Sólstafir interview

image - see following caption
Photo: Björn Árnason

With a history going all the way back to ninety-five, Sólstafir is a four piece Icelandic band whose current musical style makes it rather impossible to put them into one category or another. Hence, I tried to get to chat with the band to try to maybe understand better who they are and what their music is about. The band's drummer, Guðmundur Óli Pálmason, or Gummi, if the previous name seems impossible to decipher, was really nice to sit down with me after their signing session at the Inferno festival 2012 in Oslo, and answer my questions. The result of our talk can be read below, while more info on the band and their music can always be found either on their website or any of the official pages on facebook, myspace, etc. Besides, I personally recommend you give their 2011 album, Svartir sandar a try.

Me: You guys just did a European Paganfest tour, with Primordial, Korpiklaani and Negura Bunget among the names on the lineup. How did that go for you, what was the overall experience?

Gummi: I think the band is really growing. We were the opening act so I guess most people were not coming to see us mainly. But we always ended up with a good crowd, since we never played in front of an empty hall. I can only assume that people saw or heard our name somewhere and came to check us due curiosity. Even though this pagan metal thingy is not where we belong, our music is not pagan not viking nor some stupid humpa metal at all. All in all, we consider it was a very good experience and we have reached some new crowd and that's basically the reason we did it.

Me: How did you end up playing Paganfast then?

I think it was actually through Alan from Primordial. He really wanted to have us. I know he's neither into humpa metal so I guess he wanted some serious pagan metal band.

Me: You just said you're not pagan metal..

Actually I regret the last affirmation. But let's say we of course are some sort of pagan metal then. First of all we are heathens, which some take as synonym for pagan. We don't go around and read certain books every day or shit like that. Besides, being Icelanders, this is something that's in our blood. Yet, we don't really sing about it. We're not singing about the Gods nor vikings going around with swords.

Me: Then what are you singing about, considering not that many people probably manage to fully understand your lyrics?

We sing more about personal stuff. We get inspiration from our own personal lives. People asked us if out last album, Svartis Sandar, is a concept album and, well, we never thought about it like that but in retrospect it kinda is. It's kinda about this lost soul wandering in the wilderness of Iceland, the black volcanic deserts and stuff like that.

image - see following caption
Sólstafir signing session@Inferno Festival 2012
Photo: Andrea Chirulescu / studiorock.ro

Me: Yea, I actually got to witness that with my own eyes

You know, that place kinda affects your mentality in a way, especially when you live there. Maybe you don't think it's anything special when you grow up there, but once you get to go away to other places, you see how things are totally different. When I was a kid, I thought all sand was supposed to be black. Then I travelled to Europe and I saw brown sand, and I thought 'What is that? Sand is supposed to be black, not brown'.

Me: What's the story behind the band's name?

Well it was either that or Satanic Goat Penis. I'm glad we went with Sólstafir, because Satanic Goat Penis would have limited us in a way, haha…

Me: Let's look at your last release. Why is it divided in two?

It was too long for one CD. Basically we were writing a lot of material as we took a new approach this time in the way we would write our music. We went into our rehearsal room from nine in the morning and we would just make music until five o'clock in the afternoon when kindergartens close down and some of us have to pick up their kids. We did this like five or six days a week, for about three months. We booked the studio in advance and when we finally got there, we just couldn't stop writing. So we wrote one song in the studio, which is something we've never done before. We really were on a roll.

I guess one can pretty much feel it in the album. It is quite compact.

I think you can actually hear it's all written in the same period of time and it's all written before noon, so that's why it's so mellow as we didn't feel like playing fast at that time. When we were done, we told our label we have this much material and we thought they'd gonna ask us to drop one song. But instead, they replied with their French accent 'Ok, so it's a double album' (said with a French accent). We were really surprised they didn't ask us to take any of the songs away and they were really into the idea of making a double CD. Another surprise, since hardly any label does that today. Basically it was their idea to do it.

Me: Who did the album cover and what is it about?

The cover and all the artwork was painted by a Norwegian artist called Kim Holm. We met him when he came to our gig in Bergen and he asked us if he could paint pictures of us while we played. We’ve been asked by photographers before, but never a painter, haha. A few weeks later we were discussing ideas about the cover and we decided his style would fit the music perfectly. He also painted a picture to each song, based on his own interpretations of the music and the lyrics, as well as hand writing all the lyrics. Basically he did an awesome job!

Me: One of the songs on the album, Stormfari, is “spoken” by a woman's voice. Is she reading some news or?

Her name is Gerður G. Bjarklind and she is reading the weather forecast. She is the voice of the Icelandic radio and everyone in Iceland recognises that voice. Some of my friends were very surprised when they first heard the song and it felt as if someone turned on the radio. We agreed with her to read this forecast that speaks of upcoming bad weather as it fits really well with the concept of the song.

Me: You released a video as well, for the song Fjara. Was this also made by the label or by yourselves or, what's the story?

Basically me and our singer had this idea to rip off a movie called Django, a sixties western movie with a guy dragging a coffin through the desert. We thought that would look cool in our video. We know this American director, Bowen Staines, who did a lot of stuff in Iceland and who worked with National Geographic. We just sat down with him and brainstormed the script based on that idea, we also got a little bit of budget from the label so we ended up with everything well planned. It was our first experience with making something visual in a really professional way. I think in the end it really paid off. It was a lot of hard work, we did it ourselves for a small budget. It looks as if it had bigger budget. I even risked my life doing the video.

Me: Oh, what happened?

image - see following caption
Guðmundur Óli Pálmason of Sólstafir
Photo: Andrea Chirulescu / studiorock.ro

I don't know if you noticed, but in the end of the video, the coffin sails over a waterfall. Somebody had to get the fuckin' coffin out in the river. I am not exaggerating, but the coffin was like seventy kilos heavy. The guy who made it didn't think of the fact we had to drag it all over so he used some solid wood. So we ended up having to carry seventy kilos up the mountains, down again, then I had to go in the river. The waterfall is something like sixty-five meters tall and the river that leads to it was up to my knees. I was dragging the coffin in the middle of the river all the way to about five meters close to the waterfall. I had some ropes around me, but still, it was one of the most stupid things I've done. It was also a lot of fun and we even placed a small camera on the coffin so you could actually see the horizon and then when it goes over and into the waterfall.

Me: Did the girl in the video actually drag that heavy coffin?

Yeah, and she's about forty-five kilos. She was really struggling, plus it was really cold and she was only wearing this thin white dress. She did a very good job.

Me: Do you think your music is representative for Iceland in any way?

Both yes and no. We don't sound like a typical Iceland band.

Me: What's a typical Iceland band then? I personally heard such a wide variety of sounds from that country, from Björk to Sigur Rós..

Indeed, and then you got the metal scene today, which is mainly technical death metal. I think we're probably in the middle. We're not a metal band, yet we're not like the bands you named either. We're this rock band floating in the middle somewhere. People are telling that when they listen to our music they can see the Icelandic landscape. Honestly, this was not what we aimed for as we're not pretending to have written the music in the nature. We live in the city and write the music there. But if this is the feeling that people are getting out from what we play, then it must be representative in a way.

Me: Do you consider yourselves as an underground band or now do you think you started to go over the ground?

We've been an underground band for seventeen years. And now it feels strange to be on the top ten in Iceland for some weeks, top five on some big radio stations and to be number one on a rock'n'roll radio station. People are really starting to know us, even in the streets. We really don't think much about this aspect, making music is our hobby, like for example other people just collect stamps. We're obviously underground if you take the scale of U2 or Metallica, hehe.

Me: Yea, let's not go there. Back to my initial question about the tour (since the dialogue flowed differently than the order of my questions). Any funny stories that you can recall now?

Korpiklaani was playing with us every weekend and their singer has the same hair as I do. So people were always coming to me in the weekend asking if I am their singer. Some girl wanted a photo and she kept saying “Wow, it was a really good show, can I have a photo please? Can I have a photo?”. I was thinking to myself “Oh yeah, I'm a rockstar, you can of course have a photo”. Then, after the photo was taken she walks away and says “Korpiklaani” and all my enthusiasm is gone. Both me and Jonne, their singer, thought this was quite hilarious. We went out in the crowd, found the same girl again, and she still thought I was their singer. This was happening the whole tour. One guy came to me asking “Are you the singer of Korpiklaani?” “No, I'm not” “Yes, YOU are!” “No, I'm not” “Yes, you are!!”. He didn't believe me. At the end he took me to a bar, gave me some drinks. I couldn't say no, I would have offended him.

Me: Did you get to play many far? Actually, what I'm trying to ask is if you prefer to play festivals or regular tour shows?

It depends. I like being on tour, you know what you have to do every day, you know the people. Festivals can be cool as well, especially if you get a great spot. We played Roskilde festival for about seventy-five minutes and that was one of the most awesome gigs we've ever done. Overall, I probably don't see much difference between playing festivals or just concerts. We love playing live and being on stage.

Me: How are things for an artist in Iceland? Do you get any sort of state support? Or community support? Or it's mainly hard work by yourself and invest all your money into it?

It's really hard work. We spent so much money on this band. The thing is, it's also very hard to make it outside Iceland. If you're, for example, a band in Norway… I remember when we were a black metal band in Iceland in the early nineties. Nobody paid any attention to us, but probably in Norway we would have been signed very quickly. Then, there's the fact that bands in mainland Europe can just hop in a van and start touring, while we have to take a plane with all our stuff and that is quite expensive. So breaking out of Iceland is really hard. But lately there started to be a bit more support. Iceland Air, for example, is offering special deals for bands and their equipment. I believe such things help the music scene in Iceland overall.

Me: It's cool to get some 'fresh air' from that direction since there's pretty genuine stuff..

You know, not every band in Iceland is very original though, yet you wouldn't probably hear about those who aren't original. Why should you? You already have one hundred bands in your own country that sound the same, so why would you look all the way to Iceland for that? So those who break out it's only the people who have something new to offer, I think.

image - see following caption
Aðalbjörn Tryggvason of Sólstafir
Photo: Andrea Chirulescu / studiorock.ro

Me: So there's a struggle to go around the main existing patterns..

It is a natural process though. I think that if you're a band in Iceland you know that you'll never make a living out of it, you're never going to sell more than twelve hundred copies, so why should you try to please anyone else than yourself? I believe that kind of sponsors originality. This doesn't mean we don't have non original bands though.

Me: Are you guys happy?

As a band, I think we're happy with what we have accomplished. Not many bands have stayed together for seventeen years, with the same lineup. I think we're just too stupid to quit. So if happy is stupid…

Me: That's the reason?

Yeah, ignorance is bliss, happy is stupid, then we're probably quite happy because we're quite stupid.

Me: As long as you make good music, I like that solution. In August this year, you're going to play in Romania at the Dark Bombastic Evening festival. I guess you've never been to Romania, what do you know about the country? Or the festival?

Well, everyone heard about Transylvania. I also know that Vlad Tepes was the inspiration for the Dracula thing. Of course he wasn't a vampire, but he pretty much was an insane tyrant. About the festival, I know that they always had unique lineups. There's this band, Hexvessel. Their singer used to be the singer of another band called Code, whom we toured with. He's also the Norwegian black metal band Dødheimsgard (DHG), but anyway, he already played there with Hexvessel and he really really recommended this festival to us. They're actually playing there again this year, since he loved it so much. He's a very good friend of ours, hence we trust his advice. So, even if it's possible that we are going to lose money at this festival, we decided to do it. But it's probably one in a lifetime opportunity, so we're thrilled to take it. It feels like it's a unique festival and this is the reason we decided to do it.

Me: On your tshirts, you have this text … 'Anti Christian'

“Anti Christian Icelandic Heathen Bastards”. We had this slogan when we were a black metal band, so to speak. We are all pretty much against organised religion. It's not just Christianity, but all organised ones.

Me: Is Iceland a religious country?

No, not at all. We actually always think of Norway as religious fanatics, since they actually are more religious than we are. Which is funny. Anyway, we stick to our slogan since that is what we stand for. We are not a political band in any way, we don't agree with Christianity, nor organised religion, we are heathen and we are fucking bastards, so there you go. And, of course, Icelandic.

Me: I think I've been through all my questions, so at the end, any final words for the readers or people who will come to see you live?

We're the best band in the world, buy our albums, I need money…

Me: Hehe, you have five kids at home…

Yea, five kids, I need to feed them. Hehe.

Me: Oh, and last subject of the interview. What do you think about these scandals nowadays about downloading stuff from the Internet?

I don't think that's the problem. My friend was reading a book, by a guy who used to be a CEO of a big record label back in the eighties or nineties. He was saying that even back in the nineties, the record sales were going down, because of the price of the CDs. If the record labels would put their CDs at a reasonable price, the people would still buy them. The Internet is not the cause of the whole problem. It has, of course, changed everything. But we used to have tape trading before as well. But today, the rules that they are trying to pass seem to attempt to ban every kind of user uploaded material. And that's just censorship in its purest form. I don't want to go too much into it as I'm really into conspiracy theories, but basically I believe the Internet is the voice of the people, and some people try to take away that voice. They are using the download thingy as an excuse to do that. I think it's more about taking the power away from the Internet users, since that's where everyone can state their opinion right now and say things against anything.

Me: In some countries…

Exactly, maybe in few years, you won't be able to say anything anywhere since there won't be freedom for user uploaded content. So it goes much much deeper than music or movies.

Me: Well,I guess it's best to stop here, as we can debate for hours, but tonight is not for thinking, but rather for enjoying good music and the good mood around at the festival.