The Eurovision-defying, post-capitalist, controversy-courting Icelandic trio stopped in London to work the fields under the direction of their ruling corporation, Relentless Scam Inc.
It’s a bright and sunny weekday afternoon in August. British MPs are still on their summer break, preparing for Brexit clashes upon their return. While on an allotment in London, Iceland’s Hatari are preparing the domestic crops, soon to be sold for wartime prices, working under the direction of their ruling corporation, Relentless Scam Inc.
Talking to co-vocalist Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson, he tells me, “In response to Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan, Relentless Scam Incorporated is eagerly trying to invest in and own as much of the British agriculture sector as possible. Something to do with both the upcoming apocalypse, but also the market post-Brexit. So they had us do some off-contract labour since we were in London. I think they’re going to profit a lot from Brexit.”
Hatari are Haraldsson, the dark-eyed, roaring vocalist with a voice of sandpaper, Klemens Hannigan, the melodic BDSM angel in platform boots, and Einar Stéfansson, the masked, domineering drummer. Together they create an amalgamation of contrasting genres encompassing industrial, techno, noise and pop. Haraldsson’s bark the dark to Hannigan’s melodic lightness.
Haraldsson and Hannigan are cousins and shared a close relationship growing up, whilst Stéfansson and Hannigan are both diplomats’ sons, spending most of their youth trundling around Europe, immersed in evolving cultures. Haraldsson is also a writer, recently winning Newcomer of the Year at the Icelandic Theatre and Performance Art Awards.
The trio came together in 2015 whilst contemplating the rise of populism in Europe on an Icelandic summer night. “Hatari was the logical response,” Haraldsson tells me. “You had the discussion about Brexit here, but in Iceland it’s whether to enter. There was a lot of work that went into preparing the package of what an EU membership for Iceland would look like. But then another government came on and just cancelled the whole thing.”
In Iceland, Haraldsson tells me, the anti-EU slogan simply translates as ‘No Thanks’. “You often just have ‘Nei Takk’ and the flag of the European Union,” he laughs. “But the three of us are probably the most pro-EU people you will find in Iceland. Because Klemens is obviously raised with this idea of negotiating for the EU, his dad was working on it, Einar’s dad is ambassador here and staunchly EU, my dad was for a time like the chairman of the Icelandic pro-EU society - Icelanders For Entering. So we’re all raised with this Euro-positive attitude around the house.”
And yet the group named their recent tour ‘Europe Will Crumble’.
Contradictions, controversy and the undefined order of chaos are linchpins in the Hatari handbook. The Reykjavik Grapevine, a publication Haraldsson credits with helping spread Hatari’s manifesto, published an article in May titled, ‘Six Times Icelandic Eurovision Stars Hatari Trolled The World.’ Alongside Eurovision stunts they also announced a partnership with Icelandic bank Landsbankinn using a doctored press shot, and declared that outspoken Christian conservative Margrét Friðriksdóttir, who had previously been hyper-critical of the group, was now on the payroll as their publicist.
The musical landscape in 2019 certainly requires artists to be constant with their communications and creative output, but Hatari appear to push things one step further. “How do you keep this flow going?” repeats Haraldsson. “It’s really a question of trust and being generous with your ideas, not claiming to own them. Not being afraid of vocalising them and accepting them, and giving them generously and just seeing where they go in this collaboration. And not being afraid to make mistakes in front of your bandmates, there’s a lot of trust in that.”
While you may take their gags at face value, dig a little deeper and you discover layers of contradictions, political critique and considered satire. For example, the group is sponsored by SodaDream, ‘the purest water left on Earth’.
“Out of the last twenty Miss Worlds, Iceland has had three. Out of the last twenty strongest men in the world, Iceland has had five. It’s gotta be because of the water!”, states the website.
“To fetishise a product that we still enjoy the privilege of taking for granted has an eerie feeling to it. Like next it would probably be our sponsors Clean Air Co - the cleanest air you can find,” says Haraldsson. It’s also surely no coincidence that SodaStream is an Israel-based multinational, but we’ll come to that later.
“We want to transcend just the music medium...a lot of it is just playing with the contrasts between Klemens and I; the hard and the soft and the masculine or gender fluid and the repressed and the expressive."
“It’s been very clear to us from day one that we want to transcend just the music medium,” explains Haraldsson. “A lot of it is just playing with the contrasts between Klemens and I; the hard and the soft and the masculine or gender fluid and the repressed and the expressive. More of it is to add contrast and another big word for us is contradictions, to claim to be this anti-establishment, anti-capitalist action group but then to be intertwined into an industry like you inevitably are. So there’s all kinds of contradictions that we make a point of just exposing and the more hypocritical we seem, if we can drag an institution like Landsbankinn down on our level, then it all pays off.”
And the institution behind SodaDream? That would be Svikamylla EHF, translated to English, Relentless Scam Incorporated. “They are the Iceland based firm promoting our tour for one thing” explains Haraldsson repressing the hint of a smirk. “They’re also the international conglomerate that owns all the royalties to our tracks and they are the publishing company responsible for releasing our upcoming album. They’re also the international corporation working on branding our image and selling it to media. They’re also the post-capitalist entity responsible for profiting off our merchandise amongst other things, so they’re a big player in our lives. We just take orders from them anyway. They pay us our meagre share.”
He continues. “They have close ties with Gamma Investment Fund, which actually own the apartment I live with my roommates in Reykjaviík, so most of my wages go back to them through my rent. They have a very solid business plan and they keep us on our toes that way so that we don’t unionise within the band.
"They are big players in various media outlets in Iceland and America and Iceland Music News is their Iceland based premier news media outlet. And obviously, I’m obliged to tell you that they’ve won many awards for their journalism in Iceland.”
Iceland Music News is a website devoted entirely to news about Hatari. But for all their tongue-in-cheek, nihilistic promotion, the band actually comes from a very supportive place within the Icelandic music community. Drummer Stefansson also plays as the bassist in Vök, and the band got their break playing the Kex Hostel at Iceland Airwaves in 2016, picking up international exposure and bookings.
“It just goes to show how great it is to have a festival like Airwaves in your hometown of 100,000 people,” says Haraldsson.”It really makes the whole international music scene feel a lot closer to you and definitely helped us. We started getting bookings shortly after, started slowly reaching out to beyond the Icelandic borders, Sweden first in the goth scene there. We were very much associated with goth industrial music and then Roskilde was booked and obviously Eurosonic which was a big one for us, and this was all before Eurovision.”
The Eurovision Song Contest. The moment Hatari shot from niche BDSM auteurs to international controversialists. Not only did the band perform industrial techno banger Hatrið Mun Sigra (translates as Hate Will Prevail) as their entry, whilst dressed in full bondage gear, they also unveiled Palestinian flags during the points scoring, a repugnant moment for hosts Israel.
But it was certainly no secret that Hatari felt this way about the contest being held in Israel, and they were not alone in their condemnation. While other artists launched campaigns to boycott the competition, Hatari entered, winning the public vote in Iceland. But was their entry simply a critique of a contest that attests to promote togetherness being held in such a divisive setting, or was there a deeper contradiction in bringing alternative art into a popular sphere? “When we won the Icelandic pre-contest, we viewed that as a huge gesture of support from the public” says Haraldsson. “But it’s a good question why or what it means to us, because what you mention about being out of context and going from this alternative scene and into the glamour that is Eurovision, that’s definitely one element that would have been anywhere.”
“But then the hyper-Nationalist rhetoric that goes on in Israel, the extremism, the portrayal of Benjamin Netanyahuas a leader, has a very populist feel to it. These are all things that we felt that Hatari sort of addresses in the dystopia that we try to create in our performances, so the fact that it was being held in Israel, we felt early on that it made our entry in a way more at home or more relevant somehow.
"You know it’s strange to say because then the political complexities of it unravels the deeper you step into it and we find ourselves responding to things day by day, different controversies or whatever it is.”
In the run up to the contest, Hatari continued to court controversy with their Dada-esque challenge to Netanyahu. The group invited him to compete in a traditional Icelandic wrestling match. If they won, they would get to set up the first BDSM colony on the Meditarranian. If he won, he could take control of Iceland’s Westman Islands. “The only reason we did that is because we just thought it would be so boring to just sit in a normal interview to do with Eurovision on Icelandic radio. So we were just like, how can we make this more theatrical? But obviously our whole political agenda seeps into it and we couldn’t have anticipated what a big media sensation it became,” laughs Haraldsson.
But for all the theatre, humour and bravado of their time at Eurovision, the group also wanted to build bridges and create something unique from the experience. Reaching out to Palestinian and Israeli artists and activists they discovered queer Palestinian musician Bashar Murad with whom they recorded recent single KLEFI / SAMED (صامد). The group and Murad filmed the accompanying video while Hatari were in Israel filming their Eurovision ‘postcard’. A stunt which required as much logistical planning as it did audacity.
“We woke up super early and Bashar ordered a taxi at like, five in the morning,” explains Haraldsson. “We were flying in the evening. We had filmed the day before, a long day of shooting with a super high production standard and a big crew and this well oiled media machine. But we felt a lot more at home in Palestine with the do-it-yourself attitude. Bashar was also the producer for the Palestinian filming and had organised a small crew to be there, in the middle of the Jericho desert. We had another day of shooting, just on very different terms, and we felt a lot more on our own terms with a much bigger sense of purpose but a much lower budget.”
And then there was the moment, the unveiling of the Palestian flags live on International TV, with disregard for Eurovision rules, but also personal safety. What did that moment actually feel like? “It was….” Haraldsson trails off, lost for words. “I get flashbacks. It was obviously just… it was a moment of, what’s it called when you talk about this reflex? Like if there is a snake in the grass? You have a fight or flight reflex. As soon as the cameraman pointed, gestured to us that we were gonna be in frame when they announcing the points, that was a moment of fight or flight. It’s now or never. And we weren’t sure when or whether or how this moment would take place, but we had the banners on us regardless because we suspected that a moment might come, and it did. I’m so happy that we managed to use this platform to sort of rupture the illusion that Eurovision was, because I feel if we hadn’t done the banner we would have had a sort of sour taste in our mouths after the whole thing.”
"We were kind of let off with the Trans and Pride flag, even though both of those are political statements, but the Palestinian flag - it’s banned in Eurovision, not just in Israel, you can’t wave it at a Eurovision event."
And what was the reaction once the cameras quickly cut away? We saw one video from Steffanson of some very unhappy security staff, but thereafter? “Lots of disgruntled faces” nods Haraldsson. “No one knew what was going to happen, and of course it’s scary to have thousands of people in the same building as you boo frantically out of political disgust and anger, but I still think its within a sort of international media bubble. I think for many people waving a Palestinian banner in the middle of Tel Aviv would have had much more dire consequences. We enjoyed the privilege of being within this international media bubble almost like a diplomat would. So in a way that was always our bet, we had the privilege of Eurovision immunity, and felt like we had to use that privilege. And obviously the whole thing was very much in conversation with people we were collaborating with and talking to in Palestine and they even helped us organise the banners and get everything in place after having shown us around Hebron and whatnot. So there was a lot of encouragement going on and we were assured that this was the right thing to do.
“And the night after actually, one of the guys from our crew had his birthday, so we went to a restaurant in Jaffa which is the more Arab neighbourhood in Tel Aviv, the old town, and the staff there recognised us.”
And their reaction? “It was a celebration!” enthuses Haraldsson. “It was such a moment of sincere gratitude and celebration and we were honestly just flooded with messages from so many different places in Palestine and Iceland and all sorts of places in between that just frantically supported this gesture. We were flooded and Bashar too, with messages of gratitude and encouragement and support. It was really, we had no idea how much a gesture like this could mean. For us it’s a bunch of banners. That’s the thing, we were kind of let off with the Trans and Pride flag, even though both of those are political statements, but the Palestinian flag - it’s banned in Eurovision, not just in Israel, you can’t wave it at a Eurovision event. You can wave the Brazillian flag or whatever, but it’s really mad.”
Four months on and Hatari have become allies of those sharing a similar ideology, be it the liberation of Palestine, or LGBTQ+ rights. It’s evident online, as well as at their concerts. At a recent show in London the band found a Palestinain flag hanging on their dressing room door, while at Roskilde Festival, Haraldsson could see several in the audience.
”It’s become an interesting mix of political supporters” he nods. “On the one hand you have the anti-capitalist, anti-establishment people reading into the contrast and the contradictions and that conversation we have going on about being in an industry but opposing its fundamental system. And then there’s the sort of, after Eurovision especially, there’s this support from the BDSM community and queer pride and supporting diversity and all that.
"And then there’s the pro-Palestine faction of our audience now that have joined in more recently and it’s such a beautiful cocktail and I don’t want to say contradiction, because people like to portray it as a contradiction; how can you be pro-BDSM or pro-Trans rights or pro-LGBT if you’re also pro-Palestine? And that’s something Bashar has to deal with everyday because he himself is a queer pop artist living in Palestine and he’s both fighting for a liberated Palestine, but also a more liberal Palestine, and we don’t see it. And also he points out that there are conservatives everywhere and the struggle is on both fronts.
"So we don’t see it after talking to him especially, we don’t see it as a contradiction to fight for a more liberal and accepting and diverse world and for Palestinian rights. To say anything else is just pinkwashing.”
Moving forward, the band are currently working on their debut full-length record, a writing process that Haraldsson describes as fluid. “Klemens is I would say the primary composer, like the musician. Whereas I’m more in the lyrics department and Einar is, he studied to be a sound engineer so he does the mixes for one thing, but he also has a lot to say about the structuring of the songs. Many of our songs haven’t been published so it’s going to be fun to get that out there. There are live recordings here and there on the internet in varying quality and some of the songs there are being picked up.”
He tells me that Klámstrákur is one such unreleased song that’s already proving a live favourite. “It roughly translates to porn boy, or sort of sexually deviant boy,” he says. “And it plays again with Klemens being expressive and just being very liberated in his own fluid self, whereas I’m responding with disgust and repression and anger and the themes get more explicity to do with sex, but also just self-expression and self-love versus self-hate.”
Contradictions and controversies, expression and repression, love and Hatari.