Published June 17, 2011
Árni Rúnar Hlöðversson and Lóa Hlín Hjálmtýsdóttir are surprisingly fresh, considering that the day before they flew into Iceland after a short tour of Europe with their band, FM Belfast. They have spent the day in their backyard, working in their garden and enjoying a warm June afternoon, “to get back in touch with the everyday”, as Árni Rúnar puts it. When I arrive to interview them, Lóa’s sister and her husband are just leaving.
Soon Árni Vilhjálmsson (Árni Vil for short) arrives. He is the third member of the core group. They are tightly knit, finish each other’s sentences, and know each other’s stories by heart. Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason also takes part in most of the group’s activities, but since he is also member of múm, he is not always able to perform with FM Belfast live. Alas, he could not make it that Sunday, but he would join in at the end via telephone to provide the final sentence of this article.
WHY WON’T THEY SLEEP?!?
FM Belfast have been performing in public since 2006, and their first record, ‘How To Make Friends’, was released in 2008. They have just released their second album, ‘Don’t Want To Sleep’. I start by asking them when they started working on the new one. “Some of the songs are old”, says Árni Rúnar, “from around the time the last record came out. Some songs are newer, written maybe a month before the album was completed. A few songs have been kicking around in our live program. We’ve tested them out and changed them a little bit. We often get asked how we create things and there’s no one, simple answer. There are three main kinds of processes. The ones that never leave the studio, never become part of the live set, but end up on the record all the same. They just come into existence, ready-made songs. Some are born in the studio over a long period, some are born quickly, others go into the live set before they’re ready”.
“Some are born after 9 months”, says Árni Vil, “and some are born before”. Lóa says: “Yes, some are premature births and need assistance, need to go into an incubator”. Árni Vil applies the analogy to Árni Rúnar’s three processes: “So we have those who are born at the right time, those who are born prematurely and those who need the incubator”. Árni Rúnar jumps in: “My favourite songs are those that are born instantly”. Árni Vil spins out his metaphor further: “That’s like a baby that’s delivered via a Caesarean. Okay… maybe that’s not the best analogy”.
The three of them, along with Örvar, sing on the new album. I ask them how they go about writing lyrics. Lóa answers first: “I find it hard to write lyrics because I’m stuck on the idea that they have to be really meaningful, which is weird”. Árni Rúnar continues: “I want them to have no direct meaning, for them to be really open for anyone to interpret. For example, if you don’t want to sleep, it isn’t necessarily because your heart is broken. The lyrics never say ‘you can’t sleep because…’. That gives you the choice of so many different situations you can experience the song in”. Lóa adds: “Yeah, you could be an amphetamine junkie. Or like yesterday when I couldn’t go to sleep because I love the internet”.
‘Don’t Want To Sleep’ brings to mind a lot of early ‘90s techno and also the indie dance of Happy Mondays and similar bands. The songs are constructed using modern tools, however, and never sound dated. What The White Stripes were to delta blues, FM Belfast are to rave music. So it is not surprising to find out that the very first track they did was a cover of Technotronic’s 1989 classic Pump Up The Jam’, back in 2005 (you can hear the cover on their MySpace).
Reykjavík! singer Bóas Hallgrímsson is a long-time friend and fan of the bandmembers. He tells me the story of how FM Belfast started. “The Christmas after Árni Rúnar and Lóa started going out together, they were wondering what to give their friends as Christmas presents. They decided to record their version of ‘Pump Up the Jam’ and sent it out, to me and my girlfriend and a few other couples in our group of friends. Everyone was incredibly happy with it. That maybe led them to continue making music together, in any case they did. Árni Vilhjálmsson was their friend, in fact he operated a band with Árni Rúnar for a while called Cotton +1, and it seemed right to them to bring him into it”.
Árni and Lóa moved to New York, where Lóa studied illustration at Parsons and Árni worked on his music. Bóas says: “They were roped into playing Airwaves that next year and they had barely written enough for a set and were searching for an image and thinking about wearing costumes and what to do and how to behave. Somehow though, they managed, as if by magic, to create one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. At the now-burnt down venue Pravda, I believe”.
WHY FM BELFAST? WHY?
Early on FM Belfast were trying to figure out what kind of project they were. Was it sincere expression or were they going to create an image to hide behind? They came up with the name while trying to figure all that out. When I first read about the band I thought, because of the name, that they were a political band. I wonder what the name means to them, so I ask. Árni Vil is first to reply: “When we first went to Belfast, and took the Black Cab Tour, we suddenly felt that the name of the band was a lot more serious. When teenagers in Belfast asked us: ‘Why is the band called FM Belfast?’ We thought: ‘Now we have to give them a deep, meaningful answer, or else we’re insulting them.’ But to us ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ is just a good pop song”.
Árni Rúnar says: “When we saw everything there, we felt like the name carried more responsibility”. Lóa explains: “I felt like I was historically challenged, when I realised how serious the situation there is. Icelanders have no sense of history. We’re like Americans in that”. Árni Rúnar jumps in: “Everything that happens outside of the country seems like it happened in a movie”. Lóa goes on: “Like Americans are with their Founding Fathers, we are the same with [leader of Icelandic independence movement] Jón Sigurðsson and the rest of them. We think our independence heroes are geniuses who did brilliant things”.
“There was no seriousness behind the name”, Árni Rúnar continues, “but now, that’s what we’re working with today. It’s very weird, and we wouldn’t have selected it if we knew what happened. It was just a joke. We started out making songs that were nonsense, were just supposed to sound cool”. Lóa explains: “Joke cool, you know, wearing sunglasses and staring at your shoes”. “Like we were a real hard group”, says Árni Rúnar. Lóa finishes his thought: “Hard group with a drug problem”.
“Which isn’t who we were”, says Árni Rúnar, “but who we joked about being like. People sometimes think we’re really cool at first, but then they figure out that we’re a bunch of losers. If there’s one thing that I’ve found out in recent years, it’s that it’s incredibly boring to be cool. I think it’s much more fun to let yourself be a complete loser”.
“That’s because we can’t be any different,” says Árni Vilhjálmsson. The band lets all this uncoolness come out during their concerts. Árni Vil names an example: “We want to start each show by getting the audience to sing UB40’s ‘Red, Red Wine”. Árni Rúnar continues: “If you sing ‘Red, Red Wine’, scream it out, then you will become incredibly happy. It’s impossible to be really cool while singing it”.
I ask them if they genuinely loved the song ‘Red, Red Wine’ or if their appreciation is ironic. Árni Rúnar is first to reply: “I feel it deep in my heart, but I still feel ashamed to say it out loud”. Árni Vil was the one to make the song part of the group’s identity, as he explains: “I love this song. My friend made me a mix-disc that included it. I would drive around listening to it and when it came on, I’d scream along with the chorus. I picked Árni and Lóa up on Christmas Eve and we drove around listening to the song, screaming the chorus, and we had goosebumps and were filled with happiness and goodwill for all”.
GROWING UP IN A BETA TEST
Songs like ‘Red, Red Wine’ get them in touch with their preadolescent selves. Lóa says: “For me to think that UB40 is a lame band is learned behaviour. When I was a kid their records were played at home without anyone commenting, but then when I was a teenager I found out that they were terrible and no one could know you listened to them. Same with Cat Stevens. I think I know all Cat Stevens songs by heart because they were constantly played at my home, but then I learned from the cool crowd in Breiðholt [the neighbourhood of Reykjavík she grew up in] that you shouldn’t mention that. You become so repressed as a teen. This changed later when I met kids from Hlíðar and Vesturbær [Reykjavík neighbourhoods close to downtown] and they’d put on Cat Stevens in parties. I’d shudder. I had to break free of the chains. I spent months of my teenage life repressing that I liked the Bryan Adams song from ‘Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves’, ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)’. Then, years later, I’m driving by myself in the car and it comes on and I start singing along and crying”.
“While you were repressing liking it”, says Árni Vil, “I was in Vesturbær with all my friends, waiting for it to come on the radio so we could push the record button at just the right moment.” Lóa responds: “I wish I had been a teenager in Hlíðar”.
“Or 107 Reykjavík [the postcode for Vesturbær]”, says Árni Vil. Lóa protests: “No, then I would’ve gone to Hagaskóli [the school for 12–16 year-olds in Vesturbær] and become damaged. It’s incredible how nice you are considering you went to Hagaskóli”. Árni Vil replies: “On the other hand, I wanted to kill many of the people I went to school with for many years, but I’m free of that now. I made a mistake before I entered Hagaskóli at 12. I went to Berlin and arrived halfway through the first school year. I just showed up one day wearing green jeans, a blue sweater, red denim jacket, and Harry Potter glasses, which were supposed to look like John Lennon’s glasses. I hadn’t been there two minutes before someone took my lunch money”.
I asked Árni Rúnar where he lived as a kid. “I grew up in Grafarvogur [Reykjavík neighbourhood], so I don’t have a connection with any of that. She grew up in a cool semi-ghetto, he in an old, classy neighbourhood. I grew up in a beta test”, which Lóa considers “a perfect description of Grafarvogur in the ‘90s”.
“I know”, says Árni Rúnar, “what kind of social consequences can result from poor urban planning. If you’re building an entire new neighbourhood, do it over a long time. When you open a large school, Rimaskóli, and five hundred kids all start in it the same day, most will be armed, because they all want to conquer the school. Who can be the toughest, you know? Then kids were smoking pot during recess or beating each other up. I transferred out of that school after half a school year”.
Árni Vil continues: “In Vesturbær the problem is that there are three schools for 6-12 year-olds which merge to form one, Hagaskóli, and no one knows what will happen”. Árni Rúnar replies: “At least there you have cliques of people who fight together, so at least 20 kids will conquer the school. In Rimaskóli everyone fought as an individual, it was like the first past the post system, with only one winner who’d beat up everyone else.”
THEY ARE NOT MAKING FUN OF YOU, WHY WOULD THEY?
It is important to FM Belfast to be inclusive when they play,
to not try to dominate their audience. Árni Rúnar said: “When we’re playing live, we speak directly to the crowd, tell them that all of us together will have a party”. Audiences around the world respond differently to this sincerity. All three agree that, for instance, people in Poland understood them right away. “Poles are one of the most fun, thankful audiences you can play for. It’s crazy. It’s like they infect you with this incredibly positive energy”, Árni Vil remarks.
“Usually we have to play a bunch of shows in a country before that happens”, adds Lóa. “In France, at first it was like everyone was concerned with making sure we weren’t making fun of them. They regarded us very sceptically. The Swedes were the same. Like they were worried they were the subjects of our practical joke. I can understand that response. If I saw us on stage for the first time, I’d wonder if we were joking or not: ‘Why are they covering this song? Is it allowed to like that?’ I’d be sceptical”.
“One thing that makes the shows fun”, says Árni Vil, “both for us and the audience, is that we’re open to new craziness, into the structure we’ve created. For example, we were playing in Austria the other day and just before the concert starts these three dudes in ballerina costumes offer to come on stage to dance. We had them enter the stage during the fifth song and they’d leave and come back during the set. It put an entertainingly crazy spin on the show. They danced very suggestively”.
“My jaw hit the floor”, says Lóa, “suddenly all these bare-chested, handsome men jogged onto the stage. I think they were all over forty. They were clearly all dancers, very fit, but I could see from their faces that they were no teenagers, which made it much more interesting to me”.
“It’s open up to a certain point”, says Árni Rúnar. “But once in a while we lose control. We played Paris when our record was published on June 3rd. It was a great concert, with everything going great. We had some minor technical issues, but they didn’t matter because the energy was so great and the audience was in such a positive mood. We had asked our opening band to join us on stage during the last song. Then one audience member comes onstage. Then another. Then the stage was rushed by the crowd”. Lóa chimes in: “The stage was shaking. I tried to find a steady spot, but the whole thing shook”.
This is not the first time the structural integrity of a concert hall has been tested during an FM Belfast show. Their friend Bóas remembers when they played at Q-Bar, around the time that their first album was released. “It’s the only time I’ve gone to a concert and been more concerned about the load bearing capacity of the dance floor rather than enjoying myself.”
According to Bóas, who has seen them play live around sixty times, there has been the same energy onstage from their very first gig. “I don’t know what came first. Whether that FM Belfast are what they are today because of that debut gig [at Airwaves 2006] or whether the performance had been worked out beforehand. The main thing was that they were doing this to entertain themselves and when you do that people will be carried with you. At that first gig, the audience started singing along, which never happens the first time a band plays. What is so incredible about them, both today and when they first started, is this unbounded happiness and joyous manner they have. I hope it isn’t whittled off them by all the work they’re doing now.”
THE ROAD (IN A NON-CORMAC MCCARTHY SENSE)
From these chaotic beginnings a professional band has emerged. In 2010 they were on tour for ten months out of the year. According to Árni Rúnar: “It looks like this year will be the same. We have a three-week holiday right now and then a short holiday in August, but the rest of 2011 is all booked. That’s a lot. Right now the most difficult part is starting, the festivals. They’re so far apart that we’ll be flying so much that we’ll end up rather spent. Though right now we’re feeling pretty good. In the fall and winter we drive more, four hundred kilometres per day. That isn’t as tiring as flying.”
With all that work and all that travelling, things sometimes go wrong. At a recent London gig there was a near disaster that was averted, as Lóa explains: “We were in London and a bag that I was supposed to take care of went missing. It had a MacBook, recording equipment, lights, an iPhone and an endless amount of stuff. But then, an hour after it had vanished, this happy man in a Bob Marley t-shirt walks in carrying the backpack and asks: ‘Is your name Lóa?’ He had found the bag, which I had left on the pavement in East London, in some moment of madness. I don’t know how I did it.”
Árni Rúnar tells her not to beat herself up about it: “We were all sleep-deprived wrecks. Don’t worry about it. The guy had seen the bag on the street, walked into the bar it was outside of and asked: ‘There’s a backpack here, aren’t you gonna do something about it?’ The bartenders did nothing so he took the bag with him to see if he could find the owner. Half a million krónur’s worth of equipment, and he got it to us, this lovely man. Something like that doesn’t happen usually”. Árni Vilhjálmsson added: “We were walking in circles for twenty minutes like we were having a manic episode”.
Every once in a while during their tours they get little breaks. Árni Rúnar mentions a vacation day they had recently: “We were in the Alps eating fondue with donkeys. At the end of one of our tours we were driving to Strasbourg from Neuchatel in Switzerland. Our driver and tour manager had planned a trip without us knowing. Suddenly we’re driving up this mountain, and then we’re on a gravel road and we end up far up a mountain, with an amazing view. There’s a restaurant in a log cabin and we go in there, eat fondue and look out over the Alps. It’s very rare when we’re travelling so much that there’s any time. We’re always in a hurry to get to the next venue to do a sound check, then sleep before the show, then the concert, then back to sleep, then back to driving”.
“We’re not a band that parties a lot”, says Árni Rúnar. “Our party is on stage. We hibernate in between. We try to save up our energy for the shows, like it’s a sport.” Árni Vilhjálmsson says: “Once a promoter in Denmark was stressed out over how calm we were before the concert, and got even more worried when he saw we weren’t drinking”. Árni Rúnar adds: “It doesn’t suit us to be drunk on stage”
At the end of the interview Örvar, the fourth member, calls Árni Rúnar. The three core members ask him if he wanted to add something to the end of the article. Örvar says: “Fellow countrymen, let our zeal not vanquish beauty”. I ask if that was FM Belfast’s message to the world. He replies: “Yes, but also I’m really excited to see that sentence translated into English”.