After a retreat to a summer cabin in the isolated countryside of Iceland, Ásgeir is looking to the past to build a brighter future.
There is something to be said about the composure and egalitarianism of the Nordic countries. Whether listening to a song on the radio or being introduced to someone for the first time; chances are if they’re from a place like Iceland, it’s most-instantly decipherable. Both of these summations can be assigned to an artist like Ásgeir. From the luminous and atmospheric soundscapes that he cultivates, to his meticulously chosen phrasing, there is a distinctive sense of circumstance and identity ingrained within his very nature.
As I meet him ahead of his sold-out show at 02 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, there’s split-second where it feels as though he has been awakened from a trance. In a deep concentrative state, glued to the screen of his laptop with huge earphones drooping around his neck, Ásgeir almost awkwardly chuckles as he explains that he has been working on producing some hip-hop beats – something that he likes to do in his spare time, which might never see the light of day.
“It’s just a thing that you can get better at because it’s like a formula with some of the sounds, you know, and how you process them. I kind of like knowing how all of that stuff works.” The idea of the man trying to get down to the inner workings of the machine, to pick apart all of the pieces and see if they work in a different formulaic pattern to what he is most familiar with, comes as no surprise at all.
Dissect his last three albums and you’ll see that this is intrinsic to the way Ásgeir works as a musician.
Born into a creative family with a music teacher for a mother and poet for a father, Ásgeir and his five siblings knew with some kind of certainty, from a very young age, that they would be surrounded by music throughout their lives. Reflecting on the puritanical beginnings of his musical development whilst growing up in a town that had a minute number of 40 inhabitants, he notes, “I knew that I wanted to do that, and it has always been quite like a solitary thing for me, you know? Ever since from a young age I’ve always wanted to be on my own somewhere and do that for hours, so I had no trouble with finding things to do.”
If anything, being in such an isolated part of the world actually aided him in his creativity, often leading into acts of cunning as he continues; “Although, yeah, there was nothing to do in that town, I just stayed in the garage and stole my father’s recording set. He’s always buying new technology and stuff but he doesn’t know how to use it and he’s just fascinated. He always is. He just buys like cameras and stuff and other new things but he never gets around to using them.” Whilst quite reserved in his body language, Ásgeir lights up as he remembers taking advantage of that fact, and how he would use most of his spare time to record songs in the garage.
Not much has changed along those years, if you consider the heavy synchronicities to these origins, and our initial meeting – except for the fact that Ásgeir now has three albums under his belt, and his latest release Bury The Moon saw him retreat into himself, and the depths of the Icelandic landscape for some solace. After a contemplative silence, Ásgeir ruminates on why the musical direction for each album is something that has to be taken with considerable care.
“I think about them in the sense of where I wanna go. Now I wanna kind of show this side of me that I have never maybe showed before, or I wanna stay and find the kind of routes that were where I started, and that was what I wanted to do with this album – kind of go a bit back.” He continues, “That’s why I only brought this acoustic guitar with me, and this synth set-up just to sort of let the songs just flow out as a whole and not just be bits that you’re kind of putting together afterwards and you’re trying to get them to make sense together. [The main goal was] for the album to be like a whole, with a good flow to them.”
Calling on the help of a friend whose parents just so happened to own a summer house that was vacant exactly when he needed some space, Ásgeir spent almost 4 weeks in isolation save from some few-and-far-between visitors, and created a body of work that is perhaps his most simple, yet challenging to date.
Despite the romanticism of visualising escaping to a lone cabin in the woods, Ásgeir is quick to clarify that the setting was more of a summerhouse which was spacious enough to allow him to gather his thoughts and figure out exactly what he wanted to do with his life.
Straying away from the conventional writing process of coming up with lyrics first, Bury The Moon was mostly an instrumental body of work that was comprised of older scraps of songs that didn’t fit in other projects, before taking them to his hometown of Reykjavik to finish them off with his long time band of collaborators.
“I wanted this album to kind of just get rid of those, because those songs had been stuck in my head for quite a long time and I just wanted to find a way to let them go because they can… I think they can, in a way, get in your way if you’re always thinking about them knowing that you have to do something with them at some point.”
Thought, and the idea of something being stuck in your head to the point of frustration is something that seems vital to understand in order to gain some sort of deeper knowledge on Ásgeir as a person. You can almost see and hear the thought-process and cogs turning in his brain before he puts an idea out into the great expanse; allowing it to come into contact with a multitude of opinion.
So, when he starts subtly pivoting around in his chair and drumming his fingers on his thighs, with digits that act as extensions of his vessel (the right hand sculpted so that each can act as a plectrum, and the left manicured so as not to provide any resistance to the fretboard) you can tell that there is something of importance to follow.
“I knew that when I came from the summer house I wanted it to be kind of simpler than the second album, Afterglow, not like totally stripped down with some arrangements, but not getting too focused and manic about the details and all that stuff, just letting the songs be what they are.” Enlisting the help of Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason, Assistant Conductor of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra to add brass and string elements to the production.
Ásgeir has nothing but praise and gratitude for his contributions to the album, “he’s like this virtuoso guy, and I really love him. He just comes there by himself with just his violin, viola and cello and he plays and layers it all,” humbly slipping in, “the rest was arranged by me.”
Despite the simplicity that Bury The Moon captures, a lot of the magic came from the production side of things, mostly taking place when Ásgeir came back to Reykjavik. As someone who is self-confessedly easily influenced by the music they listen to, it’s interesting to see how these things tie into the finished project.
“When I was in the summer house, writing, I was listening to Bob Dylan, Fleet Foxes, and Phoebe Bridgers… that was the idea in the beginning, but obviously it went somewhere else when I went to the studio. It had to. I wanted it to be a little more interesting for me, you know, and that is why I went to those electronic directions. I love working on stuff like that.”
Especially in reference to in songs such as “Breathe” and “Turn Gold To Sand”, you can feel these cinematic elements come to life. “I love Thom Yorke and everything he does. and James Blake was a very big influence, you know…” He pauses, as though trying to put such a weighted thing into the right words, and continues; “some of the big influences on me, you know when I was growing up, will stay with me and then there is music that I like now that kind of gets involved somehow as well even when I’m recording.
“Breathe” was originally written, a few years ago, for a movie but was turned down and left to simmer in the recesses of Ásgeir’s piles of demos. When trawling through them all in order to make the newest album, the song kind of jumped out to him as though it had been waiting for the right moment to be revealed. A similar thing happened with the mellifluous and expansive “Rattle Snow” – the oldest song on the album, which was written when he was sixteen.
Ásgeir felt a kind of juxtaposing pull into two completely opposite moods, as he explains, “I wrote it first on acoustic guitar and its very kind of folk, kind of, traditional… but we recorded a totally different version of it where the drums were just played acoustically and everything was acoustic instruments and you felt like – it felt a little bit silly to me and so I decided to go with it in a totally different direction – it felt much more happy actually.”
“The album version feels very kind of heavy, and the other version sort of makes you happy and it’s just a weird thing. We have almost the exact same chords and same melody and stuff but the tempo was changed and the tunings… then it makes you feel the opposite way, sort of, and that was more the essence that I was trying to capture when I made this electronic version. It sort-of expressed what I wanted it to express more than the first version we made of it.”
This lends itself into the notion of playing around in the studio, and exploring with programming and layering, which has become one of Ásgeir’s favourite things to do in his spare time.
It just so happens that Ásgeir is a bit of a gear nerd, and has a few key elements that are vital to his creativity. “In the studio I love the Korg Delta, that was one of the first synthesisers I played on, and I wrote a few songs from the first album on that one. It’s just kind of simple, and it’s pretty cheap actually…. I’ll say though, we have a few different kind of Moog’s and I love all of that stuff, you know, and I feel like that is kind of essential when I’m working in the studio.”
Whilst these bits of kit are essential to his sound, it is important for Ásgeir not to rely on them too much in the live set. He laughs as he explains, “We usually just take what is comfortable and doesn’t break down, because we have all these live synthesisers in the studio and we’ve tried to tour with them but they’re always breaking down. You know, just while you’re playing they just do something unexpectedly like the tune just goes somewhere and you don’t know what is happening. It’s very annoying when you’re playing live but all those kind of glitches and weird sorts of things are perfect for studio because you want to capture what you’re working on. The synthesisers and all those kind of unexpected things are quite cool because they are sort of in the moment, which wouldn’t happen on an acoustic instrument.”
The eponymous final song on Bury The Moon owes itself to this kind of experimentation. Ominous and moody synths slowly build and coil up into a concentrated ball of tension before being unleashed in scatty electronic riffs that bleed into the krautrock world. In contrast to the origins of the song, it almost feels like we’re listening to a jam session, which is something that comes as a pleasant surprise for Ásgeir as he feels like sometimes working alone can make things seem a bit linear.
“I’ve been thinking about it more, that I should – because I’ve never done it before, just like put up a band in the studio and just jammed on a song until it kind of glues together and you find a way where it should go. That’s the vibe you wanna capture because it’s like the human aspect of it that I think people feel, and you know, since I usually work alone and record everything separately, sometimes it can get flat,” which is an interesting thought when you consider that Ásgeir is actually jamming at with himself in the studio, just at different points in time.
Breaking down the curatedly erratic nature of it all, Ásgeir explains, “I chopped it down on the computer and did some processing and stuff. The drum beat was something that I made on Logic back home and took with me in the studio, then I overdubbed it with some acoustic drums... It was all sort of was pretty quick to happen – with any of the songs on the album I didn’t spend weeks overthinking what I was trying to do. It was like: ‘this feels good, and right, and I’m just gonna stick with it’ and I think that’s a very important kind of thing that I learnt through making this album – that it’s so important to go with your gut feeling and if it feels good then you should just stick to it because you can think about, and change things forever, and it’s not a good hold to be in.”
It feels as though by allowing himself some moments of reflection and introspection, Ásgeir is closing a prominent chapter of his life, and doesn’t look at the process of it all with an ounce of nostalgia; more in the sense of being happy to have overcome it all. The Icelandic title for the album, ‘Satt’, does not have a direct English translation so by looking more philosophically at the world, he came up with ‘Bury The Moon’.
Almost with a hidden sense of irony, he laughs as he recalls, “I was content through the process of making the album, and there was fun, and it was also just kind of accepting the past and looking where I’m at, and moving forward. So, ‘Bury The Moon’ in a weird way made sense for me in that some of these are old songs, and kind of life, just getting them out there and it’s time to move towards the sun.”
In a way, we should then take Ásgeir’s surrendering to the elements as a positive thing to use it as reference for growth, by allowing ourselves to let go and really feel what is going on around us before life passes us by. In the neo-psychedelic hues of “Until Daybreak”, he plainly and poignantly puts it: “Am I only here the rest of the evening? / am I only here to let go and die?” Is it spawned from the apropos nature of the Icelandic to be so in tune with the Earth, or is it the poetry of a man who is tapped into the realism of solitude?