With a population just bigger than Brighton, Reykjavík is one of the smallest capital cities in the world, the central draw of Europe’s most sparsely populated country. When an island such as Iceland is shaped so fiercely by earthquakes and eruptions, it’s easy for stereotypes to take hold, especially when there isn’t a huge amount of people to defy them. But despite the country’s impeccable cultural heritage, there’s a new wave of artists not content on relying on the achievements of Björk and Sigur Rós to define their nation’s musical output.
Cue Kiasmos, two musicians seemingly standing on different tectonic plates. On one side is Ólafur Arnalds – a BAFTA-winning multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer, whose work comprises post-classical strings and piano nudged gently along by refined drum beats. On the other plate is techno musician and vocalist Janus Rasmussen, one quarter of Icelandic band Bloodgroup who are specialists in catchy dance music earning them early comparisons to The Knife. Musically worlds apart – then there’s the fact that Janus lives in the even more sparsely populated Faroe Islands and only voyages to Iceland to make music.
With a new date announced at on 29th November for Superstition, we spoke to Ólafur and Janus about their first full-length eponymous album, made after setting aside 2014 for collaboration in Reykjavík.
For an outsider it may seem that their early meeting might have caused friction but truth is often far from myth. It was a common interest that brought them together.
“We met through music,” Ólafur says, “I was working as a sound technician back in the day, and Janus’s band, Bloodgroup, was playing at a venue I worked at, and I ended up going on tour with them as their live engineer. On those trips we found this common interest for electronic music which, at least, I hadn’t really explored before. We were just both interested and wanted to start experimenting.”
Their meetings started as weekend hangouts, experimenting with sounds and samples, but the project soon became more serious. Filled with energy of a new musical relationship, early material focused on a shared love for minimal techno. Kiasmos were keen on keeping up the musical energy that makes audiences dance.
When it came to putting the debut album together, their music became more considered. On the phone from the Faroe Islands Janus considers the current body of work.
“I didn’t know it was going to be this ambient, but I guess that was nice, it’s kind of new for me – I’ve always made dance music but in a way we’re meeting in the middle.”
Also on the conference call, Ólafur agrees: “This is more clubby than I usually do but more ambient than Janus usually does.”
Ólafur and Janus explain that with Kiasmos, they wanted to see if they could use piano and strings to create textured electronic music. By using live music rather than just synthesised approximations, this gives the album much more depth.
“We’ve almost only made music that is electronic together so for us it was kind of interesting to see if we could fit strings into it especially the piano,” says Ólafur, “because there’s not a lot of electronic music that uses it – to a good effect at least.”
Janus cuts in, “Well, there’s some club music which uses some more disco piano and stuff, but we wanted to hear you know, this texture of the really soft and gentle piano playing against the hard kick drum. It’s kind of like painting a picture, it’s just colours, and you get a different colour from an electric piano and a real piano. And it’s the same for strings- some of the strings on the album are actually programmed, they’re still made in the computer- but some are recorded… Sometimes you want something very much alive, and sometimes you want it very much the opposite, but everything needs to be humanised. It can sound like a computer and still be cool.”
Asked if they thought it was as straight forward as analogue sounding better than digital, the answer is a resounding “no”:
“Although we definitely lean a lot more towards analogue,” Ólafur explains, “because even if you’re talking about old synths or old drum machines, they’re still analogue.”
What is it about the old machines that appeal, is it the fact they still have the ability to surprise their users? The fact that random is still an option?
“I don’t like soft synths because they are too reliable” Janus explains, “they have no faults, and no surprises, they just do exactly what you tell them to do, but with our collection of analogue synths, you often get these crazy surprises and errors, which are mistakes but that’s how you discover something and that’s how you bring a real character to what you’re doing.”
Ólafur adds: “But it also depends, I mean again, sometimes I love soft synths, if I want to do something completely reliable.”
By combining both Ólafur’s talent for classical arrangements and Janus’ familiarity with synth and electro composition, Kiasmos doesn’t have to choose. The album still feels very considered, the textures and sound make up a rich end product that manages to balance each ideal- classically arranged, sublime in sound, but altogether ambient and modern at the same time. What was it like to have that space to complete the album, once and for all?
“It was really great because it was the first time,” says Ólafur. “Usually we’ve had a session one evening, and then not another one until like three months later- so for us, this was actually the first time we’ve sat down and been like ‘woah, we could do this in one and a half months’ or something like that. And really think about what we want to do.”
Janus adds: “Yeah you can actually develop ideas and you have the space to take this somewhere- every time we’d just be doing one [session] for one song, every time we start, we’re starting from scratch, and it’s been two months since we did the last one, so we have completely different mind set, completely different ideas, so we would have to tune in to each other all over again each time- but if we have the space to really just sit down and work on it then we – an idea can slowly develop and become something much bigger.”
The concept of meeting in the middle is at the core of what Kiasmos achieves. Named after a mis-spelling of Chiasmus, a literary technique whereby two clauses are related to each other by reversing them in order to make a larger idea (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”), Kiasmos revels in the uncertainty of turning something on its head and taking it out of its comfort zone.
The overall sound Ólafur and Janus produce is one enriched with both experience and uncertainty and the very idea of playing outside familiar territory. It’s also a pattern seen in how they create their music- working from Ólafur’s studio in Reykjavík, but without the need to bring in the stereotypical Icelandic tropes of environment = inspiration. So what did inform the album they set a year aside to create?
“I think very much because – when you are just making music from experimenting, it’s very much affected by the tools you have” says Ólafur, “and then you’re very much experimenting with an instrument- you see the synthesiser and you say ‘hey I wonder what happens if we turn this on’- so the environment that you’re working in is dictating a lot of the sound you’re creating.”
As for the stereotypical notions towards landscape and tropes of the Arctic Circle that seem to always pop up with any mention of a new Icelandic artist, apart from reduced daylight hours, Ólafur does not see it shaping Kiasmos’ work in a major way:
“It’s usually pretty dark in there- at least for me, environment doesn’t have such a direct influence.”
So they don’t write to a backdrop of melting glaciers or alpine tundra winds?
“This is more of an image that artists create” Janus says “- not necessarily how they work- but because it’s such a strong image, people have started to automatically put that on all the other artists as well, whether they like it or not.
“Most Icelandic artists today, are consciously trying to avoid this image, because it’s become such a cliche here.”
A much more environmental affect is working within the close family unit of the Erased Tapes record label.
“It’s offered me this opportunity to grow as an artist”, says Ólafur. “It invites collaboration- and it doesn’t have to be a serious musical collaboration, but just talking about ideas. You know, having these friends who are in similar places as you and having similar ideas- just talking to them. Me and Nils [Frahm] became best friends eventually- and every time we see each other we inspire each other so much and we get so many more ideas we wouldn’t have without each other – so this is a label with very useful friendships.”
Ólafur says that Kiasmos certainly plays more shows abroad than in Iceland:
“There’s a limited amount of shows you can do in a city of 1,000 people. But I think we’re a part of the scene [in Reykjavík], and we’ve noticed our songs are getting played by some of the other DJs here, and the dance music radio show featured us on the top of their list a few months ago. And that’s great to feel like a part of a local scene, which is what at least I never really felt with my own solo project. But I think Kisamos could be and I hoped it would be.”
Taking a project out of the secure environment of a studio and trying to replicate it for a live show brings another dimension to the performance. It adds new perceptions- and it’s something Kiasmos have been mindful of from the beginning. Janus explains that they decided to stick to the vibe of the album, and ensconce the audience in what Kiasmos achieves: “We’re trying to extend the idea of the album for the live shows.”
“We want to keep it electronic”, Ólafur adds, “which means we don’t have a drummer or something very visual happening on the stage, it will be mostly working with loops and basically a couple of laptops and some buttons, which is not often a very exciting thing to watch- we have to compensate on that by concentrating quite a lot on the visual [AV] element- I think that’s our main concentration of the live show- to create that atmosphere around the music so people can feel like they’re standing inside of a music video.
“A live show should be a moment that you experience, and it only happens there, and it doesn’t happen again, and it doesn’t happen in the same way- that it’s something that is only going to happen once, ever. You know: the same mistakes, the same characteristics, the same venue, the same atmosphere, the same people. And what we want to do with the live show is reinforce that- to help people get lost in that moment. And forget about everything else.”
Kiasmos will headline a special Superstition show in collaboration with Last.fm and Erased Tapes on 29th November 2014, supported by label mates Rival Consoles and Dauwd. Tickets available now.