Following on from our post about Icelandic post-rock band VAR, and their latest single, ‘Moments’, from the upcoming release, ‘The Never-Ending Year’, Lisa had the chance to speak with bassist Egill Björgvinsson, and drummer Sigurður Ingi Einarsson, and asked them about VAR, their music, and the Icelandic sound.
Iceland has a rich musical history, and it seems more and more the world is discovering this – to use a couple of examples, Hildur Guðnadóttir, who won ALL the awards this year for her work with ‘Joker’, and Hatari making waves at the Eurovision Song Contest last year, with Daði og Gagnamagnið also looking to do well in this year’s contest. Of course Björk has been a household name for a long time, as has Sigur Rós – but what do you think it is about Icelandic music that has put it at the forefront in recent years?
We think the closeness of musicians and the size of the community might have a role to play here. If you want to be a musician in Iceland it is difficult to put all your efforts, and focusing solely on one type of music, you might have to dabble a little bit in everything.
Musicians here work a lot with each other, calling on friends for favours to work on all kinds of different musical projects, making you push your boundaries. Everyone collaborating and helping each other creates a community of musicians able to do all kinds of things and might have an influence on the so-called “Icelandic sound”.
We can of course hear some similarities between ‘Moments’ and the music of fellow Icelanders, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters And Men, for example, but there’s also something there that reminds of Irish band Kodaline, I think it’s the guitar and emotional vocals, but there may also be the fact that like Iceland, Ireland has a rich musical heritage. Are there any artists you would say have inspired you, and if so who and how?
We come from different musical backgrounds and would not say that any particular artists have inspired us in making the music that VAR makes.
People have compared us to bands we have never listened to, (or even heard of), so maybe the influence is in the ear of the beholder, drawing assumptions about what you might be listening to.
Our inspiration comes from working with each other, inspiring one another to create music from the heart.
VAR essentially started out as a family affair, but now the line-up is more diverse – how has that affected the group dynamic, and also the sound of your music?
Line-up changes are bound to have some effect on a band. New members bring their own sound and way of playing and by adding members your sound becomes bigger and more powerful.
Beginning as a duo project and going up to five members was a big step forward in what we were able to do live and the writing process became different with the input of different people with different backgrounds.
Being a classic four piece now (guitar, bass, drums) has maybe put us back to our roots, taking us back to the time being teenagers rocking out in the garage, when playing loud and fast was the aim, but always keeping true to the sound VAR has been creating over the years.
We will always keep on progressing our sound and evolving, and in the end we will always consider VAR a family, some members have just moved away from home, but are in fact just a phone call away, always willing to help.
What advice would you have for other artists who are just starting out? Would your advice be different for Icelandic artists and those from other parts of the world?
We would always tell people to keep true to themselves, keep on doing what feels right to you and follow your heart. Wherever you are in the world we think that is the most important thing.
You say that “the feeling of the songs called for English lyrics” – why do you think that is, and would they have worked as well in Icelandic? Did you also record Icelandic versions of the songs?
When working on songs the melody often has no lyrics to begin with. When working on lyrics, the rhythm of the Icelandic language sometimes simply does not fall into place with the melody.
Some songs were even intended to be sung in Icelandic but there was always something that didn’t feel quite right. When the lyrics were changed to English everything fell into place and we were happy with the outcome.
All the songs are just as they are and we would never translate, either from English to Icelandic or vice versa, or write new lyrics for the songs.
What brand of musical instruments do you use in your music, and why do you choose to use those particular ones?
While we are surely obsessed with musical gear and equipment, and have collected loads of instruments through the years, we would not call ourselves brand loyalists per se. We play what we think sounds good, and even, superficially, something that looks good.
Fender and Washburn guitars and basses are what we are mostly using now, having some Yamaha and Moog synths to play with as well. Playing through a pedal board can also be a big help in making things sound just the way we want.
As for instruments that we have really fallen in love with and we use regularly are old harmoniums, small pump organs with truly a unique and beautiful sound. Július and Egill’s father is the sole organ builder in Iceland and as we rehearse in his organ factory we have easy access to organs. Now, Július is learning his father’s trade and spends weeks after weeks repairing and renovating old harmoniums.
As for the drummer, he plays whatever kit is at hand (a little tuning will do it), but prefers his own cymbals over anyone else’s. Zildjian K Custom cymbals are always brought along to tours and concerts for they fit quite well with our dark and heavy sound. And they look good!
Finally, and we ask this of many artists we interview – what question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview, but nobody ever does?
What is the worst decision you have made as a band? Very glad you didn’t ask us that though.