Published May 27, 2015
Karl takes a bite out of his hot dog and laughs at Indriði for bringing vegetables to a barbeque. Loftur frets over there not being enough sauces and procures a beer from somewhere, while Ási and I work out the correct exchange rate between my hot dogs and his hamburgers. It’s a relaxed autumn afternoon in Hljómskálagarður park, and I’m sitting with the four members of Muck, a hardcore punk band I have ardently followed for the past two years. At the time they had a killer new album on the way and a shiny new record deal with international heavy metal label Prosthetic Records to their name, which finally gave me an excuse to sit them down for a proper interview.
As we munch on BBQ, I find it hard to fathom that these playful youngsters are the same ones I witnessed whipping the crowd at metal fest Eistnaflug into such a frenzy that it begat a rare vortex mosh pit. But they are, and their live shows just kill me. Their Airwaves set at Harpa music hall was so clean that I felt compelled to sit down and appreciate its instrumental beauty. At a living room concert a couple of weeks prior, they drew such a big crowd that the floor started creaking, as if ready to collapse. At a Gaukurinn outing, I observed a fan faceplant, knocking himself out in the mosh pit, only to wake up a minute later and jump right back into the fray. And I understood. It’s why I use every opportunity I get to see those guys play.
Observing Muck relaxing and drinking beers in the park proves a sharp contrast to the explosive energy the group delivers in concert. In a way, however, the core experience was much the same. On stage, synchronicity is one of Muck’s defining traits, each instrument meshing perfectly together in beautiful and deliberate discord—sans instruments, the four members still mesh perfectly. I went on to further confirm this through several encounters that fall and the following winter: together, the four form a well-oiled, highly sophisticated machine far greater than the sum of its parts.
Small wonder, then, that Muck is seeing a bit of success. “The year of Muck,” they’re calling it. Note, however, that none of it happened overnight. Muck is the result of hard work, extensive touring, a genuine love for music, and a very strong bond of friendship.
Arts and crafts
Lead guitarist Indriði Arnar Ingólfsson says that when the band got together at the end of 2007, they did so with the intent of becoming the heaviest band in Iceland. The members all knew one another from going to shows and tagging buildings, and started off playing sludgy drone hymns before making the jump into hardcore punk.
Ási Þórðarson, drummer
- Is a session drummer for beloved indie pop band FM Belfast.
- Studies psychology at the University of Iceland.
- Trains at Mjölnir martial arts gym and enjoys watching half-naked men knock the living daylights out of one another.
- Has a small black poodle named Atari, who loves to chew things.
Drummer Ási Þórðarson says the punk scene they came out of was quite different in those days: “It was a bunch of hormonal teenagers that wanted to change the world, but they mostly just went to parties in Breiðholt and made out.” Given how the extreme music scene was largely dominated by rock and metal acts, there were relatively few punk bands around. Muck thus often shared a stage with some very different acts, such as thrashers Severed Crotch and progressive doom merchants Momentum.
When Muck released their debut LP ‘Slaves’ in 2012, they were showered with positive feedback. One notable exception to the chorus of praise was DIY punk stalwart, musician and selfstyled music historian Dr. Gunni. “He said we were just pretentious art school students,” Ási notes, with singer/guitarist Karl Torsten Ställborn chiming in that that may have had some truth to it—at the time they had started carving a niche for themselves by connecting more to the art scene and sharing the stage more often with indie acts like Mammút. Indeed, Karl and Indriði were both enrolled in the Iceland Academy of the Arts, which Indriði says shaped their band to a large extent. “When you’re playing a guitar, and you’re painting, the two art disciplines have a way of influencing one another.”
Limitations of labels and the scene
Throughout my many conversations with the band, the four members interchangeably describe their music as punk, hardcore, rock or “heavy.” When confronted with this inconsistency, they take a moment to think before answering that they’re wary of participating in the elitist culture that punk and hardcore are often associated with. “There’s a lot of holier than thou attitude in punk, where you have to dress and act in a certain way, and conform to a certain political point of view,” Ási says, “but I want no part in that. Punk, to me, is about the attitude you bring to creating and promoting your music, and about invoking a very primal and destructive urge in the listener. I don’t want to push our political views on our audience, in fact if anything, we are decidedly apolitical— I want our performances to be a safe space where things like how dumb our prime minister is don’t matter.”
Despite flourishing on the margins of the extreme and art scenes, and earning a solid local following in the process, the boys of Muck have always known the key to their success was touring internationally. Unlike so many other Icelandic bands that dreamt about playing abroad, Muck just went out and did it, if only for the experience of doing so.
- Studies fine art at the Iceland Academy of Arts.
- Did an exchange semester in Mexico, and then stayed behind to travel.
- Owns an original GameBoy that’s still in working condition (but needs batteries).
As early as 2009, they embarked on their first European tour with nothing but debut EP ‘Vultures’ to their names. Bassist Loftur Einarsson says they ended up paying for most of that trip themselves, renting an expensive car to play five concerts over a two-week period. “It ended up being like a big holiday for us,” he says, “but at the same time it was a real turning point as we saw a lot of really fast bands, which then encouraged us to play our own music even faster.”
Things really started picking up in 2012 when the band was invited to tour with glacial rock band Plastic Gods and play a show with American hardcore punk band Ceremony. That outing was marked by its great vibe, and saw Muck play to larger crowds than before.
After appearing at that summer’s Eistnaflug metal festival, the band toured through Europe again and played what Loftur calls their weirdest show ever. “At the time we thought we were booked to play Prague in the Czech Republic, but our venue turned out to be located in a small town called Kladno, ten kilometres out of the city. Kladno is an almost archetypical Soviet town, where everything is grey and depressing with this weird green smoke coming from the chimneys, and we were playing in this dingy basement bar that looked about as appetizing as the underside of your grandpa’s stove.”
Indriði adds that their warm-up band was a Balkan folk band, and that the turnout wasn’t much to speak of. It was weird, sure, but Ási says it wasn’t until after the gig that the scene started getting kind of scary. “We were to stay in this old TV studio that had been converted into band practice space, and it was completely unheated. A security guard had to let us into the area, it all felt like a scene from ‘Hostel’ or something. It was small, cramped, and probably one of the worst moments of my life,” he says before Karl humorously adds that Ási’s experience may have been coloured by his having forgotten his sleeping bag. “Me, I was pretty comfortable.”
Creating the second project
In the creative world, the follow-up to a successful debut is often what makes or breaks the artist. When I asked the guys whether they felt any kind of pressure making their new album, they all laughed and told me that was a dumb question. “I know people talk about how deadly the second album can be,” Ási says, “but it’s just bullshit. People in the punk world are too busy thinking about other things than that kind of pressure. Besides, nobody’s going to get famous or rich playing this kind of music.” Karl says that the sophomore record is maybe a problem for mega hit bands like Of Monsters And Men, “but ‘Slaves’ fucking sucks compared to our new album!”
- Has the most tattoos of anyone from Muck.
- Is a session guitarist for electro band Fufanu, who share a rehearsal space with Muck.
- Has a stoner/drone side project called The Man.
- His graduation project from the Iceland Academy of Arts was a giant wooden hand with a revolving middle finger.
They all seem to agree on this, that the new one far surpasses ‘Slaves’. Even if there were interesting ideas on the previous album, Ási explains, it was much too crowded. This, he says, was a mistake they didn’t repeat. “We knew we had to take good ideas and simplify them, delivering them more clearly than before,” he says. “‘Your Joyous Future’ has much better song structures, and the band’s chemistry has grown by leaps and bounds. We’ve learned a lot about what kind of music we want to make and how to make it.”
One of the milestones of said evolution came at the end of 2012 when the band was offered an art residency in New York, where they would record more material. Having written, rehearsed and created enough songs for ‘Your Joyous Future’, they crammed in a quick session over a weekend where they recorded the whole album in one go before hopping on a plane. When they then got to the US, they were left with nothing to do but create more material, get into a creative zone and rekindle their love of music.
“It was incredibly maturing for me as an individual, and us as a band, to be able to completely disconnect from what was going on at home and just create,” Loftur says, the rest soberly nodding along. “I had no money, no chores and no obligations, and it reminded me why I love making music. Now when I’m playing with my band, I just feel like we’re hanging out at the playground.”
Ási agrees, adding that such an intense experience should either confirm one’s conviction to be a musician or convince you to drop out. “Our band practices since then haven’t been about playing our songs, but just chatting, interacting with one another and being present,” he says, “and that intimacy and chemistry is visible when we play, because we get along so well.”
Looking to the future
A few weeks later I catch up with the band at their rehearsal space. Situated in the Laugardalur suburbs, the place is filled with dirty coffee mugs, empty beer cans, and instruments.
To the four of them, this is a second home. As we share a few pints, the guys say that even after getting so filled with inspiration from playing all of those shows, they got bogged down with working their day jobs, finishing school and everyday life at the end of 2013.
Discussing the subject of authenticity, Karl relays an anecdote from his early teens. He was at a music store with his friend, looking at electric guitars, when the guitarist from pop rock outfit Írafár—then Iceland’s most popular band—came up to him and asked him if he was a metalhead. When Karl confirmed this, the guitar hero responded: “I used to be like you, you know, with long hair, but you have to cut it off,” implying that this was the only way to succeed in music. “I wanted to tell the guy to shut the fuck up,” Karl says laughing, “this guy used to be in proper bands that played their own material, before joining a party band that just makes money. It made me never want to go down that path,” he says, “because it’s just the road to becoming lame. And twelve years later, here I am, still doing my thing in my own way.”
Things started looking bleak as they played fewer shows, rehearsed less often and got stuck in a rut. Muck’s future was uncertain, but that all suddenly changed when they got a message from Prosthetic Records saying they wanted to sign the band (they have since parted ways with the label, citing creative differences).
“We were playing a show with [local punkers] Elín Helena at Bar 11 when we got the email, and we decided we were just going to kill it,” Karl says. “We stopped being negative and really started looking forward.” The band members have since really thrown themselves into creating more songs, rehearsing and finessing them. Ási assures me from the edge of his seat that however good ‘Your Joyous Future’ might be, the next album will be even better.
“We’re now working more harmoniously, experimenting more, but at the same time feel unafraid of telling each other when something doesn’t work,” he says. “And the stuff we’ve been making lately? It’s so great it’ll blow the last one out of the water!”
When we move over into the practice space, I try to make myself as comfortable as possible sitting on the floor as they tune their instruments and start rehearsing a few songs. They quickly fall into a groove, playing louder and faster, their rhythms synching up as they go through their regular repertoire. A familiar wave of aural enjoyment washes over me as they move on to a song I hadn’t heard before.
- Sports the band’s greatest beard, but threatens he’ll shave it off one of these days.
- Can often be found serving beers with a smile at Húrra.
- Has by far the cutest Muck tattoo in existence.
- Dressed up as Finn from Adventure Time last Halloween.
It is a fast grindcore tune, still lacking vocals but clocking in around three minutes, and it holds me completely captivated. Guitar riffs deliberately clash with bass lines and the drum beat alternates between steady and irregular rhythms. It’s only once the wild ride is over that I catch my breath. Loftur complains that a bridge is too difficult and Karl jokes that he just needs to learn it better.
When I ask them when they made the song and what its name is, they look almost surprised to find me there. Ási says they just wrote it a few days ago and that it doesn’t have a name yet. Loftur, perhaps worried that I’m bored, offers me to grab one of the extra guitars and join in, but I can’t, I’m scared to death I’ll upset the delicate balance they’ve created before me. I tell him I don’t know how to play. “It doesn’t matter,” he says, “it’s just about having fun.”
They launch into that unnamed tune again, and the fan in me is reminded why I’m so captivated by this band. The song is electric. It is dynamic. It’s loud. It’s fast. It’s fun. It’s everything I like about the band.
On the way home they tell me they plan to tour extensively abroad later this year. I sincerely hope as many people as possible get to see them.
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