From Iceland — On A Date With Úlfur

On A Date With Úlfur

Published September 19, 2013

On A Date With Úlfur
Rex Beckett

It’s a bittersweet thing when a beloved local talent leaves our black shores. On the one hand, they’re usually going off to pursue their big dreams and quite often end up producing work that make us proudly say things like, “They’re from Iceland! I used to hang out with them at Bar 11!” On the other, it sucks not to be able to call them “local” anymore.
Last month, musician Úlfur Hansson, a.k.a. Úlfur, joined those ranks by packing up his gear and moving off to Oakland. The formerly local artist formerly known as Klive headed there to do an MFA in Electronic Music & Recording Media at Mills College. Before he left we decided to send him off with a permanent reminder of home in the form of a new tattoo. However, things didn’t go quite as planned.
Temporary Tattoo Plans
I met up with Úlfur at Reykjavík Ink, which had graciously offered us a quick spot to give him some art. He was comfortably planted on the couch with his laptop open on a screen full of seemingly random, jagged lines forming odd geometrics. Turns out it was letters. “It’s actually a font I created with a programme I made for my album, ‘White Mountain’,” he said, toggling onto another window of plain text where different numerical values created different letters (sort of like C-Sound, for any sound nerds out there). His plan was to get a letter tattooed on his left elbow-pit, stretching it just over to his bicep and lower arm.
Unfortunately, tattoo artist Jason Thompson was less convinced of the idea. “For starters, it’s too big for me to do in an hour, but if I try to do it smaller it’s just gonna look like shit,” Jason said, bluntly but sympathetically. “You should just get something small and funny.” Unmoved by the suggestions of a slice of pizza or the outline of Iceland, Úlfur gave a disappointed grin and said we should maybe just forget it. “I don’t want to get something stupid just for the sake of getting something,” he said, wisely. “It’s permanent.”
Jason offered to get it started so Úlfur could come back to get it done, but of course his moving off to Oakland three days later put the kibosh on that plan. After a couple of quick jokes about the notoriously rough reputation of Úlfur’s new city, Jason offered him a good recommendation for a shop in San Francisco. The tattoo dream lives on.
Dating On The Fly
Although that plan was salvaged, we were still left standing on Frakkastígur not ready to send him off without a goodbye present. Like all good daters, the Grapevine likes to plan ahead but now we had to improvise! “What are you really going to miss about Reykjavík that you know you won’t be able to get over there?” I asked. “A pylsa,” he answered, lighting up with pre-emptive nostalgia.
We walked down the just-begun construction wreckage of Hverfisgata chitchatting about his family background and how it influenced his various projects. His father is the acclaimed violinmaker Hans Jóhannsson, who acted as supervisor for Úlfur’s graduation project from the Iceland Academy of Arts Music Department wherein he built an electroacoustic harp from scratch. The instrument, called OHM, was awarded the President’s Innovation Award and a grant from Rannís in February 2013, and then went on to feature in a composition Úlfur wrote called “So Very Strange,” which won the International Rostrum of Composers Under 30 award last June. The latter comes with a pretty sweet prize, too.
To The Victor Go The Spoils
“I will get to compose a piece for the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra which is so exciting,” he said with unbridled enthusiasm. “I have never composed for an orchestra before and that’s something I’ve really, really wanted to do.” The 25-year old can now add that to the list of being a bassist for Jónsi and in the hardcore band Swords of Chaos, releasing two solo albums of experimental music, composing for a dance piece and composing for visual art by artists like Lilja Birgisdóttir and his own sister, Elín Hansdóttir. He’s also delivered a TEDxReykjavík talk and held an instrument-building workshop at the LungA art festival. Among other things.
We finally arrived to Bæjarins Beztu, the place he thinks he’ll miss when he’s off living the Californian dream. The queue was pretty long, with a large group of rather frazzled tourists ahead of us, but some rare sunny weather helped keep our conversation going. We turned to the topic of LungA, where he and a highly talented group of young performers improvised the opening performance in Sey›isfjör›ur’s iconic blue church. “Improvising live is completely different than playing something you know and that’s what makes it fun,” he said. “We had no idea how it would turn out, but luckily people seemed to like it.”
Multi-potential modesty
Despite all his past creations, he’s not the kind of artist who seems to have any preferred medium or method. Rather, he embraces multi-potentiality and wants to challenge himself to make as many things as possible. “I don’t think I just want to be a bassist or an instrument builder or a composer or any one thing,” he said. “I want to try so many things. I want to do it all.”
As is also generally the case with such prolific and accomplished creators, he is modest nearly to a point of being oblivious to his own success. This is hardly something to call a fault but rather an enviable quality for so many people whose creative energy is often distracted by the mere notion that a public exists. Úlfur is just doing what he does and does not seem overly concerned with public reception, which is perhaps why he is so easily able to share his work in the public sphere.
Pylsur 4 Lyfe
Finally, we got our hot dogs—two with everything and two cokes—and moved out of the line to stand by the dumpster in the parking lot and eat in pure class. I told him that when he got to the States, he would have an overload of amazing food options: better ethnic dining, farmers’ markets, In-N-Out Burger and, of course, the classic American hot dog. “Yeaaaah,” he said with a bit of a whine, “but that’s not the same. There’s nothing like a pylsa!”
Although he would miss the little treats, he was no more maudlin than that about moving away. “It’s time,” he said. “I really need to move out of here just for myself and for my creativity. I’ve known for a while that I needed to go. But anyway, I’ll be back at Christmas. That’s in like, four months!” Maybe he can get his elbow-pit tattoo done then.

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