Skalmölð – My roots stay within what Iceland is (interview)

What would you expect from meeting a metal band from Iceland? Ice-cool characters, rough statements uttered in few, harsh word. Then perhaps this interview is boring to you. Because meeting Bibbi (Snæbjörn Ragnarsson – Bass/Vocals) and Þráinn (Þráinn Árni Baldvinsson – Guitar/Vocals) is different. It resembles­ more the conversation you have with good friends over a bottle of wine. One moment you’re laughing out loudly and the next you discuss a serious topic only to learn that you share the opinions of your friends before diving into some telling tales of recent shows, role play adventures and alike. Time flies …

The Eiffel Tower issue
Success – should we continue the band?
A bit more progressive?
Music matters – the higher meaning
A dangerous territory
The lyrics touch a string in the harps
The donkey, a boy band and a goat

The Eiffel Tower issue

We meet in the pub belonging to the venue of tonight’s show and Þráinn proudly tells me a bit of tour experience as headliner … “Sorry, about being late”, say Bibbi taking a seat next to his band mate: “I’m Bibbi, hi! What were you discussing?” – “Tour life.” – Bibbi turns to his bandmate: “What were you discussing about tour life? Were you telling her horror stories?” – “I’ve been trying hard to squeeze them out of him but …”, I declare with a most disappointed face I can come up with in this moment. “Vinyl hunting”, explains Þráinn. “I am walking a few kilometres a day to find vinyl.” – “It’s a hard job these days. Hardly any shop left to find records or CDs” – “I know”, Þráinn explains, “but it’s good exercise! A little bit of … ” And Bibbi adds his experience to the picture: “I think it’s … to make the day. Because every day is the same. You wake up in the fucking city you’ve probably been before but you’ve never seen and you might know the venue or than you don’t. You do sound checks and eat kind of bad food. And the same company over and over again. I think you are exceptionally good in finding something to do. Sometimes you just disappear or you just go out for a coffee by yourself. …”

“I can’t remember how many times I have been to Paris but I have never seen the Eiffel Tower!”, Þráinn says and Bibbi asks in reply “You never …?” – “No!” Þráinn points out. “Really?”, Bibbi wants to know. “I have only seen the walls of the venue”, poor Þráinn illustrates the tragedy! Bibbi: “Yääs!” But Þráinn says: “I am not kidding!” I frown and point out that Paris a large city and so it might take a lot of time to get from the venue to a particular point of interest. “True”, Þráinn says, “That’s the thing. There is a writer for Rockhard magazine. In a few days’ time when we actually play in Paris again he is going to make sure that I will be able to see the Eiffel Tower!” – “That’s cool!” I state enthusiastically. “Yess!” But Bibbi, of course, has the easiest solution for the traffic and time problem that might arise: “So he is gonna bring you a picture!”, he says enthusiastically. We all laugh, and I add “See, that’s what it looks like!” – “I think when you do this kind of thing it can be very hard. You wake up then you take a cup of coffee and someone from the band might be telling ‘ahh, we’re going out for a walk’ and almost every time you feel like ‘I don’t feel like going for a walk’. You gotta hangover or you’re tired or you’re just not in the mood. But each and every time you just make extra … and tell yourself ‘Go, do something, you, fat fucker!’ And it makes the day so much more valuable. So I think it’s a… thing to do. Treat yourself with a little bit of this respect and self-regard. And not just ‘get off your ass’ because it’s very easy just to sit down. It’s pretty good. I am not complaining”, Bibbi points out. And I heard the self-irony and also the privilege to be able to see all those places during a tour but waste it for some laziness.

“Spending some time on your own or in a smaller group, …”Bibbi: “There is a very positive thing with our band all the six of us are the best of friends.” – “Ah?! Cool!” – “Yeah, it’s very good. Sadly when we’re touring with a band where that isn’t the case so all six of us go or part of the group go together to do some stuff. We like each other’s company so to say.” Þráinn: We always make sure like after a few gigs to go out for a fancy dinner or …” Bibbi: “Yeah, yeah, do something nice.” – “Nice! Any particular plans for Paris then like a fancy dinner or something?” Þráinn: “I’m going sightseeing.”

Success – should we continue the band?

An ambulance passes by apparent case of emergency. “Ooops”, Bibbi says dryly. And it reminds me that we better get started with the interview – after nearly 20 minutes of chatting on whatsoever. I get back to the idea of shifting and bridging limitations and the orchestra project Skalmölð did some years back. It was a major success for the band and as there were several projects with orchestras in metal some years back it is interesting to learn how Skalmölð did come upon the idea to do so themselves. Bibbi explains “The thing is that the band when we released in 2009 an album back home, and then in 2010 we had never the imagination that we would ever be touring.” Þráinn mentions that some of the band never wanted to do this. Bibbi goes on: “Somehow the album, it just exploded back home. And the impact on the band was huge. And we were just going like ‘What? What are we doing?’ We actually had a crisis meeting about should we continue doing the band? Because this is way more than we ever thought it would be. Well, luckily we did, and we played some very successful shows back home, and we released another album, and then we had started touring a little bit abroad.” – “Just a little bit”, Þráinn says. “And then we had two albums in by then and I don’t want to brag but the band was shooting …. And then the orchestra thing came that they actually contacted us!” – “Cool”, I say being reminded on a kind of similar story, I heard in summer. “… and wanted to do it. So that was a big hitting.” – “Yeah”, supports Þráinn.

“That’s very open-minded then.” – “Yeah, actually the Icelandic symphonic orchestra is really cool like what they do – I think – it’s once a year” – “Roughly,” Þráinn says, “anyway once in a while they do something like this. They collaborate with something really … strange”, he takes a break before uttering the last word. “And try to expand their fan base, and broaden their perspective of Icelandic music.” – “They want to bring more audience to their shows”, Þráinn says. “And they were really into it. It was really, really cool. Beautiful”, Bibbi says supporting.

A bit more progressive?

How important is it to you to get out of the thinking in boxes? “Well, we are six persons in this band”, Þráinn says, “and we are all very egoistical. We are all very ego and we all have our own, you know, very crazy ideas in life. The singer, if he would have known that all of that would have happened he would never have accepted to do this.” – “No!” Bibbi supports energetically. “He would have stayed home”, Þráinn says and Bibbi continues, “He is an introvert, and he likes it obviously” – “And he wanted get it going”, Þráinn says. “We are one in the band. And when we are writing music, it’s the same as when we’re just trying to figure out things with the band. Few people in the band would like to play the basic playground metal thingy, while others in the band want to pool that away and do new stuff. You know!” – “Something more progressive”, Bibbi says. “More progressive, yeah”, Þráinn repeats, “so mixture kind of …” Bibbi: “Well there has never been a discussion about what kind of music, we can do or cannot do.” Þráinn: ”No. No, no.” Bibbi: “Never. We all write music, and mostly we write parts of it at home and bring them to rehearsals, and then we assemble the music on the floor.” – “In a traditional jamming session then?”Þráinn: “Yessss” Bibbi: “No. Not …” – “Well …” Þráinn is about to say something too, but I get the point they mean: “Like jamming the arrangements together?” – “Yeah …” – “There are loads of discussions. I would not say fights but close to fight …” – “Þráinn: “Let’s try it this way, or let’s try it that way.” Bibbi: “Yeah, we all have … hmm”.

“Is it perhaps that kind of aggression you need to come up something really great? With everybody’s passion in it?”Bibbi: “I mean some great bands have it. Some bands have, if you want, just one leader, if you will, and who composes all the songs and brings something completely written. Nothing over that but that’s not our style.” – Me: “No, it’s not working for every band!” – Bibbi: “But to answer your question, there has never been a question about how should Skalmölð sound. Or what can’t we do or something like that. It’s just if we bring a musical piece to rehearsal, we finish it and we say ah that’s a cool song. ‘Hey that’s awesome, let’s record it.’ And like bringing new elements into like …”

“So it like this you are six different persons with different ideas and you melt them together?” Bibbi: “Yeah and I mean Jón is probably the most traditional of us and his favourite band is Kiss and … and prog rock and different kinds of music. And my brother is into Wheels and loves some weird Rock’n’Roll.” Þráinn: “He is probably the weirdest one?” – “Well, I could not … I don’t know. Gunnar, he is like the classical guy. He had never listened to metal when we started. There was no connection.” I am surprised: “Ok!”­ – “And across some gigs, he thought he had to be in a certain way. Just going for wearing black and trying to fit in and we just tell him, ‘Just calm down. It’s fine!’Bibbi says with a frown moving into laughing: “’Nobody is kicking your ass!’ We just bring our stuff into it. I mean the goal was to form a metal band.” Þráinn: “At times, yeah.” Bibbi: “But I don’t know if we ever discussed exactly how it was gonna be.” – “Nah, it just kind of happened”, Þráinn explains. “It’s just something we like”, Bibbi says.

Þráinn: “We work on be a more traditional band. We work on more flutes and shit.” – ”Yeah that’s true. More traditional folky” – “Yeah”, Þráinn says sounding not completely convinced. “So at the third practise, we noticed that we didn’t touch the flutes.” Bibbi: “We even bought the whistles and the mandolins. Baldur was gonna play this.” Þráinn: “True.” Bibbi: Luckily, we got stuck.” For a couple of seconds there is a kind of resignation in the air but then Prains says getting more excited with every syllable: “Iron Maiden has three guitars. So why can’t we?”­ – “True”, Bibbi confirms, “we should have more”, most passionately. I frown and mention GlerAkur [another band from Iceland] with their four guitars. “Good!” Bibbi confirms. And Þráinn says: “That’s an minimum! Nice.” – Me: “That was really fat.” – “I think we are losers”, Þráinn says. “We have only three guitars!” – “Five!” Bibbi suggests proudly.

Music matters – the higher meaning

We change to another topic. Volcanism and a symbol that puts the effects of volcanism to the landscape into a picture: The phoenix. Burn to ashes and start over. Highlighting the processes taking place in the same moment. Destruction and re-sculpturing, creating something new. This results in a tense feeling, has this an affect in their music? Þráinn: “To me, we are just doing what we love to do. I don’t think, we are thinking it …” Bibbi: “No!” Þráinn “… through too deeply. BUT! It is an interesting question regarding that one of the first album actually sold out back home. Island was starting to … well, we had the collapse. Banking, financial system.” – Me: “Yeah.” – Þráinn: “So two years later, we released our first album, and I always feel that it kind of was an inspiration for a lot of people. ‘Ok, fight!’ So for our kind of people would think that kind of destructiveness reviews that kind of fight, starting something new.”

“So the influence is more ‘we can make it anyway!’ We are used to such kind of challenges and will overcome.” Bibbi: “But not for us.” Þráinn: “Exactly. Not the band.” Bibbi: “Our goal, first and foremost is having fun. It’s not very noble. But we put into our music everything we have. We have no higher meaning. We just want to be in a fucking metal band. We want to be the best metal band in the world. That’s the only real meaning.” – “It is a really good goal”, I say and think that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Bibbi: “Yeah, it is but it’s no more complicated than that. We just want to be the best metal band ever. Of course we’re not gonna make it” – Þráinn laughs – “but that’s what it were”, Bibbi finishes his thought.

Þráinn: “And music is very important to most people in … I don’t know in … Actually, I know about two people who say they don’t actually listen to music.” – “Yeah, it’s bullshit”, Bibbi mumbles. –  “And if you think about it, when you were in Iceland in the 13th century, if you’re in Iceland in the 16th century if you’re in Iceland in the 19th century, it’s always  shit. You have to manage to survive. And music has helped people through that. You know what I mean?” – “Oh, I do!” Bibbi: “Our meaning is that, we come actually back to the point that we like each other. So we like showing up for rehearsals most of all times.” Þráinn: “Yeah, we don’t have any higher meaning.”

“So friendship is the higher meaning?” Bibbi: “Yeah, … ”  “And motivation behind it? Bibbi: He-Ya, don’t get me wrong.” – “Because so many bands quit because their friendship gets lost on the way.” Þráinn: “True!” Bibbi: ”Absolutely, yes!” Þráinn: ”There are people we have talked with for a couple of days and then never again. – “But well that’s not us”, Bibbi says. “We have been the same six for the whole time of the band. It would be very weird to change some member permanently.” Þráinn: “Permanently? But it’s a lot of fun to tour with substitutes. We have been that.” Bibbi: “Yeah, we have been that. Yeah, it has happened”, he makes sound like a slightly embarrassing accident.

A dangerous territory

Speaking of lyrics in Icelandic and their favoured topics one can see it as a particular expression of patriotism. But it is a difficult and sensitive question. Bibbi “It’s a dangerous territory talking about patriotism.” Me: “It has not to be negative!” Bibbi “NO, I know! In that meaning, yes. Absolutely! As I write the lyrics: I find it strange to write lyrics that is not from your own roots. Well maybe not strange but I don’t see why I would do it. I mean would if I write about …” Þráinn: “Japanese …” Bibbi: “ … a concept album about the Battle of the Indians? Why would I do it? I mean, I like the stories. But it’s not mine. My roots stay within what Iceland is. And the ancient myths and the sagas, tradition with the poetry and in that sense I mean. I am very proud of being Icelandic. Obviously. That’s who I am. Yeah, if you put it in the most positive way then, it’s patriotism.”

I try to explain the difficulties of finding an appropriate but alternative term. It is also about the German term ‘Heimat’ that has been misused by fascists and Nazis. But then it has become a new meaning as recent scientific studies and politics have given evidence that local structures – based on the people having their roots in these places – are stronger to establish measures to solve immanent problems and networking of even mega cities prove to be more useful in testing and installing technologies helping to solve problems such as global warming or air pollution.

‘Heimat’ is being rooted in a place rather than a whole nation or state especially if it is a large one. Bibbi and Þráinn utter agreeing with that concept. The misuse of terms like ‘Heimat’ and patriotism by such movements have led to a kind of ban and Þráinn says: “We try to stay away from that is connected with that.” I try to highlight the positive sides of it in terms of feeling responsible for the wellbeing of the place at which you have your roots, also your cultural roots. “And I have not found a better term than patriotism for it.” Bibbi says: “All those terms have been ruined. People call it pride but that’s even worse.” Þráinn: “Yeah.” Bibbi: “Absolutely.” Me: “Yeah. Pride – it is often associated with a bit Gorilla-like behaviour.” Bibbi: “For me it also the enthusiasm of telling people the stories of where we come from. I am not trying to push anything. But I have something interesting to say. I like to tell those stories and I know them very well. I throw something of my own fiction into it. And come up with this made up fantasy world of subgenres. I mean a lot of people just like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Dungeons and Dragons’. I mean it’s just swords and dragons.” I frown. Bibbi: “Cool stuff.”

Are you guys into Role Playing? Bibbi: “I used to role play quite a lot.” – I smile, “Thought so.” – Bibbi: “I don’t do it anymore. I should though, why don’t I? What’s wrong with me?” Me: “It’s so great for coming up with lyrics.” Bibbi: “Absolutely!” Me: “You always have bunch of friends and stories with you.” Bibbi :“Oh I used to do my own stuff. Yeah, it’s probably the stuff that direct linked from that?”

The lyrics touch a string in the harps

What is it to be like on stage at home where your lyrics are completely understood compared to abroad? Þráinn: “Back home I think a lot of people love the band just as much as someone else loves the music. What I am trying to say is that back home you have people who like the music but they love the lyrics. But outside of Iceland you have people that love the music and then they start to think oh the words are … you know what I mean?”— I confirm. “So back home”, he continues, “we have people that are not into metal but they are into the band because, yes, good written lyrics. You know what I mean? So when we play there we have people who are actually trying to experience the events not only by listening to the music. I don’t know if I can really a spiritual kind of thing but obviously when people know the lyrics they know the stories, they have gone through it in their lives you know living in Iceland can … it touches a string in the harps, you know what I mean?” I utter that I do. “A lot of people cry, they go with emotions”, Þráinn says.

Is it harder than to play home but abroad? Þráinn: No! No, no. More difficult or more challenging? Or the other way round easier for being understood? Bibbi: “I think we just take out of it what we can. Back home, obviously not knowing beforehand but, we obviously struck some nerve with the Icelandic nation and with the connection of the subject of the lyrics and stuff. And when we play back home, I wouldn’t say we use that but we feed on that. Then they are really with us. And they know what it’s about and they understand the stuff but …” Þráinn: “We play there seated concerts.” Bibbi: “Yeah!”

And that is not too boring (thinking back of a particular metal concert I attended when the musicians were bored from the neatly sitting crowd …)? Both. “No. No no!” Bibbi: “When we’re just telling stories than people in the age from three to 93 show up and all families showing up and for a nice evening and stuff. I know it is a metal band and …” Me: “Yeah it is what is like in Finland, too.”

Bibbi: “If we play abroad, I mean, we just use a different factor. Then we’re the weird band. We sing in Icelandic, and people know that we sing something in traditional Icelandic. It’s kind of obscure and we’re just the Icelanders. And that’s outstanding, I mean. There are I mean six thousand and five billion German bands all doing the same but …” Me: “They can’t because there are so many!” – “And obviously some of the bands are really good. But we are the band that comes from Iceland and sing about our heritage. And we use that one. For me that is kind of that. I mean obviously it that. It should something out of the order because to see an Icelandic metal band. And that’s us and we use that”, Bibbi explains.

The donkey, a boy band and a goat

Time for the odd question – although perhaps earlier parts might match the term already – in the best of sense, naturally. I ask them if they are familiar with the German fairy tale of the ‘Bremer Stadtmusikanten’ and mention a Walt Disney film (The Four Musicians of Bremen, 1922). Although the film dates far back they know about it and explain that the film was even translated into Icelandic. My question is how the two of them would include the four Bremer Stadtmusikanten in their show – which is about to start rather soon, by the way. “Can they drink?” Bibbi wants to know first. “To different levels, yeah … considering their size and type …”, I reply. “But they can sing?”, Bibbi asks. Well to me they were kind of the first boy band actually, I tell them. “Ahhhaaa, nice throw”, Bibbi replies most excitedly. “I would give them mikes and use them as backing vocals!” – “Yes”, agrees Þráinn and Bibbi explains even more excitedly: “Absolutely. As the six of already sing bring something more in!” Þráinn: “Ten is better than six”, he points out in sheer enthusiasm. “Absolutely, better more and more is better. Ever!” Me: “Perhaps the range is even wider with the donkey singing very low and the cock pitchy high …” – “Ahhh that’s good”, says Bibbi “I was sceptical but now we need those guys. I wanna a donkey now. I want a donkey for my band!” But Þráinn remains somewhat sceptical about taking them into the band “No … no!” – “Let’s go and get a donkey, yeah?” suggests Bibbi in a kind of singing way. “Yeah? … oh dear!” Þráinn replies: “Well I am always hungry.” I better cut off here as the remaining parts of our conversation might not be politically correct from the vegan or vegetarian perspective. But then again. …

Þráinn asks: “Is it ok to eat a donkey? How about donkey eating?” Me: “I have no experience in that. Veggi, you know.” — Donkey eating …”, Þráinn is actually more singing half silently to himself. Me: “But I am confident that donkey is common food in southern Europe.” Bibbi is surprised: “Really?” Þráinn sings along: “Donkey eating contest …”

Bibbi asks “Do you know what is the most commonly eaten meat in the world?” – “Hm, I don’t know” I reply as I have never thought of it. “From what animal?”, Bibbi asks and reveals: “It’s goat!” – Me: “Yeh, makes sense. Eaten everywhere.” Þráinn seems not fond of the idea – at all. Bibbi adds in audible disgust: “We would never think about eating that!” Þráinn: “No!” Bibbi: “We just think it’s weird.” – “Yeah”, Þráinn agrees. I point out: “I heard it tastes good, not too fat, not too strong …” But Þráinn highlights: “Goat cheese it terrible.” [Not to me … ] Me: “But that’s what I heard is different as the meat apparently has not the strong taste of the goat milk.” Þráinn would give it a try then and Bibbi sums up: “So we have two goals at the tour: We want to see the Eiffel tower and taste goat meat.”

Þráinn is back to being enthusiastic: “I will see the Eiffel tower, ha ha ha!” What a wonderful final statement for an interview with some tough, weather worn, strong, Northern, metal musicians from the rough shores of Iceland?!

I thank them both for a very entertaining conversation and enjoy the show even more.

At some points it felt like speaking with a two-bodied personality with two voices but one set of thoughts, experiences and ideas. It underlines their statement of being close friends as is their humour and way of interacting with each other. Retrospectively I deeply appreciate the opportunity to have such an entertaining as much as serious conversation with Bibbi and Þráinn and switching easily from one to another and back.

Skalmölð, Stam1na and Omnium Gatherum will soon resume their Arctic Circle Alliance Tour and this package is really a unique mix of great music and passionate entertainment.

Photos: Ms Cesar Little

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Skalmölð – My roots stay within what Iceland is (interview)

About The Author
- "It has always been this way!" - I heard this phrase too often and it became the best reason for me to make it (whatever it is) my own way.


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