Dissecting the underground label Heavy Knife Records
Veterans of the Icelandic underground hip-hop scene, Þórður Ingi Jónsson and Alfreð Drexler are meeting up at Þórður’s place in Reykjavík’s West End. Þórður, better known by his moniker Lord Pusswhip, is in Iceland for a few weeks before returning to his home in Los Angeles. “You’re not allergic to cigarettes or anything?” they ask me as they smoke a pack between themselves over the course of our conversation. They drink Tuborg Classic from a large can but pour it into a glass.
Þórður and Alfreð are the brains and brawn of Reykjavík’s newest record label, Heavy Knife Records. With a focus on underground music, the label has demonstrated prolificacy out of the gate, with music by unknown artists springing seemingly out of nowhere, fully formed and excellent.
Heavy Knife Records was formally established in June 2022. The diversity of genres represented on the label’s roster is what sets it apart from others operating in a similar capacity. They’re dabbling in everything from indie-rock and pop to hip-hop and electronica. “We have diverse tastes,” Þórður explains when asked why they represent such a breadth of genres. Alfreð adds, “We’ve been asked if we want to limit the music we release. My only reply has been, ‘Why?’ We find music we like and we think it deserves recognition.”
“We’ve been with each other since the day we were born,” Þórður says of the pair’s relationship. “First at the maternity ward, then at the same pre-school, then elementary, secondary and until now,” Alfreð continues his thought.
“Alfreð is the brawn. I’m the brains,” Þórður quips.
Despite their shared upbringing, they strike me as completely opposite types. “We sometimes joke that if we wouldn’t have raised each other, I would’ve become the jock giving Þórður wedgies,” Alfreð jokes.
Having been active in the music scene for over a decade, founding a label seemed like a logical next step. Both Þórður and Alfreð have come up in auxiliary roles in the scene; Þórður as a curator and mentor, Alfreð as a producer. “People had been encouraging me to start a label, but I never gave it any mind,” Þórður mentions. Alfreð interjects, “You’ve always been such a curator, finding music and hyping it.”
Þórður says the project – like so many – was borne out of COVID. “I had fled the States when COVID became a serious thing. If I remember correctly, it was at that time when I started seriously considering the idea,” he says.
The duo had previously released a few titles under the label’s name, although the releases were fairly informal. “I used the opportunity to launch the label with my album, Lord Pusswhip Is Rich, in 2021, though it wasn’t quite official,” says Þórður. “The first official release is my album, Drexler’s Lab,” Alfreð continues. Drexler’s Lab was released in June 2022.
Three months after Heavy Knife’s foundational release, Alda Music – Iceland’s largest music publishing company – was sold to Universal Music Group. “The mainstream record company was leaving the country, and there opened up an opportunity for a new label,” Alfreð concludes. The timing was right. Alfreð had just gained access to a recording studio. The pair threw out a wide net, hoping to catch people interested in collaborating or joining their team. The reception they received served to fortify their idea. A new underground label was being born.
In addition to the favourable conditions, the label’s establishment is fuelled by disappointment. “I was so optimistic that things would blow up after the pandemic. It wasn’t really like that. It’s only these days when you feel things picking back up again,” Þórður laments. “It was a kick in the butt to do something about it.”
Seeing as artists can fundamentally act like their own independent record labels today, self-releasing with relative ease, what’s the founders’ opinion on contemporary publishing? “That’s maybe one of the reasons why we started this. There needed to be a counterweight against the other stuff. Not that we’re an antithesis of anything. We just thought there needed to be more representation of the stuff we like,” says Þórður. “Everyone can drop stuff. But it’s a question about being a part of a team,” Alfreð adds.
Heavy Knife Records operates on a 360-degree basis. Alfreð and Þórður oversee the artists’ recording, production, promotion, bookings and even artistic direction. Being musicians themselves, it influences the label’s operations. “I feel like we’re receptive and understanding towards the artists and their vision,” says Alfreð. “We try not to step on any toes. And we don’t pretend to be high-level professionals. We’re not, and we try to make that as clear as possible to the artists.”
Adds Þórður, “We’re clearing the jungle with machetes. We know where we’re going, but we don’t know how to deal with the insects and animals on the way.”
Among the artists on the label’s roster are Spacestation, Sameheads, Afterparty Angel, Ronja, Psychoplasmics, and Neuroparasite. Heavy Knife even has a few international releases under its belt.
Striking a comfortable financial balance
It’s no secret that many record companies get a bad reputation for profiteering off artists’ work. In a previous interview, Þórður stated that Heavy Knife’s role models were Factory Records – “Which by the way, went bankrupt,” he interjected – the torchbearers of the ‘80s Manchester scene which famously stated that the musicians owned everything.
Since making those remarks, Þórður’s had a change of heart. “We thought it was a charming idea,” he says. We have been very generous, and we deal according to our conscience.”
“Each artist is different, but it’s our official policy to always watch out for the artist’s rights,” says Alfreð. “We’re coming into this as musicians ourselves, and everybody in this business knows what it’s like to get the short end of the stick.”
The duo emphasise that they’re not in this business to own music for life, but its operations are characterised by striking a delicate balance between artist satisfaction and business prospects. When asked how things make sense financially, Þórður jokes, “They don’t. It’s such a passion project that we don’t think about it at the moment.” Alfreð jumps in: “We’re in our formative stages of being a business.”
In Þórður’s opinion, the label acts as a counterweight of the Icelandic music industry, holding a solid middle ground between the scene’s different tangents. “The black-metal dudes fuck with us, rappers fuck with us, techno people fuck with us. We’re in a weird middle ground,” he comments. “We’re students of the game,” Þórður concludes, and although I can’t quite discern what he means, the words resonate with me.
Look out for Heavy Knife Records’ upcoming releases from newcomer Öngþveiti and electronic artist Ronja – both are dropping in August.
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