you get very different reactions than on the stage. But there are some bits that do translate over. You’re expressing some sentiment, reading the room, and hoping that most of the people in there understand your ideas.

What you’re doing and thinking about on a daily basis finds its way into your music. Although half of our last album was made before Björn and I entered the political arena, the songs all feel like some sort of commentary on society. Having said that, HAM isn’t really a political band, and we don’t write music about current affairs, but about emotions. It’s dramatic, heavy, and dark, and the lyrics go from being light hearted to philosophical.

HAM by Art Bicnick
Photo by Art Bicnick

IRONY, POETRY, FILMS

As far as I can tell, one of HAM’s recurring themes has been irony and humour, which incidentally was clearly the theme behind the Best Party.

I think maybe that’s because the band members and others around us, like Jón Gnarr, are outsiders that don’t really fit into the Iceland of old, a country that was a lot more square than it is today. What unified us was our sense of irony and humour—when we meet up, we’re not dark or heavy, but instead joke about things. Generally, I don’t think it’s been the basis of the band, but it finds its way into the music.

When HAM started out, Jón would open up our shows, reading poetry and getting pelted with bottles on stage, and I don’t think anything thought him and Sigurjón would become comedians, because they didn’t ever show that kind of potential.

Back in the ’80s it wasn’t uncommon for poets to open a show. Jón even joined us and [band] Risaeðlan to play at a New York music festival in ’88, translating his poems, confusing American punks.

I’ve noticed just this year that there’s been a sort of revival of exactly that. Do you know Lommi the poet?

Oh yes.

He warmed up for the Reykjavík! concert in August, and Teitur Magnússon last week, which Jón Gnarr incidentally attended.

Cycles have a tendency to repeat themselves. The ’80s were before the computer revolution, when video equipment and amps were improving and becoming more accessible on a daily basis, so there was a multimedia vibe running through everything. Artists would paint backdrops for concerts, and were very connected to bands.

Didn’t HAM toy with videos at the time?

Yes, Sigurjón and I wanted to become film makers. He owned a Super 8 camera and we wrote the script for a film called Álversmenguðu djöflarnir (“The aluminium-contaminated demons“), which was a B Movie inspired by American thrash films. We had already recorded some scenes about a Romani gang living in the shadow of the Straumsvík aluminium smelter. But because we didn’t have any money, we had a really hard time getting our friends to show up for shoots. We ended up writing much more music than filming, and found it was much easier to run a band than make a film.

In an interview with Dr. Gunni in 2011, Sigurjón said your next album would be called Heimspekingurinn, fávitinn og hóran. Is that still the plan?

It’s uncertain at this point—it’s a reference to an old joke from the ’90s. We’re really inspired by heavy and old music. Not quite baroque, but old church music, as well as old epic films like Cleopatra, Ben Hur, and so on, and these pieces had a tendency to have really big names. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Sigurjón’s band after HAM was called Olympia. We always had these grandiose ideas.

THE FULL SHOW

How pepped are you for tonight’s concert, and how many new songs will you play?

We played a few times this summer, at Eistnaflug, ATP, and Secret Solstice, where we debuted a few songs, but we haven’t played a full-length concert in Reykjavík in years, so we just booked Gamla Bíó. Doing that gives us a deadline, and when you have that, everyone has to come together and rehearse, and that’s what we’ve been doing, so yeah, we’re pretty pepped.

As is, about a third of our setlist is comprised of new songs, but we won’t know the final number until after our last practice, when we decide which ones get the seal of approval. We have a tendency to include an element of danger to our shows, by not just playing safe crowd pleasers that we’ve played a million times, and we’re stepping outside our comfort zone tonight.

How about Airwaves? How excited are you for it? And what bands are you excited to see?

I’m generally thrilled about Airwaves—I’ve gone to just about every iteration since it started, and played at most of them, too. I’m excited to return to it, as I haven’t played on the main docket for a few years now.

dr spock by iona
Photo by Iona

It’s just two years, actually. I saw you play a surprise show with Dr. Spock at Gaukurinn in 2013. That was a great show!

Yeah, we got a call in the morning telling us we were filling in for Lára Rúnars who was ill. It’s exciting for me to return because the festival is always evolving, with better venues and better atmosphere. We at HAM are so Icelandic, though, that we haven’t started preparing for Airwaves. I guess tonight’s concert will prepare us for what’s to come.

How has the festival changed?

I remember in the first few Airwaves, bands were struggling to introduce themselves and their songs in English as it’s an international festival, but it was all really awkward as there was maybe only one or two foreigners at each venue. Now, however, it feels more like you’re playing in New York than Reykjavík, which is exciting for a band like ours, which only plays in Iceland, because it means we get to play to a new audience.

But I have to admit I haven’t even started looking at what the schedule looks like. Older people like myself often have a hard time paying attention to what’s going on in the music scene, which is why Airwaves makes our lives easier. There are all these bands you’ve heard of in passing that you see at Airwaves and are absolutely brilliant—then there are others that you’d never heard of that quickly become your favourite bands ever. These are outfits like the Faroese 200, and Lithurgy from New York. That’s what I’m really looking forward to, meeting new bands.

Okay, but are there any bands you recommend people don’t go see at Airwaves?

Again, I haven’t looked well enough at the list of bands, but I don’t think I can. There are some bands that I’ve seen and don’t like, but I’ve often found that it’s bands that I hate that have a propensity to surprise and turn me around. Thinking back to when HAM started, I loved the Pixies and detested Van Halen, and now it’s the other way around. Sometimes it comes in waves, like with Páll Óskar, who I loved, then was fed up with, and then when I’ve seen him in recent years he’s been pressing all the right buttons again.

So honestly, if I were to recommend anything, it would be to see acts that they haven’t seen recently or very often.

HAM by Art Bicnick
Photo by Art Bicnick

Do you have any recommendations for foreign visitors coming to Iceland for Airwaves?

Well, I’ve never been a foreign visitor in Iceland, but from personal experience I can say if you go out headbanging when you’re not in shape, it’s going to hurt, so I recommend that people go to the pool or soak in the hot pots. Laugardalslaug is my favourite place to go, and the new hot tub in Vesturbæjarlaug is also great.

There’s an incident though that springs to mind from my first or second year in city council. There was a storm predicted to sweep over the capital area during the Airwaves weekend, and people were honestly afraid that unsuspecting foreigners would be blown out to sea, so there were special buses arranged to ferry people between venues. Björn and I went to check out how they worked and hopped on one only to find it completely empty of foreigners—they had gone out to enjoy the weather. So I have to recommend to people that go even remotely close to Harpa that they go out to the harbour and feel the wind. We locals have grown used to it, but it’s quite the experience for outsiders. But if people are very lightweight, they might have to hold onto something.

Are there any places in particular you like go for food during Airwaves?

There are so many restaurants in Reykjavík, that it’s really hard to just pick a few. Bæjarins Beztu is always a classic place to grab a hot dog, as it’s ideally located for festival goers. Personally I’m very fond of Prikið’s breakfast; it’s not the most healthy out there, but it gives you enough energy for the pools and the wind.

And they offer good hangover cures.

If that’s something you’re into, yeah. Some of the most interesting concerts I’ve seen have been the morning shows Airwaves used to run at Prikið from eight to nine in the morning, where a band would clamber onto a few tables propped up in the corner. Even without those shows, just getting to see tired old rockers that early in the morning is reward enough.


HAM are playing Gamla Bíó tonight, with Lazyblood opening the show. Doors are at 8pm, and tickets can be acquired here for 2,900 ISK. If you for some reason wanted to meet a member of HAM in the flesh, to ask them a question or whatever, tonight’s show would be your best opportunity to do so. 

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