From Iceland — The Pop Savant: Páll Ivan's Art Therapy

The Pop Savant: Páll Ivan’s Art Therapy

Published October 5, 2017

The Pop Savant: Páll Ivan’s Art Therapy
Photo by
Anna Maggý

Páll Ivan leaps up and down in a dark, graffiti-coated subterranean space, his eyes gleaming under a torrent of glowing sparks and his face locked in a slow-motion scream. He’s smeared with a red liquid that could be paint, ketchup, or blood. The film cuts rapidly— from moment to moment, he could be doing a goofy impression of a smiling, smock-wearing cult member, or portraying a shrieking killer, or both at once, or something else completely.

Such confounding output isn’t unusual in Páll’s creative universe—rather, it’s par for the course. A composer, painter, sculptor, performer and general omni-disciplinary experimentalist, Páll’s music is just one strand of a colourful, constantly-evolving artistic world that’s in turn flippant, smart, puerile, witty, and, ultimately, completely fascinating.

The film in question is the video for ‘Expanding,’ the first single to be released from his newly released debut solo album, ‘This Is My Shit.’ It’s a diverse collection of home recordings that spans a range of styles, from bassy trap to lo-fi rock ‘n’ roll, perky chiptunes, a bizarre synthetic medieval folk sound, and more besides. From song to song, the aesthetic template is continually ripped up and started again, in a manner reminiscent of ongoing aesthetic self immolation.

Frá Eiðum

The story of Páll’s striking sensibility starts, perhaps, in his childhood. Born in Croatia, he was raised in the rural area of Eiðar in east Iceland, which explains his full artist moniker: Páll Ivan frá Eiðum. “Eiðar is about twelve kilometres from Egilsstaðir, and… there’s nothing there,” says Páll. “A few houses, some farms, and family. We’d moved around, and then settled in this Eiðar place, so I thought, okay, let’s just say I’m from there.”

His family includes several artists and musicians, and his stepfather was a composer, improviser and “experimental person in general,” with a strong interest in ethnomusicology. All of this meant Páll’s early intake of music was diverse to say the least, including everything from psychedelia to synth-pop, field recordings and sound art.

“That’s the music that I grew up with,” he smiles. “My dear stepfather was into all kinds of things. Pygmies chopping down a tree. A Turkish man yelling in the distance. He has really shitty taste as well—he gave me a mix of things. But generally, I don’t listen to much. Some people accuse me of being pretentious and saying ‘Oh no, I only listen to pygmies.’ But I’m like, ‘No, I don’t even listen to pygmies.’”

Painting dicks

Despite this artistic upbringing, Páll got into music later in life, when he enrolled to study composition—a form he considers much more serious than his solo experiments. “The composing is my main thing, and where my interest lies,” he says. “But it’s awfully difficult and problematic. It requires thought, planning, and intent, and you have to stand by it somehow. I feel more responsible for that output. I’m always reevaluating until I say, ‘Fuck this all to hell, I’m just gonna paint dicks.’ I don’t care about my paintings or pop music. You can say whatever you want about my paintings or pop music and I won’t be hurt by it. But with the composing it’s different.”

“Composing is my main thing, but it’s awfully difficult. I’m always reevaluating until I say, ‘Fuck this all to hell, I’m just gonna paint dicks.’”

Páll’s experimentation with home-recorded music began after he suffered a sudden and serious mental breakdown in 2014. He’s open and candid about the effect his illness has had on his life and work. “I had a mental collapse,” he explains. “I had my first panic attack, and then depression followed. I’ve just started recovering. I was prone to darkness before, but I’m not sure what caused it. Maybe not sleeping for three years. That didn’t help. But it was sudden. I had bouts of anxiety and depression. So I tried to relax. I got myself a studio where I could make a mess and spent my time painting and noodling around.”

Art therapy

Páll let his mind wander in the studio, developing an instinctive process of automatic making. Unencumbered by outside expectation and liberated from any sense of self-imposed pressure, his playful musical and artistic experiments could go in any direction he felt like.

“It didn’t require any thought, really,” Páll muses. “Maybe that explains why the songs are so… weird. Some people like colouring in, and I found this to be the same. I could space out, choose some kind of genre or sound, play with the sound, and fill it in. The songs are very layered a lot of the time, with many sounds crammed on top of each other. That’s the fun bit, and where I got the pleasure from—noodling around with sounds. It also explains the form; the structure is really simple and not very sophisticated at all. It’s just some skeleton I made to play around with.”

When each song was finished, Páll posted it online, and then immediately moved on. They were never meant to be heard in a formal context, like an album. “This wasn’t the plan at all,” says Páll. “I didn’t want to release these songs, and don’t care about them. It’s a side thing, to relax, and make without thinking. I finished them, pumped them out on Soundcloud, and… the end. I could do the next one, and then the next.”

Becoming a thing

Before long, people started to take notice. To Páll’s great surprise, they seemed to like it. “Dr. Gunni got in touch,” he recalls. “He asked me, ‘Hey, what’s this about? I think you should make an album. Do you think albums are stupid? What’s going on?’ Then he said, ‘I’m going to make an album and release it. We’ll choose some songs, I’ll put it out on CD, end of story.’ I said, ‘Okay, okay, it’s not my project, it’s your project, do it, whatever. I’m not going to stand in your way.’ There were some complications, and blah blah—here we are today, many months later, with the album coming out on Mengi.”

“People would say, ‘Hey, I really like this song!’ and my reaction would be, ‘You’re an idiot, go and listen to come proper music.’ But I’ve come to understand that I should relax a bit.”

The positive response and fascination his songs have provoked has caused some cognitive dissonance for Páll, who still struggles to understand why this work is enjoyed or taken at all seriously. Despite his rapidly growing cult audience, a record deal, a coveted spot at Sónar Reykjavík, and a broadly positive critical response, he talks about his “pop” material as simple, throwaway, and devoid of sophistication.

“It is difficult to accept,” he says. “I’m dismissive of compliments, and also arrogant, and I tend to hate myself. This combination of things made me very rude to people. People would say ‘Hey, I really like this song!’ and my reaction would be, ‘You’re an idiot, go and listen to come proper music.’ But now I’ve come to understand that I should just relax, and enjoy that somebody likes something, and pleasure is good, wherever it comes from. Almost. Unless you involve Nazis.”

Singing about schnitzel

One reason for the positive response is perhaps that despite the overt eccentricity, his short and catchy songs bear similarities to other left-field music, past and present. Some tracks could be compared to the surreal outsider sensibility of Syd Barrett, or the burned-out, retro, genre-skipping avant garde sound of Ariel Pink.

“I categorise Ariel Pink just as pop. Sure, maybe he’s singing about schnitzel or something, but I can relate to that. I mean, everybody’s had one.”

Páll is puzzled by the idea that such fringe music is anything out of the ordinary. “Is Ariel Pink really that strange?” he asks, frowning. “I categorise him just as pop. It’s quite down to earth. My resolution is very low, I must admit. If there’s someone singing, somebody on bass, that’s pop music. Okay, sure, maybe he’s singing about schnitzel or something, but I can relate to that. I mean, everybody’s had one. Maybe there are some of the same influences—music from ‘80s Britain, which I quite like, when I hear it. But pop music is just not that interesting to me. There are many things I’ve heard in my life, but never really consciously noticed, and they get expressed here, I guess.”

The point

Although he’s just starting to come out of a self-imposed years-long hiatus as a composer, Páll has been an active part of the acclaimed SLÁTUR experimental composer collective. His eyes light up when he mentions their work. “I feel like we’re onto something new with SLÁTUR,” he enthuses. “There’s a feeling of discovery, and being at the forefront of something, and that’s exciting. I don’t know where it’s going, and there are no objectives. There’s a community around it. Seeing our thoughts and techniques and methods become a thing in a larger context, in Europe, America and Australia, is so exciting. It feels like we’ve really contributed to something. I don’t feel that excitement with the pop music.”

And yet still, Páll plugs away at making his colourful, compelling, lo-fi songs. Over his own protestations, he quietly admits that he’s learning to taking pleasure in the feedback—or at least objecting less to it—and he still finds the process therapeutic.

“It’s a strange state to be in,” he finishes. “To experience a total state of pointlessness while simultaneously having a strong urge or need to create something and produce some kind of output. It’s creation without any purpose or justification, but it turns out that it helps. If you create, you are probably alive. The evidence of my aliveness has started to surround me in the form of shitty paintings, stupid songs, uncomfortable positive comments and enquiries about this evidence. So, maybe I am alive after all. Probably not… but maybe.”

‘This Is My Shit’ is out now on MENGI Records – listen on Spotify. Read Pall’s track-by-track guide to the album here.

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