From Iceland — The Reykjavik Poet Par-Excellence: Megas Talks About Music, Drugs, Björk, Toyota, Armageddon and the Afterlife

The Reykjavik Poet Par-Excellence: Megas Talks About Music, Drugs, Björk, Toyota, Armageddon and the Afterlife

Published December 15, 2017

The Reykjavik Poet Par-Excellence: Megas Talks About Music, Drugs, Björk, Toyota, Armageddon and the Afterlife
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The first time I interviewed Megas was during my first summer as editor of the new paper  Reykjavik Grapevine 15 years ago. I had never before been so nervous before an interview. After all, the man was a living legend and a personal hero, a songwriter and musician 30 years into his career. It is said one should never meet one’s heroes and usually I have found this to be true. The result tends to be embarrassing to them and disappointing to you. But Megas was different.

At the time, he was a sprightly 58-year-old and was often seen cycling about town. Now 73, he is a little the worse for wear and emerges from a taxi supporting himself with a cane. There have been relatively few sightings in the past years, but is making a comeback of sorts, with a new album and release concert. We meet at the same place we did all those years ago, at Hótel Borg. In the meantime, I have released the alternate history novel “The Eagle and the Falcon”, which is doing well on bestseller lists. I also made an album with his son Gímaldin, called “Vodka Songs,” and the old Master even showed up to co-sing the title cut.

“What is that?” Master says as I put my smartphone in front of him. Last time, I had a mini-cassette recorder and a stack of tapes. He himself was famously one of the last Icelanders to get a mobile, and he still has an old school one that can merely be used for talking into.

“The credit cards keep all sorts of information on us,” he offers. “Before there was the Stasi, but now we give up the information willingly. And people are living their lives completely in public.”

Master’s lyrics have always been a combination of classical saga Icelandic, American, Danish and teenage slang, which takes repeated listenings to penetrate. His spoken language is much the same, at times poetic and profound, but now recited in a very low and at times frail voice.  

“What’s worst is that people are constantly posting pictures of their children, who then have to live with it,” I say.

“It’s like baptism,” he says. “They baptise speechless children without their consent. Now it’s social media that inducts them into society. It’s the most abused media of all time.”

The Birth of Punk  

We order a couple of beers. This, at least, hasn’t changed. A lot else has. Hótel Borg at the time was a bastion of fine dining, but now there is a mid-price restaurant operating under the Jamie Oliver brand. Then again, the place has always been malleable, having served as something of a British and American officer’s club during World War II and also being the hotspot of Icelandic punk in the early ‘80s.

“Before, Hótel Borg was one of the places that high school students visited the most,” Master says. “We got our high school passes and that was the only documentation available. You took a photo to the headmaster’s office and they would staple it to some piece of cardboard and stamp the photo, and you would fill out the rest yourself. So you could be as old as you wanted.”

“So you could buy drinks here?”

“Indeed. Later during the punk years, I was absent from creation, but an enthusiastic spectator, and I knew many of the people involved, such as Jonee Jonee. When I am working myself, I don’t pay as much attention to what is going on.”

Megas made his debut in 1972 with an acoustic and iconoclastic self-titled album, which made fun of many national heroes, such as national poet Jónas Hallgrímsson and Reykjavík founder Ingólfur Arnarsson (you can see both of their statues around). After a slew of classic albums, including Á bleikum náttkjólum’, which is sometimes regarded as the best Icelandic album of all time, he went awol after the double live album Drög að sjálfmorði’ (Rehearsal for a Suicide). Rumours circulated that he had indeed offed himself, and he didn’t make another album until the well-received comeback of 1986 with Í góðri trú’ (In Good Faith). Still, he was a hero to many on the punk scene in the interregnum, including Björk and Bubbi. The 1977 track “Paradísarfuglinn” is sometimes claimed to be the first Icelandic punk song.  

“It may be,” he says. Valgeir [Guðjónsson] claimed he had never played an electric guitar solo before and Sigurður Bjóla wasn’t a born drummer, they wanted to get session men, but ultimately everyone just played what was needed and ignored the lack of knowhow and lo! all these clever career musicians have tried to recapture that simplicity since.”

Rammstein and a swearing Björk

He intermittently follows contemporary strains. “When I made the album ‘Far…þinn veg’, my son was listening to Rammstein, and I wanted percussion like theirs, e.g. a jet crashing in a small village, the sound of glass breaking and various noises.”

Musicianship in Iceland today has improved to no end, but perhaps something has been lost along the way?

“Something is always lost when something is gained. The loss, well, it’s lost. But we have many great female vocalists, like the Valtýsdóttir sisters, Björk and Ragnheiður Gröndal to name but a few. They all have something that a million others, despite having beautiful voices, don’t.”  

But do you perhaps feel that that this increase in musicianship, along with the hope of making it abroad, has led to less emphasis on the lyrics?

“Rap still deals with language, but it seems like coded messages. The characteristics are the rhyme, if you want to call it that, which brings to mind Fats Domino who could make everything rhyme. Then there’s the trademark: every other word is “fokk” or “moðerfokking,” but it would change meaning if you translated it directly to Icelandic. Translated, the phrase Jesus motherfucking Christ would not satisfy the common listener.”

Do we have problems swearing in Icelandic? Perhaps Icelandic swear words suffer from overuse…

“There are people who know how to swear, they string words together to create a chain reaction, but most people don’t know how to do it and out of desperation shriek “djöfulsins, helvítis, andskotans. Björk would say “fokking fokk,” but it sounded better when she said it.”

Drowning sailors and the Idea of Heaven

A drone passes by our window, consuming our attention for a while, reminding us that we are indeed living in the future.  

“Now there is a new album coming out where my job is merely the vocals. I have been composing a lot, but there is no outlet. There are hardly any record labels left, except that one run by some offspring of Gamma [an “asset management company,” widely believed to be contributing to the high housing prices in Reykjavik], the CD is gone and there is only the memory stick and the vinyl, but no one gets fat from making vinyl records.”

So how will your album be released?

“It’s put out by art collective Mengi, they also have a label. It will be available on CD and vinyl, but I don’t have the wherewithal to have a cassette tape too. Some people claim the cassette will come back, but the problem is that every time you rewind it, it pulls on the tape and ruins it. The vinyl is more of an object, but the cassette is very humble. Perhaps we will finally revert to 78 rpm, that is the most intimate sound. There is very little distance between the performance and the listener, the needle would scratch the track into the disc immediately during the performance.  But they break very easily. The life of tapes is limited. They sound very clear the last time they are played, but then they burn up, like your brain releasing illegal dose of dopamine and adrenaline just before it dies.”  

And do you think this is where the idea of heaven comes from, that final dopamine high your brain gives you as reward for everything else when you go out?

“Sailors that drown but are brought back to life speak of an incredible sense of wellbeing, music and whatever, from the other shore, and they fight like hell to not be saved. So maybe something fun awaits us.”

So you don’t think it’s just chemicals in the brain?

“Everything good is chemicals in the brain. But to make it relatively sane through this vale of tears, they created religion from the basic need to believe. And fairly soon there were patriarchies and councils of elders who made sure that these religions made everything in life twice as hard.”

You’ve never felt you needed to believe?

“Of course, one has to have some sort of belief to get out of bed in the morning. But the religions all seem rather unappetizing. We aren’t really Christians today, but Paulists. It was Paul who turned the teachings of Christ into a system of governance for the Romans, but much of it runs counter to Christ, in the same way that Stalin runs counter to communism. They only one who was true to his belief system was Hitler, since he was the one who invented it.”   

The Beatles, the Stones and the Dark Side of Humanity

The conversation has already turned to death, which I was hoping to leave until the end. I try to bring the conversation back to the present day.

“The most powerful man in Russia at the beginning of the last century was Rasputin. Now it’s Putin. They have only lost a “Ras”. In the US, people are tired of a system they feel let them down and they chose someone who seemed to stand outside it, but they elected a madman and now they have to deal with the consequences. He is keeping all his worst promises.”  

Young people today seem to prefer music from the ‘60s and ‘70s even to that of their contemporaries. The Rolling Stones sell more tickets than anyone. Do you have any idea why this is so?

“The Beatles were everyone’s friends, but the Stones are emotional creatures. They talk about things that they don’t necessarily condone, but that happen in human life, “Midnight Rambler” and so on.”

The writer Eiríkur Norðdahl said that people are no longer able to read texts other than literally. Many artists of your generation, you yourself particularly, have often played devil’s advocate, by taking on the voice of ugliness.

“And any voice. If one only voiced one’s own opinions, we would be quite impoverished. But if you allow all sorts of bastards a voice, you not only bring colour to your works but also break the cycle of silence.”

But by voicing these things today, isn’t there an even greater danger of being confused with your characters?

“A song of mine derives from a translation I made of Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths, wherein a drunk sings songs full of peasant’s pornography. This song has the same idea, the abuse of an underage person and incest and everything in one economical package. And beautifully performed and recorded. But never been released alas. People I trust say I would have the whole nation against me. It was supposed to be on Hugboð um vandræði, but to the detriment of humanity, it remains unreleased.”

Little Cute Boys and the Best Icelandic Lyric of all Time

After his 1986 comeback, Megas briefly became a big selling artist with his 1987 ode to Reykjavik, ‘Loftmynd’, featuring a young Björk on backing vocals. However, the 1988 collaboration with the most popular singer of the time, Bubbi, on the album ‘Bláir draumar’, put an end to all that. Megas became an enfant terrible again, shunned by much of polite society. And it was all because of one track.

It is well known how you were warned about putting the song “Litlir sætir strákar” (Little Cute Boys) on the album, but you did anyway.

“I got no warnings, but I myself thought people might be likely to misunderstand that lyric, so I just decided to record it for myself. But our Danish piano genius made such a beautiful jazz arrangement that I felt it would be a crime against mankind to keep it unreleased. So I put it on the album. No one told me not to, but after it came out and [record mogul] Steinar Berg called it the worst album of all time, both Bubbi and [label manager] Ási claimed to have warned me against it. Today, there are two songs from that album that people know, “Tvær stjörnur” og “Litlir sætir strákar,” neither of which were much liked when it came out, although the former happened to be very shocking to simple honest minds.”

The oft covered “Tvær stjörnur” was in fact recently selected as the best Icelandic lyric of all time by radio station Rás 2. The same does not apply to the other one. The subject matter of “Litlir sætir strákar” would seem even more shocking today.

“The subject matter of Litlir sætir strákar” should never have shocked anyone but the misinterpretation of it did. I became tired of correcting this and I have stopped trying.”

The Revolution and Our New Government

I ask him about Loftmynd, probably the best ever Reykjavík album. Some of your writing has been about the first generation that grew up in Reykjavík in the post-war era…”

“It often goes badly for the first generation that grows up in a city. The father keeps his rural values, the son is disconnected from these but hasn’t developed urban ones, so he becomes confused and is considered degenerate.”

In a way, it’s the immigration literature of its time. But now Reykjavík has probably changed more in the past five years than it has for a very long time.

“There are many more big buildings, and the streets have become narrower. There is less space for life. Capitalism is busy destroying most of that which started this tourist flood. When the tourists go somewhere else, we will get the bill for these big hotels. Icelanders often arrive too late and very clumsily. We were too late with the mink farms [of the 1930s], and managed to build cages around the minks, but the minks burrowed under them and burst into the Icelandic habitat as aliens. But it is enjoyable to see the town full of people on Sundays, which wouldn’t be the case if it wasn’t for tourists. They are here at all times of year on Skólavörðustígur, looking at Hallgrímskirkja, the 8th or 9th wonder of the world.”

I look out the window at Austurvöllur, where most of the pots and pans revolution took place. Initially it was orchestrated by singer-songwriter Hörður Torfason, who also had his start in the early ‘70s.l

“Hörður did a good job sending a message to parliament, but then the police came up with this theory that it had all been planned from inside the parliament building by the leftwing parties. The police can work miracles”

That hardly applies any more, now that the left greens are in government with the Conservatives.

“I was reading parts of the government policy, and it seems to me that the good ideas of the left-greens are all rather foggy, while the plans of the Conservatives are very concrete. We will see how [Left-Green Prime Minister] Katrín Jakobsdóttir will do, but she will have to be very firm to put a damper on the Conservatives and to get her own policies across. And [minister of the judiciary] Sigríður Andersen wants to have stricter laws regarding transport and trafficking of drugs and lighter for possession and use. I thought possession wasn’t illegal in any civilized country. In Greenland cannabis is used as medication, but in Denmark that is forbidden. It has proved very useful for cancer patients. Contradiction is the name of the game.”

Nixon, Hitler and Drugs

This is a subject Master is quite passionate about.

“People need to realise that the first anti-drug laws were passed by Hitler. And when Nixon become president, he didn’t know what to do about the hippies who were potentially dangerous. The conclusion was to outlaw them by making drugs illegal and then forced this upon the old world. The last countries to adopt the fascist line were the southern ones, France and Spain.”

It seems that liberalism alternately expands and contracts as time goes by.

“Yes, it goes up and down, but the sum is constant.”

Having only done basic courses in physics and philosophy, it takes me a while to understand how deep this in fact is.

In the 20th Century, most artists seemed to have some sort of relationship with drugs, but this hardly seems to be the case anymore. After concerts, people go directly home to post about it on snapchat and facebook.

“It’s so much work to be a musician these days that no one has the time to party all night. I asked my son if bands today smoked hash, and he said not many. And then I asked him which ones were the best and he said the ones who smoked. If you smoke too much, you fail, but you must take your moderation in moderation.”

Do you think drugs have had beneficial effects for artists?

“A professor wrote a short pamphlet on this and found that musicians felt that they became better at improvisations after smoking cannabis. It brakes down the barriers in your brain.”

Have they benefitted you?

“Yes, but thankfully Christmas only comes once a year.”

The Toyota Incident

I have only once publicly criticized Master, which was when, at the height of the economic boom, he sold a song to a commercial, which for me is an affront to artistic inregrity. It is time to take him to task.

“I sold half a verse and a chorus of “Ef þú smælar” to Toyota. The realised too late that “smæla” doesn’t mean to smile, but to sneer.”

Master quotes a poem by Dagur Sigurðarsson to prove his point, and I guess I will let him go at that. Almost.

Half a verse and a chorus, you say?

“The good thing about it was that I made a new version of the song. I had previously made a version with Björn Jörundur for the compilation album ‘Paradísarfuglinn’ and due to a clause in the contract, this belonged to the label Sena. They wanted to sell their version of the song and take a cut of the proceeds, but I told them I was unhappy about it and cut a new version. It was a slow organ version and it was much cheaper for me just to rent a studio and redo it.”

So the Toyota version is a new version then?

“The Toyota version,” he reiterates. It has a perverse ring to it that pleases Master. “The Toyota version is available on the four-album compilation Megas raular lögin sín, where I rerecorded a lot of old material.”

Jesus, Dylan and Armageddon

The new album, which will be celebrated with a release concert on Monday December 18th at Gamla bíó, is called Ósómaljóð, and consists of songs by the writer and painter Þorvaldur Þorsteinsson, who died almost five years ago.

“I wanted to remind people that he was also a songwriter, and still relevant and not dead to the arts. I have recorded four or five lyrics by him before, which is more than I have recorded by any other artists. He has a style that I can easily make my own. The singing was in a very deep key, but listening back to it, it works.”

On one of rare recent sightings, Master did a one and half hour version of “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” by Gavin Bryars, which is probably a world record for that piece and consists of repeating the title line over and over.

“It was a favourite of Þorvaldur’s and I did a thirty-minute version at his funeral. Not many people stayed through the longer version.”

I, of course, was one of the few that did. “Do you have any projects that you feel you haven’t completed yet?”

“I want to finish revising my version of the “Passíusálmar” by Hallgrímur Pétursson, so that they exist on record and not just in writing,” he says. “Also, do you know the album ‘Hamfarir’ by Gunnar Jökull?”

Of course I do. Gunnar was considered the finest drummer in Iceland and was a founding member of British prog rock band Yes, but had a mental breakdown before making his solo album.

“He sings about his coffee and his car and his dog, but the songs are lacking ideas. He plays all instruments himself, except for the drums. There, he uses a drum machine. I think the concept, counting your blessings, is great and deserves a second hearing. So I am writing on the same themes, but putting more ideas into it. I have finished some of the lyrics. One of them wound up being 20 verses, which is far too long for a song, and is about having your own wasp nest. It’s about the ingratitude of the wasps. Each object be it furniture, a vehicle, a dog or a wasp-nest are titled by the possessive adjective and are described in detail to become a character in their own right, and with their own little history. It is my wish that these odes to mundane daily things shall make them unique like Van Gogh’s shoes. I also have another album which was recorded in 2012 or 2013 which hasn’t come out yet. There is also a lyric by Þorvaldur there.”

It is time to start turning the conversation towards death again.

Last year was seen as a tragic one for musicians, and for politics. Some people maintain that the Rapture actually happened, and that the only people who made the cut were David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen. Perhaps Þorvaldur left early, but the rest of us are still here and have to deal with everything.

“Well, we still have Armageddon to look forward too. And we still have that other Semite singer. I have just received tapes of the rambling Jew’s latest concerts, and Dylan’s voice has surely aged, but still he has never been better.”

And the same, perhaps, can be said of Megas. Let us give praise to all imaginary deities we still have him around

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