(Our guest Gemma Alexander, who recently brought us a three-part report on this summer’s Eistnaflug festival in Iceland, has delivered one more gift from visit to the festival: An interview with Guðmundur Óli Pálmason, the drummer of Sólstafir. As a bonus, we’re also including at the end of the interview a new video of Sólstafir performing the title track from their new album Ótta live at a large hunting cabin in the Austrian Alps. Visit Gemma’s own excellent blog here
When I talked to Sólstafir’s drummer, Guðmundur (Gummi) Óli Pálmason on the Monday after Eistnaflug, hardly anyone had heard their new album, Ótta. Some of the songs I had only heard played live at Eistnaflug. So at the time, neither of us knew what kind of response Ótta was going to get. If Gummi suspected that it was going to be the Sunbather of 2014, he didn’t let on.
Even without the glowing album reviews that have erupted since, it was already obvious that Sólstafir are swimming in bigger ponds than they were when I first spoke with them (here) in 2012. Then, touring the U.S. seemed like a pipe dream. This year marked their first small tour in North America, five shows plus Maryland Deathfest. Finding a supporting slot on a full U.S. tour seems like a reasonable next step. A headlining tour in Europe is planned for November. Have Sólstafir hit the big time?
“I don’t know. We’re still broke,” said Gummi before admitting, “People think that as bands get bigger things get easier. Actually, the opposite is true. You play more festivals, go on more tours, get less time off, and things get more expensive. We played 15 festivals this summer.” When a schedule change at Hellfest landed Sólstafir in the same time slot as Emperor, people started giving them condolences, and even their label warned them to expect a small turnout. In the event, their venue was packed. “People came to see us anyway. It was a big change to see crowds like that.”
The makeup of the crowd is changing, too. Gummi says there are still lots of Icelanders up front, but “I’m seeing non-metal people. We don’t want to be restricted to the metal scene. We are connected to it, because that’s where we come from. But I don’t think Ótta is a metal album. Svartir Sandar wasn’t metal either.”
At our first interview, Gummi mentioned that every one in the band had eclectic taste, and each of them brought diverse influences to the table when writing. He claimed that a riff on “Til Valhallar” was directly lifted from Madonna. (I’ve been searching for a copy to verify this ever since. I think a re-release is due.) Of Ótta he says, “It’s not so different from the last album, a natural progression. It’s softer and more mellow than Svartir Sandar. We just did the same thing we always do; we locked ourselves in a rehearsal room for three months with no preconceptions and saw what came out. We used more keyboards and piano during the composition than usual, and of course the strings. That was the first time we did that.”
Of the famous banjo lead on the title track, he says, “It was written on guitar, but it had a banjo feel. So we asked, ‘What does the heavy metal handbook say? Can you use a banjo?’ No. So of course we had to do it.”
Gummi explained some of the Eistnaflug traditions that had confused me over the weekend, and we talked about the festival itself. Like Sólstafir, Eistnaflug has reached new heights in the last couple years. Sólstafir has played every one of Eistnaflug’s ten years. “This was the best one so far,” says Gummi. “Especially on Thursday night, there were more people than ever.” Festival organizer Guðný Thorarensen confirms his observation; this was the first year they had to turn people away.
This year, Sólstafir played three sets. They headlined the pre-show on Wednesday night with songs off of Ótta, a special treat for the locals and for fans dedicated enough to arrive a day early. On Thursday, they followed a setlist used at other festivals this summer. But the impact when played to a home crowd was amplified. Gummi agrees. “That set, I don’t know, it was intense.” On Saturday night they played the Mayhemisphere.
Gummi explained, “The festival provides the PA for the Mayhemisphere, but the rest is DIY.” Sólstafir always plays the off venue. Despite a delayed start and an initial power outage, the band kept their cool and played an intimate set in the dimly lit, smoke-filled shell of the abandoned factory.
A common thread ran through their performance at all three sets. Everyone in the band seems to be enjoying themselves more. “These songs are more relaxed. And they don’t drink anymore – Addi and Svavar – so I think they can enjoy themselves more.” It might be the music, or improved health, but somehow, without sacrificing Addi’s anguished tone or the overall intensity of the performance, the band just seems more at ease. They own the stage in a way that they didn’t two years ago. Maybe it’s the confidence that comes from packing a venue opposite Emperor.
“Any last words?” I asked.
“I just want people to buy the album because I need money.”