From Iceland — The Empire Strikes Back: The Second Coming Of Underground Pop Icon Berndsen

The Empire Strikes Back: The Second Coming Of Underground Pop Icon Berndsen

Published July 28, 2017

The Empire Strikes Back: The Second Coming Of Underground Pop Icon Berndsen
Elías Þórsson
Photo by
Juliette Rowland

“‘I think we got it good and why should we change a thing.’ Where am I going with this lyric? I’m happily married with two kids, what am I going to write about? I am kinda waiting for my wife to dump me so I can write a dramatic record.”

Berndsen sits in his studio in the old harbour district Grandi, close to Reykjavík’s downtown. He has a very distinctive look—including his trademark fiery red beard and hair—and he laughs a lot when he talks. He shares a studio with Borko and Örvar from múm, and it’s filled floor to ceiling with synthesisers and gadgets for making electronic music. The complex in which the studio is located has become a creative hub for the musical elite. Björk records songs in the in-house recording studio, Ólafur Arnalds has his studio just down the hallway, and Sigur rós write and record on the floor below.

“It’s really great working here,” he says. “The other day I was telling the guy next door that I wanted to get a trombone for the new album and he said ‘I play the trombone.’”

The trombone in question is for his in-progress third album, entitled ‘Alter Ego’. His previous two were upbeat 80s-revival synth-pop party albums, but on the latest he has taken the tempo down, creating a more mature and contemplative sound. The title is a reflection of the difference: this is his alter ego.

The Empire Strikes Back

“This is my ‘Empire Strikes Back’,” he says. “The more serious work where I want to prove myself as an artist. The album is something people are supposed to play when they have people over and pop open a bottle of wine. The previous ones were made to get drunk on beers and go downtown.”

We listen to the new songs—they’re clearly are a departure from his earlier stuff. The generally high tempo has made way for a substantially more measured rhythm. He describes the opening track “Birds of Prey” as a mixture between “Bruce Springsteen and Enya.”

“I wasn’t a good singer, and Hermigervill stood over me while we were recording holding a riding crop and whipping me every time I sang a false note.”

“The record points to the fact that I’ve had two kids,” he explains. “But that just kinda happened. I can’t wait to go back to making excitable and fun stuff—I think when I’m done, it’ll happen like an explosion. I’m going to buy a leather bondage outfit, go on stage and just lose my mind.”

But the alteration to his sound is also purposeful. Berndsen says that he didn’t want to make three albums in a row that were too alike. But trying something new has given rise to doubt, and the creative process has been more difficult than ever.

“It’s been so hard. It’s been more laborious than the birth of my children—I didn’t have to give birth to them,” he says, laughing. “Every night before I go to bed I think ‘I have to get it out.’ Now I have to do it.” Just doing this interview has pushed him on, he explains—he has decided to release a video to his instrumental single “The Origin,” a track inspired by Brian Eno and David Bowie. It’s the final track on the album, and the final part of his ‘Empire Strikes Back’.

The beginning of Berndsen

Berndsen never learned how to play instruments as a kid, and he says that the idea of spending hours upon hours of practise—which he saw his friends suffer through—repulsed him. He wanted to skate and hang out. It was in 2009, when he was 22 years old, that he started making music in earnest. He was studying sound engineering in the Netherlands, and through school he met Sveinbjörn Thorarensen, better known as Hermigervill. He’d always been more interested in recording for others, but all that changed while he was living on a houseboat near Amsterdam Centraal Station.

“I can’t wait to go back to making excitable and fun stuff… it’ll happen like an explosion. I’m going to buy a leather bondage outfit, go on stage and just lose my mind.”

“I always thought Hermigervill hated me, until I said the magic words: ‘Have you heard the ‘Blade Runner’ soundtrack?’” Berndsen recalls. “He replied that he loved it, and from then on we started writing songs together. We were always looking for a singer and I kept posting ads on music forums, asking people through messenger platforms and whatnot, but we never got any replies. So I said I’d try singing. I was not a good singer and Hermigervill stood over me, while we were recording, holding a riding crop and kept whipping me every time I sang a false note—and there were a lot of false notes. There still are today.”

The first song they made together was “Lover in the Dark,” which was made under highflying circumstances. “Hermigervill, my frequent collaborator and bassist Arnljótur and I were fucked up high and decided to make a song,” says Berndsen. “Not that I smoke that often, but, ‘When in Amsterdam….’ We recorded it overnight, and thought it was brilliant. But the next day, when we were way too hungover we listened back to it and realised that it was the most out of tune song ever. But we did notice that there was something there—some magic—and decided to take this project further.”

The partnership has lasted throughout the Berndsen project to this day, and it also changed his ideas about music. “I hated synths and only wanted guitars,” he explains. You’d never think that listening to his music, which is very much the definition of 80s revival synth pop. It was through his father’s records that he got interested in 80s pop music—the sounds of David Bowie, A-ha, Duran Duran and Queen were constant presences in his childhood home.

The unlived nostalgia

Berndsen was only born in 1985, but there is a clear sense of unlived nostalgia to his views on the decade of big hair, Arnold Schwarzenegger, glitzy masculinity and, indeed, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

“Some people think the 80s are tacky, but there is nothing tacky about them,” he says. “You could do anything. It was the best of times. Everybody was coked out, there was no prejudice, and everybody was happy.” He pauses, laughing: “Then the 90s came and ruined it with emo pop and rap.”

“People thought Berndsen was a joke… Siggi from Hjálmar told me that I need take the joke further, but I told him: ‘I’m not joking.’”

According to Berndsen, the appeal of the 80s sound is high production values, melodic songs with catchy hooks, a lot of synths (he’s clearly a man who feels the more synths you have the better), and endless layering. But no matter how he feels, there are plenty of people who think the 80s are cheesy, and indeed, there have always been those who think the Berndsen project is satire.

“In the beginning people thought this was a joke, and some probably still do,” says Berndsen. “Siggi Guðmunds from Hjálmar kept telling me that I need to do more with the joke and take it further, but I told him ‘I’m not joking.’”

Berndsen remains fascinated by everything 80s, and he grins broadly as he speaks of the times he’s been allowed to rummage through his friends’ moms’ closets looking for clothes from the decade. He talks about the circular nature of our culture, and how he can hear the synth-driven 80s sound increasingly coming into contemporary pop.

“Everything goes in a circle, man—you have bands like Twin Shadow that make 80s revival music, and I’m sure Radiohead will soon release an 80s record.”

The many roles to play

We leave Berndsen’s studio and walk to his car—he has to go to work. This night, he’s DJing at Slippbarinn. It’s been quite the hectic day: It started at seven in the morning at his day job as a sound engineer for RÚV, where he spent twelve hours. Then he had to go pick up his wife and kids and drive them to a birthday party, then there was our interview at eight, and finally the DJ gig at ten.

Days like this aren’t unusual for Icelandic musicians. The scene might be vibrant, but it’s also small—there are only so many concerts to be played, so many records to be sold, and so much money to be made. But the birth of his youngest child earlier this year has increased the stress and the frenetic pace of life even more. It is through his music that he can let loose, and on stage is where Davíð turns into Berndsen.

Davíð vs. Berndsen

His onstage persona is very different from the man who stands next to me behind the DJ pulpit at a fancy cocktail club, playing easygoing 80s grooves. On stage he’s an undomesticated, unrestrained and passionate character who rips his clothes off, dances like a madman and oozes sexual energy.

“People have talked to me about how different I am in person than on stage,” he says. “For instance my colleagues at work have said to me, ‘You are so calm.’ They have seen me whipping myself on stage and going nuts, but then they see me chilled at work, and they find the juxtaposition very interesting. There is just something that happens when you are on stage, and the music takes over. In a sense it is very therapeutic.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about being known as the guy who always takes his shirt off, but pop music always has an element of sex appeal.”

He says that the character started forming after he made his first music video, for “Lover in the Dark.” It’s done in the style of a video game; in it, Berndsen walks around the city like a computer game character, beating a drum in slow motion, looking intensely into the camera as he shoots people with his love gun. He explains now that he couldn’t find anything to wear for the video, until he found a chequered 80s jacket. It was that jacket that sparked the creation of the Berndsen persona—ironic, considering that a piece of clothing sparked the creation of a character known for taking off his clothes.

“I’m not sure how I feel about being known as the guy who always takes his shirt off, but pop music always has an element of sex appeal,” he says. “Once after a concert an older German lady walked up to me, looked me in the eyes very intensely and just said flat out: ‘I just had an orgasm.’ It was very weird experience, and I wondered afterwards how this would’ve been perceived had our genders been reversed.”

The bloody music videos

From the beginning, music videos have played a big part in his career. After he made the video for “Lover in the Dark,” he was approached by a friend, Helgi Jóhannsson, who wanted to make what has since become his most iconic video, and the catalyst that sparked his career in earnest. The song “Supertime” is an upbeat pop song about being in love, but the video is more disturbing than loving. It starts out with a car crash, with seriously injured people lying around covered in blood. Passersby are then seen rushing towards the car, but instead of helping the injured they start a twisted game in which they dance around with them, make them walk on stilts, and laugh maniacally as they throw them around.

“This was in 2009,” Berndsen recalls, “and people didn’t really make high budget music videos at that moment. At first, I was very much opposed to the idea. We were discussing twelve actors, a lot of fake blood, and renting cameras. I really wasn’t into it, but he convinced me and I am happy he did.”

Last year, the video made an unexpected comeback. Dross, one of South America’s biggest music bloggers—with eleven million YouTube subscribers—released a video in which he listed the most disturbing music videos ever made. There, alongside Aphex Twin’s “Rubber Johnny” and several other world-renowned music videos, was “Supertime.” Seven years after it had kicked off his career and made him recognisable on the streets of Reykjavík, it now was creating new fans on the other side of the planet.

“It was quite surreal,” he smiles. “All of a sudden I was getting emails and messages from South and Central America—one guy even dug up my phone number and called me. There were thousands of comments on the video in Spanish. At first I didn’t know what was happening, until a Mexican who works at my daughter’s kindergarten told me he had seen the Dross video. I really need to get down to South America and play some gigs.”

Other notable videos to check out are “Young Boy,” about a blond boy in a universe where everyone is a redhead who can swim except for him, who Berndsen then takes under his wing and teaches confidence. And the raunchy “Gimmi Gimmi,” shot at a bear conference in Reykjavík, in which Berndsen (who looks like a bear) makes out with shirtless men on the dancefloor.

FM tours

Berndsen’s career has included lots of touring around Europe, and his endless quest for international superstardom has been aided by one band in particular: FM Belfast. The group heard similarities in their sounds, and were fans of his music.

“It really helped my career having them on my side,” he says, “and I’m forever thankful to them. I warmed up for them during three European tours, and it allowed me to play in front of much larger crowds than if I was just on my own.”

Following those tours, Berndsen gained plenty of fans around the continent, and this fall he’s going on tour in France and Switzerland before a large-scale tour next spring to support the album.

“I love performing and I’d love to do more touring, but Hermigervill is always so damn busy with other projects,” he says. “I’ve tried to find ways around having him with me at concerts, but it’s just been fucking impossible. Plus, I just had a kid and I can’t easily jump away from that responsibility.”

The Berndsen band

It’s important to note that the Berndsen project is not just Berndsen. From the beginning there has been Hermigervill and his childhood friend, guitarist Hrabbi—also of Icelandic reggae outfit Oj Barasta—as well as the “secret members,” Gossi and Oculus. A number of other musicians have been involved over the years, and he performs with a full band as often as he can, including bass players, backing singers, and saxophonists.

“In reality, this is a cooperative performance project with me as the boss and face,” he says, laughing. “In the beginning, I never thought about it that way—I didn’t even think about performing live—but after “Supertime,” Airwaves contacted me and asked me to play. Then it just made sense to get a band together and start gigging.”

The future chaos

The last time I meet Berndsen, it’s on one of those rare sunny Reykjavík summer days. He has his two young kids in tow, and is clearly exhausted after taking care of them all day—his wife is on maternity leave, and needed a day off. “I think I deserve a beer,” he says. We chat about his future, before he drops his kids back home—he has another DJ gig tonight, this time at Prikið.

“I’m moving to Finland next year as my wife is going to do a master’s degree in architecture,” he says. “My dream is to start a synth jazz band with some Finns.”

We head over to Prikið, and as he starts setting up, he makes a realisation: “Fuck, I forgot the power cord for my computer at home, can you take over while I run back?” I agree, and as he shuttles out the door he turns to me and says: “Just like the Berndsen project, this is all massive chaos.”

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