In a cluttered, unassuming basement deep in the heart of West Reykjavík is the nerve centre of one of the pioneering legends of Icelandic indie music: Sindri Már Sigfússon, perhaps better known to the world as Seabear or Sin Fang. Emerging in Iceland’s explosive music scene of the early 2000s, almost entirely by accident, this unassuming but uniquely talented soul got his start in the visual arts. Through a homemade EP he made more or less on a whim, he has since then been catapulted into international fame, working on everything from his own solo projects to film scores and even commercials. And he’s still not finished.
His serendipitous journey from frustrated student to iconic musician is made all the more fascinating by his quiet, self-deprecating nature, underneath which beats the heart of an artist with an insatiable drive to create. He tells us the tale of his journey so far, his incredible luck, and why the death of music criticism is a good thing for everyone involved.
Waiting on the record button
Sindri has always been obsessed with music. Although this may sound exotic to younger readers, it wasn’t easy being a fan of obscure, independent music in the early internet age.
“When I was nine or ten I would call into radio stations and make requests,” Sindri recalls. “And then I would wait with my finger on the record button on my little cassette deck. Or if I was listening to the radio and heard a song I liked but didn’t recognise, I’d call them up and be like ‘hey what was the name of the song you just played?’ and write the name down and go to the record store. It was such a hassle to be a music fan at that time. And then when Napster came out, I stayed up all night looking for music that I had been wanting to listen to for years but never found, like some early Slint album. I just lost my mind on Napster.”
Despite this, by his own admission Sindri didn’t entertain ideas of being a musician himself until later on in life, telling The Grapevine that he didn’t take his first guitar lesson until he was 19-years old.
“I’d always just been drawing and painting. I thought that in the future, I’d go to art school, and then I would continue and do a teacher’s degree, and teach art to kids. That was somehow set in my brain that that was what I was going to do.”
The bad student
Perhaps like many creative types, Sindri fell shy of model student status in his youth, eventually dropping out before finishing secondary school.
“I was just so bored of endlessly doing stuff that I had no interest in, and school had been that way for me since I was a teenager,” Sindri admits. “There’s something wrong with my brain where I have a very hard time concentrating on things that I don’t have any interest in. So the classes would float by, and in my mind I just went somewhere and I couldn’t remember anything that happened in the class unless I was interested in it.”
That would change in 2002, when he was admitted to Camberwell College of Arts in London. Although the city didn’t really appeal to him—”It felt like no one was very happy in London”—it was there that he began making music“playing around in DAWS and making random beats and sampling but nothing very focussed until I bought an acoustic guitar. I started playing around with it.”
The return to Iceland
Sindri began doing menial jobs upon his 2003 return to Iceland, at one point laying blocks of concrete for Reykjavík’s pavement. But his subsequent admission to Iceland University of the Arts unexpectedly gave him the time and energy he needed to explore his musical chops.
“The classes were only until noon, and you had the rest of the day free, so I decided to make this EP,” he says matter-of-factly. “At that time, there was a nice rack at 12 Tónar that was only homemade music, so you could make music in your home, burn 10 CDs and 12 Tónar would sell it at a commission for you. There was a bunch of music there. So I made this CD that was released under the name Seabear. I designed the cover, and then used my mother’s sewing machine to sew them all together, and it just kind of got out of control. I didn’t see myself as a working musician. That was a dream that was way too big to have ever thought of dreaming.”
To Germany and beyond
For reasons Sindri admits he still doesn’t understand, that debut EP somehow made itself into the hands of a German label called Tomlab. They released a Seabear song on one side of a 7”, opposite a song from Grizzly Bear.
“I guess they just thought it was funny that there were two ‘bear’ bands making similar music,” Sindri says. He was invited to play in Berlin by the same label at the famed Volksbühne theatre. While initially reluctant, the appeal proved too strong for Sindri to resist.
There was just one problem: he needed a band.
How does a solo artist go about forming a band in time for a concert when he doesn’t have any musician friends? Pick whoever’s around you, apparently.
“At that point I wasn’t around that many musicians who I knew could play with me,” he says. “There was an amazing girl at my school who was a violin player, so I asked her, and this friend of mine I used to skateboard with from Hafnarfjörður who I knew played guitar. It ended up being the three of us going to Berlin.”
By his own account, this live show was intensely emotional, but would lead to even bigger things.
“I was so nervous, I was blackout shaking nervous,” Sindri recalls. “It was a sold out crowd. It was only a few years ago that I started considering myself a musician. I’ve always felt like a music fan who started making music, which I guess is another word for severe imposter syndrome. At that point, having all these people working at that theatre, being really nice, and so many people are working around this event and I was just like, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t belong here. I’m not even at an amateur level musician and I’m playing in front of all these people.’ But we did the show and it went pretty well. I think the extreme nervousness and amateurism helped me on stage a bit.”
It helped him indeed: the show so impressed another German label, Morr Music, that they approached him about signing with them. Sindri, who knew Thom Yorke had bought Morr Music’s entire catalogue, “said yes on the spot”. Which meant that he had to make an album.
The Seabear work ethic
“That’s been pretty much the last 15 years for me; people asking me to do stuff, play or make an album and I’m just like ‘OK, why not?’” Sindri says. “I’ve never really actively pursued anything music-wise in my career. I just make music and the music leads me somewhere.”
As is often the case with bands in their formative years, Seabear did a lot of touring early on.
“We had maybe three years of just touring the whole year,” he says. “In 2010, we toured from January to December. It was completely mental touring.”
However, the experience would sharpen and refine Seabear into being “a full-fledged band”. While their first album was based more or less on Sindri’s demos, “The second album was something we did together. Some person would have a little idea, and we’d jam on it until it was a finished song. You know, how normal bands work. There was a lot of discussion of course, which I think is good. Ideas have to go through a lot of filters when you’re in a band to get to their final destination. It was a lot of fun. We’re all very different people, and I think that’s probably from me just asking the people around me who I know play some sort of music. It wasn’t like we were like-minded or anything. It was a very random group of people. I think at the end of the first band cycle, it was very democratic and everyone had their say and creative input. It was a very collaborative effort.”
Nonetheless, the constant touring began to take its toll. “I think we were just burned out after that. We were all so tired after three years of touring, and we were starting to have kids at that point, and you really can’t do that kind of touring when you have a tiny baby at home.”
With that, Sindri decided to put Seabear on ice; a decision he admits having some regrets about.
“It was probably my decision to put the band on hiatus in 2010, with our last show at Tjarnarbíó. Also because I wanted to be a little egomaniac like I was in the first years of the band, and just do everything myself, which I ended up doing for a few years with the Sin Fang project. It was kind of stupid in hindsight, because we were selling out a lot of the tours and it was going quite well. But it’s always fun to self-sabotage. That’s also been a theme in my life.”
The rise of Sin Fang
There is some overlap between the hiatus of Seabear and the beginnings of Sin Fang; the first Sin Fang album was made at the same time we made the second Seabear album. But where Seabear was a collaborative effort, Sin Fang was not just a solo project; Sindri also sought to do everything completely differently.
“I think that unleashed something in me to do that first Sin Fang album, because I decided I wanted to be more brave with my voice,” Sindri explains. “I made some rules for myself; I had to play every instrument, to sing in falsetto and louder, to be more bold, which was not a part of my character. I feel like that was a moment for me. I kind of broke out of my shy shackles a bit.
“With the stuff I was doing before I was kind of whispering into the mic; it was all very hushed and subdued. That [2009 Sin Fang] album, I decided I had to be on the cover, because at that time it was such a no-no to have your face ever connected to any of your music. Looking back over the years, I see a pattern in myself, which is difficult to see when you’re this close to it. You gain clarity as the years go by, and just feel that each time I finish a project, I always want to do the exact opposite.”
The return of indie and the death of criticism
As Sindri was embroiled in Reykjavík’s early 2000s, he sees clear parallels with today’s music scene, wherein things seem to have come full circle.
“There are a bunch of bands now in this Post-dreifing collective, which are similar to the early 2000’s thing; they all play together, and they’re all playing in each other’s bands, and each one of them has their own solo thing, and they’re all championing one another,” he says. “I think that’s really great. And they all wear like fucked up Red Cross clothes and not designer clothes. But with my generation, I was kind of a baby—like 22—it wasn’t a generational thing; it was a spirit thing. Just like-minded people doing similar things, but another thing I thought was great about that period, which I also see in this Post-dreifing phenomenon, is the variation of genres. Where people feel the need to carve out their own identities. And in such a small scene, people were very wary of sounding the same as another band. It’s OK to have influence of course, but sounding like another band was a big no-no.”
Even music criticism—something Sindri seems to have a love/hate relationship with—has undergone a waning of sorts.
“I think almost no one is covering music now,” Sindri says. “It used to be that when you released an EP, it would get a review in Morgunblaðið, Fréttablaðið, and DV. It was just everywhere. And they had all these little magazines for young people, like Undirtónar and Monitor. I guess young people don’t really read printed media anymore. Music reviews don’t really exist anymore, when you think about it, and by that I mean giving a band or an album three stars or something like that.”
“There were these tastemakers, and buying a CD was an investment,” he continues, “so you’d be like ‘Oh, it got an 8 on Pitchfork? I guess I’ll buy it then.’ But now, no one gives a shit, because you can just open up Spotify and see if you like it. You don’t have to listen to some idiot telling you if it’s good or not. Even though I’m such a music nerd it was very entertaining for me to read when people have really thought about the music and are really dissecting it, so in a way I’m a bit sad that that’s kind of ended. But as a musician, I’m happy to see that people can just listen to the music and make up their own mind.”
“I guess I’m a musician now”
Despite being one of Iceland’s indie music scene’s iconic figures, Sindri did not really consider himself a musician until much later on in his career. He recalls being struck with the realisation when Seabear played Iceland Airwaves in 2009 (readers take note: Seabear will be performing at Iceland Airwaves this year, too), at a packed show at Iðnó with a queue stretching down the block.
“I remember after the show I was thinking, ‘I guess I’m a musician now. I’m gonna play music and people are going to see it,’” he says. “I was just so happily surprised with the way my life had turned out because I never really expected it. It was a dream that was too big for me to even think about, to be a successful musician.”
Although he still considers himself more at home in the studio than on stage, the Sin Fang experience definitely helped Sindri “break out of [his] shell”. That said, the fame doesn’t seem to have gone to his head.
“I guess you’re a bit flattered, but I think it’s best not to dwell too much on these things,” he says of fame. “I think it’s really bad art-wise to think about the audience when you’re making something. I approach art with the idea of doing it for myself. I think that’s the best way to stay true to yourself, to stay true to your voice and not to be like ‘Oh, I should probably write like a low-key piano song to try to get onto a Spotify playlist;’ or ‘people really like this song, so I should make another one like this.’ I try to stay away from thoughts like that, and whatever impact it’s had on people’s lives. I try not to think about that.”
“It’s weird to be reminded that what I do, someone is listening to it. Art is therapy for me. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have this outlet, this purpose for myself. And it’s purely for myself. I’d keep doing it even if it was only my mother listening to the music, because I need to do it to survive.”
Ultimately, Sindri’s process seems to happen entirely in his unconscious, with little deliberate thought put into the actual creative process. And that’s precisely what makes the magic happen.
“I try to never think about what I’m going to do with the art when I’m doing it; it’s kind of just for me,” Sindri says. “I think I like to operate on intuition. My goal when I’m making music is always to get into this flow state where I’m not thinking. Thinking can get in the way of making stuff. Thinking all day about what you’re going to do when you could be just doing it. My favourite time is when I’m making music and just making it flow without thinking. I realised when I started releasing music and started doing interviews, people would ask me questions that I had never thought about. Like ‘why are you doing this specific thing?’ and when I think about it, I have no idea. I just do it.”
Watch the video for Sin Fang’s new single, No Summer, here or below:
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Posted September 27, 2019