One of Iceland’s most engaging musical exports lands in St. Petersburg as part of a Russian tour.
Published: March 13, 2013 (Issue # 1750)
KOMPAKT / SPT
GusGus is a band which reinvents itself as artistic demands dictate.
GusGus, an internationally recognized top-selling act noted for its passionate, high-energy shows, and one of Iceland’s best-known bands, launches its six-date Russian tour this week.
Formed in 1995 in Reykjavik, Iceland, the electronic soul band, which balances its concerns between commercial pop and underground dance music, reemerged in 2011 with its seventh full-length studio album, “Arabian Horse,” which has been described by their current German label, Kompakt, as “Icelandic Hi-Tech Soul.”
The St. Petersburg Times spoke to GusGus singer Daniel Agust Haraldsson via Skype in advance of Sunday’s concert.
Q: This interview has been postponed two hours because of the blizzard there. What happened?
A: Oh, it just came all of a sudden. Yesterday was fine and there was no sign of this crazy snowfall coming down. So much snow, everybody getting stuck in traffic... I was fine in my car, my small Nissan Micra, but then I got stuck in a pile of snow just after having taken my kid to school.
Q: On Wednesday, you’re starting a six-date tour in Russia. I guess you haven’t done that before, have you?
A: It’s the first time we are doing a comprehensive tour like this, a big tour. We played St. Petersburg and Moscow quite a few times with great success. Now it was time to step up and do a bigger tour around your huge country. We’ll go to Krasnodar, Nizhny Novgorod, Chelyabinsk and Krasnoyarsk, I see here on our website. Some of these cities, with millions of people living in them, I hadn’t heard of before. So I am going to do some reading over the weekend before taking on the journey.
Q: What material are you going to perform in Russia?
A: Well, mainly we’ll be performing songs from “Arabian Horse,” our last album, which we’ve done before in Moscow and St. Petersburg. But we’re going to do a few new ones as well, so you have some special treats. We’re going to give you some sample of what’s coming up on the next album.
We’re planning to release an EP, a short album, in a couple of months, two or three months, and yeah, we’re finishing, like, a three- or four-track album for release in May, probably.
Q: When did you first come to Russia?
A: Hmm, I’m always bad at picking things from my memory in chronological order, but I always have great memories of coming to Russia. It’s always a pleasure to meet Russian audiences, because you really know our music and you really appreciate it. It cannot be better [than] to play in front of 1,500-2,000 people who really appreciate what you’re doing and it’s always been hugely entertaining and a pleasure to play for the audience.
Maybe the atmosphere is close to the Balkan countries, but it’s always been unique to come to Russia, because there’s nowhere else like Russia. The audience is intensely receptive to the music we’re making. It’s always been a great experience.
Q: Russia is quickly becoming a very unpleasant place, with the restrictive laws that are being passed, like the one banning the “promotion of homosexuality.” What do you think about this?
A: I hope narrow-mindedness will not prevail in your government. The government will hopefully — and I wish with all my heart that they will — embrace all kinds of people and they will just realize that banning or preventing human rights is not very wise. But maybe I have to speak carefully, because I might get arrested, so you must phrase this correctly. My hope is the government will just open their eyes and see with common sense that these restrictions will not help to make for a better country.
Q: The Pussy Riot trial and the prison sentences given to its members have caused several acts to refuse to perform in Russia. What’s your view on this?
A: That’s horrible. I just wish the authorities would come to their senses and realize that this is not helping the reputation of your nation. I mean, maybe they did do something wrong and were inappropriate. Of course, they should have respected other people’s beliefs and not protested in this vulgar way. But sometimes these measures, these vulgar measures, are necessary to make people open their eyes and see what’s wrong with the infrastructure of the nation.
Q: Speaking about the album, the lineup has changed since it has been released. How do you cope with performing the material on tour?
A: There’s been a slight change, you’re right, because Earth, our female singer, was going to have a baby. But she had a miscarriage and was unfortunately not able to tour with us anymore. She’s just lost the enjoyment of touring; she just wanted to attend to her family matters.
But otherwise, all the boys are onboard. We got Biggi Veira, President Bongo, Högni Elisson and myself. The crew is the same, and we have our great lighting guy, Agnar Hermannsson, and our sound guy, Aron Arnarsson. It’s just a solid rock-steady crew that’s going to come and deliver a fantastic show.
The changing of the people in GusGus has always been normal. I mean, I quit the band for seven years and came back.
People come in and out. If GusGus is not a passion anymore, then we step out. When it becomes interesting or appealing again, we step back in again. It’s an open playground which we can leave. If we feel tired or worn-out, we just step off the wagon, and step on it again when we feel rejuvenated and refreshed and are coming [up] with fresh ideas. It’s proven a good method throughout the history of the band.
Q: GusGus came together as a film collective, rather than as a regular band. How did it start out?
A: Yeah, it started out as a film project, basically. There were two directors, a directors’ team, and their friend, who became our manager, and they brought all the people — all the actors, the singers and the musicians — so we could make this short film. The shooting of the short film got postponed, but meanwhile we were able to make some music, which was used as a soundtrack for the film, eventually, because we made the film in the end, of course.
Q: The name of the band also came from a film — German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” — and is really “couscous” mispronounced by a film character. Is that true?
A: Yeah, that’s how it all came around. Basically, these tiny [semolina pellets] are called couscous, which most people know from making food in a kitchen — an African influence in food-making. It probably came from Morocco or Algiers to Europe. It’s a common ingredient. The reason why we chose GusGus for the name of the group was because of the connotation to making love, or spending a good time together and having dinner. When the woman in the film invited the guy over to have some couscous, she was not only offering him food, but she was also offering him love and affection. After the meal, they would have sex and enjoy each other’s company. And that’s why we chose this name, and we wrote it with this funny pronunciation: “GusGus.”
Q: I have just listened to the acoustic version of the last album’s title track, “Arabian Horse,” and it works as a normal song, which is not always the case with electronic bands. Could you say a little about your method of songwriting?
A: Essentially, at the core, all the tunes we make that have vocals are composed as regular tunes, and then we take these tunes and put them into the GusGus environment — in an electronic environment. That’s what makes our songs stronger, basically. Because it’s not just some improvisation on top of electronic beats, it’s more constructed and architected in a classical composing way of making songs.
Q: GusGus were described as a collective rather than a regular band at the beginning, with Wikipedia listing 12 members as the original lineup. Is that correct?
A: Yeah, from the very beginning all these different people from all kinds of different directions came together, and a few of us had written songs and they hadn’t gone into production yet, so we used those songs and put them into the GusGus machine.
Q: What music did you like then — what was the influence?
A: It was mainly trip-hop. It was like break beat, trip-hop and electronica that was the greatest influence at the time. You know, Tricky and stuff like that as well as our background in listening to Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk. We also should not underestimate [other influences]. For example my favorite musician, when I was five years old, was Elvis Presley. He had an influence on my musicality, on my appreciation for music, although my taste developed from Elvis Presley to something else. But I can always relate to the roots from the background I have. And all the people in the band have different childhood favorites that have influenced them, so the whole concoction becomes interesting.
Q: What was your music background?
A: I started making music when I was 17 with Nydönsk, a regular pop-rock group singing in Icelandic. I am still singing with them but only in Icelandic, in Iceland. [The band performs] pop-rock in a very traditional rock-group setup with drums, guitars, keyboards and vocals.
Q: Were you with the band when you performed at Eurovision in 1989?
A: That was when I had just started making music. The songwriter noticed me playing with my new band — we had just started to exist, and he saw us playing at a small gig in a restaurant. He saw a talent in me and chose me to sing a song.
I was very glad I didn’t get any points. I scored zero points. It was very fortunate for me, because I did not want to step into the world of making that kind of music. I wanted to make a different kind of music. I was not very passionate about this way of making music. But the only thing that interested me at that time was to work with a songwriter, which was a great experience for me.
He had been in bands that I respected and I was very interested in collaborating with him. His name is Valgeir Gudjonsson and his bands are Spilverk Thjodanna and Studmenn. Valgeir participated [in Eurovision] twice before, with the song “Haegt og Hljott,” which ended up in 16th place.
Q: Icelandic pop music was not much heard of internationally before The Sugarcubes, was it?
A: The Sugarcubes were a big factor in pioneering and paving the way for Icelandic musicians going abroad and conquering other territories outside our island. But before that we had Mezzoforte. They had some success with a song called “Garden Party,” which is an instrumental jazz-fusion kind of music. Not very typical for the music scene, but they were able to market it in other countries around Europe, mainly the Benelux countries: Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxemburg. They were one of the first to have some success abroad. And then came The Sugarcubes, of course, and Björk got the biggest. And then us, and then Sigur Rós.
Q: To an outsider Iceland sounds like a magic country, with its volcanos and blizzards; has it influenced the music?
A: Well, when there’s a blizzard outside, you have to stay inside, and try not to get bored. And one way of not being bored is to make music, and make poetry and write novels. Hibernate, like a bear in winter.
Q: In the 1980s, Rolling Stone tried to explain The Sugarcubes with the help of an Icelandic Viking legend.
A: That’s hardly the reality. Icelandic people are just Northern Europeans, living in a cold and crazy country.
Q: Are you working on anything outside the band, maybe on a new solo album?
A: I’ve realized two solo albums already. I am always working on new material, it’s just a chance, you know, where they’re going to end up — on my album, on a GusGus album, on a Nydönsk album, as part of some other project, or as collaborations with other musicians. I am just writing songs for my fulfillment and enjoyment, because I really enjoy it. It has a curing effect on my soul. It has a very healing effect on my psychological entanglements.
I deal with problems through songwriting. I deal with my personal situations with my family, with myself, with my girlfriend; everything is dealt with in my lyrics and music. I mean, the lyrics are not necessarily autobiographical, they’re not always true stories, but they’re my outlet, my way of dealing with my mental conditions and situations.
Q: What are you up to at the moment, any new ideas?
A: I want to continue to work with GusGus because I really enjoy it at the moment. And I want to make some other interesting music as well. You know, I don’t have any specific plan about it, I just let it progress by itself, basically. I just let it come and flow.
GusGus will perform at 9 p.m. on Sunday, March 17 at A2, 3 Prospekt Medikov. M: Sportivnaya, Gorkovskaya. Tel. 309 9922.