From Iceland — The Quiet Music Men: Hugar Create Chilled Classics

The Quiet Music Men: Hugar Create Chilled Classics

Published February 9, 2022

The Quiet Music Men: Hugar Create Chilled Classics
John Pearson
Photo by
Anna Maggý

Musical duo Hugar have been a creative partnership for 10 years now, a fact that seems to take the individuals in question—Bergur Þórisson and Pétur Jónsson—by surprise.

“Time flies! I’m quite shocked,” says Pétur, when reminded. “Should we start to plan an anniversary party or something?”

Some artists might have already booked the venue, ordered a three-tiered cake and hit Vínbúðin for a few cases of Moët, but that’s probably not the Hugar style. Like their music, the duo come across as understated and unassuming, an air which belies what they have quietly achieved during that 10 years.

A start in Seltjarnarnes

Bergur and Pétur go back much further than the 10 years of Hugar’s existence. Their musical education started at school in their hometown of Seltjarnarnes, where Bergur took up the trombone and Pétur picked up a guitar. This brought them into contact with renowned musician Helgi Jónsson, who became trombone and guitar teacher to the two of them.

“We didn’t plan to make an album or anything, but it seemed OK so we gave it away for free online.”

Back in 2014, as Hugar started to evolve into a pair of talented multi-instrumentalists, Helgi entrusted them with his studio while he went on holiday. They called their friend Ólafur Arnalds, (who was drumming in hardcore bands at the time), and seized the opportunity to lay down their burgeoning musical ideas. But having eventually recorded enough for an album, the question was: “Erm… now what?”

“We didn’t plan to make an album or anything, but it seemed OK so we gave it away for free online,” says Pétur.

“We had a download counter on the website,” Bergur adds, “and we made a goal. If 10 people that we didn’t know downloaded it, we’d be super happy. It went into the hundreds of thousands.” Eight years on, the tracks comprising Hugar’s eponymously titled debut album have now received more than 48 million plays between them on Spotify alone.

A gig or two

Hugar’s first tentative forays into the live arena took a while, and were few and far between. “When the album was a year old, we played our first show,” Pétur recalls. “It was at Kex. We had never thought of the album being performed live, but we got our friends to play; string quartet, full band with a drummer and everything. It was a really fun experience, but that was our only show until we played another, two years later, in Poland.”

Take a walking tour of Reykjavík with Grapevine crewmembers Valur, Pollý and Bjartmar. Click here for more details.

When it came to recording their second album, Bergur and Pétur also chose their own relaxed timeframe and ‘Varða’ eventually emerged in 2019, five years after its predecessor. But at least this time the album was planned; they even made it possible for people to pay for it, by signing to Sony Music Masterworks. That same year Hugar scored a film—‘The Vasulka Effect’—which was about Steina and Woody Vasulka, pioneers of video art.

Looking out for the old folk

Two years later Hugar released a record inspired by Icelandic folk songs that had been rescued from obscurity. That project—a five-track EP called ‘Þjóðlög / Folk Songs’—was inspired by ‘Íslenzk Þjóðlög’, an early 20th-century compendium of Icelandic folk music apparently financed by Danish brewer Carlsberg. “This guy just went to every farm and collected the songs for his book, and now you can find all these gems which are a part of our culture,“ explains Pétur. “Everything was just there for someone to find, and it has now been passed on to later generations.”

“The book is basically just melodies with lyrics,” adds Bergur. “So we made our own versions. You know, some people have the misconception that there was no music here in Iceland because they didn’t have a lot of instruments. But there was definitely a lot of music happening; you can just feel it in this book.”

“We tried to encapsulate the spirit of the lyrics sonically,” Pétur says, “and we found that translated really well to what we do. So we are hoping to do more, because there are a lot of those songs.”

North Atlantic Rift

But before turning their attention to any further cultural preservation projects, there was a new Hugar album to coax into existence. ‘Rift’, which came out in January 2022, is a remarkable work of fluid musicality: expansive, lush and mesmerising.

The title refers broadly to the concept of division, as Bergur explains: “In Iceland, you are on the meeting of these two tectonic plates which are growing apart. And you can definitely feel it in the volcanoes and the geysirs, and the greenhouses where they can grow bananas. Basically, the whole island comes from that motion; those eruptions that made a country. So the creation of a rift gives the opportunity for something new.”

Although Hugar decided on the album’s title and concept before the coronavirus arrived, ‘Rift’ unsurprisingly reflects pandemic times. Pétur wonders where the chasms that have recently opened up in our social fabric will lead: “In terms of society, doesn’t every change follow a big disaster, or a big rift?”

Let’s hope that society holds together long enough for Hugar to continue— unassumingly—through at least one more decade. Then perhaps we can have another catch-up to see what more they’ve quietly achieved during those next ten years. We’ll bring the anniversary party cake.

You can buy a vinyl copy of ‘Varða’ by Hugar here, at the Grapevine shop.

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