EDITOR’S NOTE: Seattle-based writer and NCS reader Gemma Alexander recently 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 published her interview of Angist and her interview of Beneath. Today we’re giving you part of Gemma’s fascinating interview of Kontinuum’s Birgir Thorgeirsson. It’s the metal part of the interview. Given the nature of Kontinuum’s music, there were “less metal” parts as well, and you’ll be able to find those at another blog for which Gemma writes regularly, Three Imaginary Girls, by following this link.
To hear Kontinuum’s well-received debut album Earth Blood Magic, you can stream it in full via the player located at the end of this interview. The album can be purchased from Amazon as an import, or preordered directly from Candlelight. Kontinuum is on Facebook here.
And if you haven’t yet checked out Gemma’s beautifully written blog about her entire Icelandic vacation, do yourself a favor and do that via this link. And now, here’s Gemma’s interview, preceded by her own introduction:
Birgir Thorgeirsson may be familiar to the tr00 and cvlt from his work in Potentiam, one of the first black metal bands in Iceland, and one of the few to ever release albums internationally. After a stint abroad, Birgir is back with a new project, Kontinuum. They are the first Icelandic band to sign with Candlelight, which will release their debut album Earth Blood Magic in North America on January 8th, 2013.
This one comes with a warning: it’s an Exception to the Rule – the NCS rule, and most other rules you can think of. Mostly clean vocals lean to the gothic. The music, too, is right on the edge of NCS territory, extreme primarily in its disregard for conventional genre boundaries. Like other notable Icelandic bands, Kontinuum are doing whatever the fuck they want with their music, without particularly giving a rat’s ass what anyone thinks about it. If you use spellings like tr00 and cvlt, as Angist’s Halli tells people when they discover that he’s in a band, “You’re not gonna like it.”
NCS: Maybe just start with the background.
BT: Yeah, that’s a really short story because we are so recent. We’ve been doing this for a long time, but the band really wasn’t an idea until I moved back to Iceland in 2010 and I didn’t have a working band. I had been working on ideas and searching for something; like a frustrating search for a voice. I kind of felt that I found something I believed in; because you really have to believe in it to dedicate everything to it and for it to be something you’re proud of. Then I just called up my drummer [Kristjan Heidarsson of Changer and Dark Harvest] and we started on the album right away.
NCS: So where were you before?
BT: We were in a band called Potentiam. It was one of the first bands in Iceland to release albums internationally – well in this genre – but at the time no one listened to metal in Iceland. No one cared; even the media here weren’t interested. We have a long list of bands that we used to be in before this.
NCS: Are you all just focused on this project now?
BT: I think drummers are excluded from the question because there are always too few drummers. Our drummer’s in another project, but I think we are all quite focused on this now. You know, it was quite a good start. We got signed with a label that’s quite known and so we have an opportunity to do something.
NCS: You mentioned that no one in Iceland listened to metal until recently…
BT: Yeah, it’s been up and down. There was like a death metal trend here, and that died. And then we had a hardcore trend and that kind of died. So it’s been up and down but nowadays I think it’s never been as popular. That’s mostly because of Skálmöld, the Viking metal band, and Sólstafir. Especially Skálmöld is kind of mainstream popular which is unusual for a band like theirs, I think. That probably only happens in Finland and maybe Germany. I’ve seen kindergarten kids wear their t-shirts and sing their songs. I think it’s because they use the Norse mythology and people are proud of their history and I don’t think a band has done that in a while. They’re really nice guys, and I think that’s a part of it. They’re not trying to be very cool rock stars.
NCS: I get the impression that corpse paint wouldn’t be really popular in Iceland.
BT: No, no, no. I think it’s alright to be theatrical and put on a show; it’s fine. We have some bands that do that. But I think in general people don’t like it if you think you’re somebody, if you have a rock star syndrome.
NCS: Bands in Iceland seem to take years before putting out a first album, but you really hit the ground running.
BT: I don’t know. You could say that, because it’s a new name. But you know, as individuals [we] haven’t been the most productive people on earth. We should have been doing this in 2004. But I think with this one, it came just like when you are a lot, lot younger; when you’re somewhat obsessed by it. It’s kind of hard to explain. You just have that overwhelming feeling that you have to do it. We didn’t really expect anyone to like it, actually. That’s the funny thing. It’s kind of a diverse thing. I never really imagined that people would like it and we’d get signed and get all this…we’ve had a fair amount of attention already so maybe there are more people like us out there.
BT: I don’t know how to explain that. Someone asked me this before. It’s not that conscious. It’s not a clinical process. You just end up with a mix of a lot of things in your head, and stuff you want to say, and mixed with your own style it comes out. I just can’t really explain how.
NCS: What are your inspirations these days?
BT: Yeah, I mean I don’t like all the black metal I listened to when I was howling at the moon when I was 16 years old, but I still like a lot of them. At least for me, I just have to listen to a wide range of stuff. So lately I’m always looking for something that surprises me. Yeah, I could probably mention a band from all genres. I like Svartidauði, it’s an Icelandic – it’s just a coincidence that it’s Icelandic, I’m not mentioning just because they are Icelandic – they are just, to me, what black metal is all about; like a possessed thing. To me the best kind of black metal is not metal but kind of an ambience. The Angelic Process – that’s one of the bands I really like.
I think I’m maybe sometimes quite clinical towards new music. I tend to listen as a musician, not as a listener. It sometimes takes the joy [out] of listening because you are listening for what they are doing and new ideas. That’s why I think it’s important to listen to a wide range of stuff; because everyone’s dealing with the same thing. They’re trying to say something and not be repeating history.
NCS: You mentioned Sólstafir. I know they are fans of yours from their Twitter, and one of them [drummer Guðmundur Óli Pálmason] did your cover art. I think maybe a little bit of them is in the mix, too.
BT: Yeah, yeah, I mean they are one of my best friends. In the 90s we had a band and Solstafir had a band and we had the same drummer. There were just a handful of bands and Sólstafir was one of them. Yeah, I really, really like them, especially in the recent years. They evolved and changed and now they could do anything and it would sound good. They changed to a style that suited them as individuals.
NCS: How does your sound fit with the small community here?
BT: I think, you know, we have a metal background, right, and we’re signed with a metal label. But I really always prefer when we have an idea that it makes the metal Puritans question themselves, “Is this something I should be listening to?” I think the album is kind of successful at this. Not enough bands in this genre take chances and make themselves open to criticism. You might really want to do a song in a particular way but might shy away from it because chances are, your fan base won’t like it. Equally, like if an indie person would like a song, I would also like them to give the metal track a chance. Because myself, I can enjoy both worlds. I think more people should. I think there’s an image problem in metal, and the whole vocals thing, that people just have to have a singing voice to lead them through the song.
When we were working on the album I thought there was no chance – no one would like it – I was very pessimistic. But now after hearing from people who do like it, I see a lot of websites and forums with people who have diverse tastes. I read the other day that Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth is joining Twilight, a black metal band, so I thought yeah, okay that’s cool. Candlelight signed Cold in Berlin. They’re kind of indie, art school kids; that’s my impression of them. Even though I don’t like all their songs, I like people that take risks and kind of challenge [expectations].
NCS: But you are still pretty rooted in the metal scene; not playing stages with folk bands?
BT: Yeah. I think we won’t be touring with Of Monsters and Men anytime soon.
NCS: You have gotten a good response for the album?
BT: Yeah, I was actually quite surprised. We basically just had good reviews and some were really, really good. I think this probably is a typical kind of album that reviewers like. Because if you are a reviewer, you hear a lot of the same. Maybe if you get an album that surprises you, that’s maybe a good reviewer-type album. But I think there’s also just normal people that like it. I mean, yeah, we have a lot of work to do, because it’s just our first album. But we’re really pleased with the reactions. We couldn’t have asked for more really.
NCS: What would you like to do differently on the next?
BT: We’re working on doing an EP. That’s going to be kind of a conceptual thing.
BT: It has the working title “Strange Days,” so the concept is just those days that everything seems, you know, different. I don’t know how it’s gonna end up. We have a lot of songs, we just have to choose.
NCS: So you’ve already written? The album just came out in September [in Europe].
BT: Yeah, but the whole recording process and mastering and all that takes a long time, and in the meanwhile you’re going through and working on stuff. Maybe the process was elongated for us. There was time off. The engineer is a drum tech with Sigur Rós, and he was off doing a Sigur Rós gig. Sometimes you just have this need of doing something. And then maybe 90 percent of it won’t ever be used.
NCS: Are you going to do any touring for this album?
BT: We’re kind of hoping to, we’re talking to bookers in Europe. We’re working on it. We’re kind of aiming for the festivals next year.
NCS: And of course the U.S. is not on your list.
BT: Aaah, no really. We would say yes to anyone, but the U.S. is for some reason a difficult thing to do. I don’t know why. It is expensive.
NCS: Has the album been received differently in Iceland compared to abroad?
BT: Well, the big media papers here haven’t written reviews about it. I have like a childish resentment towards Icelandic media since the old days. I just…so, we didn’t really send them anything.
NCS: Why the resentment?
BT: I just think that people that work in music should not follow the trends, and when we were putting in a lot of work to do albums that no one listened to here – in a small country, it’s those handful of people that basically just run the show of who gets attention. But we ended up sending them, just because the guys said, “We have to send it.” I know it’s childish, but I’m working on it, and they got their copy in the end, so we’ll see.
NCS: So is that tied in with the fact that you’re not playing any shows during Airwaves?
BT: We applied for Airwaves, but we didn’t get it. You know we’re quite young, the album wasn’t out. Yeah, we’re not playing off-venue. One of our members had a baby during the rehearsal process, so it was all delayed. But we’re playing in December and working on booking for next year, and we’ll definitely play Airwaves next year. If we don’t, I will hunt someone down.
NCS: Ok, next year. Maybe you’ll be playing the States then, too.
BT: Yeah, maybe. With Of Monsters and Men.
NCS: Since you’re not playing at Airwaves, are you going to be watching shows?
BT: I was actually hoping to. I want to see Sigur Rós. I hope it’s not sold out because I haven’t bought tickets yet. I’m so disorganized. If I had a pass to Airwaves, I’d definitely see Swans. I can’t believe I’m not seeing Swans. I do that a lot. I just miss bands that I love. It will be Swans, Sólstafir and Skálmöld. But Swans and Sólstafir on the same night? It’s quite good.
NCS: Everybody that I have talked to so far wants to see Swans.
BT: Yeah, I think you always have these bands that are respected basically across the board by musicians. Swans is just one of those cult bands. I don’t know why that is. I just like their diversity, and they’re odd, and maybe musicians like that more. There are always bands that influence kind of everyone.
Like Killing Joke, when they released an album 2010 and in April now, I just thought, “These are guys in their 50s, or however old they are, and it’s kind of more fresh than anything.” Their 2010 Absolute Dissidence, it’s just marvelous. Such a weird album! They have one like kind of a techno track, and they just do anything. There are no limits. You never know what you’re gonna get, but it’s always good.
I think for metal, Neurosis is one of those bands. It’s not cool to say you don’t like Neurosis. I think that’s a band that everyone respects. It’s kind of like Sigur Rós. I think your normal people who don’t listen to metal would never predict that a lot of people who appreciate metal like Sigur Rós. Like Addi from Sólstafir was on Rás 2, the biggest radio station, and he said, “Only morons don’t like Sigur Rós,” and I agree with him.