EDITOR’S NOTE: Sometimes great things happen to you when you least expect or deserve it. Case in point: We have become acquainted over the ether with a Seattle-based writer and NCS reader named Gemma Alexander, who happens to be a fan and student of all things Icelandic. After months of planning, Gemma journeyed to Iceland in late October to see the country, and she timed her visit to coincide with the Iceland Airwaves festival, which includes over 420 bands playing all over Reykjavík for five days, plus 400 more unofficial, off-venue performances.
Though Airwaves may be best known as an indie pop fest, it also includes performances by an impressive array of Icelandic metal bands. Knowing of NCS’ own appreciation for Icelandic metal and the attention we’ve paid to Icelandic bands this year, Gemma offered to arrange interviews with several of them, and today we’re privileged to give you the first of those — Gemma’s interview of three of the four members of Angist, a very talented band we’ve featured previously at this site.
Gemma has also been blogging about her entire Icelandic vacation — which is still in progress. I’ve been reading her travelogue on a daily basis since it began, and it’s immensely entertaining. Not only is the subject matter fascinating, but Gemma is a superb writer. Do yourself a favor and check it out HERE. And now, here’s Gemma’s interview with Angist — with music at the end.
NCS has talked about Angist before, when we were impressed by their EP, Circle of Suffering. Theirs is an impure take on death metal, featuring precision drumming from Ophidian I’s Tumi Snær Gíslason, and vocals that alternate between brutal growls and a banshee black metal shriek. Gyða Hrund Þorvaldsdóttir, and siblings Edda Tegeder Óskarsdóttir and Haraldur (Halli) Ingi Shoshan met me before the rúntur on the Friday before the Iceland Airwaves festival at Reykjavík’s Irish pub, Celtic Cross, to talk about the band and heavy metal in Iceland.
NCS: You started out as a promoter Gyða?
GÞ: Yes, I mean I’ve been going to gigs since I was 14, and it just kind of developed into, putting up shows and importing bands to Iceland. Then I just thought okay, maybe I just should try to play some instrument. I bought my first guitar on the 2nd of January. I can’t remember what year. At a New Year’s party, I said, “I’m going to play guitar.” The 1st of January I was too hung over to go buy a guitar but on the 2nd of January…
NCS: How about you Edda?
EÓ: I started playing at 13 years old. The first songs I learned playing the guitar were like metal songs, first the easy ones. [laughs]
NCS: Halli, were you just following your big sister from the beginning?
HS: I started when I was 17. I bought my first bass then.
NCS: So you watched Edda play for a long time before you started?
HS: Well, sometimes, but we didn’t live in the same town. I actually just followed her music tastes.
EÓ: I used to send him CDs you know, because he lived in Westman Islands with my grandparents. So I was here in the big city, you know…
HS: Discovering new stuff, started out with Metallica…
GÞ: Then it went downhill from there.
NCS: Did you come to the city to play?
HS: No, I just came here to get away from the islands. It was too small, nothing going on. I wanted to live with my sister and my mom.
NCS: I wasn’t going to ask the “women in metal” question, because, you know, ugh. But then I heard you two are the only women playing in a metal band in Iceland. How can that be?
GÞ: Women in Iceland are doing a lot of music, but they are mostly in pop. We’ve been in bands before and we’ve always been the only ones. I remember seeing Edda perform with her other band. And I was like, “Wow, another girl!” [Gyða raises her hands and eyes to the sky in a praise-god gesture, while Edda laughs.]
NCS: Why do you think metal in Iceland is so male-dominated?
HS: It’s just like how it is everywhere else.
GÞ: We have this discussion all the time. You know a lot of girls come to shows. I was a promoter, and another girl put up the Eistnaflug Festival, and a lot of girls take really good photographs, but don’t play instruments. I don’t know, of course it’s cool to inspire girls to pick up instruments and microphone or whatever, but all sorts of involvement is good.
EÓ: We also talk about, maybe it could be, you know the criticism, they find it maybe more difficult to start. A lot of guys are [already] great guitar players and musicians.
GÞ: They maybe look at them, and they’re like, “Holy fuck.”
EÓ: “I’m never gonna get there!”
GÞ: That’s how I felt, because I started out late, and I was like, “I know this song. Can you hear what song this is?” [Gyða adopts a masculine voice.] “Um, no, but check out me.” [She uses air guitar to demonstrate the difference.] But believe in yourself and just be like, “Ok, fuck them. I will do this, and this is my progress.” You should only compare yourself to yourself, and just fuck everyone else.
EÓ: When I was young and started playing, most of my friends that were guys were playing guitars. They were so good and I always thought they were so much better than me. I was thinking more about that, but I’m not thinking about that today.
GÞ: You know, girls, they always have to be perfect. I’m a teacher myself and I can really see it with girls 14-15. They have to be perfect in everything – good in sports and school – and if they fail, it’s like, “Oh my lord, my whole world is collapsing.”
NCS: So your drummer’s not here today, because he’s a student and he’s studying. But the rest of you work?
EÓ: I’m a student.
GÞ: I’m a high school teacher, and he works for the government.
HS: I work at the hospital, with the mentally ill kids. I’m like a…
[The three confer in Icelandic.]
GÞ: The support agent.
EÓ: Sounds good – Agent 007.
H: Yeah, I’ve got a badge.
GÞ: I think my students think I’m very lame. They just listen to what I think is bad music. I show up in a death metal t-shirt, and they’re like, “You dress so funny, what is this?” And I’m like, “What? Haven’t you heard of Decapitated?” Being a teacher is a lot of work; a lot of stuff to do in the evenings. But you always find time. I love coming to practice and just playing and hanging out with the guys, and then it’s like, “I have no problems in the world.” You always find time to do things you want. We have really good rehearsal spaces in Iceland. So we don’t really have an excuse not to practice compared to people abroad, who have to travel far and drag stuff for just one rehearsal.
NCS: I guess if you’re showing up for work in Decapitated t-shirts, professional image isn’t much of an issue here.
GÞ: No, everything is really laid back. It’s too much of a small community to have some sort of professional side. As soon as the kids know your name they go online and google you and [dumb voice] “Oh you’re on Facebook. Fuck, you’re in a band, we watched you on YouTube.”
HS: I think the reason I was hired was because I was in a band. They really want, like, musicians in the workplace to play with the kids. And also my boss came to a concert. I think he bought a t-shirt, CD, and a keychain.
GÞ: Where’s that money?
HS: In my glass.
GÞ: I’ve never had a problem in my professional career with my piercings, or tattoos. People know I’m in a metal band. Of course I’m careful what goes on the internet – not that I’m doing anything wrong. I’m not naked in the woods, sacrificing animals.
EÓ: I think that is also changing how people see the metal scene and death metal. It’s not always extreme…
GÞ: …drug abusers who kill animals, Satan worshippers.
EÓ: I was once asked if I worshiped the devil because I was in this music and I thought it was funny. I don’t connect this music with Satan or any religion or anything like that except music.
GÞ: I completely agree. “Am I a Satan worshipper?” Am I a what!? My co-teachers are fancy elderly ladies. [Gyða adopts a high voice] “I checked out your music. I didn’t like it.” I was like, “Wow, she checked it out!” This lovely, always well-dressed, elderly lady, “I didn’t like it.” I would have been surprised if you liked it!
EÓ: I think also, in the old days when I was 12 or 13, I only listened to metal. But today we’re listening to all kinds of music, so we’re not connecting this music [with extreme lifestyles].
GÞ: Our drummer has been studying jazz drumming for 3-4 years at the university here. He’s tried everything except rap I think.
EÓ: Rap and country. I think it’s great for the death metal artist to have a wider perspective and not get stuck in this frame.
GÞ: For us, with our music, we just kind of go for it. We know people who are just, “Yeah, ok we are this kind of band. We do this kind of music.” Maybe there’s more freedom being girls, we’re not putting some kind of competition.
EÓ: Yeah, of course a lot of things in the music need thinking. But also just do it from the heart to have it sincere.
NCS: All three of you are original members, right? Only the drummer has changed a couple times?
GÞ: Three times.
NCS: And on the EP it’s actually the old drummer. So I haven’t heard the new drummer?
HS: We haven’t recorded anything with him yet.
NCS: I’ve read that he sort of made everything gel for you guys.
EÓ: He took us to another level. Like our performance on stage – we’re just tighter. Without worrying about anything, you can trust him.
GÞ: Tumi’s just basically a very, very good drummer. Everything folded into place. It’s easier to let go when you know exactly what’s going to happen on stage. A band will never be better than its drummer.
NCS: Is he still involved with Ophidian I?
HS: We’re actually in the same rehearsal space.
GÞ: It’s us and Ophidian I and Beneath and Atrum. We’re all four sharing the same rehearsal space. We’re all friends. Us and Ophidian I share the same drummer, and Atrum and Beneath share the same drummer. So it’s only two drum kits.
NCS: Ok, two drummers, four bands; busy guys.
GÞ: Good drummers are hard to come by.
NCS: How does sharing space and drummers work?
HS: Facebook. You just decide which band gets which time.
GÞ: Stick with the plan. We’re all friends from way back. We throw parties together, barbecues. Mm, we need to have a barbecue.
HS: A lot of good musicians, bad at Rock Band.
GÞ: Yeah, it’s kind of funny how a lot of good musicians get bad results. Two of the best drummers in Iceland and they suck at the drums on Rock Band.
NCS: Circle of Suffering came out almost exactly one year ago and now you’re working on a full length – where is that?
GÞ: [Gyða points to her head.] When the EP came out last October we were heading on the tour in France. Tumi just came along as a session musician because we hadn’t found a proper drummer. He thought he didn’t have time to do it. Then we went on the tour and he decided to join. So basically we had a lot of shows last winter and just were kind of getting into the groove with him.
EÓ: We finished two songs right before Eistnaflug, so now we are just having ideas and need to find time to start working on it properly.
GÞ: People have work and school and sometimes we have to skip practice.
HS: I’m working shift.
GÞ: Yeah, Haraldur works evenings and also, even though you’re in practice, a show puts your schedule all over the place because you have to bring your equipment and practice extra for shows.
EÓ: I think you have to take that down a little bit and just concentrate.
GÞ: But it’s just so hard to say no to the shows!
NCS: Sounds like there’s no schedule yet?
EÓ: No. We were hoping to start recording in the beginning of next year and we’re aiming at that. But we have to see how time treats us.
GÞ: Yes exactly. And money, and the guy who’s recording us, we have to work schedules with him as well.
HS: You know it’s gonna cost a lot.
NCS: So how is it different now having a label?
HS: We have the support, and it drives us to make an album. It’s not like, “Oh, we can just do it later.”
GÞ: It takes pressure off a lot of things.
EÓ: Distribution and things like that. It’s great to just be able to concentrate more on the music because it’s a lot of work, everything besides making the music; to promote and try to get people to listen to your music and get it out there.
NCS: Skálmöld has a new album out today, and you appear on this album?
EÓ: Yes, for “Hel.” I’m growling there, a beautiful melody. It was a great experience, a lot of fun. Those guys are awesome.
HS: It’s the best song on the album.
EÓ: It was also great to get a chance to growl in Icelandic. All of our songs are in English, so it was very fun, I have to say.
NCS: Was it very different, growling in Icelandic?
EÓ: Yeah, it was very different, the pronunciation is different.
NCS: Do you think there will be any Icelandic on your next album?
EÓ: I’m getting so used to doing the lyrics in English and singing in English. So I don’t know. Never say never.
GÞ: The Skálmöld guys are really cool. We’ve played a couple shows with them. They’re so professional but also so laid back.
NCS: Is that how you met them?
GÞ: Oh we knew them from before. They’ve been in the scene a long time.
EÓ: Yeah for years. I remember like 10 years ago…
GÞ: Snæbjörn, the bass player with the long beard, he played my birthday party.
NCS: How do you guys write?
EÓ: I think always in the end it’s a team effort. We put the songs together together. [They laugh.] I think it’s been mostly me and Gyða.
GÞ: Together together. “Perfect harmony” [singing]. We meet a lot in Edda’s living room. We’ve gotten more confident in practice, just kind of jamming stuff out. Edda’s been playing for a lot longer time. She has a lot of the good ideas, you know. I really like working with her because when I have a good idea, she has the talent to make something better out of it.
EÓ: You get another perspective on things, you know. Not always just being stuck in the same riff, then she comes and says, “Why not try this?”
NCS: Going back to working with other bands, it seems like a pretty tight community.
EÓ: Yes, it is. It’s very small and everybody knows everybody.
GÞ: I think that’s a good thing. If we are putting up a fundraiser show, everybody gives their work. Nobody’s expecting anything in return. It’s in everyone’s benefit that people just come to the show.
NCS: A couple years ago, I couldn’t really find very much heavy music in Iceland. What has changed?
GÞ: I’ve been in the scene since ‘98 and what I see as the biggest difference is that people are taking things more seriously. It’s not just, “Yeah man, gonna play a gig you know, get free beer. My friends can give me a high five.” People are realizing there are opportunities outside Iceland.
EÓ: Maybe the whole attitude is changing toward metal with Skálmöld and Sólstafir. People are giving it more chance. Like we have this big metal night at Airwaves and all kinds of people are coming to the show – not only metalheads.
GÞ: People are more ambitious; having merchandise, putting up big shows; they’re practicing. They’re not just dead drunk on stage [she does an impression of drunken guitar playing]. People are releasing better recordings – not just one mic in the middle of the room, “Hey man, check out our new song [she hisses a static noise]. What do you think about that solo [more static]?”
EÓ: Also bands are getting more chance to go out and play, perform at festivals. So I think that’s exciting for other bands to experience.
GÞ: It all goes hand in hand really. People are getting opportunities and people outside Iceland are noticing, “Oh ok, something is happening on this island over there other than robbing our money.” I think it’s just a bit of a domino effect.