Blood, and guts, and perfume
Mammút and I meet during some rare down time for the band at Iceland Airwaves festival, in a setting they’re more than used to - a boozer in downtown Reykjavík.
To my delight, despite the fierce gale that batters the town on this afternoon, they arrive eager to talk, passionately and eloquently, about seemingly anything - often with an enthusiasm that seems like they positively revel in getting their story off their chests. Playing a series of nothing short of triumphant shows at the festival the past few days might have helped the mood
Though their steady rise from the now inexplicably expensive dive bars such as this one in their native city to the stages of some of Europe’s most respected festivals suggests a level of planning, it shan’t shock anyone who’s listened to their densely textured and highly emotive music that Mammút are a band who operate on feeling and impulse rather than cold calculation. Last year’s Kinder Versions - their fourth record - was nominated for six Icelandic Music Awards, winning Album of the Year (rock). The band took home two more awards - for Single Of The Year (Rock) and Singer of the Year.
Arnar Pétursson: “We’ve never had a single discussion about our music.”
Ása Dýradóttir: “We tried once. We had a song and we were like, ‘we need to stretch the end of that… what do we look for?’ We had a practice and forgot about it in two minutes and never talked about it again.”
The band’s members - vocalist Kata Mogensen, bassist Ása Dýradóttir and guitarists Alexandra Baldursdóttir and Arnar Pétursson - came together as teenagers, having initially formed a group with the sole initial purpose of covering Portishead’s “Over” as part of a local singing competition. Spontaneity was the order of the day from the start.
Kata Mogensen: “That show was the first time we met. We never even had a rehearsal, we just played the song.”
Arnar: “I’d never even heard it before. I didn’t know what Portishead was. I just listened to it at home, and we met at this place and thought ‘let’s go on stage and play’, and we won.”
Alexandra Baldursdóttir: “And we’ve been together ever since.”
Kata: “After this we just decided to meet at our drummer’s parents’ garage. That’s where we rehearsed for the first three years. We just started playing. We’ve never been much in to conversation about these things. Then there were all these competitions. We were just kids - 15 years old in 2004. When we entered the Battle of the Bands, we had been together three months. We won it, and carried on, and now it’s 2017.”
Ása: “The battle of the bands here is very important. For a teenager, it’s a total dream to win it.”
Kata: “I imagine somewhere else a battle of the bands being a kind of commercial thing, but here it’s underground. There are lots of punk bands taking part, and big bands, like Of Monsters and Men, Samaris… every band that wins goes very far, either here in Iceland or abroad.”
Andri: “When we won, we got 20 hours in Sigur Rós’ studio. And we could make our first record out of that. And also you just get to play in every bar. When we were 15, we were playing at Jack Daniel’s nights. Nobody questioned it then. We were in every bar in Reykjavík, just kids, getting paid with alcohol. There was no money, you just got five beers each or a bottle of Jack Daniels. That was crazy good at the time.”
Despite the off the cuff nature of their entrance, triumph in their first shot at such a prestigious prize did not come completely out of the blue. Though they’re as humble and friendly a bunch of humans as you’re likely to meet, one gets the sense that Mammút know they’re a very good band, and have been aware of this for some time.
Arnar: “We were very confident about making it to the finals, there was no question about it. But then it was a big surprise because they also hand out other types of awards - best singer, best guitarist etc. - and there’s a special prize for the ‘most interesting' band. We had already won that, Kata had gotten best singer too, and at least in my head I thought ‘you can’t win the most interesting band and the final prize’… so because of that, it was a surprise for me at least.”
Kata: “At the time, we were the only girls in the competition. There was a huge rock scene, a metal scene, an indie scene, but in 2004 it was still very rare to see girls in bands. What’s been interesting growing up here is to see that it’s grown a lot, girls entering music. At the time we would hear that the only reason we were playing everywhere and won this competition was because we were girls. That’s what we heard, that we weren’t good, that it was like a pity prize.
"On the internet, people saying ‘It’s a horrible band, they’re only getting attention because it’s girls, they’re trying to be PC’. But because we’ve been doing this for 13 years, I think Mammút opened a gateway with our generation for other girls, because we were playing every weekend, maybe three times a week, at every shitty place everywhere.”
Arnar: “There have been girls who have come up to you and told you this, so its not just something that we’ve been thinking about. There have been girls who have told you that you’re a source of inspiration for them to start making music.”
Alexandra: “At the start, we never actually thought about this factor, being girls. We never presented ourselves as a ‘girl band’. It was really genderless.”
Kata: “As time passed, you could see how much effect it had on us as a band. It had a big impact on our appearance on stage. We were hiding it - we never had makeup, we always wanted to just be wearing normal clothes, not being a diva…”
Ása: “At the same time, we didn’t want to be boyish. We wanted to be genderless.”
Kata: "We were so concerned about people picking up on that, because we wanted people to listen to the music. We had to strip down… everything. The ass, the tits… I was hiding everything in big clothes, so I’d just not be there.”
Ása: “Kata was wearing a potato sack on stage at one point. But that changed a few years ago.”
"We never actually thought about this factor, being girls...we never presented ourselves as a ‘girl band’. It was really genderless." - Kata Mogensen
Kata: "With the fourth wave of feminism, we really just got rid of that, and started being everything that you want to be when you’re a woman.”
Ása: “I think in 2014, Mammút as it is today began. Something happened that year for us. We were angry and full of energy.”
Kata: “Exactly three years ago at Airwaves, we had this huge fight with the music industry of Iceland. There was a conversation that they were going to stop exporting us, helping us go abroad, because we had been going for so long and nothing was really happening. But we had just won an award, so we were very pissed off.”
Arnar: “There were 25 bands playing at Eurosonic festival in the Netherlands, which that year had a focus on Iceland. We’d made the best record of the year in Iceland, and we were not invited to play.”
Kata: “They said that although we were successful in Iceland, that had nothing to do with us having any success abroad. They had tried to export us, but they were going to stop.”
Ása: “We didn’t fit in any genre or box, so they couldn’t sell us.”
Kata: “They had tried to export us, but they were going to stop.”
Alexandra: But we’ve heard from many people in the industry who really wanted to work with us, big shots saying ‘I really love you and I really like your music, but I can’t sell it, I can’t box you - you’re interesting, but I don’t know who your audience is’.”
Mammút are interesting. There is no doubting that. But despite there being some ethereal quality to their music that’s difficult to pigeonhole - and Christ, who would want to listen to music you couldn’t say that about? - it’s hardly inaccessible. Bass, guitar, drums and vocals are its components. It sits comfortable and proudly in alongside other contemporary indie rock bands.
The thought of ‘marketing’ music this heartfelt is one I don’t want to dwell on for long, but that’s not to say it would be a difficult job. It certainly didn’t need altering, or for the band to start to try to make music specifically to fit these spurious boxes guaranteeing mass appeal.
Ása: “That has never been on the agenda. We didn’t even try.”
Kata: “That was a turning point for us. It changed our performances, and it changed right at the Airwaves festival, where this was all going on. We did this ceremony where we met up at Alexander’s place, and I’d bought three or five litres of sheep’s blood. We soaked our hair in blood. And when we played at Gamla Bíó…”
Ása: “The blood was rotting. We were puking before and after the gig. But something snapped in a very big way. You (Kata) lost your… not ego, but sense of caring. You didn’t care about what other people were thinking.”
Kata: “The reaction was good at the concert, but nobody knew it was blood, because that was only between us. It’s actually a very weird feeling having blood in your hair.”
Ása: “I can still smell it when I close my eyes.”
Arnar: “Nobody assumed that Mammút had sheep’s blood in their hair. Someone wrote an article saying ‘they had something in their hair that looked like blood, but fortunately was only hair dye’.
Ása: “And it was not just a little bit. It was soaking wet, dripping everywhere. We were in the blood.”
"To make a living out of music in Iceland you have to be a troubadour, playing the tourist bars." - Ása Dýradóttir
Kata: “That was a turning point for us. After that, we did get to go to Eurosonic. Asa and I went in to the most expensive perfume shop in Iceland and bought the most expensive perfume, and spread it all over the conferences in Eurosonic. We just walked around getting in to a space of unconsciousness. And at that festival, we started the conversation with (current label) Bella Union records. So it was the perfume… and the blood. It was such a turning point. They were going to stop exporting us, have us just play at Gamla Bíó for the rest of our lives, two times a year. We went from that to going abroad and being signed, making this record and playing a lot, continuing evolving.”
It’s not an approach I’d recommend to many other bands, sure. But from here on in, Mammút really doubled down. They smelled blood. And perfume. And it smelled good. I wonder however, where would they have been as a band had they not done something so dramatic at that exact point in their trajectory?
Ása: “It was terrible. We were so tired, and struggling to continue.”
Kata: “If you just make music in Iceland, you can’t make a living out of it.”
Arnar: “At least not if you’re a band like us.”
Ása: “You have to be a troubadour, playing the tourist bars.”
Kata: “So it had to continue. It was also a turning point because we had always been doing this on the sidelines - we’d all been at school, working, our careers and designers and artists - and now we are all focusing on only this.”
Ása: “The past two years have been solely with the band. And that’s been very different. Of course, we’re still fucking broke, but we’re much happier, we’re putting all our energy in to it, and we’re together. It’s beautiful.”
Despite a workmanlike ethic, Mammút remains a work of passion rather than a bean counting exercise. But has having the band be responsible for paying the bills meant that its felt more like a job, or changed the way they work together as musicians?
Arnar: “It’s even more passionate. Every album seems to get more and more intense in terms of the writing and studio process. This one, we were so much all in, we just forgot about everything else. As you say, we’re still broke, the need to do other things was the same, but we just decided not to do those things and try and survive.”
Ása: “There is something to the saying that if you’re doing what you love money doesn’t matter as much. If I was broke in any other job I’d do something about it.”
Kata: “I’ve never looked at it as a hobby. This comes first. But we’ve always been in a situation that we had to do something else as well, just to rent an apartment, and live.”
Though the music may have mutated over the years, Mammút's determination to lay it on tape in a manner that reflects exactly their vision, with the minimum amount of outside influence, remains unchanged. If they have to piss off the old guard on the way, then so be it… in fact, that’s something it seems like they almost get a kick of out achieving.
Ása: “Our first time in the studio was just after that battle of the bands, with the same producer who did our last album, 10 years before.”
Kata: “We fired him in 2006, then got him back.”
Alexandra: “We had this idea of making a live album, like that was the way to do an album. We were there for like 20 hours, recorded 10 songs, and that became the record. The reason we quit working with him was because he wanted to edit the songs.”
Kata: “That happened three times. I sneaked up on him editing it. At first I was like, ‘what are you doing?’ He’d say ‘the bass was too high’ or something and I’d say ‘stop it’. I felt it was cheating the music. The third time I caught him I told him he was fired.”
Arnar: “The album he did before that was one of the most legendary rock albums in Icelandic history. And here were these teenagers firing him.”
"You have a lot to say when you’re young. And no time. You have to tell it fast.” - Alexandra Baldursdóttir
Kata: “On the second album, we went 180 degrees in the other direction. Asa had started in the band, and we basically made a very pop, very ‘studio’ album. We recorded every instrument separately and edited a lot. At the time I was listening to a lot of Britney Spears. It was the album after Blackout… “Secrets” was my favourite song. And Robyn, she had this great album. And Kate Bush. It was just about choruses and hooks. That was my inspiration.”
Arnar: "That was very successful here in Iceland.”
Ása: “It’s funny to listen to now. All our albums reflect the age we were. At 16, 18, 20, 25… so many emotions.”
Arnar: “The speed of the songs! They’ve gotten slower and slower and longer and longer.”
Alexandra: “You have a lot to say when you’re young. And no time. You have to tell it fast.”
Kata: “The first album was black, the second album was white, and the third album we tried both extremes. But there are very well written songs on all those albums.”
Arnar: “The first two albums, making and writing them was pretty easy. But the third, there was so much tension, so many emotions reflected in the music. So much power. We had decided to quit as a band, two times.”
Kata: “We met up twice with the label guy in Iceland, and the second time he was like, ‘OK, I’ll see you on Monday’. But we thought we had lost it. We thought we couldn’t make music.”
Ása: “Then we made the song “Salt”, and after we made that, we were like,’ we still have it - this is not just a teenage thing’. Before that we thought we sucked, we weren’t artists.”
Kata: “‘Let’s not embarrass ourselves and our families!’ But I remember when we had the raw demo of “Salt”, Asa lived in this small apartment alone…”
Ása: “With a knife under my pillow.”
"Every album we make seems to get more and more intense in terms of the writing and studio process." - Arnar Pétursson
Kata: "I remember going to your place late, very drunk, listening to this demo, and we were like ‘oh my god, this is really revolutionary, it’s going to be the best song ever, the best song of the year on this island…’”
Arnar: “And then it was.”
Kata: “That was not a surprise.”
This, by the way, is quite a typical way for a Mammút conversation to play out. But what does it look like to have the record of the year in Iceland? How exactly does that change things for a band like theirs?
Kata: “From the beginning, we’ve been told we should sing in English, even though it didn’t suit the songs.”
Alexandra: “In Iceland, not much, because we’re such a small place. There are only so many people you can play to. If we were in Denmark, or the UK, a win like that… but here, it’s basically just a sentence on your CV.”
Ása: “It’s great to get that feeling, to be absolutely certain that you’re a genius for a short amount of time. And then you make another album and you’re like, ‘what was I thinking?’ If you have a project that you’re working on, you can never be sure how good it is, because you’re making it out of your imagination!”
Alexandra: “You always have to doubt yourself to be able to grow. If you just think you’re doing a good job, you make the same thing forever.”
It won’t surprise you by now to learn that Mammút have little time for such creative stasis. Kinder Visions broke with the template in the most intriguing way yet, seeing the band embrace feverish love songs in a manner hitherto untouched upon, deliver certainly the most accomplished performances as musicians of their lives, and sing, for the first time, in English rather than their mother tongue. At what stage did they know it was going to be their first English language album?
Kata: “There was a big discussion around making the third album in English, but it just didn’t feel right at the time. I started to write the lyrics for that album and it was just very… Icelandic. It felt very forced to try to do it in English. But from 2013 to 2016 when we started writing Kinder Versions, lots of things had happened. Personally and professionally as a musician, it was a very necessary step for us to take, and it felt right. But from the beginning, we’ve been told we should sing in English, even though it didn’t suit the songs.”
Ása: “It would have been horrible at the time.”
Kata: "But it feels very good now to go abroad and sing in English, it makes this extra connection. I have this vocabulary, but it’s no bigger than this, you know, so I didn’t write the songs with a bigger vocabulary than I already have.”
Ása: “You weren’t forcing yourself into writing songs in a new language, it came very naturally.”
Kata: “We’re all very familiar with English.”
Ása: “So we just use what we know. And it’s honest.”