EDITOR’S NOTE: Seattle-based writer and NCS reader Gemma Alexander journeyed to Iceland in late October to see the country, and she timed her visit to coincide with the Iceland Airwaves festival, which included over 420 bands playing all over Reykjavík for five days, plus 400 more unofficial, off-venue performances.
While in Iceland, Gemma generously arranged to conduct interviews of some Icelandic bands for NCS. So far, we’ve posted her interview of Angist, her interview of Beneath, and her interview of Kontinuum. Today we’re publishing Gemma’s interview of Guðmundur Óli Pálmason, the drummer of what is today probably Iceland’s best known metal band, and a huge NCS favorite: Sólstafir.
The interview is accompanied by Gemma’s photos of Sólstafir on stage at the Harpa concert hall as well as photos she took at the performance they gave at the KEX Hostel — a show that Gemma said changed her life. You’ll also find some truly amazing videos of the KEX Hostel performance at the end of this interview.
And if you haven’t yet checked out Gemma’s blog about her entire Icelandic vacation, do that via this link. You’ll be glad you did.
Sólstafir are a band who need no introduction to readers of No Clean Singing. At last count, this web site had written about the band a full dozen times. It is with great pleasure that I am able to add this interview with Sólstafir drummer Guðmundur Óli Pálmason. Guðmundur gave me a good chunk of his afternoon just hours before sharing a stage with Skálmöld and HAM at the largest heavy metal show ever hosted by the Iceland Airwaves festival. After wandering downtown Reykjavík in search of a place to sit that wasn’t blasting live music, we finally settled in a café for a meaty discussion of Sólstafir’s music, with a side of politics and Eistnaflug.
NCS: Yeah, there are exceptions to the rule.
GP: Obviously. I’ve seen that site, and like you said in the email, you guys have written about us quite a few times. So you know, you are really breaking your own rules.
NCS: We do break our own rules. Music from Iceland doesn’t seem to follow the rules either.
GP: That’s because the scene is so small, you can’t really divide it up. If you have only technical metal bands playing, the only audience would be the other bands; it would be like 10 people. So we just have to mix everything. I guess that’s where it comes from, the fact that it’s so hard to classify so many of Iceland’s metal bands.
GP: I guess from the outside it seems like that. But we started the band in ‘95 and we were already listening a lot to British ‘80’s Goth rock, Sisters of Mercy, Fields of the Nephilim, The Cult. Like on our debut, Till Valhalla, there’s some influences that when we listen to it, we’re like, “Oh yeah, there’s that Smashing Pumpkins riff,” but I guess it’s very well hidden. I think it was Nicke Andersson from Entombed that said stealing music from other bands is okay, just make sure you steal from other genres and hide it well. There’s nothing new under the sun anyway. There’s even a Madonna riff on one of the songs from Till Valhalla.
NCS: I didn’t even know Madonna had riffs.
GP: Well, you know, the guitar riff is like a vocal line from Madonna. I think this is the first time we actually tell that secret.
GP: Yeah, we all have very varied musical tastes. It varies from person to person inside the band, but everyone in the band listens to a lot of different kind of music. So when it all comes together, that’s a really big pot that we can take ingredients from.
NCS: You’ve also done some of your own cover art, right?
GP: Yeah, I made the photo on the Köld CD. That’s basically about it that we have actually made ourselves though. On our last CD it was this Norwegian guy named Kim Holm. We met him the first time we played in Bergen. He came to the show and he asked us if it was okay if he would paint us while we were playing. I mean, people have asked us if they can take photographs, but this was the first time someone asked if he can paint us. Of course we said, “Yeah.” After the show he showed us the result, and he did like, I don’t know five, six really cool paintings just while we were playing. We were really just like, “Whoa, that’s awesome.” About two weeks later we were kinda getting late with the artwork for our album and we thought, well you know, “I think his style is gonna fit the music,” and so we contacted him about doing the artwork – one picture for each song, which turned out pretty good. At least we were happy about it. But yeah, other than that, I’ve done like one video that I did with my own photography and then a few band photos.
GP: Yeah, occasionally. I did the cover of the new Kontinuum album actually, was supposed to be just a kind of a band photo. I did a lot of taking photos of Icelandic bands. But I got really bored of it, so I don’t really do that anymore. I mean, if the bands have cool look and they know what they want to do, then it’s fun. Like there’s this half-British, half-Norwegian black metal band called Code. I did some photos for their last album and they really knew what they wanted. They had a really strong visual in their mind, so that’s quite fun for me.
NCS: Your preferred genre label is “anti-Christian Icelandic heathen bastards,” but in an interview last summer one of you claimed to “have Jesus tattooed close to his heart”?
GP: I guess as persons we contradict ourselves all the time. We don’t take ourselves seriously. We do take our music seriously and our art, but not ourselves. So in interviews we’ll often say all kinds of stupid shit.
GP: No not at all, it’s just something that me and Addi, our singer, like to post; just basically if people are interested in hearing stuff that we listen to. I mean we don’t have to post stuff like Autopsy or Fields of the Nephilim; people know that. But we think it’s kind of interesting to introduce people to those Icelandic bands that they would probably otherwise never hear. And some of this is stuff that we were raised on. Like HAM, for instance, is one of our biggest influences. It’s funny when I read reviews and people are like “Oh those guys are obviously listening to Enslaved and Nachtmystium and whatever,” and we’re like “What?” There might be similarities but this [Icelandic music] is basically what we’ve been influenced by.
NCS: I was surprised by a lot of those bands you were raised on, because even a couple years ago if you Googled ‘Iceland metal,’ nothing came up. Now there’s a buzz about Icelandic music, and a lot of people are saying it’s because of you guys.
GP: I don’t think it’s because of us. I think there’s just some kind of buzz around Icelandic music in general. Like Iceland Airwaves, which is not so much about metal but all kinds of music, it seems to be kind of “in.” Maybe not for the brainless, average consumer, but for people who actually dig into music. Airwaves is mostly bands that are, you know, not so commercial. I guess that’s rubbing off onto Icelandic music in general.
GP: For Icelandic music in general, yeah. Maybe not metal though, we are always kind of on the wall. We’ve been going for 17 years now and people are just starting to recognize us in Iceland. Metal in general used to be really overlooked in Iceland. Even though we were doing things internationally, we wouldn’t get any support locally. Luckily it’s changing now, though.
NCS: Svartir Sandar is entirely sung in Icelandic, but some of your older stuff was in English.
GP: We started out basically singing just in Icelandic. On our debut full length we had both Icelandic and English. The next one, Masterpiece of Bitterness, was only in English for some reason. Then Köld was only in English except the title track. Then we just thought, “Hey wait a minute. We’re an Icelandic band, why don’t we sing in our own language?” At least me personally, I got really fed up with Icelandic bands always singing in English even though, like, all their audience was Icelandic. Actually, it’s kind of ironic though, because I think 90% of our audience is not Icelandic.
I think it also has something to do with when Addi kind of changed his vocal approach and he started actually singing instead of screaming; it’s more from the heart you know, if it’s in your own language. But who knows, the next album might be in English. It’s nothing we’ve decided on. Like, we never think about this stuff like, “We have to do it.”
GP: Naw, we never overthink stuff. We never decide where we are taking our music. We just let the music take us there. It might sound like a cliché but I can’t really describe it any other way. When we’re in the mood we just write music and see what comes out. There are no rules and no taboos. It’s never too much pop, or it’s never too heavy, or anything. It’s just, if it sounds good to us then let’s do it.
NCS: Do you have a principal writer?
GP: We all work together. Someone might of course bring in an idea or a riff but usually it’s not more than that. The rest always is born from the group. So we might jam the same riff for like two hours and then think, “Hey, yeah, okay, we’ve been playing this for two hours so it must be good,” and we start trying to arrange things. So it’s never the way that somebody brings in a whole song.
(Stefán Magnússon walks up to the table and greets Guðmundur: Fuck.)
GP: Fuck. [laughs] Do you know Eistnaflug festival? This is the guy who does the festival. He’s an idiot though, just so you remember. Nobody likes him.
SM: [gesturing to Guðmundur] They are a huge influence for Eistnaflug. But don’t write that down. Because I don’t like them. [both laugh]
GP: I think we are probably the only band that don’t ever sign the contract. It’s just like we’ve never really been asked to play there, and we’ve never asked to play there, we just do.
SM: We’re like 1400-1500 people and [he confers with Guðmundur in Icelandic]
GP: Yeah, that is just the capacity of the heavy side of Icelandic rock. Also if they would make it bigger they would have to go to like 3000 or something because that’s just the next venue in the town.
SM: And you know, if we would have, like when Metallica played, 18,000 people, it’s like 15,000 idiots. I don’t want 18,000 people at Eistnaflug.
GP: Keep it elite, crème de la crème. [both laugh]
SM: Don’t write anything down. He doesn’t eat meat now, so everything he says is bullshit.
GP: He doesn’t like me anymore. [Both laugh, and Stefán moves to his table.]
NCS: Vegetarian? Now that’s interesting.
GP: Well, I’m never gonna call myself a vegetarian. I just stopped eating meat. I haven’t eaten meat now for like two months, but I’m never calling myself a vegetarian.
GP: Because I don’t like the politics of vegetarianism and I would never preach to people that you have to become a vegetarian. Plus, when I go to my parents for Christmas dinner, I’ll probably have the meat. I’m not gonna scrap it totally from the menu. And I gotta say this because people will hate me, I just love whale meat. I just fucking love it. It’s the best meat you can get.
I often thought, how will it be if we would tour with Gojira? You know they are like really anti and they support this terrorist organization, Sea Shepherd, which did sink a couple of ships here in Iceland in 1986. And they actually support them directly with their own money. I mean we could turn this into an interview like why you should eat whale meat but…
GP: Really, I mean it’s so hypocritical. People go to McDonalds, they have no problem with eating a cow that’s been raised in a box the size of this table its whole fucking life. But when it comes to hunting down maybe 20 whales that are by the way NOT in danger of being extinct – you know there are many species.* I think it’s much more natural to hunt food that’s been roaming free all its life and a few individuals are hunted and yeah, killed. I mean, sorry, but where do people actually think their meat comes from? It comes from animals that are killed. I don’t see the difference in killing a cow or killing a whale and if people are gonna give me some bullshit about whales are so intellectual, pig is actually a really smart animal. Sometimes I can get really into this discussion. I can get really mad. But on the other hand I don’t condone the brutality of the manufactured food.
[*According to the Font of All Human Knowledge, the company “Hvalur H/F exclusively hunts endangered Fin whales for international export. Others hunt smaller Minke whales for domestic consumption.” New Europe reports that fin whaling has been suspended, while 58 minke were caught in 2011. Depending on the certifying organization, minke whales are classified “Least Concern,” “Not at Risk,” or “Data Deficient.”]
NCS: So do you think you could tour with Gojira?
GP: I could do it. I’m pretty sure they couldn’t do it, and I’m pretty sure my bandmates are not gonna be happy when they read this about like politics and shit, because we actually are very conscious about not being a political band.
GP: It’s strange. We never decide that we’re gonna have a theme on our albums but when we look back at least our three last albums have had a theme. Masterpiece of Bitterness, every song seems to be something about fire and light. Köld is just a fucking love album. There’s no way around it. It’s just about fucking love, but not in a happy happy joy joy flowers and sunshine and ice cream way. It’s more like the other side, bad side of love. And then Svartir Sandar seems to be about, you might say it’s this soul wandering in the Icelandic black deserts that’s full of regret, something like that.
NCS: So it’s more of a story?
GP: It’s not really a story but there is some kind of red thread going through the whole album. It’s about regret, guilt, something about the past. “Svartir sandar” means “black sand,” which we relate to the black deserts of Iceland. Many people do not realize that Iceland actually has the biggest deserts in Europe. So yeah, it’s just like I guess we have this view of a lost soul somewhere in the desert.
NCS: From the sound and from the artwork, I got a Man With No Name kind of vibe.
GP: Yeah, it might be like the Icelandic version of the spaghetti western. But not in a heroic way, though.
GP: We’ve been touring basically since February. We had our release show here in Reykjavík, and straight afterwards we did a little Icelandic tour, and then we’ve gone for a summer festivals tour, whole European tour, small Finland tour, small Norwegian tour. Yeah, we’ve basically been going nonstop since February.
NCS: It sounds like you have not had time to think about new music.
GP: No, we can’t really write on the road since the way we write new stuff is just basically locking ourselves in a room and jamming. But we started to think about thinking about new stuff. And we actually have one song ready now. After Airwaves, the rest of the year is gonna be kinda slow so we’re gonna use that time to write new stuff. From now until March we’re gonna mostly concentrate on writing new stuff.
NCS: Any plans to visit the U.S.?
GP: We’ve been trying to do that actually for a long time. We are actually going there in December, but we’re not playing in the U.S. Have you heard about this Barge to Hell cruise? So we’re sailing from Miami to Bahama, and we’re playing in international waters. But it’s been our agenda for a long time to try and organize a tour in the U.S. It seems to be way more work than organizing European tours.
GP: I guess it’s just reaching people. People tend to forget that the U.S. is so big; a whole continent. I don’t really know if metal is not as popular in the U.S. as it is in Europe; that might be the thing. And just reaching promoters. We do have an international booker. Our manager is actually an American lady. But it still seems to be a market that’s really hard to get into.
Also, I’ve heard from bands that are bigger than we are, like our friends Swallow the Sun for instance, that they’re touring almost in a van, and just like 10 people at each show. So it’s also a question of making it work financially. Because you know you can’t really do tours that come out financially bad. Even though we would love to do it, we don’t have the money to do it. So I guess that’s one of the barriers. We would have to be a support for a bigger band.
NCS: I think that’s all the questions I had planned, plus some politics.
GP: Yeah, and Eistnaflug. Have you tried the rotten shark? It goes well with Brennivín, you should try it.