Bergur Þórisson talks trombones, Björk and vintage espresso machines
“This is my Covid project,” Bergur Þórisson says as he welcomes me into his Grandi studio on a crisp October morning. Musical director for Björk, Grammy-nominated engineer and a member of the neo-classical post-rock duo Hugar, Bergur also restores and builds recording equipment. But as we meet, building a studio from scratch is the first thing Bergur wants to talk about. Just a few days ago, he recorded the soundtrack to a Star Wars computer game with the Reykjavík Orchestra and today he’s already diving into another project. As I apologise for making him wake up early to chat – after all, he must be very busy – Bergur shrugs. “I’m always working on something.”
My involvement in music started pretty early. I was studying the trombone. When I was a kid, my friends and I had a band, playing a kind of jazz-style music. We were 12 or 13 years old and played every weekend – at birthday parties, various school events and weddings.
Being a trombone player was the mission of my life. I wanted to study in New York. When I was 18, I went to auditions and I got into three amazing schools. I realised at that moment, “Holy shit, do I really want to be a trombone player for the rest of my life?” I had a nice scholarship offer, but living in New York is extremely expensive. It would mean I’d owe money to the bank for the rest of my life. I decided not to go and thought that maybe the next year I could go to Berlin or somewhere in Europe where education is cheaper or free.
In the meantime, my trombone teacher had a recording studio in his basement, and we made a deal that I would help him as his assistant in the studio and he would teach me trombone while preparing for those auditions in New York. I was there basically every day.
I already had a lot of experience working in recording studios. When I decided not to go to New York, I started getting calls about working in studios with all kinds of music. It was then that I got my first big job with Ólafur Arnalds. So I never actually went to study trombone and I realised that this is what I wanted to do the whole time – I wanted to work in music, just not as a trombone player.
Björk’s trusted partner
I believe that you can maximise your chances of being lucky by putting in the work. You can say that I was super lucky to get the call to work with Björk – and I was – but I had already put in a lot of work. I had been working with Ólafur Arnalds, Sigur Rós, Jóhann Jóhannsson and other amazing artists. It was very likely that I would get lucky one way or another – either to work with her or someone else.
Of course, I had thought, “It would be incredible to work with Björk.” She’s the most legendary Icelandic musician of all time. One day, I got an email saying, “Hey, are you available tomorrow to work with Björk?” There was nothing about the project or anything specific, but I immediately responded, “Yep.” I called everybody, rearranged all my plans and I’ve been working with her since. It’s been eight years now.
In the beginning, it was a regular recording engineer job; just sitting down and doing the computer work. Now it’s become a more personal relationship. We do all the recordings and make albums together. I also take care of all the concerts and rehearsals for the shows. She trusts me with a lot of things.
When I stopped touring with Ólafur Arnalds, I promised myself I wouldn’t tour again unless it was with my own music. But when Björk asked me to come with her on tour and play keyboards, I couldn’t really say “no.” These days, I mostly play keyboards, a little bit of trombone, bass clarinet and a digital flute.
When we started working together, Björk was living in New York for half a year, so we used to travel quite a lot back and forth. I’ve become pretty good at setting up a studio in an Airbnb or a hotel room. For example, we recorded a lot of the vocals for the Utopia album in the Dominican Republic. I would get a phone call: “Hey, can you get on a flight in four hours?” So I had to make sure I always had everything I might need.
Oops, we made an album
On the side of everything else, I continued making music with the guitar player from the wedding band I played with as a kid. We never really had any plan, but we were making songs under the name Hugar and all of a sudden we had an album and we didn’t know what to do with it. This was when Spotify was new in Iceland. We decided to put it on Spotify and we made a website where you could download it for free.
The album blew up on Spotify. I don’t even know where it’s at now – 50 million streams or something. Suddenly, we got a lot of interest from different people and record companies. We had no idea what we were doing; we were just making music and hanging out in the studio. Then we signed with Sony Music in America and made a few more albums. My band partner, Pétur Jónsson, is an architect. Both of us have a lot of work, so Hugar has always been the side project, but it’s really funny to call it a side project because we have a record contract with one of the biggest record companies in the world. Most people would call it a job.
Hugar is playing Iceland Airwaves this year. We’ve been in an experimental phase, so a large part of the show might be improvised. But Airwaves is such a legendary festival for us in the music business. At least for my generation, it’s where everything started – where everybody saw their first big shows and got introduced to all this music. I was 15 when I went to Airwaves for the first time. We would make playlists and share mp3s on a thumb drive. It’s a very sentimental thing to do Airwaves. There are always some fun opportunities that come out of it. I also just love going to the festival because you can basically walk into any venue and find something exciting going on.
The joy of fixing
When I was a kid, I really wanted one of these [clip-on instrument mics]. I was very young and I couldn’t afford it, but I thought, “How difficult could it be to make a microphone?” It turned out to be very difficult and much more expensive than if I had just bought one because I had to do so many tries. But it worked really well. I made a few for my friends and colleagues, and then I just slowly started making more complex microphones.
I spent a lot of time reading books about how stuff was made and how electronics work. There was a period in my life when I was building a lot of fancy recording microphones. I still do it now and then, but it’s just very time-consuming. I tend to get obsessed with things and they’re different from day to day – music, gear, cameras, cars, books, espresso machines.
The machine in the studio is the mother of all the espresso machines you see today. It’s the first espresso machine with a motorised pump. I found it online and it was completely broken when it arrived – as if somebody had thrown it from the top of a building. I just had to fix it. It was a really fun project. Now, the problem is I want to fix more espresso machines, but I don’t need more espresso machines.
Bergur’s next big thing
The more I travel, the more I just want to be in Iceland. The connection I have to this place is great. Of course, it’s family and friends, but now I’ve built the studio, so there’s even less reason for me to go anywhere. A lot of people, myself included, tend to forget how incredible this country is.
It’s important for everything I do, including my work with Björk, to stay on top of what’s going on everywhere else. Music and sound have fashions just like clothing, visual arts and everything – there’s fashion not only in the style of music but also in how the music is made. I really want to stay on top of that, so I always try to keep other projects going on.
When I’m not working on music, I’m constantly thinking, “What’s next?”
Catch Hugar at Iceland Airwaves. They’re playing November 2 at 20:55 at IÐNÓ
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