From Iceland — Off The Rails With Grísalappalísa: The Iconic Band Bids Adieu

Off The Rails With Grísalappalísa: The Iconic Band Bids Adieu

Published October 25, 2019

Off The Rails With Grísalappalísa: The Iconic Band Bids Adieu
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson

If the early aughts in the Icelandic music scene was defined by lo-fi indie, peaking at around the time of the financial crisis of 2008, Grísalappalísa undoubtedly represents the sound of post-crash Iceland: loud, chaotic, bounding with untameable energy. From their inception in 2012, their creativity was so great that, by the band’s own admission, they had enough material for a second album by the time the first one, ‘Ali,’ was released.

However, their latest album, ‘Týnda rásin,’ will be their last. Grísalappalísa is breaking up.

In many ways, that’s evident in the album itself, and the roughly five years it took to make. “This record is basically about how hard it is to make this record,” saxophonist Tumi Árnason explains.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

The dream line-up

Grísalappalísa frontman and lyricist Gunnar Ragnarsson got his start in the highly successful Jakobínarína, which won the Músíktilraunir song contest in 2005. While that band would dissipate a few years later, Gunnar hadn’t given up on being a musician; it was only a question of with whom he would form his next band. Becoming friends with Baldur Baldursson proved to be the catalyst.

“It’s an album about isolating yourself, and your ideas being worn out and having driven you nowhere really. About not being able to face your problems.”

“We bonded a lot, with similar obsessions and habits,” Gunnar recalls of his early friendship with Baldur, who would become his co-singer and -lyricist. “We were interested in musicians like Megas, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Songwriters with heavy literary influences. I hadn’t been doing anything in music for at least three years, and I wanted some avenue for self-expression. I had a dream lingering, and Baldur was playing with writing lyrics for songs in Icelandic. We spent a lot of time together in his apartment in those years.”

So Gunnar considered the people in his life, forming in his mind what he calls his “dream lineup”.

“This included Sigurður [Möller Sívertsen], our drummer who also makes the videos for Grísalappalísa, and of course was with me in Jakobínarína,” he says. “I also thought of Bergur [Thomas Anderson] on bass and Albert [Finnbogason], who had been together in bands I really liked and who I was friends with. Rúnar [Örn Jóhönnu Marinósson] joined the band later. They were all the same age as me and we were all in bands competing in Músíktilraunir in 2005.”

Despite this meticulous planning, fate would introduce Gunnar to Tumi Árnason, the saxophonist and occasional other instrumentalist since Grísalappalísa’s beginning.

The quiet type

Gunnar met Tumi when they were working together at Bíó Paradís in 2011. Where Gunnar is practically crackling with energy, hardly able to sit still as we chat, Tumi provides an interesting contrast; more reserved and composed, with a quiet demeanour.

“I just came home from backpacking trip across Russia, Mongolia, China and Vietnam for the better part of a year,” Tumi says. “It was really fun.” Turning to Gunnar, Tumi continues, “I remember when you started the band, it was so interesting because while I knew Albert and Bergur, but Sigurður, I didn’t really know them at all. I met them at the first rehearsal.”

As a kid, Tumi listened a lot to jazz, and was in his school’s band. When he started secondary school, he also started attending a high-end music school, perhaps biting off more than he could chew.

“I had no idea what I was doing. I kind of freaked out over it and quit,” Tumi says. “Then I just started playing in rock bands instead. I did that for a lot of years, from around 16 years old, then decided to finish my proper education a couple of years ago. Albert and I were in The Heavy Experience together, and knew each other from that, and Bergur and I were in Just Another Snake Cult.“

Prejudice against saxophones

The choice to have a saxophonist, Gunnar says, stems from a number of reasons.

“I had heard Heavy Experience, and I really liked that band,” Gunnar says. “And of course, Baldur and I were really into this band Morphine. It was something really basic like this. I’ve become very conscious of prejudices and misconceptions about the saxophone from being in this band, because in a lot of the writing about the band, it’s always like such a novelty. ‘Oh and they have a saxophone player! And it isn’t awful!’”

“I think it’s because of the 80s prevalence of saxophone solos,” Tumi adds. “I heard so many intense statements about saxophones from the indie scene.”

“Maybe the idea is that you have the 80s Kenny G sound, and the other idea people have is like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler,” Gunnar says.

“It’s also very popular in shorter reviews that we’ve been getting over the years—and not just for this band—where it’s like, if there’s a saxophone present, you can put this ‘jazz’ label on it,” Tumi says. “‘With elements of jazz.’ When there’s nothing jazz about Grísalappalísa.”

Grísalappalísa’s first rehearsal

Now that Gunnar had established his dream lineup, the next step was convincing his draft picks to actually come together and play. This he did by creating a Facebook group, adding only the musicians he wanted. Soon, everyone was on board to have their first rehearsal. By all accounts, it was a major success.

“At the first rehearsal we wrote ‘Kraut í G,’ the first song off of [debut album] ‘Ali,’” Gunnar recalls. “That was very cool. Everyone was a bit shy, thinking ‘what are we doing here?’ And I think it was Bergur who said that he’d been listening to a lot of krautrock. [Sigurður] started the motorik beat. Baldur brought like 20 A4 pages of lyrics. At this stage I was supposed to be the singer and Baldur was just going to write lyrics, but we hadn’t formed an idea about that. I had a bit of stage fright, froze and didn’t know what to do. But Baldur started frantically yelling into the mic, launching into this existential rant that became the song. That was the first rehearsal.”

“I’ve become very conscious of prejudices and misconceptions about the saxophone from being in this band.”

When all was said and done, they knew they had started something great.

“We were pretty excited about it pretty quickly,” Tumi says. “I’d never done anything like this, and I really liked the line-up. It got off to a good start right away.”

“There was a period of a few months where we wrote the seven songs that formed ‘Ali,’” Gunnar says. “We were writing almost one song each practice. We wrote the first four, and then the last two or three; just flying in a burst of creative joy. We wrote ‘Hver er ég?,’ ‘Skrítin birta,’ and ‘Lóan er komin’—the most fun songs on ‘Ali.’ The mood was just fun, because we were getting to know each other, having coffee and joking and chatting about music.”

“It’s always been the most fun group I’ve ever worked with, right from the start,” Tumi emphasises. “It’s an amazing dynamic, whether in rehearsals or performing live.”

The creative explosion

‘Ali,’ was widely well received, and took the band by storm.

“For me it was like an explosion in my life,” Gunnar says. “It’s what I wanted and where I thought I was supposed to be: up on the stage, people admiring me, and telling me how great I was. You get addicted to the validation of other people. It happened quite rapidly that people were very passionate and singing all the lyrics. The release show at [the now defunct] Faktorý was crazy. It was a packed room, very sweaty and drunk people with a guy in the front trying to hand me a spliff. A lot of young guys in the front with existential drunk angst. Not the only kind of people, but definitely a type at our shows.”

“Maybe I just hadn’t thought that much about it, but ‘Ali’ was so well received and there was so much energy and fun at the time,” Tumi says. “It was a different kind of vibe from my previous groups. It was just this freedom, because we were all very loose, playing these long songs that could go anywhere and be anything. We were making all this music so fast and it was happening so easily. We were already well ahead of having material for the second album by the time we released the first one.”

Grísalappalísa’s initial creative output was indeed remarkable, and the group released ‘Ali,’ a 7” of covers of legendary Icelandic singer-songwriter Megas, and their second album, ‘Rökrétt framhald,’ all within a 12 month period. By his own admission, Gunnar says this explosion of material gave them all quite the confidence boost.

“We were very expressive in interviews, like, ‘What’s the deal with all these bands who release just one album in 4 years? We just did two albums in two years and we’re just going to keep on doing it!’” Gunnar recalls.

“I think we were pretty cocky, and just taking the piss,” Tumi says. “But then we did a live album a year after that, and a very non-serious plan where we were like ‘We’re gonna break up, and then we’re gonna come back together with a new line-up and do five more albums.’ It was a five-year plan.”

And then, life happened

As is often the case with even successful musicians, other facets of life began to put a strain on the band; domestic life, sobriety, and the need for more stable finances all played a part. In the interim, Bergur had moved to Holland and Sigurður to Bosnia. All of these factors complicated the making of a new album, and the process would end up stretching out over five years.

“From 2016 until now, the band wasn’t really operating as a day-to-day band, playing regular gigs and such,” Gunnar says. “We’d just meet and play a few times a year. People have changed where they’ve been living, with some people overseas.”

“We are all on very good terms; we’re almost like family. But as seven people together as this band we’ve just come to this now, and have had conversations like, at this point we can’t go on as Grísalappalísa.”

“Me, Albert and Rúnar were renting this garage behind Byko in Kópavogur and writing the sketches for songs,” Tumi says. “We were gathering a crazy pile of instrumental demos, where we were all switching around playing different instruments, so it’s super-sloppy, with part of the group totally absent. Bergur was sending some garage band demos from the Netherlands, which became two songs on the album.”

“We had these vague song structures that were piling up in a folder,” Tumi continues “We were thinking of making a double CD; two and a half hours of music or something. We finished this enormous amount of instrumental music and it switched around—instead of adapting existing lyrics to the songs that were being born on the spot, we suddenly had all these recorded songs and no lyrics.”

“It might have also been because we didn’t have a deadline, like for a gig that we were playing,” Gunnar adds. “This was a factor. But also Baldur and I had big anxiety and procrastination issues and a creativity block. We were always discussing ideas, and then had the demos to listen to, and then had the finished recordings of the demos to listen, but still we didn’t have any finished lyrics. I don’t know how many hours and days and months it was, just listening to the material and going back and forth. I think at some point I told Baldur I don’t think I can carry on if we don’t finish this album. We are very proud of this album, but it was a very arduous and long process.”

“This record is basically about how hard it is to make this record,” Tumi says.

The lost channel

Grísalappalísa’s new album, ‘Týnda rásin’ (‘The Lost Channel’), is out now, and even the name of the album stems from the creative process.

“It was a joke about Baldur having a guitar, and a cable that isn’t connected to anything, or muted,” Tumi says. “That it would be funny to release an album just from that channel.”

“So this very banal joke becomes the metaphor for our whole life,” Gunnar says. “It’s an album about isolating yourself, and your ideas being worn out and having driven you nowhere really. About not being able to face your problems.”

Gunnar says that for this new album, Grísalappalísa “wanted to be more autobiographical, to be more vulnerable.”

“Our music has always been very schizophrenic in nature, varying in musical styles and genres. But in writing ‘Týnda rásin’ it got even more extreme, almost as if there were no limitations.”

“We were struggling to understand each other, asking ‘Why isn’t this happening?’” he recalls. “We had to address our relationships with each other and be very honest. There’s a very stark contrast between the first two albums and this one. There was no need for introspection back then; we were just being young and not giving a fuck and being beautiful.”

“I kind of feel like this whole journey was like this train that gathers speed and then totally goes off the tracks and mutates into something else,” Tumi says. “And we’re just finding that out now.”

‘Týnda rásin’ is indeed an eclectic mix. It includes a country track and a de-tuned synthesizer marching band track. Even the Wintris scandal plays a role, as one track was tentatively called “Sigurður Ingi,” but is now called “Taugaáfall í Bónus” (“Nervous breakdown in Bónus”). No, there is no connection.

“It’s very different from the other two albums,” Gunnar says. “It’s also a bit different having the other members more involved with the lyrics and the singing. I also think the guys dealt us a tough hand. Our music has always been very schizophrenic in nature, varying in musical styles and genres. But in writing ‘Týnda rásin’ it got even more extreme, almost as if there were no limitations. It has always been the lyrics that tie it together and let it make sense in a unified way. This brings us also to the joke-y nature of the band—let’s do a country song, or atonal guitar piece and see what those jokers in the front do. Baldur actually gravitates to these more ridiculous songs—so we had them all finished first. But we had a harder time finishing the songs you might have thought were a little more traditional in the rock band sense—trying to perfect every line, second guessing everything.”

When the party’s over

While the band is rightfully very proud of ‘Týnda rásin,’ it proved the final nail in the coffin for their current form. They will be playing at Iðnó on November 8th as a part of Iceland Airwaves, and they intend to perform the entirety of ‘Týnda rásin’ early next year, but, ultimately, Grísalappalísa are breaking up.

“The band is quitting,” Gunnar tells us. “This is the end for the band. So these [‘Týnda rásin’] shows we were talking about in February and March will be the last shows. We’ll play the album in its entirety, then we’ll play another full set of the golden oldies It stems from everyone having different things going on in their lives, and the process over the years of making the third album. We hadn’t been an active band for three or four years, and this album has kind of brought us to the brink in a collaborative sense and creatively. We are all on very good terms; we’re almost like family. But as seven people together as this band we’ve just come to this now, and have had conversations like, at this point we can’t go on as Grísalappalísa.”

“I think it’s very sad for us, but also kind of bittersweet,” Tumi adds. “We were joking on the way here that this was a kind of Sixth Sense plot twist to the interview.”

The different members of the band will continue working together in other capacities, whether in music or even film. Tumi even has designs on making a Christmas album. All the same, it’s hard to let it sink in that this distinctly Icelandic band is dissolving, even if there is little doubt that the individual artists will not end their creative output any time soon.

“I guess that’s the whole thing about ‘Týnda rásin’; discovering things about yourself, what you’ve been doing over the last years,” Gunnar says. “Being relieved and proud of the work you’ve done, but it’s also of course a natural sadness of things changing. End of an era, I guess you could say.”

Grísalappalísa will be playing at Iceland Airwaves on November 9th. Their set is at IÐNÓ at 1:00 AM to 1:40 AM. Follow them on their website, Bandcamp, and Facebook. You can also check out past Grapevine coverage of Grísalappalísa here.

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