Published June 23, 2015
On a recent Saturday afternoon, amongst the bustling circus of Reykjavík 101’s summer street life, an unusual spectacle grabbed the attention of the throng. Under the blue sky, one of Iceland’s most exciting young musicians, DJ flugvél og geimskip, aka Steinunn Harðardóttir, was performing on the street outside of Klapparstígur’s Reykjavík Record Shop. In front of a windswept curtain of gold streamers and amidst blinking, colourful lights, the diminutive, brightly dressed Steinunn hit keys and pedals to create a joyful cacophony.
Amidst twitching rhythms and synth squalls, she sang in a dizzying vocal range, moving fluently between snarls, squeaks, rhythmic proto-rapping and high-pitched Middle Eastern scales. Steinunn’s sound echoed through the streets, pulling in passersby, from trolley-pushing grandmas and Gore-Tex-clad tourists to shop workers, hipsters, parents and their toddlers. Before long, the whole street was packed, with children skipping around Steinunn’s feet as she handed out candies and gifts between songs.
Despite the unconventional nature of the music, her performance captivated the impromptu audience, leaving them beaming and cheering. As passing drivers peered curiously from their car windows and waited for the crowd to disperse, what was intended as a small-scale listening party had become, in London raver parlance, “a roadblock.”
Night on the bottom of the ocean
The celebration was in aid of Steinunn’s second album, ‘Nótt á hafsbotni’ (“Night on the bottom of the ocean”), which was being released on CD by the Mengi label (a wider release is planned for August). The album is heavily anticipated; over the past few years, DJ flugvél og geimskip has become a notable presence on Reykjavík’s music scene. Just turned 28, Steinunn is a Reykjavík-born art graduate whose idiosyncratic approach shares a similar sense of playfulness and individuality with Icelandic music alumni like Múm, Jónsi and Björk.
We meet to discuss the record at a tucked-away cafe in Grandi, Reykjavík’s rapidly redeveloping harbour area. Taking a sip of her coffee, Steinunn takes a deep breath and visibly steadies herself for the interview, before explaining the beginnings of the album. “I had a lot of ideas before recording it,” she says, an engagingly animated conversationalist. “I was planning to do this and that… but I just can’t work that way. I always end up doing something in the moment.”
The album serves both as a continuation of her colourful and chaotic aesthetic, and as a distinct sonic development. The vocals are richer than the charming DIY sound of her debut— whilst the album retains a playful cut ‘n’ paste feel, it’s a clear step up in production values.
“I got this new drum machine,” she exclaims, enthusiastically. “It’s an MPC- 1000. I was always wondering, ‘How do people make such good drums?’ When I was 13 I thought it was with things from the kitchen—I’d use kitchen utensils, and record them holding the mic in the other hand. And that can be the way. But with the MPC-1000, you can download sounds into it, or record them and put them in the machine, then programme the drums. So this time, all the beats are much, much better.”
The first DJ flugvél og geimskip album, ‘Glamúr Í Geimnum’, took inspiration from outer space. But to Steinunn, the deep ocean is just as interesting—or, potentially, the same place entirely. “If you go down into the ocean,” she says, “down down down, down down down down…there is no light there. There is no nothing. It is total blackness. And then you see something blinking and you think, oh this is the blinking fish! And who knows… maybe if you keep going into the blackness, and maybe eventually you come out in deep space. And maybe they’re not fish, maybe they’re aliens. People haven’t been to the bottom of the ocean in some parts, and the same with deep space. Some people say, ‘That’s stupid, because if you go to the bottom of the sea you get to the middle of the Earth.’ But for me, if you go down to the deep sea, you end up back in space. It could be a portal around the core of the Earth that brings you to space! Maybe that’s why it’s the same blackness.”
The new wave
Steinunn comes from a musical family, and has been learning since childhood, when she played violin—an instrument she still loves to play today. “After thirty minutes, it consumes me,” she says. “I can play for two or three hours without noticing, and put all my feelings into what I’m doing. I didn’t always like it when I was kid— I didn’t want to practice. But I now know it helped everything. I did concerts, which made me used to playing in front of people. Also, playing the violin is a bit like singing, so I think it helped me to sing! I don’t really know how to sing but… I know the notes, and where they go.”
The seeds of her current music practise were planted when she got her first keyboard. “It was a Yamaha called ‘nýbylgjan,’ or ‘the new wave,’” she smiles. “My father gave it to me when I was three or four. I would put on some beat and sing. Then when I was five I started recording it onto cassette. The drums were always homemade back then, you know. But every now and then I’d get some new keyboard, like a Casio where you could play the drums yourself—that was a big leap forward!”
Steinunn still has those early tapes. “It’s strange to listen to it now,” she says. “When I was five I was singing about wild cats in the night, or flying cars in space.” She pauses, and smiles broadly. “Basically, the same things I’m singing about now.”
The heavy things in life
The new album was recorded out in the countryside, in the depths of the Icelandic winter. Envisioning a melodic, accessible sound, Steinunn found that the unforgiving weather had a powerful influence on her work. “It was supposed to be this catchy summer hit record,” she explains. “Then it was so dark and so cold… the music ended up being really heavy. I was worried about it, and said to the Mengi people, ‘I’m so sorry, I think nobody is going to buy this record!’ But they just said, ‘Ah, no worries, make the record you want to make! It doesn’t matter about selling, we don’t care!’ That was a very good freedom to have.”
Such spontaneity is a key component of Steinunn’s process, and perhaps a big part of her music’s appeal. “I don’t know how people can make music any other way,” she says, bemused. “I’m always thinking, ‘How do people make all this pop music?’ I’m always trying to make catchy, poppy music, and I always think what I’m doing will turn out to be a catchy song… then I’ll play it to my boyfriend and he’ll say, ‘This… isn’t… a song, really, I think.’ It’s funny how it comes out. I always play my new songs for people and say, ‘Listen, it’s a pop song!’ and they’re like, ‘Noooo, it’s not…’” She breaks into laughter before continuing: “But, I’m really happy with it. It’s a really loud mix. I wanted it that way, so if my song came on the radio, it would be louder than everything else, it would be like ‘dum-dee-dum-dee-dum’ and then ‘RAHHHHH!’”
She furrows her brow, pondering her songwriting process. “I always get an idea, and feel like I know what I’m going to do. But it all gets mixed in with other things inside, then it gets distorted, and comes out completely different. Like in my new video, I was trying to dance like Beyoncé, but I guess that’s not really what I was doing…”
Beyoncé dance moves
Of all the things one might expect to see in a DJ flugvél og geimskip video, I say, Beyoncé dance moves are not close to the top of the list.
“Well you see, last night I was doing a new video, of a live performance,” Steinunn explains, excitedly, “and I decided to DANCE in the video! And I never dance, except maybe when I’m crazy drunk. So I was asking myself… ‘Can I actually dance?’ Because when I was a kid, my dance instructor ended up firing me from the dance lessons. I always just wanted to dance my own crazy dances and never learn any steps… I wasn’t learning anything.”
The filming took place at Mengi’s performance space, with Berlin-based film crew Orange ‘Ear. Late at night, after most of the shots were complete, the time came for the dance sequence. “Ísgerður who works at Mengi came by with her friend Sigga,” says Steinunn. “Sigga is a dance teacher who’d been teaching a Beyoncé-style dance class that very night! And so of course I was like, ‘Uhh, can you teach me how to dance like Beyoncé?’ So she was there shouting things at me, like ‘GROW BIGGER! MORE HEAVY IN THE FEET! DON’T LOOK SO DRUNK!’” She bursts out laughing, adding: “It was a big help. It’s actually one of my biggest fears to see myself dance, so… it’s going to be interesting.”
Colours are beautiful
Another notable feature of the video is Steinunn’s DIY light show, which she also uses to create a spinning constellation of colours on the stage. The look is carried through various aspects of the project, from her dayglo keyboards and pedals to her outfits and artwork. But despite a jumbled, wide-ranging palette, there’s a coherence to it all, helping to foster a feeling of stepping out of the ordinary and into the world of DJ flugvél og geimskip.
“Well, I use all the things I love,” Steinunn explains, “like all the colours, the cute animals and the sparkling things. I have tried to make black and white videos, to ‘be more cool.’ I take away the colours, and stop smiling so much… but it doesn’t work. I’ll just try adding one colour. Say, green. And then I’m like, ‘WOW! This green is BEAUTIFUL! Now, I need pink.’ And in the pink will go, and I’m like, ‘WOW! This is amazing!’ I just love colours! Then I’ll be like, ‘Why should I make a black and white video when I could have these colours?’ And then of course I’ll have a photo of a dog that is SO cute, and I have to put it in. So, even if I try to hide this side of myself, it just comes through. The colours, they always come back.”
The same is true of Steinunn’s day-to-day life. “I once met a friend that hadn’t been very good to me,” she frowns. “I decided for a week that if I met that friend, I was not going to smile. But I met the friend, and of course, straight away I was smiling. And I thought, ‘Ugh! I hate myself! Why couldn’t I stop smiling, just once in my life!’”
DJ flugvél og geimskip’s visual universe also includes a lot of fractals: repeating patterns of shapes that can be zoomed into infinitely. “Fractals are just. So. Beautiful,” says Steinunn, emphatically. “I don’t know what they do really, but I’ve heard they’re used to make computer games and special effects, and people say they appear everywhere in nature. And now, I can make them in my computer, with a fractal generator, where I just put in numbers, and then it comes out very beautiful. And also really pointless. I make them for hours and hours, and then just watch this one-minute clip that came from it. It doesn’t serve any purpose. It’s totally meaningless. And that is my goal in my life. I want to do pointless things or things that you can’t tell are important. I don’t enjoy these eating, working, sleeping things.”
Everything is dark and pointless and terrible
Whilst her approach seems to shine with playful, carefree creativity, a shadow passes over Steinunn’s face as she explains that there’s more to both her work and her personality than that. “People often say to me, ‘I wish I had your life! You are always so happy!’” she says. “But that’s really not how it is. I am sometimes really, really sad. I get melancholy. Darkness does come into my work. It’s part of the drive behind it… the drive to get away from the dark. Because everything is dark and pointless and terrible. Then you try to find a way to make it fun to keep living.”
“Often I feel like life is a really terrible thing, and evil, and so I get attracted to evil things,” she continues. “Then I think, how can I live in this world? How can I possibly keep on living? And should I? And I’ll think, no, I shouldn’t, it’s all too bad, I’m not good, the world is evil. Then I’ll be walking around and thinking about all this, and I’ll see something beautiful. Maybe it’s some song coming from a window. And it makes you want to hear more… that’s one of the things that makes you want to continue living. Beautiful songs from the radio.”
Whilst such existential questions are something many push to the back of their mind, or ignore completely, Steinunn seems to wrestle with them on a day-to-day basis. “The most important question in my life,” she says, “and in everyone’s life, I think, is, ‘Why should I keep living? Why don’t I just die?’ And for me, it’s about living for more than the things we HAVE to do—the eating, sleeping, working. It’s not like we’re farmers—we’re not growing the crops and tending the animals, just to stay alive. Well, many of us aren’t, at least. So now, people get really sad and think, ‘Why am I living?’”
Steinunn posits that it’s ‘nonessential’ activities, like music and the arts, that can offer a route out of the mundane. “People can find something else they like to do,” she says. “Some hobby, maybe. And other people say, ‘Why do you spend your time in this pointless thing?’ But the pointless thing is actually what keeps them going! For me it’s these things I like— the beautiful colours and lights, music and art, books… especially books where I don’t really learn anything, just books about something.”
First band on the moon
Being DJ flugvél og geimskip has given Steinunn the chance to maintain a creativity-focussed life. She travels more and more, whether representing Iceland at the music industry festival Eurosonic, or flying out to Japan late last year to take part in J-pop and Kpop music workshops.
“This was always my dream,” she smiles, “to be a musician and an artist, and to have my picture in the paper and say, ‘Yep, that’s me!’, and to travel the world and play my music for people. Because I like the music I do, so maybe my music can find its way to other people, and make them happy and want to continue living too! So my dream has become reality. Someone asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ and I said, ‘Be a musician and an artist!’ And then I realised, ‘Oh! That’s actually what I do!’ and I was really happy.”
“There’s been all this proof appearing that I might be from Atlantis…”
But she has greater ambitions still. “I want to play my music for all the people who would like to listen to it,” she says. “When I hear new music at a festival, I feel so happy and excited, and I think, ‘Wow, what more does the world have to offer?’ So I want to do the same, for as many people as I can. First, everyone on Earth. And then, of course, to play in space. I can’t go yet though, because it’s still very expensive, and I’m not a scientist doing some experiments…”
In the meantime, Steinunn’s imagination contains more than enough to keep her busy here on Earth. At the same time, the philosophy underlying her work shows that playfulness and lightness are, sometimes, things to be taken very seriously. “So, yes,” she finishes, “it’s all about getting towards the light. Sometimes I meet people in the street, and I’m wearing black clothes, and they say, ‘Oh no, Steinunn… you are wearing all black, what’s wrong?’ And I say, ‘Nothing at all! I’m finally happy!’ So, if you see me wearing black clothes, don’t worry. It’s a very GOOD sign!”
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