The mercurial Kælan Mikla defy description in many ways. Although it might appear that many of the band’s motifs and themes could be huddled together under the big black umbrella of “goth”, that just seems too simplistic. Not to mention somewhat reductive.
Besides, when we talk, Kælan Mikla—that is, Sólveig, Margrét and Laufey—laugh. In fact, they laugh quite a lot. Now that’s not very goth, is it?
Pigeonholes are for pigeons
“We have never put a label on ourselves,” says vocalist Laufey. “And we think it’s really difficult to do, because all of our albums are different and we never know what we’re going to do next.”
“Then when you release a different album, people are like, ‘What? This is not what I signed up for!’” laughs bassist Margrét. “We always have the same essence even though we’re using different genres. And truthfully, when people ask what kind of music we make, I have no idea.”
“I think that our genre is Kælan Mikla!” concludes Laufey.
Cold northern lights
Their most recent album, ‘Undir Köldum Norðurljósum’ (‘Under The Cold Northern Lights’), continues Kælan Mikla’s tradition of evolving that genre through each musical project. For this one—produced by Barði Jóhannsson—the band recorded in Barði’s studio, as opposed to a garage as they did for the preceding record.
“We were working with Barði for one and a half years, really trying to make every sound perfect,” says Sólveig. “And it was really nice to try that out.”
“It was the first time that we worked with a producer like that. And he was pushing us a lot to go all the way and you know, try everything,” says Laufey.
That spirit of growth and experimentation shines through;for example, the album’s tender closing track “Saman” is written in waltz time rather than a more common “rock” time signature. And generally, the band’s focus on more refined production for this album is apparent in its enhanced sonic sophistication. The sound of ‘Undir Köldum Norðurljósum’ is a seductive whisper rather than a strident shout; its feel is expansive, not oppressive.
The Kælan Mikla universe
The band are named after the beautiful but deadly snow queen in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, an idea around which the band have created their own universe; a fantasy version of Iceland where ‘Undir Köldum Norðurljósum’ takes place.
Laufey explains: “It is made up of stories that are kind of based on Icelandic folklore and nature. They’re these little fairy tales that we made ourselves, and what they all have in common is that they happen in the universe of Kælan Mikla, under the cold northern lights.”
“When we talk about the spirit of Kælan Mikla, and the universe, we’re talking about the three of us together,” Margét says. “We always feel like we conjure this femme fatale spirit, like together we are stronger. Together we have the alter ego of this femme fatale ice queen.”
“I think that this is the most visual album we have ever released,” says Laufey, “because a lot of it talks about the Kælan Mikla universe and shows people the environment that we imagine our music to happen in.”
The importance of appearance
A strong and deliberate visual identity is a core part of Kælan Mikla, and music videos form an important part of their creative offering. Four tracks from ‘Undir Köldum Norðurljósum’—almost half the tracks on the album—have had excellent videos created for them and, despite being made by four different directors, the band’s visual concept runs as a solid thread through them all.
Perhaps most notable is that for the song “Hvítir Sandar”, their collaboration with the band Alcest. The video was directed by Máni Sigfússon and won Video Of The Year at The Grapevine’s 2022 Music Awards. Kælan Mikla had first worked with Máni in 2015, when band and director were paired up to make a short promo for the Iceland Airwaves festival.
“We were trying to think of video artists, and then we remembered this thing that we made with him,” says Laufey. “Yeah, because the lyrics in the song are a lot about texture and feelings and how it is to touch things,” Sólveig chimes in. “And opposites like black liquid and white sand. We just thought he would be perfect, and he was!”
The importance of appearing
Another crucial element of Kælan Mikla is the live show. The band augment their sound with costume, stage theatrics, video and even incense to hit the senses.
“It is theatre; essentially Kælan Mikla is a live band,” says Laufey. “The music is made to be live. It’s not meant to be on records, you know?” Sólveig nods in agreement: “It’s such a journey. When we go on stage, we always plan the intro. We plan how it builds up and goes down, and it’s like the songs are building a story that we are performing.”
“And we become hypnotised. We get so connected on stage, and we feel like we are conjuring the spirit that is Kælan Mikla. We become one unit when we are onstage,” concludes Laufey.
Longing for a tour bus bunk
Naturally, like many musicians, the band feel thwarted by the ongoing pandemic disruption.
“We have a release tour in Europe,” says Margrét. “I think it’s 29 shows or something that is supposed to happen in April, but now we’re just crossing fingers. When you release the album, you want to perform it. You can’t just put an album online and be like, ‘Hey, here’s the album.’ You need to back it up; promote it, travel, meet people and perform it.”
“We did all those shitty basement shows for five people,” Margrét continues, harking back to the band’s early days. “And now we play for like 2000 people!” interjects Laufey. “But we put in the work,” Margrét says. “And now we can’t do that work.”
Tour train croissant mugging
The band start recalling tales of their “shitty basement show” tours from back in the day, when they would traverse Europe’s train network unaccompanied—carrying their instruments in tote bags—to play bookings secured by Sólveig in a bout of pushy teenaged enthusiasm. Like the time Margrét stopped a man stealing her bass on a railway platform, only to lose her breakfast croissant to him instead. And the time a random lost Turkish guy, who spoke no Icelandic or English, decided to join Kælan Mikla as their bodyguard/porter in return for the band guiding him to Berlin.
“And when we got out of the train station, he just walked away,” recalls Margrét. “After travelling with us for 24 hours, he just looked at us like ‘Okay’, and walked away like he had done his job. And we still think about him today!”
“I just want to hire him again!” says Sólveig. “And next time we will pay him!” says Laufey.
Cue the Kælan Mikla laughter again. Now that’s not very goth, is it?
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