The “alt” scene of Reykjavik, Iceland is a tight group. Auxiliary’s Hangedman discovered this firsthand in the local alt hangout, a beautiful turn of the century post-beam building on the main boutique drag of Laugavegur street. The place; Dillon Whiskey Bar. Here, underground notable Krummi Bjorgvinsson is a regular and has been a part of the Reykjavik music and art scene since his youth. Hangedman talked to Krummi about his much acclaimed new project Legend. Along with partner and genius keyboardist Dóri Björnsson Legend has blasted into the industrial synthpop scene with a début album that has people talking and there’s a promise of more to come.
interview by : Hangedman
photographer : Adrian Onsen
I want to start off this interview with a story, for my part, because it’s interesting as to how this interview came to be. As fate would have it, meeting you happened by accident. So while flying here, on Iceland Air, on the plane they had these Icelandic movies as part of their entertainment selections and one of them was a documentary about the Icelandic electronic music scene from the 90s to today.
Krummi : Yeah yeah, Electronica Reykjavik, a friend of mine did that! I was a part of that scene in the 90s so I was at all those raves and parties
Oh really? So that is very interesting. As I was watching this documentary, in the back of my subconscious I was already aware that Iceland’s music scene was very vibrant, there is a little bit of a worldwide reputation here, obviously with things like Airwaves and Bjork’s rise to fame from the 80s and 90s etc. So then I see this documentary and I’m suddenly really excited to be coming here. And then the first night we’re here we decide to seek out this underground music night which was really awesome and then we meet you, the promoter of the night! Tell me about your connection with the Iceland underground music scene.
K : When I was a teenager, a really young punk kid, like a street punk skateboarder I would hang on the street corner with a bunch of other kids and we were all into all kinds of electronic music, like really heavy rave music and punk music, ambient music, you name it. It was like this wave of new music from Britain in around 91, 92.
The golden age of rave
K : Yeah, it was this totally new thing, and nobody had ever heard of this stuff before here so we were totally frowned upon, how we dressed, the skateboards, this totally out of nowhere scene, made us outcasts here in Reykjavik. That’s how it really all started and I’ve always been a part of this scene. I started my first band around this time, an electronic rave band called Impulse. We played like really fast hardcore music, 180 BPMs. [laughs] Stuff like the material coming out of Reinforced Records, like Goldie and that stuff. And that’s how it all really started. So as I’ve grown older and I started a band called Minus [alternative rock] which got really popular, I still dabbled into electronic noise and really ambient, experimental music as well. On our second record we wanted to blend our style of noisecore with proper noise music so we got to know Curver who is a big noise artist in Iceland, Curver Thoroddsen from Ghostigital. And he did all the noise part, helped record the album so I’ve always been working with and hanging around people doing this kind of stuff. So I started myself doing this kind of music on the side and that’s how it really was, it was just totally around us at that time, we were surrounded. The people that were into this kind of scene, the raves, the electronic stuff along with the punk rockers became a tight knit group because we were all outcasts. We were this melting pot of all kinds of styles. So everybody collaborated and we created this unique music scene. It was just us, just maybe a hundred people tops and that’s where the electronic music scene grew into today. At the time we would take care of ourselves, do the shows ourselves, promotions ourselves, booking ourselves, everything was a DIY ethic and still is today, where you just pop up, do a show and try to do something unique.
That’s hard to find now, like in North America, that purity of artistic innovation is diluted by artists being copycats of what is popular in order to “sell” the music rather than do something unique.
K : For us it was just an aggression that had to come out because we were so frowned upon, we were outsiders and had a lot of feelings boiling inside of us so it came out in art. It also came out in paintings and graffiti, in fashion, and of course music. It was just a need for expression so much that it just blew up in so many directions you can imagine and we all built careers on that, some of us kept with it and became artists by trade. We had a passion for it, it may not be a decent wage but we still got paid for it. Without working a shitty 9 to 5 job we really built something. Many people kept with it, many people went into hard drugs and went to insane asylums and even died, I lost many brothers and sisters along the way. But, most of us just kept with it, and many of them are very successful today. These are the same people from the 90s scene, they love the same things and haven’t changed. They haven’t become more important than when we were just kids hanging around the street corner thinking about how we are going to make this flyer for this underground punk show. So all the outcasts came together, all of the, the punks, the death metal dudes, the ravers and from there it just exploded. That night you Canadians came here on Thursday, there’s no place in Reykjavik that embraces this music and these kinds of artists so I wanted to facilitate this.
I kind of got that feeling, as I walked into this old Scandinavian pub it was like this place “allows” this to happen and all the freaks come out for that one night. I grew up in a very small city in Canada, same thing, Monday night was the night the local bar gave all the goth kids. Monday was our night and we made the best of it.
K : Yeah when I started working here as a promoter (Bar Dillon 30 Laugarvegur, Rekyjavik) I said, “oh this is going to be great, I’m going to put on all these nights.” I was going to cater to all these artists I love and adore and they needed this place. Even if it’s only just ten people than I think it’s worth it. So that night you came to was our third night, it was pretty cool. I also experiment at home with some geeky stuff, so for me it’s such a pleasure to find a venue for these artists to play their music. I wish you guys could have been here a few months ago. We had a great release concert for a friend of mine who just released a cassette of the most prolific noise artists, weird artists in Iceland. There were only fifty hand engraved cassettes, it took like an hour to engrave these cassette cases, it started at 9am and went continuous to 4am. Every artists came, had to blend in to the artist before them. We played for hours straight just doing improvisation until we said we just can’t do it anymore. That was a great thing, there wasn’t that many people but for me it was an important night for this kind of musical expression.
Let’s talk about the Legend project. We’ve talked about the early Reykjavik scene, we’ve talked about noise and experimental artists. With Legend, it strikes me that you have your hand in many pots. Here is a brand new project, with a debut album that is already getting some international traction. In listening to this incredible record, my first question is where does it fit in? It’s not quite synthpop, It’s not rock noise, it’s unique, it’s Legend.
K : The other half of Legen” Dori [Halldór Á. Björnsson] is an engineer and an amazing piano player. I met him in ’98 around the time I founded my hardcore punk band Minus. While I was in Minus we were kind of up and coming, Icelandic sweethearts, the first hardcore punk band in Iceland to sign a record deal, doing that new style of hardcore rock. We were getting very successful, and stuff was happening and at this time I met Dori downtown, just drinking and stuff. To me he looked so cool, you know. [laughs] He had the black turtleneck and black Thai pants and all this weird stuff. At the time I had this friend Macki who was kind of the same school of cool. And here I was this hardcore punk dude, totally into all this music from hardcore to industrial. I loved all the classics, like Throbbing Gristle, Nine Inch Nails, Einstürzende Neubauten, Skinny Puppy, all that stuff. And I was just kind of like impressed with these guys and approached them, and we drank and stuff. Dori told me he was in a band called Adgettin [sic] which is something like Latin for the word pleasure. And he was saying, “yeah we play this kind of Nine Inch Nails kind of stuff.” I was like, “really, cool.” They invited me to this great big studio downtown for a party, Dori comes from rich folk, his father produces nets for the Norwegian fishing fleet. So they had this huge fucking house which they just lived in and had a studio in and it was just like a free for all. They played me some amazing songs, really really cool stuff, Macki was there singing it was really good. I mentioned that I was a drummer, I’d gone to art school for this, it was my first instrument so I said, “you guys need a drummer!” Now they really didn’t need a drummer, I just wanted to be in the band! [laughs] So I brought my drum set there and set it up and I joined the band. The band was doing really good, we got a good spot in the first Iceland Airwaves festival. We did the art museum and everything but we never kind of clicked because we were cursed. At our shows the computer would crash, we had a DAT tape and that got fucked and it was all just kind of weird. My band Minus also had become successful so we went on a world tour so I had to quit the band. But we always remained friends since then and we always kept in contact. Then in 2007, I founded this country band with Danny Ágúst from GusGus. He’s one of my best friends and we wanted to do this country western band because we such fans of Gram Parsons and all these old country cats, that really old heartfelt stuff like you cry when you listen to it. We really wanted to do this kind of band. So I contacted Dori again after keeping in contact with him once or twice a year, not that much but we were always really close from the days when I joined the band playing drums. And from those days I always thought that one day, we’ll do our band, me and Dori, we’ll finish what we started. So I contacted him and asked him if he wanted to play piano in my country band. He said yeah of course and joined the band and from that it was a total reunion! We fell in love again as all the friends. We released a record with this band and did pretty well. We got really really close after that so I was always going to his studio and we were always dabbling in something and that is how it really started. So in 2010, one night we sat down and said let’s do something! Let’s write a song! Just one song and we’ll see where it goes. So we wrote this one song, “Devil Inside Me”. We put that together in like an hour. We just nailed it. So we were like, “should we mix it now?” So we were super excited. I took a rough cut of it back to my apartment and listened to it in my headphones and I was like this is really good, this could be something. It was like telepathic! And it was fun. In my band Minus it became hard work. We had musical differences and we were getting sick of it really. With Dori it was like exciting! We were like little kids. It just all sparked a new fire in my heart. After that we were, “let’s do a record, let’s just do a fucking record.” We took our time, we didn’t stress about it, we just did it. We met every day and every day a new song would get born.
Are we talking about Fearless at this point?
K : We weren’t even thinking of that at this point. We just loved meeting up at the studio and writing music. We were so excited about writing the songs that we weren’t even thinking about a band. We were like hermits, I would come there at noon, and I’d leave at 4am. We just wrote and wrote, and wrote lyrics, talking endlessly about philosophy, how we view the world, the wars that were going on, religion, everything! It was a total fucking mind fuck, Dori is like crazy smart, like a genius and it was so much fun just talking and doing music. And that is just how it came together. We ended up with five great songs, or five or six pieces of work if you will. Most of these works were much longer than they are on the current album. We were so much into classical music we just wanted to make if feel classical. And we were also total suckers for 80s one hit wonders as well. So we decided let’s just make a record, let’s take all the stuff we have and try to make it pop. We wanted to make it more accessible but still very personal. So we decided to arrange it so people might get it more. So we started doing that the threw away some of the old songs and wrote better songs until we had a whole record. It took a year to arrange the songs, perfect the recordings, the lyrics so we were into 2011. We also mixed it ourselves. That’s how it happened and we’ve been unstoppable ever since.
This is the début album. Then there is the traditional make it or break it second album. Is that something on the horizon? Will you change the sound?
K : Oh yeah it’s totally different now. We’ve already starting writing the next record. We already have some of the titles and themes. Fearless is kind of a concept album from our point of view. It’s not like a prog rock album or anything like that, but the subjects of the songs are very concept. The new stuff is not going to be accessible as the first one. I think it’s going to be more experimental.
Oh really, so you are going to take a little bit of a risk by changing the sound?
K : We’re not thinking about risk.
You don’t care.
K : We don’t give a fuck.
This might be a bit cliché but my first listen to Fearless I knew you were a band from Iceland and that conjures up images and things. So when I listened to this music I thought Iceland. When we all got off the plane we were in awe over the landscape, so at a certain level what does this do to the music?
K : For many Icelandic artists the beautiful green pastures and the mountains has inspired many themes. But for us it’s always been the winter.
That’s interesting because the I Die You Die guys out west in their review described the album against a wintery background.
K : I’m glad that people get that. We have a new studio now but the studio we recorded Fearless in the studio at the time was by the sea with big rocks and the ocean crashing against the rocks. It was so cold and so dark in the middle of winter. It was way over on the other side of town where the big oil tankers are, a very industrial and cold place. That’s where our studio was, surrounded by darkness and cold and the ocean. We were just alone in the dark, talking a lot, going deep. It was like a vivisection of ourselves. I think ultimately or subconsciously we were inspired by that. Being surrounded by cold rock and sea in a really lonely industrial place with metal everywhere and cold lights, that’s the stuff we were around and it helped shape the album.
And now with your début album you are already getting international traction, is that a good thing?
K : It is a good thing! I’m so glad that our music is available to people. I’m very grateful for this. We released the album here at home totally by ourselves. We took a loan and did it ourselves, we got money from friends and stuff, raised the money. We went to this great little Icelandic record company called Kimi Records. They have good distribution and we had this album ready and they listened to it, loved it and said they would manufacture and distribute it for us. So we cut a thousand CDs and that’s what we did. Then somehow Jacek of Artoffact Records is married to an Icelander and he travels here frequently and even speaks Icelandic. He waited a long time to tell me that because he didn’t want me to think he was some Icelandic fanatic (and they exist). He’s no way one of these “fan of Iceland freaks”.
[laughs] Well I’ve never been here before and I’m impressed so I can see how that can be.
K : Well there are these people are so sycophantic and are like “everything Iceland is awesome” and they drive everyone nuts. Anyway Jacek heard the album and he read a review in an Icelandic magazine on the plane over here. It was a really decent review and he didn’t know there was this band that dabbled into these musical sub genres like industrial and synthpop and that sort of 80s dark music whatever. He was super excited, went straight to the record store and bought the album. He sent me an email and asked straight up, “do you guys have any deals outside of Iceland?” I said no, and he said he wants to release the album. So we had this correspondence for a while before we went ahead. I liked the correspondence, it felt right.
He’s a pretty straight-up guy.
K : I like that! I could tell he was smart.
Artoffact are true lovers of art and music as well.
K : So I took a chance and we just did it.
Labels and the industry today is in a bit of a flux, I’ve talked to a few artists who have this love hate relationship with their label, some labels are there just for distribution, others do more marketing (or not), We just talked to Mindless Self Indulgence and they do EVERYTHING themselves.
K : That is the way to do it today.When I was touring a lot and releasing records with my band Minus, the first label we signed to was Victory Records in America, big hardcore label over there. They fucked us in the ass! After that we signed Sony, huge label, we were doing really well, selling out records, selling out shows, we were living the rockstar lifestyle in big buses all over the world, on magazine covers. Anyway, I did live the life for like five years. But it was so shallow and bullshit. [laughs] It was a great experience but for me it was or it became not as exciting. All I wanted to do was art. I just really wanted to express myself with music. I don’t care about success really, I just want to be happy and fulfilled with something I’ve created. I’m not doing this for anyone else. If they get it, that’s great but in the end after Minus, I came back down to earth [laughs] and realized that. In the end we were fucked in the ass by Sony but that’s a story for another time. [laughs]
And here you have Artoffact, they are one of those hands off labels which is a great thing. They help you but they let you do your thing. For example my band Prospero, the core of Prospero is Wade Anderson and he’s had a healthy relationship with Artoffact going on a few decades now.
K : You got to let the artist do what they do and the record label just help them do it. Don’t put up barriers to getting that expression out. If a label does that, and does not interfere, everything will fall into place. People feel better about what they are doing at by letting people just do what they do it automatically becomes a well oiled machine!
Then you get the whole contract vortex where they sign you for 10 albums but your second album tanks. I mean for Fearless it came together so quickly and naturally but sometimes with art, it take a couple of years to get it right!
K : It’s good you can work with a label that is just simply happy they have an artist that they love. Even if we just sell ten copies, they are still like this artist is great!
Changing gears here a little, you got this first album, you have a second album coming and yet here we are a bunch of Canadians coming in on a Thursday night in Reykjavik and we hit this crazy little abstract music night. It’s really underground artists and it’s all your equipment, I get the impression you have a real desire to see other Icelandic artists do well or rise.
K : What impressed me as a young adult doing music, we didn’t get a lot of help from people. Of course there were a few and so when someone did reach out a helping hand we were so grateful! I always looked at those people as angels. So now I want to pay back for all that and do the same thing for rising artists. I just want to keep it all alive. These things can die out very quickly if there’s no center where people can meet, or no focal point to reference. All this stuff will gradually fade away and that’s a shame. There are so many great artists that are doing music who may not sell anything or get big but they are still doing amazing pieces of art! These nights we do are like opening a gallery and showing people the work that artists do that nobody gets, because it’s so ahead of its time. I enjoy this so much and I hope the people that I help enjoy it just as much. I’m thinking about the past and how I was helped and appreciate it for the people who did this for us. A lot of people take a chance and people still remember it all and will keep it in their hearts. Even if no one gets it, you know. It’s like I believe for example in this band playing right now [on the radio as we speak] The Smiths and I know they are fucking amazing and I don’t care what you think. And if someone tells me “no” I say well, that is your prerogative and I feel sorry for them. [laughs]
They obviously have never been an angsty teenager and locked themselves in a room with Suzanne Vega, or Leonard Cohen or The Smiths. [laughs] K : Ha! It’s all very naive but it’s the only way to do this you know man!
So you are going on a little bit of a tour, well maybe not a tour but you are going off to a far off land!
K : Yes, we’re going to a far off land! To a land I have never been before, Toronto and Calgary for Terminus Festival.
Two very different places.
K : I hear that. I hear that to drive from Toronto it would take like three, four days.
Yeah it’s far. It costs us as much to fly to Calgary as it does to Iceland. But it’s an industrial festival and they have you on the bill.
K : Yeah to be honest I don’t know very much about a lot of the bands on the bill. We kind of do our own thing so.
It’s a really interesting festival because it’s quite a cross section of music from the scene, you have hard industrial stuff, there’s a band from out west who is really hot, iVardensphere and they do almost tribal noise stuff with djembes and stuff. You have this band from around here Defence Mechanism who have recently and beautifully softened their sound a little bit and have a real song narrative to their work. To be honest with you I think you are going to be a great fit.
K : I’m excited. It’s funny when I read foreign reviews of Legend, they are like trying to slot on into comparing us to this band and that band and I don’t know any of them except for Depeche Mode of course!
It’s funny you mention Depeche Mode because while I listened to you guys I thought, “sure, yeah”, but then a side of me is like no, wait, these guys have their own thing going.
K : Oh thank you!
It’s true, and best of luck on your shows!