We speak to Nordic noise pioneer Biggi about creating music with John Grant, and why Reykjavik and Hull might not be so different.
We’re counting down the days until John Grant brings his curated festival North Atlantic Flux: Sounds from Smoky Bay to Hull. The event will see 47 phenomenal acts perform in six venues in Hull over four days, with groundbreaking artists from Iceland, Norway and across Scandinavia performing live.
And since our playlists are now almost entirely dedicated to electronic Nordic music, we thought it was only right that we spoke to one of the festival’s headliners. Cue Biggi Veira (aka Birgir Þórarinsson) from Reykjavík-based GusGus.
For those in the UK that might not know GusGus, how would you describe your sound?
We’ve been working in music for a long time (over two decades), and we have always aimed to try to find interesting ways of using electronics in pop music.
We take influences from all areas – we don’t just tie these to a particular genre or style of music, and then we combine this in our own music. I’d describe it as quite euphoric, with a big club influence and influences from modern and 90s music, somehow all mixed together to make good powerful music.
You’ve said previously in an interview “I think the culture that’s come closest to Iceland is the UK. There’s a link in our humour, our irony, and the fundamentals in life.” – can you expand on what you think the connections between the two countries are?
It seems to me that there are similarities in how we behave when we come to partying, having a good time and our approach to music. The Icelandic scene has always flourished with trying out different kinds of music – much like the UK scene, one of the biggest scenes in the world, has done.
The UK is mostly interested in their own music, so I think it’s important to communicate what is happening in music from all over the world.
Some new suggestions say that the history of Iceland settling so fast is falsified as they suspect that there was already a small settlement of Christian people in Iceland before the Vikings came, so there could have already been an Irish community here. I think that’s an interesting link between the Scandinavians and the Brits and it shows in both our really deep interest in music, particularly with the humour and attitude towards it.
Do you think that this means it’s important to bring a festival like North Atlantic Flux to the UK?
Yes. The UK is mostly interested in their own music, so I think it’s imperative that the press realises that because of the country’s strong scene it is important to communicate to the public what is happening in music from all over the world.
Are there any UK acts, current or past, that you think influence GusGus’ sound?
Of course! I was really influenced by British music from the early 80s. My favourite bands as a teenager were Thompson Twins, Soft Cell and Depeche Mode, it was all the new age and new romantic stuff in the very early 80s. Then of course in 1993 and 94 too, when what is sometimes called the ‘ambient break’ scene in the UK materialised and all of these interesting kind of intellectual experiences in electronic music happened, all while the chill-out rooms were popular in the clubs. I was really intrigued with that scene.
Even though we’re not that big of a name over in the UK, when we do play there people are just bouncing their heads off!
My latest favourite from the UK is Alex Banks, he did an album in 2014 that I thought was super great. It was really pop-y and British, it felt a little strange that it didn’t do better! But I think he’s coming out with an album this year so I’m really looking forward to that.
You were the co-producer on John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts, what was it like to work with him?
John was playing the Iceland Airwaves Festival, I was doing a warm up gig there and he was one of the big acts. He asked to speak with me, but I didn’t have a clue who he was, I wasn’t following his music at all! John explained that he was a big GusGus fan and that he had been experimenting with electronics and asked me if I was interested in helping him. Then he came here and we spent two weeks finishing the album together in my garage.
When I started making music I was kind of doing slower, more industrial tracks in the late 80s, I wasn’t that much into the club scene. When John came to my studio we played YouTube tracks together and we realised we had similar love for classic electronics from the early 80s, but he was even more industrial than I am. I am more interested in italo and high energy disco, but we had common grounds in all of the other stuff.
So when we were doing the album John was a little worried at first as he had some acoustic songs and he felt that it would be kind of weird to have electronic songs and acoustic songs together on an album. But I said don’t worry, let’s do whatever we feel with these tracks and they will just glue themselves together in the final mix. From then, we became unafraid of doing tracks that were pure electronic and pure acoustic and doing with the tracks whatever we felt. And it turned out that the tracks just fixed together.
GusGus was one of the first headliners to be announced for the festival, and John personally asked for you to be part of it. This is a completely new, unique festival in the UK – what does it mean to you to be on the lineup?
I think it’s really important and time to get a stronger cultural relationship with Hull! I have no doubt in my mind that people will love what we have to offer. Even though we’re not that big of a name over in the UK, when we do play there people are just bouncing their heads off!
Do you think following this festival we might see an explosion of Icelandic music in the UK?
I hope so, I think that the Icelandic music scene has so much different stuff and our bands and artists are always trying to do something different and special. I can promise you that the Friday (when we play) will be a good party night! And what Iceland will bring to the table will be good quality stuff.
See GusGus perform at North Atlantic Flux on Friday 28 April at Hull City Hall from 9pm. Tickets are available now.