From Iceland — Like Father, Like Son!

Like Father, Like Son!

Published November 1, 2011

Like Father, Like Son!

‘The Birdcage’ concert series has Snorri Helgason and his father Helgi playing together.
Now you know Snorri Helgason, don’t you? Of course you do. The former frontman of Sprengjuhöllin, he’s been making a bit of a name for himself the last couple of years, first with his debut solo album ‘I’m Gonna Put My Name On Your Door,’ and now with his latest album ‘Winter Sun,’ which has been gathering rave reviews.
But what you may not know is that Snorri’s father, Helgi Pétursson, is also well known as a member of the famous ‘60s/’70s folk and country group, Ríó Tríó (“Rio Trio”), as well as being a well known journalist and TV presenter.
Now, as part of the ‘Birdcage’ concert series at Café Rosenberg, which Grapevine is co-sponsoring (AND WHICH HAPPENS TONIGHT!), the father and son duo is playing together for the first time. The Grapevine caught up with both of them to find out what they’ve been getting up to.
Reykjavík called
So Snorri, you’ve just come back from the ‘Reykjavik Calling’ festival in Seattle. How did it all go?
Snorri: It was great, really good! I was playing with David Bazam, who was in a band called Pedro The Lion. The gig itself was just perfect. It was packed and the audience was great. It was all really good.
Along with this and Airwaves, you’ve been doing a lot of promotion work for your second album ‘Winter Sun.’ How has the reception been?
S: Actually it’s been great! Which is a bit surprising considering my first album didn’t get a huge amount of attention.
Well the album sounds a lot bigger, more rounded than your debut. How much of that is down to the producer, Sindri ‘Sin Fang’ Sigfússon?
S: Oh a lot. We ended up doing most of it together, laying down the base tracks. Then there was a lot of his studio trickery and sounds that he makes, as well as bringing in the likes of Mr. Silla and Sóley for some of the tracks.
Enter dad!
Helgi, what were your initial thoughts about the album?
Helgi: Well Snorri sent the album to me in February, and when we listened to it we were amazed, but I was a little afraid that it was a bit too slow and moody. But Snorri said “Dad don’t worry, it’s OK.” I was comparing it a lot to his first record and the other stuff that he’d done with the likes of Sprengjuhöllin, knowing that he can make good rocking music. I thought that this was far too slow. But then I realised when I listened to what other bands were doing, that this was the mood of the music that is in the scene right now.
Helgi, you were a member of the band Ríó Tríó. How did that all start?
H: Well Ólafur Þórðarson, Ágúst Atlason and I, we were just playing traditional Iceland folk tunes and melodies that were taken from the male choirs. We arranged these tunes to be played with guitars and a double bass and that in itself was a revolution.
Before rock and pop music arrived in Iceland, there really wasn’t a pre-pop music tradition in Iceland was there?
H: That’s correct. We would take songs like ‘Á Spengisandi’ which had a choir arrangement and give them a more modern feel, taking them to where people would be clapping and enjoying the songs. I remember a very popular song that had been sung by opera singers through the years but when we took the song and changed it, there was a lot of emotion around it. We were not supposed to sing it that way! It was like heresy!
Lost teenage years
Listening to your music, there is a folk sound, but you can also hear a lot of country and bluegrass. What was influencing you at the time musically?
H: Well after a while we started to move from the traditional Icelandic folk scene over to having a lot of satire in the songs. People would just sit back and not clap their hands or even participate in the music. Certainly not laugh or have fun or anything like that. So we got bored with that situation, so we started to tell a lot jokes in our music.
While you were growing up around this Snorri, when you first started playing, was your father’s music a factor at all?
S: Not at first. I really didn’t start playing music ‘til was eighteen.
H: Yeah, he didn’t show any signs of interesting in playing music for a long time. His siblings were all studying music and singing instead.
So what were you doing during you teenage years Snorri?
S: Actually I don’t know [laughs]! I didn’t do things like sports or stuff like that, but I did listen to a lot of music when I was growing up and read a lot about it. So it felt pretty good when I started to play the guitar.
When we’re growing up, we tend to think of our parents as a bit ‘uncool.’ Did you think about your dad’s music at the time and went ‘Ugh, boring!’?
S: Well it took me a while to appreciate it. It comes in waves I suppose. When I was a kid, I loved everything, but when I was a teen I really didn’t listen to it at all. But now I do a lot.
Five decades of Icelandic pop
You’ve been in the music scene in Iceland for nearly five decades Helgi. It must have come a long way since you first started.
H: Oh definitely. And people have been describing the acoustic music that’s being produced today as the new folk wave of Iceland. But when we started forty years ago, it was a totally different scene. People were fighting amongst themselves over what type of music you followed.
Seriously? There was that level of tribalism in music in Iceland?
H: Oh yes, definitely!
What do you think of the music scene overall in Iceland right now?
H: Well, for me, what the biggest change is in the music scene in Iceland is the education in music and the skills of the musicians and artists coming through the music schools. There seems to be an endless stream of really good musicians. Also back when I first started, there was so much rivalry. We knew other bands, but there was a much bigger rivalry between the pop groups and people wouldn’t play together as you get now.
S: There’s more of a “we’re all in this together” consensus today. I’d be more willing to play with a wider range of music styles and musicians. A lot more cross pollination.
Together at last!
Now with regards to the ‘Birdcage’ concert, have the two of you ever played together at all before?
S: Yeah once before, last year with Ríó Tríó. And it went really well actually. There have been informal occasions, but never with just the two of us.
H: We’ve never sat down and planned anything like this before.
Have you done any preparations for Tuesday?
H: I was telling Snorri that I had a bad feeling that I would be playing bass to all his songs which I wouldn’t be able to do, and then just be left along singing my songs and accompanying myself on the double bass! I think we’re just going to concentrate on having fun. I was going to sing a song that I wrote a long time back, about forty years ago. I was typing up the lyrics this afternoon and was reading them to Snorri’s mother and she said ‘What kind of male chauvinistic pig wrote this thing?’ [Laughs].
Why? What was the song about?
H: It’s called ‘Þú kona’ (“You, Woman”), and I have to admit it’s a song from a different time, but we’re still going to perform it.
S: But I think over the next couple of days, we’ll get together properly and practising on a few tracks.  But I like these concerts. They’re actually my idea! I used to work for FTT (Félag tónskálda og textahöfunda) and I set up the first season of Birdcage concerts, about three years ago. I remember the first one had Ólöf Arnalds and Megas in Hallgrímskirkja. They were a lot of fun.  

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