GusGus has been making music for nearly two decades with an expansive discography and impressive array of band members throughout the group's history. The unique progressive style mixed with darker lyrics and a sentimental touch makes their music irresistibly good. GusGus know consists of Birgir and Daniel Haraldsson, two interesting characters who bring the group to life and are are already planning a new album out in 2017. These two connect closely and I had the opportunity to sit down with them.
I started by inquiring what they feel makes Iceland stand out on a global stage. GusGus explain that Sugarcube’s success in the 80’s as a punk band helped bring Iceland into the creative spotlight. The success of bands following Sugarcube has helped focus the attention on their home country, infusing a belief that the country has something to give. "No one knows what that value is, they just make music that sounds good" Bigir says jokingly.
I ask them to describe what the west coast of Iceland, primarily around Reykjavik, looks like culturally. They both share their input saying,
"There is a strong cultural vibe around the centre of Reykjavik. The city is very closely connected, all the bars and studios are centrally located. Young artists often try to live in the city because it is a small space where people all know each other. Even though people may not work together, there is a lot of collaborative energy happening. Mostly, everybody is friends and you know of others who are doing well. The energy is very friendly and gives a healthy vibe, the creativity is not based on competition, but rather there is space for everybody."
I turn the discussion towards the natural environment of Iceland and how it’s helped shape their music. Daniel elaborates that it absolutely aids the creative process. The vast nothingness provides a surface for thinking creativity by giving a zero state to start from. It’s inspiring to have nothing around they explain to me, a barren world of possibility.
“The space is an unpainted canvas because it is so open, so it infuses in the mentality. As an artist you are not directly thinking about nature, but as an Icelandic people surrounded by so much space, we are imprinted with an open possibility.” Birgir explains.
I know of a Winter festival called “Iceland Air Waves". From what I’ve seen, Iceland is similar to Canada in the sense that we are partying all year long no matter the weather. Icelanders feel the cold as anyone else, but are mentally more prepared to play with different circumstances of extreme conditions. The country is not so much cold, but rather gets more wind and rain. The winter mainly stays around zero degrees Celcius. "The wind, rain, and snow is always a good excuse to be inside to make music" Birgir adds light heartedly.
They elaborate about how there is a special sensation in the air on the island of Iceland, a unique scent. Birgir describes it as “The Artic Air”, a certain freshness that comes from the sea with a different taste. The scent stays through the summer as well leaving a lasting effect. You don’t feel the same fresh coolness in Russia or Canada during the winter.
I inquire about Iceland’s environment and how they’ve seen Climate Change first hand. Their immediate response surprises me, as they explain how there are evident signs all around Iceland. The biggest concern being the melting glaciers that have almost disappeared. They have the largest glaciers in Europe, which are quickly vanishing.
When asking about whether people in Iceland are aware of the issue, Daniel explains:
"People are more unaware than any where else. Those in power who know what is happening suppress the knowledge because they do not want to advertise the growing global concern. We just had a general election last week and not one candidate mentioned the melting ice caps, even though it should be addressed!"
We discuss that one of the most pressing issues facing the environment today is the use of fossil fuels as a non-renewable resource. Humans know the solution, switch to renewable nature friendly energy sources in order to save the planet. Yet the mind is on the money and those in control are filthy rich by selling oil.
Birgir made a brilliant point that there is no political party that is promising less?
"We promise you that we will consume less, own less, use less, and fix things instead of buying new. That is what we need to do in order to survive on the planet. We need to come to an economy that is self sustainable and the only way to do that is through recycling, use less of Earth’s resources, and to be in balance with the atmosphere."
Unfortunately, most people living in first world countries do not care at the end of the day. They don’t want to change their habits and they essentially want more, they don’t want less. In my experience, appreciating life more is to consume less and to not do things that destruct your mind from experiencing life in its core essence of being.
So as musicians and artists, what is one's responsibility to raise awareness about Climate Change?
Birgir tells me how arts have always been part of society because it is a mirror on culture. Artists sees society through a creative perspective and then reflect reality in design. We both agree it's dangerous for artists to get too political; you may be alienating people opposite in your opinions. GusGus's music has always been about inner politics and emotion, infusing that theme in their lyrics.
"The issue is you cannot demand people to think; they have to want to achieve change on their own. You can never ask Art to do anything specific! Except one thing, to encourage people to open their minds and think about the world. So if Art is always tied in to society, why can we not tell an artist to make something socially charged? The message need not be blaring, but an artist should aim to make people think."
I come back to some of Birgir’s main points, primarily being that art should make people reflect on society. Yet I also agree that you cannot tell an artist to make anything specific, like he said. So why does imposing labels impede the creative process?
"To be a true reflection of society, that has any point, you have to be free from the demands of the society. One purpose of art is to always question the values of society and to make the audience rethink their own cultural assumptions. Why should society as it is now be the pinnacle of history? It never is, that’s a temporal myth."
We have to survive in a more sustainable economy of living, by getting people to be aware and appreciate life with less. Less is not necessarily sacrificing anything; the time you are given in life is not reduced.
By questioning the values of society, does that make one’s music dark or attract a darker crowd?
Daniel says "you can tell someone off in a positive way and in a destructive negative way. If you have the right approach to saying what you want to say, then it becomes a form of constructive criticism."
Birgir makes the comparison to visual art and the use of contrast. "There is a darkness and melchony in our music, but you can also hear happiness and hope. The promise of hope is stronger if it is contrasted in darkness in order to stick out."
Birgir continues stating, "One cannot be too narrative of telling others their opinion. We need to encourage people to figure out a positive stance by themselves. A collective will is necessary to move in a better direction, people need to feel part of society because it is the most precious thing we have."
So where does music fit in within society? Does it necessary need to reflect social issues or can it be completely detached from the world?
Daniel replies saying "Music is an abstract concept because it can reach anyone anywhere. It may not necessarily contain a message, but music will always be a soundtrack to people’s lives by what they listen to, which is a message in itself. Music must have a universal magnetism so people want to listen and let it into their lives; the message then has to be subtle."
Brigir elaborates further,
"Music is an art form that need not have any reflection to the material world, words, or ideas. Without using any of that, music can stir up emotions in anyone despite what language they speak. Understanding that freedom leads to realizing how it can be a unifying thing because it does not reflect social values, politics, philosophy, status, etc. It’s just emotional vibrations."
People all relate to music in their own way, so if you can get them to dance it opens them up. If people are dancing they are more receptive to people that are around them. Dancing becomes emotional with music is a way to accessing a common consciousness.
Music can be strong in uniting a universal love. The purpose of sound is to move people and music in essence is movement through air. I question them asking if music has the power to move T-world?
Birgir laughs and responds saying, "It depends how you understand T-world! We have of course evolved from nonlingual animals, which you can find in the animal kingdom that play music. Birds for instance sing without any survival purpose or instinctively, animals can be creative."
Music is an intrinsic part of being, more than what language or thought does. There is a deep core in the essence of being that relates to the importance of rhythm and sound. A central role of communication is through music, whether through organized dialect.
Music can share inexpressible thoughts and feelings; young people often have the urge to make things differently. Music is part of communicating these urges, desires, and feelings without using words to distort the message..
Birgir explains his relationship with Daniel:
"This time around we are more intimate with the creative process, writing the songs together from scratch. Before we would bring in personal elements with former members to see how they merge"The biggest change is the fact that there are only two of us left working under GusGus. We’ve always approached music in a non-genre way whoever involved, not wanting to be associated with any label. Instead we’ll use our vast knowledge of musical eras to create a labyrinth of possibilities in electronic music.
Making music is significantly easier today so it is even more important for musicians now to know how to stand out in the noise of everyone else. Good musicians make a sound that is unique, similar to how popular artists have a style. Birgir discusses the seduction of music with the infinite possibility of sound using analog technology.
"You can purchase multiple pieces of technology to try improving production, downloading synths, software, and music. You are not getting far if you’re just playing around with the presets. Get intimate with the technology you’re using. That is why I am drawn into my modular synthesizer; we’re just making love together (laughs)."
There are vast possibilities to create new music, but you always have to find that special message to make it stick out somehow. It’s really important for people to learn how to use their equipment. Birgir agrees and exclaims Read the fucking manual and really understand the machine to get the most out of it. That makes your love making with the machine more intimate, just like the more you know your partner the better sex you’re going to have.
Their live sets use only modular synths, an MPC, and focusing on a performance. Sequencers and Synthesizers roll in loops fed into a mixer, where adding effects and creating new elements are completely live. The bare bone loops are arranged from scratch with all the effects, soundscaping, filtering, and more. Birgir has one synthesizer for solo sound and a modular in front of him with channels to the MPC. He explains how it's really open to experimentation rerouting sounds. Daniel has a joystick as well on stage.
They sound like they have a very good synergy together on stage. Both Daniel and Birgir are long time acquaintances and it shines between their personalities. They trust each other knowing each other signals, well throughout the interview it is obvious how deep their bond goes. Their own intimate relationship is perfectly suited to craft a new album, while for the moment playing that out live learning from each other on stage.