A fortnight ago, the Grapevine hitched a ride with cover stars Retro Stefson, Ólafur Arnalds and Hjaltalín as they made their way to Oslo, Norway. Their mission: to perform at the annual by:Larm Nordic showcase festival and charm the socks off Scandinavian booking agents, talent buyers and journalists. Our mission: to document the acts and their trip as best we could while spending as little money as possible in the most expensive city on earth.
The bands accomplished their task, and then some. And we failed miserably and raised our overdraft, along with our glasses. (Here is a sound piece of advice: If you ever find yourself in Norway’s capital post-your nation’s total economic collapse, do not under any circumstances offer to get the next round in. In fact, quit drinking altogether and try to bring along bring canned goods for sustenance. Even breathing seems expensive and wasteful in Oslo).
Hjaltalín arrive safely in Norway. They still complained alot, being the primadonnas they are.
What makes a hit
It’s Friday morning, 1 AM, and most of Hjaltalín are busy mixing drinks in their hotel room. Earlier that night, the band performed a triumphant set at a packed venue in downtown Oslo, after a long trip over from Switzerland where they reportedly played some equally triumphant sets at equally packed venues. And spent a day skiing in the Alps. So it’s only natural that they need to wind down with a drink or five – they are hard working bunch of musicians and deserve their leisurely moments.
It’s still kind of problematic, as in less than five hours they are expected to make their way to TV2’s recording studios to perform a song at the stations morning program, God Morgen Norge (“Good morning Norway”). They are a merry bunch and seem to get along quite nicely; in between generous sips of vodka they record parodies of old Icelandic classics on their laptops and trade various stories of mischief. During a lull in the conversation, I ask bassist Guðmundur Óskar what he thinks makes a hit song.
“I believe the content of the lyrics is incredibly important,” he tells me. “For a particular song to gain an audience, it needs to speak to people on some level, I think. It doesn’t necessarily need to have a deep message or anything, but people have to be able to connect with a song if they are to invest in it. And of course it has to have a nice melody as well. That goes without saying.”
Hjaltalíns Hjörtur(far left) is to lazy to stand while he performs.
No strangers to hit songs, Hjaltalín’s début, Sleepdrunk Seasons, received heavy rotation on Iceland’s radio stations upon its 2007 release. Their heartfelt cover of Páll Óskar song ‘Þú komst við hjartað í mér’, released last June, subsequently cemented the band’s status as Iceland’s hot young things. Simply put, it was THE popular song of 2008, and was awarded official status as such at the recent Icelandic Music Awards. And true to the bassist’s belief, singer Högni was to explain the Icelandic lyrics (that revolve around finding true, life-changing love) at a length each time they played the song in Norway. The strategy seemed to work, as the Norwegian audience seemed deeply engaged in their performance, many of them choosing to take it in with their eyes closed and mouths open.
Hung-over from the night before, Hjaltalín confusedly mistook this storefront for their venue.
Neither special nor unique
“That song scored us a lot of wedding gigs. Still does. We sort of knew we had a hit as soon as we were done recording it. It had that sort of feel,” singer Högni tells me through his drink, grinning. We move on to discuss how the band has been received in their international outings, and how “Icelandic music” is perceived internationally. “There seems to be some sort of agreement going that everything coming from Iceland is somehow ‘special’ or unique. People expect the music to be all dreamy and weird. I don’t know what that means, really. Hjaltalín isn’t like that. We play rather basic pop music with some additional instruments. If we’re in any way special, it’s because we create our music with more craftsmanship than many of the outfits going that maybe operate more by feel or instinct. It’s more thought out. but there’s nothing really ‘special’ or ‘unique’ about us. We play basic pop and we like it.”
The husky voiced singer/composer (a dedicated student of music, Högni does arrangements for many Icelandic bands in his spare time) laughs and excuses himself from our conversation. There are jokes to be told, hymns to be sung. As I make my way out of Hjaltalín’s hotel room at around 2 AM the party shows no signs of letting up.
“That God Morgen show was probably the one of hardest thing any of us have done in our lives,” they tell me the day after. Still, they made it through OK and judging by the large crowd at their second show, they seem to have made a fine impression.
More Mickey Mouse than Mötley Crüe
Backstage at MONO that night, the youngsters of Retro Stefson are giddy and cheerful after winning over a sardine-can of a crowd with a kick-ass display of powerful showmanship, youthful vigour and some great songs. Drummer Gylfi, sporting long johns and a huge grin, dances around the room while tall, dark and handsome bandleader Unnsteinn Manúel calmly analyzes their performance. Already a fiercely ambitious, disciplined and inventive musician at the tender age of 19, Unnsteinn is very clearly headed for big things. As are the rest of them, for that matter. “I think this was a good one,” he says all thoughtful to no one in particular. “We really got into the groove… yeah, it was good.” And he is happy.
Retro Stefson is a tight-knit group of friends and seem very comfortable around one another. The core group has been together since forming in 2005, when the members were aged 13 to15. They quickly gained a reputation through their MySpace and playing shows pretty much anywhere that would host them. Their 2008 debut has received many an accolade and considerable radio play; right now the world seems to lie at their feet.
Back to MONO: the mood backstage is more reminiscent of a summer camp all-nighter than any debaucherous display of rock and roll I can recall – more Mickey Mouse than Mötley Crüe. The kids entertain themselves with games of rock-paper-scissors and the trading of inside jokes; they clearly didn’t come to Oslo to party, although they are having fun. “We came here to play,” Unnsteinn tells me. “It’s a relief to be done with the shows, but it’s also kind of a bummer. I would have enjoyed doing one more.” His younger brother, cool as ice 17 year old bassist Logi Pedró, nods his head in agreement. They should not fret, however, as the reception they received at the festival seems to guarantee Retro Stefson will be playing quite a few shows in Norway real soon. We get up and make our way out to the snowy streets of Oslo, as Ólafur Arnalds’ first by:Larm show is about to commence.
During our walk, the subject of the weekend’s scheduled by:Larm shows comes up and it’s clear the band have researched the festival’s programme heavily. A plan is laid out for the next couple of days, one that entails taking in Ólafur’s show as well as sets by Lindström, Whitest Boy Alive, Betasatan and many, many others. by:Larm is an exceptional music festival that somehow manages to remain relevant and exciting while featuring Nordic acts exclusively – no mean feat. Music lovers that they are, Retro Stefson are intent on getting their money’s worth.
Retro Stefsson caught backstage in underwear shocker.
Heaven Shall Burn and Hell’s Kitchen
At the age of 22, Ólafur Arnalds is already a widely regarded composer in many circles. Operating under a strict DIY work ethic and the M.O. of “Breaking classical music out of the tweed jacket and loafers and putting it into a t-shirt and trainers”, Ólafur has built a solid fan-base throughout Europe and the US over the last three years. In 2008 alone, Ólafur performed a total of 121 shows everywhere from Pittsburgh to Porto, selling out impressive venues like London’s Barbican Hall. He is very clearly on a roll.
At the age of fourteen, Ólafur – then the drummer of several metal and hardcore outfits – started experimenting with classical composition. “I was initially really into film scores, wanted to do something similar and thus started composing stuff on my computer,” Ólafur tells me over a pretty mean pizza at Hell’s Kitchen restaurant, a popular media hangout in Oslo. “It wasn’t purely classical in the beginning, I had guitars and drums and stuff in there – it was symphonic metal. I wound up giving someone a demo tape of my work, and that lead to me being asked to compose an intro to an album by [German hardcore outfit] Heaven Shall Burn. Now, it wouldn’t have made sense to have metal guitars and drums as an intro to a metal album, so I cut them out.”
The intro piece was to arouse some interest in Ólafur’s work, and he was soon offered a record deal on a small German label. “So I made an album and started playing shows. It was all kind of random, but it seems to have worked out OK.”
Ólafur is cheerful this Saturday afternoon, and he has every reason to be. The previous night’s show was deemed a total and complete success by the by:Larm daily newspaper’s critic, who waxed ecstatic about it in a gush of near-pornographic adjectives worthy of early Sigur Rós reviews, all glacial this and majestic that. “It’s kind of embarrassing reading such reviews,” says Ólafur, “but I am of course happy and thankful that people dig my work and like to rave about it.”
He reminisces about his beginnings. “I think people were initially interested in me because I was this punk kid trying my hand at classical music, which is usually confined to a different type of crowd and venue and played by different types of people. At least they dress differently. I played small dive bars and clubs and came on wearing jeans and a t-shirt – there was this whole crowd of people that wanted to experience the type of music I make and maybe felt comfortable doing so in their own environment, as opposed to snooty concert halls.”
We talk about some of the places he’s played. Poland is his all time favourite country to perform thus far. “It’s kind of strange and really heart-warming. People there just appreciate the music so much, it’s incredible. I got mobbed leaving a venue there. The shows sell out instantly. I don’t know, playing there and watching the crowd react made me think that maybe us Westerners have become spoiled by all the music that we’re continually exposed to. It’s like they appreciate it more in places like Poland. I was kind of envious of that, because I remember how it felt.”
We are joined at our table by members of Retro Stefson and Hjaltalín, fresh from an Oslo sightseeing trip. “It’s a rather dull and common looking town,” Hjaltalín’s Högni remarks. “The people are very nice, but I find it hard to get excited about it.” Meanwhile, Retro Stefson’s Haraldur and Þorbjörg debate whether to go on a sleighing trip the following day. Someone apparently told them that you can take a train to the top of a local mountain, rent a sleigh there and ride to the bottom. Sounds like a sweet deal. Ólafur excuses himself to go do his soundcheck and the rest of us sit around picking at pizza crust, engaging in random conversation.
All is well in Oslo, Norway.
Clowning around with public money.
POSTSCRIPT: A mindless cheerleader speaks!
Ólafur Arnalds, Hjaltalín and Retro Stefson are all ridiculously accomplished musicians by any standard. They have all left big marks on Iceland’s musical landscape and now seem destined to move on to further successes, be they artistic, commercial or both.
This is awesome in and of itself, not the least since they are all humble, hardworking and down to earth people – the very opposites of the types Icelanders seemed to celebrate during “the dark years”. If anyone is going to rebuild the nation’s reputation abroad, it’s these people and the values they’ve been upholding all along. The ones of diversity, camaraderie and friendship that our crop of young musicians seem to honour.
As an avid follower of – and participant in – the Reykjavík music scene over the last few years, what strikes me the most about all of this is the realization that I could have followed any number of our musicians to Oslo and reached pretty much the same conclusion. There’s Skátar, Mammút, Agent Fresco and Hraun. We’ve got Weapons, For a Minor Reflection, Rökkurró, Celestine Sign and Sólstafir. Forgotten Lores and FM Belfast. Singapore Sling. Deathmetal Supersquad. I could go on all day.
Of course, not all of these will attain Sugarcubes-style worldwide notoriety and chart success. Maybe none of them will make it past their second LP. But that doesn’t matter. The fact that these young people have in them the confidence and stamina to carry on their creative endeavours so relentlessly and the breadth of vision to make up such a diverse and vital scene is what does.
This sounds like a bunch of hype, I’m sure. I’m probably coming off as a sort of indie-rock Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a mindless cheerleader or lecherous PR person pining to stay relevant by gushing meaningless expletives at a hearty rate. But I know it’s not and I know I’m not. I believe in this, and so should you.