This is a few weeks old, but at the beginning of this month, I interviewed Einar Örn and Curver from Icelandic electro noise band GHOSTIGITAL about their recent release Division Of Culture & Tourism,” and about what had been going on in their lives over the past few years. It’s up on-line and you can read it HERE
Naturally there were several delays and call offs before we finally got to meet. but they were both polite and candid with their answers. Einar Örn even paid for my cup of tea. Naturally of course they were masters of giving good answers without giving too much away (Einar did study media in London in the ’80s after all), but we managed to get through some decent subjects.
Of course the evil enemy of the music journalist is word count, so a LOT of what was said was excised from the final draft. But this is TEH INTERNETZ! And i can put the whole lot up on here for you all to read at your own leisure.
Premier Division Men
Oh my cod! Ghostigital are back with a new album. Scary news indeed!
“I don’t really do photo shoots. I let Jón Gnarr do them all,” jokes Einar Örn Benediktsson, one half of mentalist electronic duo Ghostigital, as the photographer take a few test shots. We’re at a downtown coffeehouse to talk about all things Ghostigital. For starters, they’ve just released ‘Division Of Culture And Tourism,’ their 3rd studio album which has been receiving rave reviews. But they’re busy guys and over the last few years both have been heavily involved in other areas, such as the arts, to local politics.
Several minutes later, Ghostigital’s other member, Curver Thoroddsen, arrives and together they both start laughing, joking like a pair of excitable schoolboys as photographer Alisa clicks away. Once finished, we sat down to talk business.
It’s been a while since your last full album release and some of the material has been around now for a few years now. Can you tell me how and when the idea for ‘Division…’ began to take shape.
Curver: Just to correct you a little bit, this is indeed our third studio album but in the meantime we released other music. There was ‘Aero’ with Finnbogi Pétursson and Skúli Sverrisson. We also released 4 hours of music with Erro, while there was ‘Sirkus Requiem’, again with Finnbogi. And there was a 48 channel sound sculpture for a art piece called ‘The Morning Line’ by Matthew Ritchie.
Einar: That was called “Cannibals In Tuxedos”.
C: So in the meantime, we’ve been nibbling at the album while we’ve doing these more arty pieces. The studio albums tend to take longer, because there’s more nuances.
How does the creative process work with yourselves? Do you Curver come up with some basic tracks and show it to Einar and he does some work on it.
C: The basic patterns actually come from Einar.
E: What happens is that I sit down in front of a computer and I will create a beat pattern which is sometimes four to eight beats long
C: Usually much longer than that! [Laughs]
E: Then I send it to Curver and he starts chopping it up and twisting it. We then throw this idea between us, we do vocals on it, and that just develops what kind of shape the story is going.
C: I do have a little bit of difficulty in starting a new idea, but it comes easier for me to manipulate an idea that comes from someone else. This way it works perfectly between us. Einar sends an idea, I chop it up, we bounce it back and forth, and then we go into the studio. It all goes though a hakkavél, like a meat grinder.
What you’ve described there is actually rather interesting, because many people would often assume that it’s Curver who starts off with the beats. What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have with Ghostigital?
E: The biggest misconceptionis that we’re difficult or dissonant.
That you’re difficult to work with?
C: No, that the music we make is dissonant.
Well when you listen to this album compared with the previous albums, a lot of the sound motifs are there, but the component tracks feel and sound a lot smoother, especially in terms of the beats. How much of that was down to yourself and Alap Momin mixing?
C: I think that all the music we produce comes from us. Alap helped us more in the mixing so it sounded balanced, so the bass wasn’t red lining all the time. I would say that Alap has been focusing on the “new” sound and balance mix which is different from the “rock” sounds that I’ve been used to mixing. So it was just one more layer of throwing the songs back and forth, then it gets given to Alap to do the final EQ’ing and balancing, to get one more layer away from us in that nobody own anything.
One of the things that sets Ghostigital apart from other bands is the way you work with collaborators. How important is the element of collaboration to the band, and what do your collaborators bring to the table?
E: They’re important in the sense that we’re not in an isolated environment. When we send stuff between the two of us, we’re in a bit of isolation. But then again the world is our oyster and so it’s just important to expand on that. If people think we’re dissonant, the fact that we can actually ask other people to comment on our music with their input is confirmation of the opposite.
Would it be fair to say that instead of call Ghostigital a band, you’re more of a collaborative hub, with the two of you in the centre?
C: Yes. When we worked with Finnbogi, the music was in a form which was basically oral sculpture, which takes a few hours to perform and complete. We’ve done 10 hour concerts in Listasafn Reykjavík, so we’ve dealt with the concept of playing very long, but then you try to do it concisely in 47 minutes. We’re trying to put out a lot of information in the music. And that is what is kind of challenging for us is to deal with that.
E: And when you ask what the biggest misconception people have with us is, I actually think that there’s actually no real misconception in the sense that in our minds we have one rule and that is to be the best. Rule number two is to try to be the most challenging, both to ourselves and to never stop surprising ourselves by going into a concert by just doing it. We often play as if it were our last concert.
When you’re bringing all these people in, how does it work? Do you actually think “This person would be good on this track,” or is it something more instinctive.
C: It’s definitely instinctive, because we’ve never had a practice ever.
E: So when Siggi comes in (Siggi Baldursson performed with Ghostigital at Airwaves in 2010), I think we gave him the set list and tracks so he could listen to what we were going to play, but we didn’t rehearse. He just turned up and we didn’t tell them what to do. They just play and we try to gel it together. It is a lot of improvisation and we don’t have a break in between the songs. The set goes very fast, into slow, into fast. It’s like when JG Thirwell said, “Say what you mean, but say it mean.” And that that’s what we want to do. We simply put everything out there and then it’s up to those that listen. You might not need to listen to a whole concert – you might just think, “Wow, this is just enough. It’s too loud,” but that’s OK.
In terms of the album, was it a case of going we’re not sure about this track, so you would give it to somebody, say Damon Albarn, and he would make a suggestion of what to do?
C: Not really. We don’t sit down and go: “do something,” and then you play. For example, Nick Zinner saw Einar perform in Ethiopia and said, “Wow I want to do something with you!” so we sent him a track and two days later he sends us some guitar parts and we simply took those and chopped up what he did. It all goes into that same meat grinder and something comes out.
With the track, ‘Dreamland,’ David Byrne’s contribution is different from the others in that instead of laying down an individual component or track, he was driving the narrative of the song from the start. How did you guys start working together?
C: We actually asked him if he wanted to do something with us and there was no track at the time, but he said alright.
E: We went back and found a track we liked and said, “Here you go.” We didn’t define to him what he could do, it was simply you can take this forward. And that is what he did.
C: He first sent us a kind of mumble track to provide the melody line.
And once the lyrics and narrative took shape, it sounds like the two of you were sending it back and forth adding the next section of the song.
E: Exactly. It was a conversation between two people, even though we’re not in the same country at the time.
The other collaborator I wanted to talk about is Sensational. He’s been working with you since the beginning and Curver has been in a recent documentary about his life and music. How did you guys meet in the first place?
C: Well Sensational is my favourite artist in terms of hip-hop. Several years ago during Airwaves, I was in Prikið talking to a guy from New York saying, “Do you know Sensational?” and he replied, “No, but my friend here Scotty Hard (who’s a well known producer in New York) knows him quite well!” And I was like wow, great! When we started Ghostigital, we had this idea of getting Sensational in on it, so I went to New York where Scotty put us in contact with Sensational and set us up in the studio.
How was the first encounter with him?
C: He asked if I could lend him $20! It was really weird. He said to meet him at this place, which was a really dodgy neighbourhood, and Scotty said “Aah, no. Let’s rent this cheap studio I know because you’re gonna be mugged in seconds in that neighbourhood.” But the night before the session, we met in Brooklyn and while we were with him, he hit on all the women in this tiny cafe that we’re at. We ordered a large dinner and I was stuck with the bill. Of course I had so many questions I wanted to ask him about his lyrics and his music and how he did it. We then went to a bar where he hit on all the women there as well as borrowing cigarettes from everybody! At the end of the night we said lets meet in the studio tomorrow, and he said, “Do you have $20 so I can buy some weed? It helps me write better lyrics!”
And of course you gave him the $20…
C: If course I did! When we met up in the studio the day, he’s really punctual but he hadn’t written anything. So half of the time was taken with writing the lyrics.
But Sensational is a legend. When he was 15, he started working with the Jungle Brothers making this crazy music, and using weird sample that nobody was using. But the record label declined to release it and demanded that they make a cleaner version. So the story goes that he broke into the studio and stole the master tapes, and a lot of those masters ended up on his first album.
What does Sensational bring to Ghostigital and your sound?
C: I think he actually fits very well with Einar. Einar has a very fast and neurotic style and voice, while Sensational has the slowest rapping style I’ve ever heard. as well as a having a deep voice. And somehow they go very well together despite the clashing of styles.
E: And of course he’s very experimental in his approach like we are and it fits so well.
What’s the situation with the documentary about Sensational right now? They had to do a kick-start project to get the final piece of funding.
C: they managed to get the finding and finished the documentary. They played it at Hoboken New Jersey recently, and four people turned up, one of those was the director!
The title of your new album is ‘Division Of Culture & Tourism,’ which seems rather pertinent when considering the current debate about how tourism and culture in Iceland are being affected by each other. Did you have this in mind when coming up with the title?
E: We’ve been discussing with you the idea of collaborations between us here in Iceland and with people abroad and we are a division, like you’d describe a league or group. And in one way our songs on the album aren’t about love or other things like that. They are songs in most cases about travelling or moving somewhere. For example, walking into a room and everything is shut off, such as with “Dark In Here”. So it entails a story of travelling and we call it Tourism. Tourism should be about exploring so in a way we’re also exploring cultures.
When I put a song on Soundcloud and I’m asked what kind of genre it is, I end up putting down things like electronic, spoken word, dub, hip hop, experimental, techno etc, etc. We take from so many musical cultures. So we’re saying here is the division.
But I would say that what you’ve described is travelling. To me tourism is the business of making money of people who travel as well as the idea of a tourist is someone who doesn’t really immerse themselves in other cultures.
E: That’s a very good point. Because then to me if it is about taking something from somewhere else, then that is exactly what happened when I first heard Sensation on a Ghostigital album. I travel from Reykjavik to Brooklyn. So there is tourism in what we are doing.
C: When you think about what’s happening here in Iceland when you have a lot of people coming here to Iceland because of the culture, but the culture is changing because of the tourists who arrive here.
So the culture has been used as a tool to bring people to Iceland?
E: Oh definitely. I’ve remember sitting in a focus meeting called a stefnamót, back in 2006, and we were asked, “What should Iceland be like?” We discussed what Iceland should be like or what we should be focusing, someone noted to me afterwards that nobody dared to say that the change of the perception of what Iceland looked like to the world could be pinpointed to a year, 1987, when “Birthday” was featured by the music press abroad. Suddenly we were brought into the popular domain abroad, not just seen as Eskimos in disguise, but here is something that is cultural and happening.
So it was a form of “year zero”. Other things happened before that but the world didn’t notice until then?
E: Exactly. We modernised and we could now have cultural ambassadors in music. You had The Sugarcubes, then Björk, and then Sigur Rós and now we have Iceland Airwaves for the past 10 years. So we have culture not only as an export, but we also get an import of people who want to come here to experience something. And I think that is very important to realise. And Icelandair realised it when they started airwaves, that culture would be one of the tools that could bring people in.
I do know that some people are concerned at how the cultural scene in Iceland is being impinged upon and, like in many countries now, it’s a business where do we really have a living culture, merely just a branding exercise.
C: Well…. I don’t know. You can go to Hawaii for example and you get the Ukuleles and the necklaces and you know that it´s not the truest form of the culture. And if you are really interested in the culture and the country, you can go to the mountain and see the original stuff but most people buy the cheap ukuleles and flowers. We just have to figure out a way how to sell these elves.
Oh don’t worry they’re selling themselves.
C: And when we can actually sell volcanic ash, then that’s pretty amazing.
Or when we sell “Glacial” mineral water, and it’s from the tap! If you actually tried to drink the water made from glacial ice, you’d be sick!
C: Exactly! [laughs]
Curver, you went back to school and got a Masters in fine art in 2009 in New York. Why did you decided to go back to school?
C: Well I’ve always been studying fine art.
E: He’s the brains of the band!
C: No I’m not! Well, I’m the arty one at least. YOU’RE the brainiac. I’ve always studied art and I finished my BA degree in Iceland in 2000, whereupon I wanted to work a bit in the field of music production. But I always wanted to go and do my masters and I wanted to go and live in New York. So in 2007, I went out to do a two year course, while my girlfriend was also studying out there as well. And then I had a baby boy in New York. It’s pretty much how it happens. We actually started working on ‘Division…’ before I left, back in 2006
E: King Buzzo’s contribution was actually recorded way back at that time.
And then he had to go and study art. And have a life.
C: And have a baby!
Some of the art you’ve produced is rather interesting, from shaving your beard, to going on a diet, to selling puffin pizza in the West Fjörds. What was the concept behind that?
C: It was in a way going back to the tourism and about the rise of fast food in Iceland. When I finished my Master’s, I was asked to produce a piece on the westernmost point in Iceland, and in Europe. It takes seven or eight hours to drive there and the road never seems to end, but at the end of it, you have this beautiful lighthouse. And I thought, “Wow, it’d be amazing to go and open a pizza place there!”
You opened it for a month didn’t you?
C: I did. And most of the people who came there, apart from the locals who knew about it, weren’t aware that it was an art piece. They just came and saw a pizza place at this lighthouse.
How did most of them feel about eating pizza that had puffin meat on it?
C: I was actually surprised that most of the tourists, who were going there to see the birds, were also interested to see how they tasted. It’s like the whales, you go and see the whale, and then you go and taste them afterwards.
There seems to be an element of looking into the small everyday incidents and events along with an element fop ranking that ties in a bit with the vocals and ideas in Ghostigital.
C: Maybe Einar has had more of an influence eon me than I thought! Actually I’m kind of amazed of that listening to KUKL and Bogomil Font has been that much of an influence on me.
E: I am obviously your biggest influence. You cannot deny it!
While Curver was in New York Einar, you helped to set up the Best Party and campaigned in the Reykjavik city elections. How and why did you get involved with it?
E: To start with, I’ll tell you why I started doing Ghostigital. I didn’t do music for many years because there was this band called Mínus and so I didn’t need to do any music because Mínus were going strong, But when they fizzled out, I started to do Ghostigital because at that time no one else was doing that kind of music.
And that’s why I got involved with the Best Party because no one else was going to do it. If I didn’t go along, then nobody was going to. There’s a famous quote accredited to me from the film ‘Rokk í Reykjavik’: “Málið er ekki hvað þú getur, heldur hvað þú gerir.” It means: “The question isn’t what you are able to do, but what you actually do.”
At the time of the election, there were similarities with your campaign and its ideas of situationalism, and surrealism, with some of the work with you did with Smekkleysa back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
E: It actually goes further back than that. I was marching with the anarcho-punks while I was studying in England and every weekend I was at Dial House where Crass were situated. Sometimes activism isn’t always about being in the forefront; it’s also about being behind the scenes to motivate people, being a catalyst. Things happen but you don’t why they happen. And that with the Best Party, it happened but we don’t know why it happened.
After the election you became a city councillor and you are on the chair of Strata, the company that runs the city’s buses. How much of an upheaval has this been for you?
E: It has been a total upheaval for everybody involved in it´s how you deal with not being a shit stirrer, but to being a problem solver.
Because even thought you were running on platform of anti-politics, people still have expectations and there are competing pressures involved. What’s been the toughest aspect of it all?
E: Everything is tough about it. You mentioned situationism just then. I think a lot of Ghostigital concerts are a situation, or when we work with Finnbogi we’re creating a situation. And when you have a situation, you don’t try to control it as such, but work with it. And that is about co-operation, about helping out. Because remember, we’re coming out of a VERY serious situation, which I feel we won’t see the end of for a least another four, five years.
Although officially the Kreppa is now over, right?
How do you feel about what you’ve done yourself while working for the city?
E: With Stræto, we’ve increased the services again back and replace the services that were cut during the Kreppa, so we still have a long way to go and it doesn’t happen overnight, when you don’t have the money to do it.
It must be a bit frustrating as you’re under a lot more scrutiny on your actions than other roles you’ve done in the past.
E: Well if one always tries to live up to other people’s opinions and expectations, then you are working with unreality. It´s better to be a bit realistic and do the best you can at any given time and do it honestly, then that’s all you can do.
Fast forward to 2012, and Ghostigital have been busy with perfuming in different forms. One example was performing a John Cage piece at the Tectonics festival in March this year. How did you end up getting involved with that?
E: Ilan Volkov simply came to us and asked if we could do this piece.
C: And the piece itself, which consists of two people in different locations not hearing what the other guy is doing is really interesting.
E: The main idea behind that piece is that Cage is reading a story and his friend was in another room and he could not hear what he was doing. So there is supposed to be no interactivity between us. Siggi Baldursson was behind a door and I tried to have headphones on me while Curver was in the kitchen in New York doing things. But the mistake I did was not to have an engineer on Curver’s end of the web cam, because that crashed during the performance.
Yeah, I saw that. That wasn’t planned at all?
C: No. It was kind of perfect timing though!
E: I think that it was definitely in the spirit of John Cage.
C: Also the ideas with “Interdeterminancy”, we tried to multiply this by having extra people involved. The two of us, Siggi at the back. Kaktus (Hrafnkell Kaktus Einarsson, Einar’s son) on the sides and Ása (Ásgerður Júníusdóttir) singing and moving around the gallery.
Looking back, how well did you feel the final performance went?
C: The crashing of the webcam actually really made it. I was like, “Yes!” I think that if you know about John Cage’s work, that he is very open to chance both it happening in art, and in life. And that compares a bit with how Einar thinks about his art and life. It is what it is. Some things you can’t plan. And that’s the same with our music. We’re not trying to imitate and be something else. It’s about being who we are.
Meanwhile you’re doing working of thing on a solo basis. Curver, you’re working now with Björk on her Biophilia educational packages. What’s your role with that?
C: I just came on as an assistant engineer, which kid of just grew into me running her educational programme because it’s been growing more and more as time has gone one.
And Einar, you are on the board for this year’s Menningarnótt (Culture Night) how did you feel it went?
E: The nature of Menningarnótt is very good right now. The programme from midday till 11pm was great where people just get together and this year we fortunately had very good weather. People came into town, and used the buses that were laid on for everyone, or walked or biked in. It’s just a very big event that you can participate in and have fun.
So you’re not going to threaten to cancel it then next year?
C: No we won’t. What we were trying to point out that when you host an event like this, everything needs to work together, everyone needs to show cooperation – not just between the police, the city, the venues, and the musicians, but with those attending as well. For example, you can think about the “car-ism”, our dependence on cars that we need to drive ourselves everywhere. But on Menningarnótt, we said this is a day not to drive down here. Three years ago nearly 1000 traffic tickets were issued, but this year around 100 were issued.
It’s a learning process and when everyone is participating and everyone is in a good mood, to have so many people here there are parameters that can only be taken into account if everyone goes in with the right frame of mind and acknowledges that they need to be flexible in their mind set and their plans. Then be chilled and not needing to think, “I have to get through here!”
So what else is planned for Ghostigital in 2012? Will there be any promotion of the album at all?
E: No, we’re just pretty happy go lucky with what we’re doing. What we have been doing instead is working on collaboration tracks. We worked on a track with Sóley for the TV programme ‘Hljómskalinn’, and we did on track for NPR radio in New York.
C: With that one, they were getting a lot of bands to do covers of songs with a colour in the title. So of course we did “Green Eggs And Ham.”
E: but with next year, I think that we should take whatever ideas or frames we have and try to work with them quicker.
C: We always end up doing these kind of things. Like we ended up doing a track with the musician Bob Log III with lyrics by Dieter Roth, as well as some remixes. We’re constantly trying out ideas, such as on the “Green Eggs And Ham” track, we’re trying out beats that were similar to Juke music.
E: We might be doing some more festivals next year, such as Primavera but that’s about it.