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Escape Velocity

Odes To The Moon: Samaris Interviewed
Erin Lyndal Martin , December 4th, 2014 13:10

The Icelandic electronic trio talk to Erin Lyndal Martin about poetry, soundpulses and fashionable Christmas trees

In 2011, three Icelandic musicians (Áslaug Brún Magnúsdóttir, clarinet; Þórður Kári Steinþórsson, electronics; and Jófríður Ákadóttir, vocals) formed Samaris, shortly after going on to win that year's Icelandic Músíktilraunir competition. Since then, their unique way of combining electronic elements, clarinet melodies and sung Icelandic poetry has proved resonant with many listeners, even those who don't know their hangikjöt from their laufabrauð.

Following that debut year, the band has been active at European festivals and headlining shows, playful affairs that combine live and pre-recorded instruments (and facepaint). They're also rapidly accumulating a strong catalogue of recorded output, with a couple of EPs, a self-titled full-length in 2013, and this year a new LP, Silkidrangar (which translates to 'Silken Cliffs') already under their belt.

The seemingly unlikely instrumental set-up may work so well because the music is greater than the sum of its parts: their albums see trancey beats synergising with gauzy vocals, a combination that lends the band's sound a fairytale aesthetic. Though young, they're already performing a skilful suture of Iceland's well-preserved past and current music technology; this is breathy robot music at its best. With their UK tour starting tonight, we discussed their musical process.

When did you decide to take lyrics from poetry?

Jófríður Ákadóttir: Quite early on. We tried to think in English at first, and we tried writing our own words, and it didn't really fit. But we didn't try it very much, actually, because in the studio there was a shelf, a bookshelf with poetry books and we just grabbed it and started singing. It was only supposed to be temporary, because we were going to finish it with our own words. But then it just sounded really, really nice. And we did the first song from our first EP that way, which is called Hljóma Þú. That's how it all began. After that we just realised that this was a really cool idea and cool concept, so we just kept on developing it and going for it. That's how it happened.

I was reading an interview where you were talking about what some of the poems are about, and I was thinking about Sigur Rós, how they use words that aren't words at all, but they just like the sound of them. And I wondered if you ever felt like you knew something might have the right meaning but you weren't so sure about how it might sound as words.

JÁ: Oh yeah, definitely. It's always like [that] when you're writing your own lyrics. I always struggle with this because often you have a very simple thing that you want to say, but you need to sort of pick the best words to make it also sound nice.  Because poetry is, you know, another art form. You have to approach it in a way that it means something and it sounds good and it sort of flows naturally and maybe rhymes.

The reason that we love this Icelandic poetry thing is that all these words sound amazing together, and they have this deep meaning. We focus more on the way that they sound, rather than the meaning of them, actually. We don't pick poetry that has meaning about stuff like God. A lot of [poems] are about religion, and lots of them are pure God propaganda. We don't like to pick something that is very romantic, love, like that. We try to go for neutral things like nature and stuff like that. Some kind of ode or anthems about the moon or the ocean. We don't have to think about words not sounding good because we didn't write them; they just sound already very good.  

Is there a relationship between nature and spirituality in Icelandic culture?

JÁ: Yes, definitely.  We're all completely surrounded by nature. There's mountains, and the ocean is everywhere, and it's kind of deep in your subconscious, all this nature, and I think it's very much connected with your wellbeing, your sanity. Nature is something that calms you. It's pure and being in such a close contact with that is definitely spiritual. It's a deep part of your self and your soul and your mind.

Here in the States people unfortunately don't put a lot of emphasis on poetry. How do you think that in Iceland poetry is still on people's minds?

JÁ: I don't know. I wonder about this. I mean, we have a very strong heritage of poetry and literature. We have a very old language. It's one of the oldest languages in the world – it hasn't changed very much over a thousand years. We can still read these books that were written in our founding language. We pride ourselves on our poetry. We learn about this in school, and we are taught poems, we memorise them, we analyse them, and I think people are interested in this. The language hasn't changed so much that they can't still relate to them and understand them, find their own meaning in them. Whereas I took courses in English and we had to write or read poetry that was written in similar eras as the Icelandic ones, but I felt like they were much more distant because the words were so complicated and the language was complex. So in a way it's because it's just still quite close in our history and heritage and culture. People enjoy listening to them because they can understand them, basically.

Switching over to the music, I know you've said that you are rather influenced by classical music. Are there certain composers or styles or classes of music that you think influence you the most?

JÁ: I don't know, actually. Áslaug and I both studied classical music for about ten years, so I think the influence is more from these studies, because this is how we learned about music, and how we learned to approach it. Learning music from this angle also encourages you a little bit to break away from it and do something that is completely different, and then use the technique that you have learned and do something with it that is completely forbidden in classical music. Like all these techniques that are probably used in contemporary classical music, but not in the old style. I guess the influence also comes from that side, rather than the specific composers. It's more like the whole spectrum playing beautifully, being able to do that at times, and then being able to play very, very ugly, if you can say that, just by making noises with the instrument. That's also something that the classical music has influenced us to do.

How would you describe your concerts?

JÁ: Well, we have playback, and we're triggering soundpulses and beats on stage, so you can debate whether it's completely live or not. We're not really scared of using playback. I know a lot of bands try to do everything analog, bring all the gear, all their synths, drum kits and stuff like that, but we just try to reduce it and take advantage of it. We're not afraid to show that we have a computer on stage, and we have stuff from playback et cetera. But we've used the voice and the clarinet to do all the live stuff so we also have lots of improvisation when there's dead space in sound. We do lots of different effects and we play with the effect live. So there's like 50/50 playback and live. But yeah, we're free on the stage and I don't know how you would describe it. We just perform the songs. Sometimes we do them completely like we know exactly how it's going to go and the voice sounds exactly the same, in a way, and then sometimes we start a song and we have no idea how it's going to sound in the end. We just know its cues here and there but really it's just about playing around, improvising and having fun. We do a little bit of that here and there in our live set. And sometimes we wear costumes and put on make-up. But we only do that when we feel like doing it.

What kind of costumes do you wear?

JÁ: We've borrowed lots of dresses from a designer called Hildur Yeoman and she uses a lot of glitter and tinsel. So sometimes we look like Christmas trees. I think it's quite cool. Fashionable Christmas trees, at least. Sometimes we just wear lots of black. Black is always good. Sometimes we wear also white, and some glitter and sparkles. Who knows? It varies. We usually decide just half an hour before showtime.

What sort of audiences do you get? Are they pretty eclectic, or do you tend to draw one sort of age group or subculture more than another?

JÁ: I wonder about this. We just got home from tour and I felt there was mostly young people, maybe in their twenties, and then there was some kind of a gap. There was just people in their fifties and sixties. So it's these two age groups. Yeah, it was definitely older people and then just younger people, like our age. It was funny. I don't know why. But for example, we never played in the States, or in Asia, so we don't know what kind of people we'd get there. But in Europe it's like that. I wonder why. I don't know.

So when you're on tour, what do you do when you have a day off?

JÁ: Last time we had a day off we were in Amsterdam, and we just parked the car somewhere and walked around. We had a very very relaxed day. We like to get ice cream. We have a big thing for ice cream these days.