GusGus is the name given to an elite collective of party veterans, a collective that began life as a multi-method art troupe at the height of the gay nineties, and has since evolved into Iceland’s very own techno superstars. It’s seen founding members come and go, but the core of the band has always remained: Birgir Þórarinsson, or Biggi Veira, and Stephan Stephensen, or President Bongo. The group is today rounded up by Urður Hákonardóttir, or Earth, who has been an on-and-off member since 2001, and Daníel Ágúst Haraldsson, who was a founding member but took a ten-year hiatus to pursue other projects before returning in 2009. Their eighth studio album, ‘Arabian Horse’, was recently released to much critical acclaim; we sat down with Biggi Veira and Daníel Ágúst to find out what all the fuss was about.
What was the scene like when you guys were first starting out (in 1995)? How have things changed, for better or for worse?
Biggi Veira: Electronica was different when it began, before the black kids in Detroit and Chicago established it as being something associated with the nightlife, the club, dancing and drugs.
You’re talking about the ‘70s and ‘80s.
BV: Well, yes, that came first, but come late-eighties and early-nineties (electronic music) starts to become associated with a particular scene. In the late ‘70s, everything is very arty, made by art-nutjobs, but since then electronica hasn’t really had much of a life outside dance music.
Is that something GusGus have been trying to do, now or since the beginning, to take it back to being something arty, something not tied to the club scene?
BV: No, I wouldn’t say that. I did arty stuff in the ‘80s, but then dance music just comes along and takes me over. I’d been doing small indie-type stuff with my friends for a while when I was asked by someone if we knew of an artist he could book for a rave. I said “I can’t think of anyone, but I can probably put together a rave if you want”. So it was ’92, and one night we did something very indie and experimental, and people sat and clapped and were very polite…
Daníel Ágúst: At a rave?
BV: No no, at the indie thing. Then the night after, we showed up at the rave with DAT player and some drums, and that was insane, everybody partying, pretty girls everywhere… I never went back. I just wanted to stay in that party. That’s been my input in GusGus, that party atmosphere. It’s interesting to see how things have evolved and how the ‘party’ has risen to dominate electronic music.
DÁ: For me, GusGus was totally arty. I never touched that clubbing-rave-fun-party culture. I’ve always been more interested in the obscure, experimental side of it.
BV: Yes, it was the same for Siggi Kinski [founding GusGus member who left in 2000]. A lot of the first songs were his songs that Maggi Lego [founding member who briefly left in 2000, and then permanently left in 2006] and I arranged as electronic songs.
DÁ: GusGus came from a lot of different directions, musically speaking.
BV: Also, there was Maggi Jóns [aka Blake, another founding member who left in 1999], he was big into disco and Gary Numan-type new wave stuff. He wrote almost half the songs on the first album. There was even a new wave song on there… so the first album was this big melting pot, but was assigned the ‘trip-hop’ label that was in vogue at the time.
DÁ: Because it was chilled-out dance music.
BV: And we used a lot of samples.
DÁ: Then in 2000, you went full-on into the club scene.
BV: Yes. ‘This Is Normal’  didn’t quite go in the direction I wanted it to go…
DÁ: It had no direction. It just went everywhere.
BV: Well, not to judge it, but yes, that was when everyone left, and the gear sluts, me Bongo and Maggi Lego were left with the remains of the band. So I took the chance and let my influences shine through, kind of ‘pre-eighties’, new wave and Soft Cell. I was also fascinated by that period where disco was dead everywhere except gay clubs, and the only new disco was being recorded with sequencers and drum machines. ‘Attention’  was very influenced by all that. We’ve been influenced as well by contemporary stuff, but we haven’t ever fit very well in with any kind of dance category.
DÁ: When Urður came along, the party-clubbing atmosphere really took off, and hit its high point in 2007 with ‘Forever’.
BV: We’d do gigs at [upscale local venue] NASA four or five times a year, and that gathered around it a pretty decent crowd. We had a very good thing going, and then…
DÁ: …and then Urður left…
BV: …and that was the end of that.
When you (Daníel Ágúst) came back to the band, it became arty again. ‘Forever’ (2007) was such a party album, and then ‘24/7’ (2009) is far more minimal and obscure. The partying took a backseat to the music.
DÁ: Oh yeah. Everything was turned on its head.
BV: After Urður left, we were forced to make some kind of change.
DÁ: Not try to recreate the party.
BV: We needed to switch parties. It’s like if ‘Forever’ was the warm-up party, with Urður, the ‘girl party…’
DÁ: You know, fresh make-up, nice clothes…
BV: Everyone’s still bouncy, not too drunk, lipstick isn’t smeared yet, but ‘24/7’ was like the after-after party, the ‘veteran’ after-party. It was the party exclusively for those tough enough to last into the small hours, the guys who pace themselves so they can party ‘til noon the next day. They’re not going to pass out at 4 AM like some amateur.
It’s a perfect description, really. So was ‘Arabian Horse’ a direct continuation of this kind of thinking?
BV: When working on ‘24/7’ in the spring of 2008, we had the songs but no idea how to finish them. It was almost summer, Urður had just left, so we had almost no songs to perform that summer. We then just crammed the stuff we had into the live setup, updated the effect chain, dub-style, with a tape-delay-pedal and small Kaoss pad, and headed for the first gig hoping we would “figure it out” at the gig. That summer, ‘24/7’ evolved, live, towards what it came to be. Dark and dubby. That sound, in turn, established the base we built the new album on. The same effect setup is still crucial to the overall feel [on ‘Arabian Horse’]. The main difference was that we focussed a lot more on actual songwriting on this album. Daníel, Stebbi and I took two trips to a cabin and played around with some basic stuff, a kick drum, some synths and some chords. Daníel wanted some more colour, so we asked Urður to contribute some backing vocals.
DÁ: ‘24/7’ was kind of black-and-white. I wanted some colour, some reds and stuff. I didn’t want to go back to the girl party, but I wanted to invite a girl to the boys’ party.
BV: ‘24/7’ was very introvert. We wanted to find something new, something bigger. We’d constructed a new base…
…and now you wanted to see what you could build on that base.
BV: …exactly. So Urður came to add a little brilliance to the refrains…
DÁ: …a little brightness…
BV: …right. And then Stebbi [Stephan Stephensen] had formed this most advantageous friendship with Högni [Egilsson, of Hjaltalín]. Daníel, Stebbi and Högni went to the Faeroe Islands together with some of the songs we’d been working on, and came back with those two tracks Högni sings on. Stebbi’s strength is very much his ability to work with others, the arrangements and making stuff happen. He also brought in Davíð Þór [Jónsson, multi-instrumentalist and Ólöf Arnalds collaborator].
DÁ: At that point, the work divided between two places, here in Biggi’s studio, and the studio out in Grandi, where this kind of gypsy revelry got going. People would come by and pick up the banjo, or an accordion, or play the piano or percussion or whatever.
BV: It gave the songs a whole new dimension, really. Sometimes we would rip the entire core out of a song and replace it with something new; sometimes that’s what you need to do to give the song its identity.
That kind of ‘whatever-the-song-needs’ mentality is something that a lot of music could do with, I think. About 98.9% of Icelandic rock, for instance. But that’s just me.
BV: One thing I greatly enjoy about Icelandic punk, something that kind of laid the groundwork for Icelandic pop tradition, but has maybe been thinned out a lot by this ‘krútt’ bullshit, is the idea that every band had to be distinct from all the others. Sometimes when I’m abroad, I find that there is this general sameness, that everyone’s doing the same thing. If you don’t develop your identity, then you’re nothing. I like it when bands try to find out what it is that gives their music a purpose, a point. The world of electronic music seems to give you a lot more options in this, but in rock it’s all about the attitude.
DÁ: It’s not just rock; there’s crap in every genre. Good music has to have attitude.
Getting back to ‘Arabian Horse,’ would you say there’s a concrete reason that it’s more of a ‘pop’ album than ‘24/7?’ You pretty much told me, but I guess I’d like to hear it in so many words, you know, why it’s so well-rounded and all.
DÁ: …not that ‘24/7’ wasn’t well-rounded, it was just different…
…well, yeah, but you know what I mean. Apples and oranges.
DÁ: (‘Arabian Horse’) is definitely more diverse. Everyone involved in the making of that album left their stamp on it, no question. The final outcome surprised me. It surprised you too, right?
BV: Well… it was sort of slowly building. I can’t say it surprised me much.
DÁ: We made the flesh and bones of the Arabian Horse; the guests and contributors clad it in skin, gave it its coat.
BV: Totally. There is a need for one to evolve, forward, and ‘Arabian Horse’ very much fulfilled that need. GusGus have always felt that need strongly, Sometimes the evolution is about finishing ideas from the album before, and sometimes it is about changing directions. ‘24/7’ was a swift turn, with ‘Arabian Horse’ finishing the idea.
So it is a conscious decision for you to evolve, to take that step?
DÁ: Yeah, a little bit. It happens in conversations, “are we gonna keep doing this, are we gonna change it up”, you know.
BV: By now, we’re thinking: “what’s next”.
DÁ: Now there’s a challenge!
BV: I’ve been evolving some beats, a sort of ‘beat circuit,’ if you will, it’s been tickling me…
DÁ: Beat circuit? You mean like a patrol route?
BV: No! Like an electronic circuit. How things connect rhythmically. We haven’t been too observant of rhythms since ‘Attention’.
It’s been pretty much 4/4 kick drum on the last few albums.
BV: Yes. It’s been basslines and chords we’ve been mainly looking at. I’m a total groove fetishist though and now I feel strong urge to sink deeper on our next dive.
That’s an approach.
DÁ: It has attitude.
BV: I’ve always been very interested in artists who work with the form, the idea of what a song is and can be.
DÁ: Stretching the form.
BV: I’ve got to get out of these tragic chord progressions. Find some beats.
DÁ: Go to Africa, maybe?
BV: No… that’s too cliché.
DÁ: The next album will be called ‘Out Of Africa’.
BV: There are plenty of undiscovered locales in the beat universe for us to visit before we have to retrace our steps all the way back to Africa.